A trip to Brazil’s Imperial past

26 Nov

Last weekend we took a trip to Petropolis, an hour north of Rio and the summer residence of Brazil’s Imperial family. To give a little historical background…the Portuguese Royal family fled to Brazil as Napolean’s army was heading towards Lisbon in 1807. The King eventually returned to Portugal when his mother died, demoting Brazil to a colony and leading to a rebellion with his son, Don Pedro I, declaring the Brazil an independent country and himself Emperor in 1922. Passing through the hills to the north of Rio and staying on a farm he had decided it would be a perfect spot for a cool summer residence and for his daughters health. A German architect was employed to design it and it was settled by over 300 German families along with the Emperor and his retinue…resulting in Petropolis, a little bit of European splendour in the midst of the rainforest.

The bus ride up gives spectacular views of the mountains and valleys leading down to the coast. And then you step out and go back in time…and to a different continent. The weather was cold (at least 11-12 C!) and it was grey and drizzling so it felt like we were back in the UK, perhaps in the peak district. We had been looking forward to some colder weather…but we’ve decided its not for us. We’ll stick to the sunshine, wearing T-shirts and sitting with the windows open all day and night! I’d just get rid of these pesky mosquitoes, which biting me now…arggghhh. You can’t have everything!

Anyway, Petropolis is very beautiful, if slightly bizarre, full of French style chateaus, old crumbling wooden latticed houses, clattering horse carriages and a faded gentile charm. The old Imperial summer palace is beautiful, not overly grand, but grand enough! When the Republic took over the Presidents decided they needed to keep up the summer palace practice so there’s another beautiful building, decidedly shabbier, that they had for their use. Since the capital moved to Brasilia and the sight of Presidents in large summer palaces became a voter turnoff, they only drop by to hang their painting on the wall. Dilma is obviously yet to visit, or maybe they’re just seeing if she lasts!

Presidential Palace and French-style chateaus in Petropolis

Presidential Palace and French-style chateaus in Petropolis

Imperial Palace Petropolis
Imperial Palace Petropolis

There have been several  other notable residents of Petropolis. Particularly interesting is the house of Alberto Santos-Dumont, one of the fathers of aviation, and according to the Brazilians, at least, the first person to fly a plane. His was the first ‘official’ heavier-than-air flight, certified by the Aéro Club de France in 1906, with him demonstrating his flights in public, unlike the Wright brothers who were interested in obtaining a patent! His house, which he designed himself, demonstrates his general interest in engineering and innovation. It isn’t large width and every bit of space is maximised. The bed turns into a desk during the day, he designed a shower that he could control the temperature of by mixing two halves of a bucket containing separated hot water (heated by a little alcohol stove) and cold water, and the stairs that lead up the steep hillside are carved so that you don’t hit your shins as you walk up!

Alberto Santos-Dumont's innovative house

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s innovative house, you can just make out the carved steps

Finally we ended up at the brewery. This definitely demonstrates the cities Germanic influence. The citizens were fed-up of having a to wait weeks for beer to arrive so they built their own brewery! Even today they import all of the ingredients, hops, oats and yeast. The beer must taste better if the ingredients have been shipped halfway across the world! I have to say I was pretty happy when I tasted their Bohemia Confraria, a belgian style beer with flavour, yippee. The chopp (draft lager) is perfect for a hot day on the beach, but oh for aromas and something to tickle the taste buds…

Enjoying the beermaster taste test of the at the Bohemia cervejaria!

Enjoying the beermaster taste test of the at the Bohemia cervejaria!

I’ll just leave you with the amazing views down to Rio with the sun streaming through the clouds during our bus journey home…

The view from the mountains of Petropolis down to Rio

The view from the mountains of Petropolis down to Rio

Advertisements

The price of a bus ticket…and musings on wealth inequality in Rio

21 Nov

The other day I got stuck in a huge queue on the bus on the way back from the university, not necessarily a strange occurrence but I was struck by the helicopter flying overhead. As we started moving again I noticed groups of people standing at the bus stops across the 8-lane Avenida Preidente Vargas that stretches into the centre of Rio, chanting as the buses passed by and holding placards with R$3.05 crossed out.

Searching on the internet I discovered that this was one of a series of protests against the increase in bus fares from the current price of R$2.75 (about 83p) to R$3.05 (92p) per journey in January. With the price rising from R$2.50 last January. The recent protests were met by the riot military police leading to some nasty looking arrests.

