Tag Archive for 'travel'

10 Can’t-Miss Snacks in Rio de Janeiro

And now for something completely light and fluffy…. !

Here’s my post for Fodor’s travel blog from July on the snacks you *must* try when you come to Rio.

I realize my posts are running from the sublime to the ridiculous, but such is the way of beauty and commerce…

Bar food, street food, snack food, beach food—Rio de Janeiro thrives on snacks. And so will you, if you can find your way around the hundreds of sometimes baffling options. Here is my top-ten list of can’t-miss bites from mouth-watering cheeseballs to popcorn with condensed milk.   Keep reading

Words I Learned in the Amazon

A Brief Lexicon of Rivers and Jungles

a tempestade = storm

a trovão = thunder

o raio = lightning

demora = wait, delay, lateness

a rede = hammock

a corda = rope (to hang the hammock if necessary)

o bicho = insect (also animal, which is super confusing)

a picada = bug bite or sting

a coceira = itch

queimar = to burn

o repelente = bug spray

o urubu = vulture (many, many vultures)

o rei dos urubus = king of the vultures (you just wish these were eagles, would be so much cooler)

a furmiga = ant (terrors of the Amazon, and you’re always stepping in them)

a borboleta = butterfly

a mariposa = moth

a bruxa = obscenely enormous moth (also, witch)

o jacaré = alligator or cayman

o peixe-boi = manatee (endangered)

a preguiça = sloth (the animal)

a lagoa = lagoon

o igarapé = “canoe path” (usually through shallow water over a submerged jungle)

o orla fluvial = riverfront promenade (where you catch your boat or eat your crazy soup or fish by moonlight or make out with your girlfriend/boyfriend, or park your car and turn your stereo up to 1,000 decibels)

carimbó = Amazon music and dance 

o barco = small boat

a navio = bigger boat, ship

a recreo = very, very slow boat (the passenger bus of the Amazon)

os chinelos = flip flops (national shoe, see earlier post and this today)

o chapéu = hat (necessary for gringos, straw ones keep off the sun and the jungle rain)

a biquini = bikini

o sunga = men’s swim trunks (actually pretty attractive, not Speedos and not Bermuda shorts)

fazer xixi = to pee

chateada = annoyed

o tacacá = crazy soup that numbs your mouth (but one of the only Amazon dishes that contains greens)

jumbu = the greens that numb your mouth (known as the “toothache plant”)

tucunaré = delicious fresh-water fish, served whole, grilled or in sauce (tomato, coconut, or butter)

surubim = delicious fish

tambaqui = delicious fish

dourada = delicious fish, usually fried

filhote = delicious fish (served in fillets, naturally)

pirarucu = delicious and enormous fish (fatty like salmon, though a white fish– super tasty!)

mandioc = cassava

aipim = cassava

tapioca = cassava

tucupi = gelatinous cassava

farinha = flour of cassava

farofa = toasted flour of cassava

! ! ! ! ! ! !

In the Amazon, the Insects Love Me

In the Amazon, the Insects Love Me

I’ve been in the Amazon two weeks now—it’s a wild place. Rough, tough, with an edge of violence. Even its insects are aggressive. I’ve been suffering from all kinds of insect attacks—and mosquitoes are only the beginning.

My first day on Ilha de Marajó, where the police ride water buffalo (no kidding), I went without bug repellent—July is the low season for mosquitoes, and they weren’t bothering me particularly. I ate dinner at a beach shack blasting telenovelas (soap operas) the only restaurant open near my isolated pousada. I even stayed outside reading into the evening without any kind of protection. I had some lofty idea about building up antibodies by allowing a few critters to gnaw at me for a while.

Needless to say, within a few hours my pale, North American limbs were dotted with red spots every centimeter. They would have made a perfect poster for DEET: “Don’t mess with the Amazon, kids, or this could happen to you!”

I was soon taking tumeric (to counter inflammation) and applying tea-tree oil to the bites (a strategy recommended by Carmen, an Italian woman I met in Belém) making me smell like a cross between a curry and a dentist’s office.

