10 weird things to know about Brazil

Happy New Year everyone! I know, I know, I’m a little late to the game but this is my first post in 2014. Yikes! Here’s a picture from the wild NYE celebrations I took part in Tel Aviv. That place can party! My friend and I danced at this underground club The Cat and Dog until 7 a.m., but turned down all the offers of drugs and bathroom hook-ups. 😛

NYE

What a crazy year it has been so far, and we are only in mid-February. Over the last seven weeks I’ve taken nine flights and set foot on eight countries on three continents. I’ve gone from dark wintery Finland to spring-like Israel, made pit stops in Istanbul and Berlin, and taken a painful 18-hour train ride through Bulgaria. In late January I got into a car crash with a motorcycle in the Dominican Republic and yet danced bachata afterward for a week in a beach festival. I suffered through a few New York snowstorms in February but escaped to Brazil just before the 14th one. I’m now under the hot Brazilian sun in Rio de Janeiro and loving it! And this was supposed to be my year of taking it easy and not traveling as much… only a few months ago I was happy to be living a somewhat stable life in NYC and was trying to convince more digital nomads to move there.

But alas, such is a traveler’s life. It changes in a New York minute. 🙂

So now that I’ve suddenly found myself back in the only Portuguese-speaking country on the South American continent, it might be a good time to share some of my thoughts about this land that’s known for samba, sun, beaches, favela shantytowns (one of which I’m currently staying in – and the view is lovely!) and of course the impending World Cup. These oddities appeared in my old blog, written in 2008 during my first trip to Brazil, but I’ve found that they still hold true.

Turano

10 WEIRD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BRAZIL

1) Brazilians LOOOOOOVE meat!! There’s always a barbeque party (or a churrascu, as it’s called in Portuguese) coming up, and nope, they do not grill any tofu or tomatoes or tofu sausages here. It’s all about meat: steaks, ribs, chicken wings, chicken hearts (yep!), sausages…. maybe a bit of fish, too.

Rodizio

2) Salt is DEFINITELY a favorite among the Brazilians…. they use so much of it on everything that I’m surprised they aren’t having tons of heart attacks (or maybe they are… not sure about the stats..).

3) This is definitely the promised land of all-you-can-eat buffets, and “food by the kilo” buffets (where you pay according to the weight of your plate). They’ve even got this cool thing called “rodizio,” a buffet that comes to you! All you need to do is sit down at a table, and the meat/pizza/sushi just appears on your plate. The waiters bring the food around every few minutes, and you can choose what you want and have as much as you’d like. Yummy!

4) Brazilian houses (the upper-class ones anyway) tend to have several toilets. One for each room is not uncommon, I hear. Therefore a medium-size house can even have six toilets. Wow! No more waiting for your turn outside the door 🙂

5) Many of the bathrooms have a bidet bowl next to the toilet. It kind of looks like a cross between a sink and a men’s urinal. No one seems to know what to do with it. It’s just tradition to have one. I guess previously it was used for washing yourself up, but nowadays it seems to be just an expensive laundry basket!

6) Brazilians love all things made of manioc/yucca/cassava, the traditional root that tastes slightly like potato. Mandioca is eaten in soups, as mashed (like potato), as fried (like french fries) and even used as flour to dip your meat in… and probably in many more ways.

7) Brazilians also love their national booze, cachaça aka pinga, the main ingredient of caipirinhas. They think it’s the greatest thing ever invented. Taste-wise it’s not my favorite, but I gotta say it’s not the worst beach drink… (here as a mango version).

Mango caipirinha

8) Brazil is definitely NOT the right place for someone who has bacteria phobia! The locals love to share everything with their friends: beer, coke, water, pinga, not to mention food. If you buy a tapioca (sort of like a taco) or a sweet corn cob, you’ll need to offer bites to all of your pals. So you may even be sharing your drink or food with up to 10 people. But hey, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! 😉 The Brazilian immune systems surely must be strong from all this sharing.

9) It’s fairly easy to become a true Paulista (FYI, a Paulista is a person from Sao Paulo. Carioca = Rio resident). All you need to do is spot a local “celebrity” called Fofäo on the city streets (well, more like a local loonie bin). Hahaa. 🙂 Fofäo is a scary-looking man who has injected tons of silicone into his cheeks… he got his nickname from a cartoon character who looks the same way.

Picture 1

Why this guy has done that to himself, nobody knows. My Sao Paulo friends said he is a transvestite who was trying to be transformed into a woman. When that failed, he just became a weird-looking man who had done tons of operations to himself. Other people are scared of him, others just feel sorry… some say he can be violent too, so better keep your distance I guess. Fofäo works odd jobs around the city of Sao Paulo and can be spotted here and there by any lucky people walking around town… or unlucky, as he looks very scary! Legend says you can have a heart attack if you see him in the dark. As for me, I saw him twice during my 2008 visit to Sao Paulo. Once he had crazy make up on his face, neon colors all over. I guess that was to promote some flyers he was distributing. Scaaaaary….. I walked past him stiff as a stick… So yeah, you would think that in a city with 16 million people you wouldn’t see the same person twice but apparently you cannot avoid seeing Fofäo. Unless you are a Carioca for life… 🙂

