When arriving in Brazil you certainly don’t expect everything to be like in your home country. It definitely isn’t! Nevertheless, once in the country, you may happen to come across sides of Brazilian culture and people which significantly differ from what you at all have been able to imagine!
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 23 JAN 2020
Our journey to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil starts at Iguazú in Argentina where we have stayed to experience the awesome, world-famous waterfalls.
In order to cross the border to Brazil to get to the airport on the Brazilian side, we need a taxi. Beforehand, we have made an appointment with the same taxi driver who took us to Iguazú National Park on arrival.
He arrives in due time and approaches us with a smile and a handshake! Even if we only have gone with him once before, it is like an old friend coming to pick us up. The staff at Gran Meliá Iguazú seem to wonder where that acquaintance came from!
I sit in front chatting with him and trying to get the border procedure right. I ask him at least five times in five different ways how the border crossing will take place in a taxi and how to ensure we get stamped into Brazil.
Brazilian culture at the border
The case is that the Argentinian officers don’t bother to check any passports at the border or stamp anyone out of Argentina. The Brazilian border control, according to what we have heard, does not really care either. People cross all day back and forth between the Brazilian side of the waterfalls and the Argentinian side, and it is apparently generally accepted that you cross without changing immigration status. This is part of both Argentinian and Brazilian culture. As claimed by our driver, the Argentinian authorities are the strictest – and the Brazilian infrastructure the most organised ?!? Anyway, most cars just drive through without any check.
The problem comes when you don’t go back to Argentina again, but plan to leave Brazil from another location – for instance flying out of Rio de Janeiro. The airport border control is very strict, and if you upon arrival have not got correctly stamped into Brazil, you are technically illegally in Brazil. In that case the fine is sky-high when you eventually go through the airport checkpoint. In our case: sky-high times five would be extremely sky-high!
We don’t want to risk that, and I make sure that our kind driver understands that we need to stop at the Brazilian border to get the required stamps in our passports. He seems to know what I am referring to, and assures me that he will see to it. Anyway, we cannot help being somewhat surprised when he all of a sudden tells us that we just have to give our passports to him. He will then take care of everything for us. A moment later he hands over some papers for me to fill in.
Well, we actually have read beforehand, that this is the usual procedure, so we decide to trust him – against our usual common sense!
In this way, he leaves with our most valuable papers, our passports, in his hand – and we just remain in the taxi, relaxing as much as we can, until he returns. Brazilian people are amazing! Everything is in order. We verify that we have all got our stamps – and seconds later we are in Brazil! No one even saw our faces!
When we board the plane to Rio de Janeiro, the infrastructure seems to be all other than organised. We are at gate 4. Passengers waiting at gate 4 and gate 5 are now called and board simultaneously. We then discover that the two lines most surprisingly merge on the other side of the gate exits! It is now a matter of using our intuition and paying close attention to which aircraft we are supposed to enter. Noone checks that we get onto the right plane!
In Rio de Janeiro we have chosen the only Copacabana hotel with a free airport shuttle (at least at the time when we book)! The Galeão International Airport is not that close to neither central Rio nor Copacabana, so the usual shuttle fee times five would be considerable. After searching a bit around online, the Windsor Plaza Hotel, at the moment having a free shuttle service to and from the airport (only if confirmed by the hotel, though!), has come up. We can even arrange a convenient pick-up time weeks in advance! In that way our Rio hotel becomes even very reasonable in price – a real bargain!
The Rio culture and Brazilian people
What we haven’t quite foreseen is the aggressive traffic. This is part of the lively Brazilian culture and the hustle and bustle of Rio. The driving back to the hotel significantly differs from what we are used to. Even if we by coming have accepted a different road safety risk here than back home, it does overwhelm us! Soon we realise that it seems to be the general style on the Rio roads. With our seat belts fastened we try to convince ourselves that the driver is experienced and has taken thousands of hotels guests safely to the Windsor Plaza before.
Copacabana is today in fact a whole neighbourhood of Rio, although many tourists in general know it as the name of the renowned beach.
Copacabana Beach is the area between the powerful waves and the elegant front-row houses with a scenic view to the Atlantic Ocean. Until the 20th century the neighbourhood only consisted of sparse farms and farmland on the area next to the ocean. The seashore was not yet inhabited. This was soon going to change, and during the first decades of the 20th century townhouses rose along the waterfront. Among these was the large and famous Copacabana Palace from 1923 which today still stands as a grand hotel, the Belmond Copacabana Palace.
