By Van Wallach
My Brazil experience differs from others who write for Gringoes. I’m not a long-term expat or immigrant, nor am I married to a Brazilian. I don’t speak Portuguese. Still, my week-long visit to the country in November 2004 made a deep impression on me. Seven months later, my interest continues, so I offer to you a series of impressions, snapshots from a first-time visitor without any deep comments on national character or cultural differentiators.
My growing awareness of Brazil began in early 2003 when a woman I’ll call Kitty in Rio de Janeiro contacted me through an online dating site. We’re both Jewish, enjoyed writing, and had increasingly friendly online chats. I called her several times and she talked about me visiting her. Because of the distance and post-divorce emotional hesitance, I didn’t take the offer too seriously and never considered a visit’s pleasures. Kitty and I drifted apart and by early 2004 she met somebody local and that, as the phrase goes, was that. In retrospect, I missed a wonderful opportunity.
In September 2004 I contacted a woman in São Paulo. Let’s call her Astral. Again, we formed a connection, as best one can online. She also invited me to visit. This time, I felt more confident and eager for an adventure. Instinct said do it,” so I surprised her, myself, and most of my family by agreeing. After considerable checking of calendars and airlines, we settled on the last week in November as the best time.
The complexities of a cross-cultural romance emerged after I ordered my tickets through my employer’s travel office. Soon, the corporate security service sent a lengthy email wishing me “success and a safe voyage on your upcoming trip to Brazil.” After that cheery opening, the email got down to the nitty-gritty. I learned, for example:
“Crime rates have been rising in Brazil, largely the result of drugs, gangs and poverty. The most significant crime problems are in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Petty theft is especially common in the tourist areas, hotel districts and beaches, while more violent crime tends to be reported in the slums surrounding these cities. In several recent incidents, however, violence has spilled over from these slums into popular tourist areas.”
“Additionally, São Paulo has reported thefts at Guarulhos International Airport, involving carry-on luggage or briefcases that have been set down, sometimes for only a moment. Arriving and departing travelers should be especially vigilant and take the necessary precautions at this and other Brazilian airports. São Paulo also suffers from the same problems of street crime, which appears to be on the rise in nearly every part of the city.”
“Tap water and ice may not be safe. Drink only bottled or boiled water and carbonated drinks.”
The alert also listed every possible health vaccine, including for hepatitis, rabies, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, with the bold-faced warning, “Areas of Brazil have chloroquine-resistant P. falciparum malaria.” Fortunately, I read, São Paulo did not have a problem with malaria.
Given that I’m a paranoid gringo when it comes to international travel, the well-intentioned warnings left me doubting the wisdom of instinct. Kidnappings, airport theft, rabies; what was I getting myself into? I forwarded the alert to Astral, writing, “What do you think? I’d better not send this to my brother-he’ll freak out!” (My younger brother in Texas strongly opposed this 5,000 mile jaunt to visit a woman I barely knew in another country).
Astral replied with a light-hearted note, saying, “The only serious advice I have for your safety is that you get the best health insurance you can just in case you collapse after meeting me. And also, just in case I kidnap you to the best places in town just have plenty of valid credit cards! Now if you wish to go to the jungle in the Amazon rainforest than get all those vaccinations darling.”
Still, my concerns deeply offended her. My frame of reference for Latin America stopped thousands of miles away from Brazil. I grew up on the Texas-Mexico border, and past visits to Mexico and El Salvador (of all places) merely led me to interpret Brazil in terms of those countries. “Brazil is not El Salvador,” she told me, exasperated at my ignorance of the country. Even a week before I left I was asking my doctor about shots I might need. My plan to carry my passport, travelers check and other papers in a Velcro-sealed travel pack around my neck didn’t impress her either.
Oh, to hell with it, I finally thought. I didn’t take the shots, I didn’t buy extra insurance, I just left Astral’s phone numbers and my flight plans with my ex-wife and my brother. I simply got on the Saturday night American Airlines flight and stumbled out, the next morning, into that hotbed of criminality, Guarulhos airport.
My Brazil experience had a slow but uneventful start. I snaked through passport control and customs, going through the special Yankee line to be fingerprinted and photographed. After a long haul I finally emerged into the terminal and had my first sight of Astral in a delightful white business suit.
The next week very much reflected Astral’s Brazil, neither a typical tourist experience nor a long-term expat’s view. Some highlights:
Food. We visited Baby Beef, a crowded, delectable food experience, everything the travel books suggest. What I remember in even more detail is lunch on Saturday, on our way in from the airport, at a Japanese sushi restaurant downtown. Dazed from the long flight, the slog through customs, and the sheer novelty of a new city and a new friend, I think of the place as my real introduction to Brazil. A Japanese man entertained the crowd by singing American pop songs by Neil Diamond, Billy Joel and others, accompanying himself on guitar. Astral said he didn’t actually speak English. American music by a Japanese man in São Paulo: in a word, surreal.
Traffic. The congestion is São Paulo is horrendous. That’s no surprise. What surprised me was the round-the-clock bicycle traffic in Guaruja, where we spent several days for beach time. The flocks of bikes added a graceful, quiet note to the town and helped keep traffic congestion down. I even saw dozens of bikers after midnight, on the short ferry ride from Santos to Guaruja. The sturdy, practical bikes were a welcome contrast to the fashion-statement mountain bikes so popular in the U.S.
