Foreward: I’m sitting on a plane about to land in São Paulo. This is my fifth time in Brazil, and I can’t get over how lucky I am to have come here so many times in my life…truly blessed to have the opportunity to reflect on this place.
I never set out to learn Portuguese. In fact, I consider it the greatest accident of my life. After studying my other beloved language Spanish for two years as a student at the University of Florida, I took a class on Latin American history. The professor, Dr. Jeffrey Needell, taught Brazilian history as though telling a story. I had never known that Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 led the Portuguese royal family to flee across the Atlantic Ocean for their Brazilian colony. Since the moment I learned that story, I was hooked. Portuguese class? Sign. Me. Up.
Since 2009, I have been to Brazil five times…four of those times in the last year alone. Brazil is the purest form of poetry. It is as essential to my life as air or water. Why do I love this country so much? A book of significant proportions is more appropriate to answer that question, but this simple blog post will have to suffice for now.
Let’s start with Brazil’s history. As I mentioned before, Portugal’s royal family fled here, specifically to Rio de Janeiro, in 1807. Prior to that, Portugal’s largest colony, discovered in 1500, served as one of Europe’s major source of sugar, gold, emeralds, and COFFEE. I was really amazed to be in Hamburg, Germany, one of Europe’s major ports, and see a display on the importation of Brazilian coffee there! The dark side of Brazil’s history is that for every 1 slave imported into the United States, 10….10…..were imported into Brazil. A barbaric history that to this day shapes Brazil’s racial and social makeup. With the “Lei Áurea,” or Golden Law, the government abolished slavery in 1888.
Did you also know Brazil was the Western Hemisphere’s only monarchy at one point? In 1821 amidst what is known as Constitutional Revolution in Portugal, liberal constitutionalists demanded the King of Portugal and Brazil, Dom João VI, return from Rio de Janeiro to rule his kingdom from Lisbon once again, leaving prince Dom Pedro I in charge of Brazil. Over the next year, the Constituent Assembly known as the Cortes subjugated the government of Brazil’s provinces to Portugal, angering both Portuguese and Brazilian-born residents who wanted to keep Brazil united with Portugal as a sovereign monarchy. In 1822, after defying the Cortes’ demand he return to Portugal and then siding with Brazilians opposed to subjugation, Dom Pedro I declared independence from Portugal in the famous “Grito de Ipiranga.” His son Dom Pedro II succeeded him in 1831 and would rule until the proclamation of a republic in 1889.
Did you also know that Brazil’s capital city Brasília is shaped like an airplane? To accomplish 50 years of progress in five, President Juscelino Kubitscheck commissioned the construction of a new capital, moving the seat of power from Rio de Janeiro to the center of the country, known as the cerrado. It was basically a story of turning nothing into something spectacular. Oscar Niemeyer, one of Brazil’s most famous artists, built many modern buildings in Brasília. He was a lifelong Communist and died at 100 years old! I am grateful to these two men as I did my Master’s thesis work in Brasília and fell in love with the city while there.
Next, let’s talk Brazil’s food. I’m sure you have been to a Brazilian steakhouse where you flip the little green and red card to stop the never-ending flow of beef, chicken and sausage. Churrascarias, the Portuguese name for these steak houses, are incredible, but there is soooo much more to Brazilian food. Feijoada, Brazil’s National dish, is a rich stew of black beans and meat that when put over white rice and mixed with manioc flour called farofa is absolutely to die for. Some of my other favorite foods are moqueca, a seafood stew, and pão na chapa, or french bread with butter cooked on the grill. Don’t forget the mortadella sandwich in São Paulo or the ever-present pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread that is a staple snack all over Brazil.
When you’re done eating in Brazil, the country’s natural beauty and man-made wonders will leave you breathless. Rio de Janeiro is a masterpiece of mountains, green forests and sandy beaches. No wonder the Portuguese made it their colonial capital…if only there were a way to take a time machine to centuries ago to witness their initial reaction to Rio’s stunning beauty. Look up at the Corcovado mountain and the Christ statue will greet you with open arms.
Fly south to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and look out upon one of the world’s most expansive skylines. São Paulo goes and goes…gets some more steam…and keeps going! Nearly 22 million people live in São Paulo metro region. The city is home to large Arab, Portuguese, Japanese and Italian diasporas – some of the best sushi and pizza in the world comes out of São Paulo.
To help you enjoy Brazil’s natural beauty is its music. The Girl from Ipanema is, of course, the most recognized of Brazil’s modern music, but have you ever heard of Marisa Monte, Beth Carvalho, Maria Gadú or João Gilberto? How about Vanessa da Mata, Grupo Revelação, Thiaguinho or Caetano Veloso? Brazil boasts multiple forms of lovely music from the smooth bossa nova to the more festive pagode to the hip-hop beats of funk.
Wanna speak to musicians, or frankly anyone else in Brazil? You have to learn Portuguese, which I consider one of the best parts about Brazil. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America and it is the largest Portuguese-speaking country on earth. A Romance language, meaning a language that derives from Latin, Portuguese is the sixth-most spoken language in the world with speakers in Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and São Tomé and Principe. One of my favorite parts of Portuguese are its nasal sounds and accent marks. If you see an ã or an õ, that denotes a nasal sound (come visit me sometimes and I’ll do them for you). If you see an â, ê, or ô, the accented vowel is the stressed syllable in the word and has a closed sound (pronounce an “o” with your mouth a bit more closed or an “e” more like an I). Portuguese is relatively easy to learn for Spanish-speakers as the two languages shared 60-70% of the same vocabulary – the only challenge is the pronunciation and accent, especially when it comes to words that are the same in both languages but are pronounced slightly different in Portuguese.
Finally, let’s talk about Brazil’s people. Brazilians’ kindness knows no end, their generosity no limits. In the 15 years I have been speaking Portuguese, I have met hundreds of Brazilians and they are all such warm people. Brazilians are very social and will throw the best parties with, of course, the best food and music on earth. If you want to visit Brazil and have close friends there, expect your Brazilian friends to offer to host you and to care for you as their very special guest. When I visit Brazil and need something, I can expect to get help from almost anyone I talk to. During my last trip to Brazil, I actually got sick and had to go to a clinic. The driver my company hired stayed with me the entire day to make sure I was okay and got home safe. I was so grateful.
Brazil is truly one of the greatest countries on earth. I’m so fortunate I have had the opportunity to learn Portuguese and visit Brazil as many times as I have. Every trip there is special – I learn something new about the country every time I go. The kindness I experience there as a gringo make me miss it every time I leave. For the rest of my life, Brazil will be inseparable part of my being. Trip #6 will be in the works soon, and I can’t wait to see what new things I discover then.