(I’ve just returned from Carnival in Rio to my adopted home of Porto Alegre. Here are my initial thoughts…)
Copacabana is a bitch. I was a fool to believe she loved only me. She has a string of lovers and a host of admirers. After all, who can resist her exotic charms? The skimpy, sexy clothes she wears revealing a taught, tanned body underneath. She stays up all night partying, sniffing cocaine from the pointed end of a diamond-encrusted dagger. Being alone with her is as sensual as it gets. When she touches you your heart races and your insides turn to guacamole. But she never has any money and sometimes helps herself to the contents of your wallet. I’ve got to give her up. She’s made a fool of me.
Now Guaiba, on the other hand, is demure – an altogether more subtle affair. She’s quiet, pensive and on the cold side. She dresses in dark clothes and there’s not much flesh on show – apart from at the barbecue she drags you to every week. A workaholic who forgets how to let her blonde hair down, she stays in on Saturday night and sleeps all day Sunday. She doesn’t do the beach because the water’s brown and the guys are square.
Let’s face it – given the choice between hanging out in Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre, most people wouldn’t hesitate.
Rio has a picture-postcard beauty that leaves you breathless as you start the descent to the airport. The beaches are big white playgrounds next to the blue-green boat-filled bay. Copacabana is a mecca for pleasure-seekers: a kaleidoscope of bars, swanky restaurants and shopping galleries. Ipanema and Leblon are nearly as exciting, only they have more glamour and a touch of class. Theatres, cinemas, night-clubs, football stadiums, rock concerts all abound. Carnival is a state of mind – the whole population dresses up and spills out onto the streets, a riot of colour and infectious rhythms.
Porto Alegre is like…well, it’s like Portsmouth, I suppose. Plainly provincial without much idea about how to improve itself. It’s staid, steady and Europeanish, with interludes of Brazilian brassiness when the beer is flowing. The centre of town is teeming: a mass of brow-beaten workers all jostling for an elusive bargain in a giant, grubby bonanza. The parks offer light relief, as do the ubiquitous shopping galleries with their cool, airy spaces and slowed-down pace. Porto Alegre is a place where you have to make your own entertainment.
So why don’t I stop moaning, pack my bags and clear off to the “Cidade Maravilhosa”? Well, it’s like this…
Rio, like London, is a victim of its own success. No prices are too high – for rent, for dinner or a room for the night. All that beauty, charm and excitement carries a stiff price-tag. Hapless gringos are still a target for the street robbers, so you have to watch your back (to be fair, Porto Alegre has its share of crime – especially car thefts).
The Cariocas (people from Rio) are friendly enough, though socially unreliable, promising more than they deliver. The Rio way of life revolves around the beach, which is fine if you like sand on your heels all the year round. The beaches are also surrounded by favelas, the hillside slum dwellings that allow the drug-dealing gangs to look down on the decadent antics of the rich, and which serve as a constant reminder that Rio is under siege.
Porto Alegre (POA) forces you to try harder: that’s its charm. If you want a whirligig social life, there are plenty of bars and restaurants. But it’s a struggle to duplicate the Copacabana buzz. What makes Porto Alegre shine is the sunny disposition of the Gaúchos.
Though some have inherited that stiff, European work-ethic, they seem more humble and genuine than the Cariocas. They show and appreciate kindness. And the ex-pats make more of an effort to socialize. POA is way down south near Argentina and Uruguay. It’s cooler than Rio, but the winter is short and not very cold by UK standards, and the hints of seasonal change add variety to lifestyle choices: cold beer and flip-flops for Christmas, red wine and jumpers in July.
In short, Rio is the place to blow a few thousand dollars on the weekend before you get married; POA is the place to settle down and start a blog.