TREATS! heads south to spend a month in Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, and the most visited city in the southern hemisphere, and finds that to “live in Brazil is shit…but it’s great.” by Kelly Lee
TREATS! —and the world—have long been obsessed with Brazil and all the beauty it possesses: Sun-soaked beaches, fever-pitched nights, improbably colored fresh fruit juices, bikini lunches on the boardwalk, samba, Gisele, Alessandra & all the rest of the Brazilian Angels. With the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic games, prices are skyrocketing quickly and the country is full of contradictions.
We soar above the Buenos Aires skyline bound for what awaits us when we land in Brazil. Not that we’re exactly anxious to disembark.
Three weeks ago we were living in a three-story house perched above the Hollywood Hills. Today we are homeless and bound for Brazil. We’ve just spent the past week attempting to adjust to this news, which suffice it to say, caught us a little off guard. But that’s neither here nor there. Today, thanks to some undiscovered airline miles and our new “flexible fate,” we’re en route to Rio de Janeiro, just off of a weeklong sojourn through Buenos Aires and Mendoza, where we attempted to make lemonade out of lemons—or, rather, Malbec out of sour grapes. And somehow we’ve found ourselves alone. In first class.
We hope this is an omen for things to come.
If the car ride to the airport in Buenos Aires is any indication, tonight’s going to be a good, good night. Our driver spent the entirety of the trip singing along to his highly prized mixed tape: Britney Spears (“Gimme, gimme…”), Prince (“Lady in a red corvette…”), the Black Eyed Peas (“It’s going to be a good, good night…”), U2 (“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…”) belts our boisterous driver along with Bono. American music transcends.
We arrive at the airport and are greeted by a hostess for the airline. After some confusion and over-polite gesticulation, we glean that our tickets (which cost us some miles and about $100) are in first class and that the hostess has been waiting for our arrival. This is a first. After we’re escorted to the first-class lounge and arrange what time we’d like to board the plane (there’s a choice?), we enjoy unlimited cheese, fruit, and fizzy beverages and revel in what it must have been like to be Don Draper—or anyone for that matter—in the heyday of air travel. Soon, the hostess returns and escorts us on to the plane, past the line of passengers who are queued up and now eyeing us suspiciously. We trade glances wondering what the heck is going on? Moments later, as we board, it becomes clear that this special treatment is due to the fact that we are the only passengers in first class.
Like two giddy 18-year-old American boys who have arrived in Montreal and can drink without being carded, we quickly gulp down Baileys on ice, we luxuriate in our foldout pods, stretching our legs and our minds over what’s to come—in Brazil and beyond.
We take off, drinking in the awe-inspiring view afforded by the somewhat terrifying but fascinating forward-facing camera and the rarity of both having what feels like an entire plane to ourselves and a birds-eye view of South America.
We’re drunk on the moment and hope this is a foreshadowing of things to come in Rio…and not the highlight.
To live in other countries is great, but it’s shit. To live in Brazil is shit but it’s great.
Famous words by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the godfather of bossa nova and composer of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The locals, or cariocas, who split their time between New York and Rio (there are quite a few it turns out) tend to agree: We are quickly shown around by some, and get an insider perspective on life in Rio.
A low level malaise and unease hangs over the city like a bat—ever-present but will it bite? Or has it just gotten a bad rep?
It’s a few weeks post-Carnival. We ponder if everyone’s in need of a giant nap or if this is simply life in Rio. How bustling can the pace of life be in a place where lunching in your bikini or Speedo is the norm? But the relative quiet is a surprise for what’s commonly known as an epic party town.
We make our home for the week at the city’s only beachfront resort, which boasts a rare private beach (all of the others require that you actually cross the street to get to the famed beaches of Ipanema, Leblon, and Copacabana). High above the sandy shore, on the border of Leblon, we look out to our left and imbibe the iconic sparkling emerald mountains and curvaceous coastline of the South Atlantic, Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms in the distance. As we glance right, we take in another sight: a favela (a word we later learn its inhabitants are not fond of but roughly equates to “shanty town”) is precariously perched on the hillside next to us. This one has electricity (most do not), as we can tell by the flickering of TV screens come nightfall. We learn that favelas are cities unto themselves, with their own ways, their own laws, their own utilities (often stolen), and their own police.
In a country we first avoided because news videos surfaced of young men riding through the streets on mopeds while brandishing machine guns in the air, we’re curious about the safety of our surroundings. Before traveling to our first stop, Argentina, and upon landing, we were warned multiple times—mostly by locals—to be careful in Buenos Aires. What does that mean? Keep an eye on your wallet, as pick pockets target tourists. Fair enough, but the same could be said for New York or any large city. When we arrive in Brazil, we ask our friends if it’s safe or if things are overblown by the media, as they so often are. The answer: Pickpockets are a problem in Brazil as well, except that you have the added bonus that they’re also often violent. Don’t walk around after dark. And never wear or bring anything that you’re not willing to lose.
BEWARE OF POLICIA
But it’s not the potentials gun-toting muggers that are feared most by the locals. It’s the polícia. There are several different sets of police: federal, local, and military. Corruption is rampant, as is extortion. If you’re pulled over by the police, you’ll likely be told you have to pay your fine on the spot (an amount that is somewhat negotiable) or be taken to jail.
