The beckoning beaches of the northeast

Our days here feel lazy and languorous. That’s partly due to the relentless heat. The temperature sits around 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, sometimes climbing closer to 40 C, and the toughest thing is that it doesn’t cool off at night. Although the sun ceases to beat down, the heat remains oppressive.

The other reason for our laziness is that we have no obligations – a strange sensation that I love and hate at the same time. Of course there are my daily articles that must be written for TreeHugger, and I still wake up at 5:30 each morning to work – although it doesn’t feel like 5:30 since it’s already blazing hot, sunny, and the city is pulsating with music, shouts, and horns outside my window. But other than that, we are free to do whatever we please with each day.

Many of those days are spent exploring the spectacular beaches that dot the northeastern coast. It’s a region famous for its beaches and we, the pale-skinned Canadians who usually spend the month of January shoveling snow and holing up during whiteouts, are more than happy to lie on as many tropical beaches as we possibly can before returning home at the end of this month. (I joke with Jason that we probably should have included the cost of sunscreen in our budget, since we use far more than I ever thought possible and it’s much more expensive here than back home.)

These are some of the beautiful beaches we’ve been lucky enough to visit over the past weeks. Hopefully these will inject a bit of tropical warmth into whatever snowy weather you might be experiencing back home.

1. Tabatinga

We heard about this beach from a couple we met on a boat ride one day. They told us they were “very impressed” by it, which was a good enough reason for me. First we spent the day in João Pessoa, capital of Paraiba state, which is about 2.5 hours north of Recife. Then we drove 30 km down the coast to Tabatinga, where we stumbled across a gorgeous hotel that had just opened a week earlier and was still partially under construction. Because of it, they gave us a shockingly low rate for the night. It’s pretty awesome when one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in is also the cheapest!

We spent the next morning walking the length of the beach, which has fine white sand, rolling turquoise waves, and stunning red cliffs that have been naturally eroded by wind and water to create an almost canyon-like effect. There’s something about beaches surrounded by mountains or hills that enamour me, far more than the long deserted strips of flat sand.

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2. Carneiros

Just two hours south of Recife is Carneiros, voted the 2nd most beautiful beach in Brazil. (#1 is the nearby island of Fernando de Noronha, which, sadly, we couldn’t manage to visit this time.) Since we couldn’t find a public access point to the beach, we based ourselves in nearby Tamandaré and took a fabulous 2-hour boat ride along Carneiros.

We visited a reef with natural pools filled with colourful fish and sea urchins, which the boys loved; a cove with three kinds of clay that we all slathered up with and will make every woman look 10 years younger (!!); and a spectacular little chapel that was built on the edge of the water in 1710.

Strangely, the beach itself was almost too perfect for me, with its unblemished white sand and endless waving palms as far as the eye can see. But it was really nice to see such a natural-looking beach, free from the condos and hotels that so often mar the landscape.

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3. Calhetas

One of my favourite spots in the world, this is where I once saw dolphins leaping around the bow of our boat, and I’ve never forgotten it. Sadly, there were no dolphins on our boat ride this time, but the beach was as lovely as ever. Ringed by rocks on three sides and fringed with magnificent palms, it’s a small cove with deep water for swimming and large, crashing waves that unnerved the boys sufficiently to keep them by our side (always a plus!).

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4. Porto de Galinhas

This is the most famous beach of the northeast, but with fame comes development, and that takes away from the character of a place. We went on Christmas Eve day, and it was quite crowded. We also sat through a surprisingly cold and windy rainstorm that lasted a few minutes before clearing up and returning to the usual blazing heat.

The boys loved playing in the reef pools that showed up in front of our barraca as the tide moved out. They tried catching minnows and hermit crabs while Jason and I lazed under the umbrella, eating fried manioc and charcoal-grilled fish.

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5. Itamaracá

Jason said this was the best beach day of all. Itamaracá is an island just north of the city, and it has a number of interesting sights. There’s a manatee reserve, which we visited, but the sleepy-looking manatees were less exciting for the boys than the huge dragon-like lizard they found outside. There’s also Forte Orange, which was built by the Dutch in the 17th century during their attempt to take over Brazil from the Portuguese. (What a different sort of place it would be had the Dutch succeeded!)

Although the water wasn’t the best for swimming – it was a sort of murky channel between the island and the mainland – the beachfront barraca, or restaurant, where we sat was fantastic. We ate the usual ‘beach meal’ of grilled fish, manioc, beans, rice, and salad – with Jason’s mandatory caipirinha, of course, and my favourite água de côco, or green coconut water – and spent the day in a state of total relaxation. The boys dug in the fine sand, filling empty coconut shells, and making friends with the neighbours.

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A sense of belonging is a wonderful thing

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Recife gives me a warm, cozy, homey feeling. Although we got off to a rough start, things have stabilized greatly and I’m reminded on a daily basis why I love this city – and the nordeste of Brazil – so very much.

People are so friendly. We get smiles and polite greetings at the very least, everywhere we go. Usually the boys get an affectionate pat on the head from the men, while every female over the age of 15 exclaims loudly, “Que coisa mais linda!” which translates roughly as “OMG, you are the cutest little thing!” They get kisses on their pudgy, sunburnt cheeks and occasionally right on the lips by overly passionate middle-aged ladies. My belly gets rubbed and caressed by women I’ve just met, all of whom seem to agree that I’m having a third boy. (It wouldn’t surprise me.)

Most people, if they have a couple minutes to chat, are curious and want to know who we are, where we’re from, why we’re in Recife (of all places), and whether we love Brazil. North American tourists are not all common here, since it’s so far off the beaten track. We saw a few Dutch travellers in Rio and met a couple Italian guys here in the northeast, but otherwise most tourists come from other parts of Brazil. As a result, our pale-skinned family draws quite a bit of attention.

Porto de Galinhas, a former slave port and market that is now one of the most famous beaches in the northeast

Porto de Galinhas, a former slave port and market that is now one of the most famous beaches in the northeast

The best part of being back in Recife, though, is the sense of belonging. Here, I have friends and acquaintances, people to connect with and visit. We were invited to a Christmas Day church service nearby where a fantastic choir sang rousing, gospel-like renditions of holiday songs, and as soon as we stepped in the door, we were greeted by familiar old faces I haven’t seen in years – people who kissed and embraced us and welcomed us warmly.

Here, we have invitations to share meals in people’s homes, to travel to other towns for visits, to spend New Year’s together, to go to the beach together. In turn, there are people we can invite into our own home for coffee and dinner parties. In other words, we’ve graduated from being the awkward foreigners that we were in Rio, with minimal personal connections, to temporary residents with a purpose and a place here in Recife.

It’s a small world here, too, despite being a city of over 4 million people. (My theory is that, because there’s so much poverty and violence here, there are relatively few common public spaces where the middle and upper class residents of Recife go to hang out, which means that paths cross more frequently than they would in a city like Toronto.) Someone called out Jason’s name as we walked in Recife Antigo, a new friend he’d made at the CrossFit gym. It turns out that our lovely neighbours are my ex-boyfriend’s cousins, from a small town in the interior of Pernambuco state. It feels like there are interesting connections to be made everywhere, and I love it.

Recife Antigo in the late afternoon

Recife Antigo in the late afternoon

When I heard Jason tell someone that he already prefers Recife to Rio, my heart sang with happiness. I didn’t know if he’d ever say that, especially with our rough start. Recife can be a hard-to-love city. It’s gritty, dirty, smelly, industrial, and it definitely lacks Rio’s glamour. It oozes ugly poverty and violence and is unable to hide it as effectively as Rio does. But still, I love it – for its stark honesty, for the people who always have time to talk, dance, eat and drink, for all the ways that make this place so utterly different from anywhere else in the world.

We sure as heck aren’t in Ontario anymore, but it still feels a little bit like home.

Contemplating this strange, confusing place...

Contemplating this strange, confusing place…

From homeless to housed, at last

A view of Recife from neighbouring Olinda (an old pic from 2005)

A view of Recife from neighbouring Olinda (an old pic from 2005)

Perdere tutta la speranza. Lose all hope. That should be our motto for the rest of this trip.”

Leave it to Jason to pull out this obscure Italian phrase just when I was at the lowest point of my travelling career. It described my mood so accurately that I couldn’t help laughing.

What is it with me and arriving in new cities? No matter how much planning I do ahead of time, there’s always a string of events that goes wrong and I’m left stressed and scrambling, trying to sort it all out at the last minute.

We arrived at the Rio airport way ahead of time on Wednesday night, dropped off our rental car, and spent a leisurely hour hanging out in a swanky café because in Brazil you’re not allowed to check in for domestic flights until one hour before departure time. So, right on schedule, we lined up to check in. Of course, at that moment the line ceased to move.

Ten minutes before our flight was due to depart, we were moved to the front of the line. They couldn’t check us in then because the system was closed for that particular flight. They called a computer guy to unlock the system. Then I had to sign pregnancy waiver forms.

Then we ran – bags flopping, children yelling, flip-flops slapping, my pregnant belly jiggling – all the way to our gate. It must have been quite a sight, especially in a country where gestantes – pregnant women – are expected not to do any physical activity for fear of harming the baby. I must have horrified more than a few individuals on my wild careering dash through the terminal, wailing three-year-old on my hip. We caught the plane, and it took off almost as soon as we sat down.

That was just the beginning of our 60-hour nightmare.

The contact person for accommodations in Recife seemed to fall through the cracks. She’s a former work colleague from when I lived here, but she had stopped answering all messages for the past week. It took me hours to track down a phone number, made harder by the fact that the hotel’s WiFi connection only worked in the lobby.

Then came the horrible ordeal of trying to get some money. Two hours, 6 ATM machines, and 2 taxi rides later, complete with exhausted children and one wild, sweaty dash through Recife’s fanciest mall with all our luggage in tow, we managed to withdraw the much-needed cash.

The kids, who were sensing our general stress, were doing everything in their power to irritate us – you know, the usual little boy tendencies like fake-puking, gagging, roaring, snorting, smacking each other, whining, and making gross snot references.

Finally, ensconced in our new rental car, we set out for the house – just in time for rush hour. I quickly made several discoveries: (a) that almost no streets in Recife have road signs of any kinds, which renders maps useless; (b) that I don’t remember nearly as much of Recife’s streets as I thought I would, or else much has changed; and (c) Afogados is one scary-looking neighbourhood after dark.

After nearly losing our car in a gigantic marshy, muddy sinkhole while trying to avoid another gigantic mud sinkhole, we pulled up in front of the house. It’s a place I know well and used to stay at every weekend. I have many fond memories of it, and had been thrilled to hear it was empty and available for us to use. Thrilled, that is, until I walked through the door…

The house has been empty for several years now, and has fallen into a state of disrepair that horrified me. We wheeled in our suitcases, chatted with the housekeeper who had come to let us in, and went through the motions of settling in for the night, while an oppressive and growing sense of dread settled over us.

It looked like something out of a horror movie. The walls were disintegrating, tiles missing from the floor, the metal grates on the doors and windows rusted. A cockroach skittered past and met Jason’s shoe. The pot-hole-filled dirt street on which we’d almost lost our car was deserted, although the housekeeper assured us that the vigilância stayed till 10 p.m. It didn’t help that I’d once been robbed on this very road, years earlier.

We had a very uneasy sleep in a sticky, hot bedroom with a loud air conditioner that rattled and banged incessantly. The boys slept in a single bed together, and L. kept falling onto the floor with a crash and scream. At least every hour I bolted upright to make sure they were still there, because the disturbing advice of my friend’s father kept echoing in my mind: “Roubam crianças aqui. They steal children here. Keep your hands on them at all times.”

The next morning, I lost it. What started as hysterical laughter turned into uncontrollable sobbing. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt a panicky need to get out of a situation that fast. We packed up our bags, called the contact person to say it wasn’t going to work out, and checked into a hotel by 9 a.m.

