Tuesday, 29 June 2010

It's Magic!

Football and the World Cup in particular, is no mere sport in Brazil. I know it sounds trivial and predictable but it really goes deeper than that. In the favelas the kids play football almost before they can walk, in the beaches of Zona Sul boys and girls play foot-volley all day long with jaw-dropping dexterity and the never ending national or State leagues are televised seemingly every day.

But the true essence of the World Cup is that it transcends all boundaries, it brings together in collective ecstasy or sorrow the whole of society. "During the World Cup, it is like the Carnaval. It does not matter who you are, where you're from, if you live in a favela or in Ipanema. When Brazil plays we're all the same; we'll cry and laugh and kiss and hug the person next to us and we'll drink together and sing till the morning. It is...magical."

And there's a common, overwhelming optimism -certainty almost- that Brazil will win this Cup again, of course it will, that we'll dance till the next Carnaval and beyond, that we're all the same and all together, we're all equal in our joy. And if it does not happen this year, we'll still be equal in our loss.

It's blatantly obvious that some people are more equal than others and the social gaps are tremendous, but now, this month we have the World Cup and it's like Carnaval, it is magical!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Not Another Friday.

BYesterday, there was Salgueiro, one of the best Samba schools in Rio, playing at the beach. The dancers and bateria were as impressive as I remembered them from February. There was also an air show, coloured trails of smoking planes making sketches in the sky. The usual beach vendors were in a fit, the music was deafening. And it was a Friday, glorious day and the beach was packed.

It dawned on me at some point that this a football game we're watching, just a football game. Why were there 30-50,000 people dressed like Carnaval, dancing samba on the sand, playing football and drinking beers and chasing kids and flirting? It was a Friday after all. But then I remembered, the schools close, the streets empty, the shops shut, the buses thin their routine and everything else stops when the Seleção is playing. The display was not impressive, the scoreboard showed a draw. Disgruntled, some started complaining and arguing, were prodded to take a sip, have a dive and come back from their friends, Salgueiro was still playing hard and a weekend was ahead. After a while I forgot myself what the question was. What did it matter after all?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Jardim Botanico.

With the weather spoiling us daily and the football festivities being marginally overwhelming, today was as good a day as any to go for a refreshing stroll. And what better place than the fascinating Botanical Gardens, celebrating 200 years since their founding and being in better shape than ever.

The tropical trees, huge bamboo bunches, an orchid garden (did everybody else know they are parasitic?), waterfalls, nursery, medicinal plant gardens, palm tree avenues and a glorious day made up a tasty cocktail of colours and life. And being located in between lush green mountains, rubbing against Corcovado and a stone's throw from the Lagoa, the lake behind Ipanema, it filled easily a superbly slow and long day.

All ready for the next crazy fit tomorrow?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


On a busy street I crossed paths with a girl yesterday. She was wearing a yellow t-shirt, a yellow and green football jersey to be precise. Same as me. And she was smiling while talking on the phone, walking with a discreet urgency. She had a small parrot on her right shoulder. I swear I thought he was smiling too.

Earlier I had met a bronze man, of perhaps 70 years, wearing a small speedo and tasteless sunglasses. He seemed to have spent two lifetimes in the sun without having sweated for an hour. The ocean and fine sand behind him, he was heading for his chair and umbrella. Where others were sipping Coco water, a bottle of Scotch was waiting him. First thing in front of the bronze man was a TV.

And later on there was a motley crew of kids, boys or girls I could not tell. They were taking turns diving into an orange bin and breaking into laughs every time someone fell off. They were wearing odd sized t-shirts of indistinct colours and a big number 10 on their back. Later I saw them running and blowing broken horns, with silly headgear and wigs on.

I was on my way to Tijuca and the day was full of faces, smiling and passionate ones. At the end of the game, the local winning song of this year's Carnaval was blasting out.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Time Out.

The past few days have been hot and bright. It's the middle of winter and we're blessed with a full blown summer. There's a lot to do and even more going on, tomorrow is a big day, the city is blossoming. But today was too sweet a day to miss and it turned out to be a wonderfully lazy adventure. Beach, good company, nice food and a few drinks. Sometimes things are really simple and should be kept that way.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Hunting in Saara.

The Saara market is a fascinating place. I always loved markets and even-though this one is clearly not the most spectacular I've been in, it has a genuine spirit, a truthful heart and all the right sounds.

Planted right in the middle of the city, the old market of the Arab and Jewish immigrants has sustained itself nicely over the decades. And it has kept much of its character too. As expected you can get almost anything here. The Carnaval decorations and costumes, football paraphernalia, cosmetics, jewelry and clothes, knick-knacks and souvenirs, art shops and the tasty Suco corners are filling most of the streets around it's 8-10 block area. But the real fun is in the self-replicating and condensed center, where electronics, music and the rest are.

The vendors are funny and loud, the shoppers busy and quick, the smells confusing but the sounds your compass, the ground deceptive. And now, imagine all this in the frantic W.Cup fever! Oh boy, this is crazy! And yellow, very very yellow, with fireworks being tested around you and money changing hands invisibly over a beer and a laugh. A funky urban jungle!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Yellow Fever.

