Saturday, January 31, 2009

More notes from Belo Horizonte

Yesterday we took a wild bus ride out to Pampulha in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte to visit the famous Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis designed by the famous architect of Brazilia Neimeyer and with artwork by Portinari. Allen has long said this church was the highlight of his previous visit. I didn't know what to expect, but as we entered, I saw the altar by Portinari and was immediately moved to tears.

Created in 1943 during the late war years of World War II, and obviously influenced by Picasso, Portinari's paintings reveal great sadness with economy of line (and muted colors, offset everywhere with blue and white tiles, a motif of birds and fishes reflecting Portuguese influence).

Neimeyer's building is magnificant, small, modest, yet turning walls into rolling waves, all directed back to the altar. Outside, blue and white tiles decorate the back of the building, chronicling the life of St. Francis and faith, a testament to both hope and despair in a time of world war.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Notes from Salvador . . .

We’re in Salvador until Tuesday. It’s hot and humid (near 90 every day), but we have a lovely air conditioned room complete with hammock and view overlooking the Bay of All Saints (locals call it the Bay of All Saints and Most Sins). I feel sinfully lazy, swinging in the hammock and reading Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands rich with details of life here in Salvador.

Salvador was the colonial capital of the Portuguese empire in the New World, and we are living just outside the Pelourinho, also called the “high city”. The district is filled with beautiful 17th and 18th Century Baroque buildings and churches, exotic Afro-Bahian music, and great Bahian restaurants -- and the legacy of slavery.

Today, we devoured a special dish called moqueca, a kind of shrimp and codfish stew, cooked right in a clay pot with a savory yellow sauce (trace of coconut, curry and maybe saffron with dende (palm) oil), and served with side dishes of toasted manioc, white rice, and pureed yam. The flavors linger in your mouth.

We also saw a terrific performance of the Bale Folclorico da Bahia, with dances of capoeira (originally a way of training slaves to fight, disguised as a dance with drums, sticks and swords), and dances featuring the gods of candomble (this Afro-Brasil religion), including Yemanje, the mermaid goddess or orixa.

As we walk down these cobblestoned, narrow streets, the culture of Africa mingled with Brazil is around us with many vibrant colors, street musicians, performers and dancers; and the music of drums, reggae, samba blasting from various loud speakers. I would love to bring some of the colorful folk paintings home.

This is not a rich country, and the people work very hard. Tourism is a new industry and much appreciated, but behind the glitter of the new are countless reminders to be careful. Salvador (and this neighborhood) can be dangerous, especially at night and away from the main streets. So we enjoy our daily walks, visit museums and churches, admire the tropical birds and flowers everywhere, grateful that we can see all of this with our own eyes. We hope for a better future for these warm and friendly people, and hope their unique and beautiful culture (recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage treasure) is preserved.

This week’s POP QUESTION: Can you name this yellow bird that is just one of many (including hummingbirds called beja-flor – kiss the flower) that visit the red tile roof near our breakfast verandah each morning? I promise a reward of some kind. Not sure what, but I’ll come up with something.

Friday, January 23, 2009

From Rio to Salvador . . . still in Brazil.

Jan 21. The 27-hour bus ride went very quickly as we traveled north from Rio through the hinterlands of the Brazilian coast to Salvador. We stopped about every three hours to eat, visit the baneiros, change drivers, and stretch our legs. I’ve tasted three different kinds of flan already, but none so good as that made by Vera. I can recommend the grill, and we’ve seen small herds of cattle everywhere. The cattle are very large, with floppy ears that hang down, and some with ferocious horns. We have blankets to cuddle under and a fascinating view of endlessly changing terrain as our driver takes us through mountains, very rich tropical valleys full of banana palms and red flowering trees. We see isolated clusters of houses, capped with red tiles, and rolling hills to the horizon. Finally our bus turns down to the coast and Salvador, a busy port town yet with a sophisticated beach front. Workers set up temporary viewing stands for the Carnival begins in just two weeks.

Our hotel, the Pousada do Boqueirao, hides behind a colonial fa├žade. We enter into sunlit rooms and up the marble stairs, past a large painting of a mermaid (Yemanja), and down a dark hall to the back of the hotel. Our room opens with a verandah and an ocean/bay view. We can watch ships leaving, hear the chip-chip-chip of hummingbirds over the traffic far below. Tomorrow we’ll explore. Tonight we’re just exhausted. We took a shower in our little blue and white tiled bathroom and are relaxing in our room, complete with hammock, view, lovely old table with two chairs, a sofa, an armoir, and elegant high ceilings with a fan. It’s barely cool enough for us to open the shutters. Later, we’ll go out in search of a television to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.

