1. Take cues from the locals.
My first time taking the metro in São Paulo, I was unsure of how safe it was. Soon enough though, I saw people with their mp3 players out or playing with their phones, so I felt confident to do the same. I’ve never had a problem on the metro. Of course there’s no guarantee I never will, but it’s still best to follow the people around you. If everyone is holding on to their purses for dear life, do the same.
2. Talk to locals.
In Brazil people tend to be friendly and willing to strike up a conversation. As a foreigner, you can often learn quite a lot about the culture through a simple conversation, as well as learn about their views on you. When I came in 2009, upon hearing I was American, people wanted to talk about either Michael Jackson or Barack Obama. Once I said I was Californian, and the guy at the kiosk brought up Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Local people can also be an immense help in making plans. When I went to Santo Amaro, a small town in Bahia, I was all set to go see waterfalls, which I had read about in a guidebook. At the hotel, a few people warned me it would be too dangerous for me, a single woman to go alone. I took their advice and ended up going to a beach where I had a great (and safe) time. Listen to people — you are guaranteed to learn something.
3. Be respectful.
It’s natural to be curious about the people and lifestyle of another country or culture. Don’t forget, though, that people are not props or zoo animals, and are not here to serve your need for cultural enrichment. Don’t take photos of homeless or poor people so you can prove on Facebook you experienced the “real” Brazil; it’s exploitative and insulting. Recognize the fact that as a tourist, you have power and privilege. There’s no need to feel guilt, but be considerate and tread respectfully.
4. Make an effort to speak the language
It’s highly unlikely you’re going to be perfectly fluent going in, but using even a few basic words will be appreciated. And if you have a basic knowledge of the language, push yourself to speak. Yes, you will make a fool of yourself, but that’s how you get better. Also, there’s a big difference between automatically talking to someone in English and asking first, “Do you speak English?”
5. Enjoy the moment!
Try not to get wrapped up in having to see everything. Chances are, you may not have time to experience everything in one trip. But savor what you do get to experience. Traveling is a truly wonderful, eye-opening opportunity that relatively few people in the world get to have. Put down the camera, and take a moment to realize where you are and what is in front of you.