A Dozen Months

A dozen months ago I promised myself that the storms of 2015 were behind me. I also said I would try to meet the storms of 2016 head on. 

And damn, that is harder than it sounds. Much harder than I thought. Have you faced into the wind of a storm lately? Have you felt its icy bite bring tears to your eyes and sear the edges of your earlobes? Where I am in Brazil our storms aren’t so cold, but they are equally vicious.

The wind howls just as loudly here and the rain can be just as relentless.

In some respects, this has been my stormiest year yet. It marked my first year living abroad in Brazil, which comes with plenty of adjustments. Some people call this “learning to navigate a new culture.” I disagree. I don’t think you can navigate a culture. There’s no Google Maps for people’s minds, their habits, their long-held beliefs.

I believe patient observation is your best chance of not going crazy.

Try to navigate a culture with a set of fixed directions and you’ll probably end up making a gross amount of wrong turns. I know I have. This year I’ve stumbled over more words than my two-year-old nephew and I’ve felt like having as many meltdowns as him trying to comprehend a different way of life. 

A Luta Continua...The Fight Continues

But it hasn’t all been tears (or tantrums, thankfully). It hasn’t all been howling winds and dark nights. I’ve learned to find peace in the present moment. Or least I’m getting better at this. I’ve had many opportunities to explore this year, both here in Brazil and in other countries. For me, new experiences (preferably ones in the open air) are the best thing to dull the pain of life's storms, to keep the bullshit from making you crazy. Here are some moments when I found peace and joy. Some were extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Others were waiting just out my front door. 

1. Finding this tree in a downtown park

The branches are so heavy they need metal supports to keep growing. There are always Brazilians gathered here taking a break from life. I could sit here all day. Hell, I could build a treehouse and live in it here.

2. Finding this ad in Austria for flights to my home state of New Jersey

I’ve had the luck to travel to many countries but I have never, ever seen an ad for New Jersey, anywhere outside of the US. Obviously New York has the greater tourist pull, but I’d choose the Garden State any day. Although, I can’t say I’d choose Newark...

3. This museum in Zagreb, Croatia

I’ve never seen a museum with rosy pink walls displaying fine art until we stumbled upon this one in Croatia. This place had a lovely collection and was a sweet refuge on a cold, rainy February day.

4. Repairing my boots in Orvieto, Italy

I sported my new favorite boots on our trip to Europe earlier this year, and they took a beating. I wandered around this cobblestoned street town to find a place to repair them, and stumbled into a charming story. An American woman working in the store who had come to Italy years ago to study ended up marrying an Italian shoemaker, and created her life in this centuries-old town. Their work was beautiful, true to the Italian form. You can see their creations here: Frederico Badia Shoes.

5. Ice cream

I don’t count calories, and life is too short to pass up dessert. Especially when that dessert is a made-to-order Magnum ice cream bar. I requested salted pretzels, peanuts and chili pepper flakes. It was divine. 

6. Bread and cheese in the highlands of Santa Catarina

I’ve already written about our trip to the Serra Gaúcha but I can’t forget the traditional Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, that I ate at this restaurant. I’ve since learned to make my own but the pão I ate here was incredible. 

7. This rainbow

Not pictured are the other gorgeous cascades we saw at Foz do Iguaçu, a truly magical place. I’ve always loved to stop and appreciate nature’s phenomenons, and I plan to do that more in 2017.

8. Taking care of these two gatinhos

Milo and Lucy are troublemakers. Do not let their adorable faces fool you. I kept these two cats for some friends while they traveled and it was a joy. I know many of you cherish your pets, and hopefully you can be continually reminded that they more than a just chore to clean up after.

9. A bike ride on the beach

Why don’t I do this more often? I often ask myself this question when I'm walking on the beach, running, or just getting outside. The answer is probably because I’m lazy. But hey, that’s what resolutions are for, right? To tell ourselves we will be less lazy in the year to come. I promise to try.

10. These American flags

I’ve found that Brazilians don’t have the same sense of patriotism. I tried explaining this to a Brazilian friend just the other day and it was obvious I had way more love of country that he ever would. That is something I’ll never be ashamed of. Seeing these flags in NYC just before Independence Day was inspiring, and I knew I was home.

11. Fireworks

The only thing more awesome than these super fun displays of explosions in the sky are the people you see them with. Not pictured: my family. But I can still see the way the fireworks lit up their faces.

12. A walk in the water

I loved exploring Fernando de Noronha, one of Brazil’s most enchanting islands. My favorite moment was on this beach just after sunrise when I took a dip without a soul in sight. Spend some time alone in nature next year. Your soul will thank you for it.

13. This storm

On the edge of the Amazon I was most captivated by this storm rolling in over a cornfield because it reminded me of home. There's a reason New Jersey is called the Garden State, and I was so glad to be reminded of that in Brazil.

14. Again, the flag

I can’t describe how amazing it was to be at the Rio Olympics, but I can say this was my favorite moment, watching Old Glory rise above the crowd at the women’s team gymnastics finals, where USA took home gold. If you ever, ever have the chance to go to the Olympics, just do it. I attended this final gymnastics event on a whim, and I will never regret it.

15. These flowers 

Every time I walk to our beach in the early morning, I am grateful. But yesterday this extra surprise of a field of wildflowers put me more at peace than I expected. What's outside your door today that can make you smile? (For my sisters who may be knee-deep in snow right now...sorry, that will probably not make you smile).

I hope we can take in all the beauty from this past year and realize that the storms have passed. Yes, there will be more to come, but we’ve made it this far. Let's keep going.

Bless the Rains

When I arrived at the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the staff said it was the worst drought since the park was founded more than twenty years ago. It was the driest place I’d seen in a long time, and it seemed as if the strike of a single match could set the entire savannah on fire. Dry trees, dry earth, dry bones stretched as far as the eye could see. 

“We really need the rain,” they said.

That afternoon we piled into the open air truck for the game drive, the first of a few drives into the bush (or bushveld, if you want to get fancy). The goal was to experience the savannah and hopefully see some of South Africa's most famous animals, but it was unusually windy. This faceless force of nature slashed through the savannah that afternoon and into the evening, pushing the animals to take shelter. Our guide, a talented and dedicated man named Given, explained that strong winds make it difficult for the animals to smell, and with that sense reduced they often hide. But the drive wasn’t without its rewards. Given spotted a mother giraffe and her calf, and we quietly exited the truck to get a closer look. Our guide took care not to invade the space of the giraffes (or any animals we approached), always maintaining a distance comfortable for all. I don’t remember the first time I saw a giraffe in a zoo, but I will always recall the moment I saw this calf half hidden by the trees. Even at just a few months the giraffe was enormous, and undeniably graceful. Given pointed out the differences in the coloring and the spotting patterns, as well as the size of the horns to indicate sex. It was the first lesson of a thousand he gave during my stay in the savannah. 

A successful game drive is a combination of wildlife and environment knowledge, keen observation and luck.

There are no guarantees in the business. So often we saw signs of the animals’ presence but didn’t actually see the animal. For example, I asked our guide Given about was a tree whose bark had been erratically stripped and scored, exposing a reddish trunk smattered with mud. The culprit? Elephants. He said elephants not only eat the bark, but often knock over trees for the sheer enjoyment of it. The mud on this one had already hardened, and we didn’t see any elephants that day but just the idea of these majestic creatures roaming around knocking over trees was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Given also showed us the other, less playful side of nature — the remains of an elephant. A single bone nearly the length of my body brought me back to those dinosaur displays I saw in museums as a kid. Only this time it wasn’t a prehistoric piece strung up along with the rest of the skeleton. This set of bones was strewn about in a similar fashion to the way my nephews toss their toys throughout the living room. A femur bone by this tree, a few vertebrae by the bush over there, and a hip bone in the center of the destruction. Way off to the side, a portion of twisted elephant hide, so stiff you could use it for a chair. Welcome to the savannah’s living room.

Other surprises awaited once the light faded.

Even with the windy night, Given found four lions thanks to his sharp eyes and apt juggling of driving and spotlight duties. I found the beasts to be surprisingly relaxed as we watched them amble about, then finally pick a place to rest. They took no notice of the incessant camera clicks. In fact, our presence didn’t interest them at all, which was kind of a relief. 

The ride back to the lodge was invariably windy, and after a quiet meal we retired to our cabins after what turned out to be a tiring day. An early morning six-hour drive from Johannesburg just to get to the border of the preserve, another hour or so from the park gate to the cabins, and then several more hours in the truck for the game drive really shouldn’t have been so exhausting. After all, I was just sitting there. But something in the wind pulled me into a weariness that made me expect sleep would come easy. I settled in for the night just as the long-awaited rain made its debut. Perhaps rain is an understatement. The storm came in furious as the wind was earlier and raged well into the night. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, but this one howled so intensely even I couldn’t sleep through it.

Bless the rains, indeed.

"Better not to watch"

Sleep or no sleep, every day at 5:30am the staff at Greenfire Game Lodge beat an enormous drum that hangs just outside the dining area for the wakeup call. After a quick coffee or tea, it’s into the trucks for the morning game drive. Not long into the bumpy, jerky, motion-sickness inducing ride, I knew I had a problem. Something hadn’t settled well with me the day before, and the moment Given stopped the truck along the way I asked if it was safe that I exit the vehicle. Six sets of eyes followed me as I hopped quickly down and walked behind the truck to revisit last night’s dinner. I could only think to offer this advice to my fellow safari-goers: “Better not to watch” and pointed to the front of the truck as if I could distract them from what was about to happen just a few steps behind their seats. Moments later Jonathan came to check on me, and managed to step in one of the three deposits I had made. Instead of thanking him for the paper towel he offered me, I only managed to quip “Watch where you’re stepping!” I knew that he was also having some stomach trouble but my symphony for him got lost in the shame I felt for subjecting the rest of our the group to the ever-disgusting experience of hearing someone else toss their cookies.

An Unlikely Pair

After that embarrassing episode had passed, we saw far more interesting sights, such as the unlikely pair of a zebra and giraffe. Given told us that these two species often graze together because the giraffe’s height allows it to see approaching predators, whereas the zebra can sense danger on the ground and below the tree level. At the first sign of danger, either the zebra or the giraffe will move out, which signals to the other that it’s time to go. 

Zebras are of course a well-known staple of the African savannah, but what I didn’t know is that you can replace the word “herd” with “dazzle.” And doesn’t a dazzle of zebras sound more fitting? No two stripe patterns are equal, and even more adorable, they often rest as a pair with their head placed on the other’s back to watch for danger in different directions. 

References to the Lion King are inevitable on a safari, but the diversity Disney presented only scratches the surface of the true glory of the animal kingdom. The birdlife alone is enough to fill a book. Our successful sightings included a black-backed jackal, an animal that mates for life and will share food with their partner if they’re not foraging together. I’ve found that sharing food is a basic concept of love (especially when it is chocolate), so I think this counts as romantic, even by Disney standards. We also saw genets, which look like a snub-nosed cat with rounded ears, and opt to carry their young on their back instead of by the mouth as other cat species do. The genet’s raccoon-like relative, the African civet, are also rarely seen, and tend to diet on things that kill most other animals, like toxic insects, toads and poisonous snakes. 

Our guide spotted this giant African land snail shell--another surprise along the safari. And apparently they make great pets.

Our most intimate encounter was with the short-tempered African buffalo as a herd of them grazed quietly and peacefully on either side of our safari vehicle. Both males and females have horns for defensive purposes, and evidently they’re not afraid to use them at the first inkling of a threat. 

A more common sight on the savannah is the greater kudu, a majestic antelope with corkscrew horns and an ability to jump eight-foot fences. Surprisingly, their twisted horns don’t pose a tangling hazard, as they simply tilt their chin up to avoid catching them in the brush. 

A smaller but more common antelope, the impala, is definitely the animal we saw the most of during the safari, to the point where we didn’t even touch our cameras when they were spotted. But seeing them so frequently had its benefits over the rarer sightings. We could observe the herds better without constantly worrying how the pictures turned out. 

The variety of antelope in South Africa alone is extensive, ranging from the greater kudu to the smaller varieties, each with their own coloring and graceful gait. Unfortunately, my photography skills weren’t good enough to capture them all. 

Earth’s largest land animal, the African savannah elephant, is surprisingly good at camouflaging itself, and I’m still in awe that such an enormous creature keeps a strict vegetarian diet. We were lucky enough to spot one older male which our guide guessed was close to 50 years old. The elephant easily ripped off a large branch whose thickness was enough for a small tree, partly to eat the bark, partly just to be destructive. We didn't get very close, but to be honest, we didn't need a closer view to realize this animal's power.

