Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Our arrival in Rio de Janeiro: Santa Teresa and the Ipanema Hippie Fair

On Sunday, July 6, we flew from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro for our last few days in Rio.  I had been unable to get us a game in Rio, but it seemed inconceivable to have a substantial vacation in Brazil and NOT see Rio.  I figured that at least I’d have a chance to  visit the Maracana, Rio’s most famous soccer stadium, but apparently all tours of the Maracana had been cancelled until after the World Cup final was played there after our scheduled departure – bummer!

I had arranged for us to stay at Casa Cool Beans, a bed-and-breakfast hosted by ex-pat Americans in the artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood, walking distance from downtown Rio.  We arrived there by taxi at about 3 PM, and one of ther co-owners, Lance, was there to greet us.  In my communications with him after we made our reservations, he had been insistent on learning our exact time of arrival, pushing hard in a way that was slightly off-putting, but in retrospect I understood the reason — although we were arriving in a Sunday, when he would normally be keeping short office hours, he wanted to be on hand to meet us personally to deliver a rap about how the B&B worked, to talk about safety precautions in Rio (for example, where we could walk safely in the daytime, and where safely at night, and how to comport ourselves when outside those safe areas so as not to look like a tourist just begging to be mugged), and to dispense some travel advice.  Indeed, throughout our stay at Casa Cool Beans, Lance and to a lesser extent his partner David were on hand to provide ideas about what to do in Rio and where to do it; each morning he would alight on each traveling family or couple to talk about their plans for the day, to make suggestions and indeed reservations where appropriate.

Casa Cool Beans was easily the nicest place we stayed in Brazil.  Nancy and I had an ample room with a sleeping loft for Joe, entering from a pleasant patio on the entry level of the B&B.  Our patio was full of dense vegetation,

and the walls were colorfully painted in street art style by a local artist (we learned later that when  the B&B was just starting about three years ago, they exchanged housing for art with someone who was just starting out – we could see similar handiwork on walls around the Santa Teresa neighborhood). 

Breakfast included the most varied array of fruits we had seen,

as well as some starches and eggs cooked to order.  There was a nifty sign in the kitchen area explaining to the staff phonetically how to translate guests’ breakfast requests;

for me, it served as a reminder that my pronunciation of some of the Portuguese vowels and dipthongs was still a bit off.

Breakfast was taken on the third floor of the B&B, the top floo for guests (it was our impression and Lance and David lived up on the fourth floor), overlooking a small swimming pool (too small for swimming, really just enough to fit bodies wanting to be wet)

on our arrival Lance had been apologetic that the pool was being repaired; I confess that I had not noticed that there was a pool when I was making reservations, and I can’t imagine how we would have had time to use one given how much there was to see and how little time we had to see it.

By the time we arrived it was a bit late to see a museum, but Lance suggested that we might like to visit the “Ipanema hippie fair”: a Sunday-only arts and crafts fair in a park a couple of blocks from the beach.  Lance had told Sam and Nafisa that the artist who had painted a work in their room which they quite liked would be exhibiting there, and he optimistically described the fair as being a fifteen minute cab ride away.  This visit might have worked out but the crowd was  insistent on having a late lunch, which we took at Nega Tereza, a small-family dining place that was less than five minute walk from our B&B.  They had a nice feijoada available on Sunday, better than what we had eaten for lunch in Salvador the day before; in fact, we ended up having lunch at Nega Tereza on three of the four days that we stayed in Rio.

From there, we loaded into a pair of taxis for the trip to Ipanema – but the fifteen minute ride took us nearly an hour considering the heavy traffic – we might well have been much better off taking a cab down to the subway and then taking the subway to Ipanema.  In fact, the distances between tourist attractions in the city were so great that in the end I had to scale back my expectations  about just how many different things we could see and do during our few days in Rio.

By the time we reached Ipanema it was 5:30 PM and getting dark – a feature of equatorial life that was hard to get used to, not having daylight last long into the evening on a summer night – and many of the graphic artists were taking down their paintings.  We looked at those that remained, as well as at some of the crafts,

then headed out for a look at the Ipanema beach scene.  We had agreed that we would have a beach day in Rio as we had had in Salvador, but this ended up being our only time on a Rio beach.

Despite the dark, there were still plenty of swimmers in the water

In the distance to the right, we could see the twinkling lights of the Vidigal favela, running up a hillside from the far end of the Leblon beach (seemingly an extension of Ipanema, divided from it only by a canal). 

