View down into Guanabara Bay with the round peak of Sugarloaf Mountain rising from the peninsula.

Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Photo © Celso Diniz.

During the many years I’ve lived in Brazil, I’ve made numerous trips to North America. Whenever the topic of my residence comes up, people are always invariably mystified, curious, freaked out, and/or envious of the fact that I live in Brazil. While many inevitably express a great interest in traveling to Brazil (especially once I do my Brazilian sales pitch—admittedly Brazil is not a difficult place to sell), very few are convinced that they should up and move to Brazil as well.

In truth, visiting Brazil and moving here are two immensely different propositions. When it comes to first impressions, the “South American giant” can do a real number on unsuspecting foreigners. Even discounting all the myths and fantasies that swirl around Brazil, the reality of the place can be utterly seductive. However, deciding to make Brazil a temporary or permanent home means discovering a whole other set of much more complex realities, some of which can be wonderful, others problematic.

Built by immigrants, Brazil and the United States are two of the world’s most successful examples of melting pot countries that, to this day, openly embrace people from different cultures.On some levels, Brazil has a lot in common with the United States. Both are massive countries—in terms of territory and population—that dominate their respective neighbors and hemispheres, politically, economically, and to some extent, culturally. Both possess a strong sense of nationalism while preserving pronounced regional identities.

There are many historical parallels as well. Both countries began life as Atlantic coast colonies from which brave, enterprising settlers gradually moved west to open new frontiers. The two nations’ early cash crop economies (sugar in Brazil and cotton in the United States) were based on slavery, resulting in societies that not only are racially diverse but also have racism as a major social issue. Somewhat related is the fact that both nations have traditionally possessed a historical and socioeconomic divide between the North and South. Built by immigrants, Brazil and the United States are two of the world’s most successful examples of melting pot countries that, to this day, openly embrace people from different cultures. Both are also societies prone to extremes, such as the extreme divide between rich and poor (admittedly Brazil’s are much greater), and the extreme violence that so often makes newspaper headlines. At the same time, Americans and Brazilians share in common the fact that they are great optimists with a fervent belief in the future (although, lately, while Brazil’s faith in its destiny is at a heady high, belief in the American Dream has taken somewhat of a hit).

In other aspects, however, North Americans will find Brazil to be an alien place. Even in the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan, First World enclaves of Rio and São Paulo, life is different even if the external trappings appear to be the same. Brazil is less organized, more complex, less defined, more chaotic. If in North America, things tend to be literal, straightforward, and in-your-face, in Brazil, they’re more lyrical, circuitous, curvy, and nuanced, sometimes to the point of puzzling. It’s often difficult to get a straight answer or to pin things (or people) down. Unlike Americans, Brazilians tend to be less transparent, more indirect, and nonconfrontational. Lines are often blurry: between professional and personal, between white and black (and mulato), between now and soon and later. When a Brazilian makes plans with you, it’s understood that they might actually never materialize. At the same time, getting together last minute, or on the spur of the moment, is very common. Brazil isn’t a place where a lot of advance planning occurs—it is, however, a place where improvisation, flexibility, and spontaneity rule, opening up endless possibilities and opportunities.

If you’re just starting out in life, moving to Brazil can help you get on the fast track.Opportunity is a major reason why many foreigners choose to come to Brazil. The country’s growing economy combined with its lack of qualified labor means there are many opportunities for foreigners that aren’t available in North America. From construction sites and oil rigs to financial companies and technology startups, there are an unprecedented number of openings available. Considering the historic lack of investment in education, they aren’t likely to be filled by Brazilians for at least a generation. If you’re just starting out in life, moving to Brazil can help you get on the fast track. By providing you with invaluable professional experience, and sometimes serious financial compensation, working in Brazil can constitute a major investment in the rest of your career—and your life. And if you’re farther on in your career or life, it might just present you with the essential change that you need or crave. I wouldn’t advise moving to Brazil if comfort, ease, routine, and stability are of prime importance to you. However, if you’re open to challenges and yearn for something different, Brazil could end up fulfilling some deep desires.

Ultimately, in Brazil, life has the potential to be more exciting—and more fun. Despite their often tough existences (and many do lead difficult lives), Brazilians have a great knack for cutting through the extraneous and superfluous and getting down to the business of enjoying themselves and life, which is ultimately a very affirming—and refreshing—attitude to embrace. If you can find something to do and someone to do it with (Brazil is a very hard place without friends, family, or community), you can manage to enjoy a quality of life that’s sometimes more difficult to encounter in North America.

Many foreigners are unable to pin down exactly what it is that hooks them on Brazil. Inevitably they refer to the tropical climate and the immense warmth, generosity, good humor, and openness of Brazilians. But for most die-hard Brazilianists (including myself), there’s some ineffable, indescribable, but very deep essence about Brazil that surreptitiously takes hold of you, gets inside of you, and before you know it, you’re hooked—maybe even for life. During the 14 years I’ve lived in Brazil, I’ve experienced moments when I contemplated returning to North America—and even a couple of occasions when I started to do so. However, all my efforts have been in vain. To date, I’ve never been able to kick the habit.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil