(Me on the iconic mosaic promenade next to Copacabana beach on the one rainy day)
I recently spent 10 terrific days in Rio de Janiero and Paraty, Brazil.
It was more vacation than fact-finding so I skipped Sao Paulo and the normal set of meetings I would have arranged to discuss the politics and economics of the place. My impressions, then, are less intellectual and more experiential.
1. City / Beach. The beaches of Rio are stunning. But there are stunning beaches all over the world. Rio is different because a big, bustling city juts up right against the beach. As you lie on white sand, in front of you is ocean, islands, and green trees. Behind you are tall buildings, and hills packed with small homes. There is a certain allure to the remote island beach. But those places usually lack good infrastructure nearby. The Rio beaches are as beautiful as any I've seen, and there are plenty of bathrooms, food markets, showers, wi-fi, etc. nearby.
2. People. The Brazilian people were super energetic, diverse, friendly, and of course, very beautiful. I spent a good hour sitting on a beach chair on Copacabana beach, drinking a fresh coconut, and just watching all the people bustle around me. (And then several more hours reading books.) The racial diversity among beachgoers was striking. The commitment to string bikinis, even among 75 year-old 150-pounds overweight women, was impressive.
3. Safety. I've never traveled to a place where I had heard so many first-hand accounts of people robbed or mugged. Statistically, too, it's supposed to be bad: it is the top-ranked city in the world for "violent international deaths." This reputation probably explains why we saw so few Americans. I didn't feel unsafe at all, though. Granted, I stayed in the nicer neighborhoods and didn't wander around centro at night. But I felt more exposed in Buenos Aires than I did in Rio, and that includes comparing the airports and bus stations.
4. Paraty. This is a small colonial town in-between Rio and Sao Paulo. It is a lovely, sleepy place, with cobble stone streets downtown, beautiful ocean-front views, and rural dirt roads. Boat rides, horse riding, and plain old hiking all easily available.
5. Soccer. Soccer was everywhere. Truly, everywhere. Rich and poor, young and old. On beaches, on grass fields, on cement courts, on dirt paths. It makes sense that Brazil is a soccer power: when the best athletes in a country of 190 million people are funneled into one sport, they're bound to be good.
6. Favelas. We went on a tour of two Rio favelas, the famous shanty towns / slums erected on public land and run primarily by drug lords. There's much poverty. Some live underground and access the above-ground world via a maze of tunnels and ladders. Still, there is quite a functioning society in the favelas. Every store you could imagine. Banks. TVs. Etc. The main story doesn't seem to be jaw-dropping objective poverty (India is far worse) but rather the proximity of poverty to the wealth of Rio. The American School in Rio costs some $30k a year to attend and sits literally three minutes away from a favela. We were told on the tour that different drug cartels run different favelas but since they guarantee safety to the people (so long as they don't report any activity) the drug-run hoods are quite safe to live in. When police catch a kingpin from one cartel they will simply drop him off on the streets of another favela to ensure his swift death. Oh – and my ears may have deceived me, but I thought I heard a kid yell at us on the tour, "They don't even care about us."
7. Kites. Brazilian kids are obsessed with flying kites. Especially in Paraty. This was so memorable that it's worth its own point.
8. Patriotism. The people seemed extraordinarily patriotic. Many donned the national colors. Flags draped buildings and cars. Maybe this was simply leftover World Cup fever. But I felt something more. The Rio Olympics in 2016 may serve for Brazil a similar purpose as the Beijing 2008 games did for China: an announcement to the world that Brazil, pregnant with potential seemingly forever, has at last arrived on the global stage.