One of the features of Rio life that I found amazing when I arrived is that what would have seemed to me the prime real estate in town – the hillsides overlooking the city and its beaches – is occupied by its poorest communities, the favelas.  We were to learn much more about the historical reasons for that distribution of housing on our final day in Rio when we took a guided tour of two of the favelas.

On our left was the Arpoador rock, a small peninsula that marks the boundary between Ipanema and Copacabana beaches;

we walked up to Arpoador and found it dotted with people.

Instead of dining in Ipanema, we caught a pair of cabs back to Santa Teresa.  Our driver really had no idea where our hotel was located, and even though we had an exact street address from a hotel card (which included a free beer or caiparinha at Bar do Gomes down the street), the driver still could nto figure out the location.  The driver pulled out a fascinating, very dogeared paper back book that listed every street in Rio – not keyed to some sort of map, but rather including some numerical codes that I could not decipher.  But this still did not get us where we needed to go.  The driver headed up to the Santa Teresa neighborhood and then asked one person after another where to do.  Ultimately, he dropped us off  not at our hotel but at the Santa Teresa cultural center; we found our way back from there.  Lance suggested after we had this problem the next day as well that we just tell the drivers that we wanted to go to Largo do  Guimarães, the main square of Santa Teresa; this was good advice because every driver knew how to get there, and then we could either walk or direct the driver how to drive from there.  

Here is a mural near that square celebrating Brazil’s first World Cup title

Maybe it was because of the difficulty of locating streets, but maybe also the cobblestones, but we found that there were some cabbies who simply refused to accept fares to Santa Teresa.  In a city where the standard advice to tourists is to take taxis at night to avoid being exposed on streets where outsiders are less safe, this was a bit of a disadvantage to staying in the neighborhood.

But other advantages outweighed that problem.  Santa Teresa itself was a pleasantly funky neighborhood of cobblestoned streets.  Breaking with the general tendency that it is the favelas that occupy the hills overlooking Rio, Santa Teresa included both a hilltop and a hillside, with many streets running up and down the hillside to which the neighborhood clung, a bit reminiscent of some parts of San Francisco.  There were many distinctively colored houses

with  decorative mailboxes

After having spent my college years in Portland, I have become partial to places which, unlike the Long Island of my youth, are not flat.  One of the advantages of the hilliness is that not only could one look up and get a nice view of the Christ Redemptor at Corcovado

but there were sweeping views of Rio down below to be had between many of the buildings

sometimes with another height in the background

The main drag of the neighborhood follows street car tracks and is lined for several blocks with restaurants, craft stores, and boutiques; we enjoyed browsing the craft places and even added to our collection of Brazilian souvenirs there.   The walls were loaded with street art; there was some graffiti in the form of words and lettering, but much of it was really nice graphic arts.  (Some examples are here, though after I am done blogging our trip I have in mind to post a separate post with street art from around Brazil, as I did when we got back from Buenos Aires a couple of years ago.

Even many of the light poles got decorated

The street car line mentioned above actually connects Santa Teresa to the downtown area; in reading about the neighborhood I had got the impression that the streets down were so steep that you really wanted the cable car to get up and down.   The cable car (“bonde”) was widely listed as a tourist attraction, even though it has been out of order since there an accident a few years ago.  The line was supposed to be repaired in time for the World Cup – one of many unfulfilled government promises of improvements for the locals.  We saw this nice neighborhood protest against the unkept promise

The Portuguese language sign means, “we want our bonde.”  In the end, the streets heading down to the Centro were not nearly so steep as the truly steep streets in San Francisco; rather, the streets were switchbacked enough that cabs had little difficulty getting up and down, and eventually we found it was not a difficult walk.

After getting back from Ipanema on our day of arrival, we walked along the main drag looking for dinner.  We did not find the place I had noted in the Lonely Planet, but ended up having a nice dinner at Portella, good food with a nice singer accompanied by a guitar player.  I should perhaps not say that the dinner was nice for all of us – that night Joe came down with a violent case of food poisoning that left him so devastated that he stayed behind for our entire first day of sightseeing in Rio, and rearranging our schedule somewhat so that Joe would not miss out on both Corcovado and Sugarloaf.  We all had shared of everybody else's dishes, but from the timing of the onset it is hard to say that it could have been anyplace besides Portella that was the source.

