What do you associate Brazil with? Answer seems quite obvious for everyone. The country is famous for soccer, the Amazon basin, but it mainly brings to mind the Rio Carnival – the biggest, most boisterous and the most recognizable event of this type across the world. Is the capital of samba dance yet another huge metropolis that can only be distinguished by carnival excitement, Latino rhythms and suntanned bodies?
Rio de Janeiro
From the windows of a plane proceeding for landing, the first thing you see is a statue of the Christ the Saviour, spreading his arms welcomingly, as if he was about to hug everybody in a common embrace and unroll a safety carpet over the incredible country.
Christo Redentor weighs over one thousand tons and symbolizes Brazilian independence. Some people claim that the Christ welcomes all arrivers. Others say that he symbolizes God’s mercy, and another group of people see the Saviour’s pride over centenary history of the independent state. In any case, when you notice the statue from behind the windows of a plane that is about to settle on the airstrip, you feel incredible adrenaline and excitement. This symbol of Brazil is commemorated, as we found out, on numerous postcards, and can be noticed from a lot of spots in Rio.
On our way to a hotel, we were crossing the city streets. We had our accommodation booked in a hotel located only several meters from the sea coast. We were driving along buzzing streets, packed with office buildings, houses, and more or less luxurious shops. We were driving along a promenade stretched along a splendid ocean. Everything was churning with colors, the multitude of undressed and sunburnt bodies was overwhelming. Probably many of them were tourists, but I guess that Cariocas (natives) were predominating.
Finally, we arrived at our destination. A dark-skinned bellboy, dressed in gaudy, yellowish and exquisite costume (a bit similar to the uniform from the American Civil War period, but in a crazy colors) opened the door for us. He wore an intensively red hat, adding to his extravagant image.
With our luggage he led us to the hotel’s breath-taking interiors. Huge-sized tiles arranged in a chessboard shape radiated a pleasant feeling of cold, especially that heat waves were taking their toll outside. Intensively purplish walls, decorated with white arcs and spectacular finials looked extremely original and introduced a lot of lively elements to the massive hall, ideally corresponding to Brazilian culture and local manners. Additionally, a splendid lighting, marble counters and huge flowery compositions blossoming with local flowers were standing in colorful neon racks that excited our imagination and delighted our eyes. The bellboy’s unusual uniform and attire of hostesses helping the guests seemed to be tailored to this place. Women wore vividly green, violet and blue dresses, their necks were decorated with garlands of varicolored beads, while their heads were topped with headdresses resembling ornamental ikebana. The headdresses were undoubtedly referring to folklore style, perhaps from the slavery period, and were reviving bygone times.
Strangely enough, the folklore-styled hall took us to a completely modern and elegant part. Here, the extensive couches were occupied by visitors who were speaking, sipping their coffees and other drinks served by hostesses in rainbow-colored dresses.
There we entered the elevator and went up to our room.
Just like in the modern part with elevators, all of the rooms were furnished in a similar fashion – modernity mixed with a touch of Brazilian exoticism. Splendid and magnificent flowers were blossoming in several corners of the room, while the view behind the windows was the most stunning panorama I had ever seen. We could see the ocean and surrounding beaches and hills topped with small, carton houses (in reality it must have been portly mansions). Below them, a countless number of hotels were stretched out along the beach.
After an extremely long trip, we decided to have some rest on a grand terrace with a view over the Corcovado hill and a small figurine of Christo Redentor. Ocean at sunset, statue overlooking Rio, splendid light meal with some fruits, grilled vegetables, delicious juices and wine. I don’t even know when we fell asleep, but recovery was very needed in the country of eternal joy.
