Alphaville, a village in Sao Paolo

As our plane approaches Sao Paolo, my face is pressed to the window. Dark, bush-covered mountains give way to smooth green farmland, then to scattered settlements with fine threads of road, then to a narrow ring of low-lying suburbs cut with streets and freeways. The high-rise begins abruptly and continues. On and on it goes, mile after mile, row upon row of mammoth high-rise buildings, colossal concrete slabs, lined up like tombstones in a giant graveyard. If there are streets, cars and people in the narrow crevasses between them, they are lost, fathoms deep, in shadow. I’m struggling to imagine life down there, in that vast, harsh, unrelenting, cement and steel landscape. I’m struggling to imagine how Sao Paolo works as a city.

A quiet corner in Alphaville
A quiet corner in Alphaville

According to many Paolistas, it doesn’t. Not really. It functions, rather, as series of “villages”, ranging from the chic suburbs of the fabulously rich at one end, to the favelas, or shanty towns of the poor at the other.

Although hemmed by high-rise and highways, Alphaville, where we stayed, is very much a village. At its heart is a core of narrow streets and pocket handkerchief piazzas. Tiny shops sell local crafts and clothing. Equally tiny restaurants and cafes serve international cuisine, but with a Brazilian twist and with a home-made look and flavour. The people of here are village people, watchful of strangers, but solicitous rather than suspicious. In the café where I stopped for a coffee, on my first day, the waitress brought me cake because it was “impossible to drink coffee without it”. Every day thereafter, she served my “usual”.

The “big stuff” is relegated to the fringes of Alphaville. There are malls like the pristine Flamingo Mall which has exquisite home wares and furniture shops, boutiques with Brazilian designer clothes and a dedicated Havaianas store with every conceivable expression of the famous “thong”, including soles painted with racing cars and tops decorated with diamantes. There is even a sprawling shopping centre, the glittering Tamboure, where the big Brazilian chains sit side by side with global giants like C & A and where the Carrefour “grande surface” supermarket is so vast that the staff glide around on roller skates

Also on the fringes, discreetly hidden among the apartments and office buildings are the clinics where the jaded of the wide world come for “rejuvenation” at a good Brazilian price. Many recuperate at the Radisson Hotel, sticking to their rooms and living on room service until they emerge radiant for the triumphant return home. Quiet, discreetly lit and staffed by kind, gentle and extremely caring people, the Radisson would be the perfect place to heal.

For me it was the perfect haven in this megalopolis, with its reputation as the most dangerous city in the world. The staff became my friends. My Portuguese was taken firmly in hand by the doorman. The front desk was always open for a chat. The concierge steered me away from the minefields of Sao Paulo and showed me its marvels.

 

Bangolo at Barra

Bangolo Restaurant looks out over the palms, the broad white sands and rolling surf of Barra Beach.

Barra Beach
Barra Beach

Bangolo sits at that end of Barra where new luxury hotels and opulent high-rise give way to smaller, older and shabbier buildings. On one side is the local square where the buses from Rio Centro pull in and out, where idle taxis wait, where, in the evening, bands of deadly earnest boys kick a football across a dusty pitch and dream of the Maracana, where, when night falls, shadowy girls sit on the roadside and hope for their time in the purple neon light of the Papillon Motel.

Bangolo is a neighbourhood restaurant, frequented by convivial regulars. Groups merge, blend and expand. The affable staff spend a great deal of their night extending the tables and chairs of Bangolo beyond its borders and into the gallery of graffitti masterpieces that cover the once-grand building next door. On certain nights a band, with the look and sound of 70s and 80s USA, plays old rock covers.

With the band, the convivial neighbours, the  friendly staff and their furniture removals, the theatre on the street and the starlit sea, it’s easy to overlook the brilliant baked octopus and the simply sensational caipirinhas.

Zozo, more than great cuisine

It sometimes happens in restaurants, that the choicest cuisine is completely undone by poor service, unpleasant surroundings, or a dull atmosphere. But sometimes too, the fare is completely outdone by exceptional service, fascinating surroundings or a fabulous atmosphere. And so it happened, at Rio’s Zozo, that the most  succulent churrasco and the ultimate caipirinha were almost totally eclipsed by the service, the décor and the ambiance.

