Sunday, August 24, 2014

Trindade - the way it was before

The secret to traveling in Brazil is to get to these bars before they put in a floor, walls and air conditioning!

Brazil is changing year after year. Some say for the better; some say otherwise. As travelers throughout Brazil, Luiz and I have seen a lot of “evolution” at the natural places we love to visit. What I have witnessed over the past 15 years, in terms of the development of previously rural or sparsely populated coastal areas, is a fraction of the changes Luiz has seen since his early adventures as a teenager. He and his friends were frequent campers on beaches and in tiny towns long before comfortable pousadas appeared on the scene.

Sorry Cabo Frio. Not my favorite beachfront view.

Sometimes the “progress” is stark and ugly. I think it is safe to say that Cabo Frio is a fail, having lurched blindly into the fast lane of tourism development. While the beach has stayed clean and the water remains spectacularly clear and crystal blue, you need only look behind you to the burgeoning little city and its wincingly soulless, crowded and chaotic beach-town tourist lowest-common-denominator “development.” Hint: if you want to visit the beautiful sea near Cabo Frio (without doing the whole European upscale thing of Buzios) set your sights on neighboring Arraial do Cabo.

Arraial do Cabo: still a small town - with lots of beaches, and just a cab ride from Cabo Frio.

This post, however, is meant to focus on the success story (so far) that is Trindade.

Luiz and I have been to Trindade in the past. You can learn more about our first visit (and see photos of a very fat Jim) here. At that time we enjoyed a small coastal hippie town that was slowly morphing before everyone’s eyes into a burgeoning (on a tiny scale) coastal getaway for the Paulistas escaping their urban zoo for a weekend. We felt lucky to have been there before it was totally overrun.

During our first visit to Trindade we loved the fact that the tiny, winding access road that enters the village literally traverses a stone waterfall/spillway where the forest meets the sea. No bridge, just a shallow stream of water easily driven through. This bit remains exactly the same.

That wonderful lunch from years ago.

It was our birthdays when we first visited (as it was, again, this second time around) and we ate a spectacularly generous and delicious seafood pasta in a clay pot lunch at a beachside restaurant. I remember thinking at the time that the restaurant was clearly a “temporary-turned permanent” type of structure plopped down on the sand just out of reach of the tide. It was convenient and had great views/ambiance, but it was also an eyesore on an otherwise pristine tiny beach in a natural area. There were several such invasive restaurants lining the shore.

This past May we revisited Trindade on a day trip down from a beach house retreat just outside of Angra dos Reis. It was our birthdays and we were spending a long week touching base with some of our favorite local gems: Ilha Grande, Paraty, Angra do Reis and Trindade.

I had my heart set on a return visit to the restaurant for that amazing seafood pasta.

Imagine my surprise (and heartwarming delight) when we hiked out to the little beach and found it totally bare of any built structures. None. Nothing. Just a woman selling cold beverages from a cooler – and a beautiful natural beach!

Could it be? Is it possible? Could IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) actually be enforcing environmental laws? Did IBAMA actually kick squatters (even delicious seafood pasta making ones) off of environmentally sensitive national forest land? According to the itinerant cold drinks saleswoman that is exactly what happened.

No buildings... yay.

I am standing where the restaurant used to be.

Cue swelling music. Yay! Thank you IBAMA. Thank you Brazil. Yay!!
The beach at Trindade (one of them, there are many) the way it was 20 years ago! Go visit. Go see for yourself.

Looking up from the water - Luiz is where the restaurants used to be. There are small traces of cement floors still in the sand.

Now if we could just put a limit on how many Paulistas can override the place on a holiday weekend. But hey… I don’t blame them. It is a beautiful place.

I love this shot of the bus stop at the edge of town.

And speaking of beautiful getaways that remain natural - don't forget the Juatinga Ecological Reserve that is located along the coast between Trindade and Paraty. We have had some great times there too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Did I miss the memo?

Living abroad means that sometimes you just don’t get the memo. In the beginning I was ever-vigilant about things like what time to actually show up when invited for lunch at 12:30, or how best to befriend your new housekeeper, communicating respect, without totally freaking her out with your openness, or who to kiss hello and goodbye (including your dentist or cardiologist) and with how many slightly audible smacks.

I got the memo in advance about what to take to the beach (i.e. not a big towel, nor nearly anything else for that matter). My husband keeps slipping me the memo about flattery working better than sternness every time I get frustrated with a bank manager. And my mother-in-law has not given up trying to get me to read the memo about the omnipotence of the Brazilian family matriarch.

