Friday, November 30, 2007

Things We Ate On The Street: Brazil

To be honest, Brazil promised a bit more than it offered in terms of street food. The selection was wide, to be sure, but there were more culinary disappointments than we were accustomed to. Of course, we may have just hit vendors on an off day, you never know.

When we got to Bahia, we were eager to try the acaraje (fried balls of manioc with shrimp and curry tucked inside), but they didn`t prove to be solid crowd pleasers. Equally, the much-anticipated round coconut treats ended up being a bit too sickly sweet for our taste. And the Brazilian penchant for Halls (you know, the cough medicine lozenges) eluded us, but they were sold on every corner like candy.

Don`t get us wrong, there were more than a few winners. Cafezinho, a strong, sweet, dark concoction wheeled around in little carts and served up by the thimbleful, kept us going until the wee hours with its delicious caffeinated bliss. In fact, pretty much all of the drinkable treats were divine. Including, of course, the immensely addictive caipirinha (sugar-cane based cachaca, lime, sugar, and ice) and its refreshingly rehydrating counterpart, agua de coco (coconut water). There was an amazing selection of sucos (fresh juices) all over the country---acerola (an Amazonian berry with lots of antioxidants), guava, mango, cupuacu (an unidentified Amazonian fruit with a creamy sweet soft taste), passion fruit...we did our best to try them all. Sometimes they were mixed with alcohol (batida), a refreshing way to watch the sun go down. The one that always had us coming back for more was acai, a purplish goo often served with granola that tastes much better than it sounds. Eric had one every single day in Jericoacoara. Kathleen also made the delicious mistake of trying a capeta in Jeri. It was a milkshake-like cocktail made with guarana, an Amazonian extract that made her heart race and kept her up for hours. Eric dubbed it ´plant-meth´ and forbade her from ordering it again.

Popcorn, tapioca treats, and brigadeiros (a fudgey brownie rolled in chocolate sprinkles) rounded out the delicious ways Brazilians fed their sweet tooths. And our favorite street treat, discovered just two days before we left the country, were late-night crepes. While not particularly Brazilian, as they were sold by a soft-spoken French hippie who wandered the streets of Sao Luis after dark, they were insanely good. We dubbed him the Gentle Crepe Man, as he had long hair neatly tucked back, doe eyes, and an earnest sales pitch. We did not feel gentle towards him, however, when he ran out of chocolate crepes before he got to us on our last night. Come to think of it, the street food was pretty damn good. Maybe just avoid the acarajes.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Brazil: Sandy bliss in Jericoacoara

Enough of Rio and her fickle Dengue-threatening ways! With Kristina gone, and the rain settling in, we decided it was time to head north and seek the sun. Playing a little bit of airline roulette, we packed our bags and headed to the airport without a ticket...determined to fly wherever the cheapest, most convenient flight would take us. The fates sent us to Fortaleza in northeastern Brazil.

(An aside about Brazilian travel that`s hilariously confusing: the clock. There are four different time zones in Brazil. Or sometimes more, depending on daylight savings time. Computers may say one thing, printed receipts another altogether. A wall clock might say one hour, while the guy`s watch next to you is set to Rio time. It`s crazily confusing, and especially dangerous when you need to catch a flight or bus. So ridiculous in fact that it`s funny, although it does mean killing a lot of time in sweaty bus stations fearing that we`ve got the time wrong).

Landing in Fortaleza, we hopped on a Jericoacoara-bound bus. About five hours into the journey, at midnight, we transfered to an open-air 4WD for the last hour. Under a blanket of stars, we bounced our way through the warm air over moonlit sand dunes and past gently crashing waves. It was pretty magical. We spent the next four days rocking in hammocks waiting for the sun to set. Jeri, as it`s called, is filled with legions of hard-bodied windsurfers, kite surfers, and capoeira-ists from around the world, and it`s a funny little piece of paradise.

