Our trip to Brazil was wonderful and bittersweet at the same time. Helen magnificently captured the vitality of the country in her pictures. This weekend I will post all of the pictures, after she adds her inimitable captions. This posting has two photos, as a teaser.
So for now it's mostly a long "word picture."
1. Our trip began in Sao Paolo, Brazil's largest city. Looking out from our hotel room, it seemed like a grimy and unwelcoming place. But eventually we found our way to the Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade, which is the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. It is now reflecting a more eclectic Asian mix, but Japanese culture is the core. So of course we availed ourselves of the delicious desserts available from the street vendors.
Another good memory from Sao Paolo is of a fancy dinner in an Italian restaurant, where they cook the pasta at your table. It was somewhat unsettling to see just how much butter goes into most pasta dishes, but that didn't prevent us from eating it.
The best Sao Paolo memory happened very early on. After landing, we took a bus from the airport (which is 30 km away from downtown) into the city. Along the way, we passed through the bustling east side neighborhood of Tatuape. Once we were settled at the hotel, we rode Sao Paolo's superb train system back out to Tatuape. First we strolled through the neighborhood park, which was teeming with children and Sunday picnickers. Then we enjoyed coconut juice from a sweet old man who chopped the coconut up for you and provided a straw for drinking.
Finally, as we were heading back to the train, we stopped at a coffee shop/news stand. The owner was a Chilean man who had settled in Sao Paolo. His daughter spoke English, and I garbled some things in Spanish. That Sunday was Brazilian father's day, as well as the old man's birthday. So the entire family was in the little shop, from grandparents to grandchildren. Helen liked them so much that we took two pictures--One of the family, one with the family ourselves. Monday night, after getting back home, she e-mailed them to the family. (These are the pictures below.) You make fast friends in Latin America, even in the big cities; that type of friendliness takes much longer to develop in New York.
2. After two days in Sao Paolo, we took an overnight bus to Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian buses are much nicer than their American cousins. They have reclining seats, and you get treats as you board. Bus travel in the US has a low class connotation, but it's a viable option for many Brazilians.
I attempted to read on the overnight bus, but eventually settled into a fitful sleep. When we got to Rio, the sun had just risen. After a crazy cab ride, we made it to our hotel on the Copacabana. Some fun things in Rio: Dining at the all-you-can-eat-meat churrascaria, and making bad jokes about the girl from Ipanema as we strolled through Ipanema.
The three highlights in Rio: visiting the Christ statue on the Corcovado; going on a guided tour of the slums (favelas); and riding the bonde train--sort of like the San Francisco cable cars--up into the lovely neighborhood of Santa Teresa. It cost .60 real (about 30 cents) to board the train. But once it was in motion, school kids latched onto the sides and rode the rest of the way up the hill for free.
The Corcovado is certainly a tourist trap, but it does offer breathtaking views of the city. Once again we rode a (much more expensive) train up a hill. After getting there, you can choose to look at the open-armed Christ or upon the city below.
The favela tour emphasizes the fact that Rio's slums are filled with decent people who are the backbone of the city. Voting is mandatory in Brazil and elections are upcoming, so the poor neighborhoods were loaded with political posters. Our tour guide complained that this is the only time politicians care about the poor, and also lamented--repeatedly--the fact that rich and poor people live side by side in Brazil. She offered a somewhat mythical view of the slums, which made me restless although I never challenged her. The bottom line is that drug gangs control most favelas, and have no compunction about killing you if you cross them. But that doesn't mean that most residents aren't hardworking and honest, which was the point of the tour.
After a day and a half in Rio we returned to Sao Paolo, which was another six hour bus ride. We had a quiet night close to our hotel, and woke up early Thursday for the flight to Recife (pronounced He-cife) in the northeast. Now was the time for the highlight of our trip--The wedding of Helen's co-worker Silvia, who was born in Recife.
3. At first Recife was very underwhelming. It does have an oceanside location, and we were on the beach. But the transit system is not nearly as efficient as Sao Paulo's, and not as good as Rio's either. So it was hard to get around, and sometimes we were forced to rely on cabs to go short distances.
We tried to take buses when we could. On Friday we wanted to go to the largest shopping mall in Recife, which might be the largest in all of Brazil. So we got on a bus that seemed appropriate. It was not. A bunch of teenagers were on the bus; eventually they were all helping Helen find the mall, speaking rapid Portuguese and making many hand gestures.
But we were hopeless Americans. Finally, a young woman named Vanessa told us to get off the bus so that she could get us on the right bus. I wanted to pay her fare on the new bus, but she paid too quickly. Then I comforted myself with the idea that she was a kid who wanted to go to the mall too. But no. As soon as we got to the mall, she waved goodbye and took the bus back home. She had only done it to make sure we would get there. This is something else that would not happen in New York.
At the mall we did absurd things like playing miniature golf indoors. It's a pretty stiff price to play the nine hole course. So we produced some stares from people who may have never seen the course in use. Helen beat me by one stroke, because I had a disastrous eighth hole. We both tried to get a hole in one on the "bonus" 10th hole, which would have earned us a free round. But it wasn't meant to be.
