When it is winter here, it is summer down there. A lot warmer and sunnier than New York. A few chores before departure: 1) A visa. It lasts five years, but costs $100, if you get it by yourself. This requires a visit to the consulate... NOTE: itís only fair, because Brazilians must pay the same for a U.S. visa. 2) A yellow fever shot. Supposedly required. Who wants to get yellow fever anyway? 3) Anti-malaria pills, if youíre headed for the Amazon. Or just avoid mosquito bites.
At 9:00 p.m. December 31st we celebrated the New year at 33,000 feet in a Delta 767. It was midnight in Rio, our destination. Itís a long trip, especially with a 5-hour layover in Atlanta (which can sometimes be avoided). But unlike most flights we have taken lately, this one had some empty seats.
On arrival, we changed $100, doubtless illegally, and learned that this was going to be a fairly expensive trip. Our hotel was in Copacabana. The beach was a minuteís walk. It was broad and remarkably clean, although some two million folks had been in the area the previous night. I searched in vain for women wearing their famed dental floss bikinis.
That afternoon a bus tour brought us to Corcovado, with the 100-foot high statue of open-armed Christ that you see in all the photos. The base was being repaired, so we could not get very close; He was nevertheless an impressive sight. Likewise the view, in all directions, of the city. Also many beautiful rocky peaks. (There is plenty of rock climbing right in town--consult Climbing Magazine, January 2006.) We were, of course, not alone. The scene was very rush hour: perhaps New Yearís Day had augmented the throngs.
Although Corcovado was well worth the effort, we could have done without the bus part: battling city traffic as always to pick up fellow tourists and deposit them on return. So we canceled a city tour for the next day and set out on our own. We took the Metro--clean and brightly decorated. In the town center we found people only a little more formally dressed than they had been at the beach. We had lunch at the Cafe Colonial, a famous spot that, we unhappily discovered, does not take credit cards. Then a long, steamy wait for the tram to Santa Teresa. This hilltop interior suburb is said to be the coolest (climate-wise) place in town. The tram ride is a trip in all senses. Passengers hang out (literally) on both sides, often with little room between them and the structures that you pass. Watch your wallet (good advice anywhere in the country).
One of us desperately waited to go shopping. We did business with a Jewish jewelry salesman (like 47th street without the yarmulkes). He was very good at his job. We emerged with emerald earrings and a lovely watch. Although lovely, the watch, as we discovered later, did not work. Seemed the battery was dead. And the band was too big. The solution involved many phone calls and visits to jewelry stores all over Brazil.
Lest we make any more purchases, we flew to Iguazu Falls, hundreds of miles southwest, by the border with Argentina and Paraguay. Falls is in the plural: 275 of them in a huge horseshoe formation. The height is some 200 feet, the volume enormous. Like all the other tourists, you assume wet-weather gear and a life jacket for a boat ride into the horseshoe. It is truly spectacular, and well worth the soaking. The noise and spray are overwhelming.
But it is insufficient to visit only the Brazilian lower end of the falls. The next day we were driven into Argentina, which is where all that water comes from. From a walkway, you see the start of its astonishing cascade. (This is where the priest went over, tied to his cross in the 1986 film, The Mission.)
Why you really donít want to visit Paraguay:
Paraguay was just a few miles away. In our obsession with new countries (I have nearly 50 by now), we suggested dinner across the border. Our guide and driver Rinaldo said there was no place to eat over there. Well, just a drive the next morning. Rinaldo looked a bit sick, but he was in our employ, after all. The bridge over the Rio Parana separates not two countries, but two worlds. Once halfway across, you are immersed in extreme underdeveloped country chaos. Traffic had thickened; we scarcely moved. When we finally reached the border, a Paraguayan policeman demanded a bribe. Rinaldo refused. We decided to turn around and re-cross the bridge. The policeman had seized Rinaldoís i.d. as a hostage for our departure. We were in an endless line of traffic, with a divider barring us from the return route. As we inched forward, we were offered advice on how to speed up. Because the advice had a price tag, we declined it. It was well over an hour before we were on the bridge once more, heading back to Brazil with relief. By then Rinaldo had recovered his i.d.--for a price. (For more on the delights of Paraguay, read At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig.)
