Wednesday, June 08, 2005

M21 Non Stop To Brazil

The long awaited and much anticipated Trip Report: Brazil 05/05

"Silver jet take me I’m all set
Take me though the skies
Fly me to her side fly me
Where the air of Rio sings
All my hopes are ride on your wings
Don’t ask why
Love waits at the end of the sky
So fly me to Brazil"

Astrud Gilberto “Non Stop to Brazil”

Take One: Everything Fabulous You Need to Know About Brazil is Encoded in the Language

I’m officially declaring Brazil my favorite country.

Everything I love about Brazil and Brazilians is encapsulated in their spoken music otherwise known as Brazilian Portuguese.

It makes French sound guttural.

It is gentle, flowing and flirtatious. It’s the closest thing to spoken music that you can hear. I am pretty sure it was invented for the sole purpose of flirting. When Brasilieras speak, they may be discussing their latest colonoscopy, and yet, it sounds sexy just the same.

The last time I came here on the 10-hour overnight flight from Mexico City, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. That’s right, 10 hours.. It’s actually the identical flight time to SP, Brazil from Mexico, DF or Washington, DC, 9 hours and 40 minutes. This time, I only managed to fall asleep on the flight because I didn’t drink coffee the entire day, knowing the world’s best coffee would be awaiting me upon touchdown. Still, I greeted this, my third trip, with the same giddy enthusiasm a school boy might greet a first date.

Take Two “No Stress”

“No Stress” is a popular saying (they say it in English) in Brazil. You can buy it on T-shirts. It seems rather simple, but it actually took me a couple trips here to get in to the vibe. My plane ride set the tone for the trip. No body sweated anything. Not a thing. On the plane, it’s just as acceptable to have white ear buds dangling from my ears as it is to have my seat back in the reclined position during take off and landing.

Brazilians are friendly and warm and not in a politely superficial way. It’s an authentic friendliness that lacks the edge and the tendency toward political and social conservatism else where in the world, like say in my own country the United States of America.

Everywhere I went, I was treated like I was some sort of rock star –uh international DJ. Brazilians express a keen interest in foreigners. They’re honored that you would travel so far, honored that you attempt to learn some Portuguese and even more honored still you’re into Brazilian culture. They openly welcome outside cultures and influences, perhaps because they are secure in their own culture. They have a remarkable ability to assimilate other cultures into their own and come out with an end product that’s unique and entirely original as you will read soon.

They are patient, relaxed, understanding and completely refreshingly without edge. I have yet to witness an argument or the futile, yet incessant, horn-honking of Mexico City or New York – even though the traffic, at least in Sao Paulo, equals that of Mexico City or LA.

In a week’s time, I had already been invited into two co-worker’s homes and to another’s birthday party, a Balada. It’s much more common here and bonds are more rapidly created. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if they are dissolved as easily, but I somehow doubt it.

While Brazil may be fraught with many of the same problems present in other Latin America countries, one gets the sense that they are at least making a go at building a functional society. You see recycling bins everywhere and even in my office they made a point to use the reverse sides of the flip charts. Que legal (How cool!)!

There seems to be a lot less pressure to finish dinner and give you a check. And uniformly the service is polite, if not prompt. But then again, dining here is not about stuffing your face and running off to your next meeting. It’s about relaxing and socializing. It’s much the same in Mexico, for that matter, but not so in the USA.

Take Three: The Loveliest of the Lovely Ladies

Belo Horizonte, where I was working for a large energy concern, is Brazil’s third largest city after Sao Paulo and Rio. It was rated by the UN as one of the top 50 cities in the world to live and now I think I know why.

Not because of its mid-century modern architecture and successful urban plan that served as the basis for the futuristic Brasilia. Rather, it’s because of its most interesting statistic; the male to female ratio.

It varies between 1:9 and 1:11 depending on with whom you speak. Even taking into account the national penchant for exaggeration, I was skeptical. I had always heard about a mythical Brazilian city where women out number men as a thirteen year-old reading Penthouse Forum I had purloined from somewhere. As much as I wanted to, I never believed anything I read in it.