Though some measures exist to keep the animals safely on the reserve, it's good to be reminded of the wildness of the savannah and its creatures. On our way to the airport we saw a warthog on the side of the road. That’s right…a regular Pumba just looking for some grub. Instant delight filled our car. Even on our last leg nature provided us with a glimpse of something new. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I want to see a baby warthog.” Because we can all agree that smaller, younger versions of animals are obviously cuter. Just then on the right side of the road we saw another clan of warthogs, this time with the smaller, younger and cuter version in their midst. Our safari was complete. The best part about the experience was feeling like I might never need to go to a zoo again. In fact, it makes you think twice about ever putting any animal in a cage.

Name one living thing on earth that wasn’t meant to be free. I dare you.

PS - If you're thinking, "Well, G, how about murderers and such? Should they be free? What about deadly viruses? Should they be free to wreak havoc on society?" You can take my challenge with a grain of salt and use your judgement. 

The Price of Secrets

I know a man who can identify a bird by the shape of its wings. In an instant of flight he analyzes its shape and size and coloring, then quickly flips through a thick field guide to show me a drawing of the bird I was too slow to catch on camera.

It’s easy to miss sighting a bird or a monkey or a caiman or a cobra in the jungle, despite their near omnipresence. They move seamlessly in and out of the shadows of this vast habitat. But catching a glimpse of wildlife, to see this intense array of biodiversity is what brings me and thousands of other voyagers to the Amazon every year. 

The intensity of the natural diversity is enough to make you feel like a stranger on this earth. And why wouldn’t it? The Amazon, or as Amazonas, as it is in Portuguese, is a wild, storied land. It would be foolish of me to try and capture its grandeur here, but to prepare for this trip I did read two accounts of men risking life and limb and sanity to experience this place. The first was The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic. He opts for a Amazonian voyage at what is perhaps the worst possible time—in the middle of a divorce, a new relationship, a stressful transition for his kids and his lack of physical preparedness. But then again, is there ever a good time to venture into one of the world’s harshest environments? I think not. His book details a trip with Sydney Possuelo, the once-leader of Brazil’s government agency to protect the indigenous people. Possuelo’s lifework was to implement a no-contact strategy for the agency, meaning they wouldn’t attempt to intentionally modernize any uncontacted indigenous community. Instead of trying to bring the tribes to a modernized way of life, he worked tirelessly to survey the outskirts of their communities and advocate for their independence. Basically, the idea was to leave them to continue living the way they have been for hundreds of years. Wallace’s book follows one of Posseulo’s trips to search for and survey what was believed to be one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, the Arrow People, or, the Flecheiros, who were given this name by outsiders for their habit of launching poison-tipped arrows at any intruder. This adventure weaves together the challenges of modern Brazil’s interaction with native populations and the classic jungle trek (with a few surprises, of course). The Unconquered is a fantastic look into the madness of the jungle and Brazil's culture, and it is one of the best pieces of journalism I've read to date. 

The other book I read was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, which retraces the the tale of Royal Geographic Explorer Percy H. Fawcett and his 1926 disappearance in the Amazon. Fawcett, a well known and experienced explorer went on a mission with his son Jack, and his son’s friend Riley to search for the fabled El Dorado, or the Lost City of Z, which Fawcett believed was a highly sophisticated society deep in the jungle. He wasn’t alone in this theory, and after Fawcett and his party vanished, others went in to search for him and Z. Not all lived to tell their tales. Fawcett’s other exploration feats are as legendary as his disappearance, and this book was a great introduction in the old world days of exploration and how alluring the Amazon can be, despite its dangers. It was also a fascinating look at a talented and perhaps troubled man possessed by passion. You should read it before the movie comes out in October. Trust me, it's worth it to experience this adventure first in words, then in film.

But it should be remembered that the difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets.
— Percy H. Fawcett, lost in the jungle

My own voyage did not remotely resemble any of the treks I read about but it was no less thrilling. The density and diversity of the Amazon Basin is simply astonishing. I saw a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the jungle, but it was enough to feel like it was a world within itself. The starting point of our journey was in Tefé, a small city in the state of Amazonas that is about a hour long flight west of Manaus. From there we took a small boat for 40 minutes or so to the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. There are many outfitters that advertise Amazon jungle experiences, particularly outside of Manaus, but most of the ones I researched felt more like a gimmick instead of an actual look at nature. The Uaucari Lodge, however, not only employs its own biologists, but it is a model of sustainability. I was impressed by their organization and service, and most especially by the quality of their guides. Speaking Portuguese made our experience more enjoyable, of course, but the guides were all helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. During one canoe trip I foolishly asked our guide, who grew up nearby, if he had to study the field guide much in order to work this job. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my backyard.” The brightly colored parrots were as familiar to him as pigeon was to me growing up. 

Every day in the reserve he proved it. He pointed out two sloths which otherwise would have gone unnoticed to my untrained eye. He also showed me that a coiled lump in a tree just above our heads was in fact a snake sleeping. It was in that moment I finally saw for myself a little of what I had read about the Amazon and its hidden dangers and its undeniably deadly qualities.

But deadly can be beautiful.

It was as if we were clawing our way through a huge, vaporous terrarium, an enormous laboratory where the process of evolution continued to unfold by the minute, spawning a mind-boggling array of deadly creatures and toxic plants, all locked in a terrifying contest of survival.
— Scott Wallace, The Unconquered

Piranha fishing is surprisingly easy. Here, the guide tells me not to let my arm so close to the fish's mouth...

You know, I had a lot of romantic notions about the jungle and this kind of finished that.
— James Lynch, Jr. as quoted in Lost City of Z discussing his capture by an Amazonian tribe
Have you ever heard the sound of a jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always talking.
— James Lynch, as quoted in Lost City of Z
Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.
— Percy H. Fawcett

Third Degree to the South (And Straight On 'Til Morning)

Neverland isn’t as far as you think. That place where you never, never have to worry about grown-up things again sits just below the equator: third degree to the south and east until the stars fade. There you’ll find the island of Fernando de Noronha, where “dreams are born and time is never planned.” That’s how Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie described Neverland, but he could have just as easily been describing Brazil’s most famous island.