Zozo
Zozo

The front windows and veranda of Zozô look out across a busy square at Praia Vermelha into the majestic profile of Pao d’Acucar. On one side is the Naval Academy and on the other the cable car station. The restaurant’s back windows and roof stare straight into a massive rock of the same rounded shape, without foothold, as Uluru and of the same grainy, grey hue as Pao d’Acucar. From the floor a tree spreads giant limbs out and up, through the roof. It pushes against the rock and throws constantly shifting shadows on the floor.

Torn between the amazing setting and the stunning view, it’s difficult to give due attention to the impeccable dishes of churrasco that appear on the table and to the team of Latin Lotharios in suits who deliver them. But it’s worth wresting the eyes away from the cinema outside the front window, the waiters, the tree and the overhanging rock to browse at the buffet which offers everything from sushi to acai na tigela. It’s worthwhile, too taking a stroll past the great tree to see the row of recessed “altars” with their statues of the Holy Family and the saints all dressed in luxurious cloth and surrounded by candles and votive offerings.

Caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink

While feijoada is Brazil’s national dish, the caipirinha is its national drink. The two make great companions. The cold, tart, light cocktail is a fabulous foil to the rich, hot, salty feijoada. However the caipirinha also goes brilliantly with churrasco, with the little crisp fried fish served in the beachside kiosks or with the simple spiced nuts peddled by the kids from the favelas. As a stand alone it’s sensational. At home, in the restaurant, in the bar or on the beach, it never fails to “create a sensual and relaxed atmosphere” according to Ernesto Britto of Clube da Caipirinha.

The best caipirinha in the world are served here
Barra Beach, Rio. The best caipirinha in the world are served here

The name caipirinha comes from “caipira” which means, in English “hillbilly”. It is difficult to reconcile the notion of the rough bumpkin with the classy cocktail which is prepared with minute attention to detail and served with such dash and panache in bars all over Brazil. But, like the hooch and moonshine of the USA, the cachaca (fermented and distilled sugar cane juice) which forms the alcoholic base of a caipirinha, has its roots in hillbilly country.

As well as cachaca, the caipirinha includes limes, cane sugar and ice. Each drink is individually and painstakingly prepared with a special instrument called a muddler. It’s a long wait for a round, but it’s definitely worth it. Sipped through a straw, it’s a long-lasting drink, with a long-lasting effect too!

Although Brazilians have been quaffing caipirinha for centuries, until quite recently it was almost unknown elsewhere. Now it is one of the world’s most popular cocktails and has been designated as one of the official cocktails of the International Bartenders’ Association.

Where cachaca is unobtainable, enterprising bartenders have come up with some passable variations, like the Caipivodka and the Caipiroska made form vodka, the Caipirissma, made from rum and the Caipirao made from Portuguese licor beirao.

Local Brazilain variations, known as batida, exist too, like the Caipifruta. Still with its cachaca base, the Caipifruta adds condensed milk and crushed fruits like tangerine, lime kiwi fruit, passion fruit, pineapple, lemon, grapes, caja and caju.

Nothing, however, compares to the classic lime, sugar, cachaca and ice Caipirinha!

For more about Caipirinha and to order a Caipirinha T-shirt, apron or glass printed with the classic, authentic Caipirinha recipe plus a free Caipirinha “muddler” visit www.caipirinha.com.br

Carnaval is over

Last night, in the Parade of Champions,  2015’s top  Special Samba Schools strutted their stuff in triumph at Rio’s iconic Sambadromo.   The Champions parade is a celebration. The competition is over and everyone, teams, spectators and officials, is in party mode.

Champions' parade, 2009
Champions’ parade, 2009

On that Saturday night in 2009, I was there,  in frisor 12 of setor 9, the tourist section of the Sambadromo, where just five days before I had been for Segundo, the second night of the Special Samba Schools parade.

Seats are cheaper at the Champions’ Parade and the crowd is different. These are the faithful, the die-hard devotees celebrating  their school’s victory or  their secure place among the top 12 in next year’s competition.  Everybody knows the samba enreda by now. Everybody, even the tourists, can samba in some fashion or another.

