A Trip to Brazil: Sugar Loaves, Senior Parades, Drunkeries

Hello, friends. It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. Let’s get to it. (If you just want to look at pretty pictures, there are some below, or you could go to this gallery. I’m having a hard time inserting them into this post!)

When I was five or six years old, I had this idea that if you cut off someone’s arm or leg, it would look like the inside of a hot dog: a pinkish, homogeneous mash, firm and kind of wiggly. No gristle, no veins. Until two months ago, I had the same idea about Brazil: all rain forest, top to bottom. Overgrown jungly green creeping in on the edges of frontier cities, climbing like kudzu over buses and cars if they stopped too long for gas.

It’s not true, not at all. In December, I visited Brazil with my pals Chris and Jess, traveling for three weeks with stops in big cities and small towns, inland national parks and seaside villages. We did see some of the jungle, but only in patches between long stretches of arid plain and even desert mountains.

After a few days in São Paulo (underrated, really lovely), we bussed over to Rio de Janeiro (also lovely), where we did all the required tourist activities in a three-day rush. In some cities, the obligatory stops are kind of lame. Not so in Rio, where Copacabana and Ipanema beaches were exactly as promised, packed with beautiful girls and muscular men, all in the skimpiest swimsuits they could find. There was one girl, tall, tan, young, lovely. She walked like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gently. True story, for real.

The statue of Cristo Redentor—you know it from every single movie set in Brazil, like Fast 5, and, you know, the other ones that don’t suck—didn’t disappoint, though I was surprised to see how many Brazilians, Americans, and Japanese were willing to spread their arms out Christlike and smile, unchristlike, as their pals snapped the photo. Mel Gibson would be disappointed: not a single tourist grimaced in pain or called for water through gritted teeth. There’s also the cable car ride to Sugar Loaf, from the top of which you can see all of Rio below, glittering beaches set like jewels around the edges of the city.

From Rio, we flew to Salvador, the former capital of Portugal in South America, and current home to Afro-Brazilian culture and music. The old city, the Pelourinho, sits above the harbor, an island of colonial buildings in a sea of gritty 1980’s commercial blocks and, just down the hill, streets filled with daytime drunks and loose-limbed nighttime junkies. (Lost on our way back to the hotel one night, we drove our rental car in increasingly frantic circles down one-way warrens and around blind corners, into a city block filled with honest-to-god zombies, flapping their arms and bashing into dumpsters, staining the walls with excrement and hair, rags falling off under flickering yellow streetlights.)

But Salvador has a way of making up for the freakiness. One afternoon, a samba parade filled the narrow cobblestone streets outside the hotel. I walked out to find forty elderly ladies arranged in costumed ranks of ten, leading a drum and brass band of old men down the road. The first ten in green satin, the next ten in pink, the third and fourth groups in more spangled costumes, they swayed and sang, keeping time with swishing fans and tambourines. I stood on the sidewalk as they blew kisses and batted their eyes like coquettes. Why the parade? Who cares–who doesn’t love a parade? Salvadorans dress up and play music like North Americans watch the NFL: it’s just what you do on a weekend.

We stopped for a few days in Chapada Diamantina National Park, rich with tannin-dark streams and cascades, hiking trails and swimming holes. From there, a long day—eighteen actual hours of driving, and full credit to Jess and Chris for their hours behind the wheel—to Rio Grande do Norte state, on the north coast of Brazil. Near the end, we took a 90 kilometer shortcut off the main highway that turned from two-lane asphalt, to cobblestone, to nicely packed dirt, to a rutted goatpath. Before the sun set, we asked some telephone repairmen if we were on the right road, and they were just dumbfounded at the question. Of course you’re not on the right road, they said. Of course. We kept going anyway.


Up north, we stayed with an amazingly welcoming family whose kids are students at our school. They hosted us at their beach house in Tibau and took us around to meet all their friends up and down the shore. We traveled up the coast a little to see the salt flats, down the other direction for a seaside feast, then back to the house for some lazing in the hammock. For New Years Eve, we had drinks with the State Governor, whose beach house was next door, and then we took our champagne down to the sand and watched the midnight fireworks fill the sky. The time with our friends in Rio Grande do Norte was a real treat, a chance to spend time with kind people in a genuinely Brazilian setting. 

A linguistic note: I completely overestimated how useful spoken Spanish would be in Brazil. It was like speaking Russian in Alaska: the old-timers might understand a word or two, but they also might mistake you for a moose. Even reading, I was prone to errors. The roadside borracharias in every little town were not “drunkeries,” as Spanish would have it, but tire repair shops. I was sad to finally figure it out, because I loved the idea of a country where people would say, Hey buddy, let’s go to the drunkery tonight, maybe play some pool.  


Okay, a little Venezuela news before we return to a regular schedule:

First, my baseball team, the Tiburones, had an amazing late-season run, finishing first in the league. They played strong in the playoffs’ first round, and then lost in a heartbreaking final series against the Tigres of Aragua. (It turns out that the Tigres are a perpetual postseason force, though you’d never know it here in Caracas, where almost everyone follows the Leones or Magallanes. I hadn’t heard a word about the champs until the finals.) Next year, my Sharks. Next year.

Also, you might have heard about elections in Venezuela this last weekend. Very exciting times here, and instead of explaining it myself, I encourage you to read this article in the New York Times, which sums up the latest developments. Short version: Hugo Chavez, the populist/socialist leader who has been in power for 13 years, faces his first genuine electoral challenge in Henrique Capriles Radonski, the charismatic opposition candidate who was chosen in last week’s primaries. The chavistas and the anti-chavistas are building towards an October election. It’s going to be a humdinger.

Okay, so that’ll do. Next week, I’ll tell you about the AIDS benefit show we held at Escuela Campo Alegre in early February, raising money for a local clinic. I sang, danced, played some drums, mandolin, and guitar, basically made a fool of myself for a good cause. Video here; be ready for some serious gangsta action from some seriously non-gangsta teachers. I won’t tell you about the quinceañera party held that same weekend for one of our students and 800 of her friends, where the ice cream budget was larger than the sum we raised for AIDS. Oh, well.




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2 thoughts on “A Trip to Brazil: Sugar Loaves, Senior Parades, Drunkeries

  1. Hey, you're back! I was thinking about your blog the other day and realizing that I missed it. Very entertaining as always and I love the photos as well. But I'm sorry to hear about Los Tiburones.Be well!

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