It was the only serious ill effect any of us suffered our entire time in Brazil.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Our last two days in Salvador -- seeing Costa Rica v. Holland

July 4: Brazil moves on to the Semifinals

The Fourth of July was bright and sunny, but for the first time in many years we neither read the Declaration of Independence aloud (I forgot to bring a copy along), nor watched fireworks, nor did anything else to celebrate America’s independence day. 

We were finally able to visit Igreja do San Francisco.  The amount of gold leaf decorating the nave and apse of the church was impressive, but the overall effect was rather garish.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seeing Salvador: Bahia Independence Day and the Beach at Barra

July 2 was an official holiday in Brazil – the celebration of the independence of Bahia State.  We were in Brazil for several different official holidays, because the government had declared that whenever Brazil was playing, that day would be a national holiday; we heard at one point that, at least in some cities (Rio, for example), whenever there was a World Cup game being played in that city, there would be an official holiday for the city.  This meant that some stores would never open; everything (except bars and restaurants) would close down by 2 or 3 in the afternoon.  This ended up playing havoc with our plans to see various tourist sites; we missed out on several places that we all wanted to visit.

We first noticed the parading from the window of the international calling office where we were canceling our credit cards following the pickpocket incident the night before (LINK); several floats passed by along with hundreds of marchers.   When we stepped out into Praça da Sé, we saw group after group parading past.  There were pre-printed signs and hand-made signs touting a variety of causes, including labor issues, political parties and other political issues, and religious slogans.   There were bands, celebrants in period costumes, drum corps, as well as many people just in the march without any discernible affiliation.

Many of the groupings were sporting distinctive Tshirts denoting their affiliation.  The most common short noted the date and proclaimed, “Viva a democracia.” 

I resolved that I was going to try to snag one of those Tshirts.  After I finished obtaining the official signed version of my police report on the loss of my wallet to a pick-pocket, we headed into the main square of the Pelhourinho, the Terreiro de Jesus, and randomly approached a man and woman who were both wearing Bahian Independence Day shirts and asked how I could get one.

We got to talking, partly in Portuguese and partly in English (he was very tolerant of my Portuguese, or maybe he was just pleased that I was trying so hard).  He explained that the shirts had been given out from cars the day before, but he and the woman to whom he was talking gradually began to make it their business to help me get one.  They got on their cell phones and, I gather, ordered one.  It was apparent that I had asked the right guy.  As we stood there and talked, person after person came up to him to hug or shake hands.  He told me that he was in the office of the governor, and it seemed to me that he was either an elected official or staffer with a high degree of contact with other offices and their staff, or with the public.

He explained to me that Brazil’s independence is celebrated on September 7 (thus explaining the many “7 de settembre” streets we had seen), but that when Brazil won its independence, Portugal  held onto Bahia.  Only once Bahia secured its independence the following July 2 was the consolidation of Brazil complete. 

We had agreed to meet Sam, Nafisa and Joe back at the hostel to go to lunch, and the scheduled meeting time was fast approaching, but he kept assuring me that the shirts were on the way.  I was on the point of excusing myself when someone arrived with not one shirt but two.  Thus, my most treasured souvenir from the trip!

For lunch, we ate at Restaurante do SENAC, a restaurant that serves as a showcase and training facility connected to a cooking school dedicated to Bahian cuisine.  Not only the cooks but the waiters are trainees, and the level of the cuisine was quite high, although served buffet style for a fixed price.  It was an excellent meal.  Among our fellow diners was Eli, a player on my former over 55 soccer team, who was in Brazil with some of his family to attend to World Cup. We had also run into each other at the Cradle of Humanity exhibit in South Africa during the 2010 Cup.

Because the restaurant was located on the Largo do Pelhourinho, we paused to watch the continuing parade of celebrants pouring into the Pelhourinho for Independence Day. 

We noted this house decorated with balloons in both Brazilian (yellow and green) and Bahian (red and blue) colors.

Joe and I agreed to participate in a government sponsored survey devoted to assessing how visitors were reacting to Brazil; I assumed it would be about five or ten minutes but I grew restless as the questions kept coming.  I enjoyed reading the questions from her form, translating ahead of her articulating them in English translation, and practicing my Portuguese in requesting clarification and answering her questions. 

In the course of the day, we also managed to get inside the Igreja São Franscisco – or so we thought at the time.  The church was supposed to be the most elaborately decorated Baroque structure in all of South American, but the  building, although highly decorated, hardly lived up to that billing

We learned that we had only managed to enter the Convent of São Francisco.  We got into the church itself on a later date.

