Brasilia, Brazil Report of what it's like to live there - 09/04/12

Personal Experiences from Brasilia, Brazil

Brasilia, Brazil 09/04/12

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Home base is Washington, DC. Flights take 12 hours with one connection in Sao Paulo, or 10 hours with one connection in Atlanta.

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3. How long have you lived here?

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and recently completed a two-year posting to Brasilia, a fourth expat experience.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing is either in lego-block apartments along Brasilia's "wings" or in houses in the Lago Sul or Lago Norte districts. The apartments in the wings are part of their own self-sufficient "Superblock" communities, and you'll only have a 2-3 minute tree-lined walk to your neighborhood bakery, drug store, green grocer and probably a restaurant or two. The housing in the North Lake and South Lake neighborhoods is comfortable and gated. A new neighborhood of apartments is coming along quite nicely in the Sudoeste (Southeast) part of the city, with plans for a Noroeste (Northeast) residential sector to start going up in the next 2-5 years or so.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Big-box grocery stores are in just about every residential Superblock in Brasilia's "wings." (Big Box is, in fact, the name of one of the chains.) Grocery selection is good, but you'll pay about 1.5 times the price you'd pay in the U.S., even for things like dairy and meats that are produced nationally.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

A bicycle and helmet.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

American fast-food chains are all over Brasilia, but at about double the price of what you'd pay in the U.S. Decent---and even exceptional---restaurants abound at a wide range of prices, serving food from nearly all ethnic backgrounds (Thai being an unfortunate exception). Quality restaurants are one of the best parts of living in Brasilia, making it great for couples who like to escape on a date-night or friends who want to celebrate a special occasion (and there's plenty to celebrate in Brazil).

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Nothing problematic. Some mosquitoes come out in the rainy season, although nothing that a citronella candle or long sleeves can't fix. In the dry season, you won't see an insect of any kind, except for maybe ants (that can get in the house) and termites (which seem to be happy staying put in their termite castles). Every year, right after October's first rain, a new generation of cicadas hatches out and makes an infernal racket that will leave you begging for mercy, but luckily, they do their thing and die within six weeks, at which point peace and quiet are restored.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available for about R$6-10/hour, plus cost of transportation to and from the workplace, and several other labor law requirements if your employee works over a certain number of hours/week.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. A great gym called SmartFit is opening at locations throughout the city, and for about R$70/month you can have access to state-of-the-art equipment in a comfortable setting---just be prepared to stand in line for a machine. Really nice gyms like BodyTech are available, too, but be prepared to stand in line at your bank; membership fees can exceed R$400/month. An enjoyable (and free) feature in Brasilia is the Parque da Cidade, a great place for running, walking, working out, rollerblading, and people-watching in general. Also, on Sundays the city's main thoroughfare, the Eixao Rodoviario, is closed to traffic and is a fun place to bike or jog, stopping for an occasional coconut water served up by the roadside vendors.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

They are available at all banks and at gas stations and grocery stores that have machines that accept cards from multiple banks (machines called "Banco 24 horas"). You'll incur fees if you're not at your bank, and beware of credit card readers installed on the machine or thieves waiting to mug you on your way out. Just like in any big city anywhere in the world.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There's a church for Catholics and just about every Protestant denomination, as well as places of worship for Jews and Muslims. There's also a big community of people who follow Allan Kardec's Spiritism in Brasilia.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

You need a car to get around in Brasilia, so someone with a disability (or even an able-bodied person, for that matter) needs to make sure they have to have access to a vehicle. The Metro is wheelchair accessible, but it only goes to a few places. I don't remember buses being wheelchair accessible. Within the apartment block communities of the north and south wings, sidewalks are wheelchair friendly, and an individual could find just about anything they need and enjoy the outdoors by circulating around their Superblock, but they wouldn't be able to leave it because Brasilia's sidewalks don't connect one Superblock to the next (remember how I mentioned there were flaws in the city's design?)

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Within the city, yes. In the suburbs, less so. Brasilia's Metro is clean, regular, and safe, but it doesn't service much more than one fourth of the city and a few surrounding suburbs. A taxi ride from the airport to the hotel sector will cost you about R$35.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Any car is fine in the city and on major highways, but if you plan on regional sightseeing, a crossover or SUV is nice because you'll have a little more clearance when you hit one of the ubiquitous potholes that characterize the regional roads.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, and it's expensive. An Internet/Cable package from NET, for example, runs about R$280/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

