Saturday, March 29, 2008

Girl from Ipanema

Like so many things, rock-climbing on Pao do Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was a good idea - viewing the sunset from the top, and the city light up underneath was stunning. It's just that the dramatic set of bruises and scrapes down my left leg so nicely match my skinned right leg - the result of tripping on the sidewalk in Santa Teresa. What can I say... they match my snazzy new red Brazilian bikini (my rather demure one-piece at Ipanema beach left me feeling like I'd turned up to a cocktail party in jeans and a t-shirt). They also have been amazing conversation pieces, resulting in some very nice interactions with Cariocas (people from Rio) - not too mention the acquisition of several phone numbers of some sympathetic guys.

The most distinctive feature of Rio - other than the stunning location between beautiful ocean and bumpy hills - is the people. Cariocas are extremely friendly and helpful - when I fell in Santa Teresa, I was surrounded by about fifteen people in seconds, all helping me up and checking to see if I was alright. Waiters at restaurants aren't in the least bit taken back by a female eating alone, and are happy to chat - despite my dreadful Portuguese. The only people I dislike are a certain brand of obnoxious Western tourist - the ones who loudly complain that no one in Rio speaks English (what? people in Brazil speaking only Portuguese? the gall!); who think that talking louder will make people understand them better; who told me off for giving the streetkids a few reais for opening the door for me (apparently it encourages them); and who were shocked that I was going to catch the public bus to the beach (they seem to feel they're in danger of being shot the moment they step out of their air-conditioned luxury bus). But aside from a few irritable moments, they haven't taken away from my enjoyment of this city.

And what a city: Rio has its share of sights (like the giant statue of Cristo Redentor - and, more amusingly, the tourists getting photos taken in front of the
statue, attempting to mimic the outstretched hands - and, even more amusingly, the sardonic British couple, whose only comment was how tiring it must have been for whoever modeled for the sculptor to hold the pose for a long time). There's Maracana Stadium, where I had a chance to cheer on the favourite team of our cook in the Amazon - filled with true sports fans play samba during the game, wave giant flags and sing songs. But, really, Rio is all about the beaches. I was never a beach person until I saw the culture here. The entire city is out - from favela kids to posh Cariocas in designer beachware. Beautiful men and women are playing volleyball - or futvolei, which is like volleyball but with a soccer-ball and no hands. You can get a massage, have your fortune told, or your hair braided. People are selling agua de coco and cervejas. There are the surfing spots and the fishing spots, the live music spots and the hang-glider spots, the swimming spots and the lying on the beach spots.

On my last day in Rio, I walked around the Lago (lake) behind Ipanema to the Jardim Botanical. The Jardim is relaxed and empty - filled with amazing plants, long walks edged with of tall palm trees, an orchid house and, surprisingly for the humid tropical climate, a cactus garden. And, oddly enough, I was most fascinated by the cacti - from all over South America, they came in every shape and size - including tree-like cacti that spiralled around each other in a living Escher drawing.

I spent my last few hours in South America lying on Ipanema Beach and chasing crashing waves. Normally I'm excited about traveling - or going home after a long trip; but I have never wanted to get on a plane less than on Thursday night. A day and a half later, I am now sitting in a coffee shop in Boulder feeling a mixture of culture shock and, well, cold.

Brazil is a unique mixture of scarlet macaws (paradoxically squawking quite obnoxiously) and leaf-like insects, of art galleries and museums, of beautiful tanned people playing beach volleyball next to favela kids selling underpriced sucos (juice).

I am looking forward to analyzing my data from this field campaign - I hope to find something complex and interesting. Something that will require a speedy - but lengthy - return...

Perhaps not so dangerous: Sao Paulo Part III.

Every guidebook and article on Sao Paulo is filled with warnings: more dangerous than Rio, don't get into a taxi, don't take public transit, and, no matter what you do, you seem almost guaranteed to be mugged, let alone kidnapped or killed. Normally I'm a pretty intrepid traveler, but the number of warnings I received had me at least slightly wary. After three uneventful days of wandering the streets and taking public transit in my searches for museums and markets, I think these fears were blown a little out of proportion.

