Rio’s beauty dazzles people even before we land at Galeao airport. From the air, this Brazilian city of 8 million people looks spectacular – the blue waters of the Atlantic shining under the intense tropical sun, the white sand of the coastline contrasting with lush green mountains, and – on top of the highest peak – a colossal statue of Christ, the Corcovado, blessing the city with open arms.
The word dramatic doesn’t begin to describe Rio. No city I know matches the scale and the exuberance of its landscape, or has such a colorful and vibrant culture. Its natives, the Cariocas, are warm and friendly and have a different kind of sex-appeal unique to that part of the world. Their music, the samba, is a contagious beat heard all over town, and Rio’s Carnaval – the four days of hedonistic revelry right before Lent – is a feast to the senses and Brazil’s biggest party.
Particularly known around the world is the beauty and sensuality of women there, something made famous after the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema‘ became an international success. A bossa nova tune describing a regular neighborhood girl walking to the beach every day “tall and tanned and lovely’, as in the English version sung by Frank Sinatra. In the original Portuguese version there is no mention of tall – it says only ‘linda and cheia de graca’ (beautiful and graceful), which perhaps is one indicator of the many differences between Brazilian and American culture and tastes: tall is not a big deal there, a well-toned and curvaceous body is. On the same token, being skinny is considered unhealthy, and ‘noticeable’ butts are appreciated and paraded with pride in Rio’s beaches. It was there, by the way, that the famous tanga – a tiny bikini that leaves very little to the imagination – was first spotted. Not surprisingly, plastic surgery is very popular, Rio has some of the world’s best surgeons and they attract an international clientele.
In all honesty, not all that beauty and sex-appeal comes without effort – the Cariocas work hard for their looks: at daybreak the sidewalks of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are already crowded with joggers and walkers of all ages, a routine that’s part of life in Rio. And how they love to talk about it! As soon as I arrive in Rio I start hearing about the latest workout fad, or nutrition programs ‘guaranteed’ to prolong youth; every friend seems to have a special vitamin mix, or a cream to keep wrinkles off their tanned faces, or a formula to make skin shine and hair grow stronger. Judging from their looks, these efforts are perfectly rewarded: it’s not uncommon for women over 50 years of age to look like 30’s elsewhere. A friend of mine even jokes that “Rio doesn’t know what a 50 year old woman looks like”.
And they dress the part, too, whatever their age. Rio is the place for fun summer style fashion – cute cotton dresses (I stock up each time there), lingerie, bathing suits and bikinis only found there, and beautiful sandals that cost a fraction of the ones in New York. The Cariocas know how to put themselves together very well, and with little money.
Yet, even the poorest of the poor is high on life, and exudes a contagious joie de vivre. People with modest incomes save the whole year to buy a costly costume, to be part of the Carnaval parade. Visit a favela, as the slums are called, and you will see broad smiles, happy kids playing soccer on the streets, and crowded parties where on the weekends the samba beat goes on until the morning.
Rio, in spite of its problems, is a happy place – it moves to its own rhythm. One must step out of the box to understand the different set of values the Cariocas live by.
The best way to do it is to get immersed in Rio’s fun-and-beauty-loving culture. Once we do it, we will love the place forever.