I have now been in Spain for close to a month with BOSP Madrid. Posts on the Iberian Peninsula are in the pipeline. For the moment, though, I would like to present a cultural wrap-up on Brazil that I never had time to do while I was working in São Paulo this summer. If you are not yet excited for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, maybe this will get you started.
First, let it be known that São Paulo is not a conventionally beautiful city. Miles of concrete with few trees, vistas dominated by powerlines and graffiti, and a certain lack of cleanliness make it appear pretty bleak and inhospitable on cloudy days, of which there are a fair amount. Large parts of the city center are completely abandoned at night; there is one neighborhood called Cracolândia because its streets are literally full of crack addicts, who reside right next to the city’s most beautiful railway station. If you live any further than ten minutes by car from work, your daily commute is usually a pitched battle against jammed six-lane avenues, irregular U-turns, and the caprices of aggressive paulista drivers.
Yet São Paulo is unlike any other place I have seen, and I already miss it. The city has a cultural richness rivaling New York’s and plenty of charm if you know where to look. Its size is awe-inspiring. And to put it another way, São Paulo is the best answer to the question of what you would get if you stuck together 18 million Brazilians with a New York work schedule, an LA transit system, and the sensuality of Miami (which, coincidentally, has a large Brazilian population).
What’s more, São Paulo bears little resemblance to the rest of Brazil. The country is almost the size of the U.S. but far more regionalized, so that each state has its own traditions, holidays, food, dialects, and climate. Other Brazilian cities are magnificent in their own ways, and then beyond them is an ecological paradise with few parallels in the rest of the world.
O Povo Brasileiro
The Brazilian people are arguably the country’s greatest national treasure. Brazil is now so behind in its World Cup preparations that it will require many billions of reais more than originally projected, much of it for bribes, to get the country passably ready for the massive influx of people who will arrive in 2014.
However, sobering as that news may sound, it is the Brazilian people themselves who will make the event special, regardless of how efficient the roads are or how much capacity its hotels have (“inadequate” does not even begin to describe the situation in Rio).
Brazilians are exceedingly friendly, outgoing, and receptive of foreigners. Expect to hear “Seja bem-vindo!” [Welcome!] dozens of times upon arriving in the country. The phrase is probably a better approximation of Brazil’s national slogan than its official motto of “Ordem e progresso” [Order and Progress]. Without generalizing too much, I found throughout the country that Brazilians were some of the easiest people with whom to strike up a conversation I had ever encountered. On my last day, I was in the airport and had hilarious hour-long conversations with two people I had never met before, and may never see again, just because we happened to sit next to each other. This is commonplace in Brazil, even if you are in a busy urban metropolis like São Paulo.
This is not to say that everyone is Brazil is your next best friend. Brazil is also a huge country, full of crime and poverty. “Watch out for malandros,” Brazilians will tell you: the word refers to thieves who will take advantage of foreigners whenever given the chance. However, there are many ways to reduce encounters with such people–among them, going out and traveling with Brazilians you know and trust–and the payoff for meeting Brazilians remains immense.
For example, laughter is almost ubiquitous at any restaurant or bar, as Brazilians tend to be a joyous bunch who love making jokes and animating one another’s spirits. Brazilians usually sit in the front of taxis just to chat with the drivers, who will often drive better as they start to enjoy your company and offer to pick you up again at absurd hours of the night. It is hard to be sad around Brazilians for very long: showing depression is not considered socially acceptable. If you are living in Brazil, it can seem impossible to make a plan with anyone, especially someone of the opposite sex, since Brazilians have a more informal and flexible way of making commitments. However, in my case, just when I thought I would be abandoned to a night of solitude, the Brazilians I knew had this way of suddenly inviting me to something incredible, such as a jazz concert, a football match, a trip to a secluded beach, or traditional Italian pizza with seven Brazilian friends.
The topic of pizza is a good transition to Brazilian gastronomy, which deserves its own separate section.
Brazil had some of the best food I have ever tried, and in quantities to which I was not previously accustomed. One particular tradition that cannot be missed is churrasco, ideally in someone’s backyard, which is a type of all-afternoon barbeque with some of the most delicious, tender meat you will find anywhere. A meat and pork stew with beans called fejoiada is another national tradition, particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, though it is very heavy and not something you would likely eat all the time. Fish, cheese (especially Catupiry), fruit, and a Brazilian chocolate called brigadeiro are other standouts in Brazilian cuisine.
