Living in Brazil: Electric showers, toilet litter and other oddities

I was going to write a separate post for each of these cultural-shock-inducing items of everyday Brazilian life, but that would be a little extreme because they are pretty easy to describe.

This week, I thought hard about the first things that shocked me when I came to Brazil at the clueless age of 15 to meet up with my parents. They had just rented a huge house in the Jardins area of São Paulo that was the perfect landing pad for such an overwhelming city. I actually pity people who visit São Paulo for the first time and have to stay at a hotel. Venturing out into the crazy streets of São Paulo for the first time can be nasty if you don´t know what you are doing. My parents immediately introduced me to friends they had made in London who were now living in São Paulo and they took me around, slowly allowing me to digest this hectic city.

Anyway, the first weird experiences were obviously when I started to visit people at their homes. I will put my initial cultural shocks in which they were experienced:

Television

I was sitting in someone´s living room one evening and we were all shouting at one another because the television was on and loudly so. I looked around to see if anyone was watching and it seemed that no one was, so I asked if we could turn it off. The glare I got was enough to shut me up and pretend I had never asked, forever.

  images5 Another time, I decided to test a family to see what would happen if I turned the television off. I was in this house that had a corridor-like living room, the TV was on and no one was watching, but everyone passed the TV and entered and exited the living room as they went about their activities. I turned the television off and waited. After 5 minutes, a boy passed, turned the television back on and left the room.

The first thing that I noticed about a lot of Brazilians is the fact that they ALWAYS have the television on. They turn it on as soon as they get up and sometimes don´t turn if off, ever, not even at night. I have a friend who sleeps with it on, in her bedroom. If you turn it off, as I once did, she wakes up, gets out of bed, turns it on again and goes back to sleep. Wouldn´t it be easier to just close your eyes again and sleep without it?

The relationship between most Brazilians, especially poorer ones, and their televisions is eerie.

Electric Showersimages3

My parent´s home has a boiler and piping for hot water because it was an old, well designed house, but the first time I encountered an electric shower was almost deadly. I was at my boyfriend´s (at that time) grandparent´s house somewhere near SP. It had gotten late so they invited us to stay the night. When I walked into the shower “box” and looked up I almost had a heart attack. All these wires and cables sticking out of the wall attached to a nasty plastic contraption that was supposedly the shower. I turned the only tap because I was too embarrassed to ask for help and felt a slight electrical current running through my arm, like a needle pinching me. I leapt out of the shower, got dressed and hysterically hissed at the first person that passed outside the door. “Oh yeah, it does that sometimes. Don´t worry, just open the tap with your flip flops on so you don´t get a shock”. I decided to go to bed without the shower.

When I eventually rented my own house and had my first electric shower installed, I had to tackle the problems of burning cables, melting insulation tape, dashes from the shower due to life-threating shower situations, such as sparks and smoke, and showers that just burn out because the “resistência” can´t take the load. They are always nasty, no matter how you look at them. The ONLY thing I like about them is that the water is instantly hot. That´s it.

Not a single Brazilian has been able to convincingly explain to me why they use [sometimes badly installed] electric showers and why homes aren´t built with hot water piping. I can handle the low income situation, because copper piping is expensive and most people can only afford plastic piping, but electric showers are used in ALL homes outside the main cities. It´s just the way it is, they always answer. The truth is that most of them have never seen what a shower is supposed to look like, and most tourists don´t see the electric showers because they rarely have the in hotels and apart hotels. So it´s basically a national secret that no one wants to talk about.

Toilet litter

images4Visiting my father´s auntie Tusa I was confronted with the hard reality of that nasty plastic basket with everyone´s used toilet paper in it. I hate being gross in my blog, but it´s a gross thing, believe me. For some unexplained reason, Brazilian piping and sewage is not compatible with toilet paper so people never flush the toilet paper down their toilets. Instead, they provide little baskets, sometimes with lids and sometimes without, beside the toilet for the toilet paper. If you refuse to use them, as I did at first, you end up blocking their entire piping system (yes, just with toilet paper) and have to pretend you don´t know what happened, praying that toilet paper will not float when they peak into the loo.

