Thursday, March 29, 2007

Brazil, Sao Paulo, Iguassu Falls, and Rio by Hearsay

Brazil was great. Brilliant. Despite horror stories from everyone about muggings and theft.

I worked in Sao Paulo.

Bob spent some of the time in Rio.

Then both of us went to the Iguassu Falls.

Brazilians are lovely people.

The girls are particularly beautiful - tall and glamorous with bodies that look as if they spend every spare moment at samba schools. They wear minimal clothing which was odd for the first few minutes there. The tiny singlet tops bare most of their assets and the assets are as firm and golden as every other part of them. The tops are lime and orange and black and white and scarlet and turquoise - no greyed colour here. Pants are usually black and very tight - like leggings in Lycra or bike pants, often Capri length and they skim dangerously just at the level of the hips where you wonder if they might just slide right off. Hair is invariably long and often in tumbled curls as well - high swinging ponytails were fashionable. It is lucky Bob is old enough not to hyperventilate.

He was very taken aback when he braved the Metro system and worked it out, but beautiful girls kept giving him their seats. It shook him that they thought him so old - both honoured and eliminated at the same time.

Somehow that amazing glowing beauty does not hold any better in Brazil than it does anywhere else. While there were a handful of lovely older women in my classes and more around the festival there were thousands of women at the quilt Festival who were very nice, and very like women in other countries. In fact, I fitted in well and people kept addressing me in Portuguese. There is a strong racial mix - and it included lots of Japanese too - especially doing patchwork. Many were older women born in Brazil. Japan has some of the best and most interesting patchwork in the world. Brazil is obviously heading that way too as the work on display was brilliant and vivid and striking.

Brazilians touch! I had not realised how much I miss this in the Middle East. They put a hand on your shoulder when speaking to you and look earnestly into your eyes. They hug on first meeting and kiss - male to female, and female to female. Men just hug. Did I say that the young men are beautiful too? In a restaurant on the corner near the hotel we ordered 'Cappucino medio' as it was spelt on the menu. Medium cappuccino. The lovely young nineteen year old waiter put his hand on my shoulder and leant down to see my eyes. His were light grey, ringed with thick black lashes set into flawless olive skin and between high slanted cheekbones.
"After me", he ordered. "Cappusino madio".

I repeated it - pretty well I thought.
"No, maaaaadio". I said it again. This time I got a pat on the back.

We were taken - only half an hour after we arrived after the twenty four hours of traveling (and I add in all time from door to door) - to a Churrascaria - a Brazilian barbecue restaurant. These are based on gaucho cooking. Men wear marvelous traditional clothing - white shirts, long sleeved and loose, baggy pants gathered and tucked into long just-below-the-knee boots. In the window a group of really hefty skewers plugged through ribs rotate and bubble around the open fire.

You have a huge salad bar and help yourself from here first. A lot of the salads were different too - especially the hearts of palm. While I have had it before it was everywhere in Brazil. They are superb - light and fresh and crunchy and like a white asparagus spear but with a different flavour and lifting in layers like an onion.

Then you eat your salad - American style and first. Cold meats are served with it, and seafood and grilled seed-crusted tuna - perhaps pandering to the large Japanese population.
Then there is a little scarlet cardboard disc that sits beside you like a coaster. On one side it is red, with No in several languages. On the other side it is green with Yes. When you turn it over the men in gaucho pants start moving around the table with huge skewers of meat. It is cooked to different stages and in different ways. The cheaper cuts are first and I noticed that many refused rib cuts as a cheaper cut. I had some and they really missed out. It was melting tender, and they quickly separated tender lean meat from the bone and fat on the plate.

Other cuts were the better ones - rump and fillet and a specialty cut I did not know with a name like piranha which was amazingly flavourful. Brazilian meat is quite salted and they shave a thin long slice from whatever is on the particular skewer (and these were almost a metre long and five cm thick) with an evil looking knife while you hold the top of the cut with pincers supplied and transfer it to your plate. They circle you like sharks waiting and zooming in whenever there is space on your plate. It was, without a doubt, the best meat I have ever tasted. Flipping the little card to red again stops the offers of meat.