Then I arrived in Santarém, a small river city on the Amazon about equidistant from Belém and Manaus. I stayed in the cheapest recommended hotel near the busy waterfront, Hotel Brasil. My room had a cheap lock on the door, and its polyester sheets looked like they had not seen the laundry in months. The mattress had about the same comfort as an old chewy pancake.

The room had a window and a fan, but somehow still no air. The next day, after hardly sleeping for the heat and the mosquitoes, the back of my left arm had an odd bumpy texture. I felt along it with my right hand. What was this?? Then I looked—completely chewed up. Gross. I suspected the mattress. For sure, it was a breeding ground. Fleas? Or some Amazonian species of noxious bug?

So there I was with my lumpy arms and my red Dalmatian legs strolling along the river-front of Santarém. Ah, life in the Amazon was good. I ate my packet of fried bananas (they were stale), bought from a grumpy lady in a headscarf, and drank a fresh coconut juice from a woman who could hardly interrupt her gossiping to attend to me. Wasn’t traveling great! This was the life!

Just then a Peruvian clown, also staying at Hotel Brasil, recognized me. He came over. He was so poor that he hesitated to pay the R$2 ($1 US) for a fresh coconut juice.

We walked out onto a floating dock where locals were fishing under the full moon, throwing the silver fish into the middle of the dock.

“How old do you think I am?” he asked. Juan Carlos had traveled from Lima to the Brazilian Amazon, selling bracelets and earrings to make money along the way. He hung them on a black cloth stretched over a wooden frame. He also juggled plastic pins at traffic intersections while drivers waited for the light to turn. Both earned him a few reals, pennies really. Brasil, a nation on the rise, has become expensive.

“Uh… 40.” I said, sort of annoyed at his question.

“Nossa!” he exclaimed, “Not that old! I’m 38!” But pretty close, I thought. Life on the road hadn’t been super kind to Juan Carlos.

“No family, no place to call home?” I asked. With his dreads and slightly swollen face, he looked a bit worse for wear. He seemed to be sharing a room at Hotel Brasil with a hippie chick with a grim expression and dreadlocks held back under a bandana. She also sold jewelry. She never looked happy—or trustworthy. Perhaps she needed better drugs. Juan Carlos said she stole from him in Parantins, at the Boi Bumba festival. The room they split cost $15 US. Not a whole lot to squabble over.

The next day, I joined the NGO Saude é Alegria (health and happiness) for a 4-day boat-tour of remote communities on the Rio Ararpiuns. We crossed the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers to reach the arching Ararpiuns. I was now living completely in Portuguese. People kept saying how good my Portuguese was, but I could not communicate complex ideas and I couldn’t jump into conversations. It was very challenging. I was living in the realm of “the gist of things” with the vocabulary of a 7-year-old.

But even more challenging was trying to understand the mameluco —the river dwellers who are descendants of native people and escaped African slaves (caboclos are descendants of native people and Europeans, specific to the Amazon). Even the people from São Paulo (Paulistas) had trouble understanding them.

But everyone understood my bug bites. The bites drew comments. The weirdest of the bites happened near the village of Arimum. We were on a forest walk to look at medicinal trees. The next day I watched an enormous, bulbous blister grow on my left knee. It was like a bug had pitched camp and inflated its own command center there.

The blister was so weird and ugly that it even weirded-out the mameluco who’ve lived in the Amazon—with its birds, animals, fish and insects–for thousands of years. There was no medicinal tree, apparently, for me.

After much discussion, the local medicine woman and the head guy agreed that I had been bitten by a forest insect that lived in wet areas (everywhere, basically) called “taxí” (ta-shee). The bug’s tactic was to leave a trail of urine (“xixí”–shee-shee) so acidic that it literally burned the skin. What wasn’t blistering was angry and red, as though slashed with a hot iron.

It was gross, but it was fascinating. The locals and my NGO companions kept asking to look at it, staring with bulging eyes and mouths agape. Then they would invariably shake their heads, “Nossa Senhora!”

