Brazilians often say they live in a continent rather than a country. It’s an excusable exaggeration. The landmass is bigger than the United States if you exclude Alaska; the journey from Recife in the east to the western border with Peru is longer than that from London to Moscow, and the distance between the northern and southern borders is about the same as that between New York and Los Angeles. Brazil has no mountains to compare with its Andean neighbours, but in every other respect it has all the scenic – and cultural – variety you would expect from so vast a country.
Despite the immense expanses of the interior, roughly two-thirds of Brazil’s population live on or near the coast and well over half live in cities – even in the Amazon. In Rio and São Paulo, Brazil has two of the world’s great metropolises, and ten other cities have over a million inhabitants. Yet Brazil still thinks of itself as a frontier country, and certainly the deeper into the interior you go, the thinner the population becomes.
Other South Americans regard Brazilians as a race apart, and language has a lot to do with it – Brazilians understand Spanish, just about, but Spanish-speakers won’t understand Portuguese. Brazilians also look different. In the extreme south German and eastern European immigration has left distinctive traces; São Paulo has the world’s largest Japanese community outside Japan; slavery lies behind a large Afro-Brazilian population concentrated in Rio, Salvador and São Luís; while the Indian influence is still very visible in the Amazon. Italian and Portuguese immigration has been so great that its influence is felt across the entire country.
Brazil is a land of profound economic contradictions. Rapid post-war industrialization made it one of the world’s ten largest economies by the 1990s and it is misleading to think of Brazil as a developing country; it is quickly becoming the world’s leading agricultural exporter and has several home-grown multinationals competing successfully in world markets. The last decade has seen millions of Brazilians haul their way into the country’s expanding middle class, and across-the-board improvements in social indicators like life expectancy and basic education. But yawning social divides are still a fact of life in Brazil. The cities are dotted with favelas, shantytowns that crowd around the skyscrapers, and there are wide regional differences, too: Brazilians talk of a “Switzerland” in the South, centred on the Rio–São Paulo axis, and an “India” above it, and although this is a simplification the level of economic development does fall the further north or east you go. Brazil has enormous natural resources but their exploitation has benefited fewer than it should. Institutionalized corruption, a bloated and inefficient public sector and the reluctance of the country’s middle class to do anything that might jeopardize its comfortable lifestyle are a big part of the problem. Levels of violence that would be considered a public emergency in most countries are fatalistically accepted in Brazil – an average of seventeen murders per day in the city of Rio de Janeiro, for example.
These difficulties, however, don’t overshadow everyday life in Brazil, and violence rarely affects tourists. It’s fair to say that nowhere in the world do people enjoy themselves more – most famously in the annual orgiastic celebrations of Carnaval, but reflected, too, in the lively year-round nightlife that you’ll find in any decent-sized town. This national hedonism also manifests itself in Brazil’s highly developed beach culture, superb music and dancing, rich regional cuisines and the most relaxed and tolerant attitude to sexuality – gay and straight – that you’ll find anywhere in South America.