With the competition over, the parade is different too. The harmonia still have to keep everyone moving on time but they’re doing it with humour.  The baianas are whirling but in more cavalier circles. The forca still have to push the floats but they  laugh and joke as they do. The foot soldiers in the ala have broken their lines. They toss their heavy costumes into the crowd as they go. A head-dress lands  nearby and a crowd of Japanese ladies fights for it, like a bride’s bouquet. The victor poses in it, her shoulders slumped beneath its weight. The others queue for their turn.

The night is long but it passes quickly.  It’s Sunday morning, just after five. The final dazzling float has just passed, trailing a triumphant posse of officials. Behind them come the orange-clad cleaners of the Prefeitura or City Council, with their bins and brooms. Still the sound of five hundred drums shakes the stands and strains of the last samba song echo up and down the avenue. Around us the stalls are emptying fast and only true stoics dance on. That feathered headdress now lies trampled among the litter of discarded programmes, cans and plastic cups.

My hips are jelly and my feet lumps of smouldering sponge. I’ve lost my voice. My eyes are smarting, my ears are ringing and my brain is a race track where lines of random samba songs do endless laps. Carnaval  is over.

 

Brazilian Cuisine

When the Special Schools’ Samba Schools’ Competition is over and the winner is announced, Rio goes back to business and waits for the great celebration when the six top teams parade at the Sambadrome on Saturday night. 2015’s winner by the way was Beija Flor, with Brazil’s African heritage as its theme.

Barra Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Travelstripe
Barra Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Travelstripe

While Travelstripe waits for Saturday, let’s take a look at something that is dear to everyone’s heart – food.

One of the great delights of Brazil is its food. With its roots in Portugal and Africa as well as its own native soil, Brazilian cuisine is diverse, different and decidedly delicious.

The Portuguese brought stews, empadas and the famous baccalau, or codfish dishes to their colony, along with desserts like doce de leite (caramel) and ovos queimados, (burnt eggs) a concoction of egg yolks, sugar, cloves and cinnamon. The indigenous Indians contributed fish, corn, beans and cassava dishes. But the most significant influence on the Brazilian table came from the African slaves, probably because they had control of most colonial kitchens. To Portuguese and indigenous fare, they added their own unique twist, spicing it with peppers and ginger and blending it with palm oil and coconut milk.

Feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, was born in the slave kitchens and is served traditionally on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This rich, spicy stew of black beans (feijao) and pork includes, according the locals, “every part of the pig except its squeak”. The Feijoada banquet or Feijoada Completa, offered at many Rio Hotels for Saturday lunch is a gastronomic experience not to be missed. The feijoada is the star among smoking cauldrons of Portuguese sausage, beef jerky, smoked tongue, pork chops, pork tenderloin and bacon. It is accompanied by couve (collard greens or kale) ground cassava, rice, sliced oranges, Milanese bananas and sauces of searing malagueta pepper or of slightly milder marinated onions with peppers.

Just as popular as the feijoada and just as typically Brazilian is churrasco, the grilled or barbequed meat pioneered by the gauchos, or cowboys of the south of the country. Often it is simply salted, but often it is marinated in garlic, onion and olive oil before being grilled on a long skewer over a charcoal fire. The cooked meat is dipped in cassava or manioc meal. The Churrascaria at Barra Beach delivers your choice of meat, with your own personal brazier to your table. You then cook it to your own standard of perfection. The food is sensational, not just the meat, but the myriad of delicious accompaniments. The experience is fun, even if it does leave you smelling like a walking barbeque. Barra da Tijuca Brasa on Avenue Ayrton Senna offers a different approach to churrasco, the rodizio. Here an endless parade of meats are brought to your table on a skewer and sliced onto your plate. They include sausage, beef, chicken, lamb and chicken hearts. A giant buffet groans under every imaginable kind of entrée, accompaniment and dessert. The risk of eating to the point of pain is high here!

