7 problems the ill-informed foreigner may not know about Sao Paulo

September 5, 2015

by Ana Apolonio and Alessandro Orefice

The photo above shows Sao Paulo seen from space. To this poet who once described the Paulista capital as a black spot on our plant, we ask:  how would you tackle the problem of hosting over 20 million people without any impact at all? The questions we should be asking ourselves are : why did all these people decide to come live here and stay ? What is so special about this sprawling metropolis that would make it the biggest city of the southern hemisphere and the biggest of all three American continents ?

Grande São Paulo vista da Estação Espacial Internacional
Sao Paulo and its periphery as seen from the International Space Station

In reality, what makes Sao Paulo special is its diversity. Here, the keyword is “VERY”: VERY GOOD, VERY BAD, VERY DIFFERENT, VERY SIMILAR. Nothing escapes the rule, everything will always be « VERY ». Thus, anyone deciding to adventure themselves into this city, will certainly find themselves in MANY unexpected situations.

This is why we have here listed the 7 problems an ill-informed foreigner may encounter in Sao Paulo. In other words, this could be considered Sao Paulo’s business card. Even though you might not be worried and everything may not be cited here, we, the writers behind aprenda2’s blog have accepted the mission of helping you overcome the contingencies  you will certainly encounter here in Sao Paulo.  If we managed to survive this jungle, so can you!

1)Languages: Only 2% of Brazilians speak English. How to communicate with the remaining 98%… ?

Communication is the base of everything ! However, you will quickly come to notice that few Brazilians speak English (more precisely 2% of the population). So, if you want to chat with the remaining 98%, you’re going to have to learn Portuguese. This will be your first step in your adaptation/integration. We aren’t saying that because we are a language school. To be honest, we only started offering Portuguese after having witnessed and experienced this genuine predicament.

Quinta língua mais falada no planeta: Mapa da língua portuguesa no mundo. Verde Escuro: língua materna. Verde Claro: língua oficial e administrativa.
The 5th most spoken language in the world. Map of the Portuguese language in current times. Source : wikipedia.org

Not understanding and not speaking Portuguese can rapidly become a burden in your daily life : not being able to ask for your way, order a dish at a restaurant (few restaurants offer menus in English), and most of all interact with people – which remains the principal motive for your trip here. FYI : Portuguese is the fifth most spoken language in the world, and the third most spoken in the western world, with 280 million active practitioners.

All in all, there is one keynote to remember: learn, learn, learn Portuguese and your experience here will be much improved. In order to do so, there are numerous smart-phone/tablet apps, online courses, private tutors, and language schools at your disposal. You’re not short of options when it comes to learning Pele’s language, seen ? If you would like to know more about our school in Sao Paulo and the Portuguese classes we offer, visit our website : www.aprenda2.org/portugues/sao-paulo

Did you know the U.S. Government considers Portuguese an easy language?

What are the are the most difficult languages for an American to learn according to the U.S. State Department ?

Quais são as línguas mais difíceis de serem aprendidas por um americano.

You are not mistaken ! The U.S. Government considers Portuguese an easy language – based on scale of 3 levels of difficulty (Easy, Medium, and Hard) – due to its numerous similarities with English… The ranking is shown in the image above.

How can I determine my aptitude level in Portuguese?

Teste online de português

The easiest way to determine your aptitude level in Portuguese is to take an online test. This is a link to our school’s online aptitude test, which is based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Language’s (CEFL) proficiency scale:

  • A1 – Beginner
  • A2 – Elementary
  • B1 – Intermediate
  • B2 – Upper intermediate
  • C1 – Advanced
  • C2 – Mastery

Take the test here: www.aprenda2.org/teste-de-portugues/

2) Transports: plan ahead or be prepared to suffer the mayhem that ensues

In all big metropolises, it takes at least 1 hour to get anywhere. However, if you do not plan your itinerary, you will not spend 1 hour but 4 (there and back) to reach your destination. Bear in mind that this amounts to half of your free time : 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours at work, 8 hours of free time (4 of which are spent commuting!)

In addition to the complicated and slow means of transport, bus stops are frequently not indicated. It goes without say that knowing when to get off can get a little complicated at times… So we recommend that you use specialized websites such as  SPTrans or Google Maps in order to plan your itineraries.

