A few people have asked me in recent days, “why are you going to Brazil?”
For me, the answer is very clear: “why would I NOT go to Brazil?” But I guess it’s understandable – for some reason, Brazil isn’t a country that Americans really know much about. We know it’s that big country in South America, and maybe we know that they speak Portuguese rather than Spanish, and we’ve all heard “The Girl From Ipanema” and references to Rio’s Carnaval and the images of beautiful, scantily-clad people (like Carmen Miranda) that it conjures. We might know it’s hosting the next World Cup and the summer 2016 Olympics and that soccer (or more correctly, football) is huge there. We might occasionally spot the Brazilian flag on flip flops. And the more internationally-focused of us might know that Brazil is one of the countries vying for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council or that its former president, Lula, made great strides in stabilizing Brazil’s economy and taking the edge off its enormous poverty.
But aside from these things, what do we really know about Brazil? For being such a huge country (it’s the 5th largest in the world in terms of both land mass and population!) we know surprisingly little about it. Here are some interesting facts:
- Voting is mandatory in Brazil between the ages of 18 and 70.
- Rio de Janeiro has a population of nearly 12 million (that makes it 1.5 times the size of New York City); São Paulo has a dizzying population of 20 million.
- Brazil ranks 57th on the list of education expenditures as a percent of GDP (behind the United States but ahead of Canada).
- The capitol is Brasilia, a city that was built from scratch in the last century.
- Brazil elected its first female president, Dilma Rousseff, in the fall.
- Unlike many of its South American neighbors, Brazil has a pretty strong currency: the real is currently worth about $1.50.
- Brazil was the first country in South America to accept women into the career ranks of its military branches.
- Slavery continued in Brazil long after it ended in the United States; it wasn’t abolished until 1888.
I’m excited to get a sense of the real Brazil (as much of it as I can get from staying in Rio de Janeiro). In addition to generally hanging out and observing life in “the marvelous city”, I’ve got a list of things that I hope will help me better experience Rio:
- Devote an afternoon to eating feijoada, Brazil’s national dish. (It’s so much food that it’s typically made only on the weekends because it takes so long to make… and to digest.)
- Become a connoisseur of cachaça and learn how to make the perfect caipirinha. (We’re checking out a place called the Academia da Cachaça in Ipanema.)
- Dance samba with a Rio native. (Preferably: dance samba well with a hot Rio native.)
- Get a more direct prayer line to God while standing at the base of the immense statue of Christ the Redeemer. (High up in the air + beautiful views + 130-foot-tall statue of Jesus = religious experience?)
- Find out whether something called Engov really prevents hangovers. (It’s available in pharmacies and contains “a cunning blend of antacids, antihistamines, aspirin, and caffeine” and is meant to be taken with the first and last drinks of a long night.)
- Add a new bizarre food to my list. (I’ve heard chicken hearts and pig ears are available, though neither will beat the jellyfish I ate in China in weirdness.)
- Speak as much Portuguese as possible. (When in doubt, try to speak Spanish before English.)
- Tour a favela (slum) – they’re not all as dangerous as the one depicted in the 2002 film “Cidade de Dios”, and the tours include opportunities to buy the art and handicrafts of the residents so that you give back to the community.
The journey begins in a few short hours. My friends Stacey and Mary are coming with me on this adventure; we leave BWI tonight for flights to Charlotte (short) and on to Rio (9 hours there, 11 hours back). We should be in Brazil around 9:15 tomorrow morning! We’ll take a bus from the airport to our hostel in Ipanema/Leblon, then figure out what to do first. (Given that the weather forecast while we’re there is pretty much 80 and sunny every day, it’ll be hard to avoid the beach at least once a day…)