#7 Tragedy averted&other tales of survival in Brazil

Updated: Jul 8

We’ve been in Brazil for ten weeks, the midway point of our five-month adventure. We've effectively settled into our new way of living. The comings and goings of life in a foreign country have become routine. I actually think it will be a readjustment to return home in two and a half months. I can already foresee what things might surprise us.


It reminds me of when I was in Army basic training. The first few weeks were a shock to the system. A regular day in basic training is as opposite as it gets to just about anyone's typical day, but after a few weeks, you adapt. I remember early in basic training one of my drill sergeants telling (more like yelling at) us that as foreign as basic training seemed at the moment, by the time we left, we would be begging for more. Well on the day I graduated from basic training I can tell you that I wasn't begging anyone to let me stay, but my drill sergeant wasn’t entirely wrong either. I had become so accustomed to the bizarre routines of basic training that it felt odd to suddenly leave them behind. It took some time to readjust to non-basic training life. I think the same may happen when we return to the U.S.


But we still have half the journey ahead of us, and the learning continues. As I write these words, I’m sitting at home at the dining room table, but normally I’d be at school having just wrapped up a guitar lesson. Why am I home? It’s a holiday, Corpus Christi or Body of Christ. Not only is Brazil a Catholic country, but it has the largest population of Catholics in the world. Corpus Christi is a celebration of the emblems of Christ’s crucifixion. My church doesn’t celebrate Corpus Christi, but a good deal of other Christian denominations around the world do. It falls roughly two months after Easter, always on a Thursday, at least in Brazil. That’s why the university is closed. Not everything is closed. Supermarkets, drugstores, malls, etc., are open. It’s a big business day for them, because so many people are off from work. But official entities like federal universities and government offices have the day off.


As Catholic as Brazil is, there are other religions here in Uberlândia and across the country. They represent a much smaller percentage of religions comparatively with Catholicism, but they certainly have a presence. For example, just across the street from our apartment is the Igreja Batista Liberdade, or Liberty Baptist Church. Down the street is the Church of the Seventh Day Adventist. Our church building is a few miles away in the Tibery neighborhood. These are not mammoth structures like the São Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral, which we saw while we were in São Paulo a couple of months ago. Rather they are small houses of worship tucked in between homes and apartment buildings in the middle of a neighborhood. Some are so nondescript that you might almost miss them.

Sāo Paulo Metropolitan Cathedral, the 43rd largest church building in the world


This sandwiching of buildings is characteristic of Brazilian architecture, and I’ve noticed it in most of the cities I’ve been to here. In addition, homes are walled or gated in and often lined with barbed wire. This is the reality of life in Brazil. Criminals take advantage of even small breaches in security, so one can’t be too protective. The result is that homes are blocked from view, which is too bad, because some of them are quite beautiful. So as you walk through a neighborhood, you just see apartment buildings and walls. It can feel a little impersonal, but it’s understandable given the circumstances.

While it is the largest Catholic country in the world, Brazil is home to other religions. Here in Uberlândia, nestled snugly into our neighborhood: top, our church building, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; bottom left, Liberty Baptist Church; bottom right, Seventh Day Adventist Church.


There are other unintended consequences of the security measures. For example, apartment buildings and homes have garages that open directly onto the street. There is no driveway separating the garage from the street. You are literally inches from a garage as you pass it on the sidewalk, and there’s often a blind spot, so you can’t see the garage door opening as you pass. The driver opens the garage door with a remote, so if the timing is just right (or wrong), and you happen to walk past a garage door as someone is pulling out, you could get hit. That has nearly happened to me several times, but this past week was just too close.


I had barely begun my walk when I heard a roar emanating from the garage door of the apartment building next door. It was only because I’ve been here for a couple of months that I recognized what was happening. It all transpired in a split second. I halted just in time to see the driver bolting out in reverse. If this had been on one of my running days-- in other words, if I had passed the garage at a faster rate-- I would have been hit. There was zero hesitation on the part of the driver. No gradual backing out. No presumption that there could have been someone passing by. The sidewalks are full of folks carrying shopping bags, children on their way to school, and people walking their dogs, which makes it unfathomable that drivers aren’t more cautious. I admit, hypocritically, that I've been one of those less cautious drivers and pulled out without thinking that there might be someone on the sidewalk, so I’m just as guilty. It’s a habit learned through the culture or at least through a lack of attention.