In the morning, with no time to spare, we headed for Copacabana, filled with enthusiasm, energy and curiousness. This world-famous beach is a four and a half kilometer long section of the coast. Truly remarkable sight. It buzzes with life almost for the entire day and night. Sunbathers come in the morning and leave late in the evening to be replaced with enamored couples, party animals and small bands of young people. The beach is peppered with volleyball fields and football pitches obviously, as soccer is the country’s national sport. There is a load of diverse bars and coffeehouses situated along the promenades. The surroundings are packed with nude sunbathers, roller-skaters or jogging fans. This colorful spectacle is overlooked by thousands of windows of extremely rich hotels, which separate the beach from one of the most densely populated districts in the world.
Right behind Copacabana there is even more exclusive, and in consequence safer (this comes with the status of its visitors), cleaner Ipanema, which houses the most affluent sunbathers who, as I suspect, belong to the group of the richest people in the entire world. Observing them, you cannot miss the striking sophistication and expensive style of life, but you also notice what it involves – some enslavement. It’s true that such people can afford to buy everything, but money can also rob one from its physical freedom.
What kind of a city is Rio? Brazilians call it „cidade maravilhosa„, which means the magnificent city. Really hard to decide if it is true. As everywhere, posh residential areas neighbor with slums of appalling poverty, and the city belongs to the most densely populated in the world. The place beams with the freedom of spirit, culture, joyfulness, sensuality, sex and perpetual satisfaction. This really is an incredible cultural difference. Polish people have a slight inclination to grumble. In Brazil we met a lot of people from different walks of life. People who were blessed and fortunate and people who were living from one day to the next, not knowing what tomorrow will bring for them. Still, we were seduced by their joy, smiles and cheerfulness. And I believe that our nation and entire world should learn this approach from them.
On the second evening, when we were strolling across the city trying to discover its rhythm, we found an extremely interesting restaurant. Vast ikebanas were standing by the entrance against the background of tasteful mosaic walls. Shapes and colors of flowery compositions resembled parrot’s tail. Two large and unusually colored macaws were perched on a gorgeously ornamented metal rack, croaking and squawking Spanish Hola, Hola – Hello, good morning. It was impossible to reject such an invitation. At the entrance, we were welcomed by a woman dressed in a beautiful cornflower-blue dress and a shawl of the same intensive color. This was a fairy-tale place. We have travelled a lot, but we have never seen a place with such deeply ethnic atmosphere. And I am not talking about unrolled flags or national colors. There, one could feel Brazilian soul: hot, suffocating, but affirmative atmosphere and breath-taking eroticism. It was romantic, we were listening to native, placid and incredible music. Sounds were caressing our senses; sipping a glass of wine we were listening to it, looking directly into our eyes and submitting to our senses. Perhaps it was just a surge of the moment… You do not find this kind of places often. For us it was a splendid time spent together. Heated and one of a kind event.
But let me come back to the ethnic thread of this story: the owner (a women, Brazilian-type beauty, who noticed even more beautiful, light and alabaster complexion of my wife and her fair hair) told us that the restaurant is located in the old slave house. We instantly thought about „Escrava Isaura” TV series and engaged into animated conversation. Later, the second co-owner joined us. We were talking about the history of the country, origins of their families and why the country affected by such a poverty is so popular and so willingly visited by tourists. Lenini, Gosh, who gave him this name? We ask and he casually answered with a smile that his parents were communists and gave him this name in honor of Lenin. Supposedly, it is normal here. Perhaps we will meet people named after sweets, cigarettes or, what’s natural, sportsmen.
In the meantime, Lenini proposed Feijoada, a traditional Brazilian dish. Its origins reach 16th century, when slavery was introduced to Brazil. It is a common knowledge that the slaves were used as a workforce for the production of wool, cocoa and as diamond diggers during the „gold rush”. Through conquests, culinary culture of Europe blended with traditional African cuisine. African slaves cooked beans, Portuguese people added linguica (sausage), Indians gave their farofa (roasted manioc flour). Feijoada was created as a result of this international mix. As it turned out later, the filling dish used to provide employees with supplies of needed energy.
