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The other down under

Brazil is an eclectic mixture of colonial splendour, vibrant wildlife and charming people.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2010 19:38 IST
Vidya Srinivas

TravelIt was my husband Sri’s 60th birthday, a time to renew wedding vows and pray for another 60 years of life. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through the rituals again, or watch him turn a crabby 120, so I suggested a holiday in Brazil.

Brazil? Our daughter Krithika lives there with her Brazilian husband, Fabricio and three kids, and I cherished a secret desire to see an anaconda. My husband did not want to risk being crushed or swallowed, so it was pictures of beaches with scantily-clad women that was the clincher.

We tolerated the obnoxious receptionists at the Mumbai Brazilian Consulate and stood in an endless line for the yellow fever vaccine, before taking the flight to Sao Paulo. There, we were joined by Ambika – our offspring from New York – ever willing to oblige in a paid-for-by-parents-holiday – and headed to unite with the family in Salvador, Bahia, a former capital of Brazil.

Salvador surprise
Rainbow-coloured ribbons from the Church of Bonfim greeted us in Salvador. The church is known for its powers to cure the infirm and the miracle ribbons, fitas, have become a symbol of the state of Bahia, home of the vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture, kept alive by the descendants of slaves. The best place to imbibe it is the historic Pelourinho square, where slaves were once tied to the posts and whipped.

Instead of the wails of hapless victims, the place resounds with foot-tapping chants by Capoeira artists performing the martial arts dance that was forbidden during the slavery era prior to 1888. Our in-house talent, Raven and Raiz, joined the dancers in their circular moves. The spicy sauce accompanied by acaraje, a black-eye-pea vada, fried by Baiyana women in hoop skirts and elaborate headgear, was irresistible, but we managed to avoid the Condomble priestesses’ offer to bless us for a price.

The practice of Condomble was banned during the pre-abolition period, and masters forced slaves to build Catholic churches like the ornate Igreja e Convento Sao Francisco. The enormous silver chandelier hanging over gold baroque carvings makes it one of the most decorative examples of Portuguese-Brazilian architecture. This was in contrast to the living conditions of the masons and sculptors. They showed their resentment by distorting the cherubs’ faces and angels’ figures – the most scandalous piece is a black Christ-like child in the arms of the white statue of Senhora Nossa do Carmo.

The Pelourinho that is located in the upper or Alta Cidade also houses the first medical college and other blue and yellow buildings, reminiscent of old Goa. A 70-metre elevator ride lands you in the lower or Baxia Cidade in front of the old Customs house, where imported slaves awaited auctioning. Today a Mercado thrives, selling T-shirts, linen, and other souvenirs decorated with the national flag. Unlike the furore over our tricolour on a cricketer’s birthday cake, neither the Brazilian flag nor the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the Havaiana footwear has caused any riots as yet.

Salvador is blessed with the bay of all saints – Baia de Todos os Santos. The 1,200 square kilometre harbour with 56 lush islands lined with sandy beaches and warm waters was the perfect place to bum out on a 60th birthday. And so we honored the sea goddess Yemanja and Sri with pitchers of caipirina made from the sugarcane spirit cachasas, while our grandkids, Raven, Raiz and Rayne made the most of the delicious guava cake with coconut icing.

A wild detour
Most tourists go to the rainforest. Fabricio advised us not to. The Pantanal, where the wildlife walks out of the grass, was the better place. So we grabbed an early flight on very punctual TAM, which refused to serve vegetarian food on its domestic sectors but offered Sonu Nigam belting out Naach nach sade nal and Sukvinder Singh singing Aaj mera jee karda as part of the in-flight entertainment.

Brazil is two and a half times the size of India, so getting around required a change in the capital Brasilia. This modern city, designed by the legendary architect Oscar Neimeyer, has an airport with a humongous lobby with no walls or doors separating you from the driveway. A reminder of what life was in the pre-terrorism era.

The two-hour drive from the airport at Cuiaba to Pantanal, the heart of the wetland at the edge of the rainforest, was exactly as Fabricio promised. Once in the country, far from gas stations selling alcohol fuel at half the price of petrol, we drove through waves of multicoloured butterflies, encountered a Tegel (giant lizard) sunbathing on the road, and found the one metre tall jabiru stork looking for baby alligators in a nearby pond. At the eco-lodge, Pousada Rio do Mutum, our guide Zanie helped us overcome our fear of alligators. The caiman reptiles didn’t wag their tails to greet us, but they ignored our presence and snapped up the fish.

