There's a great woman who works on Ipanema Beach that is impossible to forget. Vanessa Cabral dos Santos, or Vanessa Esplendorosa as she's known on the sand, sells acai, the Amazonian berry superfood turned purple smoothie health snack which can be mixed with things like banana, granola and powdered milk. It's loved by Brazilians and has made its way to Australia and anywhere else there are hipster, health-conscious people. But she doesn't just sell it, she lives it. This lady is the Rio Carioca spirit personified.
She walks up and down the soft sand for hours on end in the oppressive heat singing her catchy rhymes about her acai, always with a smile and a voice which just radiates the warmest of warm souls. You have to understand these beach venders have far more people not interested than interested, that's just the way it goes. But she manages to always keep her positivity, the happiness in her smile and singing voice never wavering. She's a classic example of the spirit in adversity here that I respect so much.
The reason I bring her up is a friend of mine, Brazilian journalist Ricardo Rigel who works for Globo Jornal Extra, recently did a great online video story about her which you can see on Facebook here which I've included a bunch of screenshots from. It's part of a series looking at the lives of these colourful beach workers anyone who's visited enough times recognises, but doesn't really know.
Another showed the life of one of the iced-tea sellers who brews a drum full every night after slogging it out on the sand all day which he then lugs 40 kilometres on the train from the suburbs to get to Ipanema early the next morning. You won't understand any of this video if you don't speak Portuguese but Vanessa's beach singing was filmed and put online and went viral which I'm not surprised about. But understand her or not, skip through and you'll get a good idea about this woman.
So this brings me to my main point. In Australia we’re so used to our universities staying open, our hospitals saving lives, crime dropping and our politicians busted and booted out for any corruption however small it may be. But in Brazil it’s like there’s constantly problems, and with 10 times the population of Australia it’s not a totally fair comparison as that’s ten times more problems for the media to sink their teeth into.
But Brazil doesn’t just have ten times more problems than Australia, probably more like 100 times. Besides the usual crime and corruption, Rio state university is struggling to pay its staff leaving students shut out of class and hospitals can’t keep up with yellow fever vaccinations as people die from the disease.
With many Aussies this lack of problems means we often end up complaining about really stupid and insignificant stuff, like babies in cafes, cyclists or waiting too long in line at some pretentious foodie event. Would Vanessa Esplendorosa complain about this sort of stuff? I doubt it. But on the contrary, that’s what everyone should aspire to right? To reach a level in society where problems are so few and far between that the only things left to vent about aren’t really problems at all. Maybe, but maybe not.
People from Rio, despite the problems, are still really happy, positive people, and I think a lot of this undoubtedly comes down to, besides the constant hot weather and beautiful beaches, the constant struggles they see around them and the way it makes them appreciate more the good things in life. My Aussie generation especially who’ve lived their lives amidst record economic growth we really aren’t experienced with, and perhaps not even prepared, to deal with serious problems should they ever come.
‘Change the date’ of Australia Day for Aboriginal Australians is our major divisive struggle at the moment, but it’s mainly symbolic. That’s not to say it isn’t important, but people aren’t dying or losing their jobs and education over it. Fortunately Australia doesn’t look set to be going down the toilet anytime soon, our society has solid foundations and even as the mining boom has come and gone we’re still powering ahead with a standard of living virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world - the Europeans lose points for the miserable weather and lack of beaches.
But Brazil, a giant country geographically with a huge spread out population to manage, it seems the roots of its problems are too deep to ever hit the standard of life we enjoy for all people in our society from the bottom to the top. The worst off in Australia can still get by, but in Brazil the worst off really struggle to get through life.
Who wants to see others going through problems with their education, health, jobs or becoming victims of crime? I hope I’m wrong but it's Brazilians telling me this stuff - Brazil is too big for its own good basically, too diverse and divided in geographic and social ways. There’s a feeling here that things will never be totally alright and you've just got to learn to deal with it.
But would Brazil still be Brazil if it did? Would they savour their samba music, party as hard for Carnival and shower each other with so much affection as they do if Brazil didn’t have this struggle? It’s almost a patronising thing to think about because I’m sure many Brazilians would love their education, health, jobs and crime to come before things like music and carnival. But I know there are some Brazilians who would say things are good enough, that the balance between development and strong relationships and enjoying life works.
Who knows. There are plenty of Brazilians coming to Australia to enjoy our sweet mix of high living standards and beautiful nature. I’m sure many Brazilians if they could emulate any society then it’d be Australia - "the Brazil that works" they call it, you wouldn't believe how many times I've heard that here. But there are some things I wish Australia could do more like Brazil too.
Like if you get some half-arsed hamper of food after a long-wait at a Bondi Beach celebrity chef Luke Mangan foodie event, then yeah you are entitled to be annoyed because you paid good money for it and it sucks being hungry. But again I ask would Vanessa Esplenderosa be complaining in those long sandy queues at Bondi? No, she'd probably be singing and dancing. In fact, it's almost certain she would be because if you watch the last 30 seconds of the video Ricardo and the Vanessa are doing exactly that - dancing together on the beach. That's 100% Rio!