By mid-2012, crime statistics had steadily been on the rise in Brasilia, including some "quick-nappings" and muggings. It appears as though Brasilia's long-standing reputation as a peaceful and safe city might be coming to an end, but it still hadn't reached crime-wave proportions. There was also a growing population of crack addicts near the downtown bus station and a slight resurgence in the presence of landless peasants squatting in a few of Brasilia's wooded public lots.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Clean. There's traffic pollution in the suburbs, and old buses that belch diesel fumes on Brasilia's main thoroughfares, but nothing approaching the levels of most cities of comparable size. Some people are affected by the extreme dryness typical of June - September.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The climate is one of the best things about Brasilia. There are two seasons: dry (roughly May - October) with a hot sun, warm days and cool nights when it simply does not rain, making camping trips and afternoon BBQs completely worry-free; and rainy (November - April) when a tropical afternoon rain storm is common most days, and a 2-day, non-stop rain storm flares up every 2-3 weeks.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are two: the American School of Brasilia (EAB), and the School of the Nations. I don't have experience with either, but both have websites. I visited EAB's campus a few times and it seemed to have nice infrastructure.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

No experience, although many colleagues hired full-time nannies (but probably paid prices that would be on the high-end relative to other Latin American countries).

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes. Brazilians are sporty, and so are their kids. Martial arts schools and soccer or swimming at local clubs are obvious options. You can also give your kids a real cultural gift and enroll them in capoeira classes---they're almost guaranteed to love it.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Considerable, but it is harder to identify or locate than you'd expect. Lots of diplomats (mostly American, but also some sort of representation from just about everywhere) and a smattering of business people or convention goers that are usually holed up in the hotel sector.

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2. Morale among expats:

Excellent. If you enjoy nice weather, have an adventurous spirit, and can converse in Portuguese, you'll love Brasilia. If you need a place where the fun comes to you, or haven't had a chance to study Portuguese, you might not be as happy.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There are tons of options for eating out, enjoying lake-side revelry, cafe socializing, afternoon samba sessions, outdoor sports and recreation, and all-day BBQ's. Just remember that none of this will be visible at first glance---you have to peek around some corners and dig a little, but once you've found it, you'll realize you've struck the mother load.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

The city is excellent for families and fun for young couples. Singles can also have a good time, with the caveat that they must be somewhat adventurous, have a car, and speak Portuguese.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Brasilia has a solid and consistent array of venues for LGBT nightlife, and a gay or lesbian couple probably won't be treated any differently than a heterosexual couple in just about all social settings (evangelical churches excluded). I feel Brasilienses have a tendency to tolerate and/or ignore most strangers around them, regardless of what those strangers are doing or talking about. Because the LGBT scene (or "GLS," as it is known in Brazil) is smaller in Brasilia than in most Brazilian cities, many otherwise straight bars and nightclubs operate a "GLS night" one night a week, so at least one option is always available. On the weekends, there are dance clubs (boates) that seem to open and then go out of business on a 6-month rotation in either the industrial sector (setor de oficinas) or club sector of the city. There's also a pretty big bohemian cafe scene, and classic cafes like Beirut, Cafe Savana, and Cafe Balaio are always LGBT friendly, and regularly LGBT dominated. Because the "S" (sympathizers) in the "GLS" abbreviation is quite a significant population in Brasilia, you are bound to find that about 10-20% of the public at any LGBT venue are straight (including both women and men), which creates a welcoming and truly diverse atmosphere, but could eventually end in disappointment.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

They are very rarely explicit, but certainly structural. Most Brazilians truly are colorblind and can't figure out why Americans spend so much time thinking about skin color, but the occasional upper-class Brazilian might have problems with their son or daughter dating someone of a darker skin tone or poorer social class. There is also a latent disrespect for people from the northeast or of indigenous descent that creeps into popular folklore and barstool humor, and tragically, becomes an occasional hate crime. The current government is taking strides to increase access to services by the poorer social classes through measures like quotas at state universities; these will benefit darker-skinned Brazilians and are widely-supported, but don't be surprised to hear affirmative action being criticized as "racist" by those who believe in a strictly merit-based selection mechanism.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Brasilia has a lot of fun architecture and monuments hidden throughout, and the city itself is a lesson in 1960's urban planning. Living there makes you feel like you are part of a bizarre and audacious social experiment, one that works quite well in fact, though not without flaws. If you stay in Brasilia long enough, you will come to decipher its logical yet complicated address system of cardinal directions and numbered Superblocks, and you will feel like you are some kind of code-breaking genius. Brasilia is surrounded by a fascinating natural biome called the "cerrado" where interesting plant and animal life abound, and small colonial towns like Pirenopolis and Cidade de Goias make for fun weekend getaways.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Go hiking at any of the many waterfalls within a 2-hour drive of Brasilia and recreate your own Tarzan-Jane moment.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The biggest advantage of being in Brasilia is that you are just one non-stop flight away from anywhere in Brazil. The Brasilia airport is easy to navigate and close to the city, and the airfare is affordable if bought in advance---although it very rarely reaches "discount" airfare prices. The weather in Brasilia is also a big plus---it feels like living in Palm Springs most of the year, with a four-month rainy season that leaves you feeling like you live in Miami.

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11. Can you save money?

Only by staying in during the week and not traveling on weekends, but where's the fun in that?

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

In a heartbeat.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

GPS

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3. But don't forget your:

SPF 60

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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