Brazil – Last Minute and on a Shoestring

Old stone houses in Recife, Brazil.

Old stone houses in Recife, Brazil.

My first visit to Brazil in 2004 began a love affair with the country and its culture that has required return trips.

My first trip was to magical Salvador de Bahia in the northeast where music is everywhere and the vibe is relaxed and super fun. Subsequent trips took me to to Recife (above) to study with a yogi, the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and the island city of Florianopolis where my Portuguese teacher (from Brooklyn) spent 2007-2008.

Brazil was wilder than I could have imagined: the food was strange and intriguing, the people were warm and funny; the country had a rich, dark history and could be fantastically beautiful.

Breakfast in Brazil consists of lots of delicious fresh fruit, cakes, coffee, eggs, ham, cheese, yogurt and some unidentifiable things.

Breakfast in Brazil consists of lots of delicious fresh fruit, cakes, coffee, eggs, ham, cheese, yogurt and some unidentifiable things.

But at almost 5,000 miles from New York, Brazil is not a weekend destination. For my last trip, in 2007, I paid with points—otherwise the ticket would have been around $1300 US.

This year, a friend in Rio (who had lived in New York until 2002) tipped me off about cheap airfares. Through, a company that specializes in travel to Brazil, I got a ticket to Rio for $361 US (with taxes, $474) just 8 days before departure. Since this kind of bargain is so rare (probably a product of the swine flu scare), I hustled to clear my schedule and get on a plane. (Which, by the way, I almost missed with the slow subway connections and my obsessive avoidance of downtime at the airport!)

It’s pretty much impossible to get a ticket that cheap–and yet I was anxious. I’m supposed to be saving money, not spending! And even as a great deal, $500 is still $500.

But I went. Suddenly—almost absurdly fast—I was in Rio! Damp stone walls, erratic drivers, miles and miles and miles of favelas (shantytowns), men in long shorts and flip flops, that languid walking pace, people sitting in botecos (little bars with finger foods), drinking choppe (draft beer)–and of course, the incredible beach.

Guys playing paddle ball in Florianopolis.

Guys playing paddle ball in Florianopolis.

I needed an afternoon nap to shake off the flight. For dinner, we went down to Copacobana to an Italian place, Trattoria, whose special was “Obama Spaghetti with Mussels!” We had golden sole with garlic sauce, and rice cut with greens, a bottle of wine. The exchange rate is just better than 2:1 right now, and in the end my friend paid. Very frugal!

The next night I paid. We went to a place called Galeto, a counter-style rotisserie, also in Copacobana, open into the street, where you eat roast chicken (galinho is a rooster). There was a line. But when we finally got a stool at the “S”-shaped counter, we had a plate of galeto (two small cut-up chickens), and other plates of salad, rice with greens, and farofa (toasted manioc meal) with egg. And very cold Bohemie beers. Delicious! All served by a serious, licensed roaster in a vest and glasses. $20 for two.

Although it’s fall there, we had some hot and sunny days. The day after my arrival was in the high 80s and the beaches were packed—an incredible variety of people swam, surfed, read, napped, played volley ball and paddle ball. It was easy to spot the tourists–they just didn’t look as comfortable in their skin as the locals. The constant stream of vendors made sure you were never without anything, from ice cream to beer to hot cheese (the hot-cheese guys carry around a little brickette-powered oven). I didn’t buy anything except a fresh coconut for the water (coco gelado) overpriced at $1.50, but still worth the experience.

On Sunday I went up to the hill-top neighborhood of Santa Teresa, an artists and ex-pat community far from the beach throngs below. There, I met friends of friends for afternoon choppe and a workout of my rusty Portuguese. Someone bought a litre bottle of beer and all of us had little cups from the bar, then, people who joined the conversation topped up our glasses as is customary. It’s easy to drink a lot in a short time, with all the comings and goings. Especially when you’re nervously covering up your language skills….

From the bar, Bar do Mineiro, I was invited to a lunch party, a big spread of traditional feijoada, at a nearby house poised on the side of a cliff. Monkeys swung in the trees, kids played in the pool, and adults from Brazil, Germany, Argentina and the US drank on the vast stone veranda that overlooked the city. The food never stopped coming–rice, beans, 5 kinds of meat, thinly cut cooked greens, farofa, fired aipim, and then three kinds of dessert. A tour of the enormous, 4-floor house made me wonder if perhaps I should give up my frugal ways and try to live more decadently…

At the end of the afternoon, after a stroll down the cobble-stoned streets in the lowering sun, I stopped with a new friend for a coffee and we listed to a trio play chorro, a melancholy music with a sweet lilt to it. I recognized many of the songs as traditional favorites. I bought my friend his espresso, my only expense of the day.

Bargain hunting, friends in the know, and the ability to leave at a moment’s notice are all key moves for the frugal traveler to South America.

Travel organizations will often tout themselves as experts only to serve up higher fares than you can find yourself on Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, or airlines’ sites. So ask friends and acquaintances who frequently travel to your dream destination where to shop for low fares. Often, they will tip you off about which companies to trust and which to avoid—and what have changed since the last time you went.

Check Travelocity or Orbitz first, then check out the airlines that they list as offering low fares. Often, Delta or United or American Airlines‘ prices are slightly lower still. And, buying tickets directly from the airline means the tickets are more flexible—easier to upgrade or change if necessary. Once you buy from outfits such as Orbitz, you can get locked in without easy or affordable ways out. 

