I'm always surprised by how much Rio changes every time I go back, and this time was no exception. The sense of optimism is literally palpable. Driving into the city, the roads seem better, and the city almost feels calmer. Despite the controversy surrounding Eduardo Paes' shock order to expel mobile vendors from the beaches (I didn't see a single food cart vendor on the calçadão in Ipanema, a strange absence), Ipanema does seem a bit more orderly, though missing some of the traditional local color. From the airport, if you're paying attention, you'll notice a wall built to hide the favelas, perhaps adding to a the lessened sense of chaos (the city claims the walls are there to prevent noise and pollution within the favelas, but the favelas just north of the airport, outside of the normal tourist trajectory, do not have walls. Another post for another day). The port is overflowing with activity, and when we drove across the Ponte Niterói one morning at 6AM, there were literally dozens of ships anchored in the bay, testament to Brazil and Rio's continued economic boom.
Though the economy is supposedly cooling, you wouldn't know it from Rio. There's the obvious trend of increased international travel, with returning Cariocas at the airport, bringing three or four suitcases per person loaded with purchases from abroad. I saw several malls under construction, and they cross the economic spectrum - several going up in Zona Oeste and Zona Norte for the C and D classes, and a high-end mall being built in Barra for the very wealthy. Though construction cranes were the norm even when I lived in Rio, they're still ubiquitious throughout the city. Huge SUVs from American and Asian auto makers share the roadways with the conventional compact cars (including my father-in-law, now the proud owner of a Ford pickup). Seemingly all of the people in their 20s I spoke to are in school, be it undergrad, a second BA degree, or a masters program. Some people who previously had limited access to consumer goods now have multiple credit cards and are buying expensive digital cameras, video game consoles, smartphones, and flat screen TVs. Everyone seems confident about the future, a considerable contrast to here in the U.S.
On the other hand, the incredible feeding frenzy that is the consumer boom is worrisome, particularly with the C Class and newer consumers. I noticed small mom and pop stores in working class neighborhoods offering customers the option to use nearly every credit card available for purchases. At the malls, you can still buy nearly anything in installments, but some larger chains are offering credit lines as well. Ads for getting credit are everywhere - buy a newspaper or a weekly magazine and you'll find multiple full page ads from different banks for a variety of types of credit. Here's a magazine ad for CAIXA credit, the government-run bank that offers credit to consumers newer to banking. (Apparently, a pineapple is part of the Brazilian dream?)
In fact, while flipping through the Sunday edition of a New York Post-like daily, I found a newspaper almost entirely devoted to ads, with the front cover devoted not to a news headline, but to teaching readers how to plan a vacation and buy airfare (underneath the large ad for sports watches):
I recently re-read Open Veins of Latin America, and I couldn't help but wonder how sustainable this boom will be, or how much of the profits will stay in Brazil or benefit Brazilians in the long term. (Or, like in the US, if Brazilian corporations will take advantage of consumers). At one of the smaller stadiums in Rio state hosting the Brazilian Championship, Bridgestone, Gilette, and Remax ads adorned the sidelines, some of which are brands that aren't even new to Brazil. While Brazilian companies and corporations have flourished, there's still a large number of American, European, and Asian multinationals with their talons sunk firmly in the market.
While the economic boom is inescapable and Rio is quickly becoming more of a modern city, there are still vestiges of the past. In the suburbs like Zona Oeste and in smaller towns on the coast, horse-drawn carts share lanes with cars. While driving to Minas Gerais in rural Rio state, we passed a massive Nestlé factory under construction, next to rolling fields where a lone horseman rode next to a passing cargo train. Transportation infrastructure is still woefully inadequate, and with more people buying cars, traffic is getting worse. One morning, we got stuck in traffic on one of the city's major highways - at 5AM. (In related news, a study came out last week claiming Rio has the worst air pollution in the entire country.) There are more car dealerships popping up, and car offers even in the middle of malls. Here's a man feather-dusting a car in the middle of a mall in a working-class neighborhood. You can't see it, but there's an open bible on the dashboard.
Seeing Rio transformed is always exciting, but it makes me want to hold my breath. In some parts of the city, if you look up, you'll see vultures circling. I can't shake the image from my head, and worry that there are different birds of prey in the economy (and even politics). Maybe it's a symptom from re-reading Open Veins, but it's something unsettling I've observed from afar for quite awhile now.
Still, I can't wait to plan my next trip back.