Brazilian Culture Clashes Under the Hood 🇧🇷

This post offers a glimpse into my forthcoming travel memoir after three years of cultural yin and yang across Brazil and the rest of South America. Any suggestions for publishers? Contact me!

 

We stopped at a red light, where a man with two kids hesitated at the curb. He tilted his head and mouthed ‘Paraguay,’ his gaze fixed on our license plate. As the light turned green, we drove past, the man squinting after us.

People pointed, waved or just stared. I enjoyed the attention, being in Brazil, showing that we’ve come a long way. Paraguay is not a big camper nation. That’s why that day we planned on buying the necessary outdoor gear that we couldn’t find in Paraguay. 

I grabbed some change to get my morning coffee at a small bakery while Paul parked in the second row. “Where are you from?” the young girl asked. “We live in Paraguay,” I said. “Why?” The girl answered with a compassionate smile. She slid the cup across the counter, nodding. Then she raised her hand in a dismissive wave rejecting my money.  “They gave me free coffee!” I told Paul with a huge smile. ”Why?” he asked. “I think she really loved Paraguay.”

 

Stocking up on Outdoor Gear in Brazil

At the outdoor store we found some useful equipment, such as a double bed air mattress, an electric air pump, and a foldable table, getting us one step closer to being self-sufficient campers. “You’re going camping?” the salesman asked, while demonstrating the table. “We are overlanders,” I told him. I wasn’t sure if he had ever heard of overlanding, so I added, “We started in Paraguay and now want to explore all the countries in South America.” “You need a good car,” he said.

We stored our new equipment in the trunk, nestled between all the other bags, and were pleased with how perfectly it fit. Despite the occasional bump and pothole on the road, nothing moved around loosely. We weren’t too far from the next campground, where we would finally try out our new gear. 

 

Driving a Japanese Paraguayan Car in Brazil

I leaned out the window and watched the small shops, often housed in adjacent garages, pass by. Ahead, at the intersection, a man juggled a soccer ball with his knees. I pushed the window switch, but it didn’t move.

 

 

I tried again and again; the window was stuck. Paul reached over to push and pull the button while I waved apologetically at the street soccer player. “We need to fix this,” he said as he slammed his foot down on the gas pedal. I tried to push the switch softly, then hard, then with encouraging words as if it could hear me. Nothing worked. We love our Toyota dearly and often praise or pat it, but this time it seemed like it was getting cold feet before our first camping adventure.

 

 

Our Toyota Landcruiser, originally from Japan, was designed for left-side traffic. After its import to South America, where people drive on the right, the interior was converted and the steering wheel put on the other side. I once even found a 50 Yen coin in—my lucky day. Today, unfortunately, was not that day. 

 

 

“I remember a repair shop a few streets back!” I said. We made a quick U-turn and searched for the mechanic’s shop. We entered a short driveway in front of a garage with an open gate and big hand-painted letters on the wall, proclaiming “Auto Elétrica”.

 

At the Mechanic’s Garage

While Paul used a mix of Spanish and Portuguese to explain to the mechanic what was wrong with our window switch, I glanced around the dusty garage; the distinct scent of freshly-cut metal lingering in the air. The owner had arranged his garage so it could fit one car in the center, and multiple self-tailored shelves filled with tools on one side. I noticed an open door leading into a kitchen. 

The rest of the interior bursted with red and black displays of soccer memorabilia, all dedicated to a team known as “Flamengo”. It reminded me of the attire of the street soccer artist earlier. Although I had never heard of Flamengo before, it seemed to hold a special place in the mechanic’s heart who was showcasing posters of players mixed with Jesus statues and crucifixes. 

The mechanic said he knew a trustworthy guy, and made a call. Soon after, a moto taxi driver showed up. I recognized his Flamengo jersey. He said he could get us a new window switch for the equivalent of 10 dollars. We gave him the money and he drove off to a store. 

I love the flexibility of people in South America. If they don’t have something, they’ll make sure they get it for you. But we also knew it was going to be a bit of a wait, so we made ourselves comfortable in our front seats. 

