By The KAERU KID
In my younger days, I visited Brazil and attended Carnivale in Rio and it was as wild as advertised. Bikinis the size of dental floss worn on the beaches was not hard on the eyes either. Manaus, Bahia, Brasilia, Salvador and Iguaçu Falls were included during that trip. Thinking the best of Brazil had been seen; future visits were not on my list until an invitation from a college classmate living in Belo Horizonte was received.
My classmate became a physician then met and married a Dutchman while on a European vacation. He worked for Shell Oil and rose through the executive ranks while they were posted around the world and ended up in Brazil. They fell in love with Brazil and when he was asked to move to the Far East, they made the decision to leave the company in order to stay in Brazil. Her children went to private schools in England and then the children settled in Belgium and the USA. They also became honorary Dutch consul generals as an indication of their standing in the community.
Her husband unfortunately died but she decided to stay and with the insurance funds set up Clinica Ammor caring for homeless children.
A visa is required to visit Brazil and it is not inexpensive ($140 if in person plus parking twice plus your time, etc). Their consulate says it is in retaliation for the high fees imposed for Brazilians trying to get a visa to visit the USA. The consulate also uses any excuse to make the application process onerous and again justifies it by saying they are just trying to show what Brazilians have to endure. Yellow Fever vaccination is also required and malaria prophylaxis if one is going to affected areas.
On my way to Belo Horizonte, a stop in Sao Paolo was required resulting in an opportunity for a more in-depth visit. Sao Paolo is really the economic and industrial capital and their work ethic contrasts the more laid back Rio. There are fewer sights of interest for tourists compared to Rio. Recommended stops included Praca Ramos where an impressive Metropolitan Theater is located.
Close-by is Sao Paolo Cathedral that is the largest in predominantly Catholic Brazil. Pope John Paul visited here but many homeless people sleeping on the streets mar the area.
Most families limit themselves to only one or two children except for the poor. Health care is free even for foreign visitors but was told that public hospitals are not that good and require long waits so most everyone who can afford it elects to buy private insurance. Public schools are also available for everyone but again those wanting to send their children to universities pay for private schools. These actions ensure that class distinction persists since advancement without higher education is very difficult and portends what will happen here.
A huge covered marketplace sold the usual food products but someone told me a must-try food in Sao Paolo was eating pastel bacalhao, a large empanada filled with a cod-like whitefish. It was tasty but doubt it would do well in the States.
Sao Paolo has an excellent rapid transit system and a stop at Liberdade Station to visit Japantown where the largest Japanese population outside of Japan exists was on my itinerary.
As I tried to purchase a ticket for the subway, the ticket seller asked first in Portuguese and then in English whether I was a senior. Replying in the affirmative, she said seniors rode free just by showing their ID.
Attendants waved me through not even requiring me to show my ID. Several middle-aged women offered me their seats but their polite action made me feel really ancient.
Japantown did not seem that large considering the population of Japanese in Brazil is around 1.5 million with about 650,000 in Sao Paolo, but then they probably have disbursed to other areas in Sao Paolo. A cursory tour of the area did not impress me.
Early Japanese had to endure racism as bad as in the USA but at least were not incarcerated during WWII. Later generations have integrated into Brazilian society with about one-third marrying other than Japanese. Brazilian-Japanese that returned to Japan for work opportunities were also discriminated against as if they were foreigners and many returned to Brazil.
A call had to be made to my friend in Belo Horizonte using a phone card. It is very confusing to make phone calls and a message in Portuguese kept repeating but luckily some Japanese-Brazilian teenagers who spoke English helped me successfully connect to my friend in Belo.
Belo Horizonte is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais where the vast majority of Brazil’s gold and gemstones are found. It is one of the largest cities and prosperous. It also has the reputation for having the highest number of bars (botecas) per capita in the world. One of the reasons is their custom of anyone being able to open a bar in their neighborhood. Almost every block has an area converted into a gathering place for the locals to meet and have some liquid refreshment.
My classmate originally had a large home in the Pampulha area that has a beautiful manmade lake surrounded by structures designed by world famous architect Oscar Neimeyer such as the St. Francis of Assisi Church and the Casa de Bailar. Unfortunately, the lake is infested by schistostomas–parasites that can invade humans easily. After her husband died, the home felt too large for her so she sold it and moved to an apartment closer to her clinic.
