Published by Agnes on the 10th October 2022
In December 2021 I got on a plane and flew over the Atlantic. Destination: São Paulo. At the time I thought I would be flying back in February. I had a life and a career in the arts to go back to, after all.
But fate had a different plan for me: It only took me a few weeks to understand that I wanted to stay. From that point onwards many things fell into place: I now live on the island of Florianopolis, run an Airbnb and have co-founded a travel app. My Portuguese is still far from perfect, my house has a huge leak, and I only just got my visa for the first year. And yet I feel more at home than ever.
This island, this country, its powerful nature and its warm people have captured my heart and soul. What can I say: Brazil has transformed my life and it is continuing to transform and amaze me with every passing day.
I am not the first one to feel this. In fact, most people who visit this place for the first time fall into a kind of colourful daze of excitement.
But what is it about Brazil that makes it so special?
The better question is: Where do I begin? Is it the warmth of its people, the diversity of its landscapes or the colourful mix of cultures, tastes and smells? Is it the wild ocean, the hot rainforest or its jungle-like cities? Is it the melting consistency of the pão de queijo, the sweetness of the paçoca or the cooling deliciousness of the açaí?
If Brazil has taught me one thing it's this: The moment you try to define or explain what this country is, it will turn around and prove you wrong. Brazil does not like to be reduced. It does not like to be defined. It does not want to be analyzed, summarized or cut-up into countable chunks. The moment you try to hold it down with words, it will evade you.
Brazil is not a place to be "explained" or "analyzed". It is a place that can only be experienced. That's why every attempt at describing it, is doomed to feel inadequate at best and like a big collection of cliches at its worst.
But I will still try.
Because Brazil has taught me that perfection is overrated anyway…
#1. It is one of the most diverse countries in the world
With an area of over 8,5 Million km² Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth-largest country in the world. It is therefore hardly surprising that its nature and culture are incredibly diverse. The Amazon rainforest, the Iguazu Falls and the neverending coastline of the Atlantic are as manifold and colourful as the city jungles of São Paulo, Salvador and-of course- Rio.
It would take several lifetimes to travel to all the places in this country. But even a person blessed (or cursed) with eternal life would find it impossible to truly "know" Brazil. Everything in this highly fertile place grows and changes faster than any human being can keep up.
So, what to do when faced with such an expansive, fast-changing land? It didn't take me long to understand that there is no point in even attempting to see it all. But here is the good news: You don't even need to travel far if you want to taste the colourful contrasts of this nation. You will find a luxury house next to a favela, a fancy gym by the side of an old-fashioned kiosk and a street dance battle just meters away from a glamorous fashion store. Just one day spent in Rio will show you a kaleidoscope of the different realities that form the exhilarating patchwork of this expansive nation. And the same goes for the flora and fauna: I live in the forest and am constantly amazed by the diversity of insects, fish, birds and other animals that keep turning up on my doorstep.
As somebody who has spent most of her life in cold countries, I can't help but be charmed by the joyful eye-twinkle and warm smile of the Brazilian people. When I moved here, I didn't know anybody and couldn't even speak the language. And yet, I have felt incredibly welcomed and cared for everywhere I turned. What I like most about the Brazilian people is that they are not only incredibly warm but also incredibly relaxed. Just a few hours before writing this post, I was in a car with a friend. When a woman accidentally hit his car, he just laughed and told her not to worry, because his car is "a piece of shit" anyway. Maybe I am still wearing rose-coloured glasses, but it seems to me that Brazilians are much more resilient than us Europeans, which is why they don't get upset over the small stuff. They understand that there will always be smaller and bigger problems to deal with, which is why we should just enjoy life no matter what happens.
Little sidenote: As I write this, I am fully aware that if I try to make any statements about "what all Brazilians are like", I would be proven wrong soon after. Neither am I trying to over-romanticise the Brazilian people. There are assholes everywhere in this world, and I am sure Brazil also has its fair share. It's just that if they do exist, I haven't met them yet.
Due to its history of immigration (and colonization) as well as its sheer size, Brazil is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. When you go to Bahia in the Northeast you will feel the powerful force of Afro-Brazilian culture, whereas in places like Florianopolis you will feel almost as if you are in Europe. There is no particular "way" a Brazilian person looks, talks or acts and you will find people of all ethnicities, social and cultural backgrounds living more or less side by side.
This means that if your Portuguese is good enough you might even get away with pretending you are Brazilian. (Yes, this is my secret plan, in case you are wondering.) Even if your accent sounds funny, the person you are talking to might assume that you are simply from a different state.
Important Note: As a foreigner, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because Brazil is so diverse, it is not racist. But -unfortunately-the opposite is true: Racism is ingrained into the history of Brazil. After all, it was colonized by Europeans and was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery. The treatment of the indigenous people as well as racism against people of darker skin continue to be a problem to this day. Also, the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities among different social classes remains part of the harsh reality of this nation.
While I obviously hope that this will change, there is one thing that can't be denied: The Brazilians have mastered the art of turning their suffering into beauty and some of the most powerful artistic and spiritual practices in Brazil have come out of disadvantaged communities.
And this ability of turning suffering into art has also given rise to what probably counts as my FAVOURITE thing about Brazil...
Given the diversity of its culture and the sheer size of the country, it shouldn't be surprising that these conditions have also given rise to a number of uniquely Brazilian musical genres. Whether it's Samba, axé, choro, bossa nova, forró, capoeira music or sertanejo: Even after eight months in Brazil, I keep coming across musical styles that I've never heard of before.
