October 7, 2009

Meet Aaron Sundquist who spent the last few months in Brazil, and hopes to be returning again soon. Read the following interview in which he tells us about some of his most memorable experiences and gives some useful advice to newcomers.

1. Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, what do you do etc.?

My story is a brief one. I grew up all over the western United States moving, on average, every couple of years. At university I studied abroad for a year in Chile in 2004 and I fell in love with the challenges of living and learning abroad. I had hoped to make a visit to Brazil while in the region but it wasn’t financially feasible at the time. After graduating with degrees in Economics and International Studies I moved to Washington, DC in 2007 and began work as a cost-benefit analyst on a team of economists at a public policy research institute. After about a year in Washington, the dream to spend time in Brazil was still strong. But I had a slew of serious challenges-I had no knowledge of Portuguese, no savings and no way to earn income while in Brazil. I began to take steps to resolve those problems by enrolling in Portuguese courses and taking on independent consulting. A year later I spoke decent Portuguese, had a nice chunk of savings and a couple of freelance consulting contracts I could work on from Brazil.

2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro in April 2009. Rio offered the opportunity to pursue several different goals at the same time. First, I considered the opportunity to become fluent in Portuguese a valuable personal and professional investment. Very few Americans speak the language fluently even as Brazil’s role in the global economy continues to rapidly grow. Second, Rio allowed me to pursue my athletic aspirations to continue training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and, for the first time, to train in the sport’s global capital. Last, the decision to move to Brazil represented the first step in making a professional transition from public policy to the private sector. Naturally, the city’s reputation for fantastic climate, culture and people was a motivating factor as well.

Unfortunately, my tourist visa expired in late September so I’ve been back in Washington, DC for a couple weeks at the time of this interview. I’m working on a few projects here for now, though I intend to return to Brazil in five to six months.

3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?

Hospitality and kindness – an instant shock coming from Washington, DC. During the flight down to Brazil I met a Brazilian my age who was sitting next to me on the plane. Halfway through the flight he mentioned his father was picking him up from the airport and that they would be happy to give me a ride to where I was staying. They gave me a ride to Ipanema, even making a detour to have coconut water at the mirante (lookout), which offers a fantastic view of Rio’s Zona Sul. All of this despite the fact they lived in Niterói, an entirely different city located the opposite direction from Ipanema when leaving the airport. A week later I went to a soccer game with the guy’s family and his girlfriend. To this day he is still a close friend.

More first impressions-the urban cityscape of Rio’s Zona Sul backed by its natural landscape is a visually breathtaking phenomenon that will never be done justice by any photo. Also, Brazilians greatly appreciated and supported any efforts to learn Portuguese (Really, you studied Portuguese for a year before coming to Brazil?). This greatly facilitated my transition into a new culture, a new city and new friendships.

4. What do you miss most about home?

Family and friends, of course. At times I also missed the speed and ease with which products and services could be purchased and, if necessary, refunds sought. It once took me twenty minutes of convincing to get a refund for something I had purchased at a hardware store the previous day in Rio. Even then I was probably lucky I received the refund. Also, I missed American-style clothes washers and dryers and it came to me as a surprise that I missed the happy hour social scene we have in the U.S. too.

5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?

All of them stem from frustrations with Brazilian bureaucracy. The renewal of my tourist visa at three months was a headache. I followed the directions on their website and went to the Polcia Federal downtown. It turned out the website hadn’t been updated, and I was directed to the office at the international airport. Upon arriving I was informed the quota for visa renewals had already been filled and that I was to return the following day at 7AM. After waiting for several hours I was given a fine for not having my entry document with me. I had to cross the entire airport to pay the fine and the renewal fee at a different office that accepted cash only. The ATM network in the airport was down. I waited for it to come back online, paid the fine, took the proof of payment back to the Polcia Federal and finally received my renewed visa. The thought of purchasing property or starting a company in Brazil is, quite frankly, frightening.

6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific incident)?

