As we land in Rio after an uneventful ten hour flight, I pinch myself to make sure that I am not in some strange dream. If you had told me during my formative years that I would one day visit this corner of the globe, I would have said that you’re talking to the wrong person. Growing up in America in the 1980’s, I distinctly recall viewing news reports about the major problems facing this neck of the woods. Stories of CIA backed coups, narcotic fueled civil wars, and high crime rates meant that this continent was not high on my list of possible holiday destinations. Over the past thirty years, however, much progress has been made with regards to many of these challenges. This seems to be particularly true with regards to Brazil. This transformation can hopefully serve as a positive example to other parts of the globe who today are experiencing so much violence and instability.
Before departing on this trip, I had certain expectations as to how I would be received upon arrival in Rio. At the very least, I would be greeted by glorious weather including golden sunshine and a cool breeze emanating from the Atlantic Ocean. You can imagine my disappointment then as I look out the plane’s window to see that the skies are filled with clouds and a light rain is falling on the runway. It never occurred to me that this tropical paradise could experience such bad weather. The other great expectation I have is that I will be welcomed at the airport by throngs of beautiful Brazilian women. Desperately wanting to get to know me better, several of them will undoubtedly whisk me away to the best clubs in the city where we will listen to music and dance the samba. As I now step off the plane, however, it appears that the only people who have come to greet me are airport employees and my fellow tourists. In fact, I don’t see one single individual dressed in the attire necessary for a night of dancing and partying. What’s going on here? Did I arrive in the wrong country? I guess some places just don’t live up to their reputations.
Having made my way through customs without a hitch, I take a taxi to my hotel located thirty minutes from the airport. Situated right across the street from Leme Beach, I chose to stay in this area due to its reputation for having a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. That it is also reported to be significantly safer than the more famous Copa Cabana sealed the deal for me. As my cab slows down and pulls up to the curb, I am confronted by a tall, bland, concrete tower which looks like it was built sometime in the 1960s. Despite this less than stellar exterior, the inside of this establishment is quite nice with a sleek lobby and a spacious room reserved for me on the sixth floor. Having not slept a wink during my long overnight flight, I contemplate taking a nap on the queen sized bed in the corner of the room. Before lying down, however, I look out the window to see if the rain I was met with at the airport has intensified or merely remained the same. You can imagine my surprise then when I see that most of the clouds have burned off and it looks like it might turn out to be a nice day.
Putting my nap on hold, I head downstairs and walk across the street to get a close up look at Leme Beach. Admiring the intricate stone mosaic sidewalks that run parallel to the ocean, I am genuinely impressed by the beauty of this area. I then walk eastward and come across several outdoor bars where beachgoers can order a wide assortment of drinks and snacks only steps from the ocean. I hesitantly approach one of these establishments and attempt to place an order by communicating in Portuguese. Failing miserably, I point to a drink that another customer just ordered and am handed a coconut with a hole drilled in it. Having never tried this exotic beverage before, I had always assumed that the liquid inside would taste like milk. In fact, coconuts have a fresh watery flavor which is a pleasant surprise for my taste buds on this warm sunny day. Relaxing in my chair at the bar and looking back at the picturesque scenery of Leme and Copacabana beaches, I am starting to realize why this city is so beloved by visitors from all around the globe.
After getting my fill of sunshine, I return to my hotel in search of badly needed sustenance and rest. After raiding the mini bar, I lie down on the bed and flip through the channels to see what Brazilian television has to offer. Having established that I have my choice of six local football matches, I instead switch over to the BBC World News to see if a civil war has broken out in my homeland. I then turn off the television and feel a sense of pride that my home country has persevered in spite of my absence. As my eyes become heavy from exhaustion and I start to lose consciousness, I am jolted back into reality by a text message sent from my friend who lives nearby. After confirming with them that I have reached my hotel safe and sound, we agree to meetup for dinner later tonight.
As evening approaches, I take a taxi to the Santa Teresa section of Rio and embark upon one of the most unique automotive experiences of my life. The trek begins normal enough as we drive away from the beach and head in the direction of downtown Rio. After about ten minutes, however, my driver suddenly takes a sharp left hand turn. It is here where we begin our ascent up a steep cobble stoned road which causes the taxi to shake like a blender on full power. Why on earth did the local authorities design this road in such an uncomfortable and annoying manner? It then occurs to me that maybe it was done intentionally in order to deter outsiders from visiting this exclusive neighborhood. We mercifully reach my destination and I spot my friend at a nearby café. Santa Teresa seems to be living up to its reputation as a cool and relaxed neighborhood with a slight bohemian bent. The bars and restaurants seem to be overwhelmingly inhabited by middle class locals in their twenties and thirties. Also, many of the residential buildings nearby appear to have great views of downtown Rio and feature gardens that contain a wide assortment of tropical vegetation. The combination of urban sophistication and jungle exotica makes this area an ideal place to live and would definitely be near the top of my list were I to relocate.
After walking around Santa Teresa for fifteen to twenty minutes, we finally decide on a restaurant/bar that is known for its wide selection of local beers. Grabbing a table near the front of this establishment, my friend and I chat about the usual subjects including mutual friends and what we’ve been up to for the past couple of years. What I do not expect, however, is that we will be thrice entertained by a Brazilian art form I was previously unaware of. After placing our beer orders with the waiter, a patron standing by the bar suddenly drops a bottle on the floor that shatters into a hundred pieces. Midway through our meal, someone in the back of the restaurant knocks several plates off their table causing a loud crash. Finally, after requesting our check, a large object flies past me and crashes into the empty chair to my left. This object turns out to be a young woman who fell backwards in her chair. But unlike the bottle and plates before her, it appears that no structural damage has been done. The fact that the chair she crashed into is made of wicker is the most likely reason why medical attention is not needed.
After helping her to her feet, I couldn’t help but notice that all three of these incidents received the same response from the other patrons. The response I’m referring to is the enthusiastic cheers and applause that one might expect to hear at the end of a classical music performance. This is quite a departure from the small smattering of sarcastic claps and awkward looks you might find at a bar in the US. At first I am not really sure what to make of this collective response. Perhaps they are just making fun of these patrons who have clearly had too much to drink. But as I return to my hotel room later that night, it suddenly dawns on me as to what I have just witnessed. I have finally seen up close that zest for life that people from Rio are so famous for. After failing to find this spirit at the airport this morning, I am relieved to learn that it’s not a once a year occurrence that only takes place during the season of carnival. Rather, it appears to be a way of life for most of the inhabitants of this city. While many of my countrymen back in the US go through their adult lives feeling stressed out and overworked, people here in Rio seem to have figured out how to remain positive and upbeat in spite of the difficulties they face. Although I have not done any research on this matter and have only been in the country for a day, I am willing to bet that this outlook on life results in higher levels of happiness and less dependence on anti-depressant drugs. Although Brazil is far from perfect, it’s clear that there is much we in the US can learn from this culture.