For me, the most interesting part of my visit was observing my classmate, Dr. Irena Adams-Bruinsma, in action at her clinic. She is a modern day Mother Theresa as she renders health care to children who have been abandoned and abused and told they were worthless. She conducts a non-judgmental medical exam and at some point she gains their trust. All the while she is imparting valuable health information as well as promoting their self-esteem.
She also ministers to children born with AIDS. She funds all this and is trying to form a non-profit charity with headquarters in Torrance to solicit funds. Go to http://novo.ammor.org.br/?lang=en for more information.
Later, she drove me around and pointed out a project whereby homeless people gather recyclable trash. She and a Catholic nun noticed that these people were required to rent carts from recycling companies for a high fee to transport their recycled materials. These companies then would short change these people on the weight of materials.
Dra Irena and the nun raised money to buy these carts and scales to determine the true value. They also went to the enlightened city government and said how these people were providing a valuable service to the city by cutting down on landfill and unsightly trash buildup. The city helped by providing collection boxes for citizens to separate recyclable materials and then built warehouses to store materials such as paper so it could be protected from the elements.
These homeless people organized themselves into a cooperative called Asmares, with strict rules of behavior. Their efforts have been so successful that many earn enough to buy their own homes. They are also expanding into making furniture and other items from the collected materials. They have now opened a very successful nightclub to train members how to become waiters, cooks and bartenders. There are now plans to open a second club in a more upscale neighborhood.
During a tour of this fascinating project, a gift of one of their T-shirts was given to me for being a friend of Dra Irena. Their success has not gone unnoticed and the heads of the organization have been invited to other Brazilian communities to share their experience. American communities might invite them to solve waste problems and homeless people here. Read more details here.
Dra Irena took me for an overnight visit to nearby Ouro Preto (black gold) where gold was first discovered and was a black color due to certain metals mixed with iron. Legend has it that a miner prayed on where to find gold and he was told God would point it out to him. As one approaches Ouro Preto there is a huge rock formation on a mountain that resembles a finger pointing and this was taken as the sign.
Ouro Preto is a world heritage site with many colorful churches such as Igreja Sao Francisco de Assis and Igreja do Pilar. (There are many hills so be sure to have comfortable shoes for walking to all the sites).
Unfortunately, photos of church interiors were forbidden but they were predominantly in the gaudy baroque style with cherubs and other faces in every conceivable spot and covered with gold leaf. The successful miners showed their gratitude for discovering the source for their wealth by donating precious metals and gems to the churches.
San Francisco de Assis Church has many sculptures both inside and outside made by Brazil’ greatest sculptor, Alejadinho (c1730-1814). He lost the use of his hands in his 40s due to a mysterious disease that some attributed to a type of leprosy. He continued to work with tools strapped to his hands. His name means “Little Cripple” and he was the son of a Portuguese architect and the architect’s slave.
The ceiling on the church can be compared to Michelangelo and is considered to be Antonio Francisco Lisboa’s (Aleijadinho’s real name) masterpiece.
Our stay was at the delightful and popular Pouso due Chico Rei bed and breakfast. I thought chico meant small but is really a nickname for Francisco. One meal was at Chafarriz (fountain) Restaurant serving typical regional food buffet style. Being from Vegas, I know buffets and can state this was a fabulous offering and included free tastes of the local liquor.
The Museu de Mineralogia is said to one of the world’s finest. It was a major disappointment. Also, trying to find gemstones at bargain prices is an illusion. The best stones are purchased in large quantities by professionals and sold in the USA at much better prices and with the assurance of quality rather than taking a chance here where some unscrupulous merchants may offer fakes.
A side trip to the town of Mariana’s cathedral to hear a recital on an Arp Schinitger organ built between 1700-1710 was an added treat. A Portuguese king was given the organ as a gift but he thought it was too loud and gave it to this town where it laid dormant for over 50 years before being restored in Northern Germany in 1984.
A visit to an abandoned gold mine was interesting. A large lake was at the bottom but toxic chemicals used to extract gold resulted in all aquatic life dying. Still, thrill seeking scuba divers like to dive over 70 meters to explore this lake.More money is made from these tours and does not require the huge expenses and permits to bring the mine to operational status.
I learned that forming the OK sign by touching the index finger and thumb into a circle is an obscene gesture in Brazil.