Today, this is a basic dish served in many places. Also outside the country’s boundaries this nutritious dish becomes increasingly popular and one can easily find a recipe in Poland even. Unfortunately, the dish tastes best in its home country, prepared with local ingredients and by Brazilian hands. Its taste abroad isn’t the same. Moreover, it may not be easy to find suitable ingredients that are available in Brazil only. The problem may be solved by replacing missing products with their local equivalents. It is also worth to mention that the stew is quite stodgy and Brazilians recommend to wash it down with Caipirinha. So, we smoothly shifted the topic from Brazilian cuisine to culinary tastes of Polish people. We spoke about our national food: stewed cabbage called „bigos”, pikelets, steak Tartare, cold sour soup, gingerbread, poppy-seed cake, pork chop and Polish dumplings called „pierogi”. As people we are all united in one thing – we love eating. Finally, they invited us to their kitchen for the next day. We were supposed to undergo a difficult test to show our culinary expertise and participate in common international cooking.
To be honest, we did not have a clue what should we cook. Availability of ingredients was strongly limited, and scramble eggs are international meal. We decided to improvise and, depending on the products available, prepare a steak Tartare and pan-fry a pork-chop and pikelets. At least, the kitchen equipment was not a problem. It turned out the we can also get ingredients for a Tartare steak and a pork-chop. Unfortunately, we did not find any breadcrumbs. That’s why we decided to make beef cutlets and our homely cucumber salad.
The experience of preparing food with a Brazilian cook and his bosses was one of a kind and we will keep it as a cherished memory for a long time. We had a great fun, learning from each other about our mentality, national tastes, and at the same time trying to cook something similar to Polish dishes. It wasn’t that bad, but we did not reach 100% taste of our nation. After all we were in Brazil… to finish the day in a pleasant atmosphere, but mainly because they wanted to burn some calories, Maria and Lenini invited us to the club, where their friends were teaching basics of Samba. I almost broke out in a cold sweat. Instantly, I imagined men dancing on platforms and dressed in, well… extremely original, unusual and exceptionally scant attire. I only hoped they will not put anything on my head or attach anything strange to my trousers. Despite our doubts, we agreed right off the bat. Such an occasion could not happen again, and it is difficult to forget about having fun and dances in Brazil. We agreed to meet in the evening. Maria recommended us to wear proper clothing for the occasion.
We quickly found out that Brazilian people value their time and do not like to be in a hurry. Whenever you arrange a meeting for a given hour, be sure that the person will arrive late 30 to 45 minutes. We have been waiting for our friends for about an hour. Immediately after that we learned about their another national affliction. On our way to the club we learned about Lenini’s driving style and our road neighbors’ code of conduct. It seemed that there are no applicable traffic rules in Brazil. Drivers do not switch their turn indicators, and change traffic lanes at a random manner. Normal thing for them, nothing to shout about. Maria was chattering cheerfully, gesturing and showing something, and we were only looking at each other with eyes wide as saucers or even dinner plates. Should we run away or not?
We arrived safe and sound and quickly headed to the bar to steady our tense nerves with a droplet of something strong. We ordered Caipirinha again – drink made of lime, cahaçca and cane sugar. Later we met Sonia, our samba trainer, and the show begun. This was unrestrained combination of samba, rituals connected with offerings to ghosts and capoeira (Brazilian art of fight and dance). During over one hour show, the public was introduced to dances and cultures of four Brazilian regions. When the dance reached the paramount of energy, Brazilian dancers dispersed among the crowd and engaged spectators. Everybody – teenagers, older gentlemen and ladies, including us – was dancing samba, whether they wanted or not. Maria, Sonia and Lenini were showing us the steps. Even when they are doing really fine, Europeans never equal the locals in terms of expression and movements. The secret lies in who they are, in the blood of their ancestors. After a couple of drinks individual skills seem to be less important and the desire for a good fun becomes the priority. It was just perfect, we were having great time until dawn: dancing, dancing, dancing and… drinking.
