Ending The Trip At Itaipu

Today I saw the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It’s on the Parana River, jointly operated by Brazil and Paraguay (not to be confused with Iguassu Falls, jointly operated by Brazil and Argentina).

After starting construction in 1974, they diverted part of the river in 1978, and started building a gigantic dam. The dam raised the level of the river behind it by 200 feet. As the water plunges that distance down through a dozen enormous pipes (each one wide enough to hold a bus), it picks up speed and eventually turns 6,600-ton turbines housed underwater, creating electricity.

I can barely grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment. Imagine being the one to push the button the day it opened in 1984.

The two countries share the electricity; it powers every lightbulb and TV in Paraguay, while Brazil gulps its half (sending it as much as 1,000 miles inland) and buys most of Paraguay’s share.

It was spectacular, a nice companion piece to the thundering water of Iguassu. One natural, one artificial. One eternal, one brand new. Each one administered by people and nations with agendas. Each one uniquely powerful—and uniquely vulnerable.

I wish I trusted the administrators of either one just a little more.

Speaking of water, I’m off to a shower, then a car, then a plane. See you back in the U.S. tomorrow.

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A Day of Extremes

Tonight I had the best beef I’ve ever tasted. I was tsunami’d with the biggest volume of water I’ve ever spluttered in. And I saw, felt, and tasted one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, Iguassu Falls.

The Falls are divided between Brazil and Argentina. (Paraguay is just a few miles away.) I’ve come here for the last two days of my trip, to this fancy resort that’s actually within Brazil’s national park. There’s a long, easy trail that winds along the side of a mountain—kind of parallel to the river below that both feeds and then divides the Falls. I walked along and saw miles of Falls. And heard miles of Falls. Together, the sensory input was almost too much, almost too perfect.

About every hundred yards there was yet another angle from which to see the magnificent Falls. Legend has it that when first seen by Eleanor Roosevelt, she remarked, “Poor Niagara!” I saw that little U.S.-Canadian joint venture five years ago. She’s right.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other yakking, photo-snapping tourists to keep me from having too spiritual an experience. For the first time in my life I envied Bill and Hillary: when they visited, Brazil closed the park for a half-day. Now that’s my kind of tourism.

But it isn’t enough to see and hear the Iguassu magic. No, one has to smell, taste, and wear it. So into a zodiac boat I tumbled, life jacket and all. We (about 15 of us) put-putted down the calm river, awaiting the soaking we were promised. Soon the river wasn’t so calm. And neither was the driver of the boat, as he swooped us and leaped us and bounced us.

Soon enough we were a little moist.

And then we headed right for the Falls.

Note: I won’t exactly say I was scared, but I don’t really yearn for recreational activities that require safety equipment and insurance forms.

If you’ve never been in a little boat a few yards from where millions of gallons of water come thundering over a 200-foot cliff, I can describe the primary experience: you get wetter than you’ve ever been. It’s like having buckets of water the size of houses thrown at you by Hercules. Over and over. As a bonus, you get a combination rush of adrenaline and negative ions. I haven’t felt that alive since, well, never.

I got really wet. My zodiac-mates, young and old, were thrilled. We all shouted. We dripped all over each other as our hearts slowed down to normal.

We eventually came back to land. Dry, delicious, land. Dry until the jungle humidity set in. Then it was damp, delicious land. Fair enough.

The beef? It’s the slow-roasted, perfectly-marbled, ultra-tasty national dish both here and in Argentina. Fish? That’s for the river that separates the two countries. Beef here is for grownups on land.

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A Word About Brazilian Women

After blogging for two weeks about Brazilian history, culture, and architecture, it’s time to mention the women.

Everyone knows they’re gorgeous, so let me say a little more than that.

For starters, Brazilians are a mix of three races: the indigenous Indians, European settlers, and Africa slaves. Over the last five centuries, the three races have blended continuously. Compared with the U.S. and other societies, there have been relatively few taboos about race-mixing, a process that only accelerated when slavery ended in 1888. Mixing races produces unique and therefore exotic-looking combinations of features. One is instinctively drawn to the mystery of the miscegenation. And nobody looks embarrassed or apologetic about it.

