Monday, May 27, 2013

Living in Brazil vs. the USA - a meditation

Having just returned from three weeks in the United States I am settling back into the local reality of living here in Niterói. Why is it that I prefer living in Brazil over the luxury and convenience of the States?

It was nice to come back to the neighborhood park brimming with families taking good advantage of a sunny Sunday. My first visit to the nearby supermarket included the cashier smiling and asking me about how nice it must have been to visit my family. Luiz and I have been passing out smiles to friends with the little two dollar Florida key chain souvenirs we brought back for just that purpose. Call me old fashion but I enjoy seeing the whites of my neighbors’ eyes.

Traveling to the States for the first time in 5.5 years – wow, what an experience in contrasts. Everything is so big in the United States, bigger than I remember. The cars, parking lots, restaurant portion sizes, grocery stores, homes, and of course the shopping malls are so super-sized.

Visiting family and friends definitely stirred up things I miss about the United Sates, but I was also reminded of the reasons I have always felt good about relocating. The differences between living here and there were definitely in stark relief during this trip.

As any expat blogger knows from experience, it is difficult to make comparisons between countries, available consumer goods, lifestyles, cultures, daily life, etc. without getting into hot water with readers on either side of the comparison, US American or Brazilian. Forgive me if I take us into this territory, if only to refocus our attention.

Let me keep it personal. Any effort to compile typical (and predictable) lists for comparison will only result in obvious results. Yeah, yeah, I know – you can buy a better, cheaper coffee machine in the United States. Drivers there are generally more considerate of pedestrians. And US politicians are more adept at concealing their corrupt activities (or should I say there is more willful ignorance among the voting public in this regard). Big deal. But how do I feel during an average day, living in either place?

Brazil often brings out the best in me. It has to. After all, the coffee makers are for shit.

I suppose the back story here is rather important and speaks volumes to my personal experience and conclusions. Luiz and I are living a bit outside the hustle and making-ends-meet struggle of so many in Brazil. We are not raising children, nor are we buying our first home. One thing we share as soul mates is our focus on relationships and experiences over material things. We are quite happy to construct a lifestyle that allows us to live without a car or the need to eat out several times a week. I think we are a bit older than most fellow expat bloggers I follow here in Brazil. In many ways we are in a later chapter in our lives, having left 60 hour work weeks and early-adopting impulses behind. We choose to seek out the calm in life, even if (especially if) it means toning down the endless choices and oft entertaining cacophony of the fast lane. Do I miss the ‘good old days’? Maybe, sometimes. But I could not have imagined or fully realized the quality of life possible living so close to the ground without the culture shift.

Living here in Brazil we choose to join with so many Brazilians in our insistence on seeing the glass half full.

The absence of hot water at the bathroom tap, fresh corn tortillas or cheap, powerful electronics may call on us to compromise but it has not soured our experience in our new home. Sure, visiting the States reminded me of the possibility of a pedestrian-safe urban life, but I missed the convenience of local bus service taking you anywhere you need to go.

Money is a pain in the ass. Earning money in the States is much easier than earning it here in Brazil. To make things more challenging, these days the cost of living in Brazil has skyrocketed. Money greases the skids of an otherwise difficult daily life. But money distorts experience. Luiz and I have the privilege of no longer suffering for every coin. Our long term planning and life choices have brought modest relief in this regard. But there is no escaping the fact that when left on automatic – life is easier, and filled with more stuff, in the States.

But who wants to live on automatic?

I guess this post is not so much about how the United Sates and Brazil compare economically or in terms of creature comforts, but rather it is about the focus and choices we as expats have made to thrive in our new adopted home.

Luiz and I choose to feel the love, dance to a new rhythm and celebrate new friendships. It was definitely fun to go shopping in Florida for a new sport coat, sneakers and dress slacks, but here in Niterói I will quite certainly wear through five pair of flip flops before even breaking in my new wardrobe.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Brazil is not the United States

Brazil is not the United States. I like that about Brazil. Actually, I really like that about Brazil.

From day one when I first visited this country 13 years ago I loved the fact that vendors walk the sand at beaches everywhere selling cold beverages, warm fresh foods, sun bathing products, sunglasses, bikinis, children’s play toys and whatever else you may desire. I like that about Brazil. In Salvador we even had a little boy come by our spot on the sand every 15 minutes or so and empty a garden watering can over our feet to cool us down (for a small tip). Cute!

To my mind, street vendors selling beverages, hot dogs, Xtudos (cheese burgers w/ everything), ice cream – and on and on are a convenience when hanging out at a block party or waiting for the party to get started inside the Sambadromo.

Is the bus stuck in traffic? Hop on the back of a motorcycle and pay a Motoboy to get you to your destination on time, zig zagging between the backed up cars and trucks. Or, if you are on the bus, reach out the window and buy an ice cold water (or beer) and maybe a package of cookies from a vendor walking up and down the lanes in the traffic jam.

Brazil is not the United States. In the States these kind of entrepreneurial efforts would be forbidden by law or so severely regulated as to significantly reduce the convenience and surely raise prices.

Living in Brazil I can do without the seemingly ever expanding desire by many to “Americanize.” I want to warn people that it is the wrong path forward and that they should be careful what they wish for. But I can understand how television presents the illusion of universal wealth and carefree consumption in the US and how this then ignites a desire in people to get some for themselves – or for politicians to promise they can deliver these wonders once elected.

Personally, I like the fact that 2 liter plastic soda bottles are so thin they collapse under the slightest squeeze (consuming less plastic!) And it seems better in the long run to raise your children with small or very small soda or ice cream portions (which are still quite satisfying) rather than always tilt toward a wasteful and dangerous Super Size for everything.

It is my hope that Brazil will resist the temptation to emulate all that is “American” for as long as possible. Unfortunately, the class dynamics here are very pronounced and the rich seem to reach for the “American” version of things. Thus setting a coveted example. Alas. Television, advertising, peer pressure, all the usual suspects, are homogenizing so many facets of Brazil’s amazing multifaceted cultural expressions. And they are moving us all toward a more wasteful, consumption oriented way of life (among other things).

This “progress” is already infringing on our local experience in a big way. Sadly, it appears to be a tide that will not be reversing any time soon.

Right next to the "Whole Foods" look alike grocery.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for economic progress and how some of this has lifted some (quite a few, in fact) Brazilians out of severe poverty. But being like “America” in and of itself is not synonymous with progress or good. I would argue that Brazilians have created a proud, uniquely multicultural history which can progress all on its own without morphing into a USA clone.

The motivation for this post came from a walk through our neighborhood recently that made me a bit sad. The first Starbucks coffee shop has opened near our apartment (which looks identical to all those I have seen in the States). To my disbelief there is a new (franchise) sports bar named All Games that features US-style football. WTF? (Who goes there?). The worst of it all was discovering a new Burger King opening at an intersection that already has a McDonalds, Dominos Pizza and Subway sandwich joint. Argh – my neighborhood is becoming an “anywhere USA” junk yard.

Value meals start at R$18

You pay for delivery.

Three slices of meat per sandwich.

If you can find someone in my neighborhood who knows who played in the Super Bowl, I will buy you a venti  Starbucks 4 shot espresso latte with a pump of vanilla syrup.

Brazil is not the United States – and I have always liked that about Brazil. Too bad the status conscious young professionals in the neighborhood are willing to spend R$9 or more for a latte. I have a secret desire that people who grew up drinking a 2 ounce shot of coffee after lunch will not switch to a ‘grande’ or ‘venti’ super sized dose of corporate Kool Aid.