Till now. It’s true. Why? I’d be a fool to question a good thing.

Did I mention the women in Belo Horizonte are supposed to be the prettiest in Brazil? They are tall, sexy, natural, wear no make up and have long flowing hair. They dress sexily and there’s always the ever present gift of mid-drift.

In Mexico, you have to go to the beach to see anything more than ankles on a good day. And even there you may be disappointed as I learned on a recent excursion. In the states, I am not sure I’d want to see thongs on the ever-fattening asses of most Americans.

The ratio keeps the worst excesses of both genders in check. It tempers the jealousy and possessiveness of men while at the same time relegating female snobbishness an anti-evolutionary attribute.

For example, I went into a surf shop the other night and struck up a conversation in English, halting Spanish and Portuguese with Anna Paula (If only you could hear her say it!), a tall and lovely surfer chica. At first I was self conscious that the guys in the shop would be protective or summoning of her back to work.

But, the opposite was the case. They were warm and friendly and it seemed the store was not going to go bankrupt any time soon because Anna Paula was talking to me instead of folding board shorts for the fifteenth time that day.

She offered me a cigarette which I promptly accepted even though I don’t smoke. This girl was so hot, she could have offered me crack and I would have had a toke just to have the chance to spend another minute with her.

We hung out and talked and as far as I could tell, it was entirely innocent. I made plans to come back to see some music at the adjoining restaurant in a week.

It wasn’t a date, but then again it wasn’t not a date.

During this interaction, I learned as much about my own culturally cultivated reactions as I did about Brazilian culture. Mainly, they don’t function here.

Obrigado deus (thank god).

That is the gift of travel. It allows you to step out of yourself.

I can’t recall being this chilled out or unselfconscious in ages. I am not sure that it is possible in the US or in Mexico.

The attitude toward relationships is interesting and at least in the case of a newly found Brasiliero friend, seems to be considerably more lax than in northern countries.

Cheating on your wife with prostitutes seems to be a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation among new acquaintances or even co-workers. I had to repeatedly turn down attempts to send me $50 “room service”.

My friend seemed disappointed and so I sort of felt bad. I was thus obliged to pay a visit to a “Boite” or night club. They resemble American-style strip clubs with one marked difference; let’s just say what’s on the menu is either eat-in or carry out.

Find a garota (girl) you like, pay a small fee to the club to leave with her and she’s yours for the evening. You can take her to your hotel, or better still a motel.

Motels in Brazil are strictly of the “no tell” variety. They have names like; “Alibi”, “Amour Inn” and “Love Shack” and they let rooms only in hourly increments and signage is strictly regulation flashing neon.

Prostitution is legal in Brazil as most people know. It’s less stigmatized and more safe because it is legal and regulated. As a result, prostitutes received government sponsored pensions plans as other workers would and pimping is illegal.

One thing I am lost on is why prostitutes are so prevalent with the aforementioned ratio and the sheer deliciousness (as would be said in Portuguese) of the women. I found the average bus stop a better show than the Miss America pageant.

Take Four: A Gift From The Heavens

One day in the office, I decided to show off my Photo Ipod. Surprisingly, no one in the office had ever heard of, let a lone seen one. They’re as popular in Mexico as they are in the states.

It was as though I had brought an alien object with magical properties from outer space. This futuristic technology had yet to be invented on earth or at least in Belo Horizonte. Brazil’s sheer distance from the States serves as kind of a nice cultural buffer. It’s harder for goods to get lobbed over the fence.

Here in Mexico, the rich just hop a flight to Miami or Houston to go shopping if they don’t want to pay double or trip for any Mac – or consumer electronic product.