I got on the Internet, emailing every ad I could locate for a furnished apartment and coming up with reasons for why we shouldn’t pull the plug right away and go back to Rio, where life felt more predictable.

Then a miracle happened. Within half an hour, I got a response from a woman with an apartment available the next day for a good price in a fabulous area. We went to see it, and it was gorgeous. That’s where we are now, and will be till the end of January.

our new digs!

our new digs!

We moved in on Sunday morning. While unloading the car, Jason made friends with a lady in the elevator who invited us over for a barbecue, and within a couple hours, we were sitting in someone’s living room, eating picanha and feijoada, while motherly Brazilian women fed our boys cake and Jason did shots of cachaça with guys.

Life has a funny way of turning around in unexpected directions. Although I still shiver when I think about the stress of the last few days, I’m now able to at least crack a smile at the thought of where it’s led us – to a place far nicer than I ever expected to get and with some pretty great neighbours.

A Mania for Shopping

Brazil is crazy about shopping. It is utterly consumed by and addicted to consumerism, which I suppose is a normal reaction for any country that’s experiencing rapid growth, new disposable incomes, and access to cheap credit, but it continues to amaze me on a daily basis.

Every time I step out of the apartment, I am bombarded by evidence of this shopping addiction. Billboards, buses, store windows, newspapers, pamphlets stuck on windshields, handouts at intersections, people waving advertisements on flags along the street – all are on a quest to sell, sell, sell. There are even airplanes flying low over the beaches, advertising products such as Ray-Ban sunglasses. All the cars on the roads are new; there seems to be an iPhone in every pocket; and most people sport pricey American brand names (which are far more expensive here than back home).

Even on the plane from São Paulo to Rio, I couldn’t find a single article in the onboard magazine that didn’t relate to shopping (and I wasn’t the actual shopping catalogue). “The top 5 places to shop in the world” and “What to know about bringing your shopping haul back into Brazil” were two articles I skimmed.

Items are made more accessible to consumers by the way prices are parceled. Most ads read “10 x R$50.00 sem juros” or something like that, which means 10 payments at 50 reais (about $20 CAD) without interest. Everything is parceled, from exotic vacations and cars to groceries and clothes. Just yesterday I was asked if I wanted to divide up payments on a R$40 ($17 CAD) container of contact solution.

Never before have I seen such glitzy shopping malls as here in Barra da Tijuca, the so-called “ugly and soulless upper-class neighbourhood” where we unfortunately found ourselves housed. (As much as I enjoyed Rio, I’ll be happy never to lay eyes on Barra again.) Barra Shopping is absurdly over the top – glitzy and gaudy and decadent. There are suit-wearing valets waiting to park the Mercedes-Benzes and Maseratis that pull up in front. It makes the Eaton Centre in Toronto and Square One in Mississauga look shabby and out-of-date by comparison.

A view of Barra Shopping (via Google)

A view of Barra Shopping (via Google)

And everyone – let me stress that again: EVERYONE – dresses to the nines. Many women wear outfits that I would only think of wearing to a prom. Six-inch heels, high side slits, full makeup, and bridesmaid-worthy hair are the norm. Strapless, skin-tight, uber-short, and glittery are adjectives that come to mind. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in sweatpants.

When Jason and I went alone to the mall one evening last week, I wore a short skirt, gold flats, and what I considered to be a nice top. Within seconds of stepping into the blast of cold air conditioning, I felt totally underdressed. This is a world in which “to see and be seen” takes on a whole new meaning.

The mall, however, is an important social focal point, due in large part to the fact that the streets are so dangerous. When you live in a city where no one walks after dark, everyone drives with tinted glass, windows up, and doors locked, and you’d be crazy to stop for a red light after midnight, the mall is a safe place to congregate and socialize. Friends come to talk; families come to eat dinner; couples come for dates. All of this leads to… you guessed it… more shopping.

