Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rio’s heights but Brazil’s depths

On July 8, Sam and Nafisa’s last full day in Rio, we again traveled to one of Rio;s heights, but the day ended with one of Brazil's unhappiest depths.

We left promptly after breakfast to visit another of Rio’s most well-known vista points, the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain).  Brazil would be playing its World Cup semifinal game in the afternoon, so we had to arrive before 2 PM when the attraction would close down as part of the national holiday declared for every game of the home team.  A cab took us quickly to the terminal of the first aerial tram we would be riding upward.  We were worried about crowds, but needlessly: it was a gray day with rain threatening, and unlike the previous day at Cristo Redentor, there was no occasion to look for the preferential line for older folk, in fact there was no line at all to buy tickets.  Also unlike the previous day at Cristo Redentor, our age gave Nancy and me a 50% discount even though we were not Brazilian citizens.

Pão de Açúcar is located at the end of a peninsula extending from the border between Copacabana and Leme to the south and west, and Botafogo and Flamengo to the north.  The trip entails a pair of aerial tram rides, first from street level to an intermediate hill, the Morro da Urta, and then a second ride to the top of  the Sugarloaf.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Day in Rio de Janeiro: Sugarloaf and the Escadaria Selarón

On our first full day in Rio, we first visited one of the iconic sights of Rio de Janeiro, the statue of Cristo Redentor atop Corcovado peak in the Tijuca Forest National Park .  We liked the idea of hiking up the mountain, but Lance, our host, warned that tourists had consistently been robbed at gunpoint while trying this hike, even when walking in large groups.  We recommended that we register for the tram to the top, but the registration process was impossible to negotiate – he said the system was consistently down.  He recommended that we simply show up at the tram entrance to see whether there has been any cancellations – if not, we would easily find a van to the top.  He also noted that, given our ages, we should be able to take advantage of a special line for seniors and perhaps even a special price.

We took a cab to the upward-bound tram station; seeing no indication that any seats were available,. we found an agent who steered us to a small bus which, in turn, took us to the ticket counter where we bought a round-trip van ticket up the mountain.  The van took us to the National Park entrance where we would buy tickets for a bus to the top.  There was one very long line to buy tickets, and another to board the bus,            

but just as Lance had suggested, the seniors line was much better – in fact, we were able to get to the front of the ticket line with no waiting at all, taking Sam and Nafisa with us


We were told that the senior discount was only for Brazilians, but the preferential lines for both ticketing and the van ride saved us easily 90 minutes to two hours.

After a fairly short ride to the top, we arrived at the huge Art Deco statue

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, and to talk about safety precautions in Rio.  He had a rap on 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; for example, in some places, walking around with a DSLR camera slung over your shoulder is an invitation for a mugging; so you carry around a plastic shopping bag, and when in those areas, you stick the camera in the bag so you blend into the crowd better.  He also dispensed some travel advice some travel advice for our first day;  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,

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Walking in the Amazon Jungle

On our second full day in the Amazon area, our morning tour consisted of a walk through the jungle, with our boat driver, Helder, demonstrating the ways in which local people (Cristovão consistently used the term “natives,” which made us a tad uncomfortable, because it came across with a somewhat negative social connotation) use the products of the jungle and Cristovão explaining.  Much of the discussion took off from the fact that the Brazilian army has a major training operation, based in Manaus, focused on survival for jungle warfare.  Military units from all over the world come to Manaus for this training, which begins with school room lessons but culminates in trainees being turned loose in the Amazon jungle with nothing but a few basic tools, to see whether they could successfully implement their training.  Local people, Cristovão asserted, routinely learn these skills growing up, but only a small fraction of trainees pass the survival course with flying colors.

First, Helder showed us how the bark of a local tree produced a sap which, when melted into a tar, which was dried and then ground up, produced a form of gunpowder.

Next, we were shown the sorba, or bubblegum tree, whose trunk, when pierced with a knife, produces an edible milk

Throughout the walk, Helder showed us a variety of ways in which palm fronds could be used

including making a circular device into which he could place his feet to enable him to climb trees to reach fruits

Although, in the end, the recent rains had made the tree trunks too slick for us to see the device working.

and turning the individual leaves on the palm fronts down so that fronds could bve combined tp make roof thatching – after he showed us a few times each of us got to try our hands at turning down the leaves

Helder also wove the palm fronds into gifties for each of us, such as this grasshopper

This is the vine from which curare is made,

while this one is a vine from which someone struggling to survive could obtain drinking water – when a cut is made in the vine, potable water rushed upward; so the trick is to make a cut at one place on the vine, then a second cut below that, which makes the water rush upwards and out the first opening

This nut had three holes, each of which was holding a “coconut worm,” an edible worm that could enable someone to survive in the jungle.  I had one myself, and indeed it tasted a bit like coconut.

Helder also pointed us to two tiny frogs that were hiding in the folds of a tree trunk, such as the kapok tree: this somewhat innocuous brown frog

and this highly toxic poison dart frog.

