Greetings from Florianopolis, a charming, laid back island in the south of Brazil. I arrived here just yesterday after spending nearly 4 weeks in Rio de Janeiro, or “a cidade maravilhosa” (“the marvelous city”) as its known here in Brazil. After living there for nearly a month, I understand how Rio earned its title.
I originally visited Rio in 2002 and have dreamed of going back ever since. There was something about the city that captivated my imagination. I got an itch that I knew only living there for a month or so would scratch. On this trip, my life in Rio wasn’t that of a tourist but a local. I intentionally didn’t see a single tourist attraction while I was there, unless you count Ipanema beach. This time I didn’t want to just see the city, I wanted to feel it.
I typical day for me in Rio consisted of sleeping late, enjoying a midday acai, going for a run by the beach, eating a lunch of arroz, fejao, and picanha (rice, black beans, and steak), taking a nap, and then meeting some friends out for dinner and drinks. I made an effort to meet as many Brazilians as possible, although I often found myself spending more time with the foreigners that I met at the shared Ipanema apartment that I rented.
When the wind was cooperative I’d take a kitesurfing lesson in Barra, a suburban beach neighborhood.
For those who haven’t visited Rio I’ll try to put it into words, but to paraphrase Elvis Costello, writing about a city’s vibe is like dancing about architecture.
Aesthetically, Rio is as beautiful as the people who inhabit it. I would argue there’s no major city in the world situated in as beautiful a location. The city is wrapped around several beaches, the most famous of which is Copacabana, a 4km crescent-shaped stretch of sand that symbolizes the city. Behind the city lies several jagged, uninhabitable green mountains. Because it’s so beautiful and has such scarce inhabitable land, real estate in Rio is the most expensive in South America.
But that’s just aesthetics. What really drew me back to Rio is the city’s vibe. Cariocas, or Rio residents, really know how to live. They look for any excuse to eat, drink, socialize, and have a good time. They don’t just go to the beach, they worship it.
I’ve visited over 40 countries and hundred cities, and I’d have to say that cariocas are the warmest and most affectionate people I’ve ever encountered. You see it a thousand different ways, from how a total stranger will gently squeeze your hand to get your attention, to how closely cariocas stand when they talk to each other, to how every email is signed either beijos (kisses) or abraços (hugs). Even the guy I bought an electronic accessory from on MercadoLivre, their eBay, sent me a hug.
Another charming quirk of Rio is how the city is fueled by sunshine. Last Thursday was the first sunny day all week, so even though it was a weekday the beach was packed. The city shuts down when it rains. People don’t even know what to do… everyone just wanders around in a confused stupor, seriously. But when the sun shines again the city jumps back to life. Surfers once again carry their boards through the streets, joggers run by the beach, and sunbathers dot the sand once more (or rather, scarce spots of open sand dot the spaces between them.)
They have a free outdoor gym in Ipanema called Muscle Beach, modeled after the one in Venice Beach, California. Although the one in California is dominated by body builders, the one in Rio is just full of regular tan Brazilians wearing just enough active wear to cover what’s legally required. There are also several “jungle gyms for adults” up and down the beach where one can do pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. As you can imagine, the carioca body is a fit one.
Rio is like Los Angeles, California, in the sense that it’s all about the beach, sunshine, and living for the moment. The carioca would much rather sit at a beachside bar drinking a suco (fresh fruit juice) or caipirinha (cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime) than see an opera. It’s fair to say that they aren’t the most cultured people in the world, but cariocas are amongst the happiest.
Despite its many charms, Rio is far from a paradise. The city is burdened with some serious social problems. The gap between rich and poor in Rio is staggering, and the latter out-number the former by a very wide margin. Many of Rio’s lower class life in the favelas, or shanty towns, that dot the green hills overlooking Rio’s famous beaches. Ironically, the favela dwellers enjoy the best views in the city.
In poor neighborhoods in the US, law enforcement may be stretched thin. In the favelas, law enforcement literally doesn’t even exist. The government offers no public services in the favelas, although this is just now starting to change. There is no police presence save for a few corrupt cops in the pockets of the drug lords. There are no hospitals, no mail service, no fire stations… nothing. These entire massive neighborhoods are essentially just written-off by the rest of Rio’s society, which is astonishing considering that only a few meters separate Rio’s poorest favelas from its richest neighborhoods. The streets in the favelas don’t even show up on maps.
I visited a favela one afternoon with a Brazilian friend and it was an eye-opening experience. What struck me wasn’t the poverty as much as the anarchy. A mess of poorly cables strung cables bring illegal electricity and cable TV to homes, which range from a dirt-floor-and-tin-roof-huts to comfortable two-bedroom concrete apartments. The only restaurants are small open areas at the bottom of someone’s home with a few plastic tables and chairs. Name brand stores don’t exist. Sixteen-year-old boys working for the drug lords ride around on old Honda motorcycles with assault rifles strapped across their backs. Most adult men carry a handgun. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos from the favela because I was strongly advised to leave my camera, and wallet, at home.
Without any real government, the power vacuum in the favelas is filled by the drug lords, who act as tax collector, police, judge, jury, executioner, and occasional benefactor. There is a continual tension between the drug lords and the police, or at least those cops who aren’t paid off by them. The tensions reached a high point toward my last week in Rio, evidenced by a wave of violence that was pretty bad even by Rio’s standards. The media called it guerra civil, or civil war, which I think was a bit of an exaggeration. That said, dozens of cars and buses were burnt in the street, several dozen innocents were killed, and there was a palpable sense of fear in the city.
If you talk with a carioca they will readily admit that their city has many problems, but if you ask them if they’d live anywhere else they look at you like you’re crazy. By the way, ask a Brazilian if they know how to samba and they’ll give you a similar look… as if you’d asked them if they knew how to walk.
Rio’s charms far outweigh its problems though, and no matter where the rest of my travels take me, I know that I’ll always feel a degree of saudade, or deep longing, for a cidade maravilhosa.