After two days of commentary, Nelso, the nice kind of head guy of the village of Atodí, who wore a knock-off Nike shirt, jean shorts, and bare feet, recommended gently puncturing it. He took a spiny needle from a nearby Amazonian tree. They were practically spitting out sharp needles.

“Is it clean?” I asked dubiously. Although this might not have been the right question. Maybe I should have asked, is it poison-free?

“Sure, sure it’s clean,” he said. “It’s from the forest.” In my book, this doesn’t count as clean. He wiped it on the ground. “Don’t worry.”

I sat on a concrete slab outside the newly constructed eco-tourism bathroom, and he knelt beside me with the forest needle and a ribbon of toilet paper. He punctured the bulb and gently squeezed the liquid out onto the absorbent paper. It didn’t hurt but the blister also didn’t want to drain. Command center was not about to evacuate.

After several minutes, a small crowd was gathering. “It will fill up again,” Nelso said, touching the tender red areas carefully. “But puncture it again and it will drain completely the second time.” He shook my hand to say goodbye without looking me in the eye. I wasn’t sure if this was local custom– habitual shyness–or if he was completely disgusted.

I returned to Santarém and the bug infested hotel—this time armed with a hammock that I strung up between the walls. Before bed I slathered on anti-bacterial cream and hosed myself down with bug spray. Then I slept with the windows open and a thin sarong completely pulled up, even over my head, in spite of the heat. The last frontier might just possibly be my face. No way was I going to wake up looking like Elephant Man.

After surviving the mosquitoes, fleas or miscellaneous jungle-bugs, Peruvian clowns, and taxí, I decided to head to Alter do Chão, a little beach town, for a few days of R & R.

There I met up with Ana who I’d met on the NGO adventure. She’d encountered Marcos, a lonely Paulista, at our pousada. Together we hired Raimundo and his boat to go an hour across the Rio Tapajós to visit Dona Rosalinda.

Dona Rosalinda is a different kind of river dweller—she lives in the river not alongside it. Her house is on stilts. Part of the year is it almost underwater (though in recent years, it has been partially submerged as the water levels have risen. She copes by lifting everything–sofas, beds, tables– up onto temporary wooden beams).

Raimundo’s boat pulled up to Dona Rosalinda’s door, and—braless and almost toothless after a whole life spent there raising 10 children—she came out to help us tie the boat. Her 9-year-old granddaughter, Eloise, dressed in a pink dress and pigtails, bounced along behind her.

We weren’t there for 10 minutes before Dona Rosalinda noticed my damaged left leg. “O que isso?” What’s this? She said looking a bit horrified. Ana, taking pity on my Portuguese, explained: It was the work of a forest bug that left a trail of piss that burned her leg….

Dona Rosalinda went to get a needle and rubbing alcohol. In a scene that was starting to feel familiar, we gathered around my grotesque knee and the commentary began.

“Never seen anything like it!” exclaimed Dona Rosalinda.

“Didn’t know it was possible!” said Raimundo.

“What a sight!” said Marcos.

Dona Rosalinda handed me the needle. I punctured the bulb. It had, as Nelso said, risen up again, though not as far. As before, it didn’t want to drain. Big tears of liquid formed and slowly dropped down my leg.

Dona Rosalinda asked to take a turn with the needle. She leaned in close, and with a shaky hand, stabbed away. I got the feeling she enjoyed it.

We stood around for a long time, watching the blister’s water plop down my leg. Then we got in the canoe and Eloise piloted us through the half-submerged forest (sometimes called the Enchanted Forest) crashing into spiny trees and thwacking us with low-hanging branches.

“Cuidad, Eloise! Tem pessoas atras!” said Raimundo was was paddling at the back. “Careful of the people behind you!”

The canoe, with 5 people on board, sat low in the water. Ana was afraid that a jacaré (cayman) would swim up into our laps. Marcos was afraid of swimming snakes, cobras in the water. We saw a sloth descending a tree, quite quickly for a sloth, and several birds, large and small, bright blue, black, and bright yellow. Eloise talked nonstop. It began to rain.