I begin to understand the preoccupation that Latin American writers have with isolation and decay. Even with the scope of what we saw today, the countryside seems barely tamed. I find myself more comfortable in the cities, as large and busy as they are, for the jungle looms trackless and endless. Everywhere we see little isolated houses that have been abandoned. The heat continues as well, making everyone move slowly, if at all.

While in Rio, we took the bonge (trolley) up to the Santa Teresa district to visit ruins and the Meuse Ceu (lovely art by Concalvo, Portinari and others, and a 18th-19th Century library, with some prints and books dotted with age). And yet, as we walked down through this lovely colonial district, some homes had also been locked up. Their fine colonial bones were covered with graffiti. I could almost see them mouldering away in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marca. We saw two old women sitting in a shady garden talking, not moving, entirely white, as if the sun had never touched them, the neighborhood aging around them. One feels enervated, waiting for the sun to fall into the sea, and thirsty for water all the time. Only the vibrant music wakes us up, transforms us, propels us to dance in the streets, even the old ladies tap their feet; magical realism simmers under everything Latin American.

Update: It´s now Friday and I´m down the street from our hotel, fighting a Portuguese keyboard and slow internet access, but all is truly well. We´re back on the bus on Tuesday, another 20-hour ride to Belo Horizonte. It will be hard to say goodbye to vibrant Salvador with its sweeping vistas of the bay, vibrant Bahian culture, and wonderful, wonderful foods. I wish you all just one day of 90 degrees to compensate for the snow that some of you are having. Think hats, suntan lotion and lots of air conditioning. And dinner on a verandah overlooking the bay as the sun fades to starry, starry night.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blame it on Rio . . .

What a wild town. . . I now know why the people walk so slowly. It's too hot to walk as fast as we do in the north. And very warm, up to 90 today, we wandered through colonial neighborhoods to find the Museu do Indo, a small museum of Brazilian indigenous peoples, their beliefs and artifacts.

We must have walked miles to the Urca neighborhood by the bay near Sugarloaf to sit in an open air cafe, Garota da Urca, by the beach. Our waiter brought us Cuban chicken with crusty fried bananas that melted in our mouths, and rice mixed with peas, green peppers, ham and plump, big raisins. Afterwards, cafe espresso. I'm addicted.

We took two cable cars to the top of Sugarloaf (Pau d'azucar) for sweeping vistas of Rio and watched the sun set and the lights of the city slowly blink on.

Yesterday in Copacabana, we spotted this sand castle. At first I noticed all the crosses and thought how religious. But check the image over the gate! And if you like, check out more pictures on Webshots (see link to the right).

Tomorrow perhaps an excursion to Santa Teresa, a trolley car ride, ruins and another museum of the colonial era. That's after a leisurely breakfast and a morning spent writing. Internet access is still chancey, but when we scan the newspapers in Portuguese to keep up and hit CNN when we're connected. The news on CNN is far grimmer on the U.S. and world economy than what's reported in Rio's Globo, which currently runs distressing headlines about the attacks and counterattacks between Gaza and Israel.

We do see a few young men sleeping in the streets and an occasional beggar. Nothing like what I'd see in San Francisco. People easily walk on the streets at night (but we've not been out later than 9 pm; some would call us slackers). Everyone we've talked to is excited about Obama's presidency, now just a week away. Here in this beach town, everyone seems set on simply getting to the beach and to the sun. I'm starting to feel guilty about being retired, but not too guilty. May you find joy wherever you are!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hello from Rio . . .

It's a sunny morning, low 80s today, and we're in Rio, right next to Copacabana Beach. Last night we strolled along the beach, watching the young kids play kick volleyball. We saw a statue covered with flowers. I thought it was a street performer. Allen said it was a statue. I dropped some coins in a nearby basket, and the statue came to life! He made a beautiful paper rose out of a napkin and then froze.

We're in a nice hotel now, but no internet. Vera, if you read this, Rio is as beautiful as you remember. Yesterday we took the cog train and climbed up the stairs to reach the foot of Cristo Redentor, the famous status of Christ overlooking Rio. Ah, que vista!

For now, the writing goes well, we sweat, we eat delicious foods (pineapple and grilled chicken sandwich!), and we sleep in air conditioned comfort. Today, Allen plans a trek to four bookstores to prepare for Argentina. I'm thinking about the 27-hour bus ride to Salvador. May your week go well!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Farewell to Sao Paulo . . .

