For those wondering at my abrupt absence and noding hiatus, (only a few of you, when writing I presume my audience consists of dmd, three pregnant women, and possibly Getzburg) I was not away waxing my toenails, kayaking down the Rio Grande, or visiting Disney World. Instead, I was whisked away by my cynical, cigarette-huffing aunt for a cathartic trip in the glorious land of Brazil. As the first visit to anything exotic besides the vagrancies of Mexican border towns, I embraced the culture shock, the sights and the Portuguese language. Quite frankly, some things made me indignant about America in comparison to The Way Things Are Done in Brazil, things that I will hold in my heart even when I go back to the selfish way I did things before I left.
I suppose I should explain the circumstances that led to my sojourn. As the salesman that I conversed with while buying a magenta, teenie-weenie-Ipanema bikini told me, "people don't just up and away go to Brazil." While I'm intimately familiar with the goings on of my terribly-Southern-and-proud-of-it maternal side of the family, my knowledge about my father's side would render me loser if there was ever a Haralson Family Trivial Pursuit. I guess it's not entirely my fault- constant divorces, marriages, and nasty lawsuits have transmogrified the family tree into a knot. Concerned with the fact that the last time I saw Abuelita Dona Elena I was still wearing Garanimals, my aunt arranged for us to travel for 9 days throughout Curitiba, the Foz de Iguacu, and finally my grandmother's hometown, Rio de Janeiro.
Despite mild autism and the slightest err in reading maps, I made it unaccompanied from the McAllen airport to Orlando International. I ran to the terminal and embraced my aunt, a horticulturalist and cigar/cigarette aficionado whose face has prematurely wrinkled ("They give me character") she frequently spiels in self-defense. Despite the nicotine, we managed to have a couple of Deep Talks until 4:30 AM, while I gleaned some precious nuggets about the family. Most surprising: after my grandfather passed on, she married a Brazilian senator for 10 years, and has now inherited a glorious estate after his death. I started to think that maybe I should be a soap-opera writer.
First in our itinerary was Curitiba, the premier city of southern Brazil and perhaps the most progressive town I have ever visited, American or Brazilian. Besides the myriad, lush park system, great public transportation and the cool, inviting climate, Curitiba's streets were spotless, something I've never witnessed in the Rio Grande Valley. We walked the streets and took advantage of the abundance of Brazilian currency we had -reals, beautiful, Monopoly colored money adorned with pictures of scarlet macaws and Roman-looking women. The same beauty in the city was true for the people- almost everyone was elegantly and richly dressed, with a sense of style and comportment that most American teenage girls canonly attempt to reach. I counted one person who was borderline gaudy. Not only that, but even people with the humblest jobs treated us in good humor; the waiters at coffee shops chatted us up and asked us how we were doing, the newspaper vendors asked us how our weekend was. Complete strangers held the door open for my aunt and I; and instead of honking and being lewd, the men who expressed interest torwards me calmly said "Hello" (the language barrier quickly ended hope for those flirtations, however). I was genuinely impressed not only by the beauty of the town but by the apparent paucity of corruptness. Even the campaign ads by politicians boasted about their progressive environmental efforts and their commitment to keeping Curitiba a beautiful city. My aunt fielded my questions about their use of alcohol instead of gasoline in car engines- why can't Americans, living in a first world country, employ the efficacy and cleanliness of alochol as opposed to gasoline? I suppose Big Oil has something to do with it, but nevertheless I am more than a bit miffed that the Greatest Nation in The World is still stuck with fossil fuels.
After Curitiba, my aunt and I flew away from the graciously elegant Curitba airport to one of the greatest natural wonders of the world- The Falls of Igaucu, known as "Las Cataratas" or "Foz de Igaucu" (aren't phonetic derivatives grand?) Despite my fondness for expression the sights are perhaps the hardest to describe. Swarms of butterflies of every color in the rainbow, little rodents that looked like raccoons that the travel guides identified as "quchias", deer, a jaguar, and a dense canopy of verdant plants were merely the frame of the waterfalls, pounding against rocks that were perfectly rectangular in shape. Being a product of the Disney generation, it was hard to believe that 1. the waterfalls were unceasing and 2. the waterfall itself was an actual product of nature. I had my first elegant dinner that night, Auntie quietly but firmly explained the difference between a dinner and a salad fork and why I should put my napkin on my lap. You learn something new every day, nee?