The World Cup has commenced. We know it has because the Brazilian team played their first game last night and no World Cup is really under way before this. How do you describe this almost metaphysical effect?

All over the country a wild party exploded. In Recife, in torrential rain, boys and girls were dancing Forro under the bouncing umbrellas, in Belo Horizonte it was cachaça raining from the heavens, in São Paulo a pop concert kicked-off the long night after the game and in Salvador the African drums were calling the spirits. The whole nation rejoicing and celebrating in a Dionysian fit, a second Carnaval bringing everybody together, crossing every possible border in it's wake.

And in Rio? Well, how it could not have been special? The city is transformed, every corner shop, every house, every public space, virtually every single corner is in disguise. In Copacabana giant screens have been erected and thousands upon thousands of people, in yellow, green and blue flooded the beach. Drums and flags, whole Samba orchestras and dancers, toddlers (and old gran-dads) barely capable of walking and families, teenage couples and gringos and more, many many more. I'm sure that not everybody was there. Could they know of someplace even better?

Monday, 14 June 2010

In Recreio.

Today was Sunday, and the first Sunday since the start of the World Cup. In Brazil this is no simple matter. The avenues in front of Copacabana and Ipanema were closed to the traffic and generously handed over to pedestrians, runners, bikes, skateboarders, kids and street-vendors. This of course happens every Sunday (and public holiday) and since the Seleção has not played a game yet and hence the temperature has not reached fever pitch yet, I thought it was a great day to leave the city.

And it started in excellent fashion with a cloudless sky. It kept up with an invitation from a good friend to visit and it peaked when I did get to Recreio. An hour's ride west of Zona Sul, scarcely built, with a series of amazing beaches watering the toes of the mountains, a mysterious island just off the sand and smiling people snacking among coco trees; it was perfect! I've been hearing about this place for 3-4 months now and it's a shame that I managed to miss one of the two most smiling people in town. It lived up to its reputation though, it more than did. And Cinthia, the other half of the above mentioned duo with her hearty laugh, warm heart and crafty cooking is to be thanked for it.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Dirty Business.

Mariana is only 14 kms away. A short bus ride away, a smaller and flatter town of equal beauty and even more colour. It started more ambitiously than its neighbor but somehow got overtaken on the way. And it doesn't seem to give a fig about it, confident, sleepy and happy with itself. A place where one can have a taste of how a time machine would be like.

As all these towns were build for and from the gold of the surrounding mines, their glory and expansion (but not their beauty) muted with it's demise, a visit in one of these mines is mandatory. Mina de Passagem is just outside Mariana and after a colourful ownership record, was shut down in 1985. Eerily maintained, with 35 km of tunnels and a natural cavernous lake, with it's 19th century hydraulic machine still active, sweetly fine-tuned and manicured by Antonio, made for an interesting day. Antonio has been 36 years at the mine, four as a miner and since then taking visitors up and down the mine's 315m steep descent. He says working on the tram is much better than down the pit. And after seeing the mine itself, the perforated walls for the dynamite, the labyrinthine tunnels, the humidity and the shrine to the Candomble Orixa of beauty, the abandoned tools and the site of so many tears and blood I do not blame him at all. Gold is a dirty business and you wouldn't want to dip your fingers in its filth.

Black Gold.

Ouro Preto is my main hub. The first capital of the state, the place where a leper artist with no hands gave form to the earth and gained eternity, the city with 26 churches, one more imposing than the other, with the steep cobblestone streets where teenagers gossip in conspiring voices and the yellow and white houses hanging bravely on the edge.

The beauty of the place is difficult to describe. Sharp, rusty crosses rise through the morning fog, ominously suggestive, just like the overlooking mountains. The cold is dry and penetrating, yet fresh and welcoming. On the way to the town you pass one, two, several churches with ancient cemeteries and fresh flowers on the tombs. Slowly the air is clearing up, old ladies in skirts and blouses take their stroll. And when the sun arrives gloriously over the town, a flood of colours and small doors, steep alleys and shops, more churches and unexpected vistas of rooftops, small colourful matchboxes lined neatly upon the slopes across and an endless green are breathtaking. The air is pure, the looks straightforward and honest, the streets ablaze. The subtle smell of burning wood is hinting at the winter we're in. Time is slow, endless and generous. And the days as
beautiful and rewarding.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Same Place, New Place.

The bus ride today was as perilous as ever and I was mentally poring over the geography of my journey. The view was spectacular but impossible to focus upon, the schoolchildren disappeared like little bright shadows in a green backdrop and the large crosses with the white ribbons tied around their limbs my only marks of reference. We were not going far but there was time for a daydreaming roller-coaster.

I've spent some considerable time in Brazil by now and this positively feels like the fourth different country I've been within it. After the cosmopolitan Rio and the Costa Verde, the African and sensual Bahia and the European South now I find myself in the heartland of Minas Gerais. A land of green mountains and humble people, rocks fused with history, girls with long hair and graceful steps, revolutions and gold, innumerable churches and unparalleled beauty, sweet words and strong cachaça. The place of the first revolt against the Portuguese rule was soaked in blood, the same blood that filtered the tones of mined dust for a few precious ounces of gold. The Citades Historicas have been on the itinerary for a while and it was time to make my pilgrimage.