We were all hoping to visit  Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (The Church Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks), a church devoted to the city’s slaves.  It was located on the Largo do Pelhourinho, but although a door was open, we were told by an attendant that it would be closed for another ten days.

That evening, by the time we came for dinner, the tables in the streets of the Pelhourinho were jammed.  We tried to hover and grab a table, without success until a sudden rainstorm came, scattering the diners.  I checked with some indoor restaurants and was told that without a reservation we could not be accommodated for 90 minutes or more.  We were patient, waiting under cover until the rain stopped; when many diners did not return, we thought we had our chance.  But the restauranteurs declared that they had closed their kitchens when the rains came, and so we were out of luck.

We walked over to the Cruzeiro do San Franscisco and were able to find a table at Odoya, where we had a reasonable meal, while listening to a musician who played an electric guitar and sang standards.

The following day, we decided to visit the beach in the Barra section of Salvador. 

Upon arrival, we saw an elaborate sand sculpture,

There were several legends written in Portguese, along with one in English as well as Portuguese that read, “The survival of this work depends on the collaboration of the people who value art.”

Before settling down for sun and water, we had a late lunch at the Caranguejo do Farol, across the road running along the beach;.  I ordered a glass of kiwi juice; it was so delicious that I got a pitcherful so all of us could have some.  Nafisa ordered one of the Bahian standards, a moqueca of fish.  This was my favorite dish in Salvador – a seafood stew cooked in palm oil and coconut milk with onions and other vegetables.  When cooked to order (as opposed to served in a buffet), it would arrive in a clay pot  still sizzling from the oven, accompanied by smaller bowls of rice, feijao (beans) and farofa (manioc powder).  A moqueca might be a firm white fish, or shrimp, or squid, or  polvo, octopus   – not the typical tough octopus but unbelievably tender octopus.

This is a recipe that I am determined to replicate when I get back to DC.

After lunch, we headed out to the beach to catch some sun, or go walking.  Joe and I went into the ocean – the waves were substantial enough that you could dive into them, or body surf back toward the beach, but not as strong as I was used to at Jones Beach when growing up.

As the shadows crept past where we were sitting on the beach and toward to surf, which itself as coming in, we headed toward the Farol do Barra, the lighthouse, to watch the sunset. 

There was a navy museum inside the fortifications surrounding the lighthouse, but with sunset approaching we decided not to pay the small admissions fee, but rather walked around the side to find an appropriate spot to sit and watch the sunset

We headed back to the Pelhourinho and dinner at Maria Mata Mouro, where I had made reservations that morning.  It was an exceptional meal in a nice setting, the lovely garden of a 17th century home, with orchids growing on the trees (not in bloom, sadly), hibiscus, and other plantings.  Among the excellent dishes we ordered were grouper with ginger, mushroom risotto, and a paella for two.   For dessert, shared five ways, was chocolate with pepper, an excellent combination.  With wine included, dinner came to  roughly $70 per person, a splurge dinner relative to our other meals on this trip, but worth every penny.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

My extra contribution to Brazil's economy -- getting my pocket picked in Salvador

Hubris, anyone?

It was nearly midnight when Nancy and I headed back to our room following dinner after the United States’ loss to Belgium.  We could see that an intersection ahead was jammed with people.  Nancy expressed apprehension and suggested that we choose an alternate route, but I was sure of myself and we strode into the mix.  As we were working our way through the crush, I could feel someone’s hand in the left front pocket of my shorts, and I reacted angrily, pulling the hand of a man in his twenties out of my pocket and yelling.  I reached down for papers that had come out of the pocket  with his hand, and crowd opened a bit.  But as we reached open space, I recognized that the hand in my left pocket must have been a diversion.  My wallet was gone, even though it was carried New York style in my right front pocket!  But the pocket was so loose that this particular precaution was less useful.  Along with my wallet, I lost several hundred Reais that I had withdrawn from a bank machine earlier in the day, roughly $100 US, and my driver’s license and credit and debit cards.