In fact, Brazil’s self-described founding national myth sits atop race mixing, and thus sexuality is embedded in the national DNA. Brazilians frankly describe their national character as both sensual and sexual, often contrasting it with their neighbors’. So neither the women nor the men here feel terribly compelled to feign less interest in sex than they actually have. This makes people pretty damn attractive.

Second, Brazilians breathe music and dance. Watching Carnival rehearsals up north in Olinda was spell-binding; the women move parts of their bodies that I didn’t realize could move in quite that way. They dance with their shoulders, their necks, their hips, followed by their feet. Their torso practically comes along for the ride. I’m certain I wasn’t the only observer reminded of sex.

But what was really amazing was watching the six-year-olds samba. Ah, that’s how adults are able to move like they do—they’ve been doing it since they were six. And while their movements were sensual and their costumes an echo of their sexy older sisters’, their dance scenes had integrity, an organic logic light years away from the phony tarting-up of the child “beauty” pageants in America. These Brazilian children were being themselves, faces beaming, enjoying their bodies.

It was almost too intimate to watch—and far too life-affirming to turn away from. So I watched. I was intrigued by my own hesitation to appreciate children’s bodies in a way that was culturally approved and wholesome.

Another compelling feature of Brazilian women is that when it comes to samba, everyone is eligible. No woman is too large to participate, and when they do, they shake whatever they have. Often, that’s a considerable amount of shaking, and no one scolds. Bodies are bodies, and in Brazil, bodies are good.

In fact, the large women in Brazil dress exactly the way their thinner sisters do: skimpy, tight, and colorful. There’s even a style of tank top that deliberately exposes the belly, inviting it to hang over their short shorts. In America most women would be horrified to expose what we delicately call “rolls of fat.” In Brazil that same flesh is called, um, flesh, and it’s not seen as a moral failing or aesthetic calamity. It’s part of a woman’s body, and they apparently don’t feel the desperate need to cover or disguise it. If it’s a woman’s body, there are plenty of men to celebrate it. As a result, there are Brazilian women of every size preening. And that’s attractive regardless of how a woman is constructed.

And did I mention that the Brazilian women are gorgeous?

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The Stories Churches Tell

I know some people worship in them, but churches are among the world’s most precious art galleries. Around the world, the painting, sculpture, woodwork, stonework, and design found in churches is a central part of human history.

With a Catholic history going back over 400 years, Ouro Preto is a living collection of artwork that took my breath away today. I won’t quite call the town a museum, because the beautiful buildings and art are where they were originally created, and intended to be consumed. I climbed a steep hill to get to a church only poor people attended—ruggedly painted, with the simplest of pulpits and almost no saints. In a better neighborhood, rich people built a High Baroque church whose primary purpose seemed to be showing off their wealth. I saw a church with Ottoman-style onion-dome towers—built by an architect recently returned from the Orient. And I saw a church whose members couldn’t afford gold leaf, and so some of the walls were painted to imitate fancy European tapestries.

I even saw a Pieta whose Madonna was draped in the most delicate brocade—which was painted wood. And I saw the artist’s tomb—a simple plank on the floor marked Antonio Francisco Lisboa.

Seeing gorgeous religious art in museums can be great. The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, for example, can change your life. But seeing a chapel out on the street right where a jealous ex-husband built it, seeing the scratches where stone has been worked, seeing a one-towered church originally designed as a two-towered church (whose community ran out of money when Ouro Preto’s gold stopped flowing), seeing a Rococo fountain exactly where a hill-climbing person would be desperate for a drink—ah, that’s entertainment.

So I climbed around Ouro Preto again today, feet aching, clothes damp from the mist. I saw angels appearing to jump out of the walls of one church, eager to support the pillars. I saw building sites carefully selected, so that a new church would be framed by the towers of an existing one. And much more.

Large cities that grow chaotically have their own, um, charm. But small old towns that preserve their architectural and artistic heritage enable us to see and feel how people lived long ago. This is one of the main reasons I travel—not just to better understand how things are now, but to better understand how they were then.