Sistema Olho Vivo da SPTrans. Acompanhamento da posição dos ônibus em tempo real.
MAP: Sistema Olho Vivo de SPTrans. Real-time display of bus itineraries and locations.
Sistema Olho Vivo da SPTrans: também é possível acompanhar o horário previsto que o ônibus vai passar para cada ponto de ônibus do trajeto.
FIGURE: Sistema de Olha Vivo de SPTrans. It is possible to know when the bus will be arriving at each stop in real-time.

For those who ride the bus: Sistema Olho Vivo de SPTrans

In many of the big cities of the world, public transports are well developed, as in London for instance, where each bus stop features a map  indicating the destinations and schedules of each bus line it serves. Unfortunately, this does not exist in Sao Paulo.

However, thanks to your phone or tablet and the  olhovivo.sptrans.com.br website, it is possible to find out, in real-time, where the buses are and when they will be arriving. All you need to know is the line number or the bus terminal you are heading in the direction of and … vamos!

For those who take the metro: Download the metro map

Rede Metroviária de São Paulo
Sao Paulo’s subway system

Besides from bicycles, our favorite means of transport is the metro! If you take it during off-peak hours, you will see that Sao Paulo’s metro is quick, calm, and very efficient ! And you avoid all the traffic…

This is a link to an updated version of the subway and rail system (Metro + CPTM) in PDF format :

Download Sao Paulo’s subway map

GOLDEN RULE: Try your best to live close to a metro station; you will save lots of time!

3) 1 Day = 4 Seasons!

Sao Paulo’s weather is customarily referred to as the passing of the 4 seasons in 1 day.

Without exacerbating the facts, on a nice morning with a temperature of 15°C, do not leave your house without your umbrella , because it will rain at lunch,  and try not forget your sunglasses for the afternoon’s 30°C under glaring sun.

Abroad, Brazil is known as a tropical country, but you will be cold here, probably even colder than you were back in your snow-covered hometown.

We say this because we have met Quebecois who find Sao Paulo colder than their -35°C winters in Canada. Why ? Central heating  does not exist! If its 5°C outside, its 5°C inside ; all that is left to do is layer sweaters and blankets!

GOLDEN RULE:  Regardless of the weather, always have a sweater and an umbrella within reach!

4) Ouch! The plumbing…

Não faça inimigos: Jogue o lixo na lixeira e não na privada.
Do not make enemies : dispose of toilet paper in the bin rather than in the toilet bowl.

Another important bit of information: do not throw toilet paper into the toilet bowl because it will clog the plumbing in your house or down the street. We know that in your country it is customary to dispose of toilet paper via the toilet bowl (and we do admit that it is more practical), but in Brazil, you will run into some problems if you do so….

Do not forget to do this at home and everywhere you go (at friends’ houses, at the restaurant, the cinema, the shopping center, etc…) unless you’re willing to risk making enemies!

5) If you drive, watch for the motoboys

Corredor de Motoboys. Perigo constante.
Lane of motoboys during peak hours. High risk of accident.

Sao Paulo has no match when it comes to motoboys. The latter  emerged in response to Sao Paulo’s urban mobility problem. They deliver letters, packages, and merchandise  anywhere, anytime. Their maxim is speed and only one rule stands above all : never get stuck in traffic ! Thus, they created a lane in between the cars just for themselves. So watch out when driving, because you never know when one might overtake you.

Generally speaking, Brazilian motorists and motoboys are not the most disciplined when it comes to respecting traffic laws. The simple act of changing lanes without signaling can be fatal for a motoboy. These infamous couriers have thus taken it upon themselves to stand up against motorists: it is not uncommon to have your rear-view mirror broken-off for having forgotten to switch on your turn signal when changing lanes.

Unfortunately, the statistics show us that an average of 2 of the 220 000 motoboys in circulation in Sao Paulo die everyday.

6) A low cost of life… well not really.

Many foreigners think that the cost of life in Brazil is low because of its status as a « emerging » economy. However, the cost of life is extremely high, especially in the large cities such as Rio and Sao Paulo. Why ? Because of inflation, very high taxes, and corruption and infrastructure problems.

