I fell in love with Florianopolis, which was my first introduction to the south of Brazil. The capital city of the state of Santa Catarina, “Floripa” is made up mostly of an island called Ilha de Santa Catarina, which is 54km long. With a population of under 500,000, it has the third highest Human Development Index score among all Brazilian cities. I was fortunate to couch surf with an actual surfer who lived just off Lagoa da Conceição, the heart of the island, next to Praia Joaquina. The beaches are undoubtedly the most beautiful that I have seen in the entire country. I quickly learned that just one weekend was not enough to explore the island, and so I kept extending my stay. One week later, I realized I had to move on so that I could make it in time to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval in the first week of February. After Florianopolis I planned to visit Ilha do Mel in Paraná and Ilha Grande in the state of Rio de Janeiro before going to it’s capital city. I was incredibly sad to leave, for it was the first city in Brazil where I felt that I could truly live in.
I lived life in Floripa in the style of a local spending their summer weekends on the island. Late mornings at the beach, açai na tigela in the small town center as a late afternoon snack, and staying until sunset at yet another beach, watching surfers catch the last waves of the day. Over the weekend, spending all afternoon and evening at the beach until we reached a beach party, followed by a party at a club in the wealthy Jurerê neighborhood until morning. Sounds like the Hamptons in New York, or Miami, doesn’t it? It’s a privileged lifestyle, a bubble in the country currently in an economic crisis and abundant in corruption, skyrocketing unemployment rates, a widening income gap, and an entirely basic quality of life. Floripa is an extremely wealthy city, and most people who live specifically around the Lagoa da Conceição are staying at their summer home. Ferraris, Porsches, and Range Rovers are comfortably parked outside the clubs in Jurerê. There isn’t any problem walking in the streets at night. Assault and theft is rare. People respect the rules and have respect for others, and are generally considered law-abiding citizens. Yes, this may be a slightly distorted perception given that it is summer, and along with that comes tourists from all over the world and creating a densely populated center. But this doesn’t mean that everything changes when the tourists leave; the heavy traffic may subside, but the buses will still be clean, orderly, and function on schedule. People will still be nice and courteous. The restaurants will still have vegetarian and organic options. The people and the beaches will still be as gorgeous as ever, and the surfers will still wake up at dawn to catch the best waves. People will still work to live and to travel, and not the other way around.
It comes as no surprise that Brazilians want to live here. Most of locals I met were transplants from the states of Rio de Janeiro, Paraná, São Paulo, or Rio Grande do Sul, all living in Floripa for five years or more. They moved for a host of reasons: to surf, for more temperate weather, to live in a small town with the infrastructure of a big city, for the more relaxed lifestyle, for the athletic and beautiful people.
Visiting this city was a shock to my system – it was the biggest surprises in my travels so far. Coming from the northeast of Brazil, I had this perception of the country that was far more homogeneous. I thought that the third-world qualities of the state of Pernambuco, although more severe, were also characteristic of the rest of the country. My first thoughts were why I hadn’t been to Florianopolis before, and why my mother didn’t think to bring me here when I came to the country to visit family. Geographically Floripa is very far from Recife and a flight, usually unnecessarily expensive, is the only option. Those in the south such as in São Paulo can easily drive or take an overnight bus. But what I still couldn’t grasp is how Brazilians from the northeast didn’t make it a point to visit this part of the country. Only one person in my immediate family has ever been there. More foreigners have set foot onto its beaches than people from my region of Brazil. Perhaps it’s because they’ll only feel the similar frustration and anger that I felt: why can’t where I come from be like this too?
Ignorance is bliss, but ignorance also stunts our awareness and prevents change. It’s a micro example of what happens when we travel: the more you know, the more you’ll feel. And you won’t only feel joy. You’ll feel frustration, sadness, anger, surprise, jealousy, numbness, disenchantment, and indifference. And with all of those feelings you’ll become smarter. You’ll relate to more people, to feel more of what they feel. You’ll sympathize with where they come from, and where they want to go. You’ll learn to judge with compassion. You’ll begin to understand just how complex societies are and how they can differ even within the same city. In my ignorance, I thought I knew what Brazil was all about. I didn’t even plan on coming to Brazil on this trip – it was a last minute decision, one that I am so happy I made. I still haven’t come close to truly understanding this country, but I am slowly learning just how complex and beautiful it is.