10) Brazil has a reputation of being a somewhat dangerous place. However, the main thing that reminds you of the unsafe nature of the country are Brazilians themselves and the way they guard their possessions (those that have them, naturally). Most of my friends here have high fences around their houses, alarm systems, a scary barking dog in the backyard and some even have a paid guard patrolling their street. When going out in the city, my friends park their cars in guarded parking garages, as the risk of the car being robbed is supposedly high. Apartment buildings often have a guard downstairs who checks who is coming in and out. Sometimes my friends will ask me to walk fast as “this is not a safe area.” But I’ve seen a lot of proof that Brazil is not as dangerous of a place than what the locals make it out to be. For example, it’s customary here that if you are left without a seat in the bus, someone who has a seat will hold your purse so that you have two free hands to hang on to the strap rather than just one. WOOOOOW! I wouldn’t trust my purse to a stranger even in Finland! But here people don’t even think twice about it. How cute! 🙂

Iguassu

So yeah, Brazil is great and well worth a visit even outside of the World Cup! (For which I’m not sticking around, by the way… I’m not a fan of sports crowds.) People here are really friendly and even if you just met them, they will probably invite you to stay in their house for a few days, or to come for a barbeque.  And they always have a friend in another city, and “you can call them when you are there and they will help you out with everything!” 🙂

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Christmas in the Dark

Merry Christmas everyone! Or happy holidays to those of you that don’t celebrate this occasion. Unlike last year when I skipped Christmas, this year I went all out – all the way out to Finland, that is. And Finland is where I’ll be for another four days, until it’s time to celebrate New Years in Tel Aviv. Can’t wait!

The reason why I’m super excited for Israel is very simple – I miss the sun! I’ve barely seen the yellow friend since arriving in the Arctic North about two weeks ago. Somehow in my enthusiasm to spend the holidays with the family I almost forgot that my homeland sucks in December. Big time. There’s no light! Here’s a photo taken around 4 p.m. Could it get any darker?

Night

I recently found a blog post that describes the Finnish winter down to a T: “November in Finland is murder. It’s just as beautiful as a summer’s day in Mordor, or a day spent in a windowless house without any lights.  You wake up, it’s dark. You come home from work, it’s dark. It’s not the nice and soft kind of darkness. It’s wet and rainy and awful. Pitch black.” Yes, exactly!

You see, a third of Finland is located above the Arctic Circle. That means that a third of the country experiences what is called the Polar Night – a period of about 50 days when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. As you can see in this chart taken from Gaisma.com, the number of daily sunlight hours in the city of Utsjoki currently stands exactly at 0:00. ZERO. A month from now the day lasts a whopping 3.5 hours. Yee-haw. :/

(Then again, in six months the day is exactly 24 hours longer! That’s because the Midnight Sun lights up Northern summer nights. Here’s a cool video of the phenomenon. Now THAT is a great time to visit Finland!)

Picture 16I hail from Southern Finland, a good 700 km away from the start of the Arctic Circle (that’s 400+ miles for you Yankees). So things aren’t quite as dire down here in terms of sunlight hours as they are up in Lapland, where this chart is from. But don’t be fooled: they are still pretty bad. Right now the length of the day stands at about five hours in Helsinki and Turku, the two Southern cities I always zig-zag in between. The worst part is that we usually get five hours of cloudy weather, not five hours sunny hours. And then it’s back to darkness again until the next cloudy day. And this goes on for months. Right now it’s been a week since the sun last made an appearance. Our short five-hour days look like this:

TurkuDuskGloomy

Isn’t it cheerful here, especially since we have no snow to brighten up the scenery? A true Christmas in the dark. Makes me think longingly of the Christmas I spent in the Australian wine country, in the middle of the hottest summer. Ahhh, that was the life!

While nobody likes the lack of sun, most folks in Finland seem to be able to deal with the winter blues somehow (especially since it means we have awesome summers in return). People keep themselves busy with hobbies or look forward to their two weeks of winter holidays in Thailand or the Canary Islands. They go for brisk walks despite needing a flashlight. That’s great for them, but I just want to get out of here! I feel like I’m only a few steps away from being diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – I definitely feel anxious, hungry and sleepy (and the jet lag that keeps on lagging on is not helping). Maybe I have a harder time adjusting to the darkness since I haven’t lived through a full Nordic winter in 13 years. Two weeks is already too much for me! I am a child of the the summer, a major-league beach addict. I feel totally out of my element when I don’t see the yellow blob in the sky for days on end.

We did have one relatively bright and sunny day about 10 days ago. That made all the difference in the world. I went for a walk up a hill in Helsinki with my sleep-loving friend Mira, with whom I traveled around Central America last winter. Without that day I probably would have gotten the first flight out of here even before Christmas had started. 😛

Sunny day

As lovely as it has been to spend quality time with family and friends, I’m happy I only have one more weekend of this doom and gloom and then I’m off to sunnier pastures. If it’s up to me, I’ll continue my life as a climate refugee and avoid the Finnish winter for many years to come!

Have you been to Finland or Scandinavia during the winter? How did you cope with the darkness? What are your tips for surviving the winter blues? 

(PS. If flying off to the tropics isn’t an option for you, there are other ways you can try to alleviate SAD.)