As you know I have been doing a lot of travelling on the cruise ships lately. In the last few weeks I have visited Lima, Acapulco, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Saipan, Japan, Montevideo, The Falklands and Buenos Aires. I did get the chance to spend some time on land to and two weeks off in Brazil gave me a taste for this vast and varied country whose people are as changing as its climates and landscapes. After over 500 years of post European settlement growth , I did find a few common threads of what it is to be Brazilian.Brazilians are friendly, open and sharing. All endearing qualities. They also like to talk. A lot. And you don’t have to say much back in return, they just talk anyway. I have had long conversations with Brazilians when they don’t seem to mind that I can hardly understand a word of it. To try to keep up I’ve been learning Portuguese, but it is slow going. One afternoon I stopped for tea at a lovely cafe just off Leblon beach when a girl from another table approached me, said something I didn’t quite get, and presented me with a bottle of water. I thought it was a strange gift and said “oh thank you! A present for me!” which made her laugh. After more explanation and mime to rival Jaques Tati, I realised she just wanted to me take the top off the bottle. Then I was there temperatures in Rio reached 42ºC, which probably explains why Brazilians shower 4 times a day and take hygiene and cleanliness very seriously. Almost every public toilet I visited had soap and hot water. Quite a contrast to Italy for example where taking in piss in the shadow of the Colosseum means paying a 93 year old “attendant” for access to medieval facilities with a serious risk of disease.
Brazilians don’t generally speak much English, or at least they don’t admit to it. I would start every conversation by asking (in Portuguese) “do you speak English” to which the reply was always “no”, without exception. But as soon as I would start having a go in Portuguese, they would reciprocate with their equally faltering English and somehow we’d get there in the end. Sometimes it became evident that they did actually speak very good English, but through modestly were reluctant to admit it. Of course, when they heard me stampeding all over their beautiful language they were less bashful.
Most educated Brazilians are suspicious of their (usually) corrupt politicians. They have a saying for them which roughly translates to “on the take, but gets things done”, meaning corruption is tolerated providing the politicians deliver. Talk of corruption always turns to Fernando Collor and his now murdered money man PC Ferias which spectacularly raised (some say) $7 billion from the public coffers before his boss was impeached in 1992. They never did find most of the missing money and Collor was recently re-elected in to public office. They say the people get the government they deserve, but I can’t help feel that the people of Brazil really do deserve better. Brazilians are proud of their country and every one I discussed this with was ashamed of Collor and what he had done to their country’s international standing.
Regardless of Vinicius de Moraes and his tall, tanned, young and lovely girl from Ipanema, Brazilians are not all beautiful to look at. Clever marketing perpetuated by Rio’s department of tourism does give the impression of beaches thronging with beauties (why do you think I went in the first place?) but as a rule, Brazilians look just like everyone else. Of course, there are exceptions. I did see a TV weather girl who constituted every (heterosexual) man’s dreams and every woman’s nightmare, the only thing uniting them being aspiration. The fact is that an hour stroll along Copacabana beach will present a hefty majority of obese men with tiny luminous swimsuits trickling through folds of fat, gasping for a glimpse of sun; and middle aged leathery women who always look good until you get too close.
If you’ve seen Cidade de Deus, Tropa de Elite, or Homem do Ano you’ll know a little of the dark side of Brazil and especially Rio.The favelas (slums), drugs, and corrupt police fuel an every growing crime rate. Astutely seeing the connection between poverty and crime, President Lula has committed US$1.7 in a serious attempt to develop the favelas with better utilities to try to improve the daily lives of Rio’s poor. Though much of the crime is restricted to certain areas almost everyone I spoke to has their own disconcerting anecdote that will make you want to stay indoors. What surprised me most was how seriously the Cariocas (residents of Brazil) took the ever present risk of crime. I thought they would tell me not to worry, and how the media exaggerated everything. They did not tell me this. They repeatedly told me how careful I had to be, to the point of insisting I even removed my (modest) rings and watch before leaving the house and not taking my camera downtown at all. I like to “get lost” in a city. Just wonder around aimlessly discovering the local spots off the beaten track (Shanghai is a great city for this). When I tried this in Rio and reported back to my friends how I walked through a tunnel at night right to the entrance of one of the larger favelas, they almost shat themselves and gave me a 30 minute lecture. It was a stupid thing to do, but not as stupid as when my friend and I decided to bypass the cable car and tried to climb Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) with our bare hands.
A waitress told us that if you walked part of the way up the mountain you could get the second part of the cable car for free. She said it was a nice 30 minute hike and the perfect way to work off feijoada (pork and black bean stew) and a couple of caipirinhas. Well we must have taken the wrong path because after 40 minutes the path was almost totally blocked by a large concrete pillar with a sign “Risk of Death - do not proceed without proper equipment and a trained guide”. We figured the sign was wrong and the waitress was right so we squeezed past the pillar and proceeded the climb the mountain. The first 20 minutes was quite fun with lots of capuchin monkeys and exotic birds to keep us company. We had the place to ourselves and the views of the bay were stunning. Things got progressively harder until we were confronted by a shear rock face where we noticed metal hoops screwed in to the stone and realised what the warning sign was all about.
Without the right gear it was impossible to climb. We decided to go down and my friend found an alternative route that he claimed was easier but soon presented another inevitably impossible rock face, this time going downwards. As we argued about the merits of this or the equally treacherous alternatives, I began to feel physically sick with worry and envisage images of us on the local news: “today two tourists tried to climb Sugarloaf in court shoes, and never made it”.
Far safer and just as exciting was hand-gliding in São Conrado It’s very popular in Rio and they say it’s one of the best spots in the world for it. Our pilot, a well know local with 30 years experience and his own extreme sports TV show, assured us that it’s very hard to get die hand-gliding (there are about one in 116,000 deaths actually), though there were eight accidents in Carnaval week.
Taking a running jump off a cliff strapped to a stranger underneath a green canvas sheet is slightly disconcerting, but the views of the effortlessly photogenic Guanabara Bay will take your breath away. In my case this seven minutes of reverie, gliding to down to the beach was quickly broken by an ignominious crash landing when a sly thermal dumped us face down in the sand - much to the amusement of onlookers.
After Rio I visited the staggering waterfalls at Foz do Iguazu that borders three countries: Brazil, Argentina (with the best views) and Uraguay. The views are spectacular.
Finally Brasilia, the capital in the interior, mainly to see the iconic architecture of Oscar Niemeyer; and the seaside resort of Natal where I made great friends with the local mosquitos - twenty-eight in fact, in one night! I told it was a friendly country.