Fernando de Noronha's Praia da Conceição, with Morro do Pico in the background. 

I half-expected to see mermaids rise up from the azure waters. After all, there were dolphins playing along the boat’s bow as it glided up to Praia do Sancho, voted one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. This gorgeous crescent of sand is surrounded by imposing cliffs, and the only access is via the sea or the mountain trail. If you enter via the cliffs, the trail begins with a steep ladder that literally drops between a rock and a hard place. Or if you have fairy dust on hand, you can fly in Peter Pan-style. Being short on fairy dust I took the boat, but it was no less magical. There was plenty of time to snorkel and spy on a silvery school of fish before soaking up sun alongside lizards. It is easy to never grow up when your only worry is your next adventure. 

And adventure is easy to find in Neverland. It’s best discovered outside, among the trees or the beach or the stars, or all three if you can find it. Fernando de Noronha is well known throughout Brazil for its incredible natural beauty and diversity, and is the only inhabited land of the 21 islands in the volcanic archipelago. It is also home to various marine research projects such as Projeto Tamar, which rehabilitates sea turtles. The diving and surfing are world class—enough to draw thousands of tourists each year trying to catch the perfect wave. Unfortunately I’m not a surfer or a diver, but I did explore some fantastic trails, both in the woods and on the beaches. Though I didn’t see any pirates (they fled long ago) or giant crocodiles, I found some Lost Boys on the Praia da Conceição, where every day at sundown they play beach volleyball. With their feet. This unique sport, called footvolley, or futevolêi in Portuguese, is another indication of the Brazilian passion for all things football (soccer) related. Why play beach volleyball with your hands when your feet are just as capable? So every evening I watched them jeer and cheer each other in the game as the last light fell upon the water. And yes, it was magical.

Lost Boys (and Girls) on Praia da Conceição at sunset. 

The resident Lost Boys (and Girls) on the island total about 3,000, and each one I encountered said they were more than happy to call Neverland home, despite the high cost of living, the limited fresh water supply and the lack of a hospital. Although the island is a paradise of sun and sand, it is not a paradise of modern infrastructure. There is one paved road on the entire island that runs about seven kilometers (just under four and half miles) and the rest are dirt roads that turn to slick muddy paths during the rainy season. We stayed at the end of one of those unpaved roads just steps from Praia da Conceição, which turned out to be a perfect location for us: just far enough from the main village and very close to the beach. 

Our home for the week wasn't a hotel (there aren't any really on the island). It was a simple, small guest house rented out by the owners of a local beach bar. 

But since our place was at the end of a hilly, rocky path outside the main village, taxi drivers weren’t keen on taking us and any activities that included transportation had to be picked up in the main village at the top of the hill. But who can complain about a little uphill walk when it has stunning ocean views? The minor inconvenience of not being in a car door-to-door turned out to be an adventure on its own. We ran into a herd of cows on one walk and got nearly caught in a downpour during another, until Paulinho (Little Paul), the owner of a nearby pousada, gave us a ride to dinner. Adventure can be found anywhere if you are willing to open your eyes to it.

We can probably thank Amerigo Vespucci for the discovery of Fernando de Noronha, as he is believed to be the first European to find the archipelago during a voyage sponsored by Portugal in 1503. The largest island (and the only one that became inhabited) was awarded to a Portuguese nobleman who financed the discovery voyage, but he likely never set foot in paradise. The nobleman, Fernão de Loronha, was a prominent Lisbon merchant and eventually the island would bear a derivative of his name, Fernando de Noronha. Over the next two hundred-plus years, Portugal, England, France and Holland would wrestle for control of this tiny paradise before it finally returned to Portuguese rule. 

Just as in the fairy tale, Fernando de Noronha harbored more than just Lost Boys. The island was also home to pirates and prisoners, not all of whom made it out alive. It wasn’t until the 1770’s that paradise became a prison. Fernando de Noronha became a penal colony and nearly the entire island’s forest was cut down for construction. Getting rid of all the trees also served two other purposes: it removed hiding places for prisoners and destroyed their chances of building a raft. As you can imagine, the consequences of ravaging a delicate ecosystem in the the ocean were severe, however, these days Brazil takes the restoration and preservation of the island quite seriously. Only a fixed number of visitors are allowed each day, all of whom have to pay a daily tax just to be on Noronha, and an additional fee to access the protected park areas, which is half the island. So, conserving nature doesn’t come cheap, but I’d rather limit the traffic now to ensure the island’s future sustainment.

What first intrigued me about Fernando de Noronha wasn’t its ecosystem or beaches. It was the more recent history of this small island. In World War II it served as a place for prisoners, political and otherwise, but it also served as a base for American troops. Indeed, the first land we touched on the island—the runway—was constructed decades ago by my fellow veterans. In exchange for basing military personnel on Noronha, President Roosevelt agreed to finance Brazil’s national steel-making company. Although I knew that Brazil was the only nation from South America to send troops to fight in World War II, I was surprised to learn that we also used their land to base our own personnel. The United States Navy held control of the airport in Fernando de Noronha from 1944 until the war’s end, but it was also used as a tracking station for guided missiles from 1957-1962.

These days the pirates, prisoners and soldiers are all gone, leaving tourists like me to explore this enchanting island with only curiosity to guide me.

On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf.
— J.M. Barrie

"People see the defect in everything, except for themselves." Less trash, more love, more Noronha. 

Signs like these were hung all over the island, talking about preserving nature or ruminating on life in general.

"Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead." -Charles Bukowski

Linda Olinda

It has been over a month since my three-week trip around Brazil began, but the cool ocean breezes are ever present in my mind. The journey began in Olinda, a small colonial coastal town in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. Once a stronghold of the sugarcane industry and the state’s capital, Olinda has seen its glory days come and go, but the charm remains in brightly colored buildings and churches reborn after a ruthless looting by the Dutch. 

As perhaps is to be expected in a Roman Catholic country, there are churches around just about even bend in Olinda, including 20 Baroque styles chapels mostly dating from the 18th century. The historic center of this quaint hilly town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, one of just 13 cultural sites across the entire country. I loved wandering into a few of these houses of worship with their beautiful, delicately painted blue tiles. The chapels were scattered among the broken cobblestone streets where I caught glimpses of the ocean shimmering just beyond the palm trees.

