Category Archives: Rotary Youth Exchange

Life as an Exchange Student Non-Drinker in Brazil

Rules versus Reality

The Rotary Youth Exchange program when I went had something they called the three Ds. Three things we were not to do under any circumstance.

  1. No Drinking
  2. No Driving
  3. No Dating

These might seem like fine sensible rules in a theoretical student exchange program, but everyone knew that exchange students dated and drank. I never heard of one driving, but I’m sure that has happened too. Exchange students aren’t likely to drive because a) they don’t have an international drivers license and b) the culture of most countries does not involve teenage drivers.

Most cultures where exchange students go do have a strong acceptance of teen drinking however, and Brazil easily hold its own when it comes to teen drinking. Drinking in Brazil starts at around age 15 when the boys are old enough to be at clubs till late and the girls are having their big 15th birthday parties. They drink before that age, of course, but my impression is that that’s about the age when it becomes more than a once-in-a-while event.

As an exchange student in the 16-18 year old range, you will be dropped right into the middle of a drinking culture. Alcohol will be readily available to you when you’re out with friends, probably in your host family home and possibly even at Rotary meetings. Bars are a standard place for families and friends to sit and chat at, often with tables extended far out on the sidewalk and the beer is occasionally cheaper than the bottled water.

A Beer Free Exchange Is Possible (even in Brazil)

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I don’t drink. I am not pushy about others not drinking, but I do not let others push me into drinking either. I found that just stating that I did not drink was sufficient for most people. In the few cases where that wasn’t enough for people, I would tell them that my religion forbade it. The two or three times that that wasn’t enough of a reason, I fell back to the Rotary rules and said I couldn’t since I was an exchange student. Of course the last reason will only work if the person hasn’t known many Rotary exchange students.

If you are going to not drink in Brazil, it will be best for you to decide before you go, and to stick with it. Once your friends  and associates know you drink, it will be difficult to switch to not drinking.

Even though I didn’t drink, I still went to parties, the boate (discotheque/club), bars, etc. and always had a Guaranà and a good time.

The Boate

Boate is pronounced bow-atch (like the atch part of watch).

For some reason that I can’t remember now, I thought that it was fun to go to the boate/discotheque until all hours of the night. A lot of my classmates went to the boate. Probably 1/4th of them were there weekly, with up to 1/2 of them making monthly appearances.

I remember a couple of times my host brother and I would come home as the sun was coming up, and stop by the bakeries that were just opening. Pretty much everyone at the boate would drink. The boate even held some events with all-you-can-drink beer.

On all-you-can-drink nights, they would give you a plastic cup as you came in, and just keep giving you free refills. Of course a club gets hot inside, which leads to warm beer. No one wants to drink warm beer, and with free refills there’s no loss just dumping it out…on the floor. My rule on all-you-can-drink nights was that I would leave as soon as there were puddles on the dance floor.

Some nights they would also have specials on batidas (fruit juice / cachaça (sugar cane based alcohol) smoothies). One night at the boate a classmate decided that I should drink. He brought me a cup and said “here, I got you a juice.”. It smelled like juice, so I went to drink it, but as soon as it hit my mouth I spit it back out. I gave him the cup and a got mad at him, which surprised him. After that though we became good friends. He knew I wasn’t going to drink and that was that.

Dealing With Drunks

Since drinking in the open is so much more common in Brazil than in the US, you will run in to more drunks. Drunks you don’t know are easy to deal with. You can keep walking, go home, or just ignore them.

When it starts to get tricky is when it’s someone you know. In a best case scenario you’ll be stuck at a table with someone from the Rotary club telling you how much they love the United States and how they’re glad you’re there and how they want to come visit you in the USA some day and how great their soccer team is.

You will probably see classmates and friends drunk. When that happens, head home if possible. There’s no reason to tolerate their drunken ramblings, and things will be less embarrassing for them the following day if you aren’t present to see them when they are REALLY plastered.

The worst case scenario is having a drunk at home. My parents don’t drink so when a host mom drank I figured that was just how it works in Brazil. As I was reading my Brazil journals last month, I realized just how bad it was. She got really really drunk on a regular basis. Although I don’t actually remember it, my journal has me locking myself in the bathroom to keep away from her on one occasion and pretending to go to bed early on another. One time when I came home she had finished at least most of a tall bottle, but probably a bottle before that one as well. She had me sit down and tried to have a heart to heart about how I was her son and she was so happy about that.

