Today marks the end of the first quarter of my time in Brazil. And to be honest, I thought it would be harder.
There’s a saying here, courtesy of the late Brazilian musician Tom Jobim: “Brazil is not for beginners.” Personally, I don’t think this conveys any great insight into Brazilian culture—except maybe its penchant for exceptionalism—but it’s pithy and self-effacing, and so it ends up in travel guides and news articles and Fulbright Orientations and stuff.
I’m not trying to say that life in Brazil is easy. For many people, citizens and expats alike, it’s not. But for all that I’d heard about Brazil before coming here—from past ETAs and an impressively negative expat Facebook group—I was honestly expecting a lot worse.
Like, Caxias is known as a wealthy city. The streets are clean, it’s generally safe to walk around during the day, and there are cultural events on the weekends. My host mom says the tap water is safe to drink, even if we still boil it just to make sure. And over the two months I’ve lived here (spanning the end of summer and beginning of fall), the temperatures have never risen higher than the low 80s.
Caxias also feels super familiar. Half the food is Italian, and there’s a wide-aisled hypermarket called Zaffari down the street that feels like it was airlifted from the US. One of the city’s premier attractions is São Pellegrino, a gleaming four-level mall with an Airsoft range and a movie theater. I blend in on the streets, and the supposed coldness of the people here feels exactly like how people behave on the East Coast back home. And while the color of my skin would earn me the title gringo (with varying degrees of offensiveness) across much of the rest of South America, here the term refers exclusively to people who are culturally Italian.
Meanwhile, the Universidade de Caxias do Sul boasts a sprawling campus, a well-stocked library, and projectors in nearly every classroom. Maria Valésia, our program coordinator, zealously guards the 20-25 hours Fulbright says we’re supposed to devote to our university each week. Every one of my classes is led by a professor who is happy to include me in the lesson, and the vast majority of my students are proactive and eager to learn. The classrooms are informal—I can get away with teaching in shorts and a t-shirt.
On top of that, I live in a nice (bug-free) apartment close to the city center that was organized for me before I arrived. I live with another ETA whom I’m learning alongside and a great host mom who emphasizes how the three of us are a family. Since Elaine’s originally from the state of São Paulo, she also knows what it’s like to be an outsider and is good about explaining cultural differences to us. We cook and clean and take trips together, and I’ve learned more from her about navigating Caxias than from anyone else.
In short: it’s hard for me to complain here. There are the daily ups and downs and inevitable frustrations, but on the whole, my life is a lot easier than I had expected it to be. And sure, part of that stems from the fact I’m a well-off able-bodied white dude, but even while inhabiting that position—which is shared by many other Fulbrighters across the world—I feel like I’ve gotten especially lucky here.
So while life in Caxias does sometimes feel like Brazil for beginners, I think my experiences only prove Jobim’s point. Living here is easy precisely because Caxias isn’t like the rest of Brazil. And I think these great diversities within Brazil’s borders were exactly what Jobim was trying to capture in his quip. (Well, that and the sex and violence and corruption, plus a whole host of political contradictions.)
“In a sense, Brazil provides a unique case study into modern life under contradictory conditions: it is the West, but it isn’t; it is rich and prosperous, but it isn’t; it has universal healthcare and education, and famine and ignorance in equal measures; it’s an industrial powerhouse, but it uses primary exports as a lifeline and can’t grow for three years in a row without generalized financial collapse. It’s a tropical paradise with a desert the size of France; the largest catholic country, with the largest gay pride parade; and, crucially, by almost any measure it’s the world’s 8th largest economy, as well as the most unequal.”
– Eduardo Coltre Ferraciolli, Quora
Brazil’s a big country, and I’m still wrapping my mind around it. I can’t conjugate verbs properly, I can’t speak intelligently (or at all, really) about the dictatorship, and I can’t tell you how much Brazilians pay in various types of taxes. But I can tell you that I’m trying to learn—and Caxias is a pretty comfortable place from which to do it.