“Flamengo, Botafogo, Urca, Vermelha, Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipanema, Leblon, Vidigal, Pepino, Sao Conrado, Barra da Tijuca, Recreio, Prainha, Grumari - these are a few of my favourite things." That could be an anthem for Rio de Janeiro, for these are its beaches, a poem in sand and surf with 20 kilometres of verses. On the beach, the Cariocas are gloriously at home.
LIFE IS A BEACH: The Rio Lifestyle
"Life is a beach" is a late 20th century philosophical statement. Or a T-shirt slogan. And it fits nowhere more than Rio de Janeiro.
There is no place on earth so enamoured of its seashore and no people so devoted to being there. Where else do newspapers have beach pages? Not just part of Rio's life, the beach is the life.
Los Angeles, Miami, Sydney and Durban may all seem rivals as great beach cities, but in all these the beach is an adjunct rather than a vital organ. For Cariocas, the citizens of Rio, the beach is a part of their soul. Let one speak.
Sonia Franca and her husband, Darney, an airline executive, live at Barra da Tijuca, the newest beach suburb. "The beach represents life for the Carioca," Sonia says with passion. "You feel alive when you go to the beach, it brings happiness, it's good for the health. If the sun shines, the first thing the Carioca thinks is to go to the beach, to get a tan, to show off the colour of summer."
Most Cariocas live in industrial suburbs, apartment blocks and congested communities - the favelas - with little leisure space. Hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, they migrate to the beach at every opportunity.
All Rio beaches are public property - and how.
Beaches are not so much an escape from everyday life as an integral part of it, a home from home. The "residents" tend to go to the same patch each time where they join up with their friends and family, their neighbourhood group. This is true whether they are affluent Ipanema people who stroll down from their expensive apartments or Zona Norte people who catch the bus all the way from the northern working class districts.
For Cariocas, the beach is their garden, their swimming pool, their sports ground, their dining out place, their social centre. The beach is the expression of an attitude to life. Even the rich like to stretch out by the sea.
For everybody, the beach is freedom, but especially for the favela dwellers. For the people of the teeming hillside shanty towns, some rising almost from the shore, clambering up the precipitous slopes of small sugarloaf mountains, it is the personal space and liberty of expression which their lives otherwise do not allow. The morro (hill) and the praia (beach) are the poles of their lives.
The beaches stretch all along the Atlantic shore south of the city centre, in the Zona Sul. Until the 1930s, Cariocas went down to Guanabara Bay, close to Rio's historical centre and main business district - to Flamengo and Botafogo - but not in great numbers nor in notable states of undress. Samba was alive, but beach culture was just a glimmer in a swimsuit maker's eye. Tunnels through the mountains had opened up the way south to Copacabana where the rich built villas.
Arnaldo Carrilho, a senior diplomat who grew up in Copacabana, remembers that time with fondness. He is nostalgic for Rio's golden age when he was young in a magical place. "In the 1940s and early 50s, Copacabana was a romantic place, there was a feeling in the air, people were friendly and courteous. There were beautiful Art Nouveau and Art Deco villas all along the seafront. Then the developers and speculators came."
From then on, Rio became a different kind of city: it burst through the tunnels and spread rapidly along the seashore. The pleasure zones and best residential districts moved to the Atlantic littoral, where long sandy beaches were framed between ocean and mountains. Copacabana was the star act, lined with new hotels and apartment blocks, filled with cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. The world-famed concrete crescent remains Rio's nightlife and tourism centre despite losing cachet in the tougher and crowded post-60s decades.
From the early 60s, Ipanema, the long stretch of sand round the next headland, became favoured by Rio's rich and in turn became built up. Ipanema was suddenly the most chic district, swinging to the bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Mariela Schumann grew up in the 60s in Rua Montenegro, which is the very street which The Girl From Ipanema swayed along to the beach - and the guys all went "Ahhh..." (She really existed, she's called Heloisa Pinheiro, she's just turned 50 with four grown-up children, and runs a beautician's in Sao Paulo now, by the way).