I have been traveling internationally for nearly fifty years, and this is the first time I have had my pocket picked (I have never been robbed at gun or knife point).  So I should count myself lucky in that regard.  But in retrospect, I know that I have become less careful over the years.  When I am abroad, I generally carry my passport and emergency monetary reserves (that is, travelers checks) under my clothing, and at least until recently I would have put any cash not needed for that day in the same location.  I know full well that crowd situations are a boon for pickpockets, and until recently I would have avoided them where possible, and been extra cautious when in them; and we had been warned that Salvador was a particular haven for pickpockets.  I have become perhaps too sure of myself, and I paid the price for that.  More caution in the future!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Our visit to Salvador, Bahia, begins; the United States takes on Belgium

Immediately after breakfast, we boarded the motor boat 8:30 PM that took us back to the van which transported us to the boat back across the Amazon.  On the way across we could not help laughing at the name on this ship (a small town in Denmark, apparently). 

The Maia Expeditions van met us at the airport and transported us to the airport.  We had a full day of flying ahead of us, with a 9:25 PM arrival in Salvador.  In theory, we might have had time to have some morning activities before leaving for the airport, in the end our departure time was inflexibly set for just after breakfast, so that Maia's  speedboat to be in place in time to meet the next set of incoming guests, we were delivered to the airport roughly three hours before our flight – other guests with whom we returned were taken to the airport FIVE hours before their flight.  And Manaus is not a well-appointed airport where it is pleasant to wait for a flight.

But this is not by any means the worst flight scenario we could have had.  Indeed, the 2:30 departure, with a change of planes in Brasilia, was the only flight we could have taken that provide for less than 20 hours from departure from Manaus to arrival in Salvador.  (I could have saved $200 per ticket by choosing one of those routings).  Whether this is a function of how far out of the way Manaus is, or generally bad flight schedules on Brazilian airlines, I don’t know.

On the flight leg from Brasilia to Salvador, we sat next to two Polish TV reporters; we talked mostly with the play-by-play reporter, but the color commentator turned out to be Marcin Żewłakow, the striker who scored Poland’s second (and winning) goal against the United States in the 2002 World Cup.

There were again free Brahma beer cans and free Coke  bottles available as a promotion at the airport.  We paid the official rate for two taxis to be sure that the five of us and all the luggage that Sam and Nafisa had brought along for their wedding (for which they were leaving  directly from Brazil) could make it to our hostel, Albergue Laranjerais.  As we arrived at the hostel, about 10:30 PM, I was struck by the significant number of tourist police and other police officials, seemingly on every corner.   It seemed we would be well-protected; I wondered whether this might just be overkill.

Visiting the Cascais Family

Our last full day in the Amazon was largely devoted to visiting the family of Helder Cascais, who drove the motorized canoe that took us around to our various activities in the area.

On the way, we noticed this dead anaconda floating along the bank of the river.  AT barely two meters long, this is very much on the small end for this fearsome aquatic predator. 

We paused to drop of some “supplies” at Helder’s grandparents’ house; then boated across a small cove to Helder’s house, which he and his uncle built together. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Visiting a Farm Family in the Amazon Basin

On our third day in the Amazon basin, we visited a working family farm.   The proprietor, João Evangelista, was one of the legions of people from Northeast Brazil who emigrated to Manaus drawn by the rubber boom, then the electronics boom.  He married a woman from the country, and they agreed to move back to the land where he works a substantial piece of land, growing fruits and vegetables, as well as earning funds from Maia Expeditions which brings visitors to see his operations.  He is in the process of buying the land on terms that sounded to me like an installment land contract – Cristovão said that mortgage lending is also used in Brazil, that is the way he and his wife bought their house in Careiro, but not for rural land transactions, perhaps because such land has low value and the production profits are so uncertain.   This launched into a discussion of the land distribution issue in Brazil – most of the land is in the hands of rich people, and it is hard for poorer people to acquire it. 

Sam confirmed from his studies in Latin American history that land distribution is a major social issue throughout Latin and South America.  The old royal rulers gave large swaths of land to rich families, unlike the United States where the homesteading program was used to encourage western immigration.  The government does have a program called "minha casa minha vida" whereby the government tries to get houses into the hands of poorer people; this rang a bell with me about a news segment I had seen on Brazilian TV, without understanding the Portuguese to be sure but it appeared that a house was being built and then a family was being introduced to it, weeping with joy and being hugged by a man who seemed to be in charge.

Cristovão said that the land was being sold to João by a “friend” who kept the payment very low, and thus affordable.

Agricultural Products Galore

João took us around his farm, showing us the hurucum plant, which produces a fruit whose red seeds although not edible, are widely used for coloring – coloring from red seeds, not edible
Hurucum Plant
Hurucum seeds
Nafisa with hurucum paint