9 Brutally Honest Reality Checks Before Moving to Brazil

I don’t always regret our decision about moving to Brazil from Asia.

But I do wish I’d been a bit more informed before moving to Brazil. All the expat blogs I checked out painted a rosy picture of sunshine, beaches, and caipirinhas (no gas cuts, electricity outages, bureaucratic nightmares, severe sexual harassment, or muggings).

Maybe part of the problem is that most of the expat blogs I’d read were written by men, or by women who lived a very #expatwivesclub lifestyle with bodyguards or in a gated community. I don’t know.

I’d only had a month to get ready for the move from Thailand, but when I landed I knew basically zilch about the realities of day to day life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Aside from researching caipirinha recipes, pinning picturesque Brazilian beaches to my “Brazil” board, and organizing a few going-away and giving-away everything parties – I didn’t do much to prepare. But really, what else can you do on such short notice?

If you are debating moving to Brazil (especially Rio de Janeiro, Brazil like me), these are the pieces of brutally honest reality checks about life about moving to Brazil I wish I’d received.

**The following points are exactly what I wish I had been told and prepared for, as a young foreign woman, before moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Female expat friends in other South American cities have echoed similar (or exactly the same) concerns. Everything might not apply, but if something helps someone be more prepared in their move abroad: I’m happy about it. If I could go back and talk to pre-Brazil me, this is EXACTLY what I’d tell me.**


Moving to South America - you'll never feel totally safe

1. You’ll likely never feel totally safe.

That joyous, liberating feeling of absolute freedom you had in Asia? Shut it down and lock it up.

After moving to Brazil, you’ll hear daily stories of robberies, stabbings, shootings, muggings, and rapes – not just on the news but from friends who themselves are robbed at knife point, and beaten up for no reason. And you’ll witness things yourself – scary, sad, and soul-crushing things.

You’ll feel scared sometimes, even in the middle of the day, maybe because a man has been trailing you, getting too close, and staring strangely. Or maybe because a guy actually grabs you, hard, and breaks the unspoken barrier with touch, when no one else is around and sets your heart pounding and your feet running as fast as you can.

When a sudden noise wakes you up in the middle of the night, you don’t go immediately back to sleep, you worry a very really fear about what might be happening.

Advice: Don’t wear flashy jewelry or have your cell phone out in public. Carry a backpack instead of a purse.

Leave your wedding ring at home, and wear a cheap band instead. You don’t want to hesitate handing it over in a crucial moment that could cost you your life.


2. If you do feel safe, you’ll may never feel truly comfortable.

The catcalls, the staring, the lewd gestures are anywhere, everywhere, and it doesn’t make much difference what you’re wearing. You’ll find that wearing long hair up helps, as if flowing loose hair is some kind of flag waving in the wind and requesting unwelcome advances. Covering yourself even in the heat, not wearing makeup, and trying to be as un-attractive as possible also helps a little.

But it never totally goes away.

The intrusiveness of the constant harassment will, at some point, wear you down.

You can try to feel flattered or at least ignore it, but sometimes it will creep under you skin and make you feel gross and wish to be invisible.

Rio de Janeiro Jiu Jitsu

Advice: Learn self-defense. Work on Krav Maga skills, take Jiu-Jitsu.

You can’t control how people treat you or whether they touch you against your will, but you can control your ability to react. Martial arts are also an excellent way to release some of the anger and tension you feel from being regularly harassed.


Moving to South America - You need to speak the local language

3. You need to speak the local language.

Not as many people speak English as what everyone insists. And the people that you actually need to deal with on a day to day basis – grocers, vendors, the doormen of your building – definitely don’t speak English.

If ever there is trouble (a stolen bag or a misunderstanding), you’ll need to be able to explain yourself in the local language.

A trip to any government office? Not speaking the language means a lot of headache, and you’re better off hiring an interpreter to come along.

Advice: It’s pretty simple. Save yourself the trouble and the tears, and get serious about your language studies as soon as possible after moving to Brazil.Take lessons in your new city (like I did in Rio de Janeiro), download Duolingo, find nice friends who are willing to be patient with your beginner language skills.


Moving to South America - You will miss healthy food

4. You will miss (healthy) food.

Big green salads? Not really a popular thing in Brazil. Maybe at an internationally-inspired chain restaurant, but then they’ll be expensive or likely with wilty iceberg lettuce and heavy dressing.

Fried, meaty, heavy (and in Brazil – cheesy) are the keywords of a lot of the local cuisine.

Your newbie obsession with “Oh! The amazing fruits!” will be shortlived when you realize how frequently the produce available at the grocery is bruised, old, bad quality, or bug-laden. Whole Foods will become a distant daydream.

