Ask any foreigner about Brazil, and caipirinhas — the sweet, zesty and deceptively strong national cocktail — will likely form part of their answer. The voluptuous bikini babes sip them while lazily reclining in their deck chairs on the beach, silhouetted in the twilit ocean haze as the sun sinks slowly behind the favela-clad hills of Ipanema, somehow always Ipanema. Half an hour earlier those same girls were playing impromptu volleyball, a samba rhythm seeping from no one quite knows where …
This is the stuff fantasies are made of, but it’s more or less a made-to-measure national identikit put together by the propaganda department of the Vargas dictatorship in the mid-20th century and handily promoted by Bond girls, Coke commercials and pop-samba music videos even since. As a result, the world sees Brazil as some sort of cross between holiday for lovers and city of god.
Like Lara Bingle and where the bloodyhellareya barbecued shrimp, the caipirinha myth is a great product to sell. And this World Cup is silly season for selling it. The official estimate is that 600,000 tourists have come to see this Cup, 100% up on last time in South Africa. It’s the fantasy that drew them here. Like a caipirinha, this World Cup is the perfect mix: Brazil is probably the most appealingly marketed tourism destination in the world, and it’s completely, utterly, irredeemably mad about football. Each of those 600,000 is here for the the holiday of a lifetime.
You see the hurried yuppie couples who budgeted about six days off work all up, and who seem to think that a trip to Brazil comes with a tickbox list of things that have to be done (“yes, honey, and if we finish the trip to Christ Redeemer early we might have 20 minutes to Relax on the Beach, like we always wanted”).
And you see the footy-for-the-boys packs, too. Mostly Anglo, they are seemingly only pleased when holding beverage in grasp. For these guys (about 85% of them men), this holiday is football and drinking. It probably started in that order, but it’s two weeks in and things aren’t that clear anymore. They want to woo those pretty Brazilian girls they’ve heard so much about, but whenever they see them on the beach they’re too timid and too drunk to try — a combination that must be unique to Anglo men. And who has time to learn Portuguese when beers here cost less than a dollar?
The people doing best out of this whole thing are the informal alcohol entrepreneurs, who know what we want when we’re on holiday. They’re raking it in, selling ice-cold beer and caipirinhas, selling them by the trayful in the streets and on the beaches. If you don’t look too much like a police officer, it turns out 90-odd per cent of them are selling marijuana and cocaine, too. Last week a fluff piece appeared in a local tabloid: apparently the prostitutes of Brazil are devastated because they’re not seeing revenue boost they expected over the Cup. They complain that all the gringos are too drunk and drugged to even want sex, let alone manage the act.
Brazil has been busy selling the caipirinha myth for three solid weeks, and most of the 600,000 people here are buying it. They might complain that the queue to Rio’s Sugarloaf took ages (tick that off the list). Or that Samba School Observation Experience (tick) or four-hour Amazon Adventure Tour (tick) were expensive. But they’re on a phantasmagoric whistlestop tour, and they’re loving it. And after it’s all done, they will go home sunburnt, exhausted, and hungover. But they will go home smiling. They saw what they came to see, did what they came to do. They lived the caipirinha myth.
But Brazil is a large and incredibly diverse country. In her blood is the blood of slaves and their masters. The blood of the Germans, Swiss and Italians paid off to come populate and civilise the Great Empire of Portugal, and the Japanese who came to make a buck off them. And the blood of the indigenous Americans and the white men who brought disease. Lithe black favela kids kicking a ball around with pudgy freckled redheads and everything in between. They’re all Brazilian.
There is no single Brazil — there are a thousand, maybe more. They all dance to different rhythms. But on the occasional off-beat they all fall into time for an instant. And in these moments you can see a dance of unique human beauty.You can witness this dance nowhere else on Earth. Anyone who leaves Brazil after this World Cup with their preconceptions reinforced might leave happy, but they have been cheated. They’ll come home with two new stamps in their passport, but they won’t have seen Brazil.