During a six-week vacation from Rio I traveled in North and Northeastern Brazil. I was in the Lenois Maranhenses area of the state of Maranhão and I needed to travel from the tiny fishing village of Atins to the resort town of Jericoacoara in the state of Cear. Rather than backtracking to major cities I decided to travel down the coast from village to village, a venture that eventually involved at least eight different modes of transportation and two full days of travel. During one leg of my journey I hitchhiked in the back of a truck with seven other Brazilians local to the area. The only way to navigate a vehicle was on the hardened sand during low tide. The tide coincided with the setting sun as we stuck to the temporary highway between the ocean and the sand dunes characteristic of the area. Regional music blasted from the truck and I laughed and joked with the Brazilians as we sped across the sand and swerved to avoid driftwood. It was a surreal moment, one of perfect beauty and of simple humanity.

7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?

People are remarkably positive, open and friendly. I love the ease with which one can meet new people in almost any setting. Most of them will be just acquaintances. Some of them will be friends. And a few of them will change your life.

8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?

I have a strong affinity for sushi and Rio has an abundance of sushi restaurants. But my favorite is Sushi Leblon located, not surprisingly, in Leblon. The Brazilian-Japanese fusion is well balanced – the restaurant is one of the few in the area that serve sake in the traditional boxes rather than cups. The quality and presentation of the dishes are fantastic and the ambience is cosmopolitan and trendy without being over-pretentious. Also, during the weekends I’m drawn to roughly the halfway point between post 9 and post 10 at Ipanema beach. Friends and acquaintances are always coming and going and it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet new people.

9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?

As I was going through security to leave Brazil I greeted the airport security guard. He asked me to remove the laptop from my backpack. I told him I also had a large camera if he would like to inspect that as well. As I struggled to remove the items from my bag we made small talk. When I walked through the metal detector he casually noted that he nearly spoke English to me when I approached because he thought I was a foreigner (i.e. a non-Brazilian). I smiled and said, I am, sir, I am”. It wasn’t the first time I was mistaken for Brazilian despite my blonde hair and blue eyes. But as I left the surprised security guard behind I knew I had come a long way in six months, I knew I had achieved my goal.

10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?

Respect and common decency, especially among strangers. This might sound ironic given Rio’s reputation for violence but existing alongside that violence is a culture of respect. Strangers say good morning to one another and people are generally helpful. I was never mugged in Rio and I think that was due largely to respect by association. The would-be muggers knew I had several friends and acquaintances throughout several neighborhoods and, as a result, they left me alone. Brazilians are remarkably observant. In contrast, respect among strangers seems rare on the East coast in the U.S. My first day back in Washington two strangers boarded the bus and promptly began screaming expletives at one another.

11. How is your Portuguese coming along? What words do you find most difficult to pronounce/remember or are there any words that you regularly confuse?

My Portuguese is coming along very well. A year of formal study before moving to Brazil helped tremendously to form a foundation in the language. When I eventually arrived in Brazil it was just a matter of inserting new words and working to diminish my accent. Obviously, I can’t list the parts of a car or all of the human organs in Portuguese and I also still occasionally confuse words in Portuguese with their Spanish counterparts.

12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?

Invest some time in studying the language before you go. You will be rewarded no matter your aspirations in Brazil or how long you intend to stay. You simply can’t go wrong. Brazilians feel respected when you try to learn their language before visiting and respect begets respect.

13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?

I’m more familiar with Rio de Janeiro, so I’ll stick to what I know. Find a nice place to stay in the Zona Sul that isn’t Copacabana. Visit the seriously underrated Parque Lage in the Jardim Botnico neighborhood. Take a trip up to Pão de Aucar (Sugarloaf) a couple hours before sunset on a clear day. And, last, if you happen to be in Rio on the first Friday of the month don’t miss the live jazz and the beautiful view at The Maze, located in the (safe) favela behind the Catete neighborhood.

You can contact Aaron via sund7600@gmail.com.

Are you a foreigner who has lived in, or is living or travelling in Brazil? Are you a Brazilian who has a lot of contact with foreigners and/or lived outside of Brazil? Are you interested in telling your story? If you would like to volunteer for our interview series, or if you would like to recommend someone, please send a blank email to gringoes@www.gringoes.com with “Interview” in the subject. We will send you the interview questions by return email.

