This summer’s FIFA World Cup of football has attracted many tourists to Brazil but now the event is over, what else can this country offer you?
This blog post from our friend and fellow writer Jaap Peter Nijboer zooms in on the vivid urban life of south-east of Brazil, providing you with background information on this destination.
Ordem e progresso. When I quote this motto borne by the Brazilian flag, my friend Henrique starts grinning. ‘It’s crazy,’ he says with a shake of the head.
Ordem e progresso means order and progress and according to Henrique, who’s from Sao Paulo, this country is a long way from achieving these goals.
Henrique’s Sao Paulo is one giant metropolis. Brazilians tend to call it Selva de Pedra; Jungle of Stone. Just like in Rio, here people’s hospitality started with serving me food. First we slurped a broth followed by meat; a lot of meat. The dish consisted of pork knees, bulls neck and dried beef.
Brazilians eat an abnormal amount of animal proteins, including cheese. Every meal is accompanied by feijao (black beans). No convenient canned beans, but a tasteful speciality that’s cooked fresh. Rice is also a common accompaniment.
A typical budget restaurant in Brazil sells dishes per kilograma (you’ll find these restaurants by looking for this name). Designing your own dish with small ready-to-eat portions from the diverse buffets is an interesting way of discovering the culinary culture of Brazilians. After filling your plate, an employee weighs it and you pay for your food per kilogram.
Ordem: Order in Brazil
For a long time Brazil’s favelas (slums) were controlled by armed mafia-like drug lords and their subordinates.
Around the year 2000, the special anti-drugs police force BOPE ended the status-quo between violent drug dealers and corrupt police officers.
If the film Tropa da Elite is to be believed, many of Rio’s slums have been ‘purified’ or ‘cleansed’ in recent years, especially in the months leading up the World Cup, with BOPE entering favelas and ‘getting rid’ of drug dealers who lived locally.
Possibly this operation has led to more safety and less drug addiction. So called ‘order’. However the BOPE aren’t exactly peace-loving men either. Was getting rid of these drug dealers purification wanted by the people living in the slums (or favelas as they’re known locally)? And has corruption now been eliminated?
One of the typical aspects of the world’s view on Brazil is the presence of the favelas.
I find Brazil’s stereotype of being the only country with slums in South America somewhat false, as other Latin-American countries are in my view ‘worse’. For example, Potosi, Sucre and Uyuni in Bolivia are all surrounded by slum-like neighbourhoods.
In Brazil’s cities it feels like there’s a ‘middle class twilight zone’ between the centre of the city and the favelas, where labourers and other people with similarly-skilled professions live.
But there’s no doubt the favelas do exist in Brazil. More than 20% of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in these areas and when you visit the city you’ll see unfinished, roofless houses on the city’s surrounding hills.
When in Rio as a tourist you have the chance to take a favela tour but we decided not to do it.
Why? We felt that buses full of gawking tourists will not make the locals happier about their situation. We did consider the offer of staying at a friend’s house in the favela Vidagal but in the end we decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
Since the BOPE operations, favelas are said to be safer but Lonely Planet and other sources still heavily discourage walking into the slums on your own. I felt I was able to feel the artistic yet sad vibe of the favelas best when seated in the budget bus driving me from Rio’s main bus station to other cities.
It might sound strange, but I think I actually had my best Rio experience on an urban bus. Imagine this: a slightly maniacal bus driver challenges the law of gravity while curling around the lovely bay of Botafogo. Blue ocean on your right, Cristo Redentor (the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer) on your left. It was like being alive in another world.
Although these bus drivers share unwritten rules, the situation on the road is far from the traffic order we’re used to in the west.
And another observation? In Brazil many people sell stuff informally, without contributing to the nation by paying taxes. It’s a grey market.
So is there order? Not really…
Progresso: Progress in Brazil
“Esta ciudad no duerme,” or “this city doesn’t sleep”, is how Henrique described Sao Paulo, which is the economic engine of the country.
The impressive non-stop bustling Mercado Municipal (do not walk past this market without trying the huge mortadella bun) is maybe the best example of a thriving middle class. In this busy market there’s no dirty wet corridors filled with animal remains, fish blood and flattened vegetables, like I’ve seen in the large cities in Bolivia and México.
Henrique and I talk about the headquarters of Brazil’s hard-working middle class – Sao Paulo. And visiting this market I can see all around me that there’s a lot of cash flowing into this middle class market.
It’s easy to see how there’s a B for Brazil making up the BRIC acronym. True, an advanced social security system is still missing within this oh-so-large country. But for how long will it remain this way?
In the city Petropolis, about two hours from Rio de Janeiro, I met a group of people from the union of young socialists (UJS). They talked to me about their fight for equal educational chances. I guess their presence is no surprise.
In my view, the second word of Brazil´s national slogan, ‘progress’, is visible in the country that has been independent of the Portuguese since 1822. Societies springing up like these ones – parties that are pushing for progress – are demonstrating progress in their unique ways.
No matter whether there is order or progress or not, there’s no doubt Brazil offers interesting food, adventurous bus rides and stunning views. And this, to me, should give us all the more reason to visit.