The view from our Airbnb was envious, especially at sunrise.

Perhaps even better than these picturesque views was an accidental encounter with several dance troupes of caboclinhos who perform the traditional indigenous dance that portrays three key aspects of that culture: hunts, harvests and battles. Caboclinho means “little caboclo” which is entirely unhelpful unless you understand the origin of caboclo. This was the Portuguese term given to the offspring of natives and blacks in Brazil. It is worth nothing that the Portuguese and Brazilians historically had a different view of racial intermixing than the United States. The intermixing was in some ways encouraged here in Brazil centuries ago, and though I can’t pretend to understand all of the nuances on the subject, I can say that this term caboclinho is not meant to be a racial slur. These days it refers to the dancers themselves who perform this traditional display, which includes the characters of a chief and the tribal mother (or female chief), shamans and their warriors. The instruments are nothing like what you would find in a high school band. Instead of clarinets and french horns, these kids learn to play bamboo pipes and maracas shaped like war clubs to decidedly un-Western tunes. And then they dance. I don’t mean awkward prom school dances or even the ballet numbers I tried to do as a kid. I mean whole body movement faster than you can blink. Feet shuffle and arms wave in a maniacally beautiful fashion. Add to this the sparkles and feathers and headdresses the size of a mattress and you have a festival. In fact, you have the northeast's answer to Rio's Carnaval. Needless to say, Brazil continues to surprise and delight.

Mother of Cities

She is a city where explorers once said farewell to familiarity and headed into the vast unknown. She is a city that marked the end of a tamed world and the beginning of the wild, the entrance into the “Great Province of the Indies,” as this area was called.

Imagine it: you are called to be a settler and explorer here in the time when maps are literally blank and survival of the fittest isn’t a cliche. The last place of civilization you may ever see is the “Mother of Cities,” know today as Asunción, Paraguay.

This spirit of exploration and adventure is hidden deep within Asunción. It’s so hidden, in fact, that I didn’t believe the importance of this place while I was there. But this tiny capital of a poor nation is one of the oldest cities in South America and was once a critical hold for Spain. The “Mother of Cities” was famous for all the souls who departed from her in search of a new start, but the full name of this capital city is perhaps just as noteworthy: Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción.

But these days she doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur of her names. Once the center of a large Spanish colonial province that included parts of Brazil and Argentina, Asunción and the nation of Paraguay suffered what has befallen other countries of the continent: rebellion, war, political turmoil, foreign occupation, military dictatorship and a continued struggle with poverty. 

Even still, she is not without her charms.

Leafy parks dot the capital and the traces of colonial buildings beckon from many corners (you will have to look past some graffiti to see it). Sunsets along the Bay of Asunción are well worth the stroll, and the restaurant scene is growing. But my favorite stop was at Mercado 4, the city’s market that, like many others I have seen, offers a smattering of goods from trendy shoes to unidentifiable meat, where ancient herbs are as valued as modern electronics. In Mercado 4 the butchered fish draws prowling cats and their hungry (and very creepy) stares, while baby chicks, ducks and mice await their fate in cages perched on piles of books and crates. These kinds of markets are often the best look into a culture and here was no different. Though the "Mother of Cities" may not have the same commanding presence as she once did in South America, you can still find her spirit of adventure tucked in somewhere between the fake iPhones and the yerba mate.

 

If you go, consider these restaurants:

Taberna Española - My favorite place we ate! This was a paella-lover’s heaven, and the sangria was excellent.

Lo de Osvaldo - A football-themed, sophisticated pub with a fun outdoor eating area and great cuts of meat. 

Talleyrand (Centro location) - Good for a quiet, delicious meal and a decent bottle of wine. We were the only ones in the place, but the service was nice and the steak divine.

Bar San Roque - This restaurant has a good ranking on Trip Advisor but for me it fell a little short of the romantic atmosphere expectations (probably because of the awful Jackie Chan movie dubbed in Spanish that was playing in the corner). But it would still be a good stop for an afternoon treat or coffee.

Medialunas Calentitas  - Friends introduced to this chain (with only three locations!) and we thoroughly enjoyed their sweets and coffee.

904 - A wood fired oven pizza place across from the InterContinental Hotel with a pleasant outdoor courtyard. Good for after-dinner drinks, too.

To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield

O que é um berne?  “What is a worm?”

I turned to a man named Bruno with very blue eyes and asked this question without a hint of sarcasm. An early, necessary sidenote: for those of you who don’t know, sarcasm is my natural state. Bruno turned to me with a surprisingly equal lack of sarcasm and answered, “É quando você tem…

This was not my first mundane vocabulary question, or my last, during a four-day weekend in what’s known as the Switzerland of Brazil, Campos do Jordão, in the state of São Paulo. Apparently it is also Brazil’s highest city, meaning that during the winter it might get a dusting of snow, maybe, but probably not. It’s not yet officially winter here, but that hasn’t stopped Brazilians from reciting the Game of Thrones chant “Winter is Coming” and donning scarves and gloves. I don’t have the heart to tell them that no, it’s not coming. At least not with heaps of snow. Because this isn’t really Switzerland. It’s only fake Switzerland in Brazil, which means two things: 1. Winter sports are never going to be your thing 2. Everything is decidedly less organized.

But I didn’t go to Campos do Jordão for the nonexistent snow or even the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like architecture. I went on a wild, curious and abrupt turn of the mind. I went on a whim. I went to spend a few days expanding my comfort zone with Outward Bound Brasil. I’ve wanted to do an Outward Bound course in America for a few years, particularly because they offer free programming for eligible veterans. I haven’t made it to a course in the States yet, so when I happened upon this course in Brazil that was open to anyone, including a gringa like me, I decided to go. Not because of careful planning or a great desire to sound like the dumbest person in the room, but simply because I could. (Fact: I did sound like the dumbest person in the room, but I got over it).

As my family members and fellow military friends know, there are many choices you cannot make while serving in the military or being a part of a military family. You usually cannot choose where you live, or when your family will be together. You cannot choose your rank or your commander or your uniform. You often cannot chose if and when you go to war. You certainly cannot choose whether you come back. You simply serve, knowing that you will have to make a million other, often more difficult choices along the way. And though my season of military service is over, I try to be mindful of the ability to choose during this unparalleled season of freedom I am in right now.

