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Brazilians often say they live in a continent rather than a country, and that's an excusable exaggeration. The landmass is bigger than the United States if you exclude Alaska; the journey from Recife in the east to the western border with Peru is longer than that from London to Moscow, and the distance between the northern and southern borders is about the same as that between New York and Los Angeles. Brazil has no mountains to compare with its Andean neighbours, but in every other respect it has all the scenic - and cultural - variety you would expect from so vast a country.
Despite the immense expanses of the interior, roughly two-thirds of Brazil's
live on or near the coast; and well over half live in cities - even in the Amazon. In Rio and SA?o Paulo, Brazil has two of the world's great metropolises, and nine other cities have over a million inhabitants. Yet Brazil still thinks of itself as a frontier country, and certainly the deeper into the interior you go, the thinner the population becomes. Nevertheless, the frontier communities have expanded relentlessly during the last fifty years, usually hand in hand with the planned expansion of the road network into remote regions.
Other South Americans regard Brazilians as a
apart, and language has a lot to do with it - Brazilians understand Spanish, just about, but Spanish-speakers won't understand Portuguese. More importantly, though, Brazilians look different. They're one of the most ethnically diverse peoples in the world: in the extreme south, German and Italian immigration has left distinctive European features; SA?o Paulo has the world's largest Japanese community outside Japan; there's a large black population concentrated in Rio, Salvador and SA?o LuAs; while the Indian influence is most visible in the people of AmazA?nia and the Northeastern interior.
Brazil is a land of profound
contradictions. Rapid postwar industrialization made Brazil one of the world's ten largest economies and put it among the most developed of Third World countries. But this has not improved the lot of the vast majority of Brazilians. The cities are dotted with
shantytowns which crowd around the skyscrapers, and the contrast between rich and poor is one of the most glaring anywhere. There are wide
, too: Brazilians talk of a "Switzerland" in the Southeast, centred along the Rio-SA?o Paulo axis, and an "India" above it; and although this is a simplification, it's true that the level of economic development tends to fall the further north you go. This throws up facts which are hard to swallow. Brazil is the industrial powerhouse of South America, but cannot feed and educate its people. In a country almost the size of a continent, the extreme inequalities in land distribution have led to land shortages but not to agrarian reform. Brazil has enormous natural resources but their exploitation so far has benefited just a few. The IMF and the greed of First World banks must bear some of the blame for this situation, but institutionalized corruption and the reluctance of the country's large middle class to do anything that might jeopardize its comfortable lifestyle are also part of the problem.
These difficulties, however, rarely seem to overshadow everyday life in Brazil. It's fair to say that nowhere in the world do people know how to enjoy themselves more - most famously in the annual orgiastic celebrations of
, but reflected, too, in the lively year-round nightlife that you'll find in any decent-sized town. This national hedonism also manifests itself in Brazil's highly developed
; the country's superb
and dancing; rich regional
; and in the most relaxed and tolerant attitude to
- gay and straight - that you'll find anywhere in South America. And if you needed more reason to visit, there's a strength and variety of
, and a genuine friendliness and humour in the people that is tremendously welcoming and infectious.
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