November 23, 2007

Meet Hans Keeling, from the USA, who first visited Brazil in 2004 and then moved here and setup a business. Read the following interview where he tells us about some of his most memorable experiences from Brazil and gives some useful advice to newcomers.

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

I grew up in Northern California with a love for sports, the outdoors, travel (my mom being from Austria, our family traveled quite a bit when I was younger) and foreign culture. I studied economics and environmental sciences in college, graduating from Stanford University in 1998, after which I moved to Los Angeles and went to law school, graduating from the UCLA School of Law in 2001. Have invested so much time, energy and money in my academic career up until that date, I took the logical next step and took a job with a top international law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, where I worked from 1999-2004. While I had a great experience working as a corporate lawyer, focused primarily on mergers & acquisitions and corporate finance transactions, I soon realized the lifestyle was not for me in the long run. I managed to travel a lot during my work, including stints in Europe and Asia, so knew that I would love to do something overseas whatever my next step might be.

Toward the end of 2003 I was contemplating several job opportunities (still traditional ones, in corporate law and finance) in Europe and Dubai (Middle East) when by chance a long time dream of mine came true – a New Year’s vacation with several friends to Brazil, a country I had long dreamed of visiting and was super curious to see for myself.

What I saw exceeded my already high expectations, and I was literally blown away by the wonderful culture and warmth of the people. It was such a contrast to the world I was accustomed to up until that time – lawyers, accountants and investment bankers overworked and overstressed, with tons of money and material things, but for the most, unfulfilled and not happy with their lives.

To the contrary, the Brazilians I met during that first fateful visit to Rio and Buzios for New Years of 2004 were healthy, happy, relaxed, living life passionately and enjoying the moment. It was such a breath of fresh air for me, that I knew I wanted more. I returned to the US on Sunday evening, and Monday morning walked back into work and gave 3 weeks notice. It was quite a shock for many around me, co-workers, colleagues, family, etc., as I had always been the achievement oriented type and many read this as he’s giving up”. I didn’t see it that way, I just figured out that I wanted something different from my life. I didn’t know exactly what it was yet, and many thought I was nuts for quitting a “prestigious” and secure job without having a plan, but I figured I’d worked my butt off for a long time now, been smart and saved up some reserve funds, and owed myself a bit of time to unwind, reclaim my life, and then go about figuring out next steps with a clear head.

But one thing was certain, I wanted my next steps to involve Brazil and more of that feeling of exhilaration and truly living life that I’d felt those first fateful 10 days on vacation in Rio.

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

I arrived in Brazil full time in September of 2005.

I took about 6 months off after quitting my job in Los Angeles to travel, explore options, get back in shape, etc. I turned over every stone imaginable trying to find work in Brazil, but it was very difficult I discovered for foreigners to get jobs and work visas in Brazil. Not to mention my Portuguese at the time consisted of about 10-15 words that I’d picked up on vacation while on the beach.

After about 4 months of searching to no avail, I finally came across a lead – a friend of mine at another law firm mentioned there was a Brazilian lawyer doing an exchange program of sorts, 6 months in the US, to gain experience and bolster her resume. I checked with my old law firm, with whom I maintained strong ties, and sure enough, they had on various occasions accepted foreign guest associates from Brazil’s top law firm, Pinheiro Neto Advogados. Eagerly I worked backwards and found some contacts in Pinheiro Neto’s Rio office (their São Paulo office was 10 times the size and a much more logical choice, but I already knew that I was doing this more for the experience of living and working in Brazil than for the career bolstering, so Rio was my aim). Sure enough, while they had never accepted a foreign associate in return from the US (not many US lawyers apparently are eager to go work in Brazil for a 10th of the salary;), they were eager to meet me and set up an interview. So in no time I was back on a plane to Brazil, interviewed for the job, and the rest was history.

I had a great experience at the Brazilian law firm. 95% of my work was in English, working with foreign companies investing in Brazil, so luckily the language barrier wasn’t too much of an issue. But all the same I worked super hard to improve my Portuguese, and after a few months I was already able to get by with basic conversation pretty well. I got to work on a lot of interesting transactions and had a much bigger role than I would have had back in the US, where I would have been one of the more junior of many well educated, highly trained, lawyers on the totem pole hierarchy that makes up most major international law firms. In Brazil on the other hand, I was the only US born, US trained lawyer with major deal experience, so my opinions were truly valued.