Advice: Bring pantry staples from home (I always stock up on high-quality spices, nutritional yeast, and supplements), and try to eat seasonally as that produce will be higher quality.


Moving to South America - it's hard to make friends sometimes

5. It’s hard to make friends sometimes.

As an expat, lots of people will assume you’re transient. Maybe that’s true, but that means you’re perceived as less worthy of the time it takes to become friends.

To make friends with locals, you’ll need to speak the language (see above). Expat friends are great, but they’re likely to be as transient as you are, and friendship with them is like a revolving door. The expats also tend to be a more hard partying or conversely workaholic bunch (especially the short-term ones), which may or may not be your thing.

Advice: Join some activities as soon as possible after moving to Brazil. Whether it’s beach volleyball, volunteering teaching English, or conquering two challenges at one time with language classes (you’ll learn the local language AND make friends at the same time), you need to get out there and meet people.


6. Quality is expensive.

Quality items are a LOT cheaper in the US. Americans get spoiled with stores like Target and IKEA, where you can buy high quality items for a fairly low cost. That isn’t the case in Brazil.

Electronics and appliances are expensive, and for actual quality items that work properly – they are REALLY expensive.

Everything breaks quickly (microwaves especially) or doesn’t work quite right (blenders especially). You either need to spend a lot of time and frustration tinkering with them, or a LOT of money to get it right out of the box. Don’t try to bring appliances from the US – they’ll fry up in a heartbeat.

Advice: Learn to live more simply, and resign yourself to spending a bit more on the things that matter. Not much else you can do.


Moving to South America - no one is ever on time

7. No one is ever on time.

EVERYONE is late. For dinner, meetings, classes – it doesn’t matter.

Some weeks you’ll average wasting an hour a day or more just waiting on people to show up.

Advice: You either have to accept the fact (bring a book with you whenever you have a scheduled meeting, and always schedule buffer time for your next appointment) or adopt the behavior yourself and chill out.


Moving to South America - efficiency is a foreign word

8. Efficiency is a foreign word.

Literally and figuratively.

Something that would/should take 30 minutes of solid work instead takes 6 hours, with snack breaks, naps, and playing on the phone.

Brazil sometimes feels like a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine, in the private and in the public sector. There are a hundred steps to accomplish anything, a hundred forms to fill out, a hundred documents to provide copies for.

There’s almost zero planning ahead, no advance warning, and you’ve got to just roll with it.

Advice: You’re a visitor in this culture, and your ethnocentric whining isn’t going to help ANYTHING. Recognize and appreciate the opportunity you have to experience somewhere new, develop a renewed gratitude for the place you come from, and maybe whine to expat friends. 

Read and re-read instructions and follow them to a T (especially when it comes to governmental forms), and work on your patience.


Moving to South America - very rarely does anything work consistently

9. Very rarely does anything work consistently.

If you are the kind of person who likes comforts or planning ahead – you’re either going to have to give that up or spend a LOT of money on a super crazy luxury apartment or live in a hotel (and even then you’ll likely have issues) after moving to Brazil.

The gas will go off for 4 days without notice or apology, even in a nice apartment. No cooking for you! Oh, you just bought a bunch of groceries that need to be cooked or they’re going to go bad? Your problem.

The electricity will cut out for a night, a day, or days, with no end in sight. When it comes back on, it will feel like the discovery of fire.

The water will stop for a week, and you’ll need to lug huge jugs up flights of stairs, just to shower, brush your teeth, or cook. You’ll never appreciate water in your life like when it comes back on and you finally feel clean again.

Hot water comes and goes like a rainbow. You’ll smile when you have it, but eventually stop wondering where it went when its gone.

Advice: Use these inconveniences as reminders to have gratitude in your daily life. I’ll never ever take water for granted after going for two weeks without it.


With all those negative points, I feel like I have to balance it out with a bit of positive. After moving to Brazil, I studied Jiu jitsu, made a lifelong bestie, and learned some harsh lessons about feminism (or lack thereof) abroad. While living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil specifically was NOT for me, that’s not to say it won’t be for you!

Moving from Brazil to Mexico was the best choice that my little family could have made. While we suffer a few similar annoyances (consistency, efficiency, and timeliness still aren’t common), I feel SO much safer as a woman in Mexico. The street harassment has decreased to pretty much zero, and I don’t have anxiety over my safety either at home or in public. I’ve found that everything is SO much cheaper here in Mexico, it’s easier to make friends (foreign and local), people are incredibly nice to language learners like me, and I’m just enjoying life in general so much more. Which is shocking, considering I’m no where near an incredible beach.


Pin it: Moving to Brazil – 9 Brutally Honest Reality Checks to Consider!

Moving to Brazil? 9 Brutally Honest Reality Checks to Consider

* This post was originally written in 2015, and has been updated September 2017.


