Rio’s beauty dazzles us even before we land at Galeão 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 the 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 exuberance of its landscape, or has such a colorful and vibrant culture. Rio’s natives, the Cariocas, are warm and friendly, with a very unique type of charm and sex-appeal. 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 of Rio’s women, made famous by the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema‘ by Brazilian composer Tom Jobin. An instant international success, the bossa nova tune describes a regular neighborhood girl walking to the beach every day, ‘tall and tanned and lovely’, in the English version sung by Frank Sinatra. Curiously, 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. Tall is not a big deal in Rio, a well-toned and curvaceous body is.
On the same token, being skinny is considered unhealthy, and ‘noticeable’ butts are 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 in Rio. The city has some of the world’s best surgeons, and they attract an international clientele.
It’s true that not all that beauty and sex-appeal come without effort – the Cariocas work hard for their looks. At daybreak the sidewalks of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are already crowded with joggers 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 of 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 to look like they’re in their 30’s. A friend of mine even jokes that, “Rio doesn’t know what a 50 year old woman looks like.”
They dress the part, too, whatever their age. Rio is the place for fun summer fashion – cute cotton dresses, sexy lingerie, bathing suits and bikinis only found there, and beautiful sandals at a fraction of New York prices. The Cariocas know how to put themselves together very well, and with little money.
With all this attention to beauty, one may be inclined to think that Rio is a superficial and frivolous society. Not at all. Life is not easy for a big part of the population; people work hard for their money, poverty is a reality in many areas, and crime is common in parts of this metropolis of huge wealth gaps between the haves and the have nots.
Yet, even the poorest of the poor are high on life and exude a contagious joie de vivre. People with modest incomes save the whole year to buy a costly costume and 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 the samba beat goes on until the morning.
Rio, in spite of its problems, is a happy place that 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 the city’s fun-and-beauty-loving culture. Once you do it, you will love Rio forever.