Finally, we bid goodbye to the falls (the plume rising from the falls was visible from high in the troposphere) and embarked on a 2 hour flight torwards Rio de Janeiro. Now, I was already impressed with Curitiba and the Falls, but I did not expect be moved to tears when I saw the mountainsides of Rio, dotted with little favela districts alongside water so blue it made the gray tides of the beach near my home look like a homely cousin. Previously my investment was only for entertainment. As we passed over Pao de Azucar, it became emotional. The juxtaposition of mountainside and coast is a wonderful thing.
"Baby, this is all for you." Tio Roberto's words as he drove us in the darkness through the insane nightlife of the Copacabana and Ipanema districts. He showed me his wife Cassia's store, a little botique in Leblon (another district) where she sewed "Brazil cut" jeans for savvy Rio teenagers. We passed through Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Tijuca Barra until we reached Campo Grange, where my grandmother keeps a country estate along with Berto, the hired help.
The communication that transpired between my grandmother and I was clear yet wordless. As a toddler I of course could not notice our resemblance, but it is unmistakable- the same green eyes, the same blonde hair, even the same shoe size. It is hard to not feel a connection with the person who gave you your genetic thumbprint. We spent the next few days talking, eating Parmalat crackers and tangerine rind jam in bed, and shopping in the malls of Rio. At night she would dress me up in her dresses from the '60s and escort me to dinner parties in the mountains hosted by the affluent, where other people my age would either mumble disdainfully in Portuguese about me or earnestly try to practice their English with me in conversation. I enjoyed myself, and noted quite a few distinctions of superiority among Brazilian society:
For starters, the manners and general treatment of the Fellow Man in Brazil. Now, before you cry "American-rich-girl-pampering", for the most part I was assumed to be Brazilian (my aunt speaks fluently, I picked up a few bits and pieces along the way.) Most everyone we encounted was genuinely nice, with the single exception of the corrupt police known as federales that searched our car on multiple occasions and made me pray for a caped avenger to rescue us.
The bathrooms of Brazil are perhaps the strangest fascination. Bidets, or a special toilet made for the cleansing of the genitals, was lauded by me; an attempt to explain them to my American parents just yielded a scowl of disgust from them when they called it "a form of masturbation." The same reaction was invoked when I told them that Brazilians kissed each other on the cheeks instead of the American-formal handshake- "Are those men faggots or something?" said my stepfather as I gleefully tried to share the news.
I will forever be spoiled away from American coffee. The Brazilian fashion? Extremely concentrated, dark beans percolated with intensity and served in ceramic shot glasses, topped with a shot of whipped cream and stirred in with brown sugar. Anything else will now taste hopelessly watered down. To think of it, quite a few things were creamier about the cuisine- the cheeses, the sauces, the richness of the breads.
Immortal in my mind will stand the unerring Brazilian soccer obsession. I learned to cheer for Ronaldinho Gausho, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, and Rivaldo- who wouldn't, when school closes, work stops, and life halts for a day just to watch the games? Most amusing was a replica of the Statue of Liberty clad in a Nike soccer jersey downtown, and the constant fireworks celebrating the victory against Turkey.
Politically, the hatred of George W. Bush (at least among the upper echelons of Rio society that I got to meet) is intense and dry. The disdain is mainly propagated by an incident in which Bush commented to the current Brazilian president (who is of black ancestry) that "he did not know that Brazil had black people." As my Tio Roberto says, "Brazil is the second Africa." While I cannot claim to speak for the country from seeing it only a few days, environmentalism is a much bigger agenda for them than for the typical American, and I think this contributed to their cynicism about the American political system as well.
I enjoyed the trip.