Lessons from Brazil – Begging for Change


In all my trips, I’ve spent almost 2 years in Brazil. In all that time I’ve been approached maybe 6 times 7 times (it happened again) on the streets from people asking for change or food. While that’s not really interesting in itself, it becomes so when I mention that five six of those times were in the last two weeks here in the Northeast. Breaking it down further invites even more curiosity. Four of those six times were by street people yet the other two were by seemingly normal people out and about.

In one of those two latter instances, a normally-dressed middle-aged woman at a bus stop started talking to me and my friend and halfway into the conversation she asked for bus fare because she lived on the other side of town. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it not an internationally accepted notion that one leaves their home with solid means to return? Given, she could have lost her wallet or been robbed but everything about her (and she herself) told me nothing of the sort happened. In instance number two, a normally dressed middle-aged man was out with his friends at an informal bar and at one point he got up and came over to me and my friend and started asking us about oursevles, then went into a long story about him being robbed (according to my friend, as I couldn’t understand his accent) once at some point in the past. After 10 minutes of him blabbing and of me drinking the rest of my beer quickly, he asked for R$2. Just like that. “Can I have R$2?” We both said no and got up to leave.

I’m not sure yet what to make of my experiences here in the NE but I’ve lived all over Rio and for a considerable amount of time and never (…ok, except once) had these experiences. That being said, I find “normal” people asking for money from other “normal” people rather odd (by the way, in Brazil I don’t call attention to myself and I always speak in Portuguese. Also, ninety-five percent of the time, Brazilians even tell me I could pass for being Brazilian, appearance-wise).


I can easily accept, and am not really bothered by, people asking for change since I lived most of my life near San Francisco, one of the cities with the highest numbers of homeless people. Homeless people in the States are almost always sedentary and in San Francisco, I’d say half I regularly saw are actually homeless while the other half are just stoner hippies (the young kind, usually with a dog, and a sign saying, “fuck change, give me weed”). When specifically asked for money, I almost always say no because there’s no telling how that money is used. If it’s just spare change, though, I’m more likely to fork it over to real homeless people.

For a year or so in the US, with a straight face, I used to ask people in retail if I could have a sizable discount off whatever I was buying. I half-jokingly figured if I did it enough, someone would give in but that never happened. I was, in effect, trolling these retail people and they probably called me an idiot after I left. I almost feel like the two “normal” people asking me for money in the Northeast were trolling me, but I know that’s likely not true.


11 thoughts on “Lessons from Brazil – Begging for Change

  1. When I am approached in São Paulo by someone for money for a ride – always normal looking people – I just hand him/her the thing itself: a one way ticket. You probably noticed that they never ask you for a round trip fare. I do it more for fun than for anything else. When I am in Brazil, I enjoy talking in Portuguese with just about any locals.

    • That’s what my friend ended up doing, she used her bus pass to get the woman a ticket. Something similar happens in favela films where a person asks for something from a drug lord who then sends the money with a ‘foot soldier’ who follows the person to the location to make sure they use the money for what they said.

  2. Going off on a tangent here, I noticed recently that there are a lot less people begging, juggling balls or selling stuff at traffic lights in Sao Paulo, compared to a few years ago. There might be other explanations but I’m hoping that’s a sign that more people are finding formal jobs and that families in need are being assisted by social programs (so the children don’t have to be on the streets).

  3. “Also, ninety-five percent of the time, Brazilians even tell me I could pass for being Brazilian, appearance-wise)” – Who said that? For me, when I look at you I almost see on your face “I’m gringo”. The way you bahave, the famous “US privacy circle” when you are talking to someone are typical behave from USA.

    • In 12 years of interacting with Brazilians, most have told me I pass for Brazilian based on just looking at me. Since Brazilians look like anyone, what they are really saying is I don’t look like a typical gringo.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “US privacy circle”, but being that I don’t fit in with Americans and American culture, my behavior socially can’t be ‘American’. I tend not to follow anyone’s way and instead create my own. If you are asking if I like groups, then I can say that I don’t, not anywhere in the world. I suppose this is the difference between introverted and extroverted, but at the same time, people are people and some ‘click’ with others and some don’t. It’s natural, in my view. Cheers!

      • This discussion is getting very interesting! The fact that you don’t fit the mold in the States doesn’t mean that you don’t have any of American reflexes in social situations. And mind you that some of American standard behaviours are actually nice, like having an automatic superficial positive reaction like ‘I am doing great!. when you’ve just heard from the doctor that you’ve got cancer. I miss this American positiveness here in Europe where positive people are regarded either as naive, stupid or even retarded.

        From seeing your only picture available on the other site as Adam Lee, it is true you don’t look like a typical American and could pass for Brazilian. On the other hand, Brazilians who have always lived in Brazil with little or no experience living abroad, don’t know how they look like. So, if a Brazilian with more worldly experiences told you that you could pass for Brazilian, then you really do!

        Having said that, I think that you are doing super well in Brazil, for I see that Brazilians have showed much friendship and acceptance to you. This makes me think of my sister in law who has always felt a bit like a foreigner in Brazil. She has a slight accent in her Portuguese although she was born in Brazil to Romanian parents, and has always lived in Brazil. She gets very upset every time she is mistakenly considered a foreigner by her fellow Brazilians.

        Abraço Adam! Está divertido conversar aqui no seu blog!!!

        Now, going back to

  4. Sorry for the hanging sentence and I have to correct myself. The Brazilians who have not yet had the opportunity to live abroad are more generous about considering a foreign person as Brazilian. This is not because they know less about themselves, but it is because they are considering the degree of closeness they feel to this ‘gringo’ than by arriving to this conclusion by comparison.

  5. I had already read this post awhile ago but I decided to comment today because this happened to just recently. I am walking down the street in São Paulo with my fiance and we were stopped by a completely normal looking 50-year-old dude who wanted a one-way metro ticket. Now, I’ve seen homeless people before in SP and this guy wasn’t one. He had on normal clothes — a tracksuit and Nikes. What I found to be the oddest/most offensive part about the bizarre situation was that he didn’t even TRY to give us an excuse. “I just got robbed and I can’t get home, can you give me a metro ticket?” or “I forgot my wallet at home, could you spot me?” Nothing. Just, “Do you have an extra metro ticket I could have?” HUH!? No! I work hard for my money and so does my fiance! Give us a reason or move on! Anyway, we politely said that we didn’t have one and he said “Okay, thanks.” and just left. Maybe the guy was just trolling us, who knows? I can think of no other logical explanation.

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