The importance of the beach to the Brazilians can never be over emphasized. For many, especially in Rio de Janeiro, the beach is the city’s playground, park, sports’ facility, meeting place, bar and office all rolled into one. Life often revolves around the beach and no other city of such size has such perfect, beautiful and clean beaches on its doorstep.
The beach is the lifeblood of Rio de Janeiro. Babies are taken to the beach in their first few weeks of life. They learn to walk and play there. They grow up on the sand. As the children get older, the beach becomes their meeting place, at first under the watchful eye of Mum and Dad, and then, alone. Carioca boys first discover Carioca girls on the beach and vice versa. Romances blossom and one day grow to marriage; before long there is a new generation of children on the beach and so the life cycle begins again.
There is nothing very “touristy” about Brazilian beaches, and that includes those in Rio; they are a microcosm of Brazilian life. You are unlikely to meet anyone who has been bored on a Brazilian beach. There is just too much to watch and enjoy.
The bikini was born in Rio and has been growing up there ever since. A Brazilian bikini is in a class of its own, often copied but never equalled. Women love them and the men love them even more.
Brazil leads the fashion world when it comes to bikinis, which is not surprising when you consider the amount of time the average Brazilian girl spends on the beach. Most European or North American designers would throw their hands up in horror at the thought of trying to set a new fashion trend each year with only the size of a bikini to work with, but Brazilian designers somehow seem to manage. Each summer there is a subtle change in shape and the introduction of new colours that date previous costumes as “last year’s”.
Virtually every boutique carries a line of bikinis and swimwear although some of the most popular and fashionable are to be found at Blue Man, Bum-Bum and Salinas, all of which have branches in the top shopping centres in Rio. Bikinis make excellent presents.
The perfect accompaniment to the feijoada is a caipirinha, arguably Brazil’s greatest contribution to mankind.
Caipirinha is a wonderful drink, prepared by chopping a lemon or lime into a glass, peel and all. You then crush out the juice using a little wooden mortar. To the crushed lemon or lime, add ice, sugar and a dose of cachaça. Simple, but very effective.
The secret ingredient, cachaça, is made from crushed sugar cane and not unlike rum, although with a flavour that is quite distinctly its own. Cachaça comes in varying strengths and qualities and somehow still remains one of Brazil’s better-kept secrets, although in Brazil over 1.5 billion litres will be consumed each and every year. A further 15 million litres will be drunk outside the country.
Some people, who find cachaça to be a little potent, or can’t get hold of it when they leave Brazil, base their caipirinhas on either rum or vodka, but just once make sure you try the real thing; ask for a caipirinha de cachaça.
If you want to take some cachaça home with you, buy it at the local supermarket or at the airport if you don’t want to put it in your suitcase. You will be surprised just how cheap a bottle can be. Leading brands include 51, Germana, Leblon, Magnifica, Pitú, Sagatiba, Santo Grau, Velho Barreiro, and Ypioca.
Complementing the bikini is a large square of material called a canga, a familiar sight on the beaches of Rio and the rest of Brazil for both men and women. Although no more than a piece of material which is often used to lie on instead of a towel, the canga is transformed into many different styles of dress to walk to and from the beach in. With a canga, imagination is everything.
If Brazil is known internationally for one product, that product would have to be coffee.
Still today one of Brazil’s most important exports, coffee has taken the name of Brazil into countless homes around the world.
When you arrive in Brazil you will realize that the song–writer who wrote: “There is an awful lot of coffee in Brazil” was not joking. Brazilians drink an enormous amount of coffee, an amount that is taken in small “doses” throughout the day known as cafezinho (literally “small coffee”). On an average working day a Brazilian, rich or poor, can expect to drink anything from 8 to 15 of these little demitasses.
Most Brazilians take their coffee quite sweet and some people say that it is the Brazilian sugar that makes the coffee so special. Normally you can expect to be offered the sugar to put in to your cup before the coffee is poured. In offices, supermarkets and other places, you may find the sugar has already been added to the coffee. If so, ask for your coffee sem açúcar (“without sugar”).
If you want to take some coffee back home with you the easiest place to buy it is at the supermarket where you can see a wide variety, all of good quality. Ground coffee comes in sealed packs but for an extra long life try those like Melita that come vacuum packed. If you can’t get to a supermarket, don’t worry. Both beans and powder are on sale at the airports in specially designed travel boxes.
Sets of small Brazilian coffee cups are on sale in most good gift shops and can certainly be found in all the major shopping centres and at the airport.
Favela (Shanty Towns)
Brazil’s favelas, especially those in Rio, are often very pretty, picture postcard pretty in fact, but from a distance – a distance the visitor should maintain and respect unless on a recognized tour.
Favelas, as portrayed in the Oscar nominated City of God and Tropa de Elite, are Rio’s main areas of poor housing that often have grown up on hillsides where nobody else had any interest in the land. Today, the big established favelas, such as Rocinha, Vidigal and the Complexo do Alemão, have complicated infrastructures and the government supplies them with electricity and water, and even a cable car system in the case of the Complexo.