The queen of the Brazilian dessert buffet is the exquisite and extremely healthy acai. Made from the fruit of the indigenous acai palm from the southern Amazon, it is most commonly served as a thick sweet jelly topped with grains. Mashed and frozen in a bowl, it is known as acai na tigela or acai in a bowl. The best acai in Rio, according to the locals, is found in the kiosks which line the beaches from Copacabana to Barra. In southern Brazil acai is served like a smoothie in a bowl or glass and is topped or mixed with tapioca or granola and fruits. Considered one of nature’s most complete foods, the acai berry is packed with anti-oxidants, anthocyanins, amino acids, omega fats, protein and fibre. The health benefits of acai have been known to Brazilians since the beginning of time and in recent years the name has appeared in bottles and packets on the shelves of health food stores across the globe. In 2005 three Brazilians from Rio founded Acai Roots in San Diego, selling all things acai, with the slogan “Not just a berry, a lifestyle!”

 

Judging Carnaval

Since Segundo, the second and final night of the Special Samba Schools’ parade 40 judges have been locked in deliberation. Who will have the coveted first place? Who the second, third, fourth fifth and sixth? Who will drop down the hierarchical ladder and who will go up?

Carnaval, Rio, 2009
Carnaval, Rio, 2009

The judging criteria are rigourous. Each school is assessed on 10 aspects of their performance; the bateria, the samba enreda, the visual and acoustic harmony, the flow and spirit of the parade, the spontaneity, passion and vigour of the movement and dance, the development and overall impression of the theme, the visual impact, suitability, diversity and good taste of the floats, props and costumes, how well the vanguard group set the tone for the overall performance, the grace, agility and co-ordination of the flag-bearers. And finally time, as each school must complete their parade through the sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 85 minutes.

Rio awaits the announcement with bated breath. And in homes all over the city, Carioca and tourists alike, make their own predictions.

 

Carnaval’s Segundo

Tonight, at Rio’s Sambadromo, it is Segundo, the second night of the big Carnaval parade where six of the twelve top Samba Schools battle it out for the highest place of all.

The whirling Bahianas
The whirling Bahianas

Seven years ago, I was there. The stark concrete stands of the Sambadromo were a rippling landscape of colour; yellow and red for Porta da Pedro, from Sao Gonzalo, across the Rio Niteroi Bridge, red and white, for Salguiero, from the famous Tijuca favela. Green and gold for Imperatriz, from Ramos, blue for Portela, pink and green for Manguera and gold, yellow and blue for Viradouro.

In Frisor stall 12, Fila row B of Setor 9, the Tourist Section, we ’re spitting distance from the avenue. We’re pampered and protected; snacks, drinks, Carnaval paraphernalia are ferried to our seats, security guards watch over us. We’re a foreign world apart. Tourists are precious to Carnaval and to Rio but they’re also fair game in a city where one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. So the wise traveler, at least at Carnaval, toes the tourist line.

Carnaval demands active participation from beginning to end, with hips, feet and voice fully engaged and all senses on high alert. So when Momo sambas down the avenue at 9 pm, the crowd rises like a wave beside him, cheering, clapping, whistling, waving and dancing. Fireworks explode over Avenida Presidente Vargas, the first strident line of Porto da Pedro’s samba enreda splits the air, the drums begin and everyone turns, craning over heads, cameras ready, hips swinging, feet shuffling, cheering, waiting for the first glimpse.

The Vanguard commission leads the parade. Here 12 to 15 dancers, in a highly choreographed and spectacular performance, introduce the school to the crowd. They are followed by the arbre alas, a float which carries the school’s emblem and symbols of the theme.

Each section of the parade is divided into wings, or ala, of 20 to 100 people, all in different costumes. The ala are the building blocks of the parade – legions of foot soldiers,  all playing the different characters in this gigantic drama – local people who have won their costumes in dance contests and tourists, who have bought theirs, taking the shuffle of a lifetime down Sapucai under heavy head-dresses.

Between each wing up to 10 floats carry special guests and gorgeous samba dancers in fabulous costumes.

The flag bearers, the porta bandeira and mestre sala are the community’s little people, the humblest even of the most humble favela,  known often only by their first names, they are King and Queen at Carnaval. Once, the mestre sala was armed with a knife to protect his lady from attack. Now he merely draws the crowd’s attention to her.

The passistas are a small wing of 15 to 20 of the finest samba dancers. Competition winners, they are a highly honoured star turn.