If you are no longer a teenager... wear the Speedo. [These boys look like they need some sunscreen as well!]

It didn't take long after I starting living here before I had to decide on which futebol team would be “my team.” Or better put, which team “was I?” According to the memo, here in Brazil people are not asking you which team you root for, they want to know which team you are. If you are asked: “What is your favorite futebol team?” the right answer begins with: “I am….” Nowadays my response is “Eu sou Flamengo.” “I am Flamengo.” Got it.

And speaking of futebol, there were a whole bunch of memos that must have gone out just before the World Cup started. Some I got, like the one that said to wear green and yellow on all game days. Everyone (EVERYONE), in any context, seems to have gotten that memo.

Several of my students slipped me the memo that said all bets are off regarding scheduled appointments or classes on game days for Brazil. Plus in Rio – if there is ANY game happening at Maracanã stadium, chances are businesses are closed (city government offices are certainly closed) or appointments are cancelled to avoid the craziness on the streets.

The one I didn't get (but should have anticipated) is the one that apparently told most workers that even though their boss will call them in for half a day on game days, letting them go a few hours before match time, they really don’t have to actually get any work done. So any attempt by unfamiliar gringos like me to, say, do some banking, or get a phone company issue resolved, or speak with a representative from the health insurance company --- forgeddaboutit.

OK, that’s fine. It's all good. Now I know. I’m not in a hurry anyway… For all intents and purposes, business in Brazil resumes in mid-July, after the World Cup has come to a (hopefully glorious) conclusion. Got the memo.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Finding fresh heart of palm

Hearts of palm. Yum. I love those little babies. I love them in a clean fresh salad. They are super yummy roasted. Pasteis de Palmito are to die for. Palmitos – just plain yum.

When I first moved here I was excited by the idea of moving so close to the source of this delicious harvest. Palm trees. Brazil has a gazillion palm trees. Heart of palm should be a cheap and abundant yummy treat, right? Uh, yeah, not so much.

Turns out that Brazil was one of the biggest “producers” of palm hearts until the 1990s when the “farmers” realized that they had chopped away at most of the wild supply of suitable palm trees and their supply was dropping precipitously. At that point they had to get into the business of actually farming the plant and managing their harvests. So supply dropped for a while.

My purchase. I had the guy machete the edible center out of the outer layers.

Not all of the freelance palm poachers took to farming. Maybe they are out there snatching up wild açai or illegal song birds, or something. But those that did make the switch have seen things get off to a (normal) slow start. So prices are not so low. Plus, they export the really good stuff. So those of us actually living in palm tree heaven wind up paying a little more for a lesser quality product. Ah Brazil. You sure know how to break a guy’s heart. (Real heart, not the palm heart.)

Once cut out the center oxidizes quickly. Gotta get it into water.

At any rate, I saw a vendor at the street market today selling fresh palm hearts, still in the protective outer layers of non-edible palm-ness. Excited to see it so fresh, and reasonably priced, I bought a stalk.
I paid R$10 for what resulted in about 420 grams of yummy edibleness. That compares to a 300g jar sold for R$9. I saved a little more than R$2, relatively speaking. That 300g jar in the States goes for about US$4.25.

Stop. Stop right there. I see you US Americans doing the conversion in your head and saying to yourself: “So, hmmm, R$9 a jar there is just about the same as R$4.25 a jar here. Not bad…”  NOPE. It doesn't work that way. First, I am not a tourist at my grocery store spending my US earned US dollars on a product priced in Brazilian reais. If I earn my $$ in reais, I spend it in reais. So my R$9 is R$9. Then you have to consider that wages here are generally speaking half of what they are in the States for similar work (worse, most often, but let’s not squabble). So in reality that yummy looking little jar of lesser quality domestic brand hearts of palm is costing me, in very real terms (so to speak), a lot more than you in the States are buying it for.  Bummer. So much for moving to Brazil to get a deal on palm hearts.

How it should look after roasting. Yum.

Ah well. Big deal. The point is – it is yummy! And I got a big piece of it for a good deal today at my local street fruit and veggies market. My plan is to chop up half of it for a salad (and to just munch) – and to oil, salt, pepper, wrap in foil and roast the other half and have it with my dinner.

It was a good day at the market – and tangerines are in season too!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Brazil and the double edge sword that is the World Cup

I love this logo.

The Expat Blog Police just sent me a final notice. They are going to take away my membership card if I don’t post about the World Cup coming to Brazil.

