Playful, rhythmic Rio offers life lessons to visitors
Grilled meat and music are among Brazil's most irresistible draws
One of the world’s most spirited lands, Brazil has made its mark on soccer fields and Carnival extravaganzas, but what it really leads the planet in are exuberance and passion for living.
The world descended on Rio de Janeiro for the XXXI Olympiad in 2016, but Brazilians have been ready anytime to help the world take a load off and experience something missing for a while: fun.
Here are 10 things Brazil does better than anywhere else:
Research shows that playfulness creates a kind of charisma that others want in on.
It’s a key part of the Brazilian personality: a willingness to laugh at themselves, their predicaments and political absurdities and to welcome others in on the joke.
A few years back, Brazilians voted a clown into Congress. What was unusual was that he was a real clown by profession. Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, known by his stage name of “Grumpy” in Portuguese, won on a slogan, “It can’t get any worse.”
It did. Despite their problems, Brazilians can put them aside and live in the moment, something the rest of the world could learn from.
Whether it’s volleyball, cycling, soccer, playing music or hanging out at the beach, Brazilians work to live.
Playfulness yields clear signs of positive affect – a twinkle in the eye, enthusiasm, a wry grin – that are widespread in Brazil. It’s highly contagious, and visitors are happy to catch it.
2. Music that moves
Brazil is a music universe unto itself, unrivaled in diversity of musical styles, instruments and rhythms.
The world knows samba, a mix of European marches and African drumming; and bossa nova, a slower samba infused with French impressionism and American jazz.
But Brazil’s diverse population moves to the beat of many different drummers.
Top Afro-Brazilian styles range from afoxé (a soundtrack for the religious processions of candomblé) to lundu, axé, ijexá, maracatu, and frevo, which comes with a frenetic dance.
Instruments such as the comical cuíca – a drum that sounds like a dog in heat – are found only in Brazil.
And instruments that are unexpected here, like the banjo, have been incorporated in exciting ways.
Embolada, xote and forró, which is also a hugely popular dance, are country-stye beats originating in the northeast of Brazil.
Are these the world’s best drummers?
3. Bountiful lunches
A holdover from the Mediterranean lands that supplied Brazil with settlers from Portugal, Italy and Spain, lunch is dinner. And a big dinner at that.
Brazilian portions can be gigantic, often larger than even the standard American plateful. It’s not a miscommunication when your waiter brings you enough food for twice your number.
A light breakfast is advised, since you’ll consume a lot more than you thought for lunch.
Brazilians don’t bury their cuisine in fiery sauces that kill flavor. In fact, aside from Bahians, they steer clear of hot sauces in favor of flavorful seasonings.
They specialize in supertender thin strips of beef and other carnivorous delights, served with rice, beans and fried bananas, washed down with a beer or guaraná soda.
It’s often said that if Brazilians could channel the creativity and industry they put into their annual Carnival blowout into economic endeavors, the country would be unstoppable.
Celebrating is a priority for Brazilians, whether it’s on a colossal scale or just a backyard barbecue.
They throw two of the world’s biggest parties, Carnival, which makes New Orleans look minor league, and the New Year’s Reveillon celebration.
Some 2 million people crowd the beaches of Rio to watch the spectacular Reveillon fireworks display.
These are no 10- or 15-minute perfunctory bursts, but extended shows of firepower that can last 30 minutes and more, even in the Reveillon shows in small towns.
And the festivities don’t stop. A profusion of regional celebrations, great support for the arts and an abundance of religious holidays keep celebrations on the calendar year-round.
In Northeast Brazil, the forró music festival in Caruaru and the Bumba Meu Boi festivals in São Luis are highlights.
5. Plastic surgery
In a country with lots of beaches and few inhibitions about showing skin, it’s not surprising that body beautiful is a preoccupation here – and a very good occupation, too.
Brazil passed the United States in 2014 as the top country for several cosmetic surgery operations, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
Brazilian plastic surgeons racked up more than 161,000 eyelid operations, 515,000 breast procedures, 129,000 bellies, 380,000 faces and 63,000 butt augmentations (a rapidly growing segment, no pun intended). Brazil’s contributions amounted to almost 13% of the world’s plastic surgery operations.
The dean of Brazilian plastic surgery, Ivo Pitanguy, is a national icon, as revered as famed architect Oscar Niemeyer or musician Milton Nascimento.
Pitanguy believes that plastic surgery goes more than skin deep to emotional and spiritual well-being, and he pioneered a program five decades ago that offers free to heavily discounted plastic surgery to the poor.