However, after about 6 months, the same yearnings and frustrations began to set in again. The work was fairly similar, and the business model of the law firm was fairly similar to that to which I was used to back home. I had now practiced law on 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and South America), and it was safe to say by now, it was not for me.

At this point, I reached a very difficult crossroads in my life – I loved Brazil and wanted to stay longer, however my career and all things “rational” dictated that I would return to the US after this brief hiatus and get back on track for “big things”. I opted to take a risk and stay in Brazil, following a dream for a new tourism sector business that I’d dreamed up along with a few friends during a recent friend’s bachelor party. We were a group of young professionals, many of whom had taken up the sport of surfing recently and fallen in love with it, who wanted to take a vacation that would mix great surf with fun nightlife and culture, and allow us to stay in a nice place (as opposed to many traditional surf camps that are off in the middle of nowhere with great waves but little else to offer). When we couldn’t find what we were after (it seemed it didn’t exist), it dawned on me that this would be a great opportunity to launch a new business that would unite many of the things I loved the most – traveling and discovering new foreign cultures, outdoor sports, nightlife, and of course Brazilian culture.

In the meanwhile, during all my travels in Brazil (I tried to see as much of the country as possible while working in Rio), I came across one place that stood out head and shoulders from the rest – the island of Florianopolis in the south of Brazil (Santa Catarina State). It struck me that this would be the perfect location for this new adventure travel company that I’d dreamed about, so against all odds was born Nexus Surf (www.nexussurf.com). The launch and growth of the company have been another adventure altogether which I’ll save for another day (otherwise this interview will get way too long!!:), but suffice it to say that I’ve never been as happy or as fulfilled as I am now with my professional life, despite the fact I certainly work more now than I used to as a lawyer (which wasn’t my initial goal when moving to Brazil, but what are you going to do?).

3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?

Much of this I addressed already above, but to recap, for me it was love at first sight. A country and a people that prided themselves on music, celebration, dance, sports, love of the beach and sun worshipping, festivals, etc. – what wasn’t to love? The vibrant, passionate and good natured approach to life characteristic of so many Brazilians was a joy for me to see. With so many people in the US stressed and constantly worrying about things in the future that in reality don’t make a huge difference one way or the other (say a promotion or a new car), it was truly refreshing for me to see how the Brazilians really were able to focus and live life in the moment (perhaps a bit too much, which might explain why they’re always late, but that’s another story as well;).

4. What do you miss most about home?

Without a doubt, friends and family, though luckily living in “paradise” I get lots of visitors, most important of which are my parents, both of whom are now retired and fortunately have the good health and time to travel and come to see me.

Aside from that, pretty much just reasonably priced electronics and cars (the latter being a bigger deal than the former, as not so feasible to ask a friend to bring for you in his/her suitcase;).

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

Doing business in Brazil is quite different than vacationing here as a tourist, and you get to see a few things which prove the old saying that “no place is perfect”.

One the one hand there’s the bureaucracy, which sometimes seems so ridiculous that it often passes the point of frustrating and becomes humorous (if you don’t have a good sense of humor, then I wouldn’t even advise you to think of ever doing business in Brazil!).

On a more personal note, I was sad to learn that many Brazilians don’t trust in others very easily. Perhaps from being burned in the past, or perhaps from the institutional presumption that you’re “guilty until proven innocent”, but it’s a bit frustrating for someone from the US to see how many things don’t happen that should simply b/c of a lack of trust.

A very simple example that sticks in my mind sums up both of these frustrations. The first time I tried to rent a movie in Brazil and wanted to open a new rental account I was told I couldn’t do so because I did not bring a “compravante de residencia”, or proof of residence. I was a bit confused, b/c in the US, no one cares where you live, they just assume you live somewhere, and that’s not really relevant to something like a movie rental account. But apparently here I wasn’t worthy until I proved with a piece of paper that I actually in fact lived somewhere (as opposed to under the bridge somewhere?). My offers of leaving 10 times the value of the movie with them as a deposit or putting down all my credit card information for them to charge me any late or non-return fees went on deaf ears.

The next month I returned to the store, emboldened by my Xerox copy of my light bill (which of course took a while to get transferred to my name from the previous owner of my house), and confident that I soon would be worthy of once again watching DVD’s in the comfort of my own home.