I was given one of the discs to take home by a very cheeky friend with Bernina in Brazil. The instruction was to place it on my husband's pillow each night - with either the red "Nao Obrigado" or the green "Sim Por Favor" showing.

I should have started this with the capirinha, pronounced capirinya. We certainly started with it. Take a large fresh firm green lime and cut it into four wedges. Cross cut each wedge in half. Drop this into an old-fashioned class. Add two teaspoons of sugar. Crush with a small pestle until it is half full of sugary juice. Add ice (they use long hollow cubes) till it domes above the glass. Top up with alcohol - don't know what it is in Brazil but suspect it is sugar based though not at all sweet - they offer vodka as an alternative if you wish. It is almost guaranteed to remove all inhibitions.

It is a stunning drink. Really fresh and tastes wonderful but so alcoholic that the only night I had two I was having to concentrate very carefully when answering my mail on my return to the hotel.

Just on the corner from the hotel, and we had to walk past it to get to the Conference Centre where the Quilt Festival was held, was the most unbelievable bakery-restaurant-coffee shop.

Bella Paulista, Casa de Paes. As you walked in through the turnstile you were given a hunk of printed cardboard like an oversized coaster. If you wanted to sit at a table you waited and were seated. Sometimes you waited in line, and if the line was really long they passed free food on trays along it occasionally.

Once at a table you were handed the menu. This looked ordinary enough until you saw food going past to other people. On the list of Traditional Sandwiches we ordered Bauru. It was listed as a sandwich with ham, tomato and cheese. My friend who spoke Portuguese altered the basic recipe, switching ham for roast beef, and changed the usual cheese. I had expected just that - a white sandwich with three fillings. This was more like a good section of a baguette of French bread, and the filling was about four inches thick. The roast beef, all fifteen thin slices was moist and perfect, the tomato half green so it was fresh and sharp and crisp to the bite, the cheese was a thick white cheese that still tasted of fresh milk, firm and grilled and slightly salted. All ingredients had obviously been put on a grill before the sandwich was assembled, as the bread was fresh and untoasted, and the filling hot. They were amazing and sumptuous and I think Bob had one every day we were there without changing.

And then there was the cappuccino - or Cappucino medio. This was, without a doubt, the best cappuccino I have ever had. It was dark and richly roasted coffee, fragrant and full of flavour. It had just the right amount of milk froth - enough to firmly insulate the coffee below to stop it cooling too fast, but not enough so the first mouthful just gives you a moustache and nothing but hot milk. It was dusted with cinnamon and the fragrance wafted up to you as the waiter put the cups reverently on the table. It was the sort of coffee you drink in silence, and the last mouthful always had a suggestion of chocolate.

The juices were wonderful and I will always remember Brazil for the pineapple and mint juice - it was fresh and light with none of the sharpness of pineapple in the south of Australia, and lusciously sweet and green with fresh mint. It also had a foam on top which I skimmed off with the straw first as it was almost creamy and firm.

As you ordered you showed your number on the cardboard coaster. You could add items later as you wished and one night we stayed for hours talking and eating in a desultory way. We even shared three desserts. More about the Passionfruit mousse another time. They also sold baked goods in the front, and some grocery items.

As you left each person submitted their 'coaster' to the cashier. You could add to your bill with extra bakery things as you wished. Your bill was totted up on the computer and you were charged accordingly. If you wanted to pay for others you just picked up their coasters as well. It was such a clever system with none of the frustrations of trying to split bills in Australia. You could not leave without handing in a coaster, even if there was nothing on it. One night Bob had 105 and I had 501.

