PEACEFULLY SITTING ON A CONCRETE BENCH IN COPACABANA, Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade observes everyday life unfolding before his eyes. The sunshine bounces off his bronze surface. A passerby takes a moment to sit down next to him and pretends to shake his golden hand.
Though the beloved poet passed away in 1987, you can still feel his essence when sitting next to his famous statue. It embodies what he enjoyed doing best during his days as a writer in Rio: walking down the boulevard and sitting down on a bench to observe life being lived around him.
During my days as an exchange student in Brazil, I began to adopt Drummond de Andrade’s philosophy little by little. I would sit or stand somewhere busy, like a plaza or a sidewalk café, and contemplate Rio’s buzzing urban culture stirring before my eyes. It was a beautiful thing to witness. Brazilians have this amazing ability to squeeze the most out of life, regardless of the political, economic, or personal adversities thrown at them.
I observed everything around me. Old men gathered at a sidewalk bar on a Monday afternoon after work to watch a soccer game over beers. A smiling grandma picking up her grandkid from school, getting an ice cream on the way to the park. I saw people at corner stores laughing and talking to the cashiers as if they had known each other for a lifetime. Groups of teenagers in school uniforms gathering after class on skateboards to catch the golden sun setting over the ocean.
Wherever I looked, there was always something happening. It was this everyday vitality that had—and has—been inspiring writers and artists for decades.
But it's not only this human vitality that makes the city spark. It’s the mountains, forests, and hundreds of animal species that also call this place home. The symbiotic relationship between urban life and nature is truly wonderful in Rio. At Tijuca National Park, for instance, you can go on hikes, splash for a few minutes in a cold, fresh waterfall, or do yoga below the green canopy of trees. Birds chirp from above, and monkeys laugh as they quickly steal food from families having picnics nearby.
A trip by cable car to the Sugar Loaf Mountain, stopping to eat and drink at Mureta da Urca, or pedaling a boat along Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas allows you to experience this unique relationship between nature and urban life up close. Plus, you can see Christ the Redeemer from afar at all these locations, always welcoming you with open arms. At the cafés along the historical Forte de Copacabana, you’re able to enjoy a Brazilian cafezinho while feeling the ocean breeze and admiring the mountains in front of you.
You'll also hear music everywhere you go, ranging from the joyful and explosive sounds of samba and pagode, to the delicate and smooth beats of bossa nova, as well as the emotion-driven lyrics of sertanejo. To experience a roda de samba, where musicians gather around a table to play and sing along with the crowd, places like Samba do Trabalhador and Pedra do Sal come to life every Monday afternoon. On weekends, you can find places to enjoy the nightlife scene in every single neighborhood in the city, each place unique for every type of traveler.
When my days as an exchange student came to a close, not a day had gone by where I hadn’t smiled. I was surrounded by some of the funniest people I'd ever met, and I found myself laughing every time I saw the jeitinho brasileiro in action—a term used for Brazilians's creative, improvised and ingenious ways to work around their problems. It’s because of the most unbelievable and hilarious examples of this jeitinho, that a running joke amongst the youth is O Brasileiro precisa ser estudado pela NASA— “Brazilians need to be studied by NASA."
So to all you Houstonians and NASA-lovers out there, this is your call to explore everything that Brazil has to offer. Its splendor is definitely not just limited to Rio— between 27 states, there are thousands of unique cities, towns and islands waiting for you to discover. I was able to learn so much from people of different ages, races, social classes, professions, and even political standpoints. No matter their differences, they all shared the same joyful, generous trait of making you feel right at home.