What do you wish you’d known before moving to Brazil?

 

 

13 Comments

  1. Thirumal
    June 23, 2016 / 2:55 pm

    Thanks for your insights on moving to Brazil. I agree on some of your points. Brazil can be dangerous and sometimes disappointing. But, personally I believe that not every country in South America is like that. I have spent quite a bit of time in Latin countries including Brazil. I really like Latin countries mainly for history, culture, language and people. From my experience, I have learned that no country can be rosy. Every country has it’s goods and bads. It depends on what exactly I am looking for. I just have to have realistic expectations. Growing up in India, everything about the US seemed to be rosy to me. But after living 8 years in the US, I am now considering moving to Chile or Mexico. And I am not expecting that it would be a smooth ride even in Chile/Mexico. Anyways, good luck and stay safe!

    • June 28, 2016 / 7:39 pm

      Hi Thirumal! Thanks so much for your comment and I agree, every country has good and bad. Unfortunately, I read more blogs that have highlighted the good and ignored the bad.
      This article is the information I wish someone would have told me before moving to South America, so it is of course my opinion and personal experience that may not be the case for everyone.

  2. June 25, 2016 / 12:41 pm

    This is all so true (unfortunately) I’ve been here for 4 months and I’m sitting here nodding in agreement, although I will say that Chile does much better on all these fronts, especially the fresh fruit and veg thing which is bad in Argentina and Brazil for sure! Love the honesty- It;s not all sunsets and pretty drinks! The gross leering men are worse in Rio than anywhere else. Yuck!

    • June 28, 2016 / 7:40 pm

      Thanks so much Hannah! Glad it resonated with you, but sorry you’re experiencing similar negative aspects…
      I hope you’re getting a lot of good as well (especially in the sunsets and pretty drinks area!!)

  3. July 21, 2016 / 7:34 am

    As a person who lived in Colombia and plan to move there permanently, I agree and disagreed with some of your points. I lived both in Medellin and Buga and felt very safe. I lived in 3 different neighbourhoods in Medellin – Los Colores, Estadio and Poblado. I definitely felt comfortable in Buga but I favour Los Colores in Medellin because it wasn’t full of expat. Perhaps it is perspective too – I was stumbling home drunk in Buga but I will never walk down my road after 9pm in London! As for the catcalling, I brush it off or make it a joke – and I’ve done this in all my Latin American destinations…except Brazil. Brazil was different. I was out right propositioned as a prostitute in broad day light! My experiences in Brazil were definitely different compared to my other destinations in Latin America. But I definitely felt safe in Colombia, that’s why I’m moving there permanently 🙂

    • July 24, 2016 / 8:55 am

      Hi Shari! Thanks for sharing. Yes, my experiences were mainly in Brazil and they were not so pleasant especially with the harassment!
      I’m so glad to hear that Colombia is awesome for you, I’ve heard nonstop great things about the country and look forward to hopefully visit soon!

    • Maria
      January 8, 2017 / 5:00 pm

      Have you moved to Colombia? All my family is telling me NOT to move there! If course.. I’d be leaving a 80k job here without reaching age of retirement. I hear it’s hard to find work there. I’m 75% fluent in spanish.. but…. I’m dying for a change but I also want to make a smart decision. Also hearing that people don’t make enough to travel out of Colombia…

  4. May 29, 2017 / 11:11 am

    Big surprise–someone else’s country doesn’t feel like the one you grew up in. So you lay into it because it’s its own thing and not your own. What you’re really attacking is your own decision not to do any research before moving thousands of miles. But you refuse to take responsibility for your own decision, so instead you’re blaming an entire continent? How embarrassed you’re going to be about putting this on the internet, someday.

    • May 29, 2017 / 11:25 am

      Hi Michael! Thanks so much for sharing your opinion, just like I did mine. Don’t you just love the freedom of expression that the internet brings?

      Regarding South America – I’m certainly not “laying into it”, simply sharing the honest thoughts I had about my experience living in Brazil, and the information I wish had been available before undertaking the move. Had I known it, I still would have moved to Brazil (I think), but I would have been more prepared. I didn’t find any of this information online in any of my research… hence why I endeavored to write it myself.

      South America definitely has “its own thing”, different from where I arew up (USA) and also where I lived prior (Asia). Living in a country involves respecting the way things are, which I state very clearly “you’ve got to just roll with it” and that “You either have to accept the fact… or adopt the behavior yourself and chill out”.

  5. Gerhard
    August 4, 2017 / 11:10 am

    While I generally agree with your post and that for many North Americans Latin America can be challenging, I would like to “chalk up” most of your concern to a general condition all humans have. Everyone can imagine that life in a different country and culture will be challenging and most people expect some difficulties and annoyances. But the difference is that we as humans, especially those who haven’t traveled far or long, tend to compare other environments with our home environments; thereby, making the home environment into status quo, picture perfect place to live, in our minds. In other words, we compare everything with our home country, culture, and environment and project these lofty expectations (only in our minds) to the new location, which we don’t really understand.

