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Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores
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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A trip to Brazil

A business trip is never the best opportunity to explore a place. You are surrounded by colleagues or clients who are rather similar to you. You end up staying at better hotels, commute most of the time by car, and eat at places where waiters have to shave before coming to work. All these set up a shield between the business traveler and the surroundings and in extreme cases the only experience he can have of a new place is a short walk through the airport duty free shop. It also means that in a place with extreme income inequality like Brazil, you end up having no clue about how 90% of Brazilians live like even when you have stayed in the country for over a week.

The trip began with a short stay at Sao Paulo (locals say it as San Paulo). The city has a certain edgy feel about it. Unconventional hairstyles and intricate body arts are a bit more common here than usual. There are small bookshops located every ten meters or so on the pavements selling cheap paperbacks for $5 or so. Not the usual superhits or self-help books; but books by Neruda, Marx, and Kafka fight with each other for the prime display slot. English is rarely spoken in this city which produces 30% of Brazil’s output and we soon realize that this is going to be one of the most difficult places to make yourself understandable to the locals. However, a few familiar words like Batata (potato) and Kaju (cashew) provide some relief.

Next day, we head off to Belo Horizonte, capital of the state Minas Gerais, home to political stalwarts like Tancredo Neves and Dilma Rousseff. The lady of Japanese origin, manning the airport check-in, is starstruck to see an Indian taking a domestic flight in Brazil. The city of Belo Horizonte, though the fourth largest in Brazil, is relatively new and has few tourist attractions to boast of except for the huge Central Market with its overwhelming smells of cheese, meat, spices, alcohol, and pet shit. The street art is also something worth mentioning; my favorite being that of a one eyed female monster whose nudity has been censored by someone in a mysterious setting. Was it the police who put a fresh coat of paint over the contentious area or was it part of the artist’s grand design?

On Sunday, we are off to Ouro Preto, a colonial town and one of the most popular tourist resorts for Brazilians. The cobbled and undulating streets, the densely packed colored houses with red-tiled roofs and an abundance of half-decent churches make this an interesting place. The churches charge a fee for the price of praying to their God and forbid you from taking pictures inside so that they can sell more postcards. Or may be they don’t want to let the outside world know that God’s chambers also rust and corrode over time. On the way back to Belo Horizonte, there is a region called “ocean” which offers a spectacular panorama of several blue hills covered with mist and white clouds. This is the third day, and unfamiliarity with the Brazilian Portuguese language has become a critical issue by now. Anywhere else in the world, you can point your finger towards a picture in McDonalds and be certain that you will be fed within one minute. Not so in Brazil, where a foreigner is advised to patiently use all movable body parts for communicating so that he can ensure that the glorious double burger chooses his gut to travel to its final destination, the sewer. Such stories abound; in one instance my fellow traveler asked for cashews and the waiter returned instantly with a bottle of water.

At the end of the business schedule, we manage to squeeze in a couple of days in Rio de Janeiro. Rio is a beautiful city with lush green mountains and islands scattered in the Atlantic Ocean. The houses are squeezed in between the steep hills, the tropical rain forest and the vast ocean as if mankind has somehow bargained for a little space from nature. I think if nature was perfectly designed, the color of the forests and the greenery would have been a lighter shade of green; and if man were the ultimate creature, he would have let this area remain pristine without the condominiums.

Beaches, the highlight of Rio, comprises of miles and miles of white sands, mid-sized waves, eateries and drink joints and hundreds and thousands of scantily clad bodies which probably created an image different from similarly vibrant beaches in Mumbai or Chennai. The famous beaches of Ipanema and Copa Cabana are lined with people with great bodies and not so great bodies. Old women walk about in bikinis, a beer in their hands. There are many open air gyms along the beaches and beach volleyball games can be seen at every block. The most famous landmark of the Christ, the redeemer, is not worth the price you pay to get up the hill, but the views from the top are quite splendid, cloud permitting when one can see the Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Maracana stadium and the lagoon. The penis shaped Sugar Loaf Mountain would surely have given Amarnath a competition for Hindu pilgrim fantasies had it been located in India. Tourists get into all kinds of compromising poses to get a camera shot of the full body of the Christ statue. I personally would have preferred a statue of Marighella Carlos or Tiradentes, Brazil’s own martyrs. Close to Ipanema is a 7.5 km lagoon at the centre with views of the Christ and other beautiful hills provide real estate agents an opportunity to rip-off gullible buyers and a great landscape for long distance running. The city is filled with funky bean shaped telephone booths; often filled with adverts by prostitutes or brothels, some highlighting that they have air-conditioned rooms available. At the hippie market in Ipanema, a hippie can find all the essential things he needs for his day to day life: trinkets, beads, mandala t-shirts. The designs are excellent but the prices are super expensive, but then one can’t expect hippies to get many things right at the same time. Many of the shop owners have black and white pictures from the glory days when they were hippie and sexually attractive at the same time.

One final word about the oft repeated security concerns in Brazil. Beaches do empty out after sunset. And most people carry cheap mobile phones for the fear of mugging. Our client had arranged for us state security who followed us everywhere during the weekdays. At Rio, we followed the white man’s tourist books and remained out of danger. The famous favellas (slums) can only be seen from car windows from where they seemed rather prosperous compared to the ones in Mumbai. All the same, drastic inequalities are evident and it is no surprise that Brazil has so much crime. Beggars hang around the posh supermarkets of Ipanema hoping that a kind heart would buy some food for them. Every time this happens, the humble honest smile with which they look at the obliging person will remain for me the most memorable moments in Brazil.

P.S. Pictures from Brazil

Rio de Janeiro
Belo Horizonte
Lagoa Santa
Ouro Preto

Sao Paulo


Anonymous said...
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Regina said...

a very insightful post. wish you did get to see the favellas, though i find it really nasty for tourists to treat locals like zoo animals by taking pictures, short of offering them bread. its condescending and shameless.

thanks for writing this. i'll make brazil one of the places i'd visit before i have children. thanks, ji.