After we got back to the lodge, we took a short jungle walk of our own, beginning the exploration of the “eco-track” whose entrance was between our chalets and the river chalets.  Before it was time to turn back for lunch, we had walked twenty minutes in, and the trail seemed to have a ways to go.  Other visitors told us that they had seen howler monkeys that morning, and we resolved to get up early one morning to try to see them ourselves.   Indeed, the posted schedule suggested that a guided walk on the track was a standard early morning activity.  Never did, though.  

We did see these nice red flowers on the jungle floor

and this bright butterfly

Friday, July 4, 2014

Seeing the Amazon Jungle from a motorized canoe

On our first afternoon at the Turtle Lodge, we were taken on a boat ride upstream, where we saw many familiar birds roosting on the banks and swooping for fish, but also a few new ones:

The jackana or river chicken was easiest to locate because of its loud call; it could usually be found flitting around in the tall grasses along the river banks.

The white-headed hawk was to be found on bare tree limbs high above the river.

My favorite, though, because it was so strikingly colored, was the king heron: its body and wing a pale yellow, but its face and beak a bright blue.

We saw king herons almost every time we were out on the river.

We came across the hoysen, or paradise bird, only once, on the introductory afternoon cruise

 We saw the yellow and brown rinkasee  a couple of times, but the only time I was able to get a half-decent show, or the bird in its nest, on the first afternoon

We never found out the identity of this small bird

Or of this two-toned blue heron.

We also saw several black heron, but I never got a chance to photograph it

After the precision and depth of the knowledge of birds of our Pantanal guide, Djalmas Santos, Cristovão’s more general knowledge on that subject was a let-down at first.  But as we learned on the later days of our time in the Amazon, his sophistication about social and political issues in Brazil made up for that.  In the end, our Amazon trip had a broader focus than the tour of the Pantanal, which was singularly focused on wildlife which, indeed, was more visible because the landscape was more open.

We often saw ducks in flight

We got used to identifying toucans and parrots flying far overhead (too distant to photograph); every time we were on the water, we saw grey river dolphins, and once there was a pink dolphin.  The touring plan called for guests to be taken on a special boat ride to find river dolphins on their last afternoon at the lodge; but we had seen so many dolphins on the way to doing other things that there was no point to such a trip for us; instead, we were treated to a special day visiting a local family which, so far as I could tell, none of the other guest got to do.

The best time for spotting wildlife can be in the dawn and sunset hours, as well as after dark.  So it was a bit disappointing that there was only one tour before breakfast, unlike the Pantanal where we were out before breakfast on three of our four days down there.  And the focus of the pre-breakfast boat tour was getting to a place where we could watch the sunrise – a very nice view, to be sure. 

We saw a couple of nice sunsets, on the way back from boat trips taken for other reasons

Because we were traveling on the cusp between the wet and dry seasons, we had more than our share of rain; it was often raining while we were out on the boat, and the rain was sometimes followed by some very fine rainbows, including double rainbows that spanned the sky from one side to the other

including this striking triple rainbow

The most common tall tree along the rivers was the parana tree

but there were occasional araratucupi trees, with their distinctive flat tops

When walking in the jungle, we knew the kapok tree largely by its huge walking folds of trunk (in the next post, the tiny frogs shown in photos were noticed enveloped in those folds near the ground), but from the river we could see a younger tree with its hanging fruit

Our one nighttime tour took us out on the river again.  This was a clear night, although we could see lightning in the distance, and clouds beginning to move in (it was pouring rain later that night).  Because there were so few lights within scores of miles, the sky was amazing sky.  The Milky Way was bright, we could see constellations as the Southern Cross, a backwards big dipper, Cassiope, Orion’s belt.   We were loooking for caiman eyes along the banks, but did not see many of them.  We rode up to a set of grasses and Helder, our motor boat operator, moved to the front of the boat, shone a large torch into the grasses, and quicky pulled a small caiman into the boat, which he handed to Cristovão, who proceeded to discuss its anatomy.  He pointed to the horizontal and vertical eyelids; the eyes are like mirrors, and the animal is frozen when light is shined into its eyes, and so can readily be grabbed. It was waving its legs as Cristovão grasped it; he pointed to the  five toes on forepaws and the four on the hind legs.   The caiman strikes its prey (such as piranha) with tail to stun it, then grab with mouth; 5 muscles to open and 15 to close.  The best meat is in the tail, which the locals eat grilled or fried.

Late one afternoon, we tried our hand at piranha fishing (all the Amazon tour web sites feature this fishing).  I am a minority in our family in that I don’t enjoy fishing, but it was our activity, so there I was.  Instead of fishing rods, were were handed small spools with fishing line and a baited hook, told to unwind about 2-3 meters, and cast.  Although we tried several fishing spots. mostly, we caught branches, or had our bait carefully nibbled off.  Helder caught one small piranha, and Joe caught a mid-sized one; Cristovão pulled the hook out of its mouth and showed us the teeth.

But even this was too small to eat, so we threw it back into the river cove.

Another family that left for fishing about an hour before we did had much better success, catching a dozen.  Their catch was fried and they had it for dinner; and they had so much that there were two to share with us.  Not much meat on them piranha, and many bones; but the fresh fish meat was delicious