Only to be told that the copy wouldn’t do b/c it wasn’t “authenticated”, as if they assumed that I would be the type of person (aka, criminal) who would forge documents just to open up an account. Another trip wasted, I was off to the local “cartorio”, a wonderfully Brazilian creation which is like a notary public on steroids. A lot of steroids. I had to wait in line for 30 minutes just to take a new photocopy of my light bill with a very official looking stamp on it. Only now was I in full compliance with all the bureaucracy required of the situation (which I mistakenly some 5 weeks ago had assumed would be a simple matter of putting down a credit card and renting a movie!), and bearer of an “official” stamp of approval that I was indeed not a fraud.

Ahhh, Brazil. Remember what I said about the sense of humor right? ;)

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

My most memorable experience in Brazil would have to be my first New Years Eve, 2004, spent in Rio de Janeiro. It was such a tremendous contrast to anything I had ever seen or known before, to see 3 million people, all dressed in white and celebrating in total harmony, jumping into the water at midnight, throwing white roses into the ocean in an offering of good fortunes, all beneath the most incredible fireworks show I had ever seen in my life.

If I wasn’t already won over by Brazilian flair and culture, this night was the crowned jewel for my early Brazilian experiences.

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

I love the fact that Brazil is still a developing country, with so much potential and such a bright future. Many Brazilians look at me like I’m crazy for leaving a nice part of California to come live here, wondering why I would leave behind the established global economic superpower that is the US. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, b/c to me, the fact that in Brazil there is still so much room to grow and so much to improve is exciting. Being in Beverly Hills or Marin County everything is already done, I’m not needed any longer! But here, I feel like I can still play a positive role in how the community is shaped, which is kind of exciting.

Then of course there’s the people, and their open, warm and fun-loving way, that’s hard to beat as well. The only place I’ve been that compares is Italy (though perhaps that’s because I’m in southern Brazil where there is a strong Italian influence).

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

My personal favorite restaurant in Brazil is Thai (http://www.thairestaurante.com.br) and my favorite place to go out is Confraria das Artes (http://www.confrariadasartes.com.br/index2.html), both in Florianopolis.

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

I’ve lived in Florianopolis now full time for just over 2 years, and prior to that Rio for about 9 months, so plenty of funny experiences, too many to recount here!

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

Actually, I find them quite similar in many ways. Having lived in Southern California for 8 years prior to moving to Florianopolis, I am many times shocked that I don’t feel less at home here than I do. But honestly sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that I’m not in San Diego or Santa Barbara or some place like that.

But then I just have to look at the price of a plasma TV or an SUV to wake myself up! What would we do without all those wonderful protective economic tariffs of the Brazilian government??

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?

By now I’d say I’m pretty much fluent. My crowning moment came after about a year and a half in Brazil, I was renting a car somewhere in Bahia, and the lady behind the counter looked at me and asked something to the effect of “You’re not from here are you, are you a Paulista?”. Aside from taking offense that she didn’t recognize my wonderful Carioca Portuguese, I was proud as could be that someone actually for a second thought I was speaking well enough to be considered a Brazilian.

Most confusing words to pronounce:

Airplane, Grandfather, Grandmother — voo, vo, vo (forgive me I’m not good with accents)!!

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

Relax. Take things slow. Try to learn from watching from the local culture and absorb yourself in the rather intoxicating way of life.

Learn Portuguese, it’s really a beautiful language.

Avoid the temptation to compare everything to the US or to critique — if you wanted everything clean cut and simple, you could have stayed home and had that already!

Also, while it’s American ingenuity and industriousness is a good thing, try and avoid the temptation to look at every street corner and store front as a “oh my goodness, this could/should be [fill in the blank economic activity]”. There’s a reason why many things that perhaps in an ideal (American efficient) world would happen business-wise, there’s also a good reason why it hasn’t yet in Brazil. And going around with that kind of mind set is just setting yourself up for frustration down the road, b/c there are things (taxes, bureaucracy, restrictions, etc.) that most westerners don’t factor in at first upon arrival to Brazil.

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

Being a bit biased perhaps, I would for sure recommend that everyone visit Florianopolis at least once, it’s a really unique place that offers world-class dining and nightlife, stunning and unspoiled natural beauty, and virtually unlimited outdoor adventure sports options (surfing, kitesurfing, river rafting, horseback riding, paragliding, sand dune boarding, wakeboarding, ecohikes, and the list goes on!).

Any questions about Floripa or Brazil generally, feel free to drop me a line at hans@nexussurf.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:

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

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