We’ve been to so many cities in Brazil that I feel I need to give a brief summary of each we’ve visited up to this point. I’ve gotten all my road rage out of the way and can focus on the scenery beyond the blacktop a bit more.
I’ll go in order of (our) appearance:
Rio de Janeiro
Pretty well covered.
Angra do Reis
We stayed for several days with Graça Ruiz at their family’s house in this beautiful area. Angra itself is a bit of a mess, hints of its former colonial beauty are buried beneath formed concrete and rebar. What we thought was a giant favela rises just behind the town, into the mountains, but it seems this is actually just the town suburbs.
The reason anyone goes to Angra is Grand Island Bay on which it sits. Lovely cobalt waters lap against clean sandy beaches. A 45 minute ferry ride away is Isla Grande, a mostly pristine island which rolls across the mouth of the bay and shields it from the Atlantic swells. It was here that I realized, after a hot, grueling trek to a secluded waterfall, that Brazilians love two things (and I’m not sure in which order)
2. Other Brazilians
When we reached the waterfall after an hour of steamy empty jungle trails, we found a huge number of Brazilians, swimming, drinking and generally having a great time together. If anyone was disappointed by the crowd at this remote jewel in the forest, they made no sign. In fact Brazilians rarely seem to be upset under any circumstance. Especially if they’re with other Brazilians.
Our friend Andrés said of Brazilians, “when Brazilians get depressed, they dance.”
This must be a very depressed country since there is a lot of dancing.
Graça’s house was on her father’s land, land he’d developed and her family had grown up on. There are a smattering of red tile roofed houses on a steep grade that ends at a beach. A long, uneven stairway leads from Graça’s house past the other siblings places, under banana, avocado and acerola trees, to end up on a sandy stretch of paradise with Isla Grande in the distance. Near the beach, the water is a turquoise that gradually changes to navy as the eye travels farther out into the bay. Every day Graça complained that we weren’t seeing the color of the water at its most intense. She rearranged people at the dining table on the patio in order that we could sit and look out at the view. No one seemed to mind.
We sat with her at night, drinking caipirinhas that Magda made, talking about life. She told us about her time as a teenager living with a lower middle class family in Michigan. At first she felt awkward with them, they were poor and the father was missing a thumb. But as time went on they impressed her with their hard work, their faith and their unconditional love for their Brazilian charge. She described being shocked by the idea of preparing for winter; canning fruits and vegetables in preparation for a barren season, unheard of in Brazil because all seasons are bountiful all the time. The family was Protestant, but arranged for a Catholic family to come pick Graça up every Sunday and drive her to Catholic mass. They didn’t once let her miss it. As she recalled her impressions of this humble Midwestern family they struck me as familiar, and probably would to most other Americans as well. This was the ‘real’ America we hear about, but not because of their heritage or political views, but because of their hard work and strength of character. I was proud of these people, despite the fact I’ll never meet them, since they showed a young foreigner a side of America the world doesn’t see a lot of from far away, and is often taken for granted at home.
we took a day trip to Paraty, one of Brazil’s best known and best preserved old towns, from Angra. We took the public bus there, which on a hot day quickly became a miserable experience. As I’ve established, the Brazilian roads are terrible and the bus drivers are worse. One scheduled bus failed to arrive, so there were double the passengers on the one that did. Two dozen people jumped through the back door before we’d even paid, so there were no seats on this winding two hour drive.
We were introduced on this trip to an impressive custom that is practiced country-wide and to my knowledge nowhere else. Once aboard and standing, struggling to stay on our feet around wild corners and speed bumps that serve only to throw bus passengers in the air, an old man gestured that he was willing to hold my heavy backpack. I eyed him suspiciously, his outstretched hands looked like he was asking, not offering, which made me nervous. Eventually I agreed and placed the bag on the floor at his feet. His tanned, bony hand gripped the strap tightly, possessively, and he nodded up at us his assurance.
I wasn’t assured, I was ready to clothesline him if he tried to dash off the back of the bus in the same way he’d dashed on. But eventually I realized he was in fact doing us a favor, a favor commonly performed on Brazilian buses as parcels, books, bags, groceries find temporary harbor in the laps of the sitting. It’s a small generosity and makes me smile when I see it displayed even a thousand miles from Paraty.
Paraty itself was slumbering when we arrived at mid-day. It is well preserved from the 18th century, so much so that walking the cobblestones is a little like stumbling up a dry riverbed, hopping from antique rock to rock. We ate overpriced icecream and appreciated the preserved colonial architecture. It is so close to the sea that crabs burrow between the stones and scuttle up the stucco sides of houses.
