During the last year, I spent three months in Brazil. Although rumors of crime and poverty dominate the media about this country, it is so much more than that.
Brazilians are warm, open, and laid back. Most are eager to help anyone in need while expecting nothing in return, and it is common for them to welcome strangers into their homes. Even the language reveals their charming nature with expressions such as “faço das suas palavras as minhas”, which means “I make your words mine.”
In many ways, Brazil is modern with huge shopping malls and an array of first-class restaurants and hotels. Citizens are provided free healthcare. The country has a top-rated electronic medical record system and offers family health teams in remote areas. Practitioners are expected to put helping others above making money.
In Rio de Janeiro, I viewed, through my window, a steep hillside covered with houses in a favela. There are around 1,000 of these shantytowns in Rio where 20% of the population lives.
Favelas first emerged when soldiers took up residence on the hillsides waiting for paychecks that never came. Then, the mass migration to the city in the 1940s created a housing crisis. This forced people to become squatters on vacant property and construct homes out of whatever material they could find. Favela eradication strategies failed, as many residents defied federal government orders to relocate.
In the early 1980s, Brazil became more of a democratic state, and around that time, drug and arms trafficking flourished and led to increased crime and violence, especially in these communities. In 2008, Police Pacification Units engaged in a bloody war with the gangs.
Over the years, the lives of favelados have improved. The communities are central to Brazil’s culture as residents band together to express their art, religion, music, and dance.
In my opinion, the best of Brazil can be found outside the big cities. We traveled via helicopter to an island called Ilha Grande, southeast of Rio. The chopper landed on a grass-covered helipad, then we had lunch at a restaurant before being transported to our hotel in a water taxi.
We were the only occupants in a hotel that was powered by alternative energy. The staff treated us like royalty. They prepared a delicious meal if we were hungry. They called a water taxi if we needed to go somewhere. If we wanted laundry done, they got to it post-haste.
What we discovered on a boat tour of the large island was magical. Gorgeous, pristine beaches and clear, warm water were around every bend. I felt like I had entered paradise.
The mountainous regions in Brazil are typically thick jungles below rocky peaks, and the farmlands are rolling hills covered by lush pastures that generate delectable beef, chicken, and pork. The country is rich in resources from tin and iron to diamonds and is the largest exporter of beef in the world. Brazil offers glorious scenic areas such as the 275 waterfalls at Iguazú National Park which is truly a natural wonder, the Amazon, and the world’s oldest pyramid.
Within the country's borders are many interesting and diverse cultures. In the Sateré-Mawé tribe, who live in the Amazon, boys must place their hands in gloves filled with ants as a rite-of-passage into manhood. The Bullet Ant sting is said to be comparable to being shot. This exercise, which involves dancing and sometimes leads to hallucinations, builds strength in the warriors, in part so they can defend their 3,000 square mile region against the ravishes of modern man. The ritual also boosts immunity to diseases and bites from the region's poisonous snakes and spiders. Sateré-Mawé people believe the challenge demonstrates that suffering and effort are crucial to a life worth living.
Most Brazilians are catholic, but around 170,000 people follow the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé. They often dress in white.
Devotees seek the protection of their personal spirit called an orixá who answers to their one all-powerful God. The purpose of many rituals is to create a harmonious relationship with these entities. Using plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes is central to the religion. Previously misunderstood, the followers of Candomblé now hold rituals in public and have united to fight discrimination against them.
While wandering along the beach in Copacabana, seeing mothers keeping a watchful eye over their children, and men and women playing footvolley, it occurred to me that people are basically the same no matter where they live. Most want to take care of their families, have a decent life, and make a positive difference.
But Brazilians possess an exceptional passion for life as seen in their frequent holidays, in the Carnival, deemed “the greatest show on Earth”, in New Year’s Eve celebrations, in their dance, the Samba, and the lengthy meals they share with family and friends. The slow pace they savor allows time to be grateful, joyful, and kind. Brazil is the most stunning country I have ever traveled through, but the heart of this South American land is in its people.