For the last decade or more, I’ve traveled almost extensively with others. Whether wife my wife, our kids, or coworkers, there’s always been someone else with me. Trust me, it’s very hard to feel alone when traveling with two demanding two-year-olds. On a recent work trip to Sao Paulo, I was alone for a full week and I can’t remember another time feeling so alone.
I travel pretty frequently, inheriting a passion from my parents who worked in the travel industry when I was young and continued to plan extensive family and group trips throughout my youth. Between personal travel with my wife and kids and work trips around the country and the world, I end up going somewhere nearly every month. Just in the last two months I’ve been to California for a wedding, London for the Marathon, Seattle for work, and Sao Paulo too. I’m quite used to experiencing different cultures and getting around new places, but Brazil completely shocked me.
Sao Paulo was going to be a different type of place, I could tell as the trip approached. Unique electronic visa processes, vaccinations, and crime warnings flowed in throughout my planning. When I couldn’t find many travel blogs about travel to the world’s third largest city, I knew it was going to be than my typical trips. I just didn’t realize what it would truly mean to visit a non-touristy city on my on without any help from others going with me.
Granted, many of these fears turned it to be unfounded. While definitely a city with dangerous parts and ones I wouldn’t plan to visit, Sao Paulo felt much like any other large city with tons of modern buildings, people everywhere during the day and night, and a surprisingly excellent restaurant scene. I turned out not to need the vaccine since I was in the middle of a massive city, not the rain forest. Protests and demonstrations didn’t affect me at all. The people were incredibly friendly and my coworkers were great about showing me the local culture when they were able to take me out. But the times I was alone were difficult and certainly made me feel very much alone.
In other countries and even places that don’t derive the bulk of their income from tourism, I haven’t had the same types of challenges with navigating the culture. Even in remote parts of Croatia and Portugal, we we’re mostly able to figure things out and even when things got tough at least I had my wife with me to share the experience. On other trips for work, I had coworkers to go around with and feel in touch. In Brazil I had neither and really struggled to find the right rhythm with locals.
Not speaking Portuguese was a big gap for me. I tried to learn more throughout the week and tried using it several times, but it her than one occasion where I was able to order a coffee at Starbucks – I think mostly because they felt sorry for me – I continuously failed and the interaction either resulted in calling for help from an English speaker – usually the manager – or lots of pointing and confusion.
I also struggled to understand how things worked in a culture fairly different than ours. Whereas in similar European cultures, I can mostly get by following social cues, there were several times when I just couldn’t figure out what to do in Brazil. On my first day there, I scoped out a rooftop bar, thinking it would be easy to get a drink and avoid too many conversations. After memorizing the translated version of the menu, I arrived only to find the outside bar portion closed and couldn’t find anyone to ask about when it would open. I later learned most bars don’t open until 7 or later at night.
Instead, I began to seek out a spot to get lunch. I decided on a cool looking buffet spot that seemed popular with local office workers, figuring I wouldn’t have to deal with conversing with staff much. Instead, I couldn’t figure out whether to just sit or not, didn’t realize that I was supposed to just grab whatever I wanted, have it weighed, added onto a plastic card, then pay at the counter at the end by pressing the card. I suppose this process was a way to allow payment without me having to ever hand over my credit card, beneficial in a country where credit cards can be skimmed or cloned, making it a necessity to keep it in my sight and on my person at all times. Once I finally figured this out and got my food, I hid upstairs on a small terrace to enjoy my excellent sampling of grilled meat, smoked fish, and fried veggies – all Brazilian specialties.
The other difficult aspect of the culture was getting in tune with how late everything happened. Granted I have had to switch to an early schedule after having children, but I was completely shocked how much later stuff happened in Brazil. Most people weren’t in the office until 10 or 11 due to horrendous traffic. This meant they stayed later, making it off for me since my team back at home was often done much earlier. Restaurants and bars didn’t open or get busy until after 9, making it hard to fill the time between work and the night. I was the only person at a great craft beer and burger bar I found for the whole time between 7 and 9:30. On my last day in town, I was lucky enough to have a co-worker join me for dinner, which I suggested we should go to at 6:30. I then had to handle his graceful question about what our culture was like before I realized this was an abnormally early time for him or anyone else in town to go to dinner.
Perhaps the most alone I felt was after dinner when I visited a bar to get some live music. I thought being in a crowd would add connectivity to the people and culture, but instead I felt even more separate from the people around me than perhaps anywhere else. I began by completely failing to understand what was needed from me to even get in. I realized there was a cover for the band, but when I gave my credit card over, they seemed confused, as was I until I realized they just wanted my ID so they could get my name for the tab – again tracked on a plastic card. I successfully ordered a beer, though was a bit confused by the massive bottle which came in a wine chiller. Sitting alone at a table, I enjoyed the music, but couldn’t connect with the others there and ended up leaving after finishing the drink.
Through all of this, I ended up spending quite a bit of time by myself in public areas. Sitting alone at outdoor coffee places in the morning, alone at the bar of a beer bar, alone at dinner, alone on the terrace of lunch, and alone in a bar with a beer and enjoying a live band, I spent much more of my time on the trip by myself than I ever had before. There’s a feeling of loneliness that only happens in an unfamiliar place where you don’t speak the language, often late at night with a drink. I think it made me understand why so many prolific writers would travel to exotic and unconventional destinations to produce their best work like Hemingway. I doubt that I’ll become a better writer as a result, but it did give me a newfound appreciation for traveling with the amazing travel companions I have. While there’s something to be said for having solo time to introspect and really experience culture, I think I much prefer sharing experiences with others and feeling connected. Maybe I just need to learn Portuguese.