At sunset, seemingly everyone in town climbs the big gorgeous sand dune that borders the beach. After the sun drops into the ocean, you can take a running leap and fling yourself down the steep slope of the sand dune, running willy nilly without fear of hurting yourself in the sugarfine sand. It`s incredibly addictive and fun. We`d cap it off by running straight into the bathtub-warm ocean. Ahhh, bliss. Sand boarders also made great use of the good slope and capoeira players would practice their backflips. As night arrived, beach bonfires would be lit, and all of the mobile drinks carts would be wheeled out to line the main sandy street in town by candlelight. Caipirinha anyone?

Jeri´s other main postcard attraction is the Pedra Furada, an arched rock about 2 miles outside of town. We made the mistake of thinking it was a sunset attraction and ended up having to hike back to Jeri in the dark. Whoops! On the upside, we had it to ourselves, and the bright moon mostly lit our path.

Unable to take any more hammocking, we signed on to a dune buggy excursion to explore the neighboring town of Tatajuba. Crazily, the whole town was moved when a sand dune took it over several years ago! One of the best parts of the trip was navigating a wide part of the river, where industrious rowers operated a car ferry. The attached video shows our scientific study of wind.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Brazil: Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving from Northern Brazil! Despite Eric`s devoted love of turkey (and, in particular, turkey sandwiches), it`s ceviche, caipirinhas, and sunset on the dunes on the menu for us this Thanksgiving. Admittedly, we wish were were eating Tom´s turkey and watching little miss Ellie smear Dad`s cranberry sauce all over the white couch. But this will have to wait until next year. Instead, we are raising a toast and giving thanks to all of our family and friends from afar. We could not have more to be thankful for, and we just wanted to send our love to everyone on Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Brazil: Saudade

Having Kristina around was so great on so many levels. Not only was she a total work horse, but she spoke great Portuguese, and she brought a whole host of new jokes and clean undies with her. Things that we sorely needed! The Portuguese was especially handy, as Eric seemed to be having some trouble getting a grip on it and often landed embarrassingly in the wrong bathroom. Kidding aside, it was such a special treat to have a wonderful and much missed piece of home land in our arms. And we experienced great saudade (what Brazilians feel when it rains, and they stay at home depressed longing for lost loves) when Kristina left us. We are missing our third Angel. Sigh....

Brazil: Hot and Rainy times in Rio

How to describe Rio? Sometimes she smiled upon us, and sometimes we tripped on her dog poop, but all in all, we found her deliciously seductive and kept coming back for more. Through a series of lucky coincidences, we found ourselves only the second guests in an amazingly grand yet cosy bed and breakfast that had just opened in Santa Teresa, a neighborhood of artists, musicians, and those who love them. Settling into the former mansion of one of Rio`s governors (oh la la), we took to the cobblestoned streets with caipirinhas in hand to hunt down the riches of Rio`s many treasures.

First stop, of course, the beaches. While there wasn`t quite as much outrageous thong bikini-ogling as we`d hoped (it was a little overcast), we fell in love with this man in his BRAZIL bathing suit strolling the oceanfront. Forget the Girl from Ipanema, this man personified Brazilian fashion. And that`s saying something in a country where the heels are higher, the skirts are shorter, and the shirts are tighter than any we`ve ever experienced. Next we made our way to the Botanical Gardens to observe some lush greenery (and cheeky monkeys and sluggish turtles) before strolling alongside the lake to watch twinkling lights come on as Rio came to life. Returning to our neighborhood after midnight, we arrived to find a street party choking the streets as live samba music spilled out of a local cafe and temporary bars were erected in the street. Hello Rio nightlife! We spent the next week soaking up as much of Rio as we could.

Highlights included the Escadaria Selaron, over 200 colorfully mosaiced stairs leading from Santa Teresa to Lapa. The work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, they have been a labor of love since 1990, and invariably you`ll find the artist there himself giving them a little elbow grease. Originally using the vibrant colors of Brazil`s flag as his inspiration, Selaron has exanded the work to include the colors of many different nations. A frequent theme is the image of a pregnant woman in the favelas (Rio`s poorst communities.) The stairs have become an international hit, with celebrities filming music videos (Snoop Dogg among them), and hundreds of people coming to admire his work.

