After spending nine months living in Brazil and observing the Brazilian culture and way of life, I picked up a few lessons along the way.
I realized while there are certain things I appreciate about my own country, Brazilians could definitely teach the rest of the world a few things:
1. Simplicity is sometimes better.
In the US, we are obsessed with excess. We have enormous houses and pimped-out cars, the latest flat-screen TV and iPhones.
We live in a consumerist society, where we surround ourselves with things we tell ourselves we need in order to be happy and feel fulfilled.
In Brazil, there are, of course, some people who live this way, too. But, there are many people who only live on the bare essentials, and that is more than enough for them.
During my first few weeks in Brazil, I went on a hiking expedition with my best friend from home, who had come to visit me.
We explored isolated beaches and small villages that were cut off from civilization.
We camped out the first night and the second night, we stayed in a tiny one-bedroom hut in a village that had just a church, a school and some little houses, all of which were connected only by narrow dirt roads.
We dined at the house of one of the villagers, who cooked dinner for us by way of candlelight.
It was an eye-opening experience to see the simplistic lives these people led.
It was easy to see that they did not live on much at all, yet they seemed content with the little that they had.
2. A little rule-breaking never hurt anyone.
In Brazil, there is an expression, “dar um jeito," which translates more or less to “find a way.” This sums up a large part of Brazilian culture pretty well.
The upside to this is that there is always a solution to every problem (and often a creative one). In general, Brazilians are more relaxed about bending the rules.
If I didn’t have enough change to pay for my pão de queijo (cheese bread), the cashier wouldn't make a fuss. If I flagged down the bus but was not at the bus stop, the bus driver would often stop anyway.
When all of the normal bus seats were taken, I would see people get a little creative, sometimes sitting up with their back against the front windshield of the bus, feet propped up and everything.
On the other hand, in the US, things are much more by-the-book and rules are rarely broken.
Just yesterday, for instance, I was asking the parking ticket man for directions here in LA, and he told me he was going in the way I was headed, but due to liability reasons, was unable to give me a lift.
In Brazil, he would most certainly have bent the rules a little.
3. Be comfortable in your own skin.
On the beach, most of the gringos stand out like sore thumbs.
In addition to bringing towels (Brazilians use exclusively sarongs or “kangas” as they call them), they are the ones who are wearing much-too-conservative swimsuits.
For females, such bottoms are referred to by Brazilians as “diapers.” Because in Brazil, the smaller the swimsuit, the better.
In a country that celebrates the bum more than any other body part, Brazilian women like to show as much of their derrière's as possible.
Men mostly wear a small, looser versions of the speedo, called “sunga.” Male surfers stick to board shorts.
It is true that I never saw as many six-packs and bronzed, fit bodies as I did in Rio. It really is eye-candy galore.
But at the same time, I was shocked to see that people of all sizes and ages, both lounging on the beach and walking down the boardwalk, sported tiny swimsuits.
Older men with potbellies would strut their stuff wearing sungas. Very large women or women in their 80s would proudly wear tiny bikinis, not afraid of showing a bit of cellulite and wrinkles.
No matter age or size, all women wore bikinis to the beach. And, nobody around them judged.
In the US, I’ve found that women have so much shame when it comes to their bodies.
They tend to cover themselves up on the beach if they do not have the “perfect” body, as society defines it.
They never seem to be completely satisfied with their bodies: their thighs are too big, their stomachs too chubby, their arms enormous.
Anyone who has seen “Mean Girls” might remember the scene where the three girls are looking in the mirror and complaining about their little imperfections, almost as if it’s the “cool” thing to do.
It’s sad to me that this is pretty normal. Why do we spend so much time criticizing ourselves and bringing ourselves down when we should be doing just the opposite?
Why can’t we be happy with ourselves the way God made us?
Then, as women get older, they do everything in their power to try to look younger. Past a certain age, it becomes “inappropriate” to wear a bikini on the beach in the US.
But why? Getting older and getting wrinkles happens to everyone, so why should we act ashamed of this by covering up our bodies? This behavior simply promotes the idea that there is only one kind of beauty.
The beaches of Brazil taught me that we should try to rid ourselves of the foolish notion that there is only kind of beauty, and try to celebrate our bodies, no matter how they look.
When I first stepped foot on the beach of Rio, I was admittedly shy about revealing too much. I felt that with my fair skin, the Brazilian bikini just wouldn’t look right on me.
But by the end of my stay there, I had fully converted, even stocking up on Brazilian bikinis before I came back home. And now, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those “diapers.”
4. Turn that stranger into a friend.
Blame it on the warm weather or the beautiful surroundings. Whatever the reason, Brazilians are an extremely friendly and warm nationality. If you venture outside of the big, touristy cities (like Rio or São Paulo), this is especially true.
I remember walking with a Brazilian friend down the street in Rio and he stopped to ask someone for directions.
After the stranger pointed him in the right direction, he said goodbye and then said, “abracos" (hugs). In Brazil, this is how you end a conversation with a stranger. If it is a friend, you will say "beijos" (or "kisses").
5. Appreciate the little things.
The first time I stayed on the Rio beach until sunset, I noticed that as soon as the sun set, all of the beachgoers clapped, cheered and whistled.
It was unlike everything I had ever seen. Each time I stayed until sunset, the same thing happened, without fail. Here we all were, witnessing this everyday occurrence, and yet everyone was so appreciative of it, never taking the day or the stunning surroundings for granted.
6. Live in the moment.
On the beach, you will never see Brazilians reading or listening to music with headphones in their ears. It is actually a complete no-no to bring any sort of bag to the beach in Brazil.
This is because not only do you risk getting your bag stolen (the beaches in Rio are frequented by assaults and robberies on a regular basis), but also because Brazilians prefer to spend their time on the beach, socializing with friends or playing sports.
On Sundays and holidays, the boardwalk that runs parallel to the beach is lined with bands performing, while spectators stand by and dance, and joggers, skateboarders, bikers and dog-walkers casually stroll by.
The scene is unlike anything I had ever seen before. Witnessing this unique beach culture, I quickly discovered Brazilians readily entertain themselves by what is immediately surrounding them. They are experts at living in the moment.
7. Don't sweat the small stuff.
In Rio, it is not uncommon to see people in grocery stores or busses wearing nothing but their bathing suits. More than any other nationality I have encountered in my 28 years, Brazilians take the cake for being the most laid-back.
They are not so bothered by life’s little problems, like the bus running late or traffic. “Relaxa” (relax) or “fique tranquila” (chill out) are expressions that I heard often in Brazil.
If you look or sound the slightest bit stressed, the common Brazilian reaction is to immediately say "relax." This nationality is so relaxed that the word “stress” in Portuguese (“estresse”) is fairly new to the language.
It is actually originally derived from the English word; I think that pretty much says it all…