Christmas in Rio (December 2001)

I have been hesitating about writing up something on my recent trip to Brazil because it was rather self-indulgent. But I did see a lot of the country in a very short period of time and have made it my mission to get all of you to go there at least once in your lifetime so here goes…

I spent from 8-28 December in Brazil. The first thing I saw was Sao Paolo airport for six hours. We then took off for Brasilia straight into a fierce storm with thunder & lightening. As we got higher, I realized it was multiple storms over the biggest urban sprawl I’d ever see – Sao Paolo is huge!

I stayed in Brasilia for five days of meetings with researchers from throughout the region; a really cool bunch of activists, journalists, students and development workers. The meeting was conducted in Spanish, Portuguese and English, which made for some fun interpretation! We did an event in the national parliament on the last day for invited officials, diplomats & media. It was fun to run around afterwards and take pictures of the strange building with its unique architecture shaped like a UFO. Brasilia has a weird layout in the shape of a plane, or bow and arrow or bird, depending on who you talk to and a dated feel, back to the 1960s when it was built. It was not very pedestrian friendly – no sidewalks, trees for shade and huge distances between buildings. After a fight with the hotel over the bill for the meeting (not an unusual occurrence), I got the hell out of there to start my vacation.

I flew to Salvador in Bahia province on the northeast coast of the country where I stayed with a family in their small apartment in an attempt to learn some of the language and understand some culture. It was a great experience. They were very laid back – the beach one day, the market the next, an outdoor concert the next night and so on. I bought lots of records from a guy on the street (made his week I think!) and the music everywhere was fantastic – Bossanova, Samba, Reggae – everywhere, especially in the oldest part of town, which is called Pelourino. Paid a visit to an elaborate church built 400 years ago by slaves who demonstrated their dissent through their work by distorting the faces of the cherubs and making them pregnant with big breasts! The northwest of Brazil is the poorest part of the country (bordering on third world conditions) and also one of the most ethnically diverse with a high number of African descent.

After learning Portuguese and some baby-talk from my four-year housemate
Mateus, discussing politics of race relations and football in Brazil with Moises, the father of the family, and the pros and cons of Brazilian fashion with Vanya, the mother of this family, I reluctantly left for Florianopolis on the island of Santa Catarina, on the southeast coast of the country. My sister Kate (aka Catarina) arrived an hour after me and together in our rental car, we managed to navigate to the north of the island where we were stayed in a cabin on a hill overlooking three beaches. We weren’t really roughing it; we had TV, breakfast delivered and all the mod cons and hammock to check out the view! We spent the next week exploring the island’s 42 beaches, especially the surf beaches at Praia Mole and Joaquin where the national surf championships are held each year. Spent hours burning ourselves on the beach while people tried to sell all sorts of assorted goodies, including henna tattoos, which we indulged in of course (much to the detriment of the rental car upholstery)…

We were pretty sad when it was time to leave the island for Rio. Getting there should have been an easy trip but it turned into an all-night affair when bad weather forced us to land and wait in Sao Paolo (yes, again). The winning team of the previous week’s national soccer final was in our airport lounge trying to get home together with their cup and their chants. They started to take their frustration out on flight attendants from an airline they were not booked on. It was like being at a game! The majority of Brazilians we met were however very happy and reasonable people who seemed to make the most out of awkward situations.

In Rio we stayed in Hotel Debret (or as I called it Hotel Debit), on the west end of Copacabana beach not far from Ipanema beach. Our room had a “lateral” view of the beach, looking right to the beach and left toward the favela (slums) crawling up the steep hillside at the back of Copacabana. It rained and rained on Xmas Eve, Xmas Day and the day after Xmas but we made the most of it by shopping, walking along the beach and lagoon and seeing the Harry Potter movie. Still it was a fierce storm; some 50 people died in Rio as favelas to washed downhill in landslides. On the day we had to leave the sun finally came out, as did as 1,000 guys trying out to be surf lifesavers on Copacabana beach. We planted ourselves on the beach to watch their progress (and tiny swim suits) then raced up to the Jesus statue before we left for the airport and the cold weather.

I was sad to leave – the country deserves three months rather than three weeks to visit it properly. Plus New Year’s in Rio was going to be a spectacle not to be missed. I want to go back and check out the Amazon, the Pantanal wetlands and the northwest for New Year’s and Carnival. Any takers? It’s an awesome place and it doesn’t matter if you are hopeless in Portuguese – any attempt to speak is appreciated. Nonetheless it has been nice to get back to this town I still can’t believe I live in, most importantly because of my friends who manage to tolerate my absences and await my return (perhaps because they get some cool presents every time I come back from somewhere)…

Best wishes for the coming year. May it be peaceful and prosperous.