It became a retreat for the Brazilian upper class and celebrities, and later on the geographical area was extended to comprise the middle class as well. Soon it developed into a popular tourist summer destination with an extensive nightlife. Throughout the years the beach area has been a location for important events. One of the remarkable concerts in Copacabana was the Rolling Stones concert in 2006 where 1.5 million Brazilian people gathered to attend the concert.
Rio’s favelas are also Brazilian culture and people
In stark contrast to the upper and middle classes Rio is also home for a vast number of extremely poor Brazilian people. They live in the considerable number of favelas scattered across the city. Brazil is probably one of the countries in the world with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor people. Most Brazilian people living in the favelas are of mixed ethnic ancestry.
We can hardly believe our ears when we hear that there are about 900 favelas with 2 million people in Rio. The biggest one is Rocinha which is a society of its own with shops, bank and everything else required. The inhabitants needn’t go anywhere else in the city. They typically form communities and develop diverse social organisations to obtain services like running water and electricity.
The favelas and this side of Brazilian culture date back to the late 1800s. Due to the migration from the countryside in Brazil to Rio de Janeiro, cheap urban housing was needed. Moreover, with the housing crisis in the 1940s a vast number of shantytowns arose in the suburbs and the favelas expanded even further. Various attempts were made to get rid of the favelas and provide better housing facilities in the years to come. However, they failed or led to still more favelas in new places.
At some point in time drug traffickers or other criminal groups began to control the favelas. Today, though, many of the favelas are ruled by the so-called Pacifying Police Units and are again out of the drug problems. Nevertheless, there are still favelas in some Rio zones where problems such as cocaine trade persist.
On the way to our hotel we pass one of the numerous favelas. From the highway we get a glimpse of the stacked houses being home to thousands of Brazilian people. It is getting dark outside, and we would expect light indoor at this time of the day. Nevertheless, there is no electric light visible from the highway.
Beach culture – Brazilian people enjoy beach life even in winter
Copacabana Beach is only a few minutes from our hotel. Due to a somewhat changing weather at this time of the year, it is really not crowded today. Anyway, quite a few people have found their way to the waterfront. With beach umbrellas, blankets and sunscreen. Also the odd seller walks along the sloshing waves with his frame of sunglasses, hats, imitation jewellery or whatever he attempts to persuade people to buy. The renowned, impressive statue, Christ the Redeemer, rises way above the city and the beaches.
The beach is wide with beach volleyball courts at the one side of the pristine sand. It is amazing. Even if it is winter, the temperature is still high enough to enjoy beach life. What we now experience is the power of the rough ocean. The waves are considerable and according to the local Brazilians, it is not at all advisable to go for a swim! Anyway, it is absolutely fascinating to observe the strong waves. Now and then an extraordinary high wave approaches and reaches the beach with an immense force. As it is today, it is quite a surfer’s paradise!
The waves is just one of the things you need to beware of. Also in the streets we need to exercise caution. There is everywhere unpredictable traffic where you at some moment or another cannot help fearing for your safety.
Not least, there are the crime risks in the streets both at day time, but in particular after sunset. You have to be alert in Rio since the crime level is considerable. We stay closely together when walking around in Copacabana. It feels pretty safe and secure. The locals sit on chairs on the pavement and play cards, the ambiance is friendly and we are just about to forget about the risks. Right until it gets dark.
When we enter the supermarket everything still seems all right in the street. We take our time in there, and have patience when the staff check if our banknotes are genuine by holding them up against the light.
When we come out barely 15 minutes later, it already has started getting dark, and, shockingly, the street is like changed. Suddenly, we notice the people hanging out on the street corners and even sitting on the ground. Instinctly, we know that it could turn dangerous and that we should now head straight for our hotel which is just 2 minutes away. Staying close together as a group, we are probably not at much risk, but still it is a relief when we seconds later pass the security staff guarding the doorway and slip into the hotel again.
At the end of the day we stand at the hotel rooftop terrace and view the streets of Copacabana from this angle. Not all rooftops are pretty from up here. They are with their randon cables, broken roof parts and general messy look diametrically opposed to our neat hotel rooftop terrace. Rio is in all respects full of noticeable contradictions.
Green parrots circle above our heads and fly across the roofs to the mountain opposite. Looking down we see the street full of yellow cabs and other cars. It is the rush hour and apparently the road has been blocked at the tunnel. People are impatient and sound the car horns. Even up here we easily sense the frustration on the road and in the cars. It is just another side of unique Brazilian culture, people and Rio de Janeiro, one of the most multifaceted metropolises in the world.
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