If I was going to throw all the ingredients into the pot and create the ultimate destination, what would I use?
Beaches? Yes, I suppose, though they're not a prerequisite. I only spend a fraction of my time on a beach. I once spent two weeks roaming around Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic -- no beaches there the last time I looked. Scenery? Oh yes, and it has to be of the exotic sort -- jungles and mountains, just like in Thailand. A fascinating culture? Yes, please, if possible as bizarre and fascinating as India's. Wildlife? Well, nothing can really beat East Africa, but I really enjoy interesting fauna. History? Something that will give Europe a run for its money...
All of the above can be found in Brazil.
Beaches? Well, Itaparica and Praia do Forte go on forever. Regularly voted the most beautiful in the world is Jericoacoara, west of Fortaleza. Scenery? Can anything beat the Pantanal? That endless savannah and exotic animal viewing at twilight, not to mention those jungle-covered granite peaks around Rio de Janeiro. Culture? Salvador de Bahia has such a strong, exotic culture that it creates massive "culture shock" in some travellers. Wildlife? How many people can say they have seen toucans and giant anteaters so close-up? And history? Take a look at Pelhurinho in Salvador or Farol de Barra in the same city. Both are the genesis of a great nation.
When reading the above, if it sounds like tourist office hyperbole, then I apologise. I am an unabashed Brasilophile. I make no apology for it, but at the same time, I am aware of its faults. And that, for me, gives an interesting friction to Brazil. It is paradise -- there is no doubt about that -- but it is a paradise with problems. This, to me, makes it rather endearing. It is not a country which bludgeons every visitor into agreeing with the population that it is the greatest on the earth. It's not a country that brags about its "lifestyle" and looks down on others who don't quite have the benefits that it has. Brazil is a country with massive potential. Its natural resources are endless, but it is aware of its own failings. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is too blind to its benefits, it is so obsessed with its failings.
While at the Praia do Forte in Bahia, I met a young couple. They were from the south of Brazil, Porto Alegre, a city which still gets cold during winter. They were up in sunny Bahia for a small holiday and conversed in American English (?), as it was the only English they knew. They asked me whether I liked their country. As usual, I responded with my usual enthusiasm and couldn't quite understand why they didn't reciprocate. When pushed about what was good about their country, they eventually came up with "the beaches". Most of the benefits, in their eyes, were counteracted by the existence of very high crime. And, yes, I'll not deny it doesn't exist. You can almost feel the hairs on the back of your neck go up as you walk back in the darkness, down Avenida Atlantica or Barra in Salvador. Brazil's famous "achilles heel" is still there and probably always will be.
And on this trip, I saw the Brazil of the news soundbite. The most memorable example of this is the street children in Salvador. You can almost see the beach vendors flinch when they appear on the scene. Their eyes never leave them until they leave their patches, and those lying in the sun watch them like zebras watch nearby predators. I can't think of a harder life than what those street children in Salvador have. You first notice them when you enter the city, with their small camps built out of rags on the cities' traffic islands. They don't inhabit Pelurinho but roam around Barra and can be rather unnerving, especially at night. But at the same time, lots of time and effort are put in to help them. The guides around the historic district of Salvador are all ex-street children who have pulled themselves up by their boot straps. They are no longer seen as the menace they were in the eighties, when the police took very drastic measures.
And that seems to be it with Brazil. It slowly seems to be gentrifying. The economy is still as tough as ever. Unemployment is a major issue here, and the vast majority of its enormous wealth is still kept amongst a conspicuous minority. But it seems to be determined to do something about it, from police on Copacabana Beach protecting the tourists to the decaying historic district of Salvador getting a new lick of pastel paint. The will to impress seems to have reemerged. If you come to South America looking for festering slums, you will find them, but you'll also be surprised to find wealthy middle-class districts, an educated populace, and an impressive media scene. If you feel comfortable in Spain or Portugal, you will feel comfortable in Brazil.
And yet it is still a country of the future, a country clawing its way back to solvency and respectability. But it will always have that slightly rakish quality -- there is a touch of the bad boy about Brazil. Its as if it can't help but misbehave. It has too much energy, and it wants to go on laughing, flirting, and fighting. When you scan Ipanema Beach and its people, these are the qualities which bounce back. Fighting age? Responsibility? Love? It throws its head back and laughs heartily at what is expected of it in life.
Brazil is a country which will never, thankfully, grow up...