We rented a car in Rio and headed out on our epic journey into the Brazilian interior. Our first big stop was São Paulo, financial heart of Brazil and infamous for its traffic jams and carjackings. Our rented black Chevy Certa, she of cross-eyed headlights and two cylinder engine, was in no great danger of being stolen, but I was paranoid never-the-less. Traffic wasn’t as problematic as the road signs, which helpfully and consistently pointed out the turn you needed just after you missed it.
Here we stayed in our first hostel in some time. It happened to be located in the poshest neighborhood: Jardins. It was located on a busy street, with parking out front and suited our purposes well enough – except Magda was coming down with a cold and the cramped stuffy room with a damp, powerful AC wasn’t helping.
We walked the main sights of the city, downtown, Avenue Paulista, Jardins. Another friend of Nathalie’s took us to a cute neighborhood called Madelina, where row after row of charming cafes could be found beneath leafy overhanging trees.
We waited an hour to be escorted to the top of the deco era Edifício Altino Arantes that closely resembles the fake Empire State Building in Las Vegas. Once through the (physically) short but interminable long line, we were guided up a wildly inefficient series of elevators, waiting at each exchange. The guards flirted with each other as if no one was watching, playfully pushing each other and hiding coquettishly in the broom closet. Once we finally got to the top and out onto the small observation area, a violent storm commenced and we were immediately ushered back down. It was a waste of time as grand as the unoriginal skyscraper was tall. It was also free, and worth every penny.
More worthwhile was our tour of Neimeyer buildings, the auditorium in Ibirapuera park and the Latin America park in the north of São Paulo. There was a hall here devoted to the art and creativity of Latin America, complete with a three dimensional, highly imaginative diorama of South and Central America and Mexico. We floated over the continent on glass panels, peering down at the cultural and artistic highlights below. We found our route thus far severely truncated to make way for little models of Santiago, Chiloé, Ushuaia and Buenos Aires. Uruguay got a smallish chunk dominated by a matte thermos toting Uruguayan as large as the whole country he lived in.
Around the hall were the vibrant colors of Latin America, arranged by country, vaguely north to south but starting with Brazil. Seeing the bounty of festive, bright colors, sequins and votive figurines, I was as impressed as intended at the breadth of original art across Latin America. This hybrid of native, African and European culture, fertilized by the complex array of Catholic iconography has produced some of the most lively, thrilling visual art in the world. Not only visually beautiful but complex in its creative scope, the materials used, the folk-art dismissal of classic proportions and standards, the tropical palate. If one ever needed an adrenaline boost of creative thinking this would be the place to visit.
My Aunt Pam spent some time when she was kid (it would be argued by some that she still is one) with a host family in Southern Brazil. She connected us with one of her ‘sisters’ who now lives in the surprisingly progressive town of Curitiba. Though we promised ourselves we wouldn’t drive after dark, we found ourselves pulling up to the apartment well after sunset. Once again we were greeted by Brazilians who were at once a little shy and outrageously hospitable. Regina’s English wasn’t perfect, but given that she’d taught it to herself via a correspondence course as a girl, it was impressive. Her daughter Leticia was fluent and equally welcoming. Regina had recently lost her husband, and she and Leticia were working out a new way of living without him. We worried we’d be an unnecessary burden after their loss but in the end may have have ended up a welcome distraction. And, since Regina’s husband hadn’t been a great believer in going out to the many excellent restaurants in Curitiba, the ladies were making up for lost time and invited us along.
Like Argentinians, Brazilians are great believers in meat. On our first night out we opted for a restaurant that boasted it served ‘the best burger in the world’. I’m not a cynical person, if someone wants to make that claim I’m happy to try and see if there is any truth to it. Especially if there are hamburgers involved. Unfortunately, the hamburger reality fell short of the boast, but only just. They were indeed very good burgers.
The next night we went to an all-you-can-eat steak house, which again seemed a pretty bold proposal. Can all-you-can-eat steak be anything but a pile of greasy leftover cuts passed over by the rest of town? It turns out not. Plate after plate of juicy pink, perfectly grilled steak was offered, rotating around the room like bloody plates of dim-sum. Together with the most eclectic salad bar of all time the meal was as filling as Thanksgiving, delicious, and only $20 per person. It is hard to get a filet mignon in NYC for twenty bucks, much less have ten pieces delivered to your table.
Magda and Leticia went one morning to get their hair and nails done. I planned on doing a few chores while they were relaxing, but ended up talking in broken English and Portuguese for an hour with Regina. She told me about her and her husbands shared love of collecting things. She had shelves of old comic books, in fact, the same ones I religiously followed as a kid, including a complete set of Tintin and Asterix & Obelix. She introduced me to Mafalda, who is known throughout the world but not so much in the States. Apparently it was banned for a time in Brazil because of its subversive nature.