In the morning we did not even have enough strength to get up, not to mention walking, so we decided to spend the day by the hotel pool. We found ourselves surrounded by a real hubbub there. A swarm of bodies splashing in the water, the hotel bar packed with guests sipping colorful drinks. Today we didn’t feel like drinking any alcohol. We just wanted to relax, lie on beach chairs, sip juices and read.
City of God
Thanks to the courtesy of Maria and Lenini, we have managed to hire an unofficial guide to give us a tour around local slums. Many people will think that it was mad and irresponsible, but poverty and misery prevail in the larger part of the city. We wanted to visit true Rio, see its real face and take a look at „Cidade de Deus” as it was shown in the movie.
Unfortunately, in the larger part of the slums, our guide forbade us to take pictures for the sake of our safety. That is why we would take our snapshots with utmost caution, with cameras hidden in our pocket and only when Sylvie allowed us. Otherwise, we could loose our camera, in the best-case scenario.
The very term „favelas” originates from a tree of identical name which was used as a building material for the first houses of this type. Currently, shacks are built with the use of all possible materials that are available for the poor. Building materials include timber and bricks or even normal cartons. We had a chance to visit the largest cluster of this type in the world – „Rocinha favelas„. According to the estimations it is inhabited by 200 000 to 300 000 people. Poverty in the neighborhood is simply unimaginable and we have never seen anything similar before. The same applies to crime rates.
Sylvio was born and raised in favelas, so we could have taken a closer look at the life of their inhabitants not only from the windows of a passing car but also to immerse inside this fearsome diorama.
A typical address in favelas goes for instance like this: Street 1,2,3, Alley 11, House 127. It is difficult to move along certain streets due to heaps of rubbish, dead animals and waste-waters flowing down steep pavements. Since majority of buildings is not fitted with sewage system, inhabitants living on higher levels flush down all their wastes to the lower parts. Air was filled with unimaginable stench, and we were afraid to touch anything for fear of an infection, not to mention that we very quickly regretted our visit to this place.
We also saw armed residents of the slums who were carrying hand weapons outwardly and without inhibitions, and this was nothing compared to machine guns. This is why we were scared. Scared? This is an understatement. Our adventure in Morocco was nothing compared to what we witnessed here! The guide told us that theoretically speaking we cannot be harmed in his presence, but he refused to give us 100% warranty… Yes, theory always goes hand in hand with practice.
Sylvio told us that children grow up in slums very quickly. 8-10 year old boys are deemed mature, as they need to learn how to survive and cope under their living conditions from early age. In our country these are small children that are looked after at every step. We noticed that flying kites is the most popular and one of only few entertainment for children. A fragment of a broken bottle attached to the rope is an additional attraction. With this weapon, children, maneuvering carefully, try to chop away all the rival kites.
Brazilian government, in order to improve the living conditions and reduce criminal rates, decided to erect new houses in districts located in lower parts of the city. This is were some families living in crowded slums moved out. This is how the famous City of God was created, it was supposed to ensure better future for the inhabitants. Unfortunately, now it looks very sad and the plan did not turn out to be successful.
The next day was supposed to be our last one in Rio, so we had to say our goodbyes to Maria and Lenini. We exchanged our e-mails to keep in touch with them. Who knows, perhaps one day they will visit us in Poland.
Parangua was another temporary harbor on our way. We limited our sightseeing activity only to the beautiful and scenic old town which could have been easily imported live from the times of slavery. For the rest of the day we deployed on the beach, and spent our time watching the passing boats. The next day we were supposed to go for a long journey.
Salvador de Bahia
Salvador de Bahia or just Bahia, alternatively Salvador. This is a very important place for Brazilian culture, which may be only compared to our Cracow. For a long time the city had been Brazil’s capital until the function was taken over by Rio de Janeiro. But Salvador preserved its African soul. The soul was given by black slaves imported in large quantities from eastern Africa to work on Brazilian plantations. They brought their customs, cuisine, music and dance. Through hard, bygone centuries those traditions were harshly persecuted and forbidden by plantation owners. This is how such original dances as capoeira developed, which used to smuggle traditional movements under a disguise and relieve conflicts among black immigrants.