Since it is a long way to Brazil, a search was made for other interesting areas to include on this visit and decided to visit the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland and is described as having one of the most diverse plant and animal life in one area.
Pantanal comes from the Portuguese word pantano, meaning swamp, bog or wetland. During the wet season the area becomes a huge inland sea whereas, in the dry season, the water areas shrink into ponds and islands congregating the fish and animals.
I timed my visit for the high season, thinking it was the best time to see all the things that interested me. There are two seasons, wet and dry, and this was the wet season. The main reason it was the high season is because the time is the equivalent of their summer vacation so many families plan their visits but it turned out to be the worst time for my interests.
I wanted to see as much wildlife as possible and also to participate in what was billed as some of the world’s finest freshwater fishing. The fishing season runs from April to October and this was late January. There was no fishing because the fish disperse over too large an area and it is also spawning season and no fishing is allowed. The Pantanal is divided into the north and south and my choice was the south portion. In hindsight, I should have picked the north and in the dry season.
Too late, I had to make the best of poor timing and flew to the city of Campo Grande and from there a long (over five hours) bumpy bus ride to a crossroads. Fortunately, the bus driver knew where tourists should disembark.
A driver was waiting to load me on a motorboat to the lodge that was perched on stilts since we were surrounded by water. From the water, the lodge and living quarters looked very nice but they were rather simple inside. Food the whole time was barely edible and had to rank as the worst of the trip. A friend said it is a long way to deliver goods and therefore expensive and so most food was canned and not fresh.
After lunch and a short nap, a boat tour on the River Miranda was arranged for the late afternoon. There were capybaras swimming. They are large rodents about the size of a small pig and look like a guinea pig. There were some colorful birds but not as varied and abundant as seen in the Amazon.
By now it was dusk and we saw owls, fireflies, and the eyes of caimans when the spotlight was flashed around the shore. However, whenever we slowed we were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes.
For the claim of being the most biodiverse area in the world, it was a disappointing tour.
The next day’s tour was a 45-minute ride on the back of a covered truck viewing monkeys and more birds and caimans. Understandably, one doesn’t expect to see wildlife close to the road although that is not the case in Africa.
A five-mile walk to a farm was next on the schedule. Caimans were hunted almost to extinction and a law was passed prohibiting killing them. They have now proliferated into the millions. Watering holes seem to be surrounded by them. Holes where armadillos live, holes where wasps live, huge termite homes attached to tree trunks and many colorful flowers were seen.
One of the most interesting plants was called the 9 o’clock flower because it blooms around 9. Girls love them because crushing the flower petals produces a red residue used as makeup that lasts for a long time.
A fruit I had never seen was growing on palm trees. Many animals eat the flesh but only the blue macaw has jaws strong enough to break the seed nut. The most mammals seen were cattle, sheep, and horses. Flocks of emus were occasionally viewed. Jaguar tracks were seen but the elusive beast wasn’t.
The farm served a better lunch than the lodge but it was the standard beans, rice, some type of meat and spaghetti. After a two-hour siesta in a hammock, a horseback ride tour was made but nothing of note was seen. Small mosquitoes constantly attacked us. They were small but made up for it in numbers.
I was told I could try to catch some piranha. A simple bamboo stick with a line attached to a large hook and salted dry meat produced no result. My guide said fresh meat was better but none was available.
One percent of the population owns 50 percent of the land in Brazil. There was no Internet access in the Pantanal. My Brazilian classmate also told me Brazilians have little interest in nature and ecology. They come to Campo Grande to swim in the pool and shallow river areas with their children. Most visitors that are interested in seeing nature are European.
On another day, an early morning trek wading through knee high water was made. For the amount of effort involved, it was not worth it. Did see some trees that were said to have medicinal properties and are now the object of scientific research.
I was glad to leave this area of the Pantanal for my next destination, the town of Bonito. This is a quaint place with public telephone boxes housed in different animal motifs. My pre-arranged tour included a visit to the Blue Grotto located in a cave down steep, slippery rock steps. Helmets were required for the descent and sideways stepping was recommended. Met a Japanese tourist who asked me to take a photo of him at the Blue Grotto. Again, for my money, it was not worth the effort and cost. Don’t expect to see anything like the Blue Grotto in Iceland or on the Isle of Capri.
