Mental Well-being, Travel & the Brain

Cape Town versus Rio: 5 things Cape Town could learn from Rio de Janerio

Dramatic peaks, natural bays, sublime beaches and colourful neighbourhoods make South Africa’s Mother City, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro seem a lot like Southern Hemispheric twins. But there are a few instances where Cape Town falls short. Here are 5 things that we can write home about.

  1. Bustling commerce on the beach.
Me gazing out at the setting sun on Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Everyone cheers and claps as it disappears.

Relax back underneath a rented umbrella (5-7 R$) just metres from the ocean and let the market come to you. We preferred Ipanema beach for its beauty but Copacabana will do just fine. Without being overly intruding, on Rio’s beaches you’ll find a steady stream of vendors selling an inviting array of local cuisine.

Grilled goods, for instance, cooked fresh off the coals on small, portable barbeques. We loved the haloumi-style cheese doused in oregano but there are sausages and shrimp as well. Warning, we’ve heard that the shrimp get mined daily from Guanabara Bay which reportedly has disturbingly high levels of e-coli bacteria. Perhaps I should have left that until last? What else. You’ll find vendors carrying large condensating stainless steel vats, one holding ice tea, the other a sweet blend of lime juice. There will be “Globos” and they come in salty or sweet but we were not tempted because they have the appearance of cracked air with calories. They are big around these parts so do try them out. Or, instead opt for home-baked empanadas – small savoury pies – or charred flat breads stuffed with feta and cheese. Cashew nuts at a price can be purchased. And there will be sandwiches too, the normal selection of factory produced ice-creams, but also acai, a granular, smoothie-type offering made from deep purple Amazon berries served with granola.

Let’s move on to the alcohol. The beach is hot and an icy beverage can be key. The cans of beer surpassed my standards of cold and they are affordable. A large can of Brahma should cost you about R$4. If you’re on a budget like we were, consider buying your own Styrofoam cooler box and stocking up before you head to the beach. You can find a “caixa de refrigerador de isopor” at local supermarkets in the region. There are guys who sell ice along the promenade.

Caipirhinis (around R$10-15) are plentiful and they come in traditional lime or “maracuya” (granadilla). Its best to buy them from the guys who man the stationary, canopied stalls. The salesmen on foot tend to sell an inferior drink because the cocktails are not made to order. If cashasa (cane spirit) is not for you, these drinks can be made with vodka instead.

Keep those Brahmas extra cool with their own ice box.

Care for a bit of beach shopping? Rio de Janeiro is famous for its scanty g-string bikinis. You’ll spot bright floral collections of them touted on large poles that wade above the umbrella line. Sun glasses and local sarongs too. Hippie bracelets a plenty. Its wise to bring along a waterproof pouch to carry your valuables while you swim. The bustle on the beach means the opportunists are there too and I’m proud to say that I managed to intervene one such attempt as I spotted a man stealthily drop his hand into another beach goers basket to pull out their phone. Not speaking any Portuguese, I had to rely on hand gestures and broken Spanish to explain what had just happened.

The beach is also the place to get an oily massage, organise a day trip to Ilha Grande (Big Island), rent surf boards or the more popular, stand-up paddles.

Cape Town urgently needs to encourage local entrepreneurship and although we cannot blame the water for being 20 °C cooler, I do think the local municipality can loosen up on the laws that prevent people from peddling a trade. If there is sun and a beach, there will always be a crowd. The neuroscience of why people like to catch a tan show that the molecules that the brain releases to protect the body from the harmful, cancer-causing UV rays, not only turn into alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (to make the skin darken) but also into endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural opioids, and like after their release following heavy exercise, they leave you with a profound sense of well-being… and their analgesic (pain-reducing) effects mean you probably won’t feel it as the sun burns off the top layer of your skin. If you do hit the sun, always use a zinc-oxide sunscreen.

  1. Legalisaton of alcohol in public

It is true that Cape Town has a unique history of alcohol abuse – the “dop” system institutionalised the payment of labourers with wine and other spirits which lead to a culture of alcoholism – but relaxing some of the laws around drinking could help to normalise the practice itself. In the US, the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s did virtually nothing to change drinking habits. The only real impact of prohibition was the inception of the ‘disease model’ of addiction, in which alcoholism came to be seen as a medical illness.