Always fly direct unless you have lots of time to spare.

Going when the low fare is offered is also a help. True, because my trip was last minute, I could only secure a week away from work. But, with a friend picking me up at the airport, a free place to stay, and a 2:1 exchange rate in my favor, the trip was doable. And an affordable week on the beaches of Copacobana and Impanema is something I will never turn down. Nor should you.

Cabbage Love (and 3 Recipes)


Cabbage is a vegetable for hard times.

Think of bubble and squeak, the quick Welsh dish of fried cabbage and potato; Cabbage Patch Kids with their patched up clothes; or famous famines and their winters of boiled cabbages.

But there’s no need to be ashamed: ancient Greeks and Romans ate cabbage. Why shouldn’t we?

Cabbage is a glamorously international vegetable, grown prodigiously in China, India, Russia, and Indonesia (as well as Poland and the Ukraine, as you would expect).

For frugal types — or those new to frugal living — cabbage is a gold mine: good for you and cheap. Red cabbage is 69 cents a pound (99 for organic) versus radicchio (its cousin in looks) at $3.99 a pound, and vitamin-packed kale at a minimum of $2.99 a pound.

Cabbage has a lot of vitamin C and glutamine, making it a great anti-inflammatory. It also has some folate and a little bit of protein.

I decided to spend some weeks cooking with cabbage and see how I liked it. I ate the green raw, cooked the red, sampled it pickled and in soup. The following recipes are the result of my experiments. One word of caution: raw cabbage can be verychallenging on the digestion. Not recommended for sensitive guts.

One last word about the humble cabbage: while a slow-witted person might be a cabbagehead, a special someone could be a petit chou.

Green Cabbage Salad with Blue Cheese and Olives (serves 4)
Crunchy and lively with the salty blue cheese and the piquant lime, this is an easy-to-make salad, appetizer, or dinner accompaniment. Serve with trout and white wine for a larger meal. Vegan variation: omit the cheese add salt and pecans (apple optional).

4 cups raw green cabbage (about 1/2 a med head)
8 Tblsp black olives, sliced
4 oz blue cheese, cubed
French dressing

French Dressing. Put all ingredients in a glass bottle and shake well.
4 oz fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
2 oz olive oil
salt & pepper

How to assemble:
Slice cabbage into fine ribbons and place in a colander in the sink. Pour a kettle of boiling water over it to make it easier to digest. (Alternately, you could sautee the cabbage for 4 minutes to break it down further.) In 4 soup plates, place 1 cup of the cabbage, top with cheese, olives, and dress. Toss with pepper. Voila!

Sweet & Sour Red Cabbage (serves 6 – 8)
Hearty, tangy, pungent, a good accompaniment for eggs, fish, or meat, this is a classic braised cabbage. It is simple, but has a long cooking time. Adapted from an English cookbook I found in California years ago, The Home Book of Vegetarian Cookery by N.B. and R.B. Highton, 1964.

1 red cabbage (about 1 lb)
1 oz butter
1 small chopped white onion
1 Tblsp brown sugar
1 cooking apple
2 Tblsp apple vinegar
1 grated raw potato
1/4 – 1/2 pint stock
1/2 tsp cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 tsp ground clove (or to taste)

How to assemble
Shred cabbage finely and wash. In a large saucepan, heat the butter. Add the onion and brown sugar and until brown. Add the cabbage, apple, potato, salt and spices. Stir well. Add the stock. Simmer until tender, about 2 hours. Check periodically and add more liquid if necessary to prevent burning. Taste–it should be sweet and sour. Adjust the seasonings (try adding a little more vinegar to make it sweeter). Serve hot.

Kim Chee or Kimchi (lasts almost a lifetime, feeds everyone)
Delicious, potent, great for digestive health, kim chee is Korea’s national treasure. Said to cure lab animals infected with avian flu virus, this stuff will keep your mouth and belly breathing fire. Perfect for surviving any recession! Enjoy at work but expect to clear the room. To the uninitiated, it can smell as putrid as garbage rotting in the summer sun. To the initiated it is heaven in a pickled form. Yum! Recipe adapated from Fabulous

3 Tblsp plus 1 tsp pickling salt 6 cups water
2 pounds Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch squares
6 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths, then slivered
1 1/2 Tblsp minced fresh ginger
2 Tblsp Korean ground dried hot pepper (or other mildly hot ground red pepper)
1 tsp sugar

How to assemble
1. Create a brine by dissolving 3 tablespoons salt in water. Put the cabbage into a large bowl (not plastic or other reactive material) and pour the brine over it. Weight the cabbage down with a plate. Let stand 12 hours.

2. Drain the cabbage and reserve the brine. Mix the cabbage with the remaining ingredients, including the 1 tsp salt. Pack the mixture into a 2-quart jar. Pour enough of the reserved brine over the cabbage to cover it. Push a freezer bag into the mouth of the jar, and pour the remaining brine into the bag. Seal the jar. Let the kimchi ferment in a cool place, at a temperature no higher than 68° F, for 3 to 6 days, until the kimchi is as sour as you like.

3. Remove the brine bag, and cap the jar tightly. Store the kimchi in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months.