Everywhere I've been in Sao Paulo (admittedly, mostly slightly touristy, upscale or at least well populated) has felt safe: every park I've walked through has had numerous police officers wandering around, and even the Mercadao Municipale had security guards at all the entrances. The metro is clean and well-lit, and while I obviously keep a hand on my bag at all times, I have found people to be very respectful of personal space. On the multiple occasions I've been 'disoriented' (okay, lost), I've had no problems getting directions from police officers or random people.

Perhaps I've just been lucky - or maybe it's the type of places I frequent (art galleries and sculpture gardens aren't normal haunts for bandits) - but Sao Paulo has been both safe and friendly. The most dangerous thing I've encountered here is the cachaca. There is golden cachaca as smooth as a good whiskey, that goes down as quickly and dangerously as guava juice. There is raw white cachaca that my friends have infused with the roots in an Afro-Brazilian tradition from Espirito Santos - you drink it on Good Friday to give you luck and strength in the coming years (that is, if my Portuguese was good enough to understand the drunken discussion!). It has a harsh bitter taste, the taste being at least indicative of its alcohol content. And then there are caipirinhias. Very dangerous things. Especially when there's an early morning flight the next day...

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Perhaps not so ugly: Sao Paulo Part II.

Sao Paulo probably doesn't have a very large amount of art when considered on a per capita basis. But that's considering the population is somewhere around 20 million. For a modern art afficionado, this is probably one of the most impressive cities to visit in the world. First, there are the galleries, of which there are dozens. I only visited three:

1. The MAM, or Museo de Arte Moderna, in the Ibirapuera park. A small and very eclectic collection of Brazilian art, seemingly brought together with no link other than their country of origin. The most beautiful piece was a drawing of an anteater, hidden in the outline of buildings; the most powerful piece, entitled 'Amazonia' or somesuch, showed jungle creatures and indigenous people painted in green, but under the blood red sky of a commerical airplane ; and the most bizarre piece was scattered throughout the gallery: a series of paintings covered up in MAM cardboard boxes with signs indicating that the pictures had been temporarily removed. An explanation at the door of the museum described how this random covering up of actual pieces should force one to think about expectations and what we learn from pieces of art that we expect to see but are unable to. While truly odd, it did have me thinking of what my emotions might be if I went to the Louvre only to find the Mona Lisa replaced by a card saying 'temporarily removed'.

2. The MASP (Sao Paulo Museum of Art) has a collection of Brazilian Impressionist paintings that completely changed my view of Brazilian art. More than that, the building is considered a piece of art in and of itself. It is a cement and glass rectangular box that sits raised on four red legs. Not, in my opinion, a work of beauty, but definitely a piece of art.

3. The Pinacoteca del Estado - the most impressive of the three. The building is a play of brick and glass - filled with open multi-story atriums, and skylights that interact with internal columns to create unique shadow effects. And, of course, some absolutely spectacular art. Probably the best collection (don't listen to what the guide books tell you!) - everything ranging from Brazilian Impressionist painting and art deco sculpture to modern portrait photography and a large, colourful sewn installation made from a variety of materials including socks, bras, and tablecloths.
Not sure what they were getting at with it, but quite strikingly draped across the Rodin sculptures...

And finally, there are the buildings of Sao Paulo themselves. While the vast majority are rather ordinary cement and glass skyscrapers and apartment buildings, there are still numerous more interesting buildings - pyramids, blocks inspired by Escher, art deco monoliths and Victorian masterpieces. Walking around the downtown core is exciting - standing at the top of one of the skyscrapers and looking out the expanse of city in every direction is plainly awe-inspiring.

Ugly and Dangerous and Totally in Love: Sao Paulo Part I.

I decided to come to Sao Paulo for a few days vacation on a whim. The airport was a necessary connection on my flight between Manaus and Rio, and extending the trip by a few days cost me nothing extra. My uncertainty about this whim was only reinforced by the reactions of numerous other scientists who had visited the city - 'what on earth are you planning on doing there?' ; 'there's nothing to do' ; 'it's just a really big, dangerous city' ; and the most popular response, a skeptical 'why???'.