And I have a confession to make: While many Brazilian friends of mine cringe when I tell them, I absolutely love listening to Marília Mendonça. She is probably the most prominent example of a musical genre which is called "Sofrência". And yes, you guessed correctly: It, quite literally translates into "suffering".
With lyrics like "You cheated on me. It took me a while, but I figured it out. You aren't worth anything. That's clear to me. Your plan was good. It was almost perfect. But too bad that everything you do, you do badly" Marília Mendonça tells it like it is. Which brings me to my next point...
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The fact that there is an entire music genre exclusively devoted to the act of suffering over love points to another beautiful and strange aspect of the Brazilian soul: While I've seen Brazilians stay surprisingly relaxed about lost keys, money problems and other issues life throws at them, I have yet to meet a Brazilian person who hasn't suffered tremendously (and somewhat joyfully) over a broken heart. This means that while Brazilians are surprisingly chill about almost everything, matters of love can lead to incredible fits of jealousy, lots of drama and even violence. Having grown up in countries where people tend to rationalize love and deal with their broken hearts behind closed doors, this phenomenon is equally bewildering and beautiful to me.
One of the main reasons I chose Brazil as my new home is that I have become completely obsessed with capoeira. While it is difficult to define what it is (a dance, a street-fight, a martial art, a ritual?), it is best described as a kind of improvised dance fight that involves complex acrobatics, the playing of instruments and singing.
I love to move my body and have dabbled in different modalities throughout my career as an artist, but I have yet to come across a movement practice that is more all-encompassing than capoeira. It literally trains almost everything you can think of. If you do capoeira, you will improve your flexibility, strength, acrobatic skills, musicality, and improvisation skills. Learning the songs has also done a world of good for my Portuguese. But what I enjoy most is the playfulness and community aspect of it. When playing capoeira, you are not doing a solo performance. You are improvising together with a partner and the music that is being created at that moment.
But capoeira is much more than a fun activity to do in your free time. The roots of this cultural manifestation go far back into the powerful and painful history of Brazil:
According to legend, this dance-fight was created by the Afro-Brazilian slaves as a way of learning to defend themselves and fight while pretending to dance. Even after slavery ended, it continued to be an artform practiced on the streets. It can therefore be viewed as an act of resistance that has turned suffering and violence into one of the most powerful and beautiful art forms I have ever come across.
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Now that I have discovered açaí, tapioca, paçoca, acarajé and pão de queijo, I simply don't know how I could survive 28 years of my life without them. What I love most about all of the above foods is that they are incredibly simple to make and at least "kind of" healthy. Even paçoca (which is basically sugar and peanuts mixed together) is fairly healthy when compared with other types of candy or desserts. At least that's what I tell myself.
And, of course, there is the king of all Brazilian food-traditions: The Brazilian churrasco!
What I love most about the Brazilian way of doing barbecue is that every single piece of meat or sausage is shared. Instead of each person getting their own piece, the meat is cut into little bits and distributed among all the people participating in the barbecue. This way you can keep eating for hours and the barbecue becomes a manifestation of communal sharing. If you come to Brazil I also deeply recommend that you visit a churrascaria, which is basically an all you can eat barbecue-restaurant where the meat just keeps coming and coming.
But even people who can’t afford fancy restaurants or a private garden don’t let that stop them from enjoying a good old Sunday barbecue. You will often find Brazilians put out an improvised grill in their backyard, on the porch of their house, on the beach or on the street. Which brings me to my next point...
Maybe this isn’t a Brazil-thing, but a “warm country”-thing, but I simply love that almost everything happens on the street. Whether it’s an improvised barbecue on someone’s front porch, an impromptu drumming-circle on the beach or a capoeira-rhoda on the dusty street of a favela: Why stay indoors if you can enjoy life outside?
And here is another strange thing I've noticed about Brazil: Usually, leaving your house has a way of solving whatever problems you are dealing with, because you are likely to run into someone who has exactly what you need. At the very least, the warm smiles or random comments of the people you encounter are sure to cheer you up.
Brazil is no different than other countries, in that people get deeply divided over politics. But the Brazilian political system has found a perfect solution for resolving this issue. By making sure the elections always take place shortly before the world cup, families and friends who have gotten into embittered fights over politics will be driven to kiss and make-up when cheering for Brazil during the World Cup.
Most people associate favelas with poverty, crime and violence. But for me, favelas are one of the most incredible examples of human resourcefulness that I have ever come across. The very fact that whole parts of Brazil's cities have been improvised out of whatever the poorest of the poor were able to get their hands on is highly impressive. It teaches us a "work with what you have" attitude to life, which I find incredibly healthy.
But resourcefulness is not the only thing one can learn from people living on the periphery. Many of the most powerful artists I have come across were born in the favela. It seems that being raised in a tough environment carves the human souls in ways someone like myself can't even phantom.
And at the risk of sounding like I am being naïve, ignorant or insensitive to the struggle faced by the people living in the favela, I'll just say it anyway:
I find favelas incredibly beautiful.
I know I promised only 10 reasons, but if I truly want to pay homage to this constantly changing, ungraspable country, sticking to the rules would simply be too boring. Brazil has already surprised me multiple times and I am sure it will continue to surprise and amaze me with its many layers and contrasts.
Having all of the above said, I already know that I will encounter situations, people and places that will turn all I have written on its head. And this is probably my favourite thing about Brazil: It does not allow itself to be dissected, analyzed or put into a box. Brazil is simply too grand, too expansive and too alive to be grasped in this way.
Brazil is not a country to be "understood" or "known", it is a country that needs to be felt and experienced. This country asks you to enter it with an open heart and allow its wild magic to enter your soul. So, switch off your laptop, book your ticket and let this wild, fast-changing place transform you!