Everyone has done it. Some bloggers have posted wicked (good and bad) critiques of FIFA and Brazilian politicians who are milking taxpayers for money they don’t have to line their pockets in the name of futebol. Other bloggers have tried to stay positive and posted videos and news bits about players, teams and home town pride in the lead up to the contest. One big theme has been the massive public response in Brazil against the wasteful spending on soon-to-be white elephant mega stadiums (some built in cities that don’t even have a home futebol team!) at the expense of improvements in healthcare, education, urban development and other proper priorities.

My commitment to myself here at Qualidade de Vida has been to keep it positive. Living abroad, living in Brazil, struggling to learn a new language and to adapt to new cultural norms – it’s not an easy road. While there are a ton of really fun and cool things that come your way, there are also some pretty challenging realities that wear on you. The internet machine is full of very vocal people griping about how crappy their life has become since they moved to Brazil and had to turn in their minivan and their dream of a GE Profile PFE29PSDSS refrigerator that automatically fills your water glass without spilling. Truth be told, there are some realities in Brazil worth griping about. But that makes for a lousy blog post, in my opinion.

If you know me you know that I am not a futebol fan. I don’t know the rules of soccer. I have never watched a basket ball game through in its entirety. The gratuitous violence in so many hockey games turns me off. The cultural grip American football has over the social construction of masculinity in the United States makes me sad. Sports have never been my thing. But hey, I get it that others go bonkers over this stuff. It’s all good. Go for it. But please don’t be stupid.

It seemed to me that the World Cup coming to Brazil was potentially a really good thing. Brazilians live and breathe futebol in such an all-consuming way that is difficult (perhaps impossible) to imagine if you don’t live here. This was an opportunity to put that passion on a world stage and really shine. It was an opportunity for Brazilians, the vast majority of whom have relatively little to nothing in terms of daily comforts, to focus on national pride and escape the hardships of their normal waking hours. Somewhere in here was an opportunity to leverage preparation spending to benefit locals in the long run.

But the World Cup is actually a big business venture. Oh yeah, they have international sports heroes play some games and all, but at the end of the day the event – the actual nuts and bolts of the event – is a venture capitalist’s wet dream. And the politicians that get to play with other people’s money? Well they are like pigs in slop. The television networks will make their money. Coca-cola, Budweiser and Visa will reinforce their brand to their followers. And large developers will make a killing on slip shod building projects that shine in the short term and then sit to decay when the cameras shut off.

Are we surprised? Is this unique to Brazil? Sadly no. FIFA has been leaving messes like this in their wake for a generation. The Olympic Committee comes to mind as another culprit of capitalizing on the public’s need to escape our daily drudgery if only for a short while. The Super Bowl folks in the States play this game, selling struggling communities the “privilege” to wave tax policies and local environmental ordinances to build unnecessary stadiums with money they don’t have on the promise of future glory which never comes… blah, blah, blah.

For me the good news is that this kind of corporate greed and political malfeasance is so in your face that the public gets awakened from their sleep and digs in for a chance to speak their mind. The communities displaced by developers making papier mâché facilities stand up and demand to be heard. Tax payers who may typically let a little corruption with public funds go unanswered suddenly say “enough.” A population is reminded who is supposed to be in charge and asserts itself to reestablish that order. Sometimes there is progress. Often times not. But at least people come alive for a short while and new activists are born.

Brazilians all across the country have been speaking up to say “enough.” There is a long political tradition here, like in so many developing countries and elsewhere, of deeply entrenched corruption.  It is endemic in the worst way. The population has largely been beaten into submission and share a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to politicians actually doing anything honest or truly good for the people – without also stealing a boat load of money in the process. But there is also a strong tradition of rebellion. Brazilians are fighters. Don’t forget it was just 30 years ago, in 1984, that widespread, organized, public pressure resulted in the brutal dictatorial government of Brazil surrendering to a popularly installed democratic administration. The taste of people power still lingers in the mouths of many present day citizens.

"Our heroes are teachers, not futebol players."

The current repulsive examples of corrupt politicians, greedy investors, entitled corporations and crony media networks has once again awakened a sleeping giant in Brazil. Students, urban residents, parents, religious leaders, artists, native peoples, labor unions… you name it. Look around – folks are pissed. Some say we are in for another round of people power that will result in real, lasting and proper changes for the better. Others just sigh and try to go back to sleep. We’ll see…

But the World Cup is coming. Billions have been spent. Sports broadcasters from around the globe are settling in for a fun ride. Fans are hoping for the best. And Brazilians still stand among the most enthusiastic fans once their team takes to the field. Politicians be damned – let’s play some futebol!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem in Niterói

It’s one of those ideal spots for a church, or a fort. The tiny Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem church, which has a long, storied history, has survived nearly 350 years perched atop a tiny island just inside the mouth of Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

And that's the Christ the Redeemer statue perch in Rio way off in the distance in the center of the photo.