The 10 wealthiest cities in the world

(US$ billion)
National Capital
1Tokio Japan$ 1479
2New York United States$ 1406 
3Los Angeles United States$ 792 
4Chicago United States$ 574 
5London United Kingdon$ 565
6Paris France$ 564
7Osaka Japan$ 417 
8Mexico’s City Mexico$ 390
9Philadelphia United States$ 388 
10Sao Paulo Brazil$ 388 

source: wikipedia.org

The 10 most expensive cities in the world

1Luanda AngolaAfrica
2N’Djamena ChadAfrica
3Hong Kong Hong KongAsia Pacific
4Singapore SingaporeAsia Pacific
5Zurich  SwitzerlandEurope
6Geneva  SwitzerlandEurope
7Tokyo JapanAsia Pacific
8Bern  SwitzerlandEurope
9Moscow RussiaEurope
10Shanghai ChinaAsia Pacific

São Paulo is 49thRio de Janeiro is 65th

source: wikipedia.org and Mercer

It is a well-known fact that the cost of life is higher in large urban conglomerations, most notably in strategic zones such as downtown or the financial districts.  Living in the periphery or in a small city upstate almost certainly comes with a better quality of life. It’s the law of offer and demand. And if Sao Paulo is part of the 10 wealthiest cities in the world, it is because a large part of its inhabitants pertain to the higher classes. Thus, everything is more expensive!

In other words, if you want to live comfortably in Sao Paulo without going bankrupt, you will have to adopt a few strategies to avoid the exorbitant prices. According to the figure above, Sao Paulo is the 49th most expensive city in the world and yet it remains absolutely feasible to live comfortably without spending all your money.

A more detailed article on the matter is in the works.

Friendly tip: in order to keep your cost of life low in Brazil, think of prices in terms of your native currency. For instance, a Londoner may rejoice in the fact that 1 Pound Sterling (£) is worth 7 Reais (R$).

7) Bureaucracy and Protectionism

Top 10 de países mais protecionistas do mundo.
Top 10 most protectionist countries in the world.

Few know that the country of soccer is one of the most protectionist countries in the world. According to the findings of the Global Trade Alert, Brazil is the 7th most protectionist country in the world. Protectionism seeks to protect the local economy from global competition through the means of:

  • High taxes in order to discourage importations and encourage exportation
  • Long, expensive, and discouraging bureaucratic procedures
  • Laws

Even though Brazil is the 7th most protectionist country in the world, it is still perceived as a land of opportunity. However, companies established in Brazil struggle to obtain sufficient trained labor, seen as there is little to no investment in education. Thus, growth is impeded. This, in turn, leaves a trove of opportunities for foreigners looking to work abroad. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 90% of current job offers require a secondary level education even though only 60% of Brazilian workers have attended high-school and 57% of immigrants to Brazil are coming with Masters-level degrees.

As host of the World Cup last year and the Olympics next year, Brazil is investing a lot into infrastructure, which in turn requires many engineers, one of the types of skilled labor Brazil is in a shortage of. This is the current problem : in order to favor Brazilian workers over foreign workers, protectionism is encouraged, but on the other hand, the Brazilian work force is unable to cope with the demand, making foreigners the only resort for these types of jobs.

So, just one bit of advice for you fellow foreigners:  prepare yourselves for some unforgettable bureaucratic experiences from the moment you first enter the building of the Policia Federal.

About the Instituto aprenda²

Brazilian Portuguese courses for foreigners

The ALEGRIA method was conceived from the marriage of our co-founder Audrey Conjat‘s experiences as a foreigner with the pedagogical expertise of our teaching staff. Talking about the teachers, they come from the main universities such as USPUFRJUNICAMPPUC

Also, our test prep for the official CELPE-BRAS exam prepares you for this exam.

Contact us for more information:
Email: falecom@aprenda2.org
WhatsApp: +55 11 9 4939 0401

Do you need a sworn translation?

Sworn translations are made by people who are certified and accredited by the registry of commerce of each state. The applicants must pass highly demanding oral and written examinations for specific language pairs. They undergo background checks before receiving a registration number, which must be informed in the heading of every translation. If you need translate any of your official documents, please contact our translation services: www.aprenda2.org/translations

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