Retail in Rio: the carioca guide to shopping

Featured in Lonely Planet. Words and photography by Teresa Madeline Geer. 

In Rio de Janeiro there are the essential purchases: the classic mini statue of Christ the Redeemer, the cheapest Havaianas on the planet, and the beach sarongs known as kangas. But beyond these standard souvenirs is a wealth of unusual treasures which are as much a pleasure to possess as they are to search for amidst the bustling Carioca feiras (fairs) and mercados(markets).

Whether you want a day exploring the mazes of exotic artisan products, a taste of the authentic flavors of Brazil or to find that unique present for a lucky loved one, this is your guide to the best in Carioca shopping.

Feira de São Cristóvão

Feira de São Cristóvão is not just any shopping mall. This purpose built arena houses a host of shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment, all with the unique flavor of the northeastern state of Bahia. Free on weekdays, and R$5 on weekends, it's an amusement park for adults that is not only a refuge from the burning sun but also a secure place to shop with guards at the entrance.

There are plenty of home decorations to choose from: wind chimes, vibrantly hand-painted wooden parrots and traditional Bahian lady statues. Or if you’re in the market for a hammock, there’s a huge range here at almost 50% less than in other areas of Rio. Edibles like traditional cookies and Portuguese sweets such as cocadas (a sweet coconut cake) are well worth adding to the basket too.

Just as tempting as the shopping though are the more than twenty restaurants specializing in traditional northeastern dishes like muqueca(coconut fish stew) and baião de dois (mix of rice, beans and salted beef). The best of the bunch is Mandacaru(feiradesaocristovao.org/gastronomia) where waiters in cowboy hats charm customers through the doors with tacky green plastic cactuses, deliciously authentic Bahian cuisine and friendly service.

Ipanema Hippie Fair

The Hippie Fair is a buzzing retail experience that takes place every Sunday close to Ipanema beach at Praça General Osorio. Originally a market run by authentic dreadlocked sellers, the hippies moved on when rent prices for the stalls rose, but luckily their skills and style live on through the carefully crafted merchandise still available. There’s plenty a free soul could want here, from colorful dreamcatchers to original Carioca art and jewelry made from bone, wood, metal, silver and fabric.

Shopping done, it’s time to tuck into some of the dishes at the street-food stalls that surround the market. Try some of the best acarajé in town (deep fried bean dough cake filled with shrimp and spicy sauce). After, take the short stroll towards Ipanema’s Arpoador area where true beachside hippies handmake artisan jewelry which is not only as authentic as but also slightly cheaper than that at the ‘official’ fair.

Feira do Rio Antigo

For shopping addicts lucky enough to be in Rio de Janeiro on the first Saturday of the month, Feira do Rio Antigo on Rua Lavradio in the Lapa neighboorhood is the perfect fix. Dozens of pop-up stalls set up along this long street, selling quirky products including African print clothing, cool T-shirts, hand-knitted headwear, hipster Hawaiian shirts, junky jewelry and much more.

The street is also home to some of the best restaurants and bars this side of town. The antique-filled Rio Scenarium is a smart choice for a classy caipirinha, and if hunger strikes, recently opened Casa Momus (casamomus.com.br/en) is a stylishly decorated restaurant with a fresh Euro-Brazilian menu; try the salmon with cream sauce for a main, and don’t miss the to-die-for chocolate torte for dessert.

Fresh food at Feira da Glória

The best place to buy fresh produce in Rio de Janeiro is at one of itsfeiras. Reasonable prices and head-sized mangoes bring crowds down to Glória’s feira every Sunday from 7am until around 2pm. Located just outside the metro station, this fruit and vegetable market stocks standard staples such as chili-peppers, papaya, watermelon and avocados, along with a selection of Brazilian fruits that most of the world doesn’t even know exist such as jabuticaba or cupuaçu.

Locals arrive early for the best pick of seafood and fish, all freshly caught and chilling on ice, but bargain hunters arriving after 1pm can bag some great deals as the market winds down.

It’s a Sunday tradition for many Cariocas to have breakfast at the famed Feira da Glória pastel stall which serves deep-fried palmetto (heart of palm), carne (beef) or quiejo (cheese) varieties, all washed down with a swig of freshly juiced cano do caldo (sugar cane juice). Save room for a traditional tapioca crepe, sweet or savoury, or a moist slice of aipim(cassava) cake.

Mercado Municipal

The charming chaos of Mercado Municipal is not the most glamorous, clean, or attractive shopping spot in Rio de Janeiro, but is a popular choice for locals. The market is a distribution hub with the cheapest prices in Rio for products like flowers, Portuguese sweets and a wide range of oils, beers, spirits and wines.