You can see the church just across the water from our neighborhood Icaraí beach. It occupies what is now the background to the more popular photo of Oscar Neimeyer’s iconic Contemporary Art Museum building. I’ve always wanted to visit the site but it was either closed to the public awaiting yet another round of restoration work or the access gate was locked shut.

This access bridge to the island was built in the 1970s.
The rare day when this gate is unlocked.
It's a long way up a very old stone walkway.

Now that the church has been brought back to working order it is only open to the public one Sunday a month. This past Sunday was my chance to see it up close, and to get spectacular views of Rio, the bay and back at Niterói.

Originally commissioned in December, 1663, the church was eventually completed in 1734. Over the centuries it was expanded, burned to the ground, rebuilt, handed over from one custodian to another, abandoned, rebuilt, closed again and finally maintained by a local Boys Club chapter on a minimal stipend from the city.

It’s a cute, if nondescript, little chapel. This church is really all about location.

To visit the island and the church plan your trip for the fourth Sunday of the month. The gate is opened in the morning, mass is celebrated at 10:00 a.m., and then the gate gets closed up in early evening.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Brazil is changing before my eyes

As I remember it.

My first visit to Brazil was in 1999. Luiz and I had met early in the year in San Francisco, CA and he soon thereafter began encouraging me to buy a plane ticket to Rio to join him on the beach in Copacabana on NYE for the millennial fireworks. Tempting as it was I was hesitant to lock in a plane ticket months in advance for a trip with a guy I was not sure I would still want to be spending time with. Little did I know Luiz has an instinct for these sorts of things. I’m glad I secured a seat on that plane.

Brazil has changed a lot in the past 14+ years. Some of the things that enamored me with the country at first blush have since faded into history, like the relative lawlessness in everyday life and the liberty that it provided. But also, some of the things that have begun to fade into history have been met with relief, like the relative lawlessness in everyday life that is better suited to a vacation than a daily living situation.

The town matriarch's house is closed up now.

Luiz and I spent this past long Easter weekend with friends in one of our favorite nearby mountain villages: Boa Esperança. I can’t say for sure, but I think the year-round resident population is something like a few hundred, if you also include the dogs, horses and VW Beetles. As tiny and remote as it is, Boa Esperança has certainly changed in recent years.

Dora and Sergão have upgraded their rental from a teeny tiny place to this beautiful three bedroom palace.

It’s not a big thing (well, maybe it is). Not too much has changed. But you can definitely feel change/progress/lost simplicity in the air.

The old dirt road is history.
Now the road is paved. But the air continues to be crystal clear.

Local residents are happy about the recent paving of the road up from neighboring Lumiar. The asphalt now extends all the way to the final intersection in town (although it does not branch outward onto intersecting residential roads). At least now the bus can reach its turnaround point without herniating the spinal disks of its passengers. This is a great improvement if you live there. For us occasional visitors it has removed some of the romance.

The waterfall on private land a good 1,000 meters up the mountain beyond the end of the pavement has morphed into a more developed family picnic spot. Gone are the days of calling out a hello to the owner and his wife when entering, swimming alone in the waterfall, and then being among just your friends and a few additional folks back in the picnic area. Now there is a full-on bar and luncheonette with extensive seating. The newly improved cement path that steeply descends from the access road to the property helps you not rip apart another pair of flip flops. But, unfortunately, now there is a young man sitting at a plastic patio table at the bottom ready to collect a R$3 entrance fee. I don’t blame the family for commercializing their hidden treasure. It is a good idea and it was bound to happen.

I just miss how it used to be. Sappy, I know.

Our decision to move to Brazil 6 years ago was rooted in family obligations, a desire for a lifestyle change, and plain ol’ whimsical adventurousness. The simpler nature of much of the Brazil we have chosen to surround ourselves with has been a balm on many levels. I get it that time rolls along and things progress. Far be it for me to dismiss the very real improvements in people’s lives that things like paved roads, nearby health clinics or internet access provide. I’m generally pro-development.

At least the banana trees are still giving bananas the good old fashion way.

A lot can be written about the changes I have seen these past 14 years through my significantly narrow experience since we became full time residents. Perhaps this post will elicit from me a longer essay on just that topic. At this point let it suffice to say that Luiz and I choose to surround ourselves with the better nature of rural communities, focus on our relationships with friends who share our values, and live in the present, resisting the temptation to surge ahead into a new Brazil that we fear will come to look all too much like the US we left behind.