One data point aside, the most obvious difference in Rio, from ten years ago, is how much safer it
seems. Many parts of town that were previously filled with stalkers and
snatchers and kiddie gangs are now quite walkable and indeed pleasant.
Small crimes have gone down in frequency, but crime occurs on a larger
scale. The city has been parceled out, and if the police control a part
of town they are able to keep snatchings and the like to a minimum, unlike ten
years ago. That said, the clashes at the fringes, between the police and
the favela kings, are, according to my Brazilian friends, more frequent and
more violent. There is greater cartelization of territory, with
tighter control within each market, but more at stake on the borders.
As Americans (and Russians) we are not used to visiting large, insular
countries like our own, but Brazil is just that. The diversity is remarkable, for one example Sao Paulo has about three
million ethnic Japanese. But as in the United States, much of the
diversity is an illusion. You can be from anywhere, and do anything you
want, but somehow you still only have the option of being Brazilian.
Hardly anyone here speaks English, or indeed anything other than
Portuguese. Many people claim to speak Spanish; that only means if you
speak to them in Spanish they are willing to answer you back in Portuguese,
with one or two Spanish words thrown in. There are few concessions to
tourists, and even the most famous sites are visited mainly by Brazilians,
not foreigners. It is one of the best experiences of intense cultural
immersion you can get.
Yes there are string bikinis but they are overrepresented on
postcards. The ocean walk in Rio is full
of people who should not be wearing bikinis. Brazilian women are among
the world’s most beautiful but in part because they do not insist of being
superthin. They will overwhelm you with their sensual earthiness, and
their true appeal doesn’t rest much on their looks one way or the other.
I had to wait four hours for a connecting flight from Sao Paulo to Rio. I saw hundreds of Brazilians waiting for different flights (have I mentioned that infrastructure is terrible?), but not once did I see anyone reading a book.
The food is better than I remember it, top sirloin being the best cut at a
churrascaria. The cheeses, while not complex, are superb. The cold antipasti are often the best part of the
meal. Only Italy has better pasta, and even that is debatable.
I find it hard to finish Our Mutual Friend, perhaps because the plot
still doesn’t make sense to me, not even on second reading. Still, I hold
an obvious fascination with serial stories which pretend to be about one thing
and are in fact deeply about something quite different; those who read MR most
closely already know this, even if they can’t always figure out the plot.