For those feeling peckish, there are restaurants specializing in Portuguese-inspired food, along with plenty of shops that sell fresh juice or açaí bowls for a lunch on the move.

The best day to go is Saturday when it’s open from 5am for early birds. It’s a bit further away than the usual tourist haunts, located in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro, and is not reachable by metro, so take a taxi from Ipanema (R$50).

Safety tips while shopping in Rio
Only take as much cash with you as needed and keep it well out of sight while shopping. Most sellers, even some market stalls, accept debit and credit cards, but ensure you keep your card in view at all times – there are many reported cases of card cloning.

Bullets, ballet and building dreams in Rio’s favelas (Huck Magazine)

Featured in Huck Magazine's print edition #47 and Huck Magazine Online. Words and Photography by Teresa Madeline Geer

 

Rio de Janeiro’s Ballet de Santa Teresa is providing hope, education and a safe haven for some of the most disadvantaged children in Brazil.

On the meandering hilltops of Rio de Janeiro’s cobblestoned Santa Teresa neighbourhood, the unexpected crescendo of classical music grows.

Down a quiet road, two bright blue steel gates open to a pathway decked with native tropical plants, signalling the entrance to Ballet de Santa Teresa, a free ballet school that caters for girls and boys between the ages of three to eighteen, from nearby Favela Morro dos Prazeres (‘Hill of Pleasures Slum’).

The fifteen-year-old project was born out of Vânia Farias’ lifetime passion. “I decided I was going to be a ballet dancer at four years old. From the window at my mother’s work I could see a dance studio. I asked my mother to put me into ballet. It was not easy, but she never abandoned my dream,” she recalls. “We grew up in Santa Teresa, it was actually a poor area at the time, but I always believed that life could be better.”

Now in her forties, having enjoyed a career as a ballet teacher, she decided to start a school of her own when a little girl, named Teresa, from the nearby favela, asked Vânia, ‘Aunty, when will you teach me ballet?’

Vânia still remembers that moment vividly. “I was bewildered and unprepared, so I didn’t answer,” she says. “I walked around the situation, but I left with the uneasy question still within me. I soon learned the little girl was a resident of the slum. Never in my life had I entered a favela. But I sought the president of the Residents’ Association and offered to do a project in the community with classical ballet. She loved the idea and gave me a space in the basement of their headquarters.”

There were twelve children on the first day of class, among them was little Teresa. It was not an easy place to work; the windows had no glass, when it rained it flooded, the space was dotted with broken chairs and there was a ditch running through the room that was covered by precariously placed planks.

The school grew rapidly – in a couple of months the alumni became forty students and moved to a larger studio – and, in 2001, Vânia moved the school out of the favela and into nearby Santa Teresa where the ballet school, as it is now, was forged. Today the school caters to over a hundred children and teens, offering free ballet, music and literacy classes attended by all students, daily. But perhaps, most importantly, it provides a safe haven for some of the most disadvantaged children in Brazil.

The school has proven a huge success, as embodied by its first student. “The girl who asked me that question all those years ago, Teresa, now works here. She is a writing and reading teacher. She still lives in the favela,” says Vânia.

Another sign of success is the school’s high-profile “godfather”, Royal Ballet dancer Thiago Soares. “The children united themselves and each wrote him a letter to call his attention. He is also from a poor community in Rio and when he was reading those letters he saw himself in them, and was so emotional. Months later he came here and adopted the institution,” Vânia twinkles. “He has a very special place in his heart for the boys, because people see boys that practice ballet with bad eyes. He comes here and talks with them to motivate them.”

A group of elegantly attired students gather in the dance studio for the first class of the day. Here the girls, hair pinned back, and boys, donning ballet slippers, stretch before class. Then, as the music begins, the teacher takes them through graceful sequences, executed with delicate perfection. The hours wile away as they practice pirouettes and pointed toes: a steep contrast to their everyday realities at home.

“Favela life is full of challenges,” says Vânia. “The only public service that reaches this part of the city is the police. The houses are extremely small and there is no space for the child to develop fully. Basic sanitation is a luxury in most slums and garbage accumulates everywhere.”

Despite their prevalence, the slums are the invisible neighbourhoods of Brazil. Some are lawlessly controlled by drug traffickers, while others have been ‘pacified’ – a local term that infers police have taken back control.

Morro Dos Prazers has been considered pacified since 2007. Pacified favelas are scattered with heavily armed police checkpoints. Despite the diminished threat of violent drug dealers, corrupt police pose their own kind of threat. And then there’s the militia.

