Brazil astonished me. It wasn’t my first tropical country – I’ve spent lots of time in Vietnam and India. But Brazil felt enchanted. Blues and purples looked mysterious and deep, the air smelled fertile, and the birds squawked in rhythms I had never heard.
On the first day in Rio, we walked one or two blocks to the beach at Ipanema. Remember the song? “Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking…” It’s a long beach that curves for miles. Fit, well-oiled men and women in “dental floss” bathing suits played volleyball. Sitting under beach umbrellas, we drank iced drinks of crushed fruit and rum. The famous Copacabana beach is next to Ipanema, and we walked miles along both, watching the swimmers, the families playing in the sand, the fishermen, and the huge boats far out to sea. Brazilian people are gorgeous, and their culture is as witty and relaxed as an Italian after a few drinks and a massage. The delicious mix of European, Indian and African blood resulted in a people who walk like dancers and play like young animals.
That night I found out why Brazilians move the way they do. We visited a fair. Hundreds of families and couples stood and swayed to the music or danced to the samba rhythms. Grandparents danced, little girls danced, couples held tight and danced. Dark-haired young mothers in sarongs moved their hips to it too, the beat pulsing through their lovely bodies. Plump, dark-eyed babies leaned against them and dozed on their hips. So that’s how they learn it – they learn the samba when they’re babies, dreaming as they lean against their mothers. We pushed out onto the floor and danced too, and we weren’t too bad, since we couldn’t help but sway along with the natives.
We left Rio and drove south along the brilliant green coast to the old colonial city of Paraty [pronounced “Para-chee”]. It was built in the 1700’s as part of Portugal’s empire, about 100 years after the King of Spain sent Columbus to find the new world.
Paraty has been restored by careful people: The charming shops and sweet hotels face out on streets paved with huge, irregular cobblestones. The original builders had the amazing idea of cleaning the streets by aligning them so that the tide could wash them every few days. The early Portuguese made their money in sugar cane plantations and rum distilleries, but to do it, they brought in many thousands of slaves from Africa to work on the plantations.
Paraty’s old churches still function as real churches with masses and festivals. We were there during the Festival of the Divine Spirit (Pentecost). The townspeople mark this with a big procession to the biggest church. There are drums and a band and people carrying old flags and wearing traditional clothing. Another part of this tradition was that the following morning, at about 6 am, the drummers marched through town beating out a quick-step rhythm. The tradition was to wake up the townspeople so they’d get to church on time! Very fun.
In horrible contrast, we also saw the old church out on the shore where the slaves first got off the ships. In the 1700’s, people (amazingly) believed that a person had to be baptized before he or she could be made a slave. So this church was located right by the shore, and the poor, sick African captives who had somehow survived the crossing from Africa were quickly baptized there before being sold as slaves. Conditions were so inhumane that many slaves died within months, so new ones were needed every year to keep the plantations running.
From Paraty, we set out in kayaks, paddling in a protected area where the local fishermen cast nets out of dugouts. Their traditional fishing methods are now protected by the government, so there are no big loud boats to interrupt the beauty of the fjords that run up into the jungles and cane fields.
We went in June – Brazil’s winter. This meant that all the tiny, hidden beaches were empty because with 65 at night and 80 in the day, it was too cold for the Brazilians to go to the beaches. In fact, in Rio, some people were wearing mufflers and sweaters. Wintertime also meant that the sun set early, and so we had to get home to our little guest houses by about 5 pm or else paddle in the gentle darkness, which we did once or twice. The guest houses were simple but had hot showers and fresh breakfasts made by local women – freshly baked bread, eggs, and fruit.
Brazilian fruit is a happy but alien experience to someone from the north. Many Brazilian fruits have no name in English. There are large, crisp, mild fruits and small, fragrant ones. The limes, lemons and oranges can barely be recognized as themselves. By far, the most surprising ones were the bananas. I could never have guessed they were even related to our grocery store bananas – Brazilian bananas have a delicate aromatic flavor, almost like vanilla, with a fragile texture and pure smell never witnessed in the north. I simply would not have named this thing a banana – and yet it was. And in the grocery stores, there were dozens of varieties, just as in the north there are dozens of kinds of apples. Now that I have eaten a banana in Brazil, I will never be willing to call those long, yellow things sold in Minnesota by the same name because that would simply be a crime.
One day we paddled out to an island and hiked through the village and along a fine trail around its whole circumference. We ended up climbing steps to a small thatched building with mud and daub walls where manioc flour is still made in the traditional way. A strong old woman smiled charmingly at us and showed us how to grind the roots. We had to take turns turning the handle, but she was able to do it alone without breaking a sweat. Her pretty grand-daughter showed up in a starched white dress to watch the foreigners. The grandmother showed us the process from grinding to roasting and then also showed us how sugar cane is crushed. Finally, in her home, she served us coffee made from sugar cane juice and tapioca cake. And her grand-daughter showed off what she had learned in dance class.
In the fjords and among the islands, we hiked and swam. One hike, up to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain, was tough but doable, up and down a challenging but gorgeous trail. The view was as amazing as those in the Himalayas – hazy miles of ocean, dozens of islands, jungle, towns, ships, sea birds…. Another day we hiked to a famous surfing beach and waded for hours. The beaches were empty, the sun was brilliant and the shrimp and fish were always fresh. There were even little family restaurants hidden in the jungle. We’d leave our kayaks on the beach, hike about 30 minutes and then come into a clearing where there was a professional-level kitchen in the open air and the family’s women had cooked fish, squid, beans and rice, salad and fried manioc flour for our lunch.
True magic happened one day. We had paddled to a little beach for lunch and were sitting in the shade when we spotted dolphins’ fins. A pod was swimming out in the bay. We jumped into our kayaks, paddled out and – as if in a movie – we paddled in among them. They dove and then, just ahead, we watched their perfectly arched jumps, all of them in a row. They stayed close to us for about half an hour. Maybe it will never happen again in my lifetime – but it really happened in Brazil.