You don’t want to go to jail. Especially Brazilian jail. (Police in Rio kill one person for every 23 they arrest, according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch Report. In the U.S., by comparison, the ratio of killings to arrests is one in 37,000. The police are as feared as the criminals who might mug you—or worse. It’s best just not to make eye contact.)
We’re also warned about swimming in the ocean waves in front of the hotel, as the runoff from the favela may not be safe.
This is Rio.
IT’S GONNA COST YOU
Rio is expensive. So expensive that a late-night craving for tom yum soup costs an astonishing $17. I pay the same amount for four petite pieces of tomato bruschetta at brunch another day.
With the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic games, prices are skyrocketing quickly and with no end in sight. Rents are raised at will, often doubled or tripled with no warning as it was for our friends who first moved from New York to Rio to save up some cash to buy a place in New York (things have changed drastically since securing the Olympic games)—and there’s no such thing as rent control.
Eating out has become prohibitively expensive for many residents and it’s often much cheaper to fly to New York to shop for things than to buy in Brazil. Suitcases are stuffed with everything from socks to phone chargers in lieu of paying the exorbitant prices in Brazil. And that’s for the haves—those who can afford to fly to the States.
Another friend employed at the Chanel boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue shares that her customers are overwhelmingly visitors from two countries: China and Brazil, who think nothing of dropping $5,000 or $10,000 on a handbag in less than 10 minutes because it’s so much cheaper than in their own countries. And the haves have plenty to spend. It’s the have-nots and those who don’t earn their livings in local Brazilian currency that are struggling with this new reality.
We learn that in Rio you either have money or you don’t. If you have money it’s because your family has money and has always had money. Most don’t get rich in Rio. You have to earn local currency to get by.
But then again…
LIFE’S A BEACH
There’s the mountains (the views from Christ the Redeemer alone surpass the hype and clichés) and the beach. And the beach is a way of life. It’s unusual if you’re not in a Brazilian bikini at lunch. And that’s a life that’s hard to beat. Fresh fruit juices in the brightest colors and flavors imaginable—produce in Brazil is something to write home about—are also a part of daily life and quench one’s thirst…. But what about the thirst for more?
As we drive along the highway towards Búzios, a resort town a few hours northeast of Rio made famous by blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot, hawkers run between lanes and cars traveling at 60 miles per hour to sell their wares: nuts, candy, flip flops. Brazilians also cross the highway this way, in a veritable game of chicken, as there are no bridges or infrastructure for them to do so safely.
Even in Rio, roads aren’t marked. Subways, which have taken more than 30 years to complete, are unfinished and in a race against the clock. Will Rio be ready in 2014 for the World Cup, let alone 2016 for the Olympics? And if it is, can its inhabitants handle it?
CAIPIRINHAS, BOLINHOS & AMY WINEHOUSE
We’re in Prainha, a secluded magical little surfer’s beach outside of Rio. As night falls, illuminated fisherman’s lures cast into the periwinkle sky. We drink caipirinhas and munch on bolinhos de bacalhau (fried codfish balls) until the sun bids farewell and we watch the sky become a layer cake of azure, cerulean, and cobalt. It’s unlike any I’ve ever witnessed. It’s quiet and still. Captivating.
At the Hotel Santa Teresa one evening, we sip caipirinhas and swap life stories. Until suddenly our companion realizes one of her diamond stud earrings has fallen from her lobe. We search for over two hours with the help of employees in the darkened Moroccan-themed hotel that has drawn celebrities like Amy Winehouse, yet our efforts are fruitless. The diamond can’t be found. A metaphor?
We’re invited to spend the week at our friend’s family farm in Miguel Perera, a rural enclave of farms a few hours inland. After a winding and rocky drive through the verdant mountains, we spend our days riding horses (or jumping off of horses mid-sprint in fear of being thrown, as the case might be for some of us who shall remain nameless), sipping cachaça from the local distillery, venturing in to town for Wifi and pao do quiejo (a cheesy bread that’s addictive), being served delicious home cooked feijoada (a traditional bean dish with savory meats) by the farm’s local caretaker, and enjoying the splendor that only being in the middle of nowhere can afford. While we’ve been careful to use the safe in our hotel rooms, we’ve relaxed our constant paranoia as we’re in the middle of nowhere on a private gated estate. But it’s the first time money goes missing. Our friend informs us that it’s an accepted fact that the maids steal from you in Brazil.
And so it is.
It’s our last night. Back at our hotel in Rio, we hear a scuffle in the hall. A lover’s quarrel turns toxic and we notify our hotel’s front desk and security more than seven times over the course of an hour. A naked woman and shirtless man with a thick Irish accent are going at it in the hall as their young daughter watches from behind the linebacker-sized security guard. He eventually lands in jail for the night. Not the type of violence one expects in Rio.
Life is simple. But circumstances are complicated.
To live in Brazil is shit but it’s great.
Kelly Lee is a Beverly Hills-based lifestyle, travel, and fashion writer and is the editor of the popular daily style blog KellyGolightly.com. When she’s not sharing her discoveries with readers around the globe, she can be found shooting photos in the desert, scouting the next “it” destination, hunting for vintage treasures, or tasting the local delicacy of whichever country she finds herself in next.