On Saturday the wedding festivities began. That morning we boarded a bus for a guided tour of Recife and Olinda, the neighboring town to the north. Silvia had arranged it for the wedding guests, who came from all over the US and originally from countries around the world. One guest had gone to Northwestern like Helen and me.
Our tour guide was a deeply knowledgeable man named Gilbert. Walking the streets of Olinda, he discussed the town's Carnaval and kept saying "It's a mess, and God bless this mess!" I thought this was very funny. Eventually most of our companions grew weary of Gilbert's passionate touring style, but Helen and I really liked him.
At one point he talked about how hard it is for everyday Brazilians to get by. Gilbert knows Portuguese, English, Spanish, and German, and is learning French and Dutch. He loves to read. But books in Brazil are very expensive, so he has to limit himself to two books a month. Even knowing this, it still did not immediately dawn on me how much Gilbert is struggling. I asked him (of course) if there were good libraries. He said yes, but that they were hard to get to. Then I asked if he had been to Livrarias Cultura, a fabulous bookstore in Recife that we had discovered the day before. He said "yes!," that it's the best bookstore in Recfie and that he could get lost for hours in there. I thought about the fact that I had paid almost $20 US for a George Orwell paperback that would have cost much less in the US, only to have a book as a souvenir from Brazil. That's money Gilbert could have used.
The highlight of the tour was lunch at Oficina do Sabor, one of the finest restaurants in Brazil. Gilbert and our bus driver Edvaldo insisted on sitting away from the rich wedding party guests. This made me feel like a colonialist, but there was nothing I could do.
That night Gilbert and Edvaldo came around to the fancy hotels again, to ferry us to the wedding. It was magnificent. Torches in front of the church set an elegant tone, and a choir and orchestra sat in the balcony. The room was filled to capacity. Many photographers treated the evening like a press conference, which was an odd brush with the paparazzi. As the service was in Portuguese, I had a hard time understanding the nuances. But we rose when everyone else did, and clapped to celebrate the consecrated love of Silvia and Fabio.
Then it was time for the wedding party, which started around 10 PM. It was an experience unlike any I have ever had and will ever have again. You couldn't even order a beer, but had to go straight to the hard stuff. Hors d'oeuvres were available in copious quantity, and there was also a full dinner. Silvia eventually sang a Brazilian love song that got the crowd moving. Then, around midnight, a live band started to perform. It was a mix of Brazilian and English tunes; I particularly liked the rendition of Elton John's "Your Song."
But this was all small-time, a mere prelude to coming attractions. Around 2 AM a full steel drum band entered the room, and literally began to rock the house. I can still hear it: numerous fast beats on one drum, punctuated by the slow gong of another. Helen and I were on the dance floor, and she playfully punched my chest to the rhythm of the fast beats. Meanwhile, 60 year old men were dancing with much more energy than us. Amazing.
But even this was not all. For on the dance floor with us were two gigantic puppets, representing the bride and groom. Real live humans were inside these puppets, which were dancing just as hard as everyone else. It was a little slice of Carnaval wrapped inside a wedding reception.
God bless this mess.
Around 3:15 Helen and I were pooped, but many other people were still at their stride. The buses took us back around 4:30, and we heard the next day that some folks were still going strong at 6:30.
The next day was the final day, and we had one more adventure in store. Most of the wedding group went to Porte de Galinhas, one of the prettiest beaches in Brazil. Gilbert and Edvaldo tirelessly ferried us there. We were the first pick-ups that day, and Gilbert came with special gifts for fellow readers. One was a detailed map of Brazil, and the other was a guide to Brazilian gemstones. There was only one of each for us, and he insisted that we not tell the others so that they would not be offended. A third slice of kindness, but I could see this happening in New York.
We lazed around at the beach, and eventually found ourselves at another fine restaurant for dinner. This time Silvia and Fabio could join us, which was a great treat. Gilbert dined alone, not even with Edvaldo this time. Two people asked him to join the group, but he refused. At one point I discovered him crouched on his knees reading diner's comments about the restaurant that were posted on a board. Gilbert reads everything, just like me. I resolved to get his email address by the end of the night, so that we could stay in touch.
We finally made it back to the hotel around 10 PM, which was only 5.5 hours before our 3:30 AM flight home. As we were leaving the bus, I asked Gilbert for his email address. He doesn't have one; our time in Recife will be a wonderful memory, but not the basis of an ongoing friendship. Then I finally realized the blindingly obvious--Gilbert is barely scraping by himself, and most likely has no money for a computer. I dearly wish that he took my gesture as it was intended, and not as yet another reminder of his position in the world.
4. Closing Thoughts
Over the last two years, we have gone to Argentina and Brazil. Both have been great, and I would love to go to Buenos Aires again. But the warmth of the Brazilians really touched me. They don't care if you don't know Portuguese, and keep talking to you anyway. At first I thought this was strange, and obviously counterproductive. Finally I realized that it is a very humane way to treat people, and resolved to bring home some of that kind spirit. Hopefully I have.