Bujão/Butijão

Brazilians who live in the city have no idea what this is either. As soon as you move to the interior, you are forced to deal with the bujão, also called butijão. This annoying little fellow is nothing more and nothing less than a heavy metal container where cooking gas is stored. You purchase a butijão with gas and then get it filled when the gas runs out. None of the houses in the interior or in some smaller cities have gas piping, so gas is stored in a butijão and placed outside the house or under the sink. It´s always a good idea to have two because they love “drying up” on Sunday night, when no one is open to replace it.

index4In most cities of the interior and even mid-sized cities, there is this pickup that drives around the streets playing this repetitive music, selling butijões. The first time most gringos hears that music, they run out with their purses or coins thinking it´s the ice-cream van. Nope, it´s the butijão guy. He´s usually far away by the time you reach the pavement so it´s a good idea to get one of those fridge magnets with his number on them. It´s also important to buy from official gas brands because there is some dodgy gas filling activity going on and official brands less likely to rip you off with half-filled butijões.

Panela de pressão

The first billboard I saw in Brazil was for a Clock Panela de Pressão. I did not know what they were because my parents did not use them. When I did finally see one I admit I was afraid of it. I had already heard of exploding ones and the consequences, so I was really curious to see how they worked. It took me about 2 years to muster the courage to use one without close supervision.

The secret is to cover the food with enough water. When that water runs out, the panela de pressão (aka pressure cooker) dries and can explode, causing nasty damage and injuries. If you are not sure if there is enough water or you have finished cooking, you take it off the fire and put it under running tap water. Some people lift the little nob to let the pressure out, but that is dangerous and unnecessary. Just allow some water to run on the panela until you hear a “puff”. Then open. If there is pressure, it will not open. In that case, more water and try again. Another tricky bit is aligning the lid, the rubber hoop and the handle. It´s always a good idea to have a new panela, because old ones sometime let the pressure out and they never do that “shhhh” sound. I still don´t know what that little red button is for, though.

Panelas de pressão are essential for cooking feijão (beans) in a hurry or carne à panela. I will probably get death threats for saying this but, in my opinion, Brazilian meat is terrible. Most Brazilians call their cattle cows, but they are mostly Zebus/Nellore, and their meat is harder and leaner. So, putting the meat in a panela de pressão softens it, which is why carne à panela is so popular. Other people actually boil it and then fry it, which is almost unthinkable if you had a nice, chunky piece of tenderloin, proving my point. If you do find good meat, it´s either very expensive or a fluke. It´s hard to get the same good quality twice. Another reason is that they tend to slaughter their zebus when they are 100 years old, unlike some countries that have a certain pride in good quality meat and slaughter animals when their meat is still tender. I know nothing about meat, but as an Argentinian, meat is important to me.

Bakeries

I love bakeries. When I lived in England and Argentina, I was often the first customer at the bakery in the wee hours. I love variety, soft, greasy pastries and lots of different types of breads, tarts, pies and goodies bakeries are supposed to sell,  but all that is sadly very rare in Brazil. Unless you live next to a fancy bakery in an equally fancy neighborhood in a large city, bakeries are depressing little places indeed. The only good thing about Brazilian bakeries is the bread, when it´s good quality. They have this little invention called the pão francês, ou pão de sal, depending on the region, that is a little baguette-like bun. It´s nothing like a real baguette, of course, but it´s still charming and eventually addictive, especially on the “chapa” with butter, mmmmmmmmm, or as a queijo quente ou misto quente. Then you have the caseirinho, which varies in size and shape depending on the region, but is a great option if you want softer bread or crustier bread (yes, caseirinho is softer in SP and crustier in the NE, for example). Anyway, the white bread is generally good in Brazil. The problem is the other stuff. When I lived in Florianopolis, an Argentinean baker tried to make medias lunas (the Latin American version of croissants) and eventually gave up because I was his only customer. Brazilians aren´t keen on trying new stuff.

When I visit other countries, the first thing I do in the morning is visit the bakery just to get a feel of them again. I really miss the variety, the rye bread, the huge loaves of soft whole-wheat bread, the assorted buns, the sweets, the cakes and pastries with chocolate or cream oozing out of them. Maybe it´s just me.