Some of the things seem funny in retrospect, but scary at the same time. As an exchange student with the Rotary Youth Exchange program you shouldn’t have to live with a drunk. You’re in a tough situation though because you are suddenly placed in the middle of a family situation where they are sharing all their problems and situations with you. Brazilian Rotary clubs tend to be upper-class gossip networks, so complaining to your counselor or the club president that your host family has a drunk could have lasting social repercussions for them.

I think if I had to go back, I would stay again. My host mom was never violent when drunk, just a talker. If there is even the hint of violence or if the drunkenness is a daily thing, make sure you get out.

Alcohol Alternatives Abound

Even if you do drink, there are so many good drinks in Brazil that it would be a shame to waste all your time there on beer. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Guarana Antartica — Guarana is slightly a fruity tasting pop that goes well with anything. The best way to drink it is from a 2 liter bottle which is so cold that there’s an inch of ice slush on top.
  2. Pineapple flavored pop — I don’t know if it’s just the fact of being in Brazil or if they use real pineapple juice or what, but this stuff is good. Even the generic brands taste good.
  3. Fanta Apple — I was going to list Fanta Apple, but apparently it has been discontinued.
  4. Fresh coconut water — Best on a beach, they slice a green coconut open right in front of you and put in a straw.
  5. Real fruit juice — This is really like numbers 5-50. Even the plain-jane orange juice in Brazil is amazing. You will also find odd juices like watermelon juice…who would’ve though.
  6. Sugar cane juice — best when freshly pressed by a street vendor, they crush the sugar water directly out sugar canes and into your cup. Ask for a little piece of peeled sugar cane to chew on afterwards. It’s good stuff.

Final Thoughts

It is fairly easy to be an exchange student in Brazil and not drink by deciding that that is what you want, and by firmly telling people no. Parents, there’s nothing you can do once you send them out the door — you had 15+ years to train them how you wanted to, now it’s time for them to make their own decisions. Let’s all hope they’re good ones.

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Brazil : Learning Portuguese

This is the first in a series about Brazil. See what these Brazil posts are about.

Despite what Brazilians may tell you, Portuguese is not the hardest language to learn in the world. There are several different aspects to learning Portuguese and each person will have different aptitudes with the different areas. This isn’t an official list, this is just my take on it. I never took a Portuguese speaking class, just a few years of Spanish speaking in High School. I have however lived in Brazil for 3 years, in a Portuguese language dorm for 6 months and visited Portugal, and navigated each situation successfully.

If you are planning on learning Portuguese, please know that Portugal Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are two very different animals. The difference between them is greater than the difference between American English and British English. The Portuguese use a more formal grammar, more similar to Spanish and with a slightly different vocabulary. Brazilian Portuguese seems to play fast and loose with the rules, inserting more slang and with much less formality. You will want a dictionary that covers Brazilian Portuguese so as not to get confused.


Learning vocabulary is the most important piece of learning Portuguese. Gesturing will only get you so far, and if you don’t know what you are listening for, it’s going to sound like everyone is speaking very quickly. The key to building your vocabulary is going to be the phrase “O que é isso?” — “What is this?”.  After “Where’s the bathroom” and “Thank you”, “What is this” will be one of the most important ways to get by in Brazil. Constantly ask what things are, Brazilians are friendly and willing to help.

I had a pocket dictionary that I carried everywhere with me for the first 30 days. After 30 days I knew enough vocabulary to get by and could describe things well enough to find out other vocabulary without the dictionary. If there was anything really tough I would look it up at night.

Try to avoid speaking English. Make friends with people who don’t speak English or who don’t speak much. Turn off the English TV and radio programs, and immerse yourself. Also, try to make at least one trustworthy friend who will tip you off if a word is a swear/inappropriate. Your classmates and some adults will think it’s a riot to get you to swear in Portuguese.

Learn to laugh at yourself. Just when you think you are understanding the rules, you’re going to trip up. Quiz: The suffix ‘-inha’ makes words diminuitive. Camisa is shirt. What is a Camisinha? Turns out it doesn’t mean ‘small shirt’ like you would expect. It means ‘condom’ and using it when you mean shirt can make a lot of people laugh — hopefully yourself included.