 

And the Waiting Begins

The mechanic inspected the inside of the car door where the new switch would be installed. He then chuckled and pointed at a safety sticker with Japanese letters on it. “Sim, japonês,” Paul confirmed in Portuguese. The mechanic looked around the car saying something like “Paraguai e japonês, nossa!” and scratched his head. He then grinned at Paul and gestured towards his soccer wall of fame. Paul, who’s not a big soccer fan, smiled back but didn’t say anything. 

When I asked for the bathroom, he escorted me towards the door inside the house, but paused when he noticed his guitar lying on the kitchen table. He gave me a thumbs up, and I responded with a thumbs up. 

It had been an hour that we were sitting in silence with the mechanic. It felt pretty awkward. I felt bad that we could barely communicate. Then the motorbike from earlier arrived showing us the new part he got. Paul looked critical when the mechanic attempted to fit it in the car. It was too small. 

We tried to make him understand that maybe he should go back to the shop with a photo of the old broken part. He was nodding in agreement and a thumbs up, took a photo and raced off. 

 

The Brazilian Village

I walked up and down the street to get some exercise and look at the neighboring houses. Most had brick facades, while some were painted in vibrant blue or pink. I wondered what all those red plastic chairs in front of the houses were for. Our mechanic’s garage blended seamlessly into the row of homes, except Paul sitting in one of the chairs, his head resting heavily in his hands.

I was relieved when I saw the driver returning, but it turned out he just needed more money for that part we wanted. 

Squinting, I observed two donkeys tethered to the ground with a stick in the sand. Within their limited radius, they searched for rare blades of grass. Amidst the chirring of cicadas, the distant rumble of a motorbike stirred hope, always blending back into the relentless hum.

 

 

The driver returned with the new, more expensive part, but it turned out to be too big. “No problem,” the mechanic reassured, suggesting he trim it with a saw. I didn’t know much about car electrics, but the idea didn’t sound professional. As Paul engaged in deeper conversation with the mechanic, I was surprised at how proficient his Portuguese sounded when discussing serious matters. With shops closing for the day and our car window still unable to close, he really had to come up with a solution now. 

 

Let’s get to Work!

Paul stood by the mechanic, observing every move as he worked with the saw on our switch. After cutting off a portion, the mechanic paused, signaling that he wasn’t done yet. He sneezed a couple of times, waving his arms around him. Within five minutes, his sneezes were so out of control, nobody could say a word anymore. The mechanic paced around the car, away from Paul, sneezing with every step and making intimidating arm movements, all the while emitting a weird scream.

I had a feeling I knew what he was allergic to, so I told Paul to come sit with me while we let him calm down. Moments later, he emerged from the kitchen with his guitar, launching into a song. “Is he serious?” Paul looked at me in disbelief. He got up and signaled for the musician mechanic to stop and please finish our car. The mechanic responded with a noncommittal “Amanhã,” meaning tomorrow, but that was unacceptable. With the night approaching, we couldn’t afford to leave our window open. The mechanic brought some wires and closed the window without the switch. We couldn’t open it anymore until someone would fix it, but at least it was closed for the night.

He told us that he would take care of it tomorrow and would only charge us 100 reais (20 dollars). We agreed to pay him tomorrow. He sneezed but gave us a thumbs up, then grabbed his guitar to resume playing.

“Should we pay him half today, and half tomorrow?” I asked Paul when getting in the car. “He gets paid when he finishes his work,” he answered. 

 

A Campground in Brazil

The guard who collected the nightly fee at the campground looked sleepy and had to step back when Paul opened the door instead of the window. Floodlights illuminated the camp area. We had never converted the car for sleeping inside, so we tested multiple ways of organizing our luggage while ensuring we had enough space to sleep. After some trial and error, we figured out the best setup.

 

 

We folded down both rear rows, squeezing some non-essential camping gear in between.

