Usually when you travel abroad, time seems to fly, but when you are in Rio, it in fact comes to a grinding halt. Everything about this place screams laidback and relaxed and within days of arriving here, one quickly gets accustomed to the carioca way of living. Cariocas are considered to be the friendliest people in the world and their infectious openness is evident in a culture that has produced the most diverse race in history.
The EBS Business School MBA program has a focus on emerging markets (BRIC) and since I am from India and wanted to experience a different culture, I chose Brazil as it is quite an exotic country and a lot of exciting developments were taking place in its economy. My exchange was with COPPEAD, the business school of the University of Rio de Janeiro. The pool of exchange students although international was skewed towards French and Americans. There were about 30 of us and we lived in the area surrounding Copacabana and Ipanema known as Zona Sul. COPPEAD is located on an island roughly about 25kms from Zona Sul and with the traffic during peak hours, the time spent travelling up and down can be quite significant. There are plenty of buses and vans that cater to this route but unlike in Germany, there are no fixed schedules. Hence, this is a good experience in learning to live with uncertainties. As part of the Brazilian bureaucracy, foreigners also have to register with the police at the airport; if you are able to do this as soon as you arrive in Rio, it will save you a lot of trouble later on.
I was enrolled in three out of the six courses that were available in English. I had an interesting course called ‘New Ventures’ in which the Professor used to discuss the case by describing the ‘Ecosystem’ which I found to be very useful. Further, as part of our final project, we met associates from BNDES, the second largest development bank in the world and got an insight into venture capital activity in Brazil. In ‘Brand Management’, we had the opportunity to work with ‘Bazzar’, a trendy restaurant with a gourmet product line business. However, since the courses available in English were limited, it is highly recommended to learn Portuguese in order to have access to more choices. Moreover, apart from residents in the upscale places, there are very few English speaking persons, hence learning basic Portuguese would be very useful while getting around. For students looking to network and get into the Brazilian economy, COPPEAD is a good option because it is well known and highly regarded in South America.
Since university housing was not available, we were recommended to look for housing in Zona Sul as it was considered to be a safe area and also quite touristy. I was lucky to get a nice flat right at the intersection of Copacabana and Ipanema beach called Arpoador which I shared with four other exchange students. Real estate is heating up in Rio and it contributes to the whole living experience being a little expensive compared to Germany. The beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are all nearby and easily accessible if you live in Zona Sul. The waves can be quite strong, but with some practice you will be able to read them well and learn to dive into or bodysurf them. Along the beaches, there are also open gyms at the beach which are free for all to use. This shows a lot of the importance that cariocas give to fitness. There is a separate lane on the road for people to jog, bike and skate. Groups of people playing volleyball, futebol and working out even at 10p.m. in the night by the beach are a common sight. For those who need motivation to stay fit, there are plenty of such inspirational sights on the road every day. Biking and running around the lake of Lagoa are also very popular activities. Lagoa by the night is a beautiful sight and a perfect location for a romantic dinner.
To revitalize yourself, there are salgados (snacks) and sucos(juices) such as aςai and guarana (from the Amazon forests) that are very popular and guaranteed to get one addicted to the health benefits that these tropical fruits promise! Eating out can be expensive but a churrascaria (barbeque) is a must at least once. Feijaõ (beans) with rice and meat is one of the staple diets here. Restaurants where you can eat food by the kilo are also common. There are plenty of supermarkets apart from open markets with fresh food for those who wish to cook at home. In the night time, you can chill out at the beach with a cerveja (beer) or a caipirinha. The beer here is rather light; however the caipis are quite good and cheap. A cachaςaca bottle is a regular household item here like how wine probably is in Europe.
Dance and music are very much a part of the Brazilian culture and Rio has plenty to offer those who wish to explore these. The popular dance forms are Samba, Forro, Funky and Zouk. As an avid Salsa dancer, I frequented a spot at the Copa Hostel and learned some Forro as well. With a variety of things to do, you are overwhelmed with tough choices every night. Activities include going to Bossanova concerts, regular nightclubs and bars, funky and samba clubs, the inter-cambio (tauschie) get-togethers, shopping in the night flea markets or chilling out at the beach side shacks. Lapa on Fridays and Saturdays is where it all comes down to and is a must see. Hundreds of people gather on the streets in this area with plenty of bars and clubs and is very representative of Rio’s nightlife. Upscale clubs are located in places like Leblon, Ipanema and Botafogo. Tourist attractions comprise of visiting the Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer), Sugar Loaf and taking a weekend off to Ilha Grande or Buzios. There are interesting museums and art galleries in Central Rio and Santa Teresa offers a bohemian experience. For serious travelers, there are plenty of options such as travelling north to Salvador, south to Florianapolis and Iguaςu waterfalls or west to Pantanel or even the amazing Amazon.
Interspersed between the developed landscapes on the beach front are the favelas on the hilltops. These settlements which are visible from any part of the city are a constant reminder of the disparity in the income levels in the city. Your Brazilian classmates and friends will advise you against it, but if curiosity does get the better of you, visit these places with a guide or a trusted resident. I had the chance to go to Rocinha and Vidigal, two favelas quite close to Zona Sul. I saw men walking around carrying huge firearms and selling drugs openly, but what was more surprising was how the general population that was living in the favelas co-existed and led normal lives in what might otherwise be described as dangerous circumstances. The shock on the faces of my Brazilian friends when I told them about my visits indicated how these two worlds were so close yet so far. In the run up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games that Rio is set to host, the Brazilian government ‘pacified’ two favelas through the elite squad, the BOPE, that resulted in widespread retaliation by the drug traffickers in December 2010. Although this also caused panic among cariocas, Zona Sul was indeed quite insulated.
However, my final week in Rio turned out to be the most exhilarating of them all. I had moved in to my flat on September 27th and with a contract for three months was expected to move out on December 26th. The time around New Years and the Rio Carnival attracts thousands of tourists and has the seasonal effects on the economy especially in real estate. It was a common practice for landlords to sublet apartments for five days around New Years for as much as twice or thrice a month’s rent. It so happened that all the hostels and hotels were booked out way in advance and I wouldn’t have been able to afford them in any case as I was broke with only R$50 left in my wallet and had the most expensive week of the year still to go.
Couple of days before I had to move out, I ended up in my real estate agent’s office to discuss about handing over the keys. Spending some time in his office, I realized he was facing some problems with finding clients for the next one week. I saw an opportunity and got into an agreement with him to help him out. Leveraging on my previous experience in real estate in Bangalore, I was able to quickly close a deal for an apartment. Furthermore, I gave him some tips on improving his client prospecting process for which he gave me an apartment to stay free of charge in Copacabana which normally would have cost me a fortune!
As an Indian who did not speak Portuguese, brokering apartments to Brazilians in Rio did indeed lead to moments of intercultural negotiations that can only be described as simultaneously hairsplitting and memorable! Nevertheless, having experienced such side-effects of globalization first hand, I strongly implore you to try it!