2 weeks in Brazil: how culture shock can be a beautiful thing

Our Fiat squeezed through the streets heading to Guarulhos airport. Unfamiliar cars merged in from all the side streets like a metallic river delta.

In front of us a homeless man sitting on the kerb had started a fire on the street to keep himself warm. Trucks and buses swerved around the flames on their way to work and the nearby schools. Emaciated stray dogs ambled along the roads looking for a meal.

My first taste of Brazil was coming to an end, and I wasn’t sure how I felt.

During my two-week visit, I had learned some valuable lessons. Chief among them was the unwritten law that guides all Brazilians: time with your family trumps your career, your friends and absolutely everything else.

São Paulo was bigger than any city I had ever been to in my life. Sydney is Australia’s biggest city but as a lifelong Sydneysider I was overwhelmed. There are almost as many residents in this one urban area as in the whole of Australia.

Sao Paulo Favela
A favela in São Paulo

The streets were narrower, the houses were taller, and the people were everywhere. Every house or building I visited had gates tall enough to stop a burglar. Electric fences were not uncommon. Instead of a gorgeous harbour there were rivers that were sometimes choked with rubbish. In some neighbourhoods, my Brazilian girlfriend suggested firmly that I didn’t talk too loudly, lest the locals worked out I was a gringo. She was scared for me. I was a little scared for myself. But despite that, I left Brazil with an açaí-flavoured chunk of sadness in my belly.

It didn’t start like that. My visit Brazil followed a hasty few days in Seattle for a work conference. Eager to get to São Paulo with minimal fuss, I took a Korean Air flight from Los Angeles, one of only two direct flights to the city from the US mainland on offer. So I started my trip into South American culinary delights by eating bibimbap at 35,000 feet.

Seaweed soup devoured, the plane descended through the thick grey clouds and into a dense urban jungle spattered with rain. There seemed to be no end to the city beneath us. Suburbs surrounded rivers and clung to hills.

As we landed, a dense smog dispersed the clouds. This would become a familiar sight. But that wasn’t the main attraction. My stomach fell in love with Brazil long before I did, and it started the morning I landed.

The first taste of the country I had was breakfast. First came pão frances, crispy French-style bread rolls filled with cheese and ham. Next was tapioca, not served Aussie-style as a gluggy dessert mess, but tastily fried into crepes. Last and best were pão de queijo, crispy puffs of baked cheese bread. All of this was washed down with sweet caju juice from the red fruit of the cashew tree. I didn’t even know cashew trees produced fruit.

My fondness for Brazilian cuisine grew along with my waistline, but there were other lessons to learn too.

The huge value placed on family leads to situations you’d never encounter in Australia. My girlfriend’s aunty, who had offered to host us in her small and modern apartment, willingly gave up her own room and bed for us and was not up for any argument. She slept in her six-year-old son’s room on a thin mattress on the floor. My mother would never have voluntarily decamped to my bedroom when I was six. If she had, I would not have been happy.

Breakfast absorbed, we had time to explore São Paulo’s tourist sites. We visited Paulista Avenue and the usual tourist checklist of churches and monuments, but what was really notable were the citizens.

It soon became clear that São Paulo was a tough city filled with tough people. Car windows were never wound down all the way, and I was told not to take my phone out in the street as I did back home. The poorer favela slum neighbourhoods were definitively out of bounds unless you knew a local gangster who would authorise your entry. Street peddlers worked at each set of lights, selling packets of nuts and sweets to motorists brave enough to wind down their windows. I wasn’t brave enough to make that call.

But I did want more food. I had long heard stories from my girlfriend of the famous mortadela sandwiches sold in São Paulo’s municipal market, The Mercadão, but I was entirely unprepared for the endless boxes of fresh foods I had never seen before.

The Mercadão mortadela sandwiches
The Mercadão’s famous mortadela sandwiches

Stalls sold delicious candies made from doce de leite and exotic fruits unheard of in Australia. Tempted by my caju experience, I hoed into a fresh cashew fruit. It was like eating a sweeter cashew nut with the consistency of a mango. As we walked through the stalls, samples of strange fruit were cut and passed to me. My favourites were jabuticaba, a Brazilian grapetree fruit and carambola, a star-shaped delight.

