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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Backtracking to Brazil...

My baby, My baby goes to RiO! Rio de JanierO! La la la la la la la……
Hugh Jackman, shaking what his momma gave him, always springs to mind when I think of Rio. But, now, having DONE Rio, that’s no longer the case. Rio, and well, Brazil, now have their own places in my memory. Carnaval is an aptly named holiday for such an outrageously colorful country.

So, the last stop in my journey through South America was Brazil. Of course, being the last country, the amount of time I got to spend in Brazil was short because of excess time I had logged in other places (read: Argentina). Which sucked, since Brazil is such a big country with so many varied regions. I had originally planned to go up the coast, hitting Florianopolis (beautiful beach city that everyone raves about) and Salvador (epicenter of afro-brazilian influences), but only made it to Rio and Buzios, two of my four planned stops. Fine by me, that just means I’m going back! ☺

How does one describe fabled Rio? God, I don’t even know where to begin.

Rio was different than any of the other South American cities I’ve been to. While most are poor, in Rio, “the city of dreams,” you actually feel the poverty in a more visceral way. The way Rio is laid out, the way the landscape sets Rio up, is that you have an enormously large population of poverty stricken Brazilians, set next to one of the biggest, wealthiest resort towns in the world. The beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon teem with tourists looking to spend money, to have a good time, to let loose. And nestled in the hills and mountains above the beaches (which is one of the most amazing landscapes to see from up top – lakes, mountains and ocean all in the same view – unreal), you have people who live by profit off of such tourists turning their head for a moment. When the sun goes down, the people come out of the mountains. And the air of the city changes. Wealth and poverty sit so close to each other in Rio, I can’t imagine crime NOT being a factor here. But, the difference is, in Rio, you feel it. I didn’t specifically feel nervous or unsafe, but you just know you’re being watched, your bags and your person are constantly in check by eyes all over the city waiting for you to let your guard down. Rio is a really fun, fun place, but unlike in most of the other cities I’d been to, you really have to be careful. This was the first time I was highly aware of that.

A friend of a friend who works for the US embassy set me up in Leblon, the restauranty, trendy, spot of town at the opposite end of Copacabana beach. A little less hectic in terms of beach, a little more busy in terms of nightlife. I had my own little apartment, set up shop for a week and set out to explore. But, of course, I was immediately frustrated. By…….Portugese!!!! After almost two months of perfecting my Spanish, I was now completely up shit’s creek. Even though Portuguese and Spanish derive many of the same words from the same bases, there’s a French inflection to it that throws off pronunciation and renders, at least MY, Spanish useless. So, the first few days of Rio, I was fighting with taxi drivers, having translators sneak up behind me in restaurants and help me out with ordering a salad. I felt USELESS and frustrated. If this was my tolerance of Portuguese, what would SEAsia bring in terms of language barriers?!?!?! I was miserable, and making it harder for myself by allowing myself to get rattled. I even had a taxi driver take me back to the hotel one night bc we were driving in circles, not understanding each other in the slightest. (Turns out I had written down an address that didn’t exist as my destination…OK, my fault. I know, I know…)

But, after a couple of days, it started to work out and I became used the to inability to communicate flawlessly and started to appreciate the Brazilian people, who are so warm and good humored, partying all the time. Day, night, beach, bars. It’s amazing how much these people are out and about, laughing and having the time of their lives. Talk about living. And, the beaches. The beaches are pretty unbelievable. They are a circus. An orgy of colors, smells, tastes, sights. The sand between water and street is PACKED, and I mean don’t-have-any-regard-for-personal-beach-blanket-walk-thru-space-PACKED with people. One on top of another, on top of another. The colors of towels, bathing suits, beach chairs, umbrellas, skin color, hair color, is candy on the eyes. The heat is sweltering, but you just get lost in people watching for hours. I don’t think, at any point on a Brazilian beach, I shut my eyes. There’s just TOO much to look at. Add to that, the vendors. Oh my god, the vendors. Just going near a beach is a test of impulse buying will. You can buy ANYTHING on the beaches of Brazil. Like, you can furnish a house, dress your kids and stock your fridge from the vendors. They are hawking EVERYTHING. For thirst, beers, sodas, coconut waters, mates (ice-tea lemonade ones were the best), water, mixed drinks. For hunger, peanuts, popcorn, fried cheese, empanadas, cotton candy, sandwiches (home made in tupperwear!!), watermelon (balanced in trays on their heads), ice cream, fried chicken, chips, salads, burgers, fries – you name your food. They sell it. For body, SPF lotions, hats, sarongs, bathing suits, tunics, skirts, tourist shirts in Brazilian colors, flip flops, towels, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, tattoos, piercings. For the home, wicker baskets, wooden jugs, sculptures, ashtrays, pillows, tablecloths (two people would walk by with it held spread out), CDs, DVDs….

Ok, you get the point, but all of the vendors are yelling for your attention and you get a cramp in your neck shaking your head NO every moment. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. But, FASCINATING. I’ve never quite seen beach culture like that. Nor will I probably ever again. The nightlife in Brazil is a lot of late-night dining into clubbing. The food is unremarkable, lots of sushi, though I use the term loosely. After five days buying too much jewelry, too many pairs of Haviannas (5 in various colors – are you at all surprised?!?!) and too much ogling the beaches, I headed north to Buzios, which is a posh little beach town that is a step away from the chaos of Rio.

Buzios is a totally different Brazil. Calm, laid back, less frenetic, Buzios feels like a European little coastal getaway, with the marina, cobblestone stone streets that become pedestrian walkways after dark, stores open until well past midnight, people just sitting around at the restaurants and cafes all night, eating, drinking. Everyone becomes friends, you dine together at night and, of course, beach together by day. But such a modified version of the Rio beaches, that you are able to relax and drift off every now and again, knowing you’re in a very safe, comfortable and easy place. I LOVED Buzios. I stayed on Jose Fernandez Beach, my villa was high above the Spanish tiled roofs of the city, off the water. I was the only person staying at my villa, and treated like a princess. Every morning, Javier and the breakfast girls would come knock on my door to tell me breakfast was ready, and I would go down to an elaborately set table for one, overlooking the water with a FEAST of food to start my day. It was hands-down, the best way I could’ve ended my trip to South America. I appreciated Brazil, the people (who thought I was a Carioca, or typical Brazilian girl, which didn’t bother me in the SLIGHTEST), and the beaches. I can’t wait to head back to see more of Brazil, because I think there’s more Brazil that’s like this, rather than the jungle-fevered gentlemen’s city of Rio.

Boys, if you’re looking for action, head to Rio.
Me, I’m going back to Buzios….


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