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Published: January 11th 2009
Being in Brazil is like being in a country full of Fernando Botero's work come to life: plenty of amazingly big, fat people. And at the seaside they're not reticent about putting it all on display. Sides of beef in bikinis and speedos. Clearly, this is informed by a point of view that values a slim figure and health and it's just an observation; it's not meant pejoratively. But it's beach life, it's their beach and they grew up beside it or have earned a vacation here and deserve it.
Brazilians come in an vast range of shapes, sizes and colours and it's here that you see the genetic presence of Africans more than elsewhere in South America. Brazil is a mixture of African, European and indigenous, with the emphasis on the first two. The mixture is not just white and black side-by-side in the same communities. It's mixed into the blood so that you get a very broad range of skin colour and hair texture. Some have only a trace of African in them that's visible in mild curl in their black hair and a slightly broadened nose. Others have just a trace of white to lighten otherwise black
features. Most are a more balanced mixture of the two.
Because it's such a mixture, no one seems to care much about race. They're all in it together in a poor country where smiles and laughter are as valuable to survival as hard currency. When you're poor you have to network because that's what'll get you through the tough times. Everybody does it because everyone is susceptible to fortune's fickle moods.
Arraial do Cabo is a fishing village/small beach town 150km east of Rio. In terms of architecture or character it's an unremarkable place. A bit shabby downtown, a bit dirty, dogs that bark at night and motorcycles and beach buggies without mufflers that roar by like large industrial vehicles. The residential area is cleaner with low houses of brick and cement, red terra cotta tiles on the roofs.
What it does have is six beaches of very soft, very fine white sand so high in silica content that it squeaks underfoot. Praia do Forno and Praia Grande seem to be the two favourites. The first is a few hundred metres long, the second stretches for kilometres.
I'm having trouble finding postcards here and that's a
good sign. It means the place hasn't yet been ruined by tourism. The beach is packed but it's mostly locals and some Cariocas, not many foreigners. A few shops near the beach, set among bars and peixarias (fresh fish markets), sell bathing suits, towels and sunglasses. No booths selling tourist T-shirts or junky crafts, no Starbucks or KFC, no cement high-rise, no guys whispering “Weed? Hash?” as you walk past, no ladies asking if you “Want mah-saaaaage?” The few itinerant food and drink vendors on the beach call out their wares but they don't harass you, don't even stop to ask if you want something. When you do, you signal to them as they come by.
I'm also having trouble getting an understanding of the Brazilians because the Argentinians keep interfering. There's a group of them here on vacation, at one point 16. Joaquin, Fernando, Francisco, Felipe, Guillermo, Casha, Nacho, Fernanda, Denise, Paulo.... Early to mid-twenties, they in full party mode. Days together at the beach, communal dinners cooked in the hostel's kitchen followed by drinking and dancing, excited laughter and an endless torrent of Spanish conversation. I don't follow it all well, so every little while someone will
turn to me, give me a thumbs up and say “Okay? Everything good?” It's a way to ensure I'm tethered to the group, don't drift away from the fun in quiet solitude.
Besides being really kind and considerate, they're also some of the most polite people I've ever met. One afternoon seven of us went to a barbeque put on by the hotel owner at his house in Praia Brava. It's a hand-sized beach holding tight to a headland. Steep, green ridge covered in low bushes, small fronds, white rocks and cacti like fingers pointing at the sky, a squadron of eagles patrolling overhead in wide circles angling into the breeze. Out in the blue bay a fishing boat - green and white with yellow spars - spread its net in a loop of white floats. In the far distance the seas was a flat blue line joined to the pale blue sky where wispy clouds drifted past in the warm sunshine. We ate beef and chicken, rice and potato salad with manioc flour and drank gallons of beer and caipirhinas. Later we climbed down a steep set of stone stairs leading to the beach where we played in
waves while a couple of guys surfed nearby. The beach ran in a smooth, flat, gentle slope into the sea. On leaving they thanked our host in an easy way that was thorough but not effusive, a kind of Latino elegance that was natural, not strained or formal. Well-bred is the term that comes to mind.
But I'm forgetting the Brazilians. The Hostel Villas Boas is small and staffed by really helpful, friendly people. Cassie, Sergio, Luis, Julio, Rosanna and Chulio, as well as Paulina from Chile who is friends with Cassie. They party with us, showing that it's not difficult to mix work and pleasure and still be effective.
In the residential streets nearby there are shops and restaurants where you find more friendly, helpful people. If you ask a question they can't answer they'll find someone outside who can. They welcome you with a smile and chatter away with you. They know you don't understand but it doesn't matter. They're happy to see you and happy when you leave their stores happy.
Not everyone has a delightful experience in Brazil. I met three people from the UK who were robbed at knifepoint in Rio. They
didn't seem to hold it against Brazil as a whole, just the thieves themselves.
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