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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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