Lastly, there are many words in Portuguese which are nearly identical to the same word in English or have a synonym. All in all, it’s not really that hard to get started with vocab.

Pronunciation and Listening

Brazilian Portuguese has been described as “speaking Spanish with a sock in your mouth” and “like singing while talking”. Portuguese really is a very beautiful language. The ‘sock in your mouth’ comment refers to the fact that there are a lot of soft consonants, especially compared to the staccato that Spanish has. This softness can contribute to the difficulty of separating words as you’re starting to learn Portuguese. The more vocabulary you pick up, the easier it will be to figure out where the words start and end. It may help to think of it as a mix of a French accent and a Spanish accent (although it isn’t really).

As you are listening you will probably want people to slow down. The phrase “Speak Slowly” was actually a pretty tricky phrase to say for me initially. Written, it is “Fala devagar” (Falar — To Speak, devagar — slowly). In English I would try to say it like this “Fa-la Dev-A-Gar”. My host brother took at least 20 minutes with me trying to get me to say “Fa-la Jay-va-gah”. The leading D takes an extremely soft sound, and the trailing R almost disappears.

Now the bad news. People speaking slowly won’t actually help you understand very much more than them speaking at a normal rate. We are guilty of this in English as well — when we speak slowly, we break words at each syllable, instead of at each word. What you really need is for each word to come out separately. As you listen to someone speaking in this manner you will need a smaller and smaller gap between words, and soon you won’t need people to slow down or separate their words for you.

Brazil has distinct accents in each region, much like we do in the United States. The North accent is different from the North East accent, is different from the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro) accent, from Minas, from the south, etc. A São Paulo accent is about the most standard since it is the accent most used by TV reporters on the national networks.

Reading Comprehension

Read everything you can, especially things where the context will help you understand words you don’t know. Read the cereal box. Read the comics. Read billboards, kids books, your favorite novels, text books.  If something has letters on it, figure out what they mean. So many things can be figured out by their context it doesn’t make sense not to take advantage of them. Anything you can read will help you build your vocabulary and see how Portuguese is written. Reading will improve your vocabulary, and help with pronunciation. By seeing words spelled out (and hopefully hearing them used as you learn) you will soon be able to tie certain letter sequences to the appropriate sounds.

I believe that I had a larger vocabulary than other exchange students by the end of my exchange because of the reading I did. Students who only worried about speaking only learned vocabulary relating to what other students talked about (music, getting around, school, dating, etc.). That vocabulary set will get you by during the day-to-day, but won’t be sufficient if you want to go back and do business in Brazil, for example.

When choosing specific things to read (as opposed to incidental exposure, like cereal boxes) choose books you are familiar with. I bought three of my favorite books in Portuguese and started with them. I read The Hunt for Red October, The Book of Mormon, and Calvin and Hobbes : Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat. By reading material I was already familiar with I a) already knew the plots, so misunderstanding a paragraph wasn’t a problem, b) I could compare texts to understand how different idioms and phrases would be translated.


Do your schoolwork. Your teachers will be happy to give you low marks and circle your errors. Especially if your history teacher is a socialist anti-American who doesn’t want you in her class (actually happened to me).

Don’t consider online chatting and forums to be good sources for learning writing in Portuguese. Brazilians use just as many abbreviations and just as much slang as Americans when chatting online. When I chat with Brazilian friends online, I’m the one with the most correct writing. Besides, you’re in BRAZIL. Go do something fun, the Internet will be here when you get back.


Learn as much Portuguese as you can before going, even if it’s just “where is the bathroom” and “thank you”. Portuguese isn’t frequently taught in US schools, but Spanish makes a decent second choice. Spanish shares conjugation concepts and some vocabulary with Portuguese. A year of Spanish will give you a head start compared to other exchange students.

I hope this post has given you an idea of what to expect while learning Portuguese and some pointers on how to do so more effectively. I loved learning Portuguese, and I love using it whenever I get the chance today. It can be an embarrassing and funny experience at times, but just keep trying. Keep your eyes and ears open and you’ll be speaking Portuguese like a pro in no time.

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