They were astonished to learn that in addition to having more drive space than any of the office computers, it could display color photographs. Everyone quickly requested that I bring them each Ipods back with my on the next flying saucer until they looked up the price on

I’ve already alluded to the musicality of the language here so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Brazilians are on average almost as crazy about music as I am. It’s in their dna. Sergio, a coworker I became friends with, even challenged me to find a Brazilian that didn’t like music concluding emphatically, “you can’t”

It’s no wonder the office loved the Ipod and was totally open to hearing not only my Bossa Nova, Brazilian Drum –n- Bass and my favorite, Ive Mendes, but also some of my faves from Mexico like Sussie 4 and Belanova.

I played DJ, while I hacked Brazil’s largest energy concern’s production UNIX server.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I don’t pay my company instead of the other way around.

Because of this love of music, the overall quality of music here is better. Even pop music, or MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) is much better than pop music from the States.

When thinking of Brazil and music, it’s best to think of it as an entirely separate, yet parallel universe equal in size to that of English language music. There are genres and instruments that I had never heard of such as the fabulous Berimbau, a one string guitar-like gord out of which its players finesse amazing sounds.

There are many home-grown genres; Samba, Axe, Chorro, Forro, Favel Funk, Pagode, Tropicalismo and of course, my personal favorite, Bossa Nova.

Many of these genres take root in foreign forms of music. Samba in European march music and Bossa Nova in American Jazz. There are the underlying African rythms that make all of the genres fabulously percussive in nature.

There’s also Acustico, which I will hasten to say is a unique genre, but it does have a charm all of its own. Think MTV Unplugged meets cover music. My favorite acustico tunes are only guitar and vocals and are sung in Portuguese. They manage to successfully resuscitate the played-out and long-since left for dead songs of American and Brittish culture.

And they do so in a way that makes even a cynical music snob like myself tap his feet to Cidade Negra’s ska rendition of “Johnny B Good” or Fernanda Abreu’s downtempo cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You”.

Best of all, there’s Ive Mendes’ cover of Chicago’s “If you leave Me Now”. I didn’t meet a single Brazilian that had heard of her (which kind made me feel cool), but her record, although not solely acustico, is fabulous and it’s out on Mr. Bongo records from the UK.

Yet again, the Brazilians have taken sometime foreign, made it their own, and in doing so, made it better.

Take Five: Saudade

In the last year of my life, I’ve had some of the most romantic moments of my life.

By myself.

There is a lonely side to the jet-set lifestyle, the onset of which came to me in spades just a week into my trip.

I unusually missed my most recent ex-girlfriend, something that hasn’t really happened since we split some 3 months ago. Stranger still, I missed an ex ex ex girlfriend.

I even went as far as mailing the later an “out of the blue” email which was anything but. I received her terse response from New York City; “Brian, I am in a serious relationship now and I don’t feel comfortable writing you. Don’t take it personally”.


The response begged the question, “If it’s so serious, then why would you be so uncomfortable?”. And for that matter, how could I take it anything but personally?

I held my tongue and wrote back that if that changed and she wanted to be in touch in the future then the door would be open.

Though now I am starting to think that it’s closed and closed for good. I guess I just had to go through that little exercise to figure that one out. I started to feel better remembering why I had broken up with her in the first place.

Portuguese has a word that there is no equivalent to in either English or Spanish; Saudade. Roughly, it’s a melancholic longing for a past state that can no longer be. There is a sad aspect to it but it’s not entirely sad because there is a longing characteristic.

I was looking for a word to describe how I felt about my ex ex ex and I found it in another language, culture and country.

Take Six: Rio

Being single may be lonely, but it isn’t so bad in the land of lovely ladies.

I spent each of my weekends in the lovely-lady and thong capital of the world; Rio De Janiero. The first time I went in November it was sort of tainted by the experience of getting beaten by three thugs.

But I decided to give it a second go and a third and a forth. I know it sounds crazy, but I was on a such a positive vibe, I don’t think anything could have happened to me.

On my way from Belo Horizonte, they lost my plane and hotel reservations and I was pretty pissed that I had to pay for them myself. I only recently got reimbursed. But how much can you complain about multiple business junkets to Rio?

I fully admit to often having spoiled tendencies. It’s part of my beauty and charm.