    I am from Germany and I have seen so many German Expats in Latin America complaining and complaining about things that just weren’t like in Germany, without really thinking about their merits. Latinos are never on time! Well, Germans send apologetic text msgs to their friends, when they realize they will be 10 minutes late to a coffee date.

    On the other hand, when I moved to Massachusetts with 18, I was in the beginning all starry-eyed, full of high expectations, just to be dragged back down to an ugly reality that made me want to return to Germany in a couple of months. First, I couldn’t believe the lack of freedom Americans had. US society (and New England even more) has so many obstructions and constrains that society puts on itself that I wasn’t used to. I couldn’t drink, but seemingly every kid drove drunk; consensual sex was frowned upon by society, but you were an outsider, if you hadn’t had sex by graduation. Crime? Boy, I got so scared when I walked into the first club in my life through a metal detector (they only existed in Germany at airports). 13,000 Americans kill each other with guns each year – 130 in Germany.

    What I am trying to say not that your concerns and warnings aren’t true, but that travelers have understand that they will compare a location or country/culture, with some other place. If their experience isn’t great, it most probably will be what they consider their home country. But that is in the eye of the beholder of course: not everything in Massachusetts, Michigan, or Germany is perfect. We have to adjust our reactions and concerns to the new culture and judge them accordingly. Latinos are never on time? Sure, but they also don’t get upset, if plans fall through, like some one cancels on them in the last minute, like we more Western citizens are likely to do. We travelers and expats have to learn to objectively evaluate another location/culture as soon as possible.

    • JoyAndJourney
      August 8, 2017 / 7:21 am

      Your move to Massachusetts and your perspective on it is super interesting!

      I agree with your perspective, however this post focused on the aspects of Latin America that I wish I would have been mentally prepared for. It’s definitely important to be objective, but at the same time, paying a steep price for a nice apartment that goes weeks without water isn’t something I’d enjoy or appreciate ANYWHERE in the world, nor is feeling unsafe. I wasn’t comparing Brazil with my home country mentally (I have no desire to live in the US, ever) but with everywhere else I had been and with my own preferences for a place I would want to live. Everyone has different preferences, different things that make them happy, and I think being aware of those preferences rather than denying them can be a true aid in helping you find whether or not to stay in a country.

      For example, I know that feeling physically safe is important to me. As a small, blonde, foreign-looking woman, I received extra and very pervasive sexual street harassment. Other people may enjoy a sense of danger or even the attention — I don’t. I know that I really appreciate regular water supply and being able to shower, wash dishes, etc, for other people this may be less of an issue. I know that as a health-conscious vegetarian, having easy access to high quality fruits and vegetables is important to me — for other people like my brother who enjoy eating deep-fried foods, Brazil could be a heaven.

      I don’t think there’s such a thing as true objectivity, but I think I can recognize my own subjectivity, and I continue to try. Just because I didn’t enjoy living in Brazil (and more specifically: Rio de Janeiro) doesn’t mean that someone else might not love it. In fact, one of my very best friends continues to live there and love it, she never wants to leave!

  6. October 3, 2017 / 11:13 am

    I agree with you on most of the points, but Brazil is a big country and Rio de Janeiro is that way – but there are other states and they are so different! Vegetables and making friends can be very different in other cities. Some years ago I was transferred from a Dutch bank to work in the Rio de Janeiro branch and I confess that at first I was amazed by the sea and over-all laid back attitude. But later very very very concerned about my safety. Like you said, I was grateful for a new experience, but would think three times before accepting the transfer today. I could never ever feel safe in the country, unfortunately.

    • October 3, 2017 / 11:40 am

      Hi Denise! Thanks so much for commenting.

      Definitely, Brazil is a huge country and there are many different states.

      I acknowledge that explicitly (“…these are the pieces of brutally honest reality checks about life about moving to Brazil I wish I’d received.
      **The following points are exactly what I wish I had been told and prepared for, as a young foreign woman, before moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Female expat friends in other South American cities have echoed similar (or exactly the same) concerns. Everything might not apply, but if something helps someone be more prepared in their move abroad: I’m happy about it. If I could go back and talk to pre-Brazil me, this is EXACTLY what I’d tell me.**”)

      Unfortunately, it seems that the safety situation in Rio de Janeiro specifically is continuing to get worse. I still have friends that live there that I worry about, and as you said, I would think three times before moving back… and honestly for me: probably not do it in almost any circumstance. While it’s a paradise for a lot of people, for me it wasn’t the right choice.

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