Rio on a Rainy Day

Last weekend, I went to Rio de Janeiro.

You know Rio…incredible scenery, beautiful people, historical landmarks, and world-famous beaches….and let’s not even get started on the samba and Carnaval.

So I had big expectations when I got on the plane Saturday morning, snickering to myself that São Paulo’s weather forecast predicted a gray, rainy, weekend.

I flew over the clouds, imagining myself listening to “Corcovado” at the top of Corcovado, lounging on Ipanema beach to the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema”, walking along the boardwalk of Copacabana, all the while the sun shining down, the blue sky a spectacular backdrop for the panorama of mountains and Cristo Redentor that surrounds the white sand and sea.

As the plane descended below the clouds, the excitement was palpable and I couldn’t wait to see that picturesque view…

….but it was gray. All gray. It was cloudy. It was rainy. Even the sea looked dull and the mountains blended together in the mist, cloud of fog hiding the majestic peak of Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain). I couldn’t believe it. I admit, I hadn’t checked the weather report. But….wasn’t it always sunny in Rio? When have you ever pictured its famous beaches drowned in storms? It hadn’t even occurred to me that it could happen. It was rainy. In Rio.

This was especially disappointing to me because my entire weekend had been planned around the idea of doing nothing but sitting in the sun and taking panoramic pictures from the tops of various famous mountains. But I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me. Dammit, I was going to go to the beach anyway!

And I did. I dropped my things at the hotel, slathered on my SPF 50 sunscreen (hey, you never know, and after Porto de Galinhas, I’m not taking any chances), and marched myself down to Copacabana beach, all the while hearing Barry Manilow singing about Lola the showgirl (I know, it’s not even the same Copacabana…but anyway). Copacabana is a unique beach, because it has the strange ability to house the entirety of Rio (or at least 10% of it) without ever really feeling crowded. Maybe that’s because, with 4.5 kilometers of pure white shoreline, there’s enough room for everybody. Or maybe it’s because everyone’s got their own thing going on. Some people are playing football. Some people are playing volleyball. Some people are playing in the sand. Some people are selling things. Some people are buying things. Some people are conspicuously making out with their significant other and bordering on “get a room” behavior. And some people, like me, are just sitting and taking it all in. It was like watching life happen. Everything goes on at the beach. When I tired of the sand, I took to the famous black-and-white tiled boardwalk and wandered up and down the city’s edge, smelling roasted corn and beer and lime and coconut, seeing a hundred different blankets laid out with t-shirts, jewelry, wooden crafts, and everything else you can imagine. I sat under an umbrella at a little botiquim and had a beer. Yes, by myself. And watched life happen, on the beach.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, hopeful that the night had cleared away the clouds and rain, but even as I opened my eyes, I sensed that the light behind the curtains was dim and faded.

I hadn’t thought it possible, but it seemed that Sunday was even darker, dimmer, rainier, and grayer than Saturday had been. I hesitated at the thought of traipsing around Rio all day under an umbrella, but then I decided that I didn’t know when I’d be back in Rio, if ever, and that I should take advantage of the time I had. I had already paid for the tour, anyway.

So at 8:30, I boarded a bus full of tourists, me the only non-Brazilian and the only English speaker, and headed out for a tour of the city. We passed a bunch of things that I didn’t particularly care about, including the favelas (slums…which I found increasingly strange as they highlight the picturesque disorder of these vast areas as a tourist attraction even while denying their inhabitants the most basic resources…), before finally reaching the cable car station at Pao de Açucar. Despite the menacing clouds that shadowed the high peak, we paid our 44 reais to take the trip to the top in the cable car. As we waited, we saw the cables disappear into the mist, the cars reappearing suddenly out of the whiteness on their descent to the station. On the way up, we took as many pictures as we could until the shore, the city, and everything else faded from view and we were left surrounded by white.

At the top of the mountain, the air was cool and windy, and as we could see absolutely nothing, I sat on a bench and ate an ice cream, imagining the sweeping vistas I might have been otherwise enjoying.

We finally descended, heavy with failure, just in time to see the clouds sweeping away from the peak and exposing the rock (and, therefore, the view from the top). Such is my luck.

After one unsuccessful attempt at tourism, I was wary of trying to get to the top of Corcovado. The air was still gray, still rainy, still heavy with clouds. But that voice again told me that I didn’t know if I’d ever have another chance to be here in the Cidade Maravilhosa, and I had better make the best of it.

So it was that, late in the afternoon, we all boarded the old-time train that would carry us up the steep 2,329-foot incline to the peak of Corcovado mountain, and to Christ the Redeemer, hidden in the mist. The train travels through the Tijuca National Park, a forest of the most rainforest-looking trees and vines I have seen since I arrived in Brazil. At times, the thick foliage and deep green would open up, revealing outstanding vistas that would have been incredible had we actually been able to see them.

At the top, the scene was almost like being in a blizzard. The air was cold and moist, thick with fog and very ominous. We looked around us, waiting to be greeted by the open arms of the 30-meter-tall Christ the Redeemer, which I have wanted to see in person since I saw the opening credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996 (yeah, I know it’s a weird reference, but that’s where I first saw it).

But he was nowhere to be seen. We were 5 meters from a 30-meter-tall statue…and we couldn’t see a thing. His vague outline hovered above us, a Christ-shaped shadow in the fog. But, like any test of the faithful, even though we couldn’t see him, we still had to believe that he was somehow there. So we took pictures anyway, and lingered at the top, contemplating the impenetrable fog that rose up to meet us when we peeked over the ledge. And then, finally, defeated, we took the train back down into the warmer air and the darkening gray of early dusk.

On the bus back home, I decided that the saving grace to my failed endeavors would be a final walk along Copacabana and some shameless souvenir-buying, followed by a really good dinner at the much-hailed Cafeina. So I freshened myself up and prepared for a night out. I stepped out of my hotel and was anticipating the long swath of white sand when I realized that the grayness had given way to a full-blown storm. On the shore, the wind was whipping and the palm trees swayed helplessly from side to side. The sellers had all gone home, and with them, my souvenirs and my saving grace. There was nothing I could do but make it up to myself with a plate of fantastic shrimp pasta at the cafe (after an attempted robbery of my phone – to really cap off the day), while I contemplated my weekend and chalked it all up to my typical bad luck.

I don’t know what it is about me – I am always going places, but to be honest, I have terrible bad luck when it comes to traveling. I always seem to arrive when there’s bad weather, or something’s under construction, or I’m a week late for the biggest festival of the year.

So I can only hope that if I visit Rio twice, Fate will grant me a repreive and some blue skies. Otherwise, I’m going to the Amazon…just don’t tell Fate.

Photos here for your contemplation. Misery loves company, after all…


World Music OVERLOAD

Oh, Brazil! Land of samba! Bossa nova! Forro! There’s so much to say…where do I begin?!

*deep breath*

I mentioned before that Brazilian music has been with me for a long time, but I had no idea just HOW much I loved it. I try to find some good, interesting, unique music anywhere I go, but here I have been so bombarded with amazing artists that I am currently visiting the CD store daily in order to feed my addiction.

So, instead of spreading them out, because it’s too exciting, here in no particular order, are many Brazilian artists I love (in YouTube format, because I don’t know a better way to share music). Just play these videos, make yourself a nice tropical drink, and let the rhythm take you away to tropical breezes…

JOÃO GILBERTO – Okay, there is a particular order. Let’s just start at the beginning, shall we? Let’s start with the classics, with the musician that made famous names like Ipanema, Corcovado, and Copacabana. If you don’t already own the album Getz/Gilberto, do yourself a favor and locate a copy immediately. You’ll thank me.

To entice you: Perhaps the most famous of all, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Doralice.”

SEU JORGE – I don’t really know when Seu Jorge became famous in Brazil, but his fame reached international proportions when his songs were featured in the Bill Murray film “The Life Aquatic”. It’s really hard to listen to this music and not want to tap your foot at least a little. It’s okay, get up and dance!

My old favorites, “Carolina” and “Cotidiano”, and my new favorites, “Burguesinha” and “Minha do Condominio.

VICTOR & LEO – I just discovered this duo a few days when I heard “Borboletas” (butterflies…awww) on the radio, but I really like their unhindered acoustic sound and down-home kind of feel, which is very apparent in “Lado Errado” and “Tanto Solidão.”

FERNANDO E SOROCABA – I didn’t know Brazilian honky tonk existed, but look, there it is! I wouldn’t normally call myself a fan of country music, but this is Brazilian, and this song has been stuck in my head for days. Heel toe, heel toe, paga pau!

TRIBALISTAS – This group is so amazing they really deserve their own post, but frankly, I’m too impatient and I want to share this with you NOW. The group Tribalistas, led by Marisa Monte and including Carlinhos Brown (who I also love!), only released one album as a group (they became famous with “Ja Sei Namorar”), but this album is so amazing that they probably couldn’t top it. It’s been a long time since I heard such pure melodies and unique instrumentation, and the lyrics, well… Anyway, here are my favorites from their album: “Carnavalia”, “Velha Infancia”, “Passe em Casa”, and the very romantic “E Voce”.

Whew! …and I’ve only been here a month!

At home, far away from home

In my many travels in so many countries, I have been honoured with the unique privelege of having been invited into the homes of friends and families all over the world.

When I travel, I travel alone. Even when I am working and living with a team, I still feel unconnected to my home and my friends, my roots and the place I belong. So to be invited into a home, where there are friends, family, roots, and a sense of belonging, it’s a joy that doesn’t come around too often.

Last weekend, our friend (and, incidentally, our driver) Wilson invited us into his home for a churrascada, a backyard barbecue. Anyone who knows me in Chicago knows how much I love a barbecue, and anyone knows me in Spain knows how much I love churrasco, so Wilson hadn’t even finished his sentence before I was eagerly accepting his invitation, and on Saturday night we were driving past the city’s bright lights and endless highways to the outskirts of São Paulo.

Whenever I visit the home of someone in another country, I rarely know what to expect. Differences in income, lifestyle, culture, and tradition have led me to expect the unexpected, and usually, being invited into one’s home in a foreign country is much more of an “honour” than we in America might consider it.

Wilson’s home was long. Narrow, and very long. We were met by a dog, and then another, and then another, followed by a parade of kids and relatives. Wilson lives with his wife, his two grown daughters, his adopted seven-year-old son, and his five-year-old granddaughter, not to mention boyfriends and friends that regularaly flow in and out of the house. And then there’s the animals. In addition to his three dogs, Wilson has four birds, a rainbow of feathers, one of which whistles the Brazilian national anthem and the anthem of the Corinthians football team, and a tiny monkey with tufted white fur ears and curious eyes.

At the back of the house is the lareira, a brick fireplace, and the “txoko” (a word I learned on the farm in Spain), an outdoor room with a long table designed for family dinners and general good times. We were immediately handed beers and commanded to make ourselves at home. Not speaking Portguese, I sat back and watched. Wilson’s family is lively and goofy; they tease each other and laugh and love and enjoy sitting down to a feast together. They were welcoming and we had many laughs over our inability to communicate, but enjoying the company anyway. We sat around and chatted as Wilson salted slabs of meat and sausages, ribs and fillets. He grilled cubes of cheese (Brazilians really like cheese), and the plates of meat just kept coming. We had egg salad and potatoes in vinegar and sausages and sausages and more sausages. I was offered batida, which I thought was homemade milkshake, and I was half right. There were passionfruit and grape and apple juices, with a little extra alcoholic kick of cachaça added.

After a few batidas and caipirinhas, we laughed even more and enjoyed the warmth of the fire and the company. The photo albums came out, and the family stories of Wilson’s adventures in his 25 years of marriage. We teased the kids and played with the dogs and listened to Brazilian country music and tried to samba together.

Eventually, stuffed and tired, the warmth of the night began to take over, and soon it was time to go back home….though I felt like I’d just been at home for the past few hours. I was grateful to Wilson, to his family, for the food, for the welcome, for the company, because no matter how many years you live abroad and how many countries you’ve been to, sometimes, everyone needs to go home.


Well, the rest of my weekend in Porto de Galinhas passed uneventfully. Four days is a LONG time to spend at the beach, sharing a room with your two (male) coworkers. I got so sunburned in the first two days that I spent the last two days trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the sun. The buggy we rented broke down on us twice, and our escapades to distant beaches were generally a failure, so we spent the rest of our time sitting under umbrellas or in hammocks and whiling away the hours doing a whole lot of nothing.

When we returned from the blue skies and clear waters, Sao Paulo greeted us with cold, torrential downpours and hours of electricity blackouts (we had to work by candlelight). And despite all that, I was still glad to be back, because I am falling in love with São Paulo.

* * *

The only way to truly love a city as big as this one is to find your own little corner of it. So I am starting to carve out little corners for myself, tiny holes in the wall of this massive concrete metropolis that make it feel a little more like home.

So every weekend, I have a ritual of having breakfast at a different cafe every time. And it’s not difficult, considering the amount of cute cafes serving excellent Brazilian coffee (and excellent Brazilian sugar, and milk, and orange juice…) within a five-block radius. My favorite is probably the tiny place literally around the corner from my house, which has a wide array of baked pastries, like pão de queijo (little Brazilian cheese breads), brigadeiros (tiny chocolate-sprinkled bombons), and pasteis (delicious fried pastries filled with meat, chicken, and pretty much anything else). Despite having only three tiny tables, the place has a steady amount of foot traffic and opens onto the street so that you can feel the breeze and watch the neighborhood go by while you enjoy your breakfast (and a cinnamon-chocolate cappuccino) on a lazy Saturday morning. Just down the street from there is the French patisserie, where you can sit on the glassed in veranda under the shade of a pink hibiscus tree – while feasting on eclairs and croissants, of course. There’s also Caffe & Chocolat, with its really good juices and milkshakes, and Leo’s and my standby cafe, Fran’s, which is cozy and quiet and a good place to read a book on Sunday morning with a cafezinho (“little coffee”) in hand.

After a good breakfast on a weekend afternoon (you didn’t think I had breakfast in the mornings on the weekend, did you?), I like to go to Parque Ibirapuera, a sprawling piece of lush green foliage in the middle of the city. It’s not really like nature, because there are waaaaaay too many people for anything to be natural, but it’s green and the air is fresh and the paths wind and cross and meet and take you deep into the cool shade, making it hard to find your way out again. There are lakes, and strange ducks I’ve never seen, and black swans, and whiskered fish that hang around under bridges hoping for stray cheetos and potato chips. But despite the crowd, the park is still somehow a peaceful place, and there are plenty of old knotty trees under which to read a book or take a nap.

On any given day, if I’m not at a cafe or in the park, then I’m probably at a bookstore, or wandering around on the streets. And of course, if wandering is what you want to do, then there’s no better place than Avenida Paulista. I’ve begun taking nightly walks up and down this street, the main artery of my neighborhood (I would like to say it’s a main artery of the city, especially with a name like Avenida Paulista, but the truth is it’s just one of many arteries that keep this 20-million-plus metropolis alive). By day Paulista is like Chicago’s loop, full of execs and office types running to and from board meetings in glass-fronted highrises. But at night the whole city comes out – to play, to eat, to shop, to run errands, to wander, like me. I love it because, like any big city avenue, all you have to do is take a walk, and you have instant entertainment. The air is filled with the scent of corn, either popped (or carmelized, if you can stand the neon-red color of the caramel coating), or boiled on the cob and served hot in its husk. Or there’s farofa, or cassava flour, which is fried and made into some tortilla-like thing, which frankly, I have no desire to taste. While you enjoy your corn and cassava, you can listen to the three-man marching band that regularly patrols the street, though the music is usually drowned out by the sound of buses racing by and the screech of brakes at blinking stoplights. You can sit at a terrace bar and enjoy a chopp (a draft beer), watching people wander in and out of shops that hit their busiest hours at 9pm, or you can join friends for picanha, sliced meat served on a hot griddle that you can cook yourself at your table, probably while watching one of Brazil’s many football (soccer) matches.

…and all of this is just one little corner of this huge city, whose many other hidden alleys and holes in the wall are still left to be explored…

Ordem e Progresso

Okay, so…

I’M IN BRAZIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


I would apologize for not updating more, but the truth is, this is still just a hobby for me, and I still have a regular job that was slowly sucking the life out of me until I left Bahrain in July and went on holiday in the States for a month.

I’ll write about that sometime but I haven’t gotten around to it yet, and even though I prefer to write things in the order that they happen, I really wanted to write something about Brazil, so I’m throwing my arbitrary rules out the window and writing about it now.

So anyway, Brazil. What can you say about it? It’s like a world unto itself. I realize that I have been dreaming about Brazil for a long time, even though I have never had a particular desire to come here. My reaction, upon finding out that this was my next job destination, was lukewarm at best. Brazil? Am I going to have to wear a thong? Deal with drunk carnival revelers? Listen to reggae?Then there was one day, as I was packing my things and getting ready, that I realized that Brazil is home to the one place I have always wanted to see, and which occupied countless hours of my childhood: the Amazon rainforest. While other kids were playing video games and taking ballet classes, I was making stuff out of junk (another story altogether) and thinking about the rainforest. My favorite animal was the toucan. My favorite store was The Nature Company. I bought tapes of rainforest sounds and colored in posters and wrote school reports about monkeys and tree frogs.

And even when I got older and my interests diversified, I came to love another Brazilian tradition: bossa nova and samba. Brazil is actually home to several of my favorite musicians. One of my favorite albums of all time is the collection made by Brazilian native Joao Gilberto, and includes the famous song “The Girl from Ipanema”, which was written just a few hours from where I live! Then there’s Gilberto Gil, Seu Jorge, Carlinhos Brown, Sergio Mendes…oh my! It turns out that Brazil has always been in my dreams; so how could I not love it?

Of course, Sao Paulo, where I live, is not exactly the sunny tropical paradise you might imagine, and the rainforest seems very far away from here. It’s winter, and it’s been cold and rainy and I’ve worn a jacket for the past two weeks straight. It’s not typical Brazil, but the place has its own character. I love that it has street cafes and terraces and a million different coffee shops and oh did I mention that Brazil is the largest exporter of coffee, milk, sugar, and orange juice? A veritable breakfast haven! So I have happily started my usual routine of trying different cafes for breakfast on weekend mornings, and so far, I haven’t eaten anything bad.

And about that reputation of violence that you’ve probably heard about, I have to say, I haven’t seen it. Not only has everyone been extremely friendly (even with my limited Portuguese and substitute Spanish), they returned my lost coat and regularly keep tabs for you at the cleaners, tailors, corner kiosk, and others, so that you don’t even have to pay every time you go in. That’s pretty trusting for a supposedly dangerous city. So I generally love Sao Paulo and Brazil, but I was aching to see what Brazil is famous for: beautiful beaches, strong caipirinhas, and tiny bikinis. So we went on vacation.

I am spending the weekend in Porto de Galinhas, in Pernambuco state, north of Sao Paulo. The town is awash in chicken decor, as the name is literally “Port of Chickens” but the town has a dark past: the name actually comes from the fact that this was the entry point for many African slaves, who were packed so tightly together in the slave ships that they were unceremoniously referred to as chickens. Luckily, there are no slaves here today, unless you count slaves to the sun and surf.

We arrived here on Friday night with the sole mission of relaxing and spending as much time at the beach as possible. I know I’ve said that I’m not really a beach person, which is still true, but I can still enjoy a good day at the beach, especially when it involves snorkeling and making friends with fish, or eating a coconut popsicle and excellent homemade crab soup on the sand.

The food on the beach is amazing. The Frugal Traveler recently wrote an article for the New York Times travel section where he talked about getting sick and how to avoid improper street food…but he didn’t say anything about beach food. I probably shouldn’t trust a dish involving seafood (of all things) that’s being served from a small wooden cart on the beach (and who knows where it came from or how long it’s been sitting out?)…but it was honestly delicious. After that there was corn, then a fresh coconut (for the juice), and a cocada, a sugary mass of coconut and deliciousness. (I really like coconut. A lot.) There were lots of other things to eat, too: bucketsful of pink shrimps, and red lobsters on platters with butter and lime. There were crab legs peeking out of big steel pots, and bags of fresh cashews, and carts strung with pineapples, mangoes, and abacaxi, which looks exactly like pineapple but which I am told is completely different. Silly me.

The thing I love about beaches in foreign countries is that you can buy practically anything right there, from the comfort of your lounger. Everything from sunscreen to paintings to handcrafted jewelry to souvenirs made out of coconuts is available from a cart on the seashore. The weirdest one we saw was bottles of cachaça (sugar cane liquor and main -deadly- ingredient in the national caipirinha) which had lobsters, like the worm in tequila, stuffed inside the bottle. The seller swore it was drinkable but I’d think twice before downing a lobster and tonic.

So after my feast of cart-food, I spent the next few hours sitting under an umbrella and just watching the world go by. The catamarans went out, came in; the carts went by with bells ringing; couples strolled, kids played, friends drank beers and had a laugh together.

Then we swam in the waters, which are clear and warm, and snorkled past coral reefs to small natural pools where you could sit and watch the crabs and fish and boats and people in Speedos a few sizes too small. From the sea, you could look back and see the palm trees swaying above a hundred colored umbrellas and all those couples and kids and friends and cart vendors, and think that the world is a pretty big place, even when you’re just in one tiny little corner of it.

…we still have two more days here, and one of them will probably involve a buggy (a dune buggy, pronounced “boogy” here for comic effect), so there will be more to come from the Port of Chickens…