Don’t be misled by the title — I’m actually still very much in Japan. In fact, I feel like I’m the only one I know who’s not going to Brazil anytime soon! Edu is set to travel back home early next year for a family event, and I recently found out that two friends are planning separate trips to visit Brazil for the first time this month.
Everyone is traveling to Brazil without me! （；￣д￣）
Anyway, one of the aforementioned friends asked me if I had any tips for her first trip. As a fellow gringa, my most valuable advice is essentially to try not to look like one.
But wait — what exactly is a gringo? Although other definitions and connotations of the word do exist in other cultures, in Brazil, gringo is a non-pejorative term that is used to describe any foreigner, regardless of ethnic background or nationality.
The thing is, Brazil is a very multiethnic country. Anyone of any ethnic background and phenotype can “look Brazilian.” Thus, your ability to blend in as a traveler will have nothing to do with your hair/skin/eye colour, but rather your mannerisms, gestures, dress, and behaviour. Blending in when traveling to Brazil has a lot of advantages. Primarily, doing so will make you less of an obvious target for thieves and make you less likely to get ripped off by vendors and taxi drivers. It will also make you more approachable, consequently opening you up to more interesting conversations with locals, and more opportunities to learn about the place and the culture. Brazil is one of my favourite places in the world, not for its abundant natural beauty and amazing cuisine (although I do adore these too), but for its people.
Anyway, here’s some advice gleaned from those in the know (i.e. Brazilians) and told by a gringa (i.e. me) on how to not be an obvious foreigner in Brazil.
Dress the part
Leave the large floral shirts and safari hats… wherever you acquired them in the first place.
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually surprising how many gringos still arrive at Guarulhos International Airport dressed for a Hawaiian jungle safari. Needless to say, none of the locals dress this way in Brazil, and doing so will single you out as a foreigner.
Brazilians dress in a way not that different from the way people dress in the rest of the world; jeans, t-shirts, runners, and sandals are just as ubiquitous in Florianópolis, for example, as they are in Fresno. However, there are some subtle yet very noticeable differences.
One way to tell if a woman is a gringa is to take a look at the jeans she’s wearing — if they’re cut to minimize her butt and thighs, you can be sure that she is not Brazilian. Brazilian jeans and pants are cut very differently; in line with Brazilian standards of beauty, jeans tend to enhance ass and thighs.
The solution? Pop into your nearest Riachuelo and buy a pair of jeans. They don’t need to be anything too fancy — the cut and pocket placement are what make the difference.
Get the right swimwear
Chances are, you will find yourself at the beach at some point during your trip. A sure sign of a gringo is the style and cut of swimwear bottoms. Don’t worry, you don’t need to squeeze yourself into the infamous Brazilian fio dental in order to fit in.
You can pick up some fuller coverage bikini bottoms that feature the butt-flattering Brazilian cut. One of my favourite brands is HOPE Lingerie, which features a varied selection of swimwear styles to suit a wide range of body types.
For men, the board shorts that you see on North American beaches are not commonly used in Brazil, except maybe among younger boys. Instead, opt for a sunga, or men’s swim shorts.
In some situations, blending in at the beach could actually work to your advantage. At most Brazilian beaches, there are vendors that sell snacks, beer, cocktails, trinkets and souvenirs.
I once bought a pair of earrings at the beach for R$10 ($4.59), during which the vendor jovially remarked how he charged €10 ($14.59) for same pair of earrings to a French woman sitting a few metres away.
Learn the lingo
Pelo amor de Deus, please please please do not inflict your high school Spanish on unsuspecting Brazilians. Unlike their South American neighbours, Brazilians speak Portuguese. Both being Romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese do share many similarities, yet they remain two very separate languages with distinct grammar and pronunciation rules. Let me put it this way — going to Brazil and speaking Spanish is as ridiculous as going to the USA and yelling at everyone in badly pronounced Dutch. Do yourself (and everyone else) a favour and learn a few useful Portuguese words and phrases — you’ll have a much richer experience and will avoid being labelled an ignorant foreigner. I’ve always liked the Lonely Planet phrasebooks as a sufficient crash course in most languages; if you do opt for a phrase book, make sure it is specific to Brazil, as there are a lot of differences between the Brazilian and European dialects.
Here are some words to get you started:
Tudo bem? – How’s it going?
Sim – Yes (also common to say “é” when responding affirmatively to statements)
Não – No
Eu quero… – I want…
Eu gosto (de)… – I like…
Quanto custa? – How much does it cost?
Obrigado/a – Thank you
Watch your bag
…because it’s what locals do, too. Sadly, crime remains a huge and ever-present issue in large metropolitan areas. As a tourist unfamiliar with your surroundings, you are an even bigger target than most. Wear a bag that you can strap across your body and keep it in front of you at all times. When sitting down to eat, keep your bag on your lap. Also, if you must bring your laptop while out and about in the city (I strongly advise against this, though), don’t use an obvious laptop bag that draw attention to the fact that you are carrying an expensive piece of hardware.
Leave the SLR at home
I know, I love my Canon, too. But if you want to have a chance of not being an obvious gringo, don’t walk around with an expensive camera around your neck. You may be able to get away with this in some areas, such as tranquil Ilhabela, but in most places, definitely take a cue from the locals. If you want to carry a camera (which as a tourist, only makes sense), opt for a more discreet point-and-shoot. According to Edu, a.k.a. my most reliable source on Brazil: “You’ll probably still get mugged, but at least you won’t waste as much money over it.”
One more thing to remember: Brazilians are generally very friendly and welcoming, and will love to learn about your culture as much as you’ll want to learn about theirs. There’s nothing wrong with being gringo! It just helps to know how to be less obvious about it.