So I chose to go into the woods with ten Brazilian strangers and ask them about worms. Our four-day weekend was spent largely at a cabin learning how to do things that seem totally useless in most of our everyday lives: tying knots and using a compass, finding an azimuth and navigating to a point (sans GPS, if you can believe it). These were all things I had done before but long forgotten, however for others it was an entirely new experience. The joy in seeing someone learn a new skill, not because they needed it for a job or a promotion, but just because they wanted to do something different, was joyful. We played a few of the classic team building games, and one such exercise is the trust fall, where you willingly fall backwards off of a platform and hope the strangers you met yesterday don’t drop you. 

In the military I had done countless of these exercises that are meant to help you trust yourself and the others in your new team. But now I was seeing it from the civilian side, from people who chose to spend their long holiday weekend doing something different. They weren’t attending because their ROTC program required it or because their military education demanded it. They weren’t trying to impress the commander or the first sergeant. They certainly weren’t wearing uniforms. But as a group and individually they were more dedicated to trying, to taking a risk, to falling and failing than I had seen in a long time. And they reminded me that once you get past that moment of panic, you can start learning. In the end that’s what Outward Bound is trying to teach you, to keep striving and not to yield to your panic. 

This is easy to say in the more-or-less controlled learning environment I was in. The harder task is taking this idea home and then applying it when your when language skills fall short. Like when you’re the foreigner who can’t explain herself after her debit card was literally eaten by the ATM and the bank workers are blaming you for their dysfunctional machine. Not that it has ever happened to me, of course. 

Which reminds me of another phrase I learned that weekend: Nunca se renda. Never surrender. This doesn’t have to be a William Wallace-type war cry (but that's fine, too). It can be a quiet reminder in the days when you feel like you don’t have a choice or a chance. It’s a reminder to me when my Portuguese fails me and I’m caught in another awkward situation, likely of my own doing, that I can’t talk my way out of. I used to be good at that. It used to be my job, actually. Talking in and out of situations, in and out of media interviews, in and out of the spaces between rocks and hard places. I liked the work, too. I liked telling stories, even the difficult ones. But you can’t be a storyteller if you don’t know the language. So I’m relearning…everything. That primarily means learning to embrace the discomfort zone and not being a berne about it. So, nunca se renda. And don’t be a worm.

Waterfalls: The Opus

It was still dark when I woke and silently made my way through the soft pink halls of the hotel to watch the sunrise. From a perch in the hotel’s tower I could see nothing, but I knew what lay around me: tangles of trees cut through by the hotel lawns and the pool out back, the only still body of water around for miles.

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I was surrounded by that deep morning stillness you can only find when even the birds are still at rest.

In many places that stillness is accompanied by absolute quiet, but here at Iguaçu Falls, there would never be a silent night. A low rumble, perhaps akin to thunder or maybe an unending tremolo of double basses, drifted over the trees and through the darkness to interrupt my solitude. Slowly, others added to this symphony. The birds awoke, each with their tune or trill. The whir of all manner of bugs came with them. And in the forest, the snorts of coati and padded steps of jaguars blended with the monkey’s howl. Below the trees and in the waters, the occasional snap of a caiman made its debut. And around me on the hotel grounds, my fellow man also came to life with the creak of a wooden door, a flutter of conversation, or the rattle of a breakfast tray.

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And those were just the sounds. What I had originally woken up so earlier for was the view from the tower. I had gotten up too early, though, and there was still a long wait before the sun came. But in the waiting I was able to listen as the edges of night receded to reveal a clear new morning.

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Later I took the path that winds through the edge of the woods and reveals glimpses of the falls along the way. But the more spectacular experience is at the end of the path where there’s a walkway constructed over the water, and you can peer into the abyss created by these forces of nature. Iguaçu Falls (also written as Iguazú or Iguassu) is unlike any other body of water I’d ever seen. The enormous volume of water that spills over cliffs 80 meters high is noteworthy alone, but so is the span of this natural phenomenon: the cataracts spread the width of nearly three kilometers. But the beautiful part to me is the variety of cascades all around—the lightest trickle of water to the all-consuming rage of the river, which serves as a border between Argentina and Brazil. I found the better example of nature’s power on the Argentine side where metal walkways lead you over the river to the Devil’s Throat. That is a place where you can easily imagine being swallowed by nature without even time to cry for help, so fierce are the falls.

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Back in Brazil though, I wasn’t thinking of the Devil’s Throat or the number of gallons slipping past me each second. I was listening again to the morning symphony as I stood at the edge of the water for a long while. Long enough for the sun to drip in from the east and turn the grasses scattered among the falls from dark green to a glossy lime color. Long enough to see a flock of birds emerge from these grasses, soar for a moment, and then seamlessly blend back in. Long enough to be soaked by the mist swirling around me before I turned and headed home.

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Waterfalls: A Prelude

It's hard to believe our summer season is over and autumn has been in swing for a month here. The weather has been uncommonly warm, which gives us plenty of reasons to stick to our island and our favorite beaches. But despite this southern hemisphere Indian summer, we've been wanting to get out into our state's countryside, or serra, as it's called in Portuguese.

Jonathan makes himself at home at a roadside apple orchard in the Serra Catarinese (mountain region of Santa Catarina)

One place on our list was Urubiçi (pronounced oo-roo-BE-see) which is home to a smattering of waterfalls, a national park and a giant rock with a hole in it (which looks cooler than it sounds). About a three hour drive from Floripa, this was an easy weekend trip. We stayed in a home-turned-hostel in town run by a sweet young couple and their cat named Gandalf. Although we enjoyed meeting this couple and their hospitality was great, the town of Urubiçi itself wasn't much to see. Thankfully we planned to spend most of our time out in the mountains and trails. There's tons of farmland, woodland and mountains surrounding the town, and our first drive was up to Morro da Igreja, or Church Hill, the highest point in southern Brazil (at just under 6,000 feet, it's not that high, but we'll take it!) From this vantage point you can see Pedra Furada, that giant rock with a hole in it that I mentioned earlier. It was a winding and sometimes unpaved road to get to the top, but it was so worth the view. The valley was covered in a gorgeous blanket of clouds that stretched as far as I could see. 

