The highways leading into any large Brazilian city offer many motel options, but be warned: The experience will not be anything like staying at a Holiday Inn Express along Interstate 95.
Brazilian motels do not tout free wi-fi or continental breakfast, or even the prospect of a good night’s rest. They tout sex — and they are not subtle about it.
The places typically have names like “Aphrodite” or “Unlimited Passion.” Some have elaborate architecture with themes borrowed from medieval Europe or ancient Greece and Rome. Most are behind high walls, with a single entrance guarded by a kiosk. You must arrange your room at the kiosk (or so I am informed; I have not stayed at one of these places); only then are you permitted to enter the complex. Once inside, particularly at the higher-end facilities, you will drive directly into a private garage where your car’s registration will be safe from prying eyes. You will have direct access to your suite to avoid contact with staff or other guests.
You will generally find at least a clean bed and bathroom facilities, but many establishments offer much more. Some rooms will have private Jacuzzis (sometimes with waterfalls), dance floors with stripper poles, bondage equipment, and a minibar that offers an assortment of sex toys and condoms.
Oh, and you usually rent the room in two- or three-hour blocks, though overnight rates are available.
The concept is not unique to Brazil. Japan has well-known “love hotels” that offer similar short stays, elaborate themes and unusual privacy. Many Latin American countries have plentiful short-stay establishments, as do many large and not-so-large American towns. We generally call them “hot-sheets” or “no-tell” motels, and we usually relegate them to the back streets. We seldom acknowledge their existence.
This is not the case in Brazil. Motels are not just tolerated in Brazilian society; they are accepted. Anyone might use one, and nobody is shy about saying so. This reflects more than the differences in the way our societies treat sex, although those differences play a role. It also reflects differences in the way people live.
Brazilian homes are smaller than American homes. Families are larger (the population has doubled in the past 40 years, to more than 180 million), young adults often live at home until marriage, and it is not unusual for three generations to live under the same roof. Even when the in-laws have their own place, Brazilians tend to live quite near their close relatives, and they gather frequently, in many cases daily, for family meals and companionship.
My friends and acquaintances in Brazil are delighted by all this togetherness. They often express sympathy, and a little dismay, at the tendency of American families to spread out and gather mainly at holidays, if then. But there is a big trade-off in privacy. We have it. They don’t.
Brazilian motels fill the privacy gap. Married couples will sometimes use them to escape the crowd at home. Dating couples make regular use of the facilities. Of course many extramarital affairs also get conducted at the motels, as they do at similar places everywhere. But motels are not brothels, and they are not viewed in anything like the same way. A tour guide told us that he will sometimes take customers to the motels if the customers just need a room for a few hours to rest and shower before an overnight flight home.
We hear a lot these days about Brazil’s rapid economic growth, reflected in the rise of its currency, the real. Goldman Sachs called the real the world’s most overvalued currency in late 2009, when it was at 1.72 reals to the dollar. More than a year has passed, and the real has since strengthened further, to around 1.68 per dollar. The country’s economy expanded 6.7 percent in the third quarter of 2010 from a year earlier.
This month, newly elected President Dilma Rousseff took the helm of a country that lifted 20 million people out of poverty during the term of her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Brazil will host soccer’s World Cup in 2014, and the summer Olympics two years later. The country now has the world’s eighth-largest economy, and plays a growing role in global political affairs as well. If the United Nations Security Council expands its roster of permanent members, Brazil will be a leading candidate for a new seat with veto power.
I have seen for myself how far Brazil has come in the 13 years since I began visiting the country. Thoroughfares in Sao Paulo that were slums when I first saw them are now lined with expensive boutiques and comfortable restaurants. Despite security concerns, streets in upscale areas are crowded with pedestrians late into the evenings.
But despite all the progress Brazil has made, it still has a long way to go. Tens of millions of people live in rural shanties and urban slums that lack basic services and, often, are physically dangerous. Flooding from summer rains kills hundreds of people in Brazil every year, including in the state of Rio de Janeiro this month. Millions more live in overcrowded homes that they would leave if they could afford larger or more private housing nearby.
When I look at Brazil’s gaudy motels, I see more than a country that is unabashed in its quest for sex. I see a country where people feel impelled to pay by the hour for something we in the more-developed world often take for granted: a door we can close when we want to be alone. If Brazil can sustain its economic growth, if it can avoid runaway inflation, and especially if it can eventually bring interest rates down from their longstanding sky-high levels, the pent-up demand for housing is liable to produce a building boom that dwarfs our own construction craze of the past decade. And I'm not the only one coming to this conclusion.
I don’t have anything against Brazilian motels. In fact, I would be a little sad to see them disappear, even though I never use them. I don’t think Brazil’s prosperity spells the beginning of the end for the motels, but it might signal the approach of a time when the word “motel” will mean a place to get some sleep.