It made me consider some of the issues of wealth and inequality that exist here that are too often hidden. The minimum wage in Brazil in 2012 is R$622 (£100) per month or R$2.83 (85p) per hour. The average wage is R$1588. This puts into stark contrast some of the living costs. For people on the minimum wage, just traveling to and from work everyday by bus will take out 17% of their monthly income before the costs of food, accommodation, electricity or clothing are accounted for, whilst even on the average wage it would be 7%. It is easy to understand why there are protests about the rising fares and why people will wait to be packed into a crowded bus like cattle rather than get a seat in the minivans for 25 centavas extra.

It also highlights the massive geographic divide in the city. Zona Sul, encompassed by mountains and containing all of the sites that most tourists connect with Rio: the beaches, sugarloaf mountain, Christo Redento; is really a small town. The North Zone, an intermingling of favelas and middle-class neighbourhoods stretches out as far as the eye can see on the plain beyond the mountains, stifling hot in the summer. These are two different worlds with a one bedroom flat in the Zona Sul costing at least R$1000-R$1500 a month before condominium rates and rising to eye-watering prices in Ipanema and Leblon, which have the highest square metre prices of anywhere in South America. It is no wonder that the Zona Sul is a different world, where only the upper middle-classes and wealthy can live, unless you live in a favela precipitously perched on the hillside. Now these affordable areas are also under threat. With the pacification of the favelas comes property speculation and eviction pressures, with many of the favelas offering spectacular views. The effects of these changes on the social and geographic divisions in Rio are already beginning to happen.

When we first arrived in Rio we found money tight. Living on one income with rental prices what they are has meant that we have much less disposal income than in the UK. But this puts it all in perspective. My wage is 6 times the minimum, more than twice the average. We are definitely the wealthy. The excesses of the very wealthy are something else to behold. Closing the wealth inequality gap is not something that will happen overnight, but keeping the price of public transport low so that people can still get to work will certainly help.

Plastic bags…with the strength of a sickly kitten

15 Nov

Okay…after all the enthusiasm of the last few posts I need to get to something that really irritates me here. The plastic bags! Now the average shopper in the UK is still certainly smitten with the plastic bag and there is no sign yet that any change will take place in the government’s voluntary approach to reducing their use. However, the Brazilians (or at least Cariocas) take it another extreme.

The main issue is the extreme flimsiness of the plastic bags. Each bag is probably the size of a large loaf of bread and has the strength of a sickly kitten. Anything heavier than a packet of crisps needs needs its own bag. Half a dozen eggs, one plastic bag. Packet of beans, one plastic bag. Bag of tomatoes, just placed in one plastic bag, placed in another plastic bag…..arrrghh! If this wasn’t enough  frequently they DOUBLE bag items, especially bottles of drinks, because they aren’t strong enough to hold one litre of liquid…who designed these bags and why do the shops keep using them?

Packing shopping is also one area where staff show an abundance of zealousness and enthusiasm for their jobs. I have to quickly whip out my rucksack and thrust in front of the staff to prevent any shopping from being wrapped in plastic. ‘I don’t need a bag’ was one of the first phrases I learnt here. I feel so rude every time I say it and people can instantly tell I’m a gringa!

I discovered recently that at my local supermarket I do actually get a few centavas back for not using their plastic bags. This isn’t advertised or communicated and there’s no suggestion that they want to wean people off their plastic bag fettish from the abundance of them at the check-out. However, somebody in the upper echelons has obviously brushed shoulders with corporate social responsibility at some point.

Reducing plastic bag use is a small dot on the path to a more sustainable world. But every time I see the waste and lack of awareness its like a tiny pin puncturing a little more of my hope and adding to the giant sized challenge that lies ahead.

Green fingers and a house of worms in the tropics

12 Nov

I’m so excited about growing plants again…we now have a little herb garden! I’ve been completely confused by the seasons, here in winter it is as hot as the UK’s summer and all of the knowledge I had about when and how to plant seemed redundant in this climate. The back of a seed packet came to the rescue showing that I could sow the seeds at any time of the year. Any time! The sowing, growing and harvesting of crops feels so entwined with the passage of the year that it feels alien to be able to plant seeds that will peek up their heads now, in November. How is it possible to know where you are without the regular rhythm of rebirth, growth, abundance and barrenness? Here in Brazil there is a cycle of everlasting abundance punctuated by bright flashes of colour as different plants flower and fade.

I have also been able to use the fresh compost created by our very own casa da minha (house of worms) who have been feasting for the past couple of months on our piles of organic waste. I’m so glad we haven’t been throwing it away, it always feels like a terrible crime to waste such nutrients to decay in a landfill belching methane-rich gases.