I wound up a dirty a hotel that was trying to be boutique-y. It would have pulled it off if it weren’t the black couch with white stains. But I didn’t spend much time there and the girl at the front desk was so nice I just couldn’t complain. (No, she wasn’t hot).

The first night was very romantic. I went to a lovely restaurant, Za-Za Bistro Tropical all by myself. in Ipanema. Ipanema is a Tupi Guarani word meaning "bad waters" it is notorious for dangerous currents and few fish. Kind of appropriate given the last time I was here I got attacked. But really, it’s quite lovely and quite the antithesis of neighboring Copacabana with its sex tourist seediness.

Zaza is candle lit and has the best, most delicious fusion cuisine to be found in Rio. Drinking two of anything usually isn’t a problem for me, but I was nearly under the table after two of the most potent Caipirinhas I’ve ingested to date.

Alone and drinking by myself! I promise not to make a habit of it.

Take Seven: Record Shopping in the Rain

Saturday, I had big plans for renting a bike and seeing Rio on two wheels, but it rained most of the day. It was the universe’s intent that I go record shopping.

Just a block away from where Tom Jobim authored the Girl From Ipanema lies a fabulous record story called “Toca de Vinicius” for Vinicius de Moraes the famed Brazilian writer and poet. The rain poured down as I unfurled my umbrella and sought refuse within the store.

It was like I was Catholic visiting the Sistine chapel. Half the store was Bossa Nova CD’s, there was a Bossa Nova Museum upstairs and the sole employee, Leila was the sweetest, most helpful guide I could possibly have. I didn’t pay her a “real” (Brazilian currency), unless you count the thirty or so CD’s I bought.

She played CD after CD and introduced me to some of the best music I have ever hear; Tom, Elis, Joao, Astrud, Nara, Walter and even more recent accolades to the genre such as Lisa Ono.

At several points I was moved nearly to tears on the first listen. I listened and bought all after noon. Leila was also instrumental in hooking me up with what to do in out on the town. One night I saw a live Bossa Nova act.

She gave me several venues to hit and together with a fabulous article from the NYT by Seth Kugel, I triangulated my plans for the evening.

First stop, was Pao de Azucar, or Sugar Loaf. On the cable car up I stood next to a gorgeous Braziliera that occasionally glanced my way (See photo on left). Yeah, I should have talked to her, but I ended up talking to another women who turned out to be French and who spoke perfect English. Not only did I guess that she learned English in England, but I guessed correctly, that she learned it in the north in Manchester. I was pretty proud of myself.

We watched the sunset of the city. Copacabana looked like the buildings were poured into the sides of the mountain and kept at bay only by the sand and the sea.

Francina had just arrived that day and was taking one of those fabulous 5-week vacations, a luxury us Americans must only envy when we put down “old Europe” or refer to their “welfare states”. If this is welfare, I want in on the action! I wonder how our foreign policy would change if Americans had the time to take vacations abroad or took the time to learn other languages. Maybe people would hate us less. I made plans to meet her at her Hostel, Rio Backpackers, at 8. We went to dinner at the Vegetarian social club in Leblon and then hopped in a cab to Lapa.

Take Eight: Laps Around Lapa

I had stumbled upon Lapa the day before and I was scared for my life.

There is an old trolley in a quaint, hillside neighborhood called Santa Teresa that no one seems to know about. It wends its way down the mountain to Lapa. The trolleys are almost identical to those in San Francisco but they are about half-scale and un-restored and have been left to all but rot for the better part of the last century. They’re quite charming nonetheless. Picture, if you will, an SF cable car left out in the elements for say, 80 years in a tropical environment.

The favellas have metastasized up the hillsides since the time this formerly wealthy mansion district was home to the elite of Rio. Back in the day they’d just cruise downtown to the center on the cable car from their perch above the masses and now the masses come to them. As a result, each cable car comes with it’s own machine-gun wielding cop.

There is something about machine guns that just doesn’t reassure me.

