Brazil Travel Guide From a Summer Away
Hey everyone, Kyle here. This Brazil travel guide is a simple interview I actually did with one of my employees—she’s from Eastern Europe and has been working with me for over two years now. She spent a summer in Brazil in an exchange program. She’ll discuss how she did that, and much more, below. Enjoy the Brazil travel guide.
Let’s start off with a bit of background about you! You’ve now been writing for “Team Trouble” for two years now, in addition to your normal school schedule. How did you get started with writing and freelance work, and what else do you do?
I got into freelancing completely by chance. All throughout high school, I was the artsy type and I loved writing. I’m still not sure how I ended up studying medicine of all things. Everyone that knew me in high school – friends, teachers, my family, thought I would get into advertising or journalism.
Anyhow, it was a rough adaptation for me in the first year of med school. My boyfriend at the time moved away, most of my high school friends also moved for uni, plus the first year of medical school can feel like trying to drink water out of a fire hose. Then you realise it’s really not that bad—but that comes later.
Basically, I missed my old high school life. And then I stumbled upon UpWork and found that you can get paid for writing. Granted, it wasn’t short stories or poetry, which I used to do in high school, but it was something. My first article for “Team Trouble” was about Eastern European girls. I had no relevant writing experience and I think I got the gig simply because I am an Eastern European girl.
[Kyle’s note: This is actually not true…]
I held onto the job because I was in a long-distance relationship now and I wanted to go visit him. Then, even after that fell apart, I decided to keep writing. It’s nice to have an income of your own, most of it goes towards travel.
This year I took up a more active role in our student’s association. It has been challenging juggling work, study, and volunteering but I love all three so I try to make it work.
Many of the people reading this are probably Americans, many of whom (like me) probably paid for their own college, or took on massive debt to do so. Can you explain how college has personally worked for you? What’s paid for, what’s not?
I am in medical school, at a public university. There are no private universities that offer medicine in my country.
Medicine is a 6-year course and you come out of it with a Master’s degree and an MD. I got into uni right after high school.
The state pays for a certain number of Bulgarian students to study medicine. Each year, they determine exactly how many. Students sit a Biology and Chemistry exam to apply for medical school. A final “grade” is calculated, which mainly takes into account these two exams but also some grades from your high school diploma.
There are quotas for males and females. Generally, being a girl makes it harder to get in because the women applying get better grades at the application exams. With both genders, though, it’s usually around 10 people for one spot in medical school.
If you don’t get in this way, you can pay the full cost of medical education and still go to medical school. I think it’s 3,500 EUR per semester for Bulgarian students and 7,000 EUR for foreigners. In my university, we have more foreign students than we have Bulgarians because it’s not super expensive, I guess, and it’s also very easy to get one of the “paid spots”.
My own education costs 230 EUR per semester. The state covers the rest of the tuition fees.
Was this Brazil travel paid for?
It’s a bilateral exchange organised by the International Federation of Medical Students Associations. I pay a fee to my national member association. That is used to pay for the exchange of incoming students. The same goes for the Brazilian student.
The exchange fee covers accommodation and one meal per day. I had to cover the plane tickets and all other travel expenses.
Maybe you can elaborate on what exactly this trip/internship/whatever it was exactly.
IFMSA started out as an organization that lets medical students spend a month in another country to exchange experience and ideas. At first, it was just professional exchanges—the kind where you go into a hospital department and do a clinical internship. Then they introduced scientific exchange for pre-clinical students.
Since I had not yet covered any clinical classes I did the scientific exchange. I spent time working in a lab, researching the best treatment for chronic wounds and burns. There wasn’t always a lot of work at the laboratory so I spent some time in a local chronic wound clinic.
It was like nothing I can see in my own country (or Europe, for that matter). Since this was a free clinic a lot of poor people would come in.
What really struck me was the contrast between poverty and privilege.
Health professionals are paid fairly well in Brazil so I was working alongside people from a wealthy background and with a comfortable lifestyle. At the same time, I would see patients that couldn’t afford the most basic of healthcare.
You see that sort of contrast everywhere in Brazil. I guess it impressed me the most in the clinic because you see the physical consequences of poverty.
What cities were you based in, and where did you visit?
I was based in Goiania, the capital of the state of Goias. I went to visit Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, and Florianopolis.
I also got to explore Sao Paulo a bit when I had my layover there.
What was your overall impression of the safety in Brazil? Did you feel safe/comfortable as a female “gringa”?
It’s nothing like Europe, that is for sure!
One of the big things was that you can’t walk down the street without watching your surroundings. It took me two weeks before I even dared come out of the house with earphones in! I didn’t want anything to distract me from a possible attacker.
On my very first day, I went out to explore Sao Paulo by myself.
I didn’t tell my parents (because they would have freaked out) and I did not have a Brazilian phone number. It seems like a pretty solid plan to get murdered but I did ask a Brazilian friend of mine (from back home) if the neighbourhoods I wanted to visit were safe.