To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:

Jay Bauman – USA
Alan Williams – USA
Derek Booth – UK
Jim Shattuck – USA
Ruby Souza – Hawaii
Stephan Hughes – Trinidad and Tobago
Louis van der Wiele – Holland
Drew Glaser – USA
Barry Elliott – Canada
Joel Barsky – USA
David Drummond – Canada
Liam Porisse – France
Jim Kelley – USA
Max Ray – USA
Jeremy Clark – Canada
Don Fredrick – USA
Jase Ramsey – USA
Ben Pearce – UK
Nitai Panchmatia – India
Johnnie Kashat – USA
Jeni Bonorino – USA
Eric Jones – USA
Bill Martin – UK
Bernard Morris – USA
John Graves – USA
Deepak Sapra – India
Alison McGowan – UK
Brent Gregory – USA
R Dub – USA
Tara Bianca – USA
Jack Hurley – USA
James Woodward – Canada
Tony O’Sullivan – Ireland
Anna Belavina – Russia
Jim Kirby – USA
Linda Halverstadt – USA
Michelle Monteiro – USA
Chris Mensah – UK
David Sundin – USA
Stephanie Glennon – USA
Julien Porisse – France
Hans Keeling – USA
Jim Adams – USA
Richard Murison – USA
Will Periam – UK
Jan Sandbert – Sweden
Jim Jones – USA
Mike Stricklin – USA
Edward Gowing – Australia
Adrian Woods – USA
Kevin Raub – USA
Pierpaolo Ciarcianelli – Italy
Zachary Heilman – USA
David Johnson – Bermuda
Cipriana Leme – Argentina
Timothy Bell – USA
Patti Beckert – USA
Timothy Bell – USA
Paul James – USA
David McLoughlin – Ireland
Pat Moraes – USA
Richard Dougherty – USA
James Weeds – USA
Tom Sluberski – USA
Peter Kefalas – USA
Sylvie Campbell – UK
Kathleen Haynes – USA
Matt Bowlby – USA
Alan Longbottom – UK
Eric Karukin – USA
Eddie Soto – USA
Kieran Gartlan – Ireland
Bryan Thomas Scmidt – USA
Emile Myburgh – South Africa
Bob Chapman – USA
David Barnes – USA
John Milan – USA
Chris Coates – UK
Matthew Ward – UK
Allison Glick – USA
Drake Smith – USA
Jim Jones – USA
Philip Wigan – UK
Atlanta Foresyth – USA
Lee Gordon – USA
Carmen Naidoo – South Africa
Lee Safian – USA
Laurie Carneiro – USA
Dana De Lise – USA
Richard Gant – USA
Robin Hoffman – USA
Wayne Wright – UK
Walt Kirspel – USA
Priya Guyadeen – Guyana
Caitlin McQuilling – USA
Nicole Rombach – Holland
Steven Engler – Canada
Richard Conti – USA
Zak Burkons – USA
Ann White – USA
Monde Ngqumeya – South Africa
Johnny Sweeney – USA
David Harty – Canada
Bill McCrossen – USA
Peter Berner – Switzerland/Brazil
Ethan Munson – USA
Solveig Skadhauge – Denmark
Sean McGown – USA
Condrad Downes – UK
Jennifer Silva – Australian
Justin Mounts – USA
Elliott Zussman – USA
Jonathan Abernathy – USA
Steve Koenig – USA
Kyron Gibbs – USA
Stephanie Early – USA
Martin Raw – UK
Sean Coady – UK
Hugo Delgado – Mexico
Sean Terrillon – Canada
Jessie Simon – USA
Michael Meehan – USA
Thales Panagides – Cyprus
Tammy Montagna – USA
Samantha Tennant – England
Ron Finely – United States
Bob Duprez – United States
Peter Baines – England
Youssef Bouguerra – Tunisia
Van Wallach – USA
Lesley Cushing – England
Alexander von Brincken – Germany
Hank Avellar – USA
Ed Catchpole – England
Penny Freeland – England
Yasemin de Pinto – Turkey
Amy Williams Lima – USA
John Naumann – England
Marsye Schouella – Eygpt
Rita Shannon Koeser – USA
John Fitzpatrick – Scotland
Liam Gallagher – Northern Ireland
Lorelei Jones – England
Adam Glensy – England
Tommie C.B. DeAssis – Japan
Aaron Day – Canada
Graham Debney – New Zealand
Silke Tina Tischendorf – Germany
Tanya Keshavjee Macedo – Canada
Frank de Meijer – Holland
Carl Emberson – Australia
Kim Buarque – Wales
Damiano Pak – South Korea
Jonas Helding – Denmark
Pari Seeber – Iran
John Milton – England
Ken Marshall – Australia

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply