Tuesday, July 10: to Rio
The 9 hour overnight flight from Atlanta was not too hard on me this time. I managed to get some sleep, courtesy of a sleeping pill and a tranquilizer pill together.
Our hotel in Rio (Aeroporto Othon) is a reminder of greater glories of the 20s and 30s. With a balcony overlooking the great bay, high ceilings, spacious rooms, fine wood furniture a la Queen Anne, tiled floors, and in want of another coat of paint and some new curtains, it makes me feel comfortable. The old fashioned elevator requires an operator. It serves us very well. The view from the balcony on the Rio bay is breathtaking. Between our building and the water edge runs a six lane urban highway and, parallel to it a busy city street. The dense line of trees does not manage to mute the horrendous traffic noise. I imagine that this was once the fashionable area for hotels and residences, but now it has given out to the Copacabana area further to the west. The hotel staff graciously opens the restaurant for us and serves us late breakfast. Very nice. Around 11 AM we start out for the city.
This neighborhood is not attractive: car repairs shops, other commercial establishments, but within a short time we get to a busy commercial center. A lot of people, a lot of traffic. Tall buildings with non-descript architecture, and signs of neglect everywhere. The atmosphere on the street reminds me of Manhattan in the Penn Station area: lively, aesthetically wanting, people of all races, colors and types, dressed carelessly and for comfort. We walk: not too far and not to close. Occasionally, squeezed between tall nondescript buildings are smaller ones whose architecture reminds me of Lisbon and Havana. Visibly run down.
We enter a more prosperous area of nice looking shop displays and inviting restaurants. People on the street are walking purposeful but do not seem as intense as New Yorkers. We rest in a baroque looking church (Candelaria). I recognize a woman we just passed at a crosswalk. She is on her knees, praying. A few minutes later she is already gone. So I notice that people go in and out of this church all the time. These are not old ladies in babushkas. These are regular people we meet on the street.
Our first pleasant discovery is a café somewhere in Centro in a narrow pedestrian street, that seems to be a perfect transplant from Vienna: huge room with two story high ceilings, whose walls are lined with mirrors from floor to ceilings in ornate art deco wood frames. We enjoy coffee, tea and a peace of European pastry, served by formally dressed waiters.
The noon sun is in the North here. Something new.
Our walk through the city continues. We figure out how to enter and navigate the Metro, and ride to the Botofago area. I purchase a snack of a pastry filled with meat at a little stand, and we take a cable car to Pao Azucar (Sugarloaf). These two massive granite cones protruding from the coastal land are the signature of Rio, so we feel obliged to do this very touristy thing. Cable car takes us first to one cone, then another one to the second cone, taller and more distant. Three young people standing next to us are laughing uncontrollably, and I imagine that they see the same thing I see: the second cone looks like a gigantic penis rising from the tangle of trees below. Once we land on the second cone we are astounded by the view of Rio. Now I understand the idea of this city. Its built environment looks from here as though someone poured a liquid of humanity on a steeply hilly natural area: it filled every valley and mountainous pass, while leaving the steep conical hills still covered with dense vegetation to protrude in-between these human developments. It is really so beautiful. We can see the beaches of Rio, including the large Copacabana beach and the tall hotels lining the beach. We see our hotel. The air over Rio is polluted.
We spend a long time on the Sugar loaf. The sun moves towards the West but in the opposite direction: from right to left. As the evening approaches this place become more crowded. They sell drinks in a fashionable café here on this small island suspended high in the ear, and a saxosphonist plays bossa nova music. Inhabitants of Rio come here in the evening for a view, fresh breeze and relaxation. Some women are dressed up. We are struck by the small number of foreign tourists. We hear some English and German spoken here and there, but only occasionally. Considering that Sugar Loaf is one of the most advertised tourist attractions in Rio, this says a lot of foreign tourism in this city.
The sun sets very early, around 5:30, which is a reminder that this is winter. It is setting while we make our way back done. After walking for a while in a nice residential area of villas with high spiked fences and barred windows in search of a restaurant, and very aware of the stories of crime in Rio, we take a taxi back to the hotel. The front desk recommends a local restaurant near the hotel, which turns out to be very good, once we figure out the rudimentary things about the all Portuguese menu. Philip has an octopus dish and I have tongue. The portions are enormous. I leave half of my food on the plate, and feel that I overate.
Another adventure — explaining to a local pharmacist in sign language that I have contracted yeast infection – ends successfully and I return to the hotel with the right medication.
Wednesday, July 11: Rio
We slept well on these hard mattresses. Wake up at 8 to a bright day and a spectacular view of the bay. Our main plan is Santa Teresa, a neighborhood on one of the hills. The breakfast room is almost empty. It looks like breakfast in Brazil is a real meal. We encounter only one couple. I like their breads here: they are slightly sweet, fluffy, raised rolls. They also serve these really wonderful small papayas the size of avocados. So sweet. Like we had in Cuba. I never taste such papayas in the US, which are very large and bready. Among various kinds of cheeses I find a white cheese that is a cross between farmers’ cheese and mozzarella. I like it in its modest blandness.
We walk through lively and much more attractive streets than yesterday. A stately Boulevard which we nickname St.Germaine. Pass the handsome neoclassical Theatro Municipale. Look at the mishmash of highrise buildings without any redeeming features. After about half an hour we get to the central stop for the electric tram that will take us to Santa Teresa. This tram looks like a San Francisco cable car. A ticket costs 60 centavos The ride is wonderful: first we travel on a very high bridge over the city, then we just climb the steep and curvy streets – again like S.F. – among run down villas. People hang on the outside of the tram like grapes. These grape people travel for free.
Before getting to the end of the line we get off. The next few hours we walk the streets of this amazing neighborhood, really a village, a world apart from the city below. It is quiet here, the views are truly impressive, and very little happens. It is a kind of Montmarte of Rio before becaming the mecca of artists. There are some art galleries to be sure, but the art is primitive. We take a drink in a café and walk some more. When we make it back to the circular end of the tram line we do not find anything there of note. Complete stillness surrounds us. Two small bars are closed. An older man sells ice-cream from a small cart. There are no customers. He sits on a bench conversing with a woman, apparently content with the absence of activity, waiting for the next tram that comes in half an hour intervals. We take a rest on stone steps and contemplate our next move. The sky is heavily overcast, and we need to find a bathroom. It may take half an hour before the next tram. We take a taxi to the center of the village of Santa Teresa, where we take a long late lunch in a busy restaurant. Food is good. Portions, like last night, are enormous. Tomorrow we shall try ordering one serving and two plates. According to the Guidebook this is a local custom.
This restaurant is the most touristy place we have visited so far. The menu is in Portuguese and English. But even here, most of the people are local. A group next to our table is a family of four. They are having seafood: huge steamer clams and shrimp-looking crustaetians. The food is served family style. We must figure out how to order family style for ourselves.
By the time we take a tram back it is close to 4 o’clock. I very much enjoy the ride down, among the villas, and taking in the view of the city below.
Back in the center we visit the Cathedral. It is an enormous structure in the shape of flat topped pyramid, poured out of concrete, dating probably to the 1970s, the heyday of concrete. The cathedral is both beautiful and ugly. And certainly imposing. Inside, its enormity creates a feeling of coldness. We spend some time inside, contemplating the scenes from Christ’s martyrdom recreated in metal sculptures.
It starts drizzling and it is chilly. We go back to the hotel to relax and contemplate our next steps. One possibility is to hear Rossini’s mass in the elegant Theatro Municipale, which serves as an opera house. Another is to look for the night life. We will need to eat something but not a full meal. I wish we bought some pastry I saw earlier. This would solve the food problem and allow us to go the concert.
Our choice is Gloria café, which according to the Guide book offers both music and light food. We take a taxi from the hotel and to our disappointment discover that Gloria café, which actually no longer exists, used to be part of pricey Hotel Gloria: a high priced elegant and lifeless place in the middle of nowhere. It has been replaced with another café, but there is nothing for us to do in this hotel. I note that the attendant who answers our questions registers Philip’s worn down shirt collar and altogether sizes us up as a profit center. We leave the building and ask for a cab. They try to fleece us by offering a ride for a fixed price that sounds outrageous. When we insist on a metered cab the woman contemptuously laughs, exclaims: Oh, you want the yellow cab, and ignores us. We really do not belong here. Fortunately, a yellow cab arrives and takes us, for les than half the quoted price, to another part of town with a promising Middle Eastern simple café. This choice turns out much better. In fact, the café is right next door to the opera house, but by now it is too late to try to catch the performance.
The entrance is through a lobby of a commercial building. The lobby guard obviously misunderstands out pronunciation of the café’s name and sends us to the elevator. The elevator attendant, again, does not understand what we want, and takes us to the 10th floor. Here, we find ourselves in an empty hallway of a health center. I can see a gynecologist or an ophthalmologist, but that is all. So beck we go down again, and after further non-verbal communication with the guard, we find the restaurant entrance.
The café, El Kuwait, turns out to be a simple outdoor affair in an alley, under glaring florescent lights and on plastic chairs. There are thousands of such places in New York, eking out existence in complete anonymity. The fact that the place is even mentioned in the Guidebook speaks to the desert for eating and night living that the centrum of Rio is.
The waiter is an aging tired-looking man with bent shoulders and pale skin. He is very helpful and so sincere. By now I am getting much better at figuring out the menu. I manage to communicate that I want a small meal, no onions and no meat. We linger.
We walk back to the hotel, which turns out to be only about 15 minutes from the restaurant. It is raining. Big puddles on the sidewalks. The streets are empty, though it does not look dangerous: we pass here and there groups or pairs of women walking alone. Why would criminals come to this part of town where there is so little action, no tourists, no crowds, and no life. Let’s face it: the commercial part of Rio where we stay is boring. We really do not have a way to discover what life is like in t his city. This is because the hotels are all situated in the areas where hardly anybody lives. Too bad.
It is now clear to us that we are missing the real nightlife in Rio and will probably not access it on this trip. Partly, this is because we do not a local guide and partly because we chose a hotel, pleasant as it is, in the wrong section of this big city. Next time we need to do a better research.
Thursday, July 12.
We wake up to an overcast day. Our big destination is the famous beaches: Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. We start with visiting the church and Monasteiro de Sao Bento. First a bus, then a short walk. We are already familiar with the feeling of Rio’s streets. Sometimes they look contemporary by the western standards, other times, like this morning, they look like the third world: helter skelter, mish mash, mumbo jumbo. But regardless of the looks, they almost always smell like a third world: mix of over-ripe fruits, distant decomposing foodstuffs, a touch of urine, flowers wilting in the heat. Shockingly, we almost step on a dead body on a pavement. The body is partially covered with a black plastic bag. It is a man in worn snickers, dark skin. A police car is parked next to it but nothing is happening. People are gawking. Without speaking the language we cannot find out how the man died.
The church is an island of peace in this noisy city. It is a jewel of colonial catholic architecture: ornate to extreme, gold painted wood carvings. No great art. We enjoy the visit.
Continue walking toward the Metro. Suddenly, we spot a bus heading for Copacabana. We get on, and for the next 20 minutes or so we get a magnificent ride in the front two seats along the coast of Rio. This city must have about 50 miles of beaches. Its entire rugged waterfront is a beach, winding its way along numerous coves, half moon bays and little peninsulas. The tragedy of the city’s development is that a city parkway runs parallel to the entire length of the beach. In some places, like in front of our hotel, the six lane parkway is accompanied in addition by a ribbon of a busy street, with plenty of its own traffic. Facing the highway is an uninterrupted line of high rise buildings: residential and hotels (mostly the former). And although in many sections there is a green beltway of trees and recreations areas, and even nice bicycle trails, there is no way to make up for the horrendous wall of loud traffic and uncrossable roads between human dwellings and the ocean.
But riding in a bus along that six lane road is a treat. When we finally get to the Copacabana beach area, it is a disappointment. The beach is nice and the surf is huge, but the refreshment stands are Coney Island classic, all plastic chairs, tables, and umbrellas, and cheap merchandize. It is fairly empty here today, partly because this is winter and partly because the day so overcast (the temperature must be in the 70s). We encounter a small number of people walking along the pavement on the edge of the traffic artery. The air smells of salt and ocean breeze, and it is very pleasant. But nothing extraordinary. The boardwalk and the beach development in Miami Beach are nicer.
We walk on the side streets that run perpendicularly to the beach as well as the commercial busy street further inland running parallel to the beach. A lot of stores, but nothing I want to examine or touch, and a lot of small cafes. But the most striking presence here are the steel fences in front of almost all the buildings. These are 7 feet tall powerful fences. Some display survey cameras on top, and many have security guards posted behind the bars. We are really in a “Fortress World” here. It is shocking to see, even though we read about it before.
We walk for a long time, stopping for lunch in a café overlooking the ocean, until we find ourselves in the next beach area after Copacabana: Ipanema. As the Guidebook has informed us earlier, Ipanema is more elegant and exclusive. It is indeed so: there are even more fences, security guards and surveillance cameras. It is also quieter. The streets that are somewhat removed from the beech front are more lively, full of people and stores. We encounter numerous boutiques of high fashion, without prices in the windows. I cannot find any interest in any of the fashions. Clearly, Rio is not a place for me to shop; not in a mood and nothing intriguing here.
Truth be told, by close to four we have enought of this scene. Philip suggests first a visit to the laguna, which we reach by crossing a deadly broad parkway, but is disappointing. He then suggests (so that we do not need to cross over back) a visit in an interesting sounding botanical garden not far form here, which we hastily do by catching the first taxi that goes by. The one hour we have before the botanical garden closes is an oasis of pleasure of being in a dense jungle, away from traffic, and surrounded by intense aromas.
After the botanical garden we take a bus back to the beach area, this time to the third and further one (this is where the bus is going): Lablon. Similar to Ipanema and perhaps even quieter, it gives us an opportunity to walk. We need to get to Copacabana if we are ever to find the bus that brought us here from the center of the city. This is a very log walk, which we partly cover by foot and partly by a private van, and while taking a break at one of the vendor stands selling coconut milk directly in coconut shells (I like it). At this hour of the day, between 5:3- and 6:30 Copacabana becomes lively, not like it was earlier in the day, with many people taking walks. It is the best evening street life we have seen in Rio during the past three days. These are working people of Rio.
Eventually, we find a bus that gives us another splendid ride along the ocean front and stops straight in frond of our hotel. It is a miracle that we (or rather Philip) could figure it all out in this huge city.
Friday the 13th.: to Salvador
Early rise. Taxi ride to the airport. Efficient check in. I do not feel good. Something intestinal. I come close to fainting on the plane while boarding. Sleep on and off through the two-hour flight. Feel better when we land. The airport in Salvador is almost 40 kilometers from the city. We take a taxi: in my state we will not consider a bus, not in this strange place, even though buses are always interesting experiences.
The taxi takes us through a crowded third world city. The center is like Bangkok: ugly, badly maintained high rise buildings. Masses of people on the streets. These are office hours but the people do not look like office workers. Do they have jobs of any kind? Masses of them, mostly young.
Our hotel is, mercifully, located in the heart of the historic Pelourinho district. This district is graceful if somewhat neglected, strongly reminiscent of Havana. A main square and a smaller square, and our street connect the two. Narrow streets full of shops and restaurants. More squares. In that respect it reminds me of the neighborhood in Kathmandu where we stayed. It is touristy, and all the commerce is directed at tourists. Just like Kathmandu.
Our hotel is a narrow 4 story building with very high ceilings and formidable stone stairs. Its front faces the street while the back gives a panoramic view of the ocean. The proprietor asks for payment in advance and in cash. She is motherly, pleasant, and speaks English. We choose a room on the second floor with a view of the water and with a direct access to a very large terrace. We did not yet know that we would share the terrace with other guests, but at this point we think it is nice to have it. The back of the building is a downsloping hill. The adjoining slums come up right to the wall of the hotel. From the terrace we can see life in these slum: the narrow passages, the children. The terrace has a tall spiked fencing to keep the intruders out. This is a bit of a fortress. In the distance we see high rise buildings along the waterfront and working ships in the bay.
Philip goes out to get some lunch and to orient himself while I sleep. My energy level is low and I worry about having contracted some tropical enteric disease. Later in the afternoon we take a walk. Shop owners hire beautiful black women dressed in African clothes (they imitate 18th century slaves) to draw us inside shops. They are not overly persistent, certainly not like in the Middle East, but after a while it becomes tiresome. There is nothing in these shops to draw my attention. It becomes even less interesting over time because all the shops offer the same things.
I find a bakery and get some bread. All I have eaten today was a stale croissant from yesterday. Then we have coffee and tea in a very pleasant café. The area is lively. But it is a sort of Green Zone: outside these maybe 30 acres of land is an ocean of humanity, poverty and crime. We encounter numerous solders on street corners, well armed and vigilant. People stop us when we attempt to cross an invisible line separating the safe zone from dangerous neighborhoods.
We read on the terrace until it is too dark to read, straighten our things, do this and that, and by about 7 we go out for the evening. In the evening the district transforms into a lively, cheerful, pulsating village, full of restaurants, strollers, music and life. Occasionally we hear European languages but overwhelmingly people speak Portuguese. These are the locals and Brazilian tourists, and we cannot tell them apart. Most of the people are of mixed race, with a large dose of African descent. It is wonderful to be here in the evening. We choose an outside table in a restaurant with English menu and spend a long time over the meal, which for me consists mostly of a bowl of green chard soup (delicious) and a few bites from Philips’ pasta dish. A woman vocalist with a guitar makes soft bossanova music. As usual, the portions are very large. Next to us, on the street corner, stands a handsome woman soldier with a machine gun. The entire time we visit the restaurant she chats with a girlfriend.
What is striking about both Rio and Salvador is a complete integration of races, at least among people we encounter on the streets. We see groups of young people, and couples, of all shades of skin and types of hair, all completely integrated. This is a question we need to explore afterward, perhaps ask Martin. To the outsiders like me it looks like race is not an issue in this society. At least on in the social relations of people we encounter on the streets. After dinner we stroll some more. We come across a street performance of a group famous for these particular styles of singing and dancing. Their dancing (capoeira) is more like a cross between wrestling and tai chi but without physical contact. Two men move closely with each other, in sort of a duel close to the ground, but without ever touching one another. Some pairs (there are several) are very athletic and are able to do challenging calisthenics. We later learn that this is how slaves disguised martial arts, which were forbidden to them to practice, in what they pretended to be ritual dancing.
The audience stands in a tight circle and greatly enjoys themselves. They join in singing some of the songs and refrein. An English speaking woman next to us explains that these men have established a dancing school for children of poor fishermen. They encourage the graduates of the school to travel abroad and to establish their own schools. Apparently they perform even in Europe.
Saturday, 14th of July.: Salvador
We wake up to the realization that someone robbed us at night. Someone entered the room through the door to the terrace, took my bag and stole the wallet with cash. They left the other wallet with credit cards, and left the bag on the terrace. I lost about 150 Reals ($75). That is not a lot but we no longer feel secure in this room. We move to the room above it, without a terrace. We do not report to the police, as it will certainly not lead to anything beneficial for us, and may cause a lot of problems for the boy who helps us in our comings and going. Who knows, perhaps he is the thief, but it could also be one of the guests. This is not a fancy hotel with insurance. The woman and the husband that run it rent the building. They work long hours and do not appear very prosperous.
We spend the day exploring the area. Our Green Zone is larger than I thought. Plenty of small streets, churches, squares, outdoor entertainment. Since the historic section is situated on the edge of a steep hill leading to the waterfront, there are two ways to go to the city below: by a fast elevator or by a cable car. We elect the elevator. The streets below take us to the marina where we loiter for a while. We discover a ferry boat to a nearby island and decide to take it tomorrow. For today, we spend some time at the local market (nothing for us to buy except a small pipe for hash, which I will give to David), then have a slow lunch at an outdoor café with a singer. This is Saturday afternoon and we are surrounded by families, couples, groups of Brazilians enjoying a midday meal. I eat carefully, not trusting my digestive system, though I feel much better than yesterday.
We stroll some more in that area, and following our curiosity we turn toward a small alley of what looks like abandoned buildings. A local vendor immediately calls us and explains that there are bandits there. This is the second time since yesterday that local bystanders warn us not to walk in a particular direction at the first sign of us even turning in that direction. So this is the Brazilian version of the fortress world.
When we return by the escalator to the Green Zone we continue exploring, partly within the zone and partly outside it, on city streets that look very busy. This is how the day goes by. The church of San Francisco is beautiful. We have both seen a lot of churches in our lives, but this one stand out. It is a gem of the “colonial style” meaning baroque decorations in wood and gold paint. It is perfectly proportioned, and the Portuguese tiles add charm to it. A refreshment at a café, more walking, looking at street life. I am very much aware of the history of slavery that unfolded on these cobblestone streets. The square closest to our hotel was the location of 18th century slave market.
On this Saturday night the streets are pulsating with life. Several groups of children, ranging from about 7 to maybe 14 play drums. They are really superb. In one group a small girl of perhaps 11 is the leader. She is deeply musical and is able to lead this group of about a dozen children to produce amazing rhythms. As the evening progresses more music comes from more places. Some of it is recorded, other is life. We discover several places for dancing, but I have no interest. We encounter two Finnish women who stay in our hotel, and have a brief accounting of our travels through Brazil. A teenage boy gives me a small necklace, after failing to sell it to me. I do not understand why he gives is to me but he is persistent, puts it around my neck and closes the clasp. We go into one of the upper end jewelry shop. Beautiful stones, but we are not buying anything.
Our last stop for the evening is an outdoor café with a guitar player-vocalist and a lot of people. The vocalist is not very good, but it does not matter. We spend probably an hour over our drinks of caipirinias (made of cachaca, the local distilled alcohol, with a lot of lime), watching the human scene around us. A woman at the next table aggressively seeks attention of a group of men at the adjoining table. She finally moves her chair to their table while another woman – a black beauty who does not show a lot of interest in him come to occupy the empty table. Both groups talk to each other; they try to convince a solitary man at another table to join them, but he refuses. Configurations constantly change: people join each other’s table, separate, from different alliances. A very theatrical (and very drunk) woman shows up and starts fighting with several people. In the chaos, a boy suddenly appears from nowhere, starts to eat from a left-over meal, surreptitiously collects empty beer and soda cans from several tables, throws them in a plastic bag and disappears as fast as he appeared, presumably to collect the deposits. Then a girl shows up and puts a handful of roasted peanuts on a piece of paper on several tables, including ours. We do not know its meaning but we start nibbling. Sure enough, in a few moments she shows up again to be paid. We pay. And through all this activity the singer just keeps signing. What an evening.
Sunday, July 15: Itaparica Island
It is a quiet morning after the raucous Saturday night in Salvador (or as it is more often called here, Bahia). The weather is splendid. After a deliberately slow morning we walk to the harbor and take a ferry boat to the Itaparica Island. The boat leaves every half an hour, takes three quarters of an hour to get there, and costs minimally. The water is a Caribbean blue-green. We spot a shark. The boat is full of locals. This is what we like about our way of traveling: we go where the natives go. I keep my gaze firmly fixed on the horizon to prevent getting sea sick, as the waves are high. Once on the island we are assaulted with guys offering their services, restaurants, whatever it is that we try not to hear. After a short walk to orient ourselves we hire the services of a young man with expressive face, quick wit and a contagious smile. Marco. He speaks no English but is able to communicate just about anything. Marco and his buddy with a car give us a tour of the Island and tell us a bit about its history and economy. It is a lush tropical island rich in fruit agriculture. Just about anything grows here.
After some time we arrive at a beach where we have a splendid lunch of freshly caught fish. It reminds me of the long ago days in Poland when we caught our own fish in the Mazury lakes, then immediately fried it to a crisp, dredged slightly in flour.
We spend the afternoon on the beach and in the sea, surrounded by other tourists. There is a group of Spaniards but it appears that everybody else speaks Portuguese. Just amazing how few foreign tourists we meet on this trip. By the time we catch the boat back the sun is setting. I study a group of young people sitting across form us: a boy and two girls. The way they lean toward each other, let their arms brush, look at each other, is so sensual and lovely.
We have a light meal at an outdoor café tonight, watching people watch a football match – Pan-American championship – between Brazil and Argentina. TV sets are placed in many outdoor cafes. I already recognize faces in the crowd, and am recognized by several passers by.
Monday, July 16: to Curitiba
The two Finnish neighbors in our hotel got mugged yesterday. They lost a camera and got bruised. They tell us that this is it for them in this city. They are getting out.
For us, this is the day of traveling also. We are going to Curitiba. We retrace our ride to the airport and take our time. The Salvador airport is small and modern. We designate this day for reading books and relaxing, as the trip will be long. The plane stops briefly in
Sao Paulo. Passengers disembark and embark. The new crowd is very different from the old one: more cosmopolitan, more mixed racially, more white. They are wearing warm coats!
We arrive in Curitiba after 7 PM. A very helpful young woman walks with us to a modern mini bus which will take us to the center. We expect no less in Curitiba. The half hour drive takes us by Walmart and other big box stores, but we encounter no slums.
From the center where the bus drops us off it is only two or three blocks to our hotel. In terms of surroundings these are very long blocks: we rapidly descent into a run down, ominously empty and seedy street. I do not want to set my food in the seedy-looking hotel. But what else can we do at 8 PM? So we go in. The inside unfortunately matches the outside. Two young men at the front desk, one of whom knows a few words in English, look at us with not much interest. I ask them to help us find another hotel. Considering the nature of my request, they respond in the most helpful manner. Going down the list of hotels in our guidebook the clerk selects one he thinks has good location and prices, and uses his own cell phone to make reservations on our behalf. He then calls the taxi, and instructs the taxi driver where to take us.
As we fill out the registration forms the phone rings and it turns out that the call is for us. Apparently during the 10 minutes of our transfer between the two locations people from the Institute with whom we have an appointment for tomorrow, called the first hotel, looking for us. The two young men at the desk gave them the number of the new hotel. What is amazing is that they did not even have our names: they must have figured it out by conversing with the callers. All for the benefit of the strangers who spurned their modest hotel!
All Brazilians we have interacted so far have been incredibly friendly.
The new hotel is pure luxury. A suite with a superbly comfortable kind size bed, and all the other amenities of a fine hotel. We order room service and sleep for almost 9 hours.
Tuesday, July 17th: Curitiba
The weather is somber: November in Boston. We put on all the layers of clothing we have. The itinerary is exciting: Seema’s contact at the World Resource Institute organized a meeting this afternoon with two people at the transportation organization, then at 5 PM we will meet with the famous Jaime Lerner. Tomorrow we will go on the field trip through Curitiba to discover their transportation system.
We are free until 3 PM.
So we walk, then we take a bus to the end of the line and back, then we walk some more. I hoped to buy a cotton long sleeved shirt for the Amazon rainforest, but it is impossible: the shops we encounter have clothes below the quality of Target. Awful stuff. After trying a half a dozen shops we cannot even contemplate entering any more stores. I will wear what I have.
In general, our surroundings are slightly shabby. The city center has many fine qualities, such as pedestrian alleys, squares of greenery and benches, small parks, spaces designed for civic life. But they look like there have not been maintained for ten or twenty years, and that dampens their uplifting effect on the people. Additionally, many of the buildings — some high rise, some only a few stories — are built with low quality materials and look terribly run down. For us, adding up the uninspiring shop windows, the run down building facades, and unkempt public spaces creates a city which we will be glad to leave behind.
In the afternoon we visit URBS, Urbanizacao de Curitiba, the organization that runs public transit system in the city. The system is famous among urban planners, transportation designers and sustainability hawks like us worldwide. Paulo Schmidt, its President, has arranged for us to learn about the system from his staff. We spend more than an hour with Anna and the translator Felipe (a 20 or so year old intern who had spend a year studying in Poland and speaks Polish!). She explains to us how the system works, and how the finances of the system work. This is a public-private partnership. The bus companies (about 20 different ones) are responsible for providing busses, running them efficiently and moving the passengers. The routes and schedules are set by URBS. Urbs also receives all the money generated by collecting fares. 4% of the funds goes to support the organization itself and the rest (or some part of the rest?) goes to the companies. It is apportioned according to the number of kilometers their busses travel, not according to the number of passengers they transport. In other words, bus operators are in the business of moving buses and collecting fares as well as possible. The government is in the business of providing the best public service possible: creating routes and schedules according to the societal needs, responding to consumer complains and other feedback, and administrating the overall system. Nobody is directly rewarded according to the number of passengers, even though this is of course what generates the revenues. The assumption is that if the buses run efficiently, serve the needs of the population, and the experience of using them is positive, the passengers will keep coming. And they do keep coming: about 1.2 rides per day.
The Curitiba system could work in cities that have a strong downtown, and where the goal is to relieve population density in the city and to stimulate economic development radially outside of the downtown. It is not applicable to most (all?) US cities. But apparently there are several efforts in Latin America and Asia to use the Curitiba model.
After the meeting at URBS we take a taxi to visit the legendary Jaime Lerner at his institute (Instituto Jamie Lerner). The institute is his former residence of 40 years, which he designed (he is trained as architect). The place is warm and inviting. His assistant is a very attractive woman. There is also someone who brings us tea, and a man who drives the car (I do not know their other roles, or other staff, if any). Jaime is a man of 70 who loves telling stories. His charisma, at least in this intimate conversation, is low key yet magnetic. Of course his stories evolve around his legacy as the three times mayor of Curitiba and two time governor of the province. But he always refers to “us”, not “me” when talking about successful projects. The only time he talks about himself personally is when he talks about his dreams.
We start the conversation on a personal note: one of his two daughters is married to a Dutchman, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. I tell him of my Polish Jewish background, to which he responds with his own rendition of the parents’ emigration during the 1930s from a village outside Lvov, his Yiddish education, and his passion for Klezmer music. Then we talk about the history of the Curitiba development, the ideas that drove it. It is clear that he has a gift for creating win-win situations, which become the bedrock of getting political support fro ideas that could easily have many natural enemies. But the deeper reason for being able to identify and/or create such win-win situations is that his fundamental goal is to create public good. That is what drives him. If, for example, he was driven by a desire to reward powerful cronies or special interests, it would be more difficult to find win-win solutions to problems.
We reflect on how to create cultural transformation toward sustainable cities; the role of the educational system, the role of creating a strong sense of place among children. I mentally translate it into the work of our Taskforce in Massachusetts. We stay for two hours, drink two cups of chamomile tea, take pictures, and feel good. At the end, Jamie asks his driver to take us to one of his favorite restaurants, Cantina Jacobina. The restaurant looks like a converted barn and we like its ambiance immediately. The young waiter asks a question which we guess is an inquiry if we have reservations. I tell him that Jaime Lerner called and reserved a table for us. In fact, I have no idea if he ever called but I hope that he did. The waiter looks like he does not know anything about it but it is clear that the name Jaime Lerner opens doors. None of the staff speaks a word of English. They all look like students.
It is empty when we get here around 7 pm but it soon fills up with young people and others, all looking simultaneously intellectual and down to earth. We have a fine Italian dinner, feeling good about our day. On the way out of the restaurant, a man of my age and wearing very avant-garde glasses stops me to ask if I am a friend of Jaime Lerner. Apparently, he is a good friend of our hero. I tell him that we met with him (“spend and afternoon with him”, to be exact about what I said) and that we had a wonderful conversation. We proceed to mutually acknowledge our admiration for the man, and finally I ask him how he knows about my contacts with Jaime. “The restaurant staff told me” is the response. This is very amusing, this small village atmosphere. In Curitiba I can probably crash parties and get restaurant table simply by saying that Jaime Lerner arranged everything. A splendid idea.
Wednesday, July 18: towards Sao Paulo
Yesterday’s plane crash in Sao Paulo (192 dead, no survivors) worries us because of the tight connection we have to make tomorrow morning in Sao Paulo on the way to Manaus. Apparently the affected airport is closed, and all the flights are re-routed to the other airport. We are also not enthusiastic about having a 6:40 AM flight from Curitiba. We make a quick decision to go to Sao Paulo today, rather than tomorrow, and stay there overnight before taking a plane to Manaus. In retrospect, this decision would be a mixed and costly, blessing.
The hotel staff is incredibly helpful in figuring buss schedules to Sao Paulo. We send a taxi driver to the station to buy two tickets on the luxury bus (I choose luxury partly because I do not know what non-luxury is in Brazil; chickens in the peasants’ baskets?)
In the meantime, Philip gets on the web to find a hotel in Sao Paulo.
By 12:30 PM we are already sitting in the bus, which is indeed very luxurious, way above the standard Greyhound Bus offerings, with sandwiches and water in the bags, ready to see the countryside. For the next five hours we pass mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, all densely covered with forest. The traffic is light. We pass two small towns and various hamlets and individual farms. But for the most part, this is a huge green expanse with very few people. I relax completely on this ride, on the soft suspension of this quiet vehicle.
The sixth hour of the drive turns into 2 hours of increasingly dense Sao Paulo traffic, which eventually becomes a big city rush hour nightmare. By the time we get to the central bus station it is about 7:30 PM. A young man from the bus approaches us with an offer of help. I must say that all the Brazilians we have encountered on this trip have been extraordinarily pleasant and helpful, often going out of their way to translate for us, to show us locations of particular spots. Really, the nicest people one would want to meet.
So we follow our self appointed guide to the Tourist Information window, procure a city map, and to our dismay discover that the hotel where we have reservations is at the exact opposite diagonal end of the city from the bus station, and similarly remote from the airport (which is relatively close to the bus station, by Sao Paulo standards, both being on the northern side). This is a huge city, choked with traffic. Traveling across it now by either taxi or some hotel service bus is out of the question. What to do? We decide to take a metro to a station across town, southward, from where taking a taxi will hopefully make more sense. And it will buy us some time for the evening traffic to calm down.
Philip figures out the metro system. The metro ride is quick and pleasant. I observe women on the metro. They look much more stylish that women in any other city we have visited so far. I like it. Once out on the street again we find a taxi stand. The taxi driver does not know where the hotel is. Shortly, three taxi drivers are conferring about the address we give them, and eventually with the help of a thick guide of Sao Paulo streets they find it. It is farther they we imagined, deeply peripheral, and totally unrealistic. Not only for tonight but also as a starting point for reaching the airport for a 9 AM flight tomorrow. By now we are really in trouble. It is about 8:30 at night, we are standing on a street corner of a huge foreign city with luggage, very little cash, and no place to sleep tonight. And nobody seems to speak any English. We decide to go back to the bus station and ask the woman in the Tourist information booth to find us another hotel.
Back we are on the metro retracing our steps, using the last of our cash supply, only to find that the Information booth is already closed for the day. It occurs to me that we must get to the airport tonight. Somehow. There are always hotels at airports. That will solve the problem of not only tonight’s accommodations but also tomorrow’s morning flight. At the taxi stand we first negotiate with a driver a flat rate to the hotel (we have no idea how much the meter would charge us). Once that is settled I communicate to the driver that what we really want is a hotel at the airport. He understands, and asks (I do not now how I understand this question, but I do) how expensive do we want the hotel to be. I draw three stars on a piece of paper. Eureka! We all understand each other.
This is how, by about 9:30 we check into Ibis hotel, which is not really at the airport but very close to it by Sao Paulo standards, with a mini bus in the morning to take us there. The hotel is a forgettable affair but we have a meal, a comfortable bed, a good shower, and a home for tonight. My last thing is a call to American Express trying to cancel the charge for a guarantied reservation at the first hotel.
This was a close call today. We (at least Halina) are a little too old for this type of traveling. In retrospect, out biggest mistake was to underestimate to complexity involved in entering and then exiting a huge congested city such as Sao Paulo. The idea of going by bus to the city, staying overnight and then exiting by plane seemed much simpler than it really was. Think better next time.
Thursday, July 19: to Manaos
Morning is nerve wrecking because the airport van is late, roads are congested, and the airport, which is not as close as we were told, is a complete mess. We cut the lines in the most brazen manner, but without it we would miss the flight. Sitting down in our seats is the most relaxing thing we have done since yesterday afternoon.
We arrive in Manaus at 1 PM of the local time. Another taxi ride. We spend a lot of money on this trip on taxis. It cannot be helped. The wave of heat and humidity is overwhelming. After the November Curitiba, we are in a tropical climate again. After checking in the Plaza hotel (another forgettable affair, as most if not all hotels in this city) we take a walk in search for some lunch. This is a familiar look and smell of a third world city. Lively streets full of people and vendors, pungent smells. Everything is dirty: buildings, sidewalks, windows, café umbrellas. Things just do not get maintained here. I am reminded of one of the Chinese cities we visited in Tibet, where everything was crumbling. Here, things are not crumbling. They are just dirty.
It is hard to find any place to eat. Most eating establishments have open buffets, and we are afraid to touch this warm food that has been sitting, uncovered, for who knows how long. We finally settle in one of them where Philip can get one of these meat and cheese filled pastries (like a brioche) that get warmed up in a microwave oven, while I serve myself from the buffet some rice and boiled vegetables, mostly cabbage. They charge me by weight, which is very common in Brazil. My food is tasteless, even with added salt and olive oil, but also looks safe.
We stroll for some time before getting back to the hotel for some rest, getting in touch with the tour guide, getting on the web (wireless, free, available in the hotel lobby). It is a nerve-racking exercise to confirm our arrangements for tomorrow because we have not heard from the tour operator since we made the arrangement through the web way back in Boston. Television is blasting in the lobby. A women volleyball match attracts a small crowd of guests and hotel employees. We sit on the couch among this crowd, using our wonderful Sony Vaio faithful companion to contact the tour guide by e-mail. Then we go into the city again. There are several nice patches of greenery, a handsome church, and immense numbers of street vendors, shops, and whole pedestrian street malls of stuff. Manaus must be the world’s capital of cheap junk. I do not remember ever seeing such a concentration of such worthless and ugly stuff: clothes, shoes, home goods, appliances, you name it. I do not even want to come near it so that the shopkeepers might think that I am a potential shopper. We just keep walking, avoiding eye contact with the junk and the people selling it. I have no idea where it is manufactured who buys all this merchandise. To be sure, there are plenty of people on the street but the amount of stuff for sale dwarfs these people’s purchasing power or otherwise absorptive capacity by orders of magnitude.
People here look differently than in the other cities. The genetic pool of South American Indians is clearly on display. People dress nondescriptevely.
We find a very nice restaurant and enjoy a pleasant imitation Italian meal. There are plenty of other patrons in this restaurant, mostly Brazilians. On the way back to the hotel we discover that the distance is less than 10 minute walk. Good to know this restaurant for when we return from the Amazon forest. The guide will pick us up before 7:30 AM tomorrow.
The past two days had too many nerve wrecking moments. I hope for a tranquil time in the forest.
Friday, July 20: to the Amazon rain forest
A guide picks us up at 7AM at the hotel. It takes four hours to get to our lodge in the forest. This is a well organized system that employs many young men. We get transported by car to the waterfront, which is also an amazing fresh fish market. Here we meet two other groups of tourists who are heading for our Juma Lodge in the rainforest. A father with 12 year twin boys from Little Rock, Arkansas, and a group of seven Danes – four adults and three teenage kids — who pretty much keep to themselves. About an hour ride on speed boat gets us to another point from where we travel by a mini van for an hour or two to another boat. The first boat crossing brings us to a natural wonder of a merger of two rivers into the Amazon: the Solimoes and the Rio Negro. Because the two giant rives are very different in acidity and temperature the waters do not mix for many miles. The black Rio Negro, with pH of about 4.5, carries black sediment from the land runoff (these humic substances give it so much acidity) while the brown river (Solimoes) is neutral and more hospitable to life. The demarcating line of the two enormous bodies of water running in parallel to each other, one brown and one black, is sharps and clearly visible. A wondrous thing.
The road on which we travel was built in the 1920s to bring economic development into this area. Of the several thousand kilometers of its length most is now impassable, taken over by the jungle. Only the first hundred miles are maintained. The provincial government has given up on the rest. After about 1.5 hours of driving we transfer to a motor boat and two hours later we arrive at the lodge. The water trip takes us through intricate, and for us imaginary, roads big and small, straight and winding, broad and narrow. The boat takes sharp turns into dense groves of trees, then again navigates one open waters that look like a lake, than again through dense vegetation. There are no directional signs and no curb markings. But clearly in the minds of our guides this is an intricate and complicated network of waterways that only they see as a map. Conrad is our guide. His English is very good and he can also communicate in German, French, and something else I do not remember. He used to work as chimney sweep in Switzerland, which gave him a head start with languages. Working with tourists did the rest. He is intelligent, professional, talkative, and friendly. All the best qualities of a guide.
The lodge exceeds all my expectations. It is a village built on stilts. There are huts, a social hall with a well stocked bar, a Dining room, a boat and swimming dock, and many boardwalks to connect these places, we are several yards above the water level. Dozens of yards of wooden walkways connect all the huts and the common spaces. Our hut has two adjacent rooms. The Arkansas group accupies the other one. We can hear every word spoken on either side of the shared wall. The hut is very large and tall, spacious, pleasant, with a veranda and a hammock. The wall facing the veranda is all screens. The steep roof is thatched of palm leaves and steep. It is a wonderful place with clean beds and good mattress.
Friday, July 20 to Tuesday, July 24. The Juma Lodge
Our days consist of canoe trips (one large canoe for 12 passengers, with an engine), bird watching, fishing, swimming, walks in a jungle, a visit to an Indian village, reading, sipping caipirinias, and sleeping. We sleep a lot here. One day we caught a small alligator, which I held in my arms (with its mouth tightly shut with a rope). We have become very friendly with the Arkansionians and even some of the Danes have opened up. The women and one of the men are friendly, just inept in making a contact outside of their tight Danish-speaking little circle. There is an odd couple here from some Caribbean island, both Europeans, open, friendly, somehow childish in their manner. We do not know each other’s names but we often sit together at meals. He is a former captain of a private yacht of some rich British family, a very physical man, tall, muscular. In private conversaitons we call him Tarzan. She is petite, pretty, with huge round eyes. They are probably in their late thirties or early forties. Tarzan pronounces himself to be retired, which means that he has money to throw around. And he does so consciously. They like to draw attention to themselves, and we gladly give it to them because they are really enjoyable to have around.
This is a well run place with an eye on conservation. The water tower is powered with photovoltaic and, I think, uses passive solar collectors to warm up the water. But the water is never really warm, just less cool. This is fine. When the water runs out, which happens when everybody takes a shower, we need to wait until the reservoir recharges from the river. In the back of the compound is electricity generator. The electricity is turned off during parts of the day. Groups of tourist come and go every tree or four days. We chat with people and everybody is cognizant that these are fleeting engagements: we often do not ask each other’s names. But these are interesting encounters: a Brazilian woman who is an impresario for jazz musicians from abroad who perform in Brazil, an incongruous couple from Antigua. Many nationalities: Danes, French, Swiss, Brazilian, US. The largest number of guests is about 30 at any one time. We have been lucky to have a small group of 14 until the fourth day of our stay.
Living in a little village on stilts is amazing. Whenever we look down we are over water. Our room, our balcony, the social hall, all the connecting paths. A boat is the only means of leaving this lodge. We are as much part of this river system as one can be while maintaining the comforts of life. I feel no fear about swimming in the river as long as Conrad says that it is safe.
The jungle is endless. It is not a great show: there is relatively little wildlife of the type we call charismatic types. Monkeys show up from time to time, we hear the birds but do not see a great spectacle of colors or shapes. What makes this jungle so awesome is the knowledge that we are part of this enormous stretch of greenery. We are in effect paying a tribute to the world monument known as Amazon Rain Forest. After three days of careful listening I am beginning to hear the sounds of the forest. But of course this is just a touristy visit.
Tuesday, July 24: back to Manaus
We reach Manaus the same way we came: boat, van, boat, car. The first hour-and-half trip by motorized boat we accomplish in an hour. We drive incredibly recklessly, leaning deeply on sharp turns in narrow canals. People appear and disappear, moving our bags. At one of the stops a man sells canned cold drinks and fresh coconuts. His cottage is right around the corner in the trees, visible from where we stand. He supports a family with several children on this modest service. The forest lodge and the transport system supports a large number of people. It is an efficient chain mobility system: we disembark the boat and wait for the van, which in turn discharges a group of newly arriving tourists to take the boat to the lodge. We travel with Tarzan and his girlfriend. We are still not introduced but I hear people call him Scott. I do not know her name. We have an easy interaction. Exchange some personal information; she shows us pictures of children, we hear more about his past work as a captain and the house he is building in Antigua, comment on how the lodge operates.
Back in Manaus we check into the Plaza hotel until 10 PM. We have 10 hours ahead of us in a stifling heat before it is time to go to the airport for a flight to Sao Paulo; it is out of the question to just hang out in the city for so long in this climate. We have lunch in the same Italian cuisine restaurant as several days ago, and it is enjoyable. The place is packed at lunch time. Most people partake in the sumptuous buffet. Lunch buffet, either at fixed price and unlimited consumption or charged by weight is the most common way to each lunch in Manaus. After lunch we walk for an hour. The walk takes us through the crowded shopping streets, along endless lines of vendors selling low quality goods, and to the harbor. The harbor is a working harbor: men are carrying heavy boxes, food vendors are selling platters of fried fish and rice to men and women, ships are loading and unloading goods. It is an energizing place. We cannot stay too long because the heat is unbearable.
After some more walking I sequester myself in a cool room to shower and rest while Philip uses internet in the lobby. The afternoon passes by. We are together. Another shower, another conversation. Around six o’clock we venture one last time into the city. I look out for a shoe store and finally buy a nice pair of flip flops for which I have been searching for a while. We head toward the famous opera house. We have no expectations anymore of Manaus in term of finding any beauty or order here. It is therefore a surprise to discover that the opera house is indeed a splendid building in a classic style situated in lovely large city square. All the buildings around the square are in a similar neoclassical style and are perfectly conserved. This is clearly the pride of Manaus: a tiny island of beauty in an otherwise very undistinguished city.
The temperature is getting comfortable, music is coming from the square. We drop by at a packed church during the final minutes of the service. A lot of young men and women among worshippers. Once on the street at the end of the service many hug each other. These are friends, and the service seems to uplift their spirit. Philip is right: the next Pope will be South American. We take a slow drink at the outdoor café and after a while order some simple food. And who would show up with warm greetings? Of course, our Antiguan friends whose hotel is a block away from our hotel. Where else would they go in this city if not toward this square? We are genuinely pleased to see them. We order another round of drinks and share the next hour or so. The conversation turns increasingly personal. We laugh, explain to each other our understandings of Brazil. Scott speaks Portuguese, so his access to the people is much easier. Our rendezvous with Manaus ends on a high note. But there is no reason to visit here again except as a getaway to the Amazonia.
The flight to Sao Paulo leaves after midnight. This will be a long day and a short night.
Wednesday, July 25. To Sao Paulo
This is not a great travel experience. Owing to thick fog the plane lands at a different airport than scheduled, very far away from Sao Paulo. They put us on a bus to the airport where we should have landed. Traffic is horrendous. Half of the vehicles chocking the road are large trucks. They should be on some ring highway that takes them outside of the city. This only speaks to the Sao Paulo’s problems. Additionally, the driver takes a wrong turn, which results in a huge detour. The result is a three hour ride on the bus. Philip sleeps most of the way but for me it is a hard test. What is striking to me is the equanimity of the passengers. Nobody protests, nobody gets mad. At some point two or three passengers start helping the driver with directions. They act in the most helpful good-willed manner in the face of an obvious incompetence of the driver. A young man sitting behind me speaks English, and seeing that I do not know what is going on and why it takes so long to reach our destination, he starts explaining to me the problem of traffic in Sao Paulo as well as the drivers’ error. I ask him how they cope with this choked up city, to which he just smiles and says: oh, we somehow survive. I find this good nature complacency by now familiar among the Brazilian we meet on this trip. It makes them very nice people, but it also does not lead to much improvement in their lives.
This afternoon is the only block of time I have to see the city. The following two days I will be busy with the workshop. Our luxurious hotel is situated very cnetrally. Here, the main street, Avenista Paulista, is majestically wide. The buildings are modern, and remind me of midtown stretches of sixth and seventh avenues in NY. Lots of shops, cafes, offices, and people. Women look stylish and well groomed, but neither as obsessive about their looks as Parisian women nor as the legends about Brazilians would have it. These are just regular people, living and working in a big city. Sao Paulo feels European. I am reminded of the observation in our Guidebook: that Rio looks great from a distance, but not so great in close-up, while the reverse is true of Sao Paulo. I agree. We walk for several ours, during which I acquire two pairs of shoes. I will eventually regret not buying also a pair of boots.
We meet Martin for dinner. He has been in the hotel for a couple of days prior to us. We talk about his decision to get divorced. He is clearly high, full of relief from the tension of a bad marriage, excited about the impending freedom. He has a rendezvous planned this weekend, after the workshop. No wonder he is high. The landing from broken marriage will hit him much later. I know.
We take a Jacuzzi bath before going to bed. This was a long day.
Thursday, July 26: Sao Paulo
I spend much of the day working with Martin on our presentations tomorrow, and generally connecting over the project. Philip explores Sao Paulo on his own. He first explores the amazing little rainforest Park next to the hotel, in the centre of Sao Paulo, at Paulista Avenue. I then visit the Museum with an unexpected fine exhibition of French expressionists and another of Russian 19 century painters, including many Repins, some of them I saw before in Groningen. A small world. I took a metro downtown, strolled along the cathedral, through pleasant pedestrian streets towards Praca Republica, an unexpected green oasis. In the afternoon I visited a Park with another pleasant modern art museum, including some statues in the park. A very pleasant city.
We (Martin and Halina) take lunch in one of these places where they sell food by weight. The food is good and inexpensive. People look prosperous and engaged. I feel by far more at home in Sao Paulo that in Rio. The three of us have dinner together in a nearby restaurant. This is a very nice evening. We talk about everything: religion, art, history, and politics. It is really great to meet a friend during such a long trip of just the two of us. There is also something exotic and decadent in my meetings with my Dutch research collaborator Martin all the way in Brazil, in addition to our regular past meetings in Boston and Netherlands, all the work on this research project.
Friday July 27: The workshop in Sao Paulo
In the morning Martin and I work on the manuscript. In the afternoon we have the workshop. Each of gives a talk, and two Brazilians give talks. Philip moderates. The audience consists of about a dozen people. Women are in a majority. My talk, modeled on the talk I gave at the Amsterdam conference, is too academic for this group. But it is OK overall. The discussion is great. I learn a great deal from this workshop. Brazil seems to be at its high point in history. The economy is strong; people support the popularly elected president and enjoy the end of previous dictatorial regimes. Sustainability is high on the agenda, and there is a feeling in the air that Brazil can do something about it. I feel fortunate to be here with these people at this time.
Another amazing thing is how easily we all connect with the Brazilians. This is of course not a new discovery for me: the professional gatherings and discussions always break the barriers very easily. This is the beauty of our lives, and the immense attraction of professional conferences and workshops. But today there was an additional layer of personal connection: I think that it was the Brazil factor. I feel that I have known these people for years. The feeling must be mutual: several people embrace me upon departure.
It has been getting progressively colder since we got to Sao Paulo. Today the temperature is in the low sixties, and the night is about ten degrees lower than that. We are wearing all the layers of clothes we can find. This is winter time in Brazil.
July 28, Saturday: to Paraty
We take a leave of cloudy and chilly Sao Paulo and head for Paraty, hoping for a better weather as we come closer to Rio. It is a six hour comfortable bus ride through a verdant beautiful land. Half way there, the road starts winding along the coast. The coastline here is dramatic: high slopes, hairpin turns. As we approach the destination the bust stops at a police roadblock. Two young policemen examine some packages, and some pieces of luggage. The man near us uses the toilet just as the bus comes to a stop, which of course arouses suspicion of the policemen. They interrogate his at length and carefully search his belonging. Philip and I are struck by the low key manner of the policemen. It is a great contrast with the state troopers we encounter on Massachusetts roads. The latter are jumpy, defensive, hostile, read to reach for weapons. Not these men.
We arrive at Paraty in the darkness. It feels warmer than Sao Paulo, but far from warm. Taxi takes us to the hotel, which is located remotely from the center of town, near the beach. According to the Google map, we should be located in a suburb of sorts, separate but not too distant from the town center. It is a grid of perhaps ten by ten small streets. The idea of having two days in Paraty at the end of the trip was to relax on the beach and do nothing after the long journey through Brazil. As the taxi makes its way away from the center we are a bit uneasy about what appears to be the remoteness of the hotel’s location and about the weather.
It turns out that our reservation somehow did not go through, and the hotel is full. The pleasant woman receptionist makes some calls and arranges for us to stay in a hotel next door. They make us a simple meal, and all begins to look much better. These hotels are designed strictly for warm weather. The structures are flimsy, and there are no gathering places indoors. Everything is outdoors, built around a central swimming pool and surrounded by flowers and trees. This is a little like camping in a garden, except that we get comfortable beds, showers, and tables and chairs for eating.
It is still early by the time we finish dinner, so we set out to explore the area. Our street is an unpaved dirt road, quiet, illuminated by street lights, running at the outer edge of the development. One and two story structures that we can make out in the dark are either private homes or guest houses such as ours. There are several empty overgrown lots. About two blocks down we come to the waterfront. We can see the water, which is really a bay framed by mountainous shores. The street running parallel to the beach is lined with guesthouses (Pauselas) and private villas. It is nice but also modest.
Our most pleasant surprise is a discovery of a restaurant/bar with live music. As we sip Caipirinias we listen to the singer-guitar player. There are a few people here, but not much action. The singer turns out to have lived in L.A. for several years. We chat for a bit. The drinks turn out to be so acidic that we cannot finish them. I think that we have overdosed on Caipirinias on this trip. These are the last two we can face.
Sunday, July 29: in Paraty
The flimsy bed covers did not protect us from the night chill. After breakfast we check out from the hotel and move across the road to our original destination. This place is bigger, has larger and better furnished rooms, and promises more comfort. It is a group of four-room cottages scattered around a swimming pool and surrounded by a garden and palm trees. This is how I imagine a modest Caribbean resort to look. The weather is not so great. It is cool and cloudy.
We investigate the beach area in the daylight. The beach itself cannot compete with the Cape or what I have seen on photographs of Caribbean islands. It is quite narrow and the sand is not particularly fine. Its charm comes, rather, from the simple beach life it offers: plastic chairs and tables, worn but perfectly intact umbrellas, little shacks offering drinks and food, well worn plastic recliners, good music in the background. This is how what Copacabana life in Rio must have looked like before the high rise buildings and fast roads came. This is a place for social gatherings and simple relaxation.
We walk toward the Center. In the daylight the distance is not great: it is a 20 minute walk on a paved road, first along the beach and then through a short stretch of Atlantic rain forest. The Center easily lives up to its reputation of a perfectly preserved 18th century picturesque colonial town. It is really charming. One and two story structures are brightly painted in all colors and immaculately clean. The cobblestone streets wind in many directions. It is touristy here: multitude of restaurants and upscale shops and art galleries are reminiscent of Wellfleet or P-Town. Except that this is not a tourist season, so we can enjoy this place in its winter repose. We spend the next few hours doing just that. Walking, people gazing, taking refreshments in cafes and restaurants, window shopping. As everywhere on this trip, most of the tourists are Brazilians. Occasionally I hear English, and just as occasionally, the waiters and shop keepers know some English.
Around one o’clock we discover something rather amazing: with a rising tide the ocean water invades the streets of Paraty. This is not just a little puddle here and there. Whole streets begin to stand under water, from wall to wall, with sidewalks completely submerged. Cars sometimes pass through, other times do not even dare. A horse drawn carriage does better. At some point we watch a pizza delivery boy on a motorcycle perform a virtual acrobatic feat by driving through a flooded street with his legs raised high and water coming up half way up the wheels. The flooding is so rapid that at times a street we passed only a few minutes earlier becomes impassable. At some point we get trapped on a little island, completely surrounded by water. A group of other people is, like us, helplessly staring at the rising tide. A young man brings from another street large stones which allows us to cross the flooded street by jumping from one to another. When my turn for jumping comes, I get applause for a successful crossing. Nobody else gets such applause: it must be because they see me as an elderly lady.
The flooding seems to reach its peak semewhere around 2 or 3 PM. It will take several hours for these streets to dry up again. We later confirm what seems to be the case: this is a full moon day with a very high tide. Even assuming that such flooding occurs only every two weeks, it is hard to understand how these people can live with it. Businesses, hotels and homes on the flooded streets are inaccessible for several hours at a time, twice a day. But nobody seems to be terribly disturbed here. People offer the drivers directions how to go around or through the flood, and life seems to go on.
It is hard to imaging that this town was deliberately built in a flood zone when it was first established in the 17th century. We have no idea how recent this phenomenon is, and whether it can be linked to the rising sea level in the world. I wish we could communicate with people in Paraty to understand this better.
In mid afternoon we walk back home. The beaches in our neighborhood are flooded. Since the weather got a bit better we find a relatively high spot and spend an hour or so on the beach, wearing our layers of sweaters. We have company. I note a large number of boys near us ranging in age from maybe first graders to advanced teenagers, flying kites. These kites fly very high and in zig zag lines. Philip counts about a dozen kites in the sky.
In the evening we attempt to go to the yesterday’s neighborhood café for dinner but the evening is very cold (probably in the 50s), and it is impossible to sit in this partly outdoor place. So we trek again to the town center, and it is good that we do. At night this historic town sparkles and is very cozy. Stores are open, people are strolling, restaurants are inviting. After dinner we discover a perfect café for tea and ice-cream. The place feels very European, down to the display of layered cakes which seems to be straight from Vienna. This is a general observation about Brazil: it has so many features of Portugal in particular and Europe in general. Its cuisine is in effect a mix of Italian and Portuguese. It pastry is “old Europe” and perfect for my taste.
Monday, July 30th: last day in Paraty
After a cloudy morning the weather improves to the point of allowing us to go to the beach. This is how we spend time until mid afternoon. Finally, we capture the feeling of Caribbean resort which we were looking for in Paraty. We walk to the Center for “high tea” at the European café we discovered last night. It is a relatively uneventful day. In the evening we go, once again, to the center for dinner. The dinner is very nice, with live music. We buy a CD of the vocalist. The night is very cold. There is nothing for us to do but climb under the bed covers, even though it is not yet 10 o’clock
Tuesday, July 31st: another half day in Paraty
Today we travel back to Boston. It is a cloudless sparkling day. I watch, as every morning, the cleaning process at our resort. Every day they seem to scrub this place from top to bottom: the stone steps, the tiles, flagstones, the edges of the swimming pool. Every fallen leaf is accounted for, and so is every speck of dust.
There is enough time to spend about two hours on the beach. We are already getting nostalgic about leaving Brazil.
The bus to Rio takes four hours. We drive the entire time along the coast. It is a beautiful coastline but marked by excessive development. We note a nuclear power plant and several operating oil rigs. And endless small towns and beach resorts. I fully appreciate now that Philip chose Paraty for our beach experience. It is far enough from Sao Paulo and Rio to be left alone, and the Unesco protection helps. I hope to find the beach area where we stayed unchanged in a decade or two.
Upon entering Rio we have an opportunity to see the infamous favelas on a full display. Mile after mile of such grinding poverty as to defy a description. Dwellings where people seem to add one brick at a time once in a while, corrugated roofs, muddy alleys. Under the best governance system and in good economic times it will take two or more generations to lift these people from their poverty.
The rest of the trip is blissfully uneventful. A taxi ride from the bus station to the airport, a slow leisurely dinner at the airport, an overnight flight without a single unoccupied seat, changing planes in Atlanta, a taxi ride from Logan. Home feels so good.