You`d think that living in a city replete with cable cars, we`d be too jaded to enjoy Santa Teresa`s bonde, but no! Every time it whooshed across the oft-photographed Arcos do Lapa toward downtown we giggled with glee (some of us only inwardly). The last of Rio`s once numerous streetcars, the yellow bonde has been in operation since 1861, and sometimes it feels like maybe they haven`t updated too much, but that`s half the excitement. While already cheap, it`s free if you stand! This is a far cry from the outrageous extortionary prices of San Francisco`s equivalent.

Rio was often a fickle friend, choosing to close her restarants and bars despite stated opening hours to the contrary, enjoying random holidays that prevented us from doing laundry and visiting musems, and teasing us with sun followed quickly by rain. But drizzling skies meant beer-fueled Hearts tournaments in neighborhood cafes, which wasn`t all bad, even if it didn`t do wonders for our savage tans. We loved the contrasts of Rio life---from high tea in the opulent Cafe Columbo to fried fish on the sidewalk in Urca. And, of course, there are Rio`s greatest hits, including Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). While a must-see on the list of every Rio tourist, Cristo was a bit of a can`t-see in our case. But we held hands, and then everything was allright. Recently deemed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (a perhaps slightly dubious distinction that was garnered through a little poll stuffing, although that`s a different story), Cristo is an amazing sight no matter what the weather. Standing over 130 feet tall, the iconic statue is visible from nearly every corner in Rio. Construction spanned over five years, and the monument was publicly celebrated in 1931. On its 75th birthday, a chapel was added, where Catholic Brazilians can celebrate weddings and baptisms.

Determined to catch aerial views of Rio`s splendor, we also made our way up Paco do Azucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) on a series of cablecars. Like all good Cariocas (Rio dwellers), she puts on her dazzling best in the evening, and we watched her sparkle from afar as the sun set. Heading to Copacabana, we samba-ed on the sidewalks with drunken tourists (or rather Kristina sama-ed, while we lurched about) and then ate pineapple and sirloin sandwiches at a late-night haunt called Cervantes. Deeeeeeeee-lish!

We knew that Rio would not be complete if we didn`t stay out dancing until 5am at least one night, so we taxi-ed over to Lapa, the throbbing heart of the city´s nightlife. Standing in line for nearly 2 hours, we set foot in Rio Scenarium just after 2am. It did not disappoint. An old antique shop turned multi-level dance hall, the Scenarium is rich with crazy ecletic decor, fervent dancing, New Orlean´s style balconies, and pumping live music. We faked forro moves (basically intertwined legs and lots of turning around) while Kristina broke countless hearts sashaying across the dance floor with various suitors. Forro music is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in Brazil. Originally born in WWII American military bases in Brazil`s northeastern countryside, the music stemmed from dances that were open´for all´(since altered to the Portuguese forro). A mix of musical styles (including the accordion, African drums, and the triangle) accompanied songs lamenting the tough life of the working hand, and the trials and tribulations of falling in love. While initially snubbed in the city as backward countryfolk music, the sound achieved great popularity in the 1990s when it was modernized with electric guitars and rediscovered by the entire nation. True to our word, we stayed until the party ended and danced back to our hotel just after 5am.

Another notable excursion was taking the ferry to Niteroi, where we admired Niemeyer`s architectural gem in Rio, the contemporary art museum. Coincidentally, it featured the work of a Portuguese artist, Rigo 23, who lives in San Francisco and painted the one tree mural that`s right near our apartment. Oh, small world. And, of course, having spent much time in Bahian capoeira schools, it was only appropriate that we had a match on the beach in Rio. Kathleen won.

We had every hope of filling our bellies to bursting at a churrasqueria, but some of the price tags got us down. We opted intead for boiled corn and a beer on the beach at sunset, a decision that had disastrous consequences on Kathleen`s stomach. Next time, we`ll fork over for the good meat (pun intended...who could resist?). Unfillfilled dreams also mean a reason to return. Other reasons to come back to Rio are the addictive artistic creations of bondelandia man, a Santa Teresa artist who crafts quirky plastic men and women (and birds) out of recycled materials. These became a bit of a theme of our time in Rio, as we kept going back to his workshop (which was a ramshackle wooden bonde car that he`d set up on a street corner and sometimes slept in) hoping to buy new and different creations. But while he didn`t always have what we wanted, we eventually fell in love with what he did offer. In many ways, Rio didn`t always offer what we expected, but we were seduced by her charms once we took them for what they were.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Brazil: Party in Paraty (sorry, sorry)

Leaving Bahia, we headed south to seek more sea and sun in Paraty before landing in Rio. Initially we were going to take the bus, but flights were amazingly cheap. The only kicker was that our flight left at 4am. Which meant that we had to get a cab at 3am. So of course we had no choice but to stay up all night eating chocolate and playing cards until we left.