As I say, it was a whim. Perhaps it was the fact that several Brazilian post-docs and graduate students I had met live in Sao Paulo, so I had a place to stay. Or the description of Sao Paulo and its mortadella sandwiches by Anthony Bourdain, the typically irreverant but always interesting food journalist. Or the fact that the NYTimes Travel section wrote that Sao Paulo is 'the ugliest, most dangerous city you'll ever love'. Who could resist that endorsement??

I certainly could not, and I am just so incredibly glad that I went ahead with that whim. I have completely fallen in love with this city. I've been here for three days so far, and they have been three perfect days:

I spent a day wandering with friends through Liberdade, the Asian district. Liberdade is a mixture of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and probably many other cultures. The street lights are hung on huge red arcs, and store signs are written in characters. We found some mouth-watering steamed buns filled with vegetables in a Chinese bakery, not to mention my first views of the expanse of cement high-rises and exposed power lines that characterize this city. The view carries as far as the eye can see - limited only by the urban haze.

From Liberdade, we progressed to the Parque de Ibirapuera - the city's answer to New York's Central - or Vancouver's Stanley - Park. The city was out - running, walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, playing futebol. But the park is also filled with art: no less than three modern art galleries, not to mention a sculpture garden of alternatingly grotesque (an impressionistic rendition of a spider about 5m high with
spindly organic legs) and beautiful and just plain bizarre (a metal tree) pieces.

After a lengthy walk in the park, we deserved a nice dinner - which is easy to find in the Avenida Paulista district. Actually, good food is easy to find anywhere in this city, as evidenced by the grilled salmon, fancy cakes, and extensive array of sushi I have managed to eat so far.

But the gastronomic highlight so far has been the Mercadao Municipal. I managed to find it this morning - after getting lost only a couple of times coming out of the Luz metro stop. The Mercado - apparently the 'new' one, because it was built in the early '30s - is filled with stalls with mounds of cheese, tropical fruits, olive oil, wine, and fish. Probably because it was the day before Good Friday, most stalls were selling piles of salted bachalhau (cod). People were checking the fish for quality and flavour, and I was solicited by an amazing number of vendors to buy their fish. I almost did, it looked so interesting! I settled for a pastel do bachalau for lunch - a fried empanada-like pastry filled with salted cod and flavoured with green onion, salt and pepper. To be honest, the texture of the pastel was a little tough, though the flavour was superb. The memorable part of the pastel was the experience: sitting at a counter and being handed was papers by fellow customers to soak up the grease, watching the barman pour chopp (draft beer) by making each glass of beer at least half foam with a special swirling technique, and chatting to my neighbours (who were convinced I was from Spain based on my incredibly bad Portuguese!).

But where the Mercadao was the culinary highlight, I think my experience last night was my overall highlight: going to a small nightclub with excellent samba music with the couple I'm staying with (one of whom is a musician who was called up to sing with the band before we were allowed to leave). The music was excellent (muito bom!) - a simple enough beat that I could follow along my partner without too much difficulty, but complex enough to appreciate as in its own right. The band was large, and included numerous singers and instruments - even an ordinary plate and spoon was used as the main percussion for one song! The club was located in a brick room, and stuffed to the gills with well-dressed Paulistanos - everyone moving to the beat, drinking beer and enjoying life. Quintessential Sao Paulo.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Farewell churrascaria

The campaign is over, and after a flurry of calibrating and packing, we finished up on Saturday. There was a great sense of relief that the work was finished and a slowly growing sense of how exhausted we all were. But more than that, I felt sad to leave this home. But what a send-off we received!

A few days ago, the cook asked me when I was leaving, and apparently made some pretty impressive arrangements. On Friday afternoon, a truck arrived with a massive amount of food - including my absolute favourite fish, tambaqui. On Saturday morning, a full churrascaria was set up - a large metal barbeque stand, with layers to grill the meat. Friends started to arrive on Saturday morning as well - mostly to help with final packing of all the instruments, but also a few extras... There were only three of us scientists left - the three girls - but we were given special treatment. Beers, guarana, and then we were taught to make caipirinhas. I don't know if I'll be able to recreate the cocktails, as they were pretty potent. This was all before lunch. I spent most of the time after the boxes had left (so from about 9:30am to 1:30pm) hanging out at the churrascaria learning the secrets from the cook.