Dona Rosalinda invited us to stay for lunch since it was now pouring. She threw 5 small fish on her makeshift barbecue—metal skewers over bricks—including a piranha that she fed to the dog, Poeta. Eloise made instant rice in a small dark kitchen. Dessert was guava paste in condensed milk on toothpicks. After, we sat in the living room that was plastered with glossy posters of Virgin Mary festivals. Arrangements of plastic flowers sat on piles of disorderly clothes and trinkets. We drank extremely sweet coffee.

When the rain cleared, we said goodbye and Raimundo took us back over the Tapajõs. The river was very windy and choppy. For an hour we sped along slapping the water with spine-jamming bumps. We were sprayed every few minutes by the struggling river—completely soaked. My blister was draining the whole time, mingling its infected waters with the river’s.

But it was a great day—surprising, interesting, fun, unusual. We’d seen dolphins, an eagle, two kinds of monkeys in the trees along the river. I was surprised that people could live that way, literally in the river, for generations. The colors were intense and beautiful. Eloise was confident and charming. There were hugs all around as we left. Dona Rosalinda cried.

But I was even more surprised when I got back to the pousada (inn) in Alter do Chão that evening to see that the reluctant blister was almost completely dry. Then I realized why: my knees were burned. I’d been sitting in the wind and the sun on the open boat, not feeling the heat because we were wet the whole time.

Perfect, I thought. A perfect end to an ugly mess. Now both knees were equally red, pulsing with discomfort. Que mais? What next?

I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…

HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED.

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.
Uh-oh!!!
(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)
I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).
That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.
Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.
I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.
I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.
Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.
I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.
So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.
Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.
I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.
A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.
Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.
Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’
The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.
That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.
Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.
Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.
Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.
Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.
Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.
Me: All I need is to use the phone.
Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.
Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.
BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.
Me: I can’t! I have no money!
BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.
Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???
BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.
Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!
BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.
Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!
BBL: Wait a second here.
—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.
I leave with no money.
The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!
Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?
After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.
Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.
I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.
Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.
When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.
I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.
And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.
Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.

10 Things You Can Do in Flip Flops (if you’re Brazilian)

It’s winter here in Rio de Janeiro and just shy of beach weather. Temperatures are in the 70s and quite a bit of rain, interrupted by the gloriously tropical sunny days that Brazil is known for.

The classic flip flop, no bells and whistles

But in Rio you don’t have to be heading to the beach to wear flip flops. In fact, flip flops might just be the national shoe.

I have been amazed at what Brazilians can do in these flimsy strips of rubber.

I’m living in an old part of the city that has colonial-era houses and cobblestone streets. Cobblestones could more accurately be named “hobblestones” : not easy to walk on, and even harder in the rain. But even so, Brazilians in flip flops regularly pass me on these streets.

And I’m wearing sturdy Dansko sandals.

Here are some other things they do in flip flops:

Run for the bus (ever tried this? Very difficult. Toe cramps!)

Do dances that require fast and nimble foot work—like samba and forro.

Climb ladders and scaffolding.

Lug heavy things up steep hills.

Chase thieves.

Go to work (as in, office work).

Walk with canes.

Hustle themselves and their small children (who are also wearing small flip flops) onto a careening form of public transit.

Ride motorbikes.

And, the wedge flip flop really ups the ante. (The white shoes above are modest compared with the enormous platforms I’ve seen on women in Rio–like these brown ones.)
Apparently, Brazilians are in good company: versions of the sandal with the toe-strap date back to Egyptians and Romans, some made from papyrus and palm leaves. According to the site PecheBlu:
Styles varied with the differing placement of the toe strap, as subsequent civilizations preferred using different toes. The Greeks for example made use of the big toe; the Romans, the second toe; and the Mesapotanians, the third toe. These distinctive, physical entities were recognised and captured in Egyptian statues, and this was thought to represent the celebration of other cultures.
Interesting factoid: Havaianas, the famous Brazilian brand, was established in 1962, inspired by Japanese sandals called the Zori, made of ‘rice straw’ soles and fabric bands. This explains the “textured rice pattern” on the soles of all Havaianas… Check your pair.
And guaranteed your legs will be completely sore after a week charging around in only flip flops!