The next day’s visit was to the Seven Waterfalls. Again, comparing to other waterfalls around the world, it was a yawn. Met a young Brazilian medical resident who spoke excellent English and he translated for me. We also met a beautiful girl from Ipanema who was here vacationing, too. She also spoke excellent English and our trio had a good time swimming together at each of the falls.
My last tour was to the Rio Prata to snorkel in a wetsuit because of the cold, clear water. The number of fresh water fish seen rivaled many snorkeling trips in ocean waters. A young Japanese girl was in our group. She told me she was spending six months traveling through Central and South America alone. She worked and saved for this trip. Her parents were opposed to her adventure but since it was her own money, there was little they could say. She told me younger Japanese are more adventuresome and don’t mind traveling alone or with a friend whereas the older generation prefers large-group travel.
I learned one man owns all the property in this area that includes the Rio Prata and the waterfalls and thousands of acre of grazing land, too. He has lent certain areas to the government for tourism in exchange for other concessions. Not surprisingly, he also is the senator representing this area.
My return flight was from Rio de Janeiro. I had seen many of the standard sites such as Copacabana, Sugar Loaf, Christ the Redeemer Statue, etc. on previous visits so skipped those places.
Favelas are where the poorest people live way up the mountainsides. It would be foolhardy to go alone but there are some organized tours to select favelas. Poor people, mostly from northern Brazil, could not afford the high rents in Rio and so started building their shantytown up the foothills. Whenever a crime occurred, corrupt police would not respond with the excuse that there was no such address. Drug dealers offered to maintain law and order in exchange for the right to sell drugs mainly to their middle- and upper-income clients. No fighting, stealing, or prostitution is allowed in the favelas and the only violence has been between gangs fighting for control of their turf.
Favelas have water and electricity, most of it stolen from regular power lines. Trash is picked up by the city to maintain sanitation for all. There are over 600 favelas and some are quite nice with spectacular views. Passageways are steep and narrow and outsiders and police have difficulty navigating them and police are wary of being easily trapped.
The most astonishing sight was to see luxury homes directly across the street from some of the favelas. Schooling is provided but of poor quality and split into three shifts of four hours each. Because of this poor education, most favela dwellers are unable to attend universities not only because of the expense but also not being academically qualified.
The former president of Brazil, Fiat, who is Italian, loved Brazil and stayed here with his wife after retirement. They founded a private school called “Para Ti” that provides supplemental education for favela children. They are providing 40 favela students scholarships to universities. Rotary International has also donated computers to “Para Ti.” The students raise money by selling souvenirs of recycled material and from private donations. No government help is provided.
Voting is compulsory in Brazil or one is fined. Every candidate promises major improvements for favelas that never materialize. These poor inhabitants are angry at being taxed without seeing any improvement.
Petropolis is an old area where nobility went during summers outside of Rio, but the trip required more time than I was willing to spend and instead decided to visit the St. Teresa area in the foothills to see a colorful stairway with artwork. I read about an old “train” (really a streetcar) that sounded like a fun way to visit. After a long wait, we were informed it was broken and who knew how long it would take to fix; but, fortunately, someone who spoke English suggested a way to get to the area via a bus. After the visit, my conclusion was there are much better things to see and do in Rio.
I did have pizza at the restaurant where Carlos Jobim wrote one of my favorite songs, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Random observations while in Rio: Acai, a tasty tropical fruit, is made into a gelato or smoothie, and is an addictive, healthy taste treat. Many buffets charge by the kilo. Maybe if they did that in Vegas, fewer people would gorge themselves.
I know I am getting old because this trip was so long I was not tempted to see the beauties on the beach and was more anxious to get home out of the hot humid Rio weather.
Las Vegas tidbit: This is a poor way to communicate with Rafu writer “Horse” Yoshinaga, but I have written several emails to him without a reply. A few readers have sent me items in his column that mentioned me and saying he was going to contact me. He recently wrote about buying a book about video poker and since I personally know every legitimate video poker author, I could have advised him. If one wants to learn the proper way to play, it is best to attend free classes from Bob Dancer on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. at South Point Casino (see bobdancer.com for full class schedule). Practice on his software and strategy cards and doing this will produce better results than reading a book. Most Rafu readers read and communicate with Horse and only a handful of readers write to me. If readers want to see more of my columns, write to the editor and make this request since there is a large backlog of my travel adventures waiting publication.
Kaeru Kid can be reached at [email protected]