So I hope my little seeds and plants will grow fast and strong, fed by the warmth, sunshine and delicious nutrients. Thank you worms and beautiful earth. I’ll enjoy the abundance of Brazil whilst I can.

Little herb garden

Little herb garden

My seedlings

My seedlings

Casa da minha - house of the worms!

Casa da minha – house of the worms!

Delicious compost

Delicious compost

Brasil belissima…Paraty and Ilha Grande

11 Nov

I feel as though I am gloating slightly writing these posts, reveling in all the natural beauties of Brazil that I’ve been so lucky to see. But what I want to share are how my eyes have been opened. I can’t remember well what were my preconceptions of Brazil before I arrived. I think I thought of beaches, of samba, Carnival and was frightened by the stories of crimes and violence and wondered whether I would be able to walk around the streets feeling safe at all. And of course any country is so much richer than these surface images, with so many layers and contradictions. Brazil is certainly a rich tapestry, of peoples, history, food, music, culture and landscapes and the more I explore the richer it becomes.

Paraty

Paraty is an old colonial town, four hours bus ride from Rio de Janeiro but still within Rio de Janeiro State. Its nestled on the seas edge in a curving bay dotted with islands along the emerald green coast. Mountains rise beyond it, leading to Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais and the old gold trails that brought gold from the mines in the interior and made this town sumptuously rich. Boats would depart laden with the treasure to Europe, until the bay became too small for the ships and the town was mostly abandoned. This though has done wonders for its tourist industry, almost entirely preserving the old town complete with giant ankle-wrecking street stones and beautiful white-washed houses. It is picture-postcard perfect, a little too perfect, but lovely for a quiet stroll.

Hiring an brightly painted old fishing boat, decked out for tourists these days, gives you the best view of the town from the water and enabled us to explore the remote beaches, swim in crystal clear water with hundreds of dancing fish and turtles. The waterfalls in the mountains nearby are also famous along with their cachaça distilleries and daredevil antics, including one with an enormous rock you can slide down into the water. On your bum if you’re a visitor, surfing style if you’re a local (young man).

But my best memories are of the most delicious food that we ate at a tiny beachside restaurant called Quiosque Encantado (Enchanted Bar). It had just been started by a local couple and every night we went there they had a different incredible meal using local fresh ingredients. We sampled a local moceque (fish stew) cooked gently on the barbeque with banana, manioc and prawns in a clear rich broth imbibing it with a delicious smoky flavour. We ate fresh squid delicately grilled and seafood pasta with enormous quantities of perfectly cooked prawns, mussels and cockles collected from the beach in a divine tomato sauce. The food was out of this world, I can almost taste it whilst I’m writing this. With the sand under our feet and a full moon rising over the sea, it was idyllic.

If you are looking for it the bar is on Praia Jabaquara and is the kiosk furthest from Paraty, just after Restaurante La Luna. Enjoy!

Paraty from the sea

Paraty from the sea

Paraty's historic streets

Historic streets

Beach hopping

Beach hopping

Heading out of the sunshine

Heading out of the sunshine

Waterfalls in the verdant mountains

Waterfalls in the verdant mountains

David describing the best moqueca in the world!

David describing the best moqueca in the world!

Grilled fish and squid

Grilled fish and squid

and the perfect view..

and the perfect view..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ilha Grande

As if these earthly delights weren’t enough we travelled on to Ilha Grande (big island). It lies just off the coast, about 2 hours from Rio de Janeiro. The history of the island, most recently as a prison for the ‘most dangerous criminals’ in Brazil has resulted in its steeply ridged interior remaining covered in verdant Atlantic rainforest.  Stunning isolated beaches are dotted around the island, with azure waters, reachable only by boat or by trekking through the forest. Its a decadent lifestyle with sunbathing and relaxation punctuated only by dips in the sea, caiparinhas, walks in the forest and eating.

Heading towards Ilha Grande

Heading towards Ilha Grande

Relaxing with fantastic views - Praia Abraaozinho

Relaxing with fantastic views – Praia Abraaozinho

The only way to get around...

The only way to get around…

Sand so fine it crunches under the foot like snow and falls gently into the clear sea

Sand so fine it crunches under the foot like snow and falls gently into the clear sea

Walking through the forest around Ilha Grande

Walking through the forest around Ilha Grande

Brasil lindissima…Foz do Iguassu and the Pantanal

4 Nov

Wow, its been a long time since I’ve written on here. Life has taken over. There have been so many things that I’ve wanted to write about, so many different things and events going on but somehow I haven’t found time. This has partly been down to me falling more in love with the beauty of Brazil, its people and the culture.