When we came to Salvador it turned out that we cannot communicate with local community because they do not know any English. Hard to say, perhaps it just happened to us, and perhaps communication in this language really is problematic. Although we couldn’t communicate easily, Brazilians were very warm-hearted and ready to help. Through the good politeness of an incidentally met Brazilian who was one of very few people able to speak English, we managed to find a way to our hotel. Finally, we arrived at the place of our destination, but our rest did not last for a very long time, as we agreed to meet with our saviour for the ice-creams of „appreciation”. We also expected to hear some stories about the city from her. And with regard to ice-creams… Brazilians just love sweets. Chocolate is a basic ingredient of desserts and probably the most often eaten food. What’s more, the chocolate they produce is very sweet. Ice-creams, fruits, waffles, they soak everything in hot chocolate – like fondue. Ice-creams are usually served with water, because it would be impossible to eat something that sweet without flushing it down. And I thought that we are connoisseur of sweetness. I was terribly mistaken…
People say the most interesting carnival takes place on the streets of Bahia, night by night throughout the year. It is supposedly much more authentic than commercialized and well-known show in Rio. Unfortunately, we were not able to check it due to the season of the year, but almost everyday a small carnival would take place on the streets of Salvador. The drums were beating, locals were giving vent to their energy and incredible sensuality.
On the other hand, the city offers something completely opposite – connection with the religion and big engagement of the locals to ensure a proper setting. Salvador, city of saints with colorful processions and churches full of sumptuousness. They truly are great, full of ornaments and gold. Nosso Senhor de Bonfim is a center of religious syncretism in Bahia. Franciscan church houses one of the largest collections of Azulejos – Portuguese tiles painted blue and depicting scenes from everyday life, surrounded by floral ornaments. The church’s ornaments reflect the wealth of colonial era. African artists – slaves forced to work at the construction of the temple – lost right to practice their beliefs. The punishment was imposed after some inappropriate effects of their work were detected. Some Angels have large reproductive organs, while females seem to be pregnant.
In the Old Town we were approached by huge women dressed in traditional clothing – wide colorful dresses and turbans on their heads. You can take a photo for several dollars with them. We looked more carefully at their massive feet, then shifted our eyes to their faces and subtle facial growth. Oooo yeah, beneath the strong make up we recognized faces of men. These were transvestites who can be met in Brazil in large numbers.
Close by there are small stalls, or rather booths with women frying food in small rudimentary canteens. Those are „Baianas”, cooks offering traditional Brazilian snacks and spicy soups. Food is very spicy in this region of Brazil. Influences coming from black slaves dominate here, so it is better to watch out for spices.
Barbers, however, do not need luxurious interiors or mirrors even. Their shops consist of a chair, a comb, swift and skillful hands to weave braids. These are perfect plaiting: both rasta and intricate individually tailored patterns.
What is most interesting, Salvador is located on different levels of the mountain range which divides the city into the so called upper city and the lower city that is situated 70 meters below. One can travel from one part of the city to another by bus or municipal cable railway – this „lift” transfers 50 000 people daily. The lift is one of the tourist attractions, so we eagerly took it.
For the one last time we look at the place where ships with slaves anchored. We stare at the port with yachts and a fortress where the prison was once located. Fortress used to stand on the shore, but now it lies several hundred meters further. Also here the sea swallows the land to expand its depths. And we will be soon swallowed by the depths of the sky, as we are flying back home, to Poland.
Our stay in Brazil will remain a splendid memory. This was a fantastic adventure, no travel agencies or planned trips. We had a great freedom to pick our hotels, places and were lucky enough to meet extraordinary people.
We will come back here eagerly.