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A century and a half before the Bay Area was stormed by 49ers (the fortune-hunting immigrants, not the football team), gold was discovered in Ouro Preto, where I am now.

The most beautiful of the 17th- and 18th-century hill towns 300 miles north of Rio, Ouro Preto was overrun by so many would-be miners so quickly that food actually ran out. In 1700 there was a famine, and legend has it that people died with gold nuggets in their pockets.

Today I walked Ouro Preto’s winding streets, admiring the colonial architecture: imported ironwork on the balconies, carved wooden doors and inlaid wood floors from lush forests (which no longer exist), stone exterior walls impressed with geometric designs, and of course grand churches.

My favorite was an odd church built by ex-slaves around 1792. Because Ouro Preto was a small frontier town with no organized religious orders to dictate church design, artists were free to experiment with unusual ideas. And so this church is built on an oval plan. And because ex-slaves had very little gold or silver with which to adorn the building, and marble was too expensive, artists were commissioned to paint the wooden interior. The result is a lot of trompe l’oeil; painted life-size statues; textile-looking backgrounds in the niches; and a lovely ceiling. A church interior not completely covered by gold leaf was, after a week of high baroque, restful to the eye.

And although Nossa Senhora and her baby are white as snow, the saints around the church perimeter are black. Tropical vines painted on the stylized columns add to the non-European feel. In another idiosyncratic touch, Portuguese tile adorns the center aisle. In all, it was a charming place to spend an hour.

I also had a chance to see the mineralogic museum. The building started as the governor’s palace, then became the mining college, and now houses a museum of gems, gold, gold mining, and Brazil’s mineral wealth. Its last room was filled with modern maps of Brazil showing deposits of nickel, iron (the largest iron mine on earth is just a few hours from here), rare earths, and other treasurers. I imagine there are a bunch of officials in China with these same maps on their wall, spending their time figuring out how to get all that mineral wealth from here to there.

The cobblestones here made my feet ache, and the altitude (almost a mile) was an extra little challenge. But it drizzled all day today, which was a welcome break from the tropical heat up north. I didn’t need the yellow sun—I was surrounded by gold.

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Bye-Bye Bahia

Last night was the start of saying goodbye to Bahia, the history-rich, politically powerful, growing-too-quickly center of African Brazil.

Managing the sweltering heat as best I could, I toured some working class and poor neighborhoods, including Liberadade, the neighborhood where slaves first lived after becoming free.

According to Mieko Nishida’s new monograph, by around the 1820s slaves could get their freedom in a variety of ways: by saving money (from after-hours work) to buy their freedom; by buying the services of a cheaper slave, who served as a substitute; by having their freedom purchased by a blood or ethnic relation; by inheriting their freedom when their master died; and by successfully escaping. Apparently the first two were the most common. In fact, after the abortive slave revolt of 1835, African-born slaves (in contrast to Brazilian-born slaves) were encouraged to return to Africa. They were welcomed by the British, who were establishing a new colony in Nigeria.

Today Salvador is criss-crossed with major, traffic-choked highways. One side of each is typically lined with new (or almost-finished) skyscrapers, while the other is a rubble-strewn hillside, crammed with thousands of squatter houses. The wretched half-finished houses are generally made of brick because there’s so much of it lying around to be appropriated; some of the squatters even have menial construction jobs. Ironically, brick—expensive in places like Boston and Brussels—is exactly the wrong material for a constantly hot climate. The squatters are, in a sense, baking inside.

After a shower and nap (how do I go entire weeks without a single nap back home?), I went to an early dinner at Café DaDa, which proudly featured a photo of Mama Dada with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton (astonishing to recall what she looked like back in 1997). After a house specialty dish of goat (like slightly-smoky, lean beef), root vegetables (almost tasteless), sautéed bananas (what could be bad?), and large-grained rice, I was back out on the cobblestoned street.