After this stunning view we headed back down the mountain to see our first cachoeira (kah-sho-AIY-rah), or waterfall, of the trip called the Bride's Veil (Véu de Noiva). This waterfall, like many of them nearby, was located on private property, so we paid a small fee to use the trail to access it. Often these private properties also have cabins or a cafe, which make them pleasant stops. This particular waterfall was just a short walk down a path filled with hydrangeas and moss-covered tress. 

Our next stop was probably my favorite of the trip. We went for lunch at Il Rifugio, a tiny mountaintop restaurant with incredible views and even better food. The Refuge, as it's called in English, is a self-described "slow food" restaurant. I kind of thought all Brazilian restaurants were "slow food" (or at least slow service) since they move at a rather relaxed pace.

SMILE, you are always welcome here!
CONTEMPLATE, nature at 1,420 meters is unique!
BREATHE, the healing mountain air!
SAVOR, our food is made with much love!

But Il Rifugio was clearly labeled slow food for a good reason. We took refuge in the charming environment, gorgeous views, and of course their delicious food and wine. My favorite part of the meal was the typical Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, which I've read is a bit similar to French gougères. This treat can be divine when it's hot and fresh, and Il Rifugio had the best I've tasted since arriving in Brazil. I was also pleasantly surprised with the local wine by Villagio Bassetti, a high altitude winery nearby. You may have noticed that both the restaurant and the winery have Italian names, and much to my delight many areas of southern Brazil were settled by Italian immigrants. In the late 1800s, the Brazilian government promised cheap, farm-ready land for these immigrants in attempt to provide a new labor force after the slave trade to Brazil ended in 1850. "Farm-ready" was an exaggeration, though, as the land was still thick, uncleared forest. To the credit of the Italian immigrants, they developed some amazing wineries and agriculture in the area, and there are plenty of places in the southern states here with Italian names and traditions, and there are even some who learned Italian as their first language. 

Our next stop was to another private farm with a dramatic waterfall that dropped 100 meters into the valley. The only thing better than seeing a waterfall is seeing it with a bird's eye view, which is exactly what we did. The farm (which was really more like an adventure outfitter) had a zip line that ran just over the canyon and the waterfall, so I put on a helmet and harness and walked off the tree-house-like platform into the air. It was a slow, easy glide through the edge of the forest, over the canyon and above that powerful cascade of water. My only regret was not doing it twice (or three times!). 

The Avencal waterfall

The Avencal waterfall

The next morning we headed to another private property with...more waterfalls! This was a theme for the trip, I suppose. This farm, called Sitio Sete Quedas (Seven Breaks Site), has a trail that leads through seven waterfalls. I would say "trail" is an exaggeration on their part, since much of the time you're actually walking through the riverbed and rock hopping. We only made it to three of the falls before we had to get on the road home, but I'd say five waterfalls in 48 hours is a pretty good prelude to one of the "new" seven wonders of nature: Iguazu Falls, which I'll write about next!

A Wild Realm, A War-Ridden Crown

 

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Last month I reentered winter, escaping the summer crowds in South America for a few quieter weeks in Europe. What I could not escape was the 50-degree temperature difference. I may have grown up in northern New Jersey, but my blood has recently acclimated to Brazil’s delightfully tropical temperatures. The personal cold spell I felt, however, quickly melted away with a mug of mulled wine at our first stop: Budapest, Hungary.

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Though the warmed, spiced wine was delicious on a sunny winter afternoon, Hungary has seen some very cold and very dark times. The country has known few true glory days and is generally accustomed to fighting and losing wars on its own soil. Of course geography has played a significant role in Hungary’s war woes, as author Charlotte Yonge wrote in 1864: “For it was a wild realm, bordered on all sides by foes.”

 

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Throughout its history, Hungary has known an invasion by the Mongols, a nearly 150-year occupation courtesy of the Turks, was dragged into the Habsburg Monarchy, and failed to win their independence through a revolution in the 1840s. The country eventually gained some footing with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, which decreed that the two lands would have each have their own parliament and capital, but they would be ruled by a common monarchy and share foreign and military policies. This would cause problems for Hungary early in the next century. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand forced Hungary to follow through on those shared military policies, and the Maygar people—four million of them—were once again called to war.

The country was fractured so badly after World War I that it would never again feel whole. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 and then the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, left Hungary with a country smaller than the size of New York state and with about half the people. World War II didn’t do them any favors, either. The prime minister at the time, Pál Teleki, was so distraught over being caught between German belligerence and promised peace to Yugoslavia that he committed suicide and left a note that perhaps said what many Hungarians were feeling: “The nation senses that we have cast away its honor.” Hungary, once allied with Germany, was then made a target of the Nazi nation after the Germans discovered the Hungarian plan to pull out of the war and make peace with the Allied powers. Hungary was invaded by Germany in 1944 and suffered what I would think would be a nightmare situation for any country: its ally turned enemy and enemy turned ally battling it out in the capital city. The Battle of Budapest lasted 110 days, a desperate siege that transferred Hungary from one evil occupation to another. But behind the scenes of this troubling time was a plan to bring Hungary's most important symbol into safekeeping and out of the capital city that was again surrounded by foes. 

A city once torn, Budapest today draws plenty of visitors eager to see its history played out in architecture. One of its most famous buildings is Parliament, situated on the River Danube. This magnificent structure is among Europe’s oldest legislative buildings and was constructed primarily in the Gothic Revival style, though there are significant touches of Renaissance and Baroque styles as well.

Fighting the rain outside Parliament  

Fighting the rain outside Parliament  

We visited Parliament on a rainy February day and discovered that famous Hungarian national symbol which was almost lost to history. The room was so dark I couldn’t make out the height of the roof at first. Once my eyes adjusted I saw a ceiling that soared over Hungary’s most important relic, the one safeguarded in a time when all else seemed uncertain: the Holy Hungarian Crown. Photos were not permitted and neither was getting too close, lest you provoke the angry-looking gentlemen with the swords standing nearby. Perhaps their caution is warranted, as the holy relic is believed to that of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen and was given by Pope Sylvester II in the year 1000 AD. In the past millennium, the crown has caused its share of turmoil. It was moved around from court to court, stolen and pawned, lost and regained, even buried and dug up over the years. World War II was no exception. The crown, the holy symbol of the Hungarian people, was moved from Budapest into US Army custody in 1945 to keep it out of German and Soviet hands.