My parents came out to visit us for a month in the middle of September and I was really lucky to be able to have a couple of weeks off to visit some places outside of Rio. Before that I had been to Sao Paulo briefly for a day. So below are a few of the fabulous places in beautiful Brazil!

Foz do Igussu

This waterfall is breathtaking. It straddles the border of Brazil and Argentina and on both sides there are amazing views. On the Brazilian side you get an overview of the vastness of the myriad mini-falls tumbling down the side, which with the stretches of rainforest stretching beyond and soaring birds harks back to the wilderness that was here just a few centuries ago. I stood watching the falls mesmerized at the power and beauty of the site. On the Argentinian side you can get up close and personal, staring down into the Devil’s Throat and the swallows diving in and out of the mist with rainbows (and double rainbows!) stretching across the sky.

Foz Do iguassu - the view from the Brazilian side

Foz Do iguassu – the view from the Brazilian side

Looking down the Devil's Throat

Looking down the Devil’s Throat

Foz do Iguassu facing the Devils Throat

Rainbows over Foz do Iguassu

Rainbows over Foz do Iguassu

The Pantanal

The pantanal literally means ‘swamp’ in english. Its an enormous area in the west of Brazil which spreads into Bolivia and Paraguay. In the rainy season (the summer) 75% of the area is flooded whilst in the dry season the waters dry up and the rivers recede. This means that very few people live there, mainly fazendas (farms) with cattle, which means that the area supports huge numbers of wildlife.  In the dry season they congregate around the remaining water making a wildlife viewing haven.

I had no expectations going out there,but it was incredible. I loved every part of it, the quiet solitude, the vast flat stretches of scrub and trees, early morning walks quietly moving through the bush hearing the sounds of myriad different birds and spotting armadillos and monkeys. Going out on a boat along the river seeing giant otter (2-3m long), caiman, hawks, herons, capybaras (giant guinea pig-like animals) swimming in the water with their babies. Sitting still at 5am as the dawn light rose watching tapirs sniffing along the ground for fruit. Watching an enormous orange full moon rise over the trees. Listening to beautiful pantaneira music at night.  It has fantastic jaunty with rhythms often with sad aching words. If you’re interested in listening to them check out ‘A loira do carro branco’ (The blond girl in the white car), ‘Cabocla Tereza’ and various other songs (with English subtitles).

The pictures below can’t do justice to the beauty of this place.

Evil looking caiman

Evil looking caiman

Shimmering bird

Shimmering bird

Birds in the trees

Birds in the trees

Black hawk looking for prey

Black hawk looking for prey

The little touc toucan

The little touc toucan

Rhea chilling out

Rhea chilling out

Sunset over the pantanal

Sunset over the pantanal

Howler monkeys trying to hide

Howler monkeys trying to hide

Cute little monkey

Cute little monkey

Exploring the river

Exploring the river

Tuyuyu cooling off

Tuyuyu cooling off

Giant otter

Giant otter

Wolfing down its fish

Wolfing down its fish

Trekking through the bush

Trekking through the bush

Tapirs sniffing for breakfast

Tapirs sniffing for breakfast

Capybara family heading downstream

Capybara family heading downstream

Sunset over the river

Sunset over the river

Cowboy songs

Cowboy songs

There are more places to show but I’m going to save them for the next post….

A few miscellaneous observations

18 Aug

Outside a church during the Festival de Junina (Harvest festival) a priest sprinkles holy water on cars and their passengers.

A police car drives past, with a cop nonchalantly resting the end of a rifle at the open window.

Women stride past headed in their gym-going outfit, a tight fitted vest top, multi-coloured leggings and knee-high white woolly socks.

Walking down the street smells of deep-fried doughnuts, buttered popcorn and meat sizzling on a BBQ waft through your nostrils.

Music is everywhere, walking along Copacobana beach late at night a couple of families are sitting in a circle on the sand singing along to the guitar, further along at a beachside kiosk a small Forro band is starting to play with a catchy lively beat from the triangle, accordian and jump, as people start to move their hips and dance. Walking past bars a lone man plays songs on his guitar that everyone seems to know the words to.

Walking in Leblon during the day woman walk past in sterotypical maids outfits, the full deal, black dresses, white lacy aprons and little white caps.

In Zone Norte, coloured paper kites flicker in the wind against the backdrop of red-brick unfinished houses, blue water holders and the mountains beyond.

Strolling along Ipanema beach on a sunny Sunday, everyone seems to be out along the closed front road showing off their tanned bodies in tiny sunga or thong bikinis. Showing off a little ass cheek is de rigeur. People skate, rollar blade and walk exhibiting the perfectly toned body they’ve perfected at the multitude of gyms.