I didn’t have any problems with safety—not in Sao Paulo, not even in Rio de Janeiro. I went to Rio with a group of five girls and one of them was a maniac on safety. She wouldn’t even want to get Ubers with us—she would only trust one taxi because her hosts knew the lady personally!
I didn’t go to such lengths and it was still fine.
The main thing is to mind your surroundings and to only go to areas that are safe. Usually, those are the wealthier neighbourhoods. If someone attacks you—just hand them everything. The bad guys in Brazil have guns, your pocket knife won’t impress them.
When it gets dark, automatically assume that it gets less safe.
I never went out at night in a girl-only group. When I was in Rio, I went out on a date and we spent some time walking around Copacabana. It was probably the least safe thing that I did. We were obviously “gringos” and it’s lucky that nothing bad happened. At one point during the night, we heard fireworks and joked about it being gunshots…
The joke was on us.
The next morning my safety-maniac travel buddy told me that it was actually gunfire. There is an app for that in Rio de Janeiro but it’s a bit of an overkill. Most of the places where it happens are favelas—and it’s best to avoid them on principle.
The favela tours are safe, as long as it’s a legitimate tour guide. Ask at your hotel/hostel, they will know what to recommend. The beach is also surprisingly safe if you keep an eye on your stuff for pickpockets.
We met two guys that got robbed in Rio de Janeiro.
With both of them, it was out of stupidity.
- One went out alone and drunk at night to look for food.
- The other put in the wrong address for the Uber and decided to walk there instead of calling a cab.
Walking around Rio de Janeiro is not safe, not even in the rich neighbourhoods. We always got an Uber, even if the place was down the street from us. That’s what most people did. If you are in a bigger group, it may be safer but do your best to blend in. One of the nights we went out with a mostly Brazilian group and I felt much safer.
In my country, you don’t really need a car inside the city.
You can walk or take public transport everywhere and it’s faster and more convenient. This was completely out of the question in Brazil. Because hardly anyone walks, I did feel unsafe once or twice. I’m not sure if it wasn’t just paranoia but it was a weird feeling being the only girl on the sidewalk.
I wouldn’t say being a “gringa” played a big part in feeling a bit odd in those cases, though.
Brazilians are very diverse. Even though I’m blonde and generally very Eastern European looking, they would always take me for a local. It also helps that I was staying in a city with little if any tourism—but it happened to me in Rio and Sao Paulo, too.
As long as you don’t speak loudly in a foreign language, it’s fine.
Finally, you shouldn’t flash your phone or camera anywhere in public.
It’s fine if you want to take them out to take a picture but don’t walk around with a camera around your neck.
Oh, and of course, it all depends on the city. Goiania was very safe by Brazilian standards. In places like Porto Alegre exchange students wouldn’t even dare go out at night. It’s one of the country’s crime capitals.
What is the Brazilian culture like?
That’s such a broad question!
Brazil is huge.
Honestly, I was unprepared for exactly how enormous the country is. There is also a lot of diversity in terms of cultural background. Most people are mixed race where I was staying but there are many Native Americans and many purely Caucasian people. In some parts of the country, the “whites” even speak the language that they came with—for instance, German.
I spent all of my time in the Central/ Central East part of the country. From what I hear, up north things are different, there is more poverty, and people are even less likely to speak English or know anything about Europe.
Dancing, partying, and generally having a good time are very important to Brazilians.
Their parties don’t have the show-offy vibe that partying in my own country has. Plus, they are definitely better dancers.
Machismo culture is something you do see but not as much in the middle class and up. I had my tutor (at the lab) tell me that he doesn’t want his wife to work. It’s my job as a man to provide for us, he said, if she chooses to work, she can spend her money however she likes. Our family is not relying on that income.
Small things like picking up the tab, driving your girlfriend places, and generally taking care of her are normal and expected. Brazilians are much more forward when it comes to flirting and dating, too. I happened to have a crush on one of the European exchange students…
When I described the “hints” that he also liked me to a Brazilian friend, she just shook her head and said, “He is not trying hard, why wouldn’t he just kiss you?”
By the way, the guy was interested, he just wasn’t showing it in the “Brazilian way”.
Religion is everywhere in Brazil. More and more people are turning Protestant, even though Catholics are still the majority. You would see Bible verses and Jesus loves you everywhere – on flyers, on business cards, posters, signs, etc. This means abortion is a huge taboo in Brazil. Weirdly enough (and happily), being queer isn’t nearly as frowned upon. My own country is much more homophobic than Brazil. I am not proud of that.
Family values are another big thing. People typically have a lot of siblings and their families are very tightly knit. Even if they don’t see each other frequently, they still keep in touch and get together often. Siblings and cousins are best friends.
And how about Brazilian food?
I loved, loved, loved the food!
First, there is the fruit. In Brazil, they have so many fruits that I hadn’t even seen in my life. I hadn’t even tried maracuja before! Pro tip: don’t have maracuja-based cocktails, the fruit itself has a sedating effect and you will fall asleep in the bar. Yes, that actually happened to me.
