Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Tale Of Two Cities

Brazil is dominated by its two largest cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The two are eternal rivals and are as alike as chalk and cheese. Rio is the star of the show, the prima donna, the cool kid on the block; whilst São Paulo is the plain one that does all the work and gets none of the credit. The images of Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf rock and the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are iconic, conjuring up fantasies of caipirinhas on the beach, suave maestros playing bossa nova into the wee hours, and harems of girls from Ipanema. This is the Brazil people dream of. The only associations people have with São Paulo (if they have any at all) are traffic jams, hordes of busy, unsmiling people and polluted air. Of course there are truths behind these cliches, but also much more.

View of the Guanabara Bay, the older part of Rio, and the unmistakable Pao de Azucar rock on the right.

To be honest I wasn't even initially planning on visiting Rio, having been there for Carnaval back in 2005. But some friends from London, Hoho and Ola, have moved there for work and I would not have forgiven myself for passing so close and not stopping to visit. To be able to sit down and chat, picking up where we left off 3 years ago, talking about common friends and memories was a pleasant change. One of the joys of travelling is meeting all sorts of people from all walks of life and it enriches your worldview, but each time introductions need to be made and you need to tip-toe through the initial stages of getting acquainted. Here I could just dive right in and feel at ease. Plus it didn't hurt that their apartment has a wonderful view of Rio's lake and hills.

Steak dinner with Hoho and Ola.

Since I had been to Rio before I wasn't hell bent on sightseeing, which is a good thing, as my two touristic excursions were not unmitigated successes. I chose St George's day to visit the city centre. It turns out that it is a public holiday only in Rio and so the centre was eerily quiet, as if awaiting a zombie invasion. Nevertheless I did manage to stumble upon the largest celebrations that combined fire and brimstone preaching with a street fair, all bound together by ubiquitous images of George on his horse (the last time I had seen so much religious tat on sale was in Lourdes). The next day I climbed Corcovado, the highest hill in the centre of the city and home to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It lies within the Tijuca national park, the largest urban national park in the world, and therefore, one might think, chock full of walking trails for nature-starved urbanites. Apparently not so. I reached the top and asked at the information kiosk at the entrance to the statue how to get back down and was shown the road. No, no I said, I'd like to hike back down, but I was still shown the road. Apparently in the whole eastern half of the park there is only that one short trail. Unimpressed, but refusing to return the way I came, I trudged down the pavementless road choking on the fumes of the minivans hauling passive tourists up the hill, whilst gazing wistfully at the surrounding forest with its great hiking potential.

The deserted streets of downtown Rio on Saint George's day.

São Paulo, the economic powerhouse of the country, often gets short shrift with travellers. It has no beach (and therefore no bikini-clad beach bunnies), no pizazz, no natural beauty and generally grimmer weather. No, São Paulo's attractions are more hidden, obscure, but altogether more intriguing. There are, of course, a handful of good art and history museums, as befits such an important city, but the charm lies on the cities drab streets and shabby neighbourhoods. It is to São Paulo that most migrants to the country flock, and it is here where you can see the ethnic diversity of the country. I've already talked about blacks, Portuguese and indigenous peoples, but the Brazilian patchwork is also made up of Italians, Lebanese, Chinese. Czechs (the popular president Juscelino Kubitschek, who ruled in the 50's and 60's was of Czech origin), Irish and many more. Few stand out as much as the community to be found in São Paulo's Liberdade beighbourhood. Liberdade is just south of the historic core and is home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. Japanese started to migrate to Brazil about 100 years ago to work on the coffee plantations around São Paulo. Despite early prejudice and discrimination they have quickly integrated into the mainstream and become quite successful. In Liberdade you can see street signs in Japanese, Japanese architectural motifs (see photo below) and Japanese grocery stores selling imported Japanese goods and locally made sushi and bento boxes. In the stores, old, wizened Japanese ladies push their trollies about, carefully piling them up with goods. It's a scene that would be very familiar in small-town Kyushu. The only difference is that the shrivelled biddies are chattering to each other in Portuguese. They may look Japanese, and eat Japanese, but they are just as Brazilian as everyone else.

This building in Liberdade that houses a branch of a local bank shows many Japanese architectural features.

For discovering my favourite thing in São Paulo though I am indebted to my host Luisa and her flatmates Ivan and Berta, who introduced me to a concept that is perhaps very (US of) American, but was easily one of my favourite cultural experiences of my trip so far. Every Saturday evening youths from various street gangs and poorer neighbourhoods of São Paulo congregate somewhere (a different location every week) to have a battle royale amongst themselves to see who is the strongest and the best. But instead of bats and knives their weapons are words and rhymes. For this is no ordinary battle, but a hip-hop rap battle (hip-hop, in Brazilian Portuguese, being delightfully pronounced hippy-hoppy). Although the format is very confrontational the atmosphere is very convivial - all the rappers know and respect each other and there is a lot of friendly banter outside of the ring as well.

Baseball caps and hoodies are de rigeur for rap battle contestants.

For those not familiar with the concept, two protagonists face off in a rap duel. The first one has half a minute to destroy the other with as many witty and clever rap put-downs as they can, whilst the other then tries to counter in their own 30 second slot. Physical contact is to be kept to a minimum, and insulting your opponents mother is considered a low blow worthy of disqualification. Winners are declared by the crowd who cheer for the best performance, and it's a best of three format (as the person going second has the advantage). Despite understanding very little of what was rhymed the atmosphere was raucous and good-spirited, with jeers, whistles, laughs and applause when one of the combatants landed a telling blow. One exchange I did manage to understand was when a smaller rapper insulted his larger opponent about being big and dumb, with clodhopper shoes. The riposte, which went something like "wait till you see my size 11's kicking your ass", was such a decisive blow that the crowd went wild and he was given a victory by knock-out.

Above is a clip of one rap exchange. If anyone who can speak Portuguese can translate it I'd be very much obliged (they guy on the right, in yellow, was the eventual overall winner).

Of Brazil's two megacities Rio is by far the prettier with its hills and beaches, but I must admit that I prefer the uglier sister who has more personality ... and as we all know, personality goes a long way.

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