I decided to walk down the hill following the tracks and my curiosity to Lapa. Down the mountain, the tracks led me to the famous white aqueduct which looks just great in the tourist photos, but is actually pretty sketchy up close and personal.

There are tons of people hanging out beneath its arches and I just felt a very uncomfortable vibe akin to my days as urban pioneer. Sort of like being the only white dude on Georgia Ave. NW back in the pre-gentrification days of my adopted hometown, Washington, DC. Only here not only was I a white dude, but also a foreigner (and hence rich), a tourist and a non-Portuguese speaker.

A day later, two women I met at “New Natural”, a fabulous vegetarian buffet in Ipanema, told me how they had been robbed at knife point by a suit wearing thug on the stairs I had walked near the aqueduct.

Back to the cab ride.

For the record, cabbies are among the most maligned workers in Latin America. In Mexico, taking a green street taxi is verboten.

I took my first green, street cab in DF by mistake and I now continue to take them if convenience dictates. I have never been ripped off, felt threaten or unsafe. It’s a different story with hotel taxis here, that are impolite and over priced. I do try to keep my “exposures” limited, but I take them when I need to. Luckily, these days my primary mechanism of transit has two wheels and is free. Well, back to Rio.

I already knew the layout of Rio fairly well and knew it was common practice for the taxis to take tourists along the longer beach route which is more scenic and more expensive. This didn’t bother me.

I knew the fastest way to Lapa was past the Lagoa (lagoon) yet we went through Copacabana, then to the airport, past it, and then back, toward the center and we did a lap around Lapa until we finally landed at Democraticos, the fabulous club recommended by Leila.

The price of the taxi was three times what it should have been and not surprisingly three times as expensive. Francina had no clue and even though part of my inner gringo was about to stick up for our rights, I really didn’t sweat this $8 and just decided to let it go.

We were in Rio but it looked like we were in Bosnia or say Camden. Lapa is full of some of the most gorgeous, but totally run down and decrepit turn of the century architecture. I thought Francina was crazy when she said it reminded her of parts of Paris.

We walked in the door and were transported back in time. Democraticos was a perfectly preserved and unchanged dance hall dating back a hundred or more years.

Take Eight: Last Night in Brazil

I dropped by the hostel to see if Francina was there, but she wasn’t. I met a wonderful girl, Maggie, who ran the hostel, but seemed more like the ringleader of fun. A group of the people at the hostel were going to attend a favela funk dance party in the very same favela City of God was filmed. It started at midnight, did I want to go?

I thought the better of it because I had to fly out at 6am. But without much persuasion, I decided, what the hell, how many times am I in Rio?

A group of us boarded a bus and amongst other things we were warned not to leave the dance hall under any circumstances. We arrived at Castelo Das Pedras and were absconded to a VIP area above the team and sweaty dance floor. What struck me most was that much of what I admired about Brazilians applied equally to Rio’s poorest and least fortunate denizens. Other than the fact they seem significantly shorter than the other Brazilians I had seen, they were equally as polite and non-judgmental. I immediately left the VIP area to dance among the people in the hot sweaty dance floor.

I felt no discomfort talking to girls or jealousy emanating from men. I met a cute girl named Diana and professed my love to her after the umpteenth capirinha. I even violated the rule of leaving the dance hall and went across the street to a bar with her. We must have talked for hours even though neither of us share a common language. I am pretty sure I entertained the hell out of her and a couple of guys in the bar. One of them stuffed a dollar bill in my pocket as good luck that I found the next day not quite remembering how it got there. One of the best things about being a foreigner is how curious people are about you and your culture and what you think of theirs. I felt like I was holding court in the favela bar.

I had no idea what time it was until a frantic Maggie found me and ushered me on to the bus. Apparently I had held the whole bus up and caused a minor panic. By the time I got back to my hotel in Copacabana, my alarm had been going off for an hour and it was daylight.

I missed my plane, but caught another to Sao Paulo and barely made my connection to Mexico. I had the pleasure of going through the full stages of drunkenness, hangover and recover, all in the span of one 10 hour flight.