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january 14, 2005 -> brazilian observations 

(a bit of history and other things that didn't quite fit in the other stories) 

* Brazil is the 5th largest country on Earth, and represents roughly half of both South America's landmass and its population.  It's big, diverse, affordable, and a lot of fun.  We had set aside 4-5 weeks of a busy six months in South America for Brazil.  While that still proved to be inadequate, we were ruthlessly efficient (some would say miserly) with our time.  To start, we saved as much as a week of bus travel by purchasing a special ticket with TAM Airlines: 5 flights within Brazil for US$100 each.  (This ticket can only be purchased outside the country.)  We also had the invaluable aid of two Brazilians – Gabriela and Marcelo – whom we had met while on safari in Namibia.  A month before leaving for South America, we met up with the couple at their flat in London and brainstormed for a “perfect” month in Brazil.   

* Brazil was “discovered” by the Portuguese commander Pedro Cabral in 1500.  He did not tarry long, as he was on his way to India.  (It was standard practice to sail far west into the South Atlantic to catch favorable winds back to the east and around the southern tip of Africa.  Cabral actually hit Brazil in the process.)  The clearest evidence of his lack of interest is that he named the place “The Island of the True Cross” – a cartographic blunder on the grandest scale.  Throughout the early 16th century, the Portuguese largely ignored Brazil; their colonies in Africa, India and Asia were far more lucrative.  Only in the 1530's, when French ships began to visit Brazil, did Portugal move to assert its claim through colonization.  For a short while, trade was dominated by red dye from the “brazilwood” tree, whose name the colony later adopted. 

* Colonization and the development of new crops and industry in the 16th and 17th centuries (mining, sugar, coffee etc.) led to one of the most important features of Brazilian history: the massive importation of African slaves.  It is a common misconception that most African slaves found their way to the colonies that would become the United States.  In fact, Brazil was by far the largest recipient of African slaves, with the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean second.  African labor was greatly preferred over that of the indigenous peoples, who were anyway quickly being decimated by disease and pushed deeper into the interior.  Within a few centuries, those of African or mixed blood dominated Brazil's population.

* Today, Brazilians are proud of their astounding racial diversity, but one should not equate that with a long history of progressive views on race.  Slaves continued to pour into Brazil after the English outlawed the trans-Atlantic trade in 1820's, and slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888 (after the US Emancipation Proclamation, and the end of slavery in the Spanish American colonies.)  For the early Portuguese settlers, miscegenation was a clear (and often enjoyable) way for a small population of whites to colonize and “civilize.”  (The Portuguese, it should be noted, were notoriously randy colonizers.)  Nor does racial diversity equate to economic equality.  Brazil has one of the most skewed distributions of wealth in the world, and my admittedly anecdotal observations (financial districts in Rio and Sao Paolo, hotel and business owners) convinced me that lighter-colored faces still predominated in the upper quintiles.  For someone from the USA (where all those same problems exist), it is the attitude of Brazilians towards race, however, that is the most refreshing.  No one stares at interracial couples, and groups of mixed-race friends are commonly seen across Brazil. 

* It takes ages to get anywhere in Brazil.  Maps are misleading, particularly for those accustomed to smaller, more manageable countries.  The size of the country that we grow up in fixes a scale in our minds that is difficult to adjust.  On a full-page map of Brazil, the width of an index finger might represent 600 kilometers, at least 10 hours by bus.  No Australian would consider Melbourne as a day-trip from Sydney.  No American would think of popping by Seattle while visiting San Francisco.  Yet Rio looks so close to Sao Paolo! 

* Brazilian buses and bus terminals amazed us.  The longer-distance buses were usually modern and comfortable, some with fully-reclining seats and refreshments served on board.  Every city had a central bus station, with ticket offices for each of the companies and reliable schedules.  At the cavernous bus terminal in Sao Paolo – which felt like an airport - a computerized message board showed the platform number and departure times for scheduled services.  There is no real rail network in Brazil, and flights are still too expensive for most people, so buses do the bulk of the country's passenger transport. 

* Most tourists don't visit Sao Paolo – Brazil's largest city, with a population over 18 million – which is a shame.  SP may have few ‘sights,' and is far from the coast, but it is amazing.  We spent several days exploring Sao Paolo with Marcelo and Gabriela and had a fantastic time.  Mostly we shopped and ate magnificent meals.  We ate at the finest Japanese restaurant, Jun Sakamoto's, where the celebrity chef gabbed with us amiably as he turned out incredibly flavorful sushis and sashimis.  We struggled to finish half portions of a rich truffle risotto in a downtown bistro, and wolfed down New York-worthy pizza in a sprawling Italian restaurant.  Sao Paolo's newly refurbished food market was amazing: exotic fruits, fresh vegetables and everything from Serrano ham to bacalhau (the salted cod that Brazilians love.)  And it is worth a visit to Sao Paolo if only to see the incredible wall of skyscrapers from the rooftop Skye Bar of the Hotel Unique (the only cityscape I have ever seen that rivals Manhattan.)* Many of the Portuguese words that tourists will learn in Brazil sound confusingly similar: capybara (the world's largest rodent,) capoeira (the local martial art,) cachoeira (a waterfall,) caipirinha (the national cocktail made with cachaca cane rum,) and caipiroska (the same but made with vodka.)  Exhausted after a long hike to see waterfalls, one must be careful not to order a large rodent from the barman.