Pantanal is a birdlovers’ paradise. You don’t need binoculars to spot giant kingfishers, ibis, herons, cormorants, parakeets, macaws and toucans. They flutter around as you sail between the hyacinths on the rivers that drain into the wetland, while the capybara, the largest living rodent, readily poses for pictures. Much to my disdain and my husband’s delight the anacondas stayed away.

Water view
Our next stop was Foz do Iguacu, the mighty waterfall straddling the Iguacu River between Argentina and Brazil. The Argentinean side has the major part of the Falls and posters campaign to include it in the list of world wonders, but the better view of the powerful waters is from the Brazilian side, which gets most of its power from the dam on the River Iguacu.

That power failed on our first evening in Rio as we walked down the mosaic sidewalk of Copacabana beach, plunging the city and most of Brazil into darkness for half the night. An intimidating experience in a city where tourists are warned to leave even their wristwatches in the hotel. The next morning President Lula da Silva was on TV, defending Brazil’s infrastructural ability to host the 2012 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

The power was back when the cable car took us up 800 metres to Sugar Loaf Mountain. The view of the city and the bays was spectacular and that of the playful monkeys who live up there, cute. We were less fortunate with views on the trolley ride up to see Brazil's best-known emblem, the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Standing open armed on a high peak, the thirty-metre-tall Jesus played hide-and-seek at first, finally shrugging off a cloudy cloak for us to to snap the touristy photograph at his feet.

The sky was clearer on the way down, giving us a glimpse of the favelas. These slums, havens of crime and drugs, are built into hillsides and unlike the Mumbai slums, often boast of the best views of the city and ocean.

Blame it on Rio
The Portuguese built several ornate churches in Rio, but the contemporary Metropolitian Church of San Francis is the most intriguing. Looking like a Mayan pyramid, the church is naturally lit during the day through the 60 feet high stained glass windows and the central ceiling. It is also naturally ventilated by louvered walls and there is no air conditioning – not an uncommon phenomenon in Brazil.

Although the country lies in the tropics, the greenery and sea breeze keep the temperatures comfortable, and Rio is cooled by the breezes from the bays lining the 37 beaches. Copacabana, Leme and Leblon are great beaches to sprawl out on, as is Ipanema, made famous by Jobin and Moraes in The Girl from Ipanema.

The song popularised the bossa nova style of music, but it is the samba that gets people swinging on boats, cable cars and sidewalks. The Rio Scenarium, with man-sized puppets hanging from the 19th century ceiling and large antique mirrors reflecting the packed floor of dancers, is a great spot to dance to the rhythm of samba.

After two weeks of the warmth of family and the Atlantic Ocean, saying goodbye was hard for Ambika, heading back to a frigid New York. The 20-hour trip to Mumbai was as big a downer for Sri, who had to acknowledge his senior citizen status on the immigration form. As for me, I want to go back and see the anaconda. And my grandkids.

Food facts

Brazilians are meat eaters and you get several varieties of steak and seafood. If you are vegetarian, your choice is limited to pasta, pizzas and salads. The Portuguese transplanted Indian fruits – guava, jackfruit, custard apple, papaya and a malgova taste-alike mango – along with the cashew from India. Those passionate about dal-chaval, try beans with rice.

Don’t be surprised if you find batata on the menu. Yes it is a potato and batata is a Portuguese word, as is pao, (bread) pronounced pohn. The best pao is the melt-in-your mouth pao de quesio made of cassava flour, eggs and milk.

Get there, get around
Emirates offers the fastest connection to Sao Paulo with a halt in Dubai, and also offers the Brazil Pass on TAM, the best way to fly around Brazil.

You will need a visa to visit the Argentinean side of Iguacu Falls.

Brazilians speak Portuguese and very little English, so an English-speaking guide is a must.

Brazil is beautiful but not safe. You are better off leaving your jewels in India and your cash and watches in the hotel to avoid being victims of knife-wielding muggers.