Many of Rio de Janeiro’s slums – pacified, or not – are under the absolute control of the mafia-like militia; factions of policemen, ex-policemen, firefighters and military who have often been known to resort to brute force in order to rule the every move of favela residents. In some cases, they use police equipment, maintain constant communication with the police and act as a proxy for them. In some areas the militia control many aspects of everyday life, from who people vote for in elections, to where they buy their gas. Some also enforce illegal ‘taxes’ on those who make a living in their territory such as shop and bar owners or taxi drivers.

“The police are sometimes even more dangerous than the drug traffickers. There is also the violence, domestic and within the main community due to drug trafficking, but our biggest worry is the sexual exploitation of the children and teens,” reveals Vânia.

The government and media appear to be disconnected from these neighbourhoods, preferring to direct the public’s attention away from the crime, poverty, drug addiction and corruption. Instead, they dangle the juxtaposing image of rich Brazilian society in front of the world’s eyes, so that the realities of life for the average favela child is overlooked or forgotten.

The belief at Ballet de Santa Teresa is that change starts at home. An in-house team of social workers and psychotherapists are on hand to guide parents, many of whom had children at a young age. “Many parents don’t know what to do with their children,” explains Vânia. “Then there’s the domestic work exploitation of kids which is what we call ‘invisible abuse’. Many parents abuse the kids by putting them to work when they are not supposed to. This is the most worrying issue because it is widely accepted in Brazil as normal.”

Education is therefore at the forefront of the school’s ethos. With ten per cent of the Brazilian population illiterate – according to World Bank statistics – the institution hopes to make a change with the families they are able to reach.

“Many of the kids didn’t have any kind of dream when we started with them, now they’re finishing high school and are attending college,” explains Vânia’s twenty-one-year-old son, João Pedro, who sometimes helps his mother.

Despite the positive growth seen in the children that attend the school, support for social causes from the Brazilian government is extremely hard to come by without the right connections.

“The government help a little, but there are many problems, like sometimes they don’t sign the support and then the institution doesn’t get the money,” Vânia explains. “Corruption is still a legacy of the time of [colonisation]. The government said in 2013 that there was a boom. It didn’t exist; we call it the ‘creative economy’. They didn’t have the money that they said, so they had to get money from other parts to justify it for the World Cup. The first place to get hit was social causes like us.”

These cuts have made it more difficult for the centre to receive government funding and in the last six months, Vânia has, for the first time, thought about closing its doors. As they do not ask a fee from their students, beyond capricious government funding, the institute depends on charitable donations from the public as well as from corporations – but sometimes there aren’t any.

In the run-up to the 2014 presidential election, the media waves pumped out debates between president Dilma Roussef and rival candidate Aecio Neves – who beyond his right-wing, business-focused policies, is also well known for a recent scandal where he was found with 445 grams of cocaine in his possession. In late October, Roussef won the election. Her policies have helped lift nearly 40 million people out of poverty through income redistribution.

But to many Brazilians, like Vânia, the political manifestos that circulate around the polls at election time are nothing but the familiar sound of broken promises. “Education will be a success when the children of politicians are attending the same schools as the children of the slums,” says Vânia. “Candidates make a lot of promises that are not fulfilled, but most of the people still believe them. Brazilians have a very short memory.”

But, not one to simply sit on the sidelines and watch, Vânia doesn’t shy away from local politics. She is now the municipal councillor of the city’s Children’s and Adolescents’ Rights. “Our hope is that we can use the social technology of Ballet of Santa Teresa to transform public policy, so that more children and young people have free access to culture and education.”

Although the value of what the children gain in the ballet school is palpable, there is also a sense of fear – due to waning support from the government and the general public. Five years ago there were over ten social programs in Santa Teresa like the ballet school, but today it is the last man standing.

“I’m worried about society here, it’s too egocentric,” says Vânia. “People are more worried about the beauty of their avatar on Facebook. We’ve entered into a virtual world that doesn’t smell, that doesn’t have any flavour. We don’t try to help each other, we just see ourselves and let the needs of others go. We are forgetting the main thing about community, about the people being one.”

Despite the lack of support, Vânia remains optimistic that by following her life-long passion for dance – and sharing that enchantment with girls just like Teresa – the centre will continue to be there for future generations.

“The dream of being a dancer is like a spell for little children,” says Vânia. “It’s truly magical and I want to help show the children that they can grow their dreams into reality.”

Find out more about Ballet de Santa Teresa.