I don’t always regret our decision about moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Asia.
But I do wish I’d been a bit more informed before moving to Rio de Janeiro. 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.**
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 Rio de Janeiro, 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.
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.
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.
4. You will miss (healthy) food.
Big green salads? Not as popular and much more expensive in Rio. 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 zonasul is often 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. Try to arrive to the store when produce first arrives off the truck (ask the store clerk).
It’s not that hard to grow your own lettuce if you have a windowsill!
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 Rio.
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.
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.
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.
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 Rio de Janeiro.
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 Rio de Janeiro, 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!
* This post was originally written in 2015, and has been updated September 2017.
What do you wish you’d known before moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?