South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Samba, carnival and sun-drenched frivolity are the city’s emblems, while dangerous riptides, turd-dotted waters and forlorn favelas form its tropical undertow. Just don’t confuse it with Brazil
Brazil is a victim of Rio de Janeiro’s success. No other city provides the imaginative portal into the kind of country that most people believe Brazil to be. Indeed, such is Rio’s imaginative weight that despite the vast expanse of Brazil’s Amazon, the megalopolis of São Paulo, the ranch lands of the south or, indeed, almost any other aspect of Brazil, the mind’s eye nearly always enters the nation through this “marvellous city”.
To fully appreciate how strange this situation is, it is as if France was thought of as being only Paris, or India only Kolkata, or Russia only St Petersburg. Perhaps because of Rio’s beauty, long history and the fact it was recently the capital, the city commands an even larger imaginative presence over most outsiders’ conception of national identity than these three remarkable cities do in their respective countries. Samba, carnival, beach volleyball and the Christ the Redeemer statue may all be typical images of Rio. But they are not true for the rest of Brazil.
For better or for worse, the strength of this imaginative grip is, I think, unique. It may also help explain why the Olympic committee made its fateful choice that Rio should host this year’s games. Rio, it may have thought, was more than a city; it was a country.
No doubt this will irk Paulistas, as São Paulo’s inhabitants are known. Certainly it feeds the two cities’ long rivalry – usually friendly, sometimes not (as on the soccer pitch). According to national stereotypes, Paulistas are sober, hardworking and punctual – the very antithesis of how Brazilians are often imagined.
By contrast, cariocas, as Rio’s inhabitants are known, are usually thought of as more fun-loving, lazy and sexy – leading languid lives around palm-fringed beaches. If Brazil were to be described in Italian terms, cariocas would be Neapolitans and Paulistas the industrious Milanese.
The turd-dotted waves of Copacabana beach, and the often vicious undertow of all of Rio’s beaches, can quickly disabuse this notion of a tropical paradise. Every year, Rio’s riptides see several hapless swimmers drown. The favelas in the hills that tumble down to the coastline also spoil the image – although not at night, when they sparkle with lights and poverty again seems picturesque. Rio is also the centre of a thriving hedge-fund industry and home to several of Brazil’s biggest companies, such as Vale and Petrobras.
Still, first-time visitors can be forgiven for thinking the city some kind of sybaritic idyll should they walk into a bank in an upscale neighbourhood such as Leblon or Ipanema, and see half-dressed cariocas waiting in line for a teller in their bathing suits. But this uniform of the daily grind is only for the lucky few.
When I think of Rio’s dangerous beaches, I am reminded of the dark undertow that is central to the idea of Tristes Tropiques, which Claude Lévi-Strauss described when he first landed in Rio on a packet steamer from France almost a century ago. In the travelogue that the anthropologist went on to write – one of the finest pieces of postwar travel writing anywhere – Lévi-Strauss was so spellbound by the beauty of a sunset that he spent several indulgent pages describing its shifting colours. But he then journeyed into the interior to chronicle Brazil’s disappearing Native American tribes, and his masterpiece took on a more sombre tone.
I have often witnessed that tropical undertow, although one Rio moment sticks in my mind. It was several years ago, when the economy was booming, and I was taking a break from an investor conference around the back of the Copacabana, a white wedding cake of a building that remains Rio’s most famous hotel. All of a sudden, a black limousine pulled up, and a senior politician stepped out. I was stunned to see her remove a piece of chewing gum from her mouth, and place it in the gloved hand of the attendant who opened the passenger door. It was my first encounter with President Dilma Rousseff, then energy minister, who now faces an impeachment trial – which may even culminate during these Olympic Games.
My own relationship with Rio is perhaps typical. I first visited the city a decade ago and fell in love. Given the circumstances, though, it could hardly have been any other way. I spent several days with a group of musicians practising for a recording. Their jamming sessions provided a glorious introduction to the richness and sophisticated architecture of Brazilian music – and its inventiveness (including, one night, a throwaway bossa nova version of a famous Led Zeppelin rock song). I look back on that reverie-filled week as a stairway to heaven, almost a first love. Like all first loves, though, it came to an end and I no longer confuse Rio with what I first wrongly imagined all of Brazil to be. Rio has a wondrous landscape – but it is not a country, let alone the continental land mass that is really Brazil.