While once a busy and important port town for the transfer of gold from mines (before travel to Rio was made easier and faster with roads cut through the mountains), Paraty is now more quaint than cutting edge. Artists and travelers trod its lumpy cobblestone streets (known as pes-de-moleque or street urchin`s feet) admiring the obvious wealth and importance of its well-preserved colonial history. The city`s architectural beauty has to compete with the stunning natural setting of the town, which explains its deserved popularity.

Unfortunately for us, the weather gods were not smiling in Paraty, which was cruel as the area was known for its secluded beaches, tropical islands, and great fish-viewing. Undeterred, we didn`t let the inclement weather stop us from singing and snorkeling in the rain. When the Tourist Office stopped running boat trips because of drizzle (or not enough people, or whatever excuse they felt like using), we grabbed a young Brit and commandeered a boat to take us out. Our fearless captain Domingo braved the (not too) stormy seas with us in his valiantly pinkish-purple boat. Admittedly, we could have swum faster than Domingo`s boat put-putted along, but that wasn`t the point, was it? After two days of rain, we had to admit that our sea-n-sun adventure had turned into cards-n-hot chocolate with cognac, so we threw in the towel and decided to hit the road a few days earlier than planned.

In a ´what a small world´ encounter, we ran into some friends from home at the bus station in Paraty. Newly wed and honeymooning, I don`t think they minded the rain.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Brazil: Samba in Salvador, Bahia

Next stop, Bahia...Brazil`s Mecca for Afro-Brazilian street parties, festivals, religious festivals and nonstop nightlife. We packed our bags and took flight for Salvador, the region`s thriving capital city. Much of Bahia`s color and flavor stems from a strong African influence, a holdover from the sugar and tobacco plantation days when African slaves were brought over in droves. Now happily the diversity is celebrated, and African traditions are treasured rather than hidden.

After conquering the phone system by devising a foolproof plan whereby Eric dials, Kristina speaks in Portuguese, and Kathleen holds the guidebook (or camera), we installed ourselves in a hotel in the heart of the cobblestoned Pelourinho, a UNESCO World Heritage sight that is no stranger to the tourist. Big sunny plazas encircled with brightly painted colonial buildings and dotted with fountains play host to capoeira rodas (where hard-bodied Brazilians dazzle tourists and locals alike with an athletic combination of martial arts, dance, and play first originated by African slaves as a means of self-defense) and an endless parade of axe and samba bands, vendors, and tourists.

We spent our days wandering the streets sampling local fare, visiting museums, and in an endless quest to see a capoeira class in action. The latter pursuit ending hilariously after our second attempt AGAIN landed us in a room with a group of 6- and 7-year olds that smelled like applesauce. They weren`t exactly the capoeira experts that we`d hoped to admire. For fear of getting a creepy kid-follower reputation, we finally dropped our mission and settled on a more touristy, but incredibly amazing, folkcloric show. This student obsession went hand in hand with the battle-of-the-bands that we stumbled upon as local music students hosted a rock competition in the Pelourinho.

Another Afro-Brazilian staple of life in Bahia is Candomble, a ritualistic religion practiced throughout Brazil where different deities are honored. Intrigued, we took a taxi to the outskirts of town to a Candomble house to witness a ceremony. While undoubtedly we didn`t understand all that transpired, it was incredible to witness the ceremony. Dressed in white as requested, we sat on opposite sides of the room per our gender. Men drummed out a rhythmic beat while the mostly female dancers encircled the room in traditional dances. Costumes, priestesses, and different dances all held importance that we could not begin to explain here. At various moments throughout the evening (which lasted over 4 hours, ending after midnight), dancers, and sometimes audience members, would go into a writhing trance state and needed to be supported by other members. It was a powerful event that left us wanting to learn more about its history and symbolism.

