A playful little man with a kooky smile on his face has just scared the living wits out of you. He has stumbled in the sand, and the alarmingly enormous abacaxi (pineapple) balancing on his head has threatened to crush you. But it’s all tranqüilo — chill out. It’s just his selling tactic. How else is a man with a cooler full of fresh fruit going to make a living?
This charming trickster is but one soldier in Rio’s eccentric army of vendedores da praia, or beach vendors. They facilitate a full day at the beach. Everything you need — whether it is hydration, foodstuffs, a new bikini, sunscreen, sunglasses, or a canga upon which to lie — inevitably lies in the cargo of someone bound to walk by sooner or later.
Agua! Matte! Coca! Bem geladão!
Vendedores da praia fall into two categories: those with tents and those who pace. The tent vendors set up little shaded stands and sit providing umbrellas and chairs to those who wish to rent them for the day at a rate of about R$5 each. They also vend drinks from coolers and other snacks for a good deal.
I find the pacing vendedores to be much more legit. They generally do this for a living, and expend lots of energy on the job. They purchase their goods in bulk, organize them in an attractive yet portable fashion, and spend their days walking the beach in an attempt to resell the stuff at a profit. The most successful vendedores put on a funny voice and shout their products wildly as they skillfully navigate piles of sunbathing humans. (Abacaxi man is an excellent example.)
Other vendedores pace the periphery, either along the water or on the opposite side of the crowds. Many can rely on the universal popularity of their products, and don’t need to expend extra effort convincing people: “Agua! Matte! Coca! Bem geladão!” It’s difficult to turn down the prospect of water, matte and coke when it appears at arms reach on a hot day at the beach. It’s usually about R$2.50 — approximately $1.25 US dollars. And it’s “bem geladão!” — nice and ice cold!
Rio’s quintessential beach-sustenance dream team is Matte Leão and Biscoitos Globo. Matte Leão is a matte iced tea drink that, on the beach, is distributed in plastic cups from keg-like contraptions slung over the shoulders of vendedores. Biscoitos Globo are difficult to describe. Here’s my best try: imagine crunchy, air-puffed biscuit-type snacks in the shape of doughnuts. They come in doce and salgado — sweet and salty — and lack strong flavor and density. They’re incredibly popular. Post up next to some Cariocas on the beach, and at some point, you will probably witness their purchase of a Matte and a bag of Globos.
According to one Carioca, Igor, who has personal connections to vendedores and knows their ways well, vendors of products like Matte Leão, Biscoitos Globo, and popular semi-local brands receive uniforms when they purchase massive quantities of these products from major markets in Rio’s city center. As an advertising technique, the respective company provides them with a brand-sporting outfit for pacing the beach. The company and the vendedor himself, who technically works for nobody, benefit from this arrangement.
Vendedores of items like dresses, bikinis, and cangas buy their goods in São Paulo, the only Brazilian city bigger than Rio de Janeiro, 266 miles (429 Kms) to the west. These vendors make more money than those who vend items like drinks. The items, when purchased in bulk from factories, might be R$5 or R$10 each in São Paulo, but they go for around R$20 on the beach in Rio. I spent some time on the beach one morning before class watching a bikini vendor sell five bikinis to a big family of Paulista (people from São Paulo) visitors. The ironic full circle journey of those bikinis was quite amusing. But part of Rio’s charm — and the Paulistas certainly know this — is certainly its vendedores da praia. Why shop for bikinis in a warehouse in Sao Paulo, where there aren’t even beaches, when you can come all the way to Rio and enjoy purchasing the Carioca way?
Vendedores of jewelry might have any number of fascinating stories behind them. I met one dreadlock-clad vendor in a public transport van one very early morning on my way home from a late night in Lapa, Rio’s crazy party neighborhood. A Portugal native, he had been traveling the world on hemp jewelry profits since he was 16. His preferred beach was Copacabana — probably the most crowded-with-tourists beach in Rio. But the drunken Lapa crowd, he said, always held some promise as well, adding some aspect of profit to his late nights of entertainment.
Other vendedores prepare food and sell it to beach-goers. Some make simple sandwiches at home in the morning — bread, cheese, meet — wrap them up and put them in boxes. Some have fancy contraptions that are effectively portable grill boxes, and they cook hunks of meet and seasoned mozzarella on the spot. Others — and I must add that I haven’t seen this since Carnaval — walk around with coolers of lime, sugar, ice and cachaça ready to vend caiparinhas to thirsty gringos.
Abacaxi man falls into this category of vendedores — he probably chops up heaps of pineapple in the morning, secures it in individual helpings, and packs it into a cooler to prolong freshness. He sets off to the beach for the day with his huge cooler slung over his shoulder, all topped off with his giant abacaxi hat, ready to charm his way into vending his collection of the sweet tropical delicacy.
The sunscreen and sunglasses vendedores are easy to figure out. Like water, Coke and other beverage/snack vendedores, they purchase their goods in cheap markets and resell them for a little more.
The slightly unfortunate part of this glorious Rio phenomenon is the meager profit margin for these hard-working people. A successful day of tiring pacing under the hot sun might earn a food or drink vendedor a couple hundred reais. With a net gain of about 30%, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it might be to support a family with this self-employment gig. But the demand and consequential gain is constant — the convenience of having the beach necessities appear at your feet is easily worth an extra real or two. It’s impossible to imagine Rio without Carioca support of their beloved vendedores da praia.