Mondkapje op de straat

Experiencing the outbreak of corona in Brazil: what was it like?

It’s Sunday morning 10:00 in Brazil. Usually I’m on a surfboard around this time of the week. This Sunday however I decide to spend my morning on my laptop in my favourite cafe. A lot of travellers have reached out to me with questions about travelling during a pandemic. Questions from frightened travellers that I also have no answer to.

My phone is buzzing non-stop this Sunday. By this time the schools and restaurants had closed in The Netherlands and there was a fine for groups larger than 3 people. I take the attention of my phone and laptop to glance at Brazilians in the crowded cafe. I feel dazed. How did we even get to this point?


When the coronavirus broke out I was doing an internship at a tour operator in Recife in the Northeast of Brazil. The internship was six months. I didn’t have any plans about what would happen after this internship, but I did have my mindset on staying in South America for a few years. Before leaving I had sold most of my belongings and said goodbye to all my family and friends. I had started a new chapter in my life. A chapter that ended too soon.

View from the rooftop terrace of my flat
I have not had the courage to share the story of my last weeks in Brazil yet. From the other side of the globe I watched Europe slide into a lockdown. During my stay in Brazil I followed the news closely, but as life still was normal on my side of the globe the reality was hard to grasp. Somehow I am embarrassed for having denied the gravity of the situation for so long. That’s why I haven’t had the courage to share the story my sudden departure from Brazil. Until today.


Three weeks before my sudden departure from Brazil, around the beginning of March, things started to get very uneasy in the office. Prior to this week, we had all worked very hard to convert all kinds of trips to Asia into adventures to Brazil. The coronavirus will not spread in Brazil, it just can’t. We all thought it wouldn’t.

It didn’t take long for us to change our point of view. When governments in Europe took the first measures, suddenly no one dared to come to Brazil, despite the fact that at the time there were no known infections in Brazil. The last days only a few ‘daredevils’ booked a last-minute trip. Until the first infections flew in from Italy to Rio de Janeiro.

By now we’re halfway March. After a particularly quiet week at the office the madness started. The travellers who were in Brazil at that time wanted to return as soon as possible. All trips for the next month had to be canceled or rescheduled immediately. I cannot describe in words how crazy this was, given that no measures had been taken by the Brazilian government yet. From one day to another reality hit and fear of the infamous coronavirus took over.


A week before my departure I had decided for myself to wait out corona in Brazil. At the time, I suspected it would take a few months for life to be ‘normal’ again. Pandemics happen all the time, is what I told myself. This one won’t be any different.

The touristic centre of Recife

As we all know now, I couldn’t have been more wrong. That next Monday you could hear a pin drop in the office. The cancellations weren’t just for the next month anymore, but practically for the next six months. The fear was a direct response to the Brazilian government who announced that international airports would be closed within a week. But still my decision was clear: I wanted to stay.

That night I went to the supermarket. As one of the few gringas in Recife I was used to being stared at. But this is not what happened this night. To my surprise, I noticed that the Recifenses were physically avoiding me at all cost. From one day to another Europeans were associated with corona.  

This event finally changed my mind. The Brazilians knew how serious the pandemic was, and it was time for me to get realistic too. The following Tuesday I made the hardest decision I ever had to make. It took me a few hours, but I managed to get a ticket on the last flight to Amsterdam with KLM.


The Brazilian government’s response to the coronavirus was poor and late. At the regional level, the first measures were announced three days before my departure. The first measures in the Northeast were to be implemented the day of my flight.

Recife is located in the Northeast of Brazil. The Northeast is known for its dislike of the current President Bolsonaro. From the start of the crisis, Bolsonaro has denied the gravity of the situation. My last week, there were constant protests against Bolsonaro, with Brazilians clattering pots and pans with utensils from the windows of their home.
Favela in Recife
View of the hills from the rooftop of my flat
The last week I did everything I could to enjoy myself, even though in hindsight I do have mixed feelings. That last Wednesday in Recife I went to my favourite food park to say goodbye to the best tacos in Brazil and I feasted on a gigantic açaí bowl, like I did every week.