Ninety–five per cent or more of the people who live in favelas have committed one crime only: they are poor. Most are law abiding citizens who work in low paid jobs. There is, however, a small element that lives in the favela who are hardened criminals, most of whom are involved in the drug trade. Foreigners, no matter how long they have been in Rio, or how well they speak Portuguese, should never, ever venture into the favelas, however enticing they may look, unless with a guide or a resident of the favela who knows their way around.
The best favela tour in Rio, and the pioneer of favela tourism, is organized by Marcelo Armstrong. Marcelo takes either individuals or groups to visit the favela Vila Canoas close to São Conrado, as well as the larger Rocinha. The three-hour tour gives a very clear idea how the favela is structured and you will visit the school, craft centres, as well as the houses. Marcelo can be contacted in Rio on 3322-2727 or at www.favelatour.com.br.
Please remember that no Brazilian or Carioca will think you are brave or clever just because you have walked alone through a favela, they will just think you are mad. As a foreigner you run a serious risk of being kidnapped or hurt if you walk through a favela and take a wrong turn.
Rio’s contribution to the national cuisine is feijoada, a dish that is served throughout Brazil.
Not the most visually attractive of dishes, the feijoada is based on black beans, a staple item in every Brazilian diet. A type of stew, although calling feijoada a stew is like calling champagne a fizzy drink, the ingredients of feijoada are many and include dried beef, bacon, salt cured pork and ribs, various types of sausages, and most importantly the ear, tail and trotter of a pig. The above will be served with white rice, farofa (fried manioc flour), kale, sliced oranges and a hot pepper sauce. Because feijoada is a heavy meal, by any standards, it is traditionally served for Saturday lunch. This tradition holds true today with many restaurants and nearly all the hotels making Saturday presentations of a full feijoada.
A visitor would be well advised to try their first feijoada at one of the main hotels where the ingredients are presented separately and there is somebody on hand to explain what goes where and with what. Although most hotels and restaurants specialize in feijoada on Saturday they do offer other dishes for those who find feijoada a little too much to handle.
June, which is virtually mid-winter in Brazil, sees the celebration of the feasts of Saint Anthony (June 13), Saint John (June 24) and Saint Peter (June 29) that are honoured by the “festas juninas”.
The celebrations, held by both rich and poor, are steeped in folklore, in which the participants dress as typical peasants from the interior, the boys in checked shirts and jeans with a neckerchief and straw hat, the girls in their “best” dress and hair tied up in bunches. The music played is from the interior of Brazil and the parties normally take place around a large bonfire or barbecue where hot drinks are served.
The sky during the time of the festas juninas is often lit up by huge balloons that carry below them elaborate patterns of burning candles that unfortunately not always drift safely out to sea.
Figa & Fitinha
Most countries have their good luck charm and Brazil’s is the figa. Once you are given a figa it stores up all the luck you haven’t used, but be careful not to break or lose it as that will cut off your supply of stored luck.
A clenched fist with the thumb extended between the second and third finger, a figa should only be received as a gift. You should never buy one for yourself. Figas come in all sizes and are made of every sort of material, from wood to gold.
Another very popular good luck charm comes from the state of Bahia and is a simple, blessed ribbon – a fitinha – which is tied around the wrist (or ankle) in three knots. Each knot represents a wish. The luck comes when the ribbon rots through and falls off. The ribbons, often stamped with “Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia“, come in many colours and each colour has a meaning and represents a certain orixá or deity. Light blue for Iemanja, the Goddess of the Sea, for example.
Brazilian soccer is unique; it is the most exciting brand of the sport found anywhere in the world and Brazil is the only country to win five FIFA world titles. You will never be far from a game in Rio, even on the beach.
Guaraná, in its natural form, is a Brazilian shrub, the berries of which can be ground down to form a powder with “magical” qualities. Containing 5% caffeine, guaraná has similar properties to coffee in that it is a nerve stimulant and restorative. Many Brazilians dilute the guaraná powder (available at health food shops) and use it as a pick–me–up, sometimes mixing it in with their orange juice at breakfast.
The majority of Brazilians drink the commercialized soft drink that retains some of the guaraná flavour, but little else. Guaraná, Brazil’s Coca-Cola, is served at every restaurant and bar and you should find it a refreshing and stimulating soft drink that you will be looking out for at your local supermarket when you get home.
Brazil is blessed with deposits of practically every kind of gemstone and precious metal, and in many cases holds over 90 percent of all the world’s known reserves. Brazilian jewels and jewellers are known throughout the world; only at the time you may not have recognized them as being Brazilian. Brazil offers the chance for the visitor to feel like a millionaire because even the smartest looking jewellers have stones and settings to fit almost every budget and the prices, for even the top gemstones, are normally only a fraction of what you might expect to pay in other countries.