This morning we leave Sao Paulo for Rio, a 7-hour bus ride on a "sleeper", but beaches beckon.

Yesterday we invested in a dictionary, that and the newspaper supplement the appendix in Lonely Planet. Spanish and Portuguese continue to melt together, and we both function reasonably well.

Yesterday also was perhaps our greatest adventure here in Sao Paulo as we took the METRO to the Museu Afro-Brasil and were delighted by the exhibits there. My favorites were absolutely fantastic quilted wall hangings of the jungle, elephants, monkeys, exquisite flowers, bright colors, tiny, tiny stitches. Ah, no pictures allowed.

And we encountered Yemanja, a sea goddess with a mermaid tail, ruler of the top half of the ocean, creator of the first man and woman, most commonly shown with a syncretic overlay of the Virgin Mary, complete with blue robe, hands trailing pearls, and, at times, her mermaid tail peeking from beneath her skirts. We may actually be in Salvador coincidentally on one of the days celebrating Yemanja as Our Lady of Seafarers (Nuestra Senora de Navegantes).

The true adventure began on our way home on the METRO at rush hour. Every single image you may have of people crammed into a subway car is true. I have never seen so many people in one place at one time. I was able to plough through a wall of souls by crying out: "Succor! Desculpa!! Obregada!" (Help! Excuse me!! Thank you!) and so we made it home.

Picture from:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Exploring Sao Paulo . . .

No matter what time of day we walk out on the streets of Sao Paulo, there's always something new to see. Today we took the METRO and made three transfers to take a walking tour in the Sampa neighborhood (see the slideshow below). Allen's gray hair causes people to jump up and offer him a seat for here in Brazil most people are younger. The METRO is easy to use and was very crowded on the way back to our hotel.

But we were able to see the Theatro Municipal with its monumental sculptures in baroque style, including Hercules, and pass by a lovely Parque Anhangabau, where once the Tupi-Guarani people called this valley, Demon's Valley, for they believed bad spirits once lived here. Today the Parque is entirely baroque in style, with a fountain of bronze horses to rival Rome's Trevi Fountain. We visited several churches and a cathedral, stopped for coffee, and then ended the day at Kazan, a highly recommended Japanese restaurant. Sao Paulo has the largest community of Japanese outside of Japan and their sushi is touted to be the best in the world. We agree!

Thanks to craigslist again and the internet, we were able to secure an apartment in Rio just one block from the beach in Copacabana, where temperatures will be in the upper 70s. By Jan 8, we'll be headed south, with fond memories of Sao Paulo to carry us. I think I will remember most the little gated city gardens, the very friendly people despite our fragmentary knowledge of Portuguese, the very fast drivers (including helmeted motorbike drivers), and with a population in the city itself of 12.6 million (29 million including the suburbs), I think we barely scratched the surface!

Enjoy the slideshow or download any picture directly from Webshots (see link to the right).

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sao Paulo . . .

2009 begins in Brazil. Orchids grow wild here, high in the trees along busy Sao Paulo streets. We see flowers I cannot name along with bouganville, impatients, hibiscus trees, and palms of every order. The people do not rush. They stroll hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm, dressed for warm weather in shorts and skirts and sandals. They sit in cafes sipping coffee in the afternoon and wine in the evening.

After a 24-hour journey (including champagne at midnight on the plane) and two layovers, we nearly napped all of January 1 away at our hotel for this week in Sao Paulo, the Pousada Dona Zilah in the very green jardins (gardens) district.

Today we walked 10 blocks or so to MASP, the Museum of Art, Sao Paulo, to stroll as Brazilians do before the masters – Picasso, Rembrandt, Modigliani, Diego Rivera Joshua Reynolds, El Greco, Bosch, and new to us, the Brazilian artist, Portinari, among many, many others. We’ll return tomorrow.

Tonight I can sing praises to Brazilian pizza, the best I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. One day I will try to make our choice at the Margarita Pizza restaurant, their Godfather pizza with rough chopped boiled egg, slices of fresh tomato and ham, delicately flavored black olives, and cheese all baked crusty in an old-fashioned brick oven. We sleep comfortably with a simple fan turned on through the night for temperatures in the high 70s. Except for missing family and friends, this approaches heaven! I officially thank United for their mileage plus program! Total flying cost for two, round-trip from the US to Brazil, US $120.