Photo by Bogdan Ioan Stanciu

Photo by Bogdan Ioan Stanciu

Some accounts say it was “spirited away” while others claim it was “seized,” but regardless of the language the crown ended up in Fort Knox, Kentucky and remained there for more than 30 years. President Jimmy Carter returned the crown in 1978 because he believed it belonged to the Hungarian people, though his decision was problematic since many asserted that turning the crown over to a communist government sent the wrong message. As we all know the Iron Curtain eventually fell, but the tearing down of those walls did nothing to change Hungary’s troubled borders, as we see in today’s migrant crisis

Despite Hungary’s shadowed history and current challenges, its capital city now boasts a blending of new and old world charms. A revitalized Jewish quarter is home to a slew of restaurants and bars, my favorite of which is wine bar Doblo (website currently under construction) where we created our own wine flights solely from nationally produced wine, which is sadly underrated on the world stage. We also discovered a gorgeous library thanks to a friend’s blog post, and I was once again convinced that European libraries and the cities that hold them will always enchant me with their captivating tales of battles won and lost, nations on the brink, and the underdog country just trying to keep hold of its crown.

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Inside the Metropolitan Library

Inside the Metropolitan Library

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A study hall inside the Metropolitan Library  

A study hall inside the Metropolitan Library  

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A Very Carioca Carnaval

I have never been to a party like this. Gods and queens, saints and demons, priests and pagans were all there swaying to a samba beat. At first I was motionless, staring with a dropped jaw at the explosion of colors, sequins and costumes before me. It didn't take long, though, before I joined in the dance as the first parade of Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval swept by me.

One of the samba school floats featured Zeus - complete with lightning-like fingertips. 

One of the samba school floats featured Zeus - complete with lightning-like fingertips. 

Every year before Lent revelers around the world continue the celebration known by many names: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, and of course, Carnival. I learned long ago in a Latin class that Carnival (spelled Carnaval in Portuguese) is derived from carne vale meaning "goodbye to the meat," and has roots in the Roman Catholic holiday of having a feast before the season of Lent.

I hardly believe how Rio celebrates is what Rome had in mind. 

Enter the dragon. 

Enter the dragon. 

Brazil has the largest population of Catholics in the world, but their Carnaval celebrations are a blend of the country's unique history and the evolving tastes in music. During the early 1800s the festivities were about the aristocrats parading around in luxurious clothing and dancing to music. Masquerade balls became popular during this century, but in the 1850s the focus of the celebrations began to change with street parades, military bands and horse-drawn floats marking the occasion. Towards the end of the century Carnaval became more of a working class holiday when locals wore costumes and joined in the musical parades. I saw evidence of this tradition, albeit in a more hedonistic fashion, at the block parties which I'll get to later in this post. 

As the end of the 1800s gave way to a more working class Carnaval celebration, so too came the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888. The link between this historic moment for Brazil and today's Carnaval traditions is shown through the pulsating beat of samba. This genre of music is at the heart of it all, with schools dedicated solely to samba. These samba schools work on their music, dancing, parade costumes and floats all year for a chance to compete in various Carnaval samba competitions throughout Brazil. Rio is among the most popular to attend and the samba competition is held in the aptly named Sambódromo. This stadium has bleacher-style seating but instead of overlooking a round or oval field, it looks like a one-way street with the seats facing each other. This creates the area where Brazilians dance, sing and shake their samba parade to a hopeful victory (and serious bragging rights for the year). To say these parades are elaborate is an understatement. Every costume rivals the best you would see on Broadway, and they run the gamut from Biblical figures to the wildly fantastic. We were fortunate enough to have tickets for one of the big samba nights, and when the first samba school appeared my jaw literally dropped in amazement at the splendor of it all. Disney parades pale in comparison (sorry Disney lovers, it's true). The samba school dancers and singers spend about an hour shimmying down the lane to the judges' stand at the end of the Sambódromo. Twelve samba schools are in the top category for the competition, with six schools competing a night over two evenings. The competition usually begins at 9 or 10pm and can go well into the morning (think: nearly sunrise). We lasted for about four of the six samba schools set to compete that night, which was plenty of parading for me. 

A classic Rio scene of Cristo o Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) was captured in this float. 

A classic Rio scene of Cristo o Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) was captured in this float. 

Acrobatics on top of a parade float? Why not.  

Acrobatics on top of a parade float? Why not.  

Roman and Egyptian-themed float... 

Roman and Egyptian-themed float... 

...with a winged lion (a nod to Saint Mark and Venice).

...with a winged lion (a nod to Saint Mark and Venice).

Before we left the Sambódromo we passed by the parade participants waiting ahead of the start line. They were all quite still until their samba song began and then they couldn't help but move to the beat even though the audience couldn't see them yet. 

Before we left the Sambódromo we passed by the parade participants waiting ahead of the start line. They were all quite still until their samba song began and then they couldn't help but move to the beat even though the audience couldn't see them yet. 

Another part of our Carnaval experience were the blocos, or street parties. These parties have a vague link to the working class celebrations I mentioned earlier. There's a band playing samba music and the general idea is to walk behind the music truck or float (carrying the band and singers). It's not exactly a parade. In fact, it's much more chaotic, but the way Rio pulls off such parties was astonishing.

Parties for days. Literally. 

Parties for days. Literally. 

There are at least a few bloco parties per day in different parts of the city. They have a loose time schedule and they often overlap, which leads to the continuous party cycle that leaves many people exhausted by Ash Wednesday. The blocos sometimes have themes, including a Beatles-themed bash that's pretty popular. And by pretty popular, I mean huge. That party, along with the other blocos, can draw up to 200,000 people. Most aren't that large, but still, any party that numbers in the thousands is impressive enough for me. We went to a few blocos and saw tons of revelers dressed in costume (Brazilian men are particularly fond of wearing dresses during Carnaval). The beer also flowed steadily, as the city grants extra permits to street vendors, who in turn make sure the party keeps going...and going...and going. During Carnaval people party before the party, and after the party, and after the after party. Despite this, the city does a pretty great job at cleaning up the mess on the streets, with extra sanitary teams essentially following right behind the parades. The almost organized chaos of it all is impressive, to say the least. One night, after a particularly raucous scene I said that Rio parties like the world is ending. It wouldn't be a bad way to go.