Beach culture in Brazil.
This is a post I have been excited to write but have found myself putting off because of my inability to perfectly define the feel of the beaches here.
Lately, I have gotten in the habit of walking 5 miles along the main strip/boardwalk/sidewalk that harbors thousands of natives and tourists alike as they walk along the utterly jaw dropping coastline. On my walks I could pass 20 or more vendors on any given day, going in one direction, selling things like kongas, jewelry, art, sunglasses, hats and more. There are restaurants on the sand that will have waiters come and recruit people walking (like me) when business is low, putting menus in my face to persuade me. And then, there are the numerous runners, bikers, bladers, skaters, strollers, and rollers on the bike lanes next to me, flying by in both directions. Sundays are by far the most chaotic because there are so many people that they actually shut down the entire road along the beach to accommodate the masses.
Then you get to the sand, which on a sunny day is packed with families, couples, friends, and individuals from all walks of life. Some people walk along the edge of the water or lay out in the sun, some rent chairs and umbrellas and drink cool drinks while people watching, others have full parties with music and food, and some others have sports tournaments. I have seen racquetball, soccer, volleyball, and Futevoli which looks like volleyball played without your hands. Mobile vendors pass by with every type of food, drink, or product you could think of and the term “boa praia” is said generously to everyone. Some of my favorite vendors are the hat vendors because as they walk by, they have at least twenty different hats stacked on top of their head, usually with konga towels draped over their shoulders and arms, creating this giant freakish-looking silhouette as they move between people. There is also an acai lady who sings her proposal as she walks by, always the same, but she so distinctive. “Acai, acai. Acai com bananas, acai com morango. Acai, acai!” Sometimes, so many people will be taking up sand space that you will have nothing more than what your towel occupies, and if you have a group with you? Good luck!
This is the beach on a busy day, but if you go at the right time, you can catch some views of the surfers on Ipanema in the calm morning waves, or walk in the damp sand at sunset after high tide. If you really get it right, you could have the entire stretch of sand all to yourself and just stare outward where the massive sea meets the horizon.
There are four main beaches in the city, Leme, which occupies post 1 and 2, Copacabana (post 3-6), Ipanema (post 7-10), and Leblon, which takes the remaining two posts (I live closest to post three, about six blocks north off the main road, on Rua do Siqueira Compos). A frame of mountains round off Leme and Copa from the other two beaches to the west, and not too far off the coast are various small islands dotted with trees occasionally accompanied by a boat. (Fun fact, a few decades ago Rio political leaders actually ordered some of the mountains on the coast to be demolished in order to push out the coastline and increase space!)
The first time I swam in the ocean here, the current took my breath away! Six foot waves were crashing into the sand unforgivingly and forcefully pulling those on the edges out to sea only to be returned to land a few moments later, completely turned around and soaking wet. During high season in Rio, at least one person gets rescued by helicopter from the water every day of the week (and its not just tourists either). I was surprised at how powerful the water could be and was humbly reminded that I was no match for something as massive as the ocean. Coming here has since fostered a great feeling of respect for the waves, and however much I continue to fall in love with them, there will always be a part of me that is scared of them.
I once took a course about Native American philosophies at the U of M and learned that tribes most commonly viewed things in terms of space rather than time, not worshiping a day of the year like Christmas, but worshiping a place like a canyon or a river. I think to an extent, we all are products of that, favoring the natural elements that are around us. For example, when I was at school in Colorado, almost every person said their favorite thing in nature was the mountains, while I favored trees in a forest. Cariocas in Rio absolutely embody the concept of worshiping the ocean. The beach is an extension of their backyard, a common space to use as a playground and meeting place. It is incorporated in their relationships, culture, and souls. Numerous songs, poems, books, paintings, and plays have been made about the beach and its magic.
Although Brazil faces large socio-economic and racial disparities, the beach is used as a democratic space for everyone. To me, I think the beach actually defines the people here. It is so much more than sand and salt and sun, it is a representation of the people themselves, and I just so happen to have the privilege of visiting it!