 

 

Next, we inflated our air mattress and positioned it on top of the folded back rows, leaving little space beneath the ceiling.

 

 

The remaining luggage we placed on the front seats. Our setup reminded me of a Japanese capsule hotel. Once inside, we found ourselves unable to sit up or change clothes comfortably.

 

 

 

Crawling out of the car also required some finesse of twisting and turning while lying down, slowly inching my legs forward and sliding out the side door tumbling down on the grass below. I was glad I didn’t have to do that stunt in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Paul, being a big guy, attempted to exit through the car door as well. After some audible moans of discomfort, Paul eventually emerged through the narrow opening of the door on the other side.

 

 

I did feel observed when I noticed the only other campers watching us and cracking up. It was an older couple, waving at me to come join them. 

 

 

Friendly Gestures in Brazil

The couple offered me breakfast consisting of coffee with some kind of sweetener, couscous and papaya. One of the sweetest gestures I had experienced. It turned out Wilhelm was German and his wife Luciana Brazilian. They live up the coast but like to go camping from time to time. Their motivation to talk to us was clear.

“You sleep in there?”

“You poor people have nothing!”

“Here, take our food.”

 

 

Wilhelm, a retiree from Germany with a dry sense of humor, stood in contrast to his wife Luciana, a spark of joy who spoke to me in Portuguese as if I understood every word. She was wearing a colorful elegant hat, sunglasses, and a blouse. Taking my arm, she led me to the surrounding trees, sharing stories about different fruits and inviting us to visit them in Bahia.

Meanwhile, I observed Wilhelm and Paul engaging in a serious conversation, with Wilhelm becoming increasingly passionate about the topic. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between ourselves and the older couple. I actually wanted to be like Luciana, who seemed to deal with her partner’s moods gracefully. Even if Paul wouldn’t have liked to hear it, I did notice similarities between him and Wilhelm, both enjoying deep conversations and debates.

 

Food in Brazil

Luciana wanted to show us açaí, a dark purple fruit native to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. “We would love to, but we need to go to the mechanic,” I told them. Wilhelm and Luciana agreed to come with us.

When we arrived at the mechanic’s garage, the gate was closed. We knocked and called out, but nobody answered. Luciana thought he would open up for her if she called out in Portuguese, but we would never see that guy again. Fortunately, the next day, we managed to find the missing part ourselves.

In the meantime, Luciana was eager to show us the Brazilian power food açaí­. We walked along a busy street with one restaurant after the other. Luciana asked the greeter in front of the first restaurant if they had açaí­. With a welcoming grin he ushered us inside.

At the table Paul and Wilhelm were talking about the mechanic. “I wish he had told us before that he can’t do the job,” Paul said. “They are so eager to help you but then actually inconvenience you because they can’t follow through,” Wilhelm answered. Paul seemed to find understanding in his new friend, who shared his views on accountability.

When the waiter arrived, Luciana ordered two large bowls of açaí­. “Não tem,” the waiter responded. Wilhelm slammed both palms onto the table. “They don’t have açaí?” Luciana reached out, smiling and touching his shoulder as though calming an irate child. “Oh, Willi…”

 

Alemães in Brazil

I ordered black coffee without sugar. Luciana looked at me surprised. “No sugar?” A few minutes later the waiter returned and I took a sip, only to discover it had been sweetened.

“There is sugar in it,” I informed the waiter.

“Just a little bit,” he responded promptly.

Wilhelm and Paul exchanged glances, shaking their heads.

“De onde eles são?” The waiter asked Luciana where we were from when he took away my full cup of coffee. 

“Alemão,” she said. Before I could correct her, I heard the waiter behind the kitchen curtain calling out, “Alemão, alemão.” 

 

“Why do you live in Paraguay?” Luciana asked us. “It’s much nicer here.” 

If we wanted to hang out with other gringos, she said, she knows two befriended cacao farmers who speak Alemão too!

 

How does it continue? This was one chapter of my forthcoming travel memoir.

Any suggestions for publishers? Contact me!

 

 

 

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