Sao Paulo Mercadao Fruit
Fruit stalls at The Mercadão

But despite marketplace adventures, family dinners were the culinary highlight. Barbecues and churrasco were the name of the game, with juicy strips of picanha (sirloin), other beef cuts and pork sausages in abundance. Those pallette-loads of protein were washed down with cans of Guaraná Antarctica, a sweet drink made from the guaraná fruit.

After dinner, we could explore the neighbourhood. São Paulo was always teeming with life. A constant flow of accordion music provided the soundtrack for my stay. One of the most popular music genres, sertanejo, included accordion riffs sprinkled throughout every song. It seemed like sertanejo hits were blasting out of every car driving past. It even formed an accompaniment to the never-ending election advertisements. I can’t imagine Tony Abbott with an accordion soundtrack.

Soon I was on another plane, this time heading to Campo Grande in the central west region of Brazil. After a four-hour drive towards the border with Paraguay, we reached our destination: Bonito. Brazil is famous for Rio, Sugarloaf Mountain and the Amazon, but Bonito deserves to be equally well-known.

On the bus trip from Campo Grande, a world away from crowded São Paulo streets, the warmth and friendliness I witnessed of Brazilians was reaffirmed. We pulled up at a stop halfway along the route. Several passengers got out to stretch their legs. A lone traveller boarded the bus, and sat down in what she thought was a vacant seat. In fact two friends had been sitting together.

In Australia, this would lead to an awkward confrontation, or a lot of evil glances from the back row. But she simply introduced herself with a smile. When his seatmate got back into the van before we left again, he just laughed and sat next to another man in the back of the van. Within five minutes the lone traveller and her new acquaintance were chatting like old friends, and his displaced buddy was equally deep in conversation with his new neighbour. Both conversations lasted until we disembarked two hours later.

I was sure that was a fluke. I was wrong.

Over the next few days I constantly saw groups of strangers in my tour groups getting to know each other and acting like long-lost friends within the hour. The openness of Brazilians to everyone they met was a refreshing change from the polite distance most Sydneysiders display.

Our time in Bonito was spent snorkelling down clear rivers and in deep blue lakes. We rappelled into caves and scaled down hillsides. We swum in hidden waterfalls and grottos. The red dirt which served as our roads reminded me of the Australian outback.

Bonito waterfalls
A waterfall in Bonito

At night, we ate fresh fish. I also tried piranha soup, which may have been a mistake, and alligator pastels (crispy fried pastry rectangles with different fillings), which definitely weren’t.  Desserts alternated between delicious churros filled with melted chocolate, or ice-creams stuffed with native fruits.

Brazilian Churros
Churros in Bonito

All too soon it was time to return to São Paulo for the final leg of my trip. I was already dreading it, because I knew my sojourn in Brazil would soon be over.

We spent more time with my girlfriend’s family, watching trashy soaps and Brazil’s strangely addictive take on Dancing With the Stars, and talking about the contrast between Australian and Brazilian cultures.

Naturally, the gluttony continued, with two particular highlights for my tastebuds. The first was a visit to a samba club which served piping hot bowls of feijoada, a delicious bean stew accompanied with many different meats, rice and farofa (cassava flour).

The second was açaí. My girlfriend had already exposed me to the delights of this purple-ooze-coloured fruit back in Sydney, but here it was different. Freshly-made and loaded with bananas and strawberries, açaí here wasn’t just the somewhat obscure healthy snack it is in Australia. In Brazil it is paired with all manner of sides including condensed milk, cornflakes and jelly, and the cafe serving it was packed.

The food alone would be enough to bring me back, but it seems I scarcely have a choice. I left Brazil with two wedding invitations, and it seems evident that saying no to these might cause offence. I received so many gifts that I stuffed a second, hastily-bought suitcase. I know I will have to go back, with multiple suitcases. As my girlfriend put it: Um gostinho de quero mais (after one taste, you must try more).

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