The scene of a near-tragedy. Far right, the edge of the garage door where a car

backing out out almost ran me over.


Now there are upsides to this architecture. As I was walking into the Institute of the Arts building at UFU one night this past week, I heard applause. Curious, I gingerly followed it into Camargo Guarnieri Hall to see a student recital in full swing. Like the parking garages, the theater essentially opens out onto the street. You enter into what might be considered a small informal lobby connected directly to the seats. I stood in this lobby for a little bit to check out the music. The mild weather here in Brazil enables this open type of thing to happen, and were it not for this architectural design, I would not have known a recital was happening and would not have stopped in. I imagine many of the people in the audience were in the same boat. If nothing else, it’s an effective, if unintended, marketing technique.

A student recital in Camargo Guarnieri Hall at UFU. The applause emanating out into the street drew me in.


On the weekend, we attended a church event for Dia dos Namorados, or Lovers Day, June 12. It’s Brazil’s Valentine’s Day. While it doesn’t have quite the same Hallmark-fueled commercialization of Valentine’s Day in the U.S., it’s still a big deal. Candy, flowers, and the like are all part of the holiday. I was out for an early morning walk on Dia dos Namorados and saw a woman picking blossoms off the plants on the medians, which I imagine became a bouquet for her sweetheart.

A couples event for Dias das Namorados, Brazil's version of Valentine's Day


The church event featured speakers who spoke on the theme of maintaining a healthy relationship with your spouse. Refreshments followed. Among them was “caldo,” essentially a type of Brazilian soup. There were two caldos, a chicken and a bean. Both were homemade, served from giant metal tubs. They were delish! A small bowl of reddish liquid sat next to the caldo, a mixture of spices you could add to the caldo. Not too much, though, because that sucker has a kick! Spiciness is not really typical of Brazilian food, so this was a surprise.

A bowl of caldo de frango, chicken broth-soup. The red and orange flecks are part of a spicy mix I added to the caldo that cleared out my sinuses.


As unique as many things are to Brazilian culture, there is an enormous amount of Americanization in Brazil. Many English words have crept into Portuguese— ok, super, internet, design, and a ton more. Now this is not so unusual. Languages do this. English has incorporated many French and Spanish words into everyday usage. What is interesting to me is how certain English phrases have found their way into advertising. These words have a Portuguese equivalent but are written in English. It's particularly intriguing, because Brazil has a very low population of English speakers. So if you’re a business trying to attract customers with catchy slogans, then printing them in a language few people understand might backfire. Phrases like self-service, food truck, and steakhouse are found on restaurants throughout the city. At the mall there are stores with English names: Authentic Feet, Tennis One, Aramis Menswear, Star, Hera Beauty. These are big, bold letters, permanently emblazoned on walls and windows. Folks are not messing around. Even the Portuguese word for mall, "shopping," is an English word, and the mall we frequent is called Center Shopping, a completely English phrase in a completely non-English speaking country.


I suppose the permanence of these phrases on storefronts suggests a certain acceptance and usage of them in everyday Brazilian Portuguese. Perhaps they have entered the international lexicon, and more people understand them than I’m giving them credit for. Or maybe it's what more than one Brazilian has told me: Brazilians don't value their own culture, and all things American are seen as the pinnacle of modern living. So using English words in advertising may be a way to convey modernization or refinement, which may ultimately attract customers. It’s another of those interesting quirks that I discover as I continue diving into a culture that, despite what some Brazilians may think, is indeed wonderful.

A shoe store at the Center Shopping mall boasting an all English-language slogan on its display window


Last week we also went to a place called Praia Clube. There are several “clubes” here in Uberlandia. I think Praia Clube is the largest. Most of the people I've met here belong to a clube. They're similar to American country clubs but marketed to a broader socioeconomic clientele. They're also considerably larger with more amenities. Praia Clube is sprawling. There’s a river running through the center of it with just about everything you can think of on either side (see video). It's a country club/resort/themepark/sports complex/shopping center all rolled into one. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. except maybe at Disney World.

Praia Clube, Uberlândia's largest country club, an oasis in the middle of the city


Our kids swam and played tennis and basketball. In between, they grabbed meals and snacks from the shops. It was an all-day affair, which is how Brazilians do their clubes. One of my students told me that if he’s not at school or work, he’s at the clube. It’s a thing.


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