I biked around my neighborhood one more time to take it all in. But nothing felt like it used to. That last week the streets were empty. People were scared and had more questions than answers. This was reflected by the awkward silence and lack of traffic jams.


The day before my departure was my last working day. I chose to keep working that week. It was a good distraction and I wanted to help my colleagues as much as possible. On my last day at work, my dearest colleagues purchased two pies. For me, but also to celebrate their last day of being together at the office. The following Monday everyone was working from home, like we already did for a month in Europe.

One of the things that makes me really sad is that I haven’t really been able to say goodbye to the majority of my friends in Brazil. They were afraid and there was a lot of uncertainty. Luckily I was able to say goodbye from a distance to Helen, my best friend in Recife. She took over my thunderbike and picked it up at my flat. Thinking about this night still makes me laugh. As per corona protocol she quarantined the bike for two weeks before taking it for a ride.
My thunderbike in the streets of Recife

The last acquaintances I said goodbye to were the wonderful doormen and women in my flat. From day one they did everything to make my stay pleasant, even when I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese yet. To thank them for everything they did for me I got some sweets (Brazilians love sweets) and wrote a card, in Portuguese of course!


Saturday the 21st of March was the day. My adventure in Brazil came to an end. I took the Uber to the airport. Checking in went surprisingly fast, even though it was very crowded at Recife airport.
After a long search for a vegetarian snack (I really don’t miss these quests) I settled for an ice tea and took a seat at the gate. In the blink of an eye, all the seats around me were empty: gringa was equal to corona. I was the only one at the airport wearing a face mask. As a result, I seemed to forget I was wearing the mask myself, because less than five minutes later I poured half a bottle of ice tea over my lap. A sticky 15 hour journey was ahead of me.
My flight had a layover in Rio de Janeiro. At the airport in Rio, I downed a caipirinha and spent my last Real on haviannas. I expected a plane full of Dutch people, but there were also many other European nationalities among the passengers. Many were travellers that stranded in other countries in South America, where the airports had closed a few weeks ago already.

Ten hours later we landed at Schiphol. The plane had only just landed when everyone turned on their phones. A deafening noise echoed through the plane that I had never heard before. Later I learned this was an emergency signal. That afternoon the Dutch government had sent an emergency alert to the Dutch population urging them to stay at home as much as possible.

This was followed by weeks that consisted of many tears, puzzles and countless bottles of red wine. I really needed a few weeks to get myself together again. Fortunately, I had a lot of time to pick up the pieces as there was not much to do during the intelligent lockdown in The Netherlands.


When I returned to The Netherlands I was heartbroken, but I did realise I made the right decision. As has often been seen in the news, the coronavirus has caused a lot of disagreement and chaos in Brazil. In the peak of corona, the streets of large cities were full of people protesting against the regional measures that aimed to slow down the spread of the coronavirus.

In Brazil, despite President Bolsonaro’s wild statements, there has been a lockdown. This can be compared to the first lockdown in The Netherlands. Unfortunately, there have also been many tragic incidents in Brazil involving overcrowded hospitals and excess deaths as a result of the coronavirus.

Flatgebouw met palmboom in Recife
In most parts of Recife people live in flats, surrounded by (palm)trees
We are now entering a second lockdown in The Netherlands, while life in Brazil is back to ‘normal’ to some extent. I have heard from my friends that the streets are busier again and that Brazilians travel nationally. Unfortunately, this is not good news for my old employer, because they mostly focus on European tourists. My heart goes out to all my dear former colleagues in Recife, for whom I hope that soon travelling adventurers feel safe to travel again to Brazil.


This is the story of my departure from Brazil. Over the past six months the bottles of red wine and puzzles have been replaced with a job and new ambitions and dreams. The past months I learned that I have longed for a dream job that does not exist. A dream job that served as the central point in my dream life.
During the first peak of corona I had a lot of time to be inspired by people with the same mindset. I realised that I should not see work as the central point for my dream life, but can use a job to create my dream life. A dream life where I can work remotely, so I can travel for longer periods of time.

Find out more about my life in Brazil here!


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