Santos. Friends of mine who had lived in Brazil and visited Santos collapsed in shock when I sang the praises of sophisticated Santos, based on a seven-hour day trip for beach, shopping, and dinner. “Santos? When I was there that was a dump!” exclaimed one. All I can see they saw one Santos, I saw another. The wide swooping beach with rocks rising from the sea proved a perfect backdrop for photos. The endless apartment buildings along the shore drive were majestic in their variety and testified to Brazilians’ skill at constructing massive numbers of housing units (I’m talking about the outward quantity and appeal to a U.S. apartment dweller; I have no idea about the interior quality). A few blocks inland, in the buzzing business district, we made our major touristy buys: Astral selected two CDs of MBP for me (Agora que São Elas and Gilberto Gil Unplugged), while I got two pair of shoes.
Marketing. The weekend street-level marketing teams for upscale dwellings delighted me. Young women in coordinated uniforms tout developments by passing fliers through car windows and unfurling banners in front of stopped traffic at red lights. I’ve never seen this kind of selling in the U.S. I even saved two fliers as marketing mementos of São Paulo: Loft Ibirapuera and Townhouse Village Morumbi.
Hebraica. The Jewish Community Center in São Paulo amazed me with its size, level of services, and friendly spirit. It stands like an oasis plopped behind (very) secure walls in the center of urban tumult. From the swimming pools to the library to the movie theater to the art gallery to the simple pleasure of strolling and greeting friends, Hebraica offered everything a close-knit community needs in a central location. It may not merit mention in general tour books, but for Jewish travelers, Hebraica is a must-see. If I lived in São Paulo for any length of time, I’d join.
Language. The smoky bingo parlor in Guaruja suggested a great way to study numbers in Portuguese. Listening to the bingo callers, I connected what I heard to the numbers posted on the big display board. I got a double reinforcement: hear it and see it. After some time on the beach, Astral gave me a Portuguese nickname: “Peludo,” (Fuzzy) which, I will always associate with that memorable week.
Entertainment. Before I left for Brazil I was already addicted to Latin telenovelas, mostly Mexican soap operas. The theme music always rocks, the star actresses are slinkily adorable, and, anyway, I could justify watching anything as a way to improve my Spanish. I had always heard Brazil does novelas better than anybody, so Astral introduced me to one of the favorites, “Senhora do Destino.” One of my favorite memories of the trip was nights in Guaruja, sprawled on a beanbag chair after a day on the beach, watching “Senhora do Destino” while Astral translated. The theme music especially struck me, with its haunting, soaring vocal. The music stayed with me long after I returned, as I couldn’t remember the performer, and Astral and I were no longer in contact. Then one evening I was listening to my Internet radio service, Rhapsody, and the unmistakable riff came on. I immediately checked the performer information, and found it was Maria Rita’s performance of “Encontros e Despedidas.” Within a week I had ordered her CD from Amazon, along with a Bebel Gilberto CD. The word that comes to mind whenever I hear Maria Rita is “magic.”
And now . . . six months later, my Brazil trip slips, day by day, back in my store of memories. I have no plans to return, although that could happen someday, somehow. The place got under my skin. I’m constantly checking out CDs from the New York Public Library, including Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Virginia Rodrigues, Elis Regina, and more by Bebel Gilberto. I’ve investigated various Portuguese language sets to study the language, which makes the music that much more enjoyable, once I can understand a little more. I pick up free Brazilian newspapers at a money-transfer place on New York’s West 46th Street, “Little Brazil.” A friend loaned me the novel Tieta, by Jorge Amado, so I will be reading that soon. She warned me it’s “spicy,” so I know already I’ll like it. Of course, I read Gringoes religiously. So, I expect the Brazilian romance will continue.
So, all that’s left to say is: Obrigado, Astral.
Van Wallach, a native of Mission, Texas, is a freelance writer based in Stamford, Connecticut. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a confirmed fan of MBP. He can be contacted on email@example.com.
To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:
Lesley Cushing – England
Alexander von Brincken – Germany
Hank Avellar – USA
Ed Catchpole – England
Penny Freeland – England
Yasemin de Pinto – Turkey
Amy Williams Lima – USA
John Naumann – England
Marsye Schouella – Eygpt
Rita Shannon Koeser – USA
John Fitzpatrick – Scotland
Liam Gallagher – Northern Ireland
Lorelei Jones – England
Adam Glensy – England
Tommie C.B. DeAssis – Japan
Aaron Day – Canada
Graham Debney – New Zealand
Silke Tina Tischendorf – Germany
Tanya Keshavjee Macedo – Canada
Frank de Meijer – Holland
Carl Emberson – Australia
Kim Buarque – Wales
Damiano Pak – South Korea
Jonas Helding – Denmark
Pari Seeber – Iran
John Milton – England
Ken Marshall – Australia
Are you are foreigner living in Brazil? Are you interested in telling your story? If you would like to volunteer, or if you would like to recommend someone, please send an email with contact details and a brief description of yourself to firstname.lastname@example.org“