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Day 51: Rio de Janeiro

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With Priscilla Ann Goslin, author of How to be a Carioca. I ask her how Cariocans cope with rain. 'They evaporate from the street,' she tells me.
Michael Palin - BrazilIt's always hard to get under the skin of a big city. Beneath a spurious unity lurks a hotbed of contradictions. The citizens of Rio call themselves Cariocans, from the Tupi-Guarani Indian words carry, meaning 'white man', and oca, meaning 'home'. And yet half the population of Rio is black. Whatever the contradictions, one thing that Cariocans, like New Yorkers or Parisians, do agree about is that they are the centre of the world. They are specially blessed to live here. What makes those who live in Niterói, the city on the other side of Guanabara Bay, the luckiest people in the world? They wake up every day with a view of Rio.

To learn more about a city it's sometimes more instructive to look at how they see others rather than how they see themselves. In the same way that the Brazilians hate the Argentines, so the Cariocans hate the Paulistas, the people from São Paulo. In a handy, and very funny, manual called How to be a Carioca a Paulista is defined as 'Very sallow-skinned, always seen in business attire speaking Portuguese with an irritating accent. Paulistas tend to address each other with the term "O meu" ['Hey dude'].' Mineiros are similarly dispatched. 'Locals from the state of Minas Gerais. Males are known for doing away with their wives to save their honour.'

The author of such damning stuff is actually American. She's called Priscilla Ann Goslin, and she's made her home in Rio for more than thirty-eight years. Like a true Cariocan, she is wedded to the beach, pounding the sand every morning with her dog in tow. Today, however, the wind howls and the rain slants almost horizontally from the south-east so, instead of joining her on a run as I'd hoped to do, I end up sitting opposite her in a café in Leblon. She's slim, blonde, wears no make-up and looks a lot younger than her sixty-two years.

I ask her how Cariocans cope with the rain. 'They cancel everything,' she says firmly. 'They evaporate from the street.'

I look around and she's right. We're only a few blocks from Ipanema Beach and any other day the streets would be filled with shoppers, diners, drinkers and young men with surfboards. Today the tables are empty, and rain patters on the sunshades.

Priscilla thinks this is symptomatic of something deeper in the Cariocan psyche.

'They don't like bad news. They want to be happy.' She quotes as an example the radio traffic stations. 'The reports never say the traffic is bad. It's always "complicated".'

There's a line she picks out from one of her favourite Brazilian songs. 'It goes, "Don't be afraid, and don't be ashamed to be happy". They're serious people, but they're not afraid of the superficial.'

That's Brazilian, she adds, not just Cariocan. We talk about the Brazilian economy, bounding along like a happy dog whilst ours just lies in the kennel. She's known the years when Brazil was synonymous with inflation and currencies came and went and so she welcomes the stability. But there is the looming problem of personal debt. The middle classes are spending fifty percent of their income just making repayments. She fears the economic bubble will burst.

The gulf between rich and poor is starkly apparent in Rio. Priscilla and I are sitting in a street in Ipanema, probably some of the richest real estate in the city, but overlooking us from the heights behind is the favela of Morro do Cantagalo. I ask how middle-class Cariocans deal with this constant reminder of the yawning social gap.

'They only see what they want to see,' she says. 'If it's bad, they just don't notice it.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 51: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 210

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