The dark underbelly of all this rampant consumerism is the trash it generates. It’s a simple equation: the more stuff people buy, the more stuff will get pitched. There is garbage all over the place – piled high in dumpsters outside buildings, piled on the sidewalks waiting for pickup, or loose on the streets, beaches, and gutters. I even saw a guy throw a plastic grocery bag of trash right out his car window.

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On garbage pickup day last week, the combination of wind and oppressive heat made the stench of rotting trash so awful in the neighbourhood that we had to close all the windows and doors for several hours. It was bad, especially considering that we don’t have A/C and it must been 35 degrees Celsius outside.

There is no pre-sorting system; our landlord told us to put everything in the same bags “because it will get sorted by hand later on” – and it does, to some extent, by the catadores who have the unpleasant job of hand-picking through the landfill sites for recyclables. (For more information on that, I highly recommend a documentary called Wasteland that features artist Vik Muniz and his work in Rio’s landfills. I blogged about it here.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Canadians were even more obsessed with shopping than Brazilians are, just because we have more money in general and goods are cheaper, but it’s not as in your face; here, the ads make it feel like Black Friday every day. Nor do we live with so much garbage around, although we probably should because it might make us think twice about buying more crap.

Music, music, everywhere

Brazil is not a quiet country, and that’s one of the things I love best about it. There is noise everywhere, from hawking vendors trying to sell their skewers of iced pineapple and jostling shoppers lining up for the freshest pão francês at the bakery, to motorcycles honking their horns continually as they whiz between lanes of traffic and the endless trilling of colourful birds in the palm trees lining the streets.

This endless barrage of noise makes Canada seem taciturn by comparison, with its obedient traffic, quietly polite shoppers, and snow-muffled landscape.

But the loveliest sound of all in Brazil is its music, which erupts in surprising places, filling public spaces with melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that give me goosebumps. The samba and the bossa nova which originated here in Rio de Janeiro are stunningly beautiful forms of music that, in my slightly biased opinion, rival even classical music for their complexity (and that’s coming from someone who has studied and played classical violin for 20+ years).

You can imagine my excitement when Veridiana invited me and Jason to see a samba school rehearsal last Saturday night. Rio is famous for its samba schools that fill the city streets with wild, furious, and spine-tingling dancing, drumming, and singing during the four-day-long Carnaval each February. Competition between the groups is fierce, and they begin holding public rehearsals in the weeks leading up to Carnaval.

The award-winning school that we went to see was Salgueiro, and it was the loudest show I’ve ever seen in my life. The entire school consists of 4,500 people, of which only a fraction were at the rehearsal, so I can’t even imagine how much louder it would be with everyone playing. In typical Brazilian fashion, the 10 p.m. show didn’t get going strong until 1 a.m.

(For some reason, WordPress isn’t letting me upload videos, which is frustrating. Photos will have to suffice.)

Salgueiro samba school in rehearsal for Carnaval 2015

Salgueiro samba school in rehearsal for Carnaval 2015

Salgueiro samba school in rehearsal for Carnaval 2015

Salgueiro samba school in rehearsal for Carnaval 2015

The joyous dancing old ladies were a delight to watch!

The joyous dancing old ladies were a delight to watch!

The famous samba dancers with their incredible headdresses

The famous samba dancers with their incredible headdresses

Another evening this week, we experienced a calmer form of samba – a small ensemble of musicians sitting in a bar in Lapa, the seriously cool, artsy, and bohemian neighbourhood where I think I may have lived in a previous life.

We sat in the crowded bar with our kids (apparently it’s normal to have kids out in public places until 10 p.m.), eating delicious fried cassava, roasted sausages and salted beef, and listening to the fantastic samba that pretty much epitomized Rio in my mind. This is how I’d always pictured it, and this is how it actually was in that moment, which I found to be very thrilling.

Fabulous live samba in Lapa, Rio

Fabulous live samba in Lapa, Rio

We only have 5 more days in Rio, and then it’s off to Recife in the northeast. There, I’m looking forward to hearing the danceable forró, African maracatú, and pre-Carnaval frevo that fills the streets. It’s an entirely different scene from Rio’s samba-dominated one, but just as wonderful.