You cannot visit Brazil without the Amazon, so we flew a long way north to Manaus. Do not miss the famous opera house, Teatro Amazonas, back in use after a long hiatus. The place was the inspiration or obsession of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald and is unforgettably dramatized in Werner Herzogís 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. (Our guide insisted that most of the story came from Herzogís imagination.) Fitzgerald realized his implausible dream during the Amazon rubber boom. It was completed in 1896 and has been rebuilt twice since. All the opera house materials were either manufactured or finished in Europe. The auditorium seats 700 in what looked to me like some discomfort. I nevertheless would love to be there now (April, 2006), for performances of Rossiniís as well as Verdiís Otello.
We stayed in the Mango Guest House--another of Susanís cozy discoveries. Its only liability was the distance from the town center. We were determined to try the buses. It was easy getting in. Getting back was a different story, because we were unsure where to disembark. By the time we realized that we had missed the spot, we were the only passengers and the bus was heading for its garage. We stepped out into an eerily empty shantytown, where we implausibly found a taxi back to the Mango.
Manaus has a lively waterfront and restaurants where food is sold by weight. But it was time for us to board a boat for the Amazonian retreat that Susan had selected. It was, as promised, some distance from the city, but that distance was only the considerable breadth of the river. So the municipal lights rather modified the sense of wilderness. Nevertheless we found the Juma Lodge a lovely location. Our wood cabin projected over a small pond. The whole place was alive with birds and animals, including Chikira, a predatory pet monkey (watch your breakfast plate). We became part of the small group with whom we had crossed the river: a young Dutch couple, prospering in their financial occupations; and an American family: grandparents, footloose daughter (living in Bali) and her 10-year-old son Siddhartha Josh, mercifully known as Sy. We collectively boated to a native village and had a short jungle walk. Then the locals performed some dances for us, concluding in our mandatory participation. The prettiest girl took me as a partner. I fell in love, but was not permitted to take her home because she was too old (3). Another day we headed upstream to fish for piranha. They are pretty small, but donít get in the water with them. Sy joined some villagers for soccer. He is quite adept. He had brought his own soccer ball all the way from Bali.
We made the excursion to the celebrated Meeting of the Waters: where the muddy Amazon runs four miles side-by-side with the blue-black Rio Negro. There was not much not night life, but one evening we took a boat to look for crocodiles. Saw a couple of gleaming eyes and a lot of tropical darkness.
In a few days we had another long plane trip: way south to San Paulo and up to Bahia, on the coast (Atlantic). We were heading for beach, but first a few days in the city of Salvador. Our hotel, A Casa das Portas Velhas, was run by Handy Withers, an African-American who had restored the building to neo-colonial comfort. After five years, running the place was weighing was weighing hard upon him. His biggest difficulty was finding reliable local staff--people who wouldnít just disappear from time to time without explanation. (For a more severe form of this problem read Moritz Thomsonís account of farming in Ecuador: The Farm on the River of Emeralds.) Then there was the violence (see final paragraph). Nevertheless the city is a well worth a visit. Good restaurants, active waterfront. Just watch yourselves.
Our last stop was a true resort--welcome fruit drinks, swimming pools etc. Also the Atlantic Ocean. I suppose it might have been anywhere, but it was really nice to find it in Brazil. It was designed for families, so there was a profusion of youth. We canoed a lagoon, snorkeled, and walked to a nearby tourist town. Mostly we just lay around.
The Other Brazil:
It is quite possible, as we discovered, to travel widely and only moderately expensively without seeing the disorder and poverty for which the country is so well known. It is one thing to see it from the safe distance of a television showing Pixote or The City of God. For in-person viewing, visit the favelas of Rio. A guide is recommended: these enormous slums are hazardous to tourists. (Unlike most cities, in Rio the hillsides are for the poor; the wealthy live down near the beach.) But be cautious no matter where you are. A few days after we left, a busload of British tourists was robbed near the center of the city. Our Salvador host saw a man shot and killed. (Recall that Brazilians resolutely oppose gun control.) Nor is this paradise of a nation free from racial animosity, though it is little spoken of. It is a huge, diverse country growing in ways both admirable and frightening.
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