Pao de queijo is one of the Brazilian staples that you absolutely must try. It’s cheese bread with tons of cheese inside. A gooey, cheesy heaven!
Acai is amazing in Brazil (mostly because it comes from Brazil). They blend the fruit with ice and sugar and then serve it with different toppings. Most places already include condensed milk and granola in the price of acai. Get powdered milk as an extra topping – it seems weird but it’s very delicious.
In general, acai isn’t the hip super food Europeans consider it to be. It’s more like ice cream – a cold and sweet treat with tons of toppings!
For drinks, you can’t skip the caipirinhas. They make caipirinhas in my country as well, but nothing compares to the Brazilian version. In Rio, you can buy caipirinha everywhere and day drinking is completely fine. My friends and I even got cocktails to take on our tour of the city sights! It was delicious and no, nobody looks at you weird.
Make sure you hit up the food buffets.
You pay by the weight of the food you order. Careful, it’s easy to go over budget. Be strategic about the food you grab. Start with local specialities – feijoada (the thick bean stew), churrasco (barbecued meat), the fried bananas (yes, they are actually bananas, not plantains)… You can grab salads and such last to get the most bang for your buck!
From my understanding, you were there with a reasonably large group. What did your European friends think of Brazilian girls? Any crazy, wild stories to share?
In Goiania, where my exchange was based, it was just me and a girl from Bolivia. Because there weren’t any other exchange students, we hung out with the locals. Brazilian women were much more conservative than I expected. They dance really sexy in the club, but in a group. There is no grinding happening on anything like that.
Then again, they do randomly make out/hook up when they go out. It’s just confined to the friend group. It’s not very common for random guys to approach you at a club. Bear in mind I was mostly going to student parties so most people already knew each other or of each other. Maybe it’s different in other discos.
When I was traveling, I was in a more diverse group. One of the Italian guys loved Brazilian girls…
But looking back, I think he just loved all girls (and guys for that matter). He would hit on everyone and hook up with a new person every night. So on second thoughts, yes, maybe it is possible to pick up Brazilian girls at the club if you’re a smooth talker like he was.
One of the local girls hooked up with an exchange student. She liked him for a little while and was dropping very obvious hints. He seemed to flirt but it wasn’t enough. As a European, it was very clear me that he liked her…
To her, it seemed like he didn’t care. She was so frustrated with how slowly things were moving. The guy felt a bit smothered by all the attention.
Brazilian girls are fine with hookups but you have to win them over. They are used to getting a lot of attention from guys. If you don’t give them that, they wonder if you even like them.
This is also why they can seem conservative.
A Brazilian girl will only mess with you if she’s crushing hard…and if you seem interested enough! In cities with a bigger group of exchange students, they would go out/party/make out among themselves because Brazilians were too “hard to approach”.
What is the general outlook of people there? Latin culture is notoriously upbeat and happy, but Brazil as a whole has been in pretty bad shape for a while and doesn’t seem to be climbing out of that. Has it taken on more of a “Soviet”, depressing vibe?
I don’t think I saw the worst of it.
Yes, Brazil isn’t doing so well right now.
Poverty and violent crime are two huge problems.
You can see that it’s not a wealthy country (which also makes it a cheap place for Europeans and Americans to visit).
I heard stories of people dying of treatable conditions because the ER wasn’t stocked with antibiotics. The poverty I witnessed at the clinic was also quite shocking. It’s not even because they lack funding for hospitals. Corruption happens at a very large scale.
As somebody that grew up in a post-socialist country, however, Brazil definitely doesn’t have the same vibe.
In post-Soviet countries, people seem depressed because they feel helpless. For half a century (if not longer), the state was controlling all aspects of their life. Then, after the fall of socialism, oligarchs came into power.
Even though things are much better now, there is still a general attitude of It doesn’t matter what you do, you are not in power and you can’t ever really rise above your current circumstances.
Brazilians are not like that.
They are very carefree and optimistic. Actually, they are so carefree that it can be super frustrating. Back home, I am considered to be fairly messy, a procrastinator, and definitely not punctual. In Brazil, I was usually the uptight one!
Of course, this is a good thing for them. They stress less and enjoy life more. Even among medical students (a very stressed out demographic), I didn’t see the same defeatist and pessimist outlook I see in my own country.
Even poor people were very positive and friendly. The patients that came to the clinic sometimes suffered horrendous chronic wounds and they spoke absolutely zero English. Even so, they were some of the sweetest people I met during my exchange (yes, I did pick up Portuguese when I was there so I was able to communicate with them)!
Kyle back here. Special thanks to her for being willing to do this interview. Hopefully you learned a lot in this Brazil travel guide. As a final note, I do want to say it’s been a pleasure having her on the team for the last few years, and I can safely say I wouldn’t be where I am without her.
What do you think about Brazil in general? Leave your comments on the current situation below.