Tabbi had arranged for us to travel to the Iguassu Falls. We flew in and stepped off the plane into steaming heat - we were right at the centre of the continent and the Falls is at the junction of Paraguay and Argentina and Brazil. They spell Iguassu with a c with a wriggle below - but it does not translate on this computer. There are 275 waterfalls two miles wide. It is wider than Victoria Falls and higher than Niagara. Tabs also recommended the ride in the boat under the falls. Now when she said you rode under the falls I somehow imagined that she meant that you traveled in the space behind the water, perhaps getting a little damp with the spray.

You don't. You ride UNDER the falls. We were utterly totally drenched. I couldn't see a thing as you have to close your eyes tight from the sheer volume of thundering water. Add another thirty screeching tourists and mind you - they only screech in anticipation as you close your mouth fast when in the water -and it was the most amazing fun. Hilarious and drenching and warm enough to be almost comfortable. We were in a craft like a large rubber duck that reared up over the huge bucking rapids as we traveled up the river - and I thought THAT was exciting. We had been told not to stand unless the boat stopped and no-one was going to try it.

The boat would stop. People would ceremoniously unwrap their cameras from the supplied plastic bags. Photos were taken. What I saw from my particular vantage point beside the boat driver was that on the first stop he inserted his feet in plastic bags and expertly applied wide rubber bands like bandages over the bags. On the second stop he put on heavy plastic leggings like oilskins. On the third stop he put on a jacket and hood. On the fourth stop he firmly tied everything down - hood included. At this point I decided the camera in its plastic bag would go UNDER the left breast inside the bra, under the shirt, and under the lifejacket of two inch thick polystyrene. Nothing, I thought, would go through that. Bob had my handbag on his lap wrapped in the garbage bag from the boat deck - they didn't have another bag big enough and had kindly tipped out the tissues and banana peels to give it to me. First dip into a fall and I was aware of water rushing over me as if the clothes did not exist, and somehow I was particularly aware of the sheer volume being directed over the little Canon Ixus in my bra. You will be glad to know that the plastic bag worked and it survived. I will add photos later.

It was wet, and fun and a must if you go there. The wind was a bit cool coming back, but only because we were so wet. I had been hot all the way there.

We had stopped on the way at a centre for the Nature Park which they are rightly proud of as Brazil has a great record for conservation - starting with the fact that they have designed cars that run on sugar based alcohol. I don't think they get the lime and sugar though.

As the car pulled up at the park and we climbed out I was absolutely enchanted. The air was full of butterflies. All colours, all sizes. Scarlet and black that flashed brilliant victory signs as they flew, tiny white and green ones, small blue ones with that achingly clear blue of cornflowers and summer skies that flickered in the trees like holes cut through where the sky seeped in. A little one sat on my arm and proceeded to lick gently at me - the licks were visible as it curled a tiny black tongue, but I could not actually feel them. It had the number 80 on its wings, and I wondered if the next one was 81? As we moved towards the boat ride in the cart a huge blue - glittery cobalt shining blue - butterfly drifted slowly past on ethereal wings. The biggest in Brazil, the guide said. We were constantly surrounded by them, and I kept suspecting a huge net all around us - a set-up like a bird park. There wasn't.

There were also gorgeous little animals everywhere - like long-nosed raccoons with very stripy vertical tails like meercats.They were about the size of a very large cat, and very social and there were dozens walking around - even some quite little ones. I had my feet sniffed but have been long enough in Egypt to think "rabies" and back off. We were told they were coatis. They loved the peanuts that one person had tossed onto the decking, but totally ignored the spill of rice and black beans form a split garbage bag nearby. I was sympathetic. I like peanuts better too.

We walked about six hundred metres down steps. It was beautiful - everything you think a rain forest should be - but I wasn't appreciating it much as I was absolutely dripping sweat in the heat and humidity. It was one of the times when I wished I had stopped to put on my cotton pants instead of the smarter synthetic ones I had chosen to travel in. We had been met as planned by Tabbi at the airport by a charming and very easy-on-the-eyes young Brazilian named Aerton or Ayrton. He had asked if we wanted to tour immediately, and was rattling off costs and possibilities. Bob was suspicious - his hackles go up when rushed - but it made sense to me. We arrived at three thirty and the park closed for entry at five - so we did not have a lot of time. The boat ride would take two hours. We had to leave at eleven thirty next morning so time was shortish, and the park did not open till nine in the morning.