More than two dozen public hospitals in Rio have followed suit with plans for low-income patients.
There’s no stigma to plastic surgery in Brazil and people talk openly about their procedures and recommended doctors.
The quality of surgeons is high and the prices lower than in the United States. The combination attracts medical tourists from around the world.
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6. Exotic fruit
Brazil has the world’s widest collection of homegrown exotic fruits, many of which you have never heard of. Camu-camu ring a bell? How about the prickly pear-like graviola? The grape-ish jabuticaba? Cupuaçu (a cross between a coconut and a pear)?
The fruit of the cashew tree, caju, is very popular. The cashew sits on top of the orange fruit.
Some, like açaí and acerola, both from the Amazon region, have started to become popular outside Brazil for their health properties, but many of the exotic fruits you can experience only in Brazil, either fresh at the market or from one of the many juice bars.
And it’s not just in rare fruits that Brazil excels. The country is the No. 1 producer of citrus fruit in the world.
Brazilians are experts in especially tasty fruit drinks, or sucos. Just about every other street in Rio has a juice bar.
Powerful flavor: Rio’s incredible juice bars
It can be awkward meeting strangers and edging into their personal space, so Brazilians like to get past the preliminaries and go straight to greeting like a longtime friend.
A kiss on both cheeks is customary for a male introduced to an adult female, with another pair of kisses delivered on leaving.
Beijos (kisses) induct you into the family in no time. A day of cheek-nuzzling meet-and-greets can be a powerful force among those unencumbered by cold or flu.
Of course, there’s no holding back for people who are more than friends, and you will see passionate beijos exchanged openly in public as if no one else was looking.
8. Baked goods
The art of the bakery thrives in Brazil in the form of the padaria.
These neighborhood temples to the sweet tooth offer a dizzying variety of cakes, or bolo – moist and dense that melt in your mouth – plus an array of tarts, cheesecakes, cookies, brownies, fruit-topped tortes, flans, mousses and the potent mini-coffees known as cafezinhos.
Local padarias keep your budget under control and the palate delighted.
Paderias also offer a wide assortment of fresh-baked bread and croissants and many have deli fare for lunch and dinner, from sandwiches to empanadas to pastels. Some padarias have soups, crepes and fresh juices.
There’s only one thing wrong with these one-stop shops for the taste buds: They’re in Brazil and not on your block.
Trees? They got ‘em here. The Amazon has some 390 billion trees, which adds up to half the total of the world’s surviving rainforests and 16,000 different species of trees.
More than half the Amazon Basin’s 1.4 billion acres are in Brazil, including thousands of miles of the Amazon River, the world’s largest river by volume, 6.9 million cubic meters.
The Amazon is home to 1 in 10 of the world’s known species, 20% of the world’s bird species, 40,000 plant species and trees crucial to limiting greenhouse gases.
The forest serves as a giant atmospheric filter, sucking in and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about 2.2 billion metric tons a year, according to a Jet Propulsion Laboratory study, providing a crucial weapon in the battle against pollution and global warming.
Deforestation destroys a swatch of the Amazon the size of Delaware every year, reports the World Wildlife Fund. The biggest culprits are cattle ranching (80% of the deforested land), logging and farming.
Progress has been made in recent years to reduce deforestation, but there are concerns that the current political instability could undo all that.
10. Grilled meat
Brazil is a realm of the senses, where everything is felt, smelled and tasted more intensely. That goes for one of the country’s favorite menu items, churrasco, meaty delights pulled off the barbecue grill.
Churrasco hails from the south of the country and the open-fire cooking of the Gauchos – cattlemen of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Simple backyard barbecues and a host of restaurants carry on the tradition.
There are few things tastier for a Brazilian than flame-grilled beef, and in particular, picanha, a primo slice of top sirloin. Getting the cut just right, the flame the proper distance from the meat, the seasoning just so – it’s a science for grilling aficionados.
Churrasco involves spearing slabs of beef, pork, chicken and sausage with skewers. When they’re seared just right, the skewers are pulled out and the meat is sliced off in thin sections with surgical precision, unlike the jumbo hunk portions of American steaks.
At the big steakhouses, called churrascarias, servers go table to table, wielding skewers sizzling with meat and carving knives like something out of ancient Chinese swordplay. One has beef, another pork, another chicken.
The choices are tempting, but the diner’s goal should be to stand upright afterward and walk out under their own power.
Author of the book “Don’t Miss Your Life,” Joe Robinson has written for numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times. He’s traveled extensively in Brazil.