Much of Brazil`s preferred cuisine comes from Bahia, with the strong African influence bringing more spice and flavor to the region, and we did our best to sample the city`s finest. It was here that we were able to gain much valuable information for our Street Food research. Manioc flour is used heavily, which wasn`t always our favorite ingredient, but the moqueca de peixe (a seafood stew with tomatoes and coconut milk) more than made up for it. While not technically street food, we loved this upstairs restaurant that lowered meals down to diners who preferred to eat outside on the sidewalk.

We stayed in Salvador long enough to find a preferred neighborhood cafe (perfect for lunch, capirinhas and sunsets), to explore several of the city`s over 300 churches (our favorite being Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo, where a slave devoted over 8 years of his life to create an image of Christ in 1630 that includes blood fashioned from over 2000 tiny rubies), to make our way to Barra, the seaside district with soft sands and dreamy sunsets, and to dine alfresco to live bossa nova. All in all, not a bad four days!

By the end of our stay, Eric had gone positively native, stripping down to a bare chest to fit in with Brazilian fashion sense. Or perhaps it was because a bird pooped on his shirt and he had to wait while Kathleen cleaned it in the plaza`s fountain. Hmmm...

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Brazil: Fun times at the Foz

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee, the big reunion with Kristina! And in Brazil, no less! But first, a brief word about our bus. We were a bit wary about another 20 hour bus ride, as African buses often left a lot to be desired. But this was an otherworldly experience. We`re talking 5-star luxury where the seats reclined completely, there was free champagne and whiskey, and we watched a Woody Allen movie and an independent film from Australia. It was far more comfortable than most hotels we`ve stayed in. Via Bariloche, we`ll go anywhere with you.

And even better, Via Bariloche whisked us off to Iguazu falls to meet up with our favorite and long-awaited globetrotter. We toasted the beginning of our Brazilian adventure with the appropriately named Malzbier; sweet, dark, goodness kept ICY cold thanks to Brazil`s love of the beer coozy. Eric was in appreciative awe of Brazil`s obsession with ice-cold beer---all beer fridges had digital readouts of their temperature and even in the hottest, sweatiest parts of town, a frosty one was easily had.

It´s impossible to describe the visual impact of Iguazu Falls. Despite all the guidebook gushing, they don`t disappoint. They truly are that big, that beautiful, and that awe-inspiring. And we highly recommend viewing them from the extremely wet seat of a zodiac boat or the cozy confines of a wooden barrel. But triple-bag your camera, as Kristina`s suffered in the falls, and we all suffered for her halted photographic talents. Grrrr.

Iguazu Falls are actually close to 300 seperate falls plummeting across the Brazil/Argentina border, and it`s worth spending the time to view them from both countries. They are higher than Niagara Falls, wider than Victoria Falls, and more spectacular than any we`ve ever seen in our lives. If you`ve seen the movie The Mission, you`ll recognize them. No amount of gawking tourists can diminsh the visual impact of that much thundering water. And even the steel catwalks do little to diminsh the feeling of natural beauty; instead, you can admire them from nearly every angle. When you approach the Garganta do Diablo (Devil`s throat), the mist is so thick you can no longer even really see the falls.

Their grandeur is such that they inspired Eric and Kristina to fall in love, it seems. Hee hee. It was a magical land of rainbows and caimans and toucans and enormous lizard things that hung out poolside in fancy hotels. So glorious! Everything`s bigger in Iguazu Falls, including the grocery store fruit!

On the furry end of the food chain, the somewhat lovable but also rather aggressive coatis took a particular shine to Miss Malsy. She seemed worn out by constantly having to fend them off. But I don`t know what we would have done without her valiant efforts.

We also learned a very valuable lesson in Iguazu Falls about ordering food in Brazil---most portions are designed for two or three people. Of course they don`t tell you this when you sit down and order enough for a family of 12, and I`m sure they snicker in the kitchen at your request. We were happily (slightly) less gluttonous once we discovered our error. And if nothing else, our dinner bill went down considerably. Hallelujah.