When I was asked to contribute an article to accompany the recently launched 4th edition of Moon Brazil, my editor suggested an update of sorts to a piece I published four years ago upon the release of the 3rd edition. As I reread the former post, the refrain of Changes, David Bowie’s existential hit of 1971, popped up and began unspooling in my mind.
There’s a big difference between the writing of a first and subsequent editions of a travel guide. When you’re wading fearlessly into a first edition, everything is new. In subsequent less fearless but more seasoned and knowing editions, it’s all about change.
Changes are part and parcel of any guidebook revision. Addresses change, phone numbers change, prices change, reputations change. Museums are inaugurated. Hotels close. Airports are expanded. New food trends emerge. Changes are particularly rampant when the guidebook in question covers a still-developing, continent-sized country such as Brazil, a nation that’s hard to beat (and grasp) in terms of its vast diversity and great extremes, which straddle wealth and poverty, beauty and perversity, sensuality and violence. In constant, history-making flux, Brazil simultaneously flaunts its progress and its stasis; it has 500 years of vivid experience with highs and lows, ups and downs, booms and busts.
When I began work on Moon Brazil 4th edition, it was the tail end of 2013 and Brazil was at the tail end of the massive boom dubbed by economists as “Brazil Mania”.
At its manic pinnacle in 2010, the economy was growing at the breakneck rate of almost 8 percent. Jobs were so plentiful that record numbers of immigrants (including North Americans) were flying down to Rio to seek their fortunes. Buoyed by unprecedented social programs implemented by the Workers Party government, some 40 million poor Brazilians were being catapulted into the ranks of the working and middle classes. Many were purchasing their first homes, not to mention cars, wide-screen TVs, and iPhones. They were also traveling—both abroad and throughout their country—like never before.
In early 2014, as I was researching and revising, the nation’s economic growth was slowing to the consistency of sugar cane molasses. Blooming social unrest had led masses of pot-and-pan beating protesters into the streets, demanding changes.
However, Brazilians were still fairly and characteristically rosy about the future—which included an assured victory at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
With the Brazilian real still packing a powerful punch—at around R$2 to the US$1–there were still far more Brazilians indulging in shopping sprees in Miami and NYC than there were North Americans lounging on the sands of Copacabana, where the inflated prices of coconut water and a rented beach chair were more conducive to stress than relaxation.
The 3rd edition of Moon Brazil duly noted this expensive state of affairs—and tried to minimize it by accentuating food and lodging options that offered foreign travelers more bang for their (scarily impotent) bucks. The guide emphasized itineraries and strategies that would help readers make the most of their time in what was then the most expensive country in Latin America, without sending their credit cards into a tailspin.
Cut to the spring of 2015 and the release of Moon Brazil 4th edition. In the 9 months since I submitted my final manuscript to the editors, Brazil has gone through an astounding number of “ch… ch… ch… changes.”
The bad times kicked off with a bang when Brazil’s national soccer team suffered a psyche-scorching defeat at the World Cup Finals in Rio’s Maracanã stadium, losing to Germany by a humiliating score of 7-to-1. From then on, it has felt like a descent down the steep slopes of Corcovado without any safety ropes.
A presidential election that narrowly handed Dilma Rousseff a second term has been met with cries for impeachment in the wake of an epic corruption scandal surrounding the state oil company, Petrobrás. Although the president herself isn’t implicated, her party—and most of the others in Brazil’s Congress and Senate—have all been tarnished by evidence of politicians taking millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. As a result, the government, never a model of efficiency—or ethics—at the best of times, is now mired in petty games of finger-pointing and denial. Meanwhile, Brazilian citizens are faced with the sinking feeling that there is no constructive solution to the country’s increasingly self-destructive woes.
Accompanying the political mayhem and despair, the country has plunged into recession: unemployment has doubled, prices have soared due to ballooning inflation rates of 10 percent, and the value of the Brazilian real has plummeted to an exchange rate that now hovers around R$4 to US$1 (the highest the U.S. dollar has been since 2002!).This means that budget listings are now true bargains while expensive splurges and brushes with luxury are viable options that will cost less than their equivalents in the Northern Hemisphere.
This latter change is very good news for foreign visitors, in particular Americans, in that the advantageous exchange rate offsets rising costs due to inflation, increased taxes, and the price of imports (all of which are hitting Brazilians hard). It means that traveling in, and around, Brazil is once again affordable—or at least much more so than it’s been in the last decade. As Brazilians themselves cut back on spending, including domestic travel, expect to see a surge in promoções (promotions) and especiais (special deals) in sectors that run the gamut from airfare to the aforementioned price of coconut water on Copacabana beach.
For readers of the 4th edition of Moon Brazil, this means that budget listings are now true bargains while expensive splurges and brushes with luxury are viable options that will cost less than their equivalents in the Northern Hemisphere.
But while you’re pigging out on all-you-can-eat churrasco (barbecue)—or sushi—for a pittance, keep in mind that Brazil is going through a historic (and existential) crise—the word muttered and uttered like a catch-all these days by Brazilians from every walk of life. On the surface, Brazil may give off its trademark lush and sunny glow—for example, by most accounts, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will inevitably be a festive event (despite all the last-minute corner-cutting, budget-busting, belt-tightening and behind-the-scenes organizational mayhem).
However, historically optimistic Brazilians are uncharacteristically pessimistic about the changes facing the country. The oft-repeated meme about Brazil is that it’s the “Country of the Future”…with all the hope that the phrase implies. But these days the future, let alone the present, feels uncertain, laced with what Bowie describes in Changes as “the stream of warm impermanence.”
For foreigners, it’s an interesting and economically favorable time to visit Brazil, not to mention a particularly engrossing time for political soap opera junkies who may have already had their fill of the Republican reality show unspooling in the US. However, no matter what’s going down in Brazil’s Congress or its busy city streets, rest assured that even the most dismayed and disgruntled Brazilians will exhibit the unfailing warmth and joie de vivre that is happily, and eternally, immutable.