Also blonde, tanned and lovely, Mariela remembers it as a magic time. "Everything was easy-going, we had no worries, we played music on the beach, we felt so hip and so happy!" Today, things are more mundane, she muses. "You get older, times change. Ipanema's more ordinary now, more about business, more built up, though it's still quite pleasant. You still have the coolest shops and cafes here."
Cariocas looking for more space continued to open up the beaches further out, beyond the twin peaks of the Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) mountain which Ipanema's golden sunset silhouettes each evening.
Barra da Tijuca, about 20 km out from the city centre, is the latest great escape. Sonia and Darney Franca have their home there. "We go to the beach there because the water is clean and the sea is quite calm, even if it's cold, due to the Antarctic currents."
That's no deterrent for the Carioca beach-goer, most of whom don't actually broach the water. Rio beach life is a world of multiple pleasures for which the ocean is often but a beloved backdrop. As much as for sunbathing and seabathing, a Rio beach is a sports stadium, a performance stage and a giant catwalk, a place to limber up and show off, to tone and preen.
Copacabana is a vast theatre peopled by a colourful cast of characters. Eccentric weatherbeaten men with crocodilian skin hawk sunhats and sun lotion. Adonises garbed in pouches flex their muscles. Old ladies walk their poodles and flamboyant men parade their Afghan hounds along the wave-mosaic pavement. Mountain bikers and skateboarders speed along the cycle track.
Men play volleyball and football, and a local hybrid called footvolley - volleyball using the feet and the head instead of the hands. Women favour frescobol - a kind of netless tennis played with broad bats and a rubber ball. Weightlifters and gymnasts practise at their equipment stations. Joggers pound the mosaic sidewalk, racing cyclists do the Tour De Praia.
And young women bare nearly all. Rio dreamed up minimal beachwear for women, firstly with the tanga which streamlined the bikini bottom, accentuating thigh length and allowing the bunda (butt) to blossom, then with the even flimsier fio dental, "dental floss", which almost dispensed with it.
Brazilian bikinis tend towards the least possible amount of cloth capable of concealing the necessary. Curiously, topless bathing is rarely done, except by some Copacabana hookers as part of their marketing. Carioca women explain that "wearing something always looks better than wearing nothing".
The beach is sex, and the beach is religion. On New Year's Eve, drums beat out a pagan rhythm the length of Copacabana and Ipanema. Macumba priestesses lead cult ceremonies smoking fat cigars to eliminate evil spirits. Throngs of white-clothed celebrants pay homage to the sea goddess Iemanja. Padre Zeca, the "surfing priest", a star of the Catholic charismatic movement, gives masses for the multitudes on Ipanema beach. Christ the Redeemer, hands outstretched, looks down from Corcovado, in care of all Cariocas.
Brazil is a dynamic society, and its mores change with the times. Rio's population has trebled to about 10 million since the mid-century. Pre-1940s, bathers were well wrapped up and not overly numerous. In the 1990s on holidays and weekends, the main beaches teem with people in a mighty press of flesh.
Dangers exist. "Beach rats" (sneak thieves) feed on valuables. Muggers prowl Copacabana at night and uncrowded beaches by day. Sometimes Zona Norte youth gangs called funkeiros go on rampages (arrastaos), scattering peaceful beachgoers. More often, mercifully, they rave dance to their funk, a kind of Brazilian techno music. Working class revellers and surfistas favour Arpoador beach with its big rough waves. Yet within sight, on adjoining Ipanema beach, the upper class is at repose, if wistful for the bossa nova days. Further along, past the Dos Irmaos twin sugarloafs at long, straight, golf course-backed Sao Conrado beach, hang gliders swoop down from the mountains to the sands, like benign pterodactyls.
Rio set the trend for urban beaches worldwide, its crescents of foaming surf and white sand backed by walls of high-rises. Fuelled by the mesmeric rhythm of the samba and the excitement of Carnival, Rio's vibrant image went round the world. Today the reality holds true to that image, even if less carefree and more hard-edged as the city and its problems have grown. Rio's not so free-o, but it's still incomparable.
Brazilians say God made the world in six days, and the seventh he devoted to Rio. Then He lay on the beach, we may presume, with a cold fresh coco, and went "Ahhh...."
© 1994 Keith Mundy