Also, São Paulo is famous for its Italian and Japanese food, since it has large populations of assimilated immigrants from both countries (in fact, the largest Japanese population outside Japan). The pizza in Brazil is much closer to that of Italy: thin crust, delicate, with touches of olive oil instead of the grease that typically dominates American pizza.
Brazilian sushi is a must-try, particularly temaki, a kind of cone-shaped sushi burrito usually made with salmon and rice.
Finally, a frank disclosure: Brazil is not yet a country for vegetarians. There are plenty of vegetarian options, but the concept of vegetarianism is still not widely accepted in many parts of the country. A representative anecdote: one time at dinner, a woman whose tastes I would consider pretty refined told me that when she eats steak, she likes it “bloody.” Everyone else at the table agreed.
Music, Art, and Sports
Brazil is a remarkably musical country. It boasts a dizzying array of musical styles, instruments, and performers, many of which never make it to the U.S. because Portuguese is not the most commercially accessible language. American music, on the other hand, is widely present in Brazil. You can expect to hear Top 40 hits and European-style club mixes of American pop at any major nightclub that is not specifically geared towards another genre of music.
However, if you stroll through any of the nightlife centers in the cities or the local bars in sleepier settings, you can also expect to encounter live music and dancing in abundance. Some of the most prominent genres include música popular brasileira (MPB), samba-funk, sertanejo, and forró, in addition to more recognizable types like rock, hip hop, and folk. That being said, without speaking Portuguese and understanding Brazilian history and culture, much of the country’s music will likely sound exotic but fail to leave a strong impression. Such is the nature of music in any practically foreign language, not just Portuguese!
The Brazilian art I encountered was impressive and provocative. In São Paulo, I would highly recommend going to the Pinacoteca to see exhibitions by national artists, since the city’s famous Museu de Arte de São Paulo focuses heavily on its monumental collection of historical European art. Brazilian street art is also widely recognized around the world for its unconventional, uniquely Brazilian traits, such as its depictions of urban migration and the chaotic nature of life in São Paulo. Brazilian architecture is very innovative as well, starting with the sensual concrete curves of Oscar Niemeyer.
Nevertheless, the Brazilians I met were not generally interested in “museum culture” the way American or European tourists usually are. For many Brazilians, the greatest Brazilian art is the sport of football, which despite the country’s poor recent showings on the international stage remains a fierce passion and source of pride for much of the population. If you are in Brazil, you simply need to go to a football match to understand its meaning to the Brazilian people. Watching a match on TV in a packed bar is another unique experience, though be sure not to use any of the words you hear there in a job interview!
Safety and Travel
As I mentioned before, safety in Brazil is a bit iffy. I felt pretty safe while I was there, but partly because I had traveled before to other developing countries and took a number of precautions to be less conspicuous (i.e., no nice watch, no showy clothes, and no talking on the phone in the street unless your back is to a wall). People in São Paulo get robbed and assaulted all the time, including some of my colleagues at work; there are several parts of the city where you should not go alone at night, and you have to know based on more colloquial knowledge. However, I have plenty of friends who have lived there all their lives without incident because they are careful.
I lacked the time to travel extensively this summer because of work, but traveling in Brazil offers innumerable possibilities. From secluded beaches to Amazon jungle to the European town of Gramado to the tropical cities of the North, Brazil has more than one could possibly explore in any short span of time. Since I did not get to visit those sites, however, I will instead close with a few comments on Rio de Janeiro, which I did have the great fortune to experience.
If you could only travel to one city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is probably the best choice, even if São Paulo is closer to my heart. Rio was the capital of Brazil until 1960, suffered forty years of decline, and has since experienced a rebirth that has included marked increases in safety, quality of life, and economic growth. The city’s beauty comes chiefly from the stunning, lush landscape that surrounds it. Its buildings are generally older and more decrepit. Many of the streets away from the beaches have dingy appearances that get progressively worse as you near the favelas, which are perched on the hills that overlook the city’s wealthier residents. Such realities ultimately form part of the city’s color, and the Cariocas (people from Rio) are admirable for openly embracing them.
While São Paulo radiates chaos and edginess, Rio is charming, relaxed, and outdoorsy. Sites like the Pão de Açucar and Cristo Redentor, despite their touristy nature, allow you to appreciate the city’s unique geography with incredible views, particularly at sunset. With these natural wonders and a festive, easygoing atmosphere, Rio in my book deserves its humble nickname of “Marvelous City.” Do not be surprised to pass a bar in Ipanema that looks utterly unremarkable and yet is packed into the street with throngs of young people sporting shorts, flip-flops, and Brahma chopps (draft beers). This, too, is Brazil at its best.