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19 responses to “Living in Brazil: Electric showers, toilet litter and other oddities

  1. That’s not entirely accurate. Outside SP (and further south) most houses and apartaments use electric shshowers, even rich people in big cities.

    Most places don’t have gas piping at all (mostly only new condomínios and tall buildings, where carrying a botijão would suck) north of SP (even in Minas the places I went to had no gas piping), just like most places do not have ground wiring.

    It’s not about just poverty or ‘countrysideness’, but about culture and economics. I mean, why spend money building expensive (until recently, getting cheaper now) gas piping networks when it never really gets that cold and you have a locally developed cheaper and widespread alternative? It’s understandable to not use electric showers in places with cold winters (like europe and someplaces in the south of south america, mainly from SP downwards), where the amount of heat provided by a typical brazilian electric shower would be useless (because the water’s temperature in an electric shower is inversely proportional to it’s flux), but in Bahia or Pernambuco or Pará there is not much to gain (although the trend has been cheaper gas for some time now, so that if your building does have gas piping, it might be cheaper to have a shower with a gas heating systemç. And electric showers are quite safe. I’ve seen way more stories about people dying due to gas leaks (in their own homes) than due to electric shower malfunction (and in engineering courses you learn how to install electric showers as the default). And not all electric showers are that bad (there are even luxury ones!), but that most brazilians pay people who aren’t even certified or educated in anything to do this kind of job (pedreiro, encanador, eletricista). Some people learn it on the job while working for their fathers! As someone who works with technology (in industrial settings), I can assure you that even industrial operatora sometimes have no idea what they’re doing. They learn the technique but know nothing aboutnthe theory, and if anything deviates even a bit from what they’re used to doing, they scre up big time.

    And no, the toilet paper stuff is not a myth, so don’t flush it. Now I don’t know it for sure (not a civil engineer), but I believe it’s because our pipes are usually smaller in diameter.

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    • Thanks for your comment. It was very constructive and respectful. I´ve actually come to like electrical showers when the plumber installed mine with grounding, which no one had ever done before. People from foreign countries are not used to seeing electricity so close to water and I have actually witnessed some nasty explosions due to badly installed showers, but yes, gas can be more dangerous. In Argentina, we have those really great “calefones” and gas is super cheap, so I naturally missed that when I moved to Brazil. I never quite understood why people in the south do not install gas piping. There were lots of accidents there with improvised heating systems and people literally froze during the winter. My husband made lots of money selling fire wood and people there laughed at him, but ended up buying it all. Very strange.

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  2. Wow, that could be very dangerous with the electric shower….I wouldn’t want to get electrocuted! It’s funny, it appears that most countries in the world wherever you go have the same “toilet myth”. Maybe there is something to it after all.

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  3. TOILET LITTER
    Is this just another national myth that the pipes can’t cope with toilet paper ? I have never used the lixeiras in my house in 6 years, (although I provide them for Brasilian guests), and so far have never had a backing up problem

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    • I suppose you haven´t blocked the entire sewage system in your neighbourhood because you are the only one flushing your paper down the loo😉
      I don´t know if it´s a myth. What I do know is that I have gotten some violent reactions from people when I even suggest flushing toilet paper or ask why they don´t flush it. They tell me it blocks their piping so I just take their word for it. Here, on the farm where I live, my mum tried flushing for a few months and she blocked the entire sewage system. The plumber gave her some dirty looks and she never did it again.

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      • Other thing you don’t know about sewage system in mid-size brazilian cities is there’s no sewage system.
        On suburb and places far from town we have to dig a hole (like 2m³) in some area on the garden to place something called “fossa” where all the “thing” from the toilet go.

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    • I’m from Australia and recently visited asia (Philipinnes and Thailand mostly), and it was about 50/50 chance of this litterbox being there (depending on the level of tourism the area we visited had)… i’d never seen it before, ever!

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      • It must be some bad piping problem. They use the litterbox to prevent clogging the pipes. But it´s only tissue. If that clogs them, then what about the rest?

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