He out-did himself - the fish was sublime. Roasted to perfection, with just some lime and butter for flavour. I hear that the roasted chicken and grilled steak was also pretty spectacular. There were salads on the side, and fresh watermelon for dessert. When the trucks that had taken our boxes to Manaus returned, they brought the families of various workers to the site. Many cervejas were drunk, as was chachaca with the bark of a liana infused into it.

I decided not to head back to Manaus right after lunch, and took a last walk to the stream with the INPA students. We went swimming, which was a perfect end to the day. I made it back to Manaus that night, happy, satisfecha (full!), and feeling rather sentimental. It's a stressful place to live - I won't miss looking for snakes on the way to the bathroom. Or finding snakes on the way to the bathroom. But I will miss my hammock. And the pool games (we had a final epic series of games on Friday night). The breakfasts of polenta and fried dough. And the constant sound of insects and birds.

There is something special about the Amazon - it's not just the plants or the animals or the daily downpour. Perhaps it originates from the isolation or the inevitable understanding of how small humanity is in the face of this enormous forest. Either way, I will miss it. But not so much that I am willing to delay my vacation! It's on to Sao Paulo this afternoon for five days, followed by Rio. A few days in one of the largest cities in the world seems like a good way to recover...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Beans for dishes

I'm shocked that I've been here in Brazil for seven and a half weeks. In that time, I've gotten used to being without NPR coverage of the primaries, hot showers and chai lattes. I don't think twice about sleeping in a hammock in a room with twenty other people and no walls (okay, there are bunk beds available again, but I choose to stay in the hammock as it's less mildewy), picking off the hand-sized moths and leaf-like insects from my computer in the mornings, or hiking to the instrument container in rubber boots every day.

But it's only a week and a half more here, and I'm already a bit nostalgiac. Tired and ready for a full night's sleep, some clean clothes and a good plate of sushi, but I have that feeling of the last couple of weeks of school, saying good bye to people I don't really know but who have become my family here.

For example, there's the bean game. Perhaps it's because there are so few of us left at the site, but last night, we (the foreigners) got to play for dishes with the Brazilians for the first time. Everyone piles their dishes in the middle of the table, and takes two (dry) beans. You then slam your fist on the table with some secret number of beans, and we go around guessing how many beans are on the table. Each number can only be taken once.

Once everyone has guessed, we all open our hands. Whoever guessed the correct number of beans gets to put one back, and once you've gotten rid of both your beans, you stand up and leave the table, out of the game. It was a close call last night. I made some poor guesses and was in the final round, so it was just Fazinio (the cook) and myself at the table with a horrendous number of dirty dishes. Fortunately I had the first guess, so put my remaining bean in my fist and slammed it down. With the ten other players and about six bystanders standing around the table cheering, jeering and generally making a lot of noise, I went with Uno. At which point poor Fazinio shook his head, opened his empty hand and let me stand up to the victorious cheers of the other scientists (and sympathetic sighs from the Brazilians).

Fazinio is a true character. He absolutely loves cooking, and takes care of the entire site. He is fastidious, cleaning every counter and table multiple times a day in the kitchen and dining area. He takes care of the two dogs, the parrot and keeps a stash of bread for the jungle chickens. In his spare time, he takes great delight in fishing. (I take even greater delight in eating the results). He knows how to wield a machete in the face of venomous snakes, doesn't flinch when a tarantula crawls into the kitchen and yet manages to tell jokes in Portuguese so well that even the foreign scientists have to laugh. He has a good eye for people, and always goes out of his way to show me the cool moths he notices, or the monkey stealthily crawling around behind the alojamento.

He also is the first person to grab the beans for the dishes every night. And, far more than pure chance would have it, is typically the last person with beans in his hand.