It’s Carnaval month in Brazil, and I’m only too sad to have missed it by, well, six months. So I’m putting my saudade into this post (and yes, I’m listening to Tom Jobim while I write).
I spent the summer of 2009 in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, doing research for my MSc dissertation. Just over a month in the country left me both wonderfully revitalised and seriously embittered. I returned to London with a bizarre broken heart, desperate to continue experiencing more of the country I’d only partially discovered, as well as angry at not only how many problems face the country, but also how they’re so often overlooked in the northern hemisphere. The problems are not as rife as we are led to believe, but they certainly are far more serious.
I will be the first to admit that I did have a particular perception of the country before I set foot in it. I’ll place the blame on the bossa nova and samba tracks clogging up my laptop battery, and stories from others of samba 24/7 and capoeira on the beach. But the northern/western perception of Brazil consists of the following: Rio de Janeiro first, and then Rio itself comprises samba, Ipanema and Copacabana, football, favelas and muggings. (For the record, the closest I got to danger was hearing a couple of distant gunshots from my room one night. Pure luck had it so that I was never mugged or in the presence of someone pointing a firearm at me.)
From the very small section of Brazil I saw, it was clear that stereotype and the reality did not match up. Perhaps because I was a) not there as a tourist, and b) routinely speaking to civil society actors and NGOs, I found the country’s social inequalities to be more noticeable than bronzed bodies dancing to samba drums in Copacabana. The side-by-side living of the extremely rich and extremely poor was unmissable. Rio’s Sao Conrado area is as plush as they come, with a vast beach on one side and mountains housing glamorous condos on the other. Right next to it sits Rocinha, the biggest favela in South America.
The attitudes beneath the divides also struck me. I was fortunate enough to stay in the relatively safe area of Leblon, but I found the lush district to house a certain type of person living in a bubble, likely to blame all of Rio’s crime on the kids of the favelas that sweep down into the city, but who also apparently get ‘enough government support because creches have been built in the slums’. Missing was the realisation that the strategic kids who rob the rich do so because they are utterly desperate. This trivialisation of poverty was also found in the tourist traps of favela tours (I spotted one tour car and could not tell the difference between it and a safari truck). Admittedly, however, most Brazilians I met looked upon such tours with total disdain.
Yet, in spite of all of this (and I’m only touching on one of Brazil’s several social problems), I did adore the parts of the country I saw. True to form, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever had the pleasure of living in. Brazil is an extremely welcoming place, the atmosphere is relaxed, and you definitely feel as though you’re in the midst of a country going through exciting and organic transitions (just looking at the politically-charged graffiti strewn across Rio or Vila Madalena was proof of this). It was refreshing to be in a developing democracy that, unlike the UK, was not stagnating but growing up.
I’ll conclude with a link to one of my favourite bossa nova tunes, which I listened to as I strolled along Ipanema beach on one of my first days in Rio. Some cliches you just shouldn’t avoid.