In retrospect it was the right decision. We arrived back at the park and changed and still were very wet when checking in at the hotel. Overnight in humidity did not dry the clothes all that well but at least they were not dripping and were a bit easier to pack than they would have been if we were in the boat just before flying.

Next day we had a ride in a helicopter instead. That was fabulous too - $70 each which was so much cheaper than an equivalent ride at home. We took off with a sweep over rainforest, then slowly along the path of the river and made four figure eights over the water falls. We flew over Argentine airspace but I noticed he kept well out of Paraguay. From what I have heard of it I was not surprised. Bob had carefully herded me into the very front seat beside the pilot so I have great videos and photos, much to the disappointment of the gentleman who had just too loud a voice when telling his mate to try to get the front seat. We were in front, but they were quite determined and Bob just somehow got in the way!

We had been introduced to a lovely taxi driver called Carlos. When he picked us up after the trip to the Falls he had bought all the makings for Capiringhas - even the sugar. Then someone else - my boss with Bernina in Brazil I think - gave us the pestles and knives and glass in a set. I guess we did have one every single night - but the trip was fun and I am sure a mild inebriation every evening for an hour or so helped!

I would go back like a shot. Bob loved Rio but everyone in both cities had personal robbery stories, and one friend has been robbed seven times and each time at gunpoint.
Bob tells of his bus driver who pulled up at the Painted stairs in Rio, the tour group climbed out and took photos and climbed back in. He closed the door and walked to his side. Someone stepped forward and put a gun to his head. The driver was forced to get back in and slide into the passenger seat while the gunman, followed by two others on bikes, drove to another location. Then they robbed every passenger of every cent, every mobile and every camera or item of jewelery. Then they took the keys to the bus and left.

Worrying - but the rest of the country makes up for it. Tourism was well run and effective. Organisation is quick and very impressive. People are kind and friendly and beautiful. We loved it.


Blogger Bobbie said...

I can see the vibrant colours, smell the coffee, taste the food and feel the humidity. Wow Brazil and back before breakfast. Thanks Jen

10:15 am  
Blogger Nic Bridges said...

Wow, Jenny - I always love your travel stories. I feel like I've had a trip to Brazil in the past few minutes sitting in front of my computer screen - thankyou!!

7:31 pm  
Blogger Lisa Walton said...

You see the world with amazing perspective. I feel I need to jump on a plane now! And that is without even seeing one photo. What a talent - thanks

8:19 pm  
Blogger Cairogal said...

The restaurant sounds wonderful! We have a Brazilian restaurant in Seattle called Ipanema, and it's that exact concept: turn your coaster over when you're ready for more meat, and reverse it when you need a bit of a break!

1:21 am  
Blogger Sarah Ann Smith said... know how much I love travelling vicariously through your blog! I can still remember the steak in B.A. from when I was five, and the churrascos and parilladas from Bolivia (shriek!) 20 years ago.

Tell you what. One of these days when Bob has retired, you need to take all of these writings, compile them into a book, illustrate with photos and quilts, and sign me up for a signed first edition!

Cheers, Sarah in Maine, USA

3:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Jenny perhaps our next holiday should be to Brazil can't wait to see your photos.
Natalie at Loxton SA

8:47 am  
Anonymous Diane said...

Your adventures sound wonderful. I was in Rio with a three month old for only a week before we went to Fortaleza to live for 9 months. It wasn't quite as glamorous as Rio! But you brought back some of the *good* memories and, yes! my family who came to visit were robbed by a gang... but you did make me hungry for the food, the sights, the smells, the sound of Brazil.

5:24 am  

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