The most famous name in Brazilian jewellry is H. Stern who justifiably call themselves jewellers to the world with over 160 stores in 12 countries. H. Stern was founded with $200 in capital back in 1946 by Hans Stern, and is still run by the family having grown to become the fourth largest jeweller in the world.
You won’t need any guide to find the jewellers in Rio, they are impossible to miss. H. Stern and Amsterdam Sauer have stores in most of the main hotels, they are also present in all the main shopping centres, and in case you forgot that last minute gift, you will find them at the airport as well.
Jogo do Bicho (Game of the Animals)
Brazilians love to gamble but rarely get the chance to legally. Out of illegality has grown the Jogo do Bicho – the game of the animals.
Invented in Rio de Janeiro by Baron Drummond in the 1870s to raise money for improvements to the city zoo, it was based around the idea of giving each visitor a ticket with a certain animal on it. At the end of the day a winning animal was drawn and those holding corresponding tickets would receive a cash prize. The result was announced by the hoisting of a flag depicting the winning animal above the zoo.
The Jogo do Bicho was so successful that the zoo paid off its improvements and scrapped the game, but the game was not to die and today, although clandestinely, the game thrives in Rio and other cities, the profits, it is said, going to help finance parts of carnival.
Macumba, like voodoo, appears both exciting and romantic to the visitor, but many of these forget that macumba is a religion to a large proportion of the Brazilian population and should be treated and respected as such.
To explain macumba, which covers both candomble and umbanda, would need a book and not a small web site. Loosely macumba has its roots in various African and Indian rituals but it has developed over time to become characteristically Brazilian, a religion that is followed by young and old, rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated.
The belief in macumba is that the spirits, both good and evil, many of which have a corresponding saint in the Catholic religion, influence all aspects of our lives. It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church in Brazil must “tolerate” macumba or risk losing many Catholics who would move totally over to macumba.
Macumba rites are performed in a location called a terreiro. These can be found all over Brazil, including Rio, but do remember that they are places of worship and not a tourist attraction. There is not one terreiro that we can recommend although tour companies do arrange visits that are tourist oriented. If you are genuinely interested in finding out what goes on, speak to someone at your hotel desk. The chances are that many people working at the hotel will be linked to a terreiro. If they see your interest is genuine, they will normally be happy to take you along, but please leave the camera at home. If you want to take pictures, go on an official tour.
Brazil is one, if not ‘the’ most musical nation on earth. The people are naturally musical and the cities vibrate to their own distinctive beat, and the most varied and diverse rhythms from north to south, east to west capture the heart and feet of the listener.
A visitor not in the know could be forgiven for thinking that Brazilian music is samba and nothing else. In truth samba is only one Brazilian sound, albeit an important sound that has its roots buried deep beneath the city of Rio de Janeiro and Carnival. But Brazil as a whole is more than samba and the music covers an immense spectrum of styles that include forms as diverse and regional as home–grown Brazilian country and western, bossa nova, all the way to good old rock’n roll and even Brazilian heavy metal, funk, hip-hop and electronic. And then there are the styles you may never have heard of: frevo, baião, coco, xaxado, tropicalismo, maracatu, choro and the Jovem Guarda, and that’s just for starters.
Names to look out for to listen to or go and see include:
Male: Arnaldo Antunes – Jorge Benjor – João Bosco – Carlinhos Brown – Chico Buarque – Roberto Carlos – Djavan – Fagner – Seu Jorge – Kassin – Lenine – Gilberto Gil – João Gilberto – Ivan Lins – Ney Matogrosso – Sergio Mendes – Ed Motta – Edu Lobo – Milton Nascimento – Lulu Santos – Toquinho – Alceu Valença – Caetano Veloso – Tom Zé.
Female: Leny Andrade – Anitta – Maria Bethânia – Adriana Calcanhoto – Ana Carolina – Nana Caymmi – Ceu – Cibelle – Paula Fernandes – Maria Gadú – Bebel Gilberto – Gal Costa – Rita Lee – Claudia Leitte – Marina – Vanessa da Mata – Daniela Mercury – Margareth Menezes – Marisa Monte – Pitty – Zizi Possi – Ivete Sangalo – Simone – Elba Ramalho – Maria Rita.
Groups: AfroReggae – Banda Mel – Capital Inicial – Cidade Negra – Ira! – Kid Abelha – Monobloco – Nação Zumbi – Olodum – Paralamas do Sucesso – Sepultura – Titãs – Tribalistas.
Although Rio has many samba stars, the ones that are most compatible with the “gringo” ear are Beth Carvalho, Alcione, João Nogueira, Martinho da Vila, Paulinho da Viola and Zeca Pagodinho.
And let us not forget the late greats, a list that must be headed by Tom Jobim, Elis Regina, Dorival Caymmi and Heitor Villa-Lobos, as well as groups like Engenheiros do Hawai and Legião Urbano.
You can check which of the big names are likely to be playing in Rio at Tickets For Fun.
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Christopher Pickard – Brazil the Guide – Critical Divide
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