I had bought a ticket to the local folkloric show, a well-known production in a charming little theatre (non-equity for you New Yorkers) right on the same hill. It was quite a spectacle, with 4 drummers, 2 singers, and about 15 dancers. The rhythms and costumes were splendidly colorful, and although I’d never seen any of these dances before, each reflected a vaguely familiar village tale: preparations for battle, the search for love, prayers for a safe sea journey, and so on. As an aside, it was a dramatic contrast with the sexy, modern (and tremendously exciting) current stage show Fela!, which developed in modern Nigeria only a few miles from the source of these village legends.

The next morning I was taken into one of the larger Condomble religious compounds. I actually met one of the priestesses, and watched a disciple prepare a ceremonial dish for the evening’s ritual. She had a big vat of corn meal mush, and was spooning it into banana leaves for use in the temple. Through my interpreter, she assured me that it had to be done while thinking spiritual thoughts. She also said the spoon and pot were very, very old, and were used solely for this purpose. And by the way, menstruating women weren’t eligible to prepare the dish.

As I left, the priestess beckoned my guide and me. The guide kissed her hand, and the priestess blessed each of us in turn. Her forehead was cool against my sweaty brow.

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Cachoeira & Santo Amaro: Into African Brazil

Today we drove away from the ocean, counterclockwise around the large Bay of Todos Santos that forms half of Salvador’s waterfront (the ocean is the other half).
The further we drove from the ocean, the more African the adventure.

We stopped at the enormous weekly market of Santo Amaro, and it felt more like Nigeria than South America. A different, inland sweltering heat; stall after stall of produce I’d never seen before; and most importantly, black, black people. The faces, the bodies, and the postures were not European. For the most part, they didn’t even seem like a blend of races. These men and women, old and young, were black.

In addition to the exotic (to me) produce, I saw about a dozen different kinds of crabs, all of them smaller than Dungeness. Some had legs blue as the sky. Others had bright red bellies. And then there were mud crabs—grimy-looking, slow-moving creatures which had been dug out of the beach mud just hours ago.

There was also the mandatory meat market—cow tongue, pig head, and various cuts of raw beef, pork, and goat hanging in the tropical sun. No extra charge for the flies. It smelled too much like meat hanging in the hot tropical sun, so after just minutes I was begging for the shelter of my air-conditioned car. Luis, the tall black driver, smiled knowingly as we crept through the crowded street out of town.

My guide stopped at a samba school, where I met the headmaster. We clapped a few rhythms together, and I received his approval as pretty darn musical. (I’m not sure that was “OK,” or “OK for a middle-aged white guy.”) I also learned about how the Afro-Brazilians, when the government prohibited samba, syncretized it with Catholic rites so they could continue communicating their “subversive” thoughts and, more importantly, continue their community identity. These days, UNESCO has declared the samba a “masterpiece of the oral tradition and intangible heritage of humanity.”

Continuing through the countryside, we stopped at a farm operated by MST–the landless workers’ movement. In response to Brazil’s awful centralization of land ownership (and the tremendous disincentives to further crowd into big-city slums), these folks claim that every Brazilian has the right to feed his family from farming.

Movement farmers squat on unused land and farm it in groups as they work for land reform. They build schools in each newly-created community, even colleges for agronomy, law, and leadership development. The courts don’t exactly love these people, but in Brazil squatters develop certain rights once they’ve been somewhere for a while. Fortunately violence reactions by the establishment have been rare.

Cachoeira was another 45 minutes away, a lovely town on the Paraguacu River. The town is still reached by a 19th-century box bridge built by the British. The thing is still a charming bunch of steel.

The highlight there was the cigar factory. Built by the 19th-century German businessman Dannemann, I watched a half-dozen women in a brightly-lit, clean loft sort and roll tobacco leaves. There were lots of steps the stuff went through just to create a stogie. I must admit that when packaged in an elegant wooden box, I felt a bit of regret at not smoking. In fact, I realize I don’t know a single person who does. Perhaps it’s just as well—the highest quality hand-made cigars there (on sale at the factory shop, of course) are $20 each!

For old-fashioned quality goods, though, I’ll still take that old bridge.

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