Then she led me to her husband’s record collection, which was rich with old blues and jazz, samba and Bossanova. When I admitted I knew nothing about Bossanova, Brazil’s most famous musical export, Regina put on a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing the songs of Bossanova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim. As the rhythm began, she changed. Her shy demeanor when speaking English fell away as she entered her element and clapped to the complex beat, meeting my eyes to make sure I was following along. As Ella sang Jobim, with all of basanova’s inherent moodiness and undercurrent of love and longing, Regina clapped and tapped her foot. Bossanova was her music, these were her and her husband’s songs. Despite her pride in introducing me to this brilliant musical style, I felt her grief welling up, kept at bay by the tempo and Ella’s golden voice. A lump in my own throat began rising with her song. She kept clapping steadily to the beat.
We won’t forget the Holtz’s hospitality, the best burgers in the world or the steak parade. We bought a Bossanova compilation to take on the road with us and crooned with it all the way back to Rio while dodging potholes.
Not far from Curitiba lies the old port city of Antonina. Like a dozen other old Brazilian colonial towns, Antonina was once an important stop for the endless procession of gold laden carts leading out of the mines of the interior en route to Portugal. Now it’s a sleepy, somewhat forgotten hamlet, who’s historical center might have been a crumbling mess of not for a Brazilian paint company’s decision to donate a new coat of brightly colored paint to the entire town.
We accessed Antonina via the old road, built in the 17th century for mules and carts of ore. It had just rained and was winding, slippery, and beautiful. Giant blue butterflies enchanted the humid air beneath banana leaves. Little waterfalls dove under the edges of the road at sharp turns. I drove very slowly, feeling the tires moving sideways beneath us at every curve. I was passed a half dozen times by impatient Brazilians though there was no room, and less visibility around the winding curves.
Near Antonina, Paranagua was another example of a forgotten colonial hub. Currently it’s a bustling and gritty port city with all the accompanying industrial blight you’d expect. On the waterfront though was a picturesque queue of 18th century warehouses, begging to be turned into high-end pousadas with their beams of old growth timber and hand hewn stone foundations. Unfortunately the paint company had overlooked Paranagua and its facades were still grey and peeling. Little trees were sprouting out of the upper stories, gradually pulling apart the ancient brick and mortar.
On the way back to Curitiba, climbing up to its position on a high plateau, we ignored the gas tank warning light for too long and barely had enough time or fuel to turn around and coast back down to a petrol station we’d foolishly passed. Again, night had fallen and we were near panic by the time we refueled. When we returned and passed the spot we’d turned around at, we assumed we would have found a gas station just around the bend. Fortunately or unfortunately, there wasn’t another one for miles of black, featureless road. We almost certainly would have been stuck in the dark in the middle of the great Atlantic Rainforest.
We had to stop on the way to Foz de Iguacu, and actually found a recommended, cheap, hotel along the way. In order to access it we needed to drive through this town, surprising big despite its obscurity. The town stopped at a cliff overlooking a green valley cut through by wandering rivers and dotted with cows and stands of trees. Surprisingly this random hotel and our room within it had a fantastic view of the valley. We arrived just in time to watch the sunset stretch long shadows across golden fields from a little porch outside the room.
After dark we went to a sushi restaurant which we were surprised to find was actually pretty good. The number of Japanese immigrants to Brazil is such that the sushi standards are somewhat high, even in the smallest towns it seems.
Foz de Iguacu
Awesome, please see entry.
If a foreigner were to tell an American they had spent the night in the most random, crappiest city in America, they’d get the same reaction we get when we tell of stopping in this city that is taking up valuable space on the face of the earth. The hotel we stayed in, that was recommended, was the embodiment of claustrophobia, iced with a coating of hospital decor. I kept expecting to wake up with an IV in my arm. Or a knife in my gut.
When we told our Brazilian friends we were driving from Iguacu to Brasilia, they were horrified and insisted we take a plane instead. I think they wanted to insulate us against places like Presidente Prudente.
We stopped at a clean hotel on the side of the freeway here. Our comfortable accommodations almost erased the disaster of Presidente Prudente from our minds. One incident of note: the accent in this part of Brazil is either so different from Rio, or my accent is so bad, that when I ordered a cerveja (a beer) they gave me an ice cream (sorvete). This had happened nowhere else or nowhere since.
I’ll break here as our next stop was Brasilia, deserving of more than a few sentences. Eventually I’ll catch up to where we are currently, which is in Recife, in Pernambuco State, Northeast Brazil.