In any event, there is money to be made off liquor licenses and a bit of controlled and monitored festivity in prominent public spaces doesn’t seem like such a bad idea?

  1. Tolerance for the poor

Rio has a reputation for being a bit rough around the edges, but part of that is because they don’t expel the homeless who might find refuge on the busy streets of more affluent neighbourhoods. Back at home, I would often see the City of Cape Town forcibly removing homeless people from their temporary homes that they’d constructed underneath the Foreshore Freeway bridge. AKA The Highway to Nowhere. That’s the highway that never made it to completion, but is used nowadays for flashy film or advertising shoots…

How can we foster more tolerance? Much of it boils down to personal attributes and upbringing but research has long since shown that meaningful engagement with members of different social or cultural groups can help dilute prejudice. Of course, discrimination can be hard to measure and researchers have to contend with what is called “social desirability bias” – the need to be viewed in a positive light and the subsequent facade of behaviours or opinions to foster this image. This leads to inauthentic findings. Many studies use a method called Implicit Association Tests, which supposedly measure unconscious prejudices. These tests require the participant to quickly match groups of words, one category reflecting concepts and the other, attributes. For example, “young / old” with “good /bad”. If you’re interested in learning more about this task, follow this link.

  1. A Metro

Cape Town sorely lacks an extensive, reliable transport system. With traffic each year quadrupling (or so it feels), and cortisol and blood pressure levels taken along for the ride, its seems that rail is the only way forward. Rio’s metro might not be the most efficient – it runs on time but you’ll find yourself walking for what feels like kilometres in the musty underground – but at least it exists and is safe. There is something quite reassuring about railway for the deer-eyed tourist.

If you’re headed for Rio, I would strongly suggest finding accommodation within walking distance to a metro (less than 1km). The traffic can reach epic proportions and not all the buses are air-conditioned. Opt for Uber when necessary, using taxis only when you’re able to bring a full battalion of vigilance to the forefront. We’ve heard of several taxi scams, one of which involves the driver claiming that the note with which you paid was several denominations smaller than it actually was, i.e., R$5 instead of R$50.

  1. Open-air public gyms

Granted, Sea Point promenade in Cape Town has had a park gym for several years now, but these facilities are in short supply while obesity rates are not. You can’t go far in Rio without passing a public space with gym equipment.

Mish doing some squats at the open air weights near Ipanema beach.

Physical benefits aside, recent years have seen overwhelming support for the positive effect of exercise on mental health. Regular intensive exercise has in some cases proven as effective as prescription anti-depressants. For many people who find the harsh side-effects of these medications unbearable, working out is a welcome alternative. A single training session can boost self esteem and regular exercise throughout one’s life, especially in later years, is linked to lower incidences of dementia, 28% lower, to be exact.

How does this all work? Many of the benefits of exercise have to do with improved blood flow to the brain, a boost in the metabolism of brain cells (neurons) and increased synthesis and release of brain chemicals that make you feel good. These chemicals include serotonin and dopamine, two well known suspects, but also elevated norepinephrine, a chemical that plays a role in how alert and proactive you feel. A hard workout also results in the release of opioids and endocannabinoids (yes, sounds like ‘cannabis’), washing you over with a feeling of calmness and well-being.

It is thought that many of the protective effects of exercise on the brain derive from increased turnover of “nerve growth factors”. These proteins help to regulate the growth and survival of neurons, making their presence in the brain critical for combatting pathological processes that lead to dementia.

Importantly though, exercise also stimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the brain’s key stress center and this means that cortisol also floods in to varying degrees during a strenuous workout. I think I know this feeling too well. As fitness increases, this classic stress response becomes subverted, so that your brain and body become more resilient when it comes to dealing with stress.

And that is really the key. Short bouts of training may be enough to release some of the brain’s feel-good chemicals, but for lasting and definitive benefits, a regular regime of exercise is necessary.

Best if there are gyms around every corner…

Neuroscience of Exercise: From Neurobiology Mechanisms to Mental Health (Matta Mello et al)

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