The School’s Carnaval Queen is chosen for her beauty, self-assurance , congeniality and of course, her samba skill. The Carnaval Princesses are the second and third place winners. Plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, theirs are the figures that launch a thousand flash-bulbs as they samba along Sapucai. Traditionally, they were the beautiful mulatta girls from the favelas, complete unknowns. Many of them still are.  

The bahianas, a group of at least 80, represent the soul and the African roots of Carnaval. They are the whirling grandmothers in the traditional wide crinoline skirts of the north-western state of Bahia State, where they are the shamans, the high priestesses. They receive their costumes as a token of appreciation of their years of service to the school.

The little bahianas is the kids group.

The Raina da Bateria (Queen of the drummers) is the beautiful samba dancer who leads and motivates the drummers. Some are celebrities, others are nameless newcomers whose stars will surely rise once they shake their amazing “bum-bums” through the Sambadrome..

The bateria is a contingent of 250 to 350, drums whistles, rattles and shakers. They are the energy and life of the parade.

Behind them comes the sound truck carrying the male vocalist, usually a legend in his own favela.

The harmonia or stewards of the flow keep the parade moving in time and on time and countless “forca” push or pull floats.

The theme binds the whole gigantic spectacle together. It is stated re-stated and underscored in countless ingenious ways in floats, costumes, props and choreography. It links the vast cast of characters in this epic drama. It runs through the samba enreda. Themes range from deep and meaningful, to light and simple and from local to universal.  Thankfully, each school’s theme is helpfully outlined in the Carnaval programme,  because it is easily lost in the multitude of detail.

It was a long night. As Viradouro turned the last page on the story of Bahia, the sky was light. The peace heart which had shone all night on the hill above the green neon arches  had faded into the forest.

Soon, the die will be cast, and Rio will be waiting with bated breath to hear the outcome of Carnaval 2015.

Carnaval’s Special School’s parade

The high point of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, is the Special Schools’ parade which plays out this Sunday and Monday night at the Sambadromo.

The Samibista, the star of Carnaval
The Samibista, the star of Carnaval

Described by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro as the biggest folk festival on the planet and the most spectacular show on earth, the Special Schools’ parade is all of that and more.  It is a celebration of  the Brazilian people and their rich mix of cultures,  of Catholic and Condomblé religious traditions, of characters from ancient civilizations and entities from the new world. It’s a stage where the stories of Brazil itself are told.

The size of this spectacle is staggering. Up to 5 thousand people take part in each Samba School’s procession. Of all ages, of all races and from every corner of their communities, they represent the huge melting pot that is Brazil. There are administrators, resplendent in the colours of their school. There are and teams of technicians in t-shirts. Countless “forca” push or pull floats carrying a huge cast of singers, dancers and acrobats. Conductors orchestrate the hundreds of different drums, whistles, shakers, rattles and shakers of the Batteria. “Directors” and “harmonia” keep the endless ranks of foot soldiers moving in time, on time and smoothly; loyal school members who have practised for months, the tourists, taking the shuffle of a lifetime through the sambadrome, the sambistas, the carnival goddesses, plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, the bahianas, the whirling grandmothers in their sweeping skirts, the kids contingent with their lightning feet and the flag bearers, picked from the neighbourhood’s ordinary youth and transformed, for  this one night, into kings and queens.

Each school has a theme which ties the whole gigantic spectacle together. Themes are expressed through countless floats, each one a giant extravaganza with its own brilliant (and significant) show and up to 55 different groups of characters and creatures, all pertinent to the theme and all in dazzling costumes which in some way underscore it.   The school’s samba enreda, or especially composed samba song, which accompanies the spectacle (and to which performers and audience alike dance and sing along) also re-states the theme. So does the choreography. Some themes are simple,others are deep and meaningful, others are local, others, again, are universal and some are simply ingenious.

The Carnaval competition is tough and every minute detail of the performance counts -. theme, floats, costumes, choreography, music, animation, spontaneity, crowd engagement and last but not least timing. Every school must complete the procession through the Sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 80 minutes.

Carnival is not for the faint-hearted. Beginning at 9pm when the first fireworks light the sky and the first notes of the samba hit the air and ending at 6am when the last officials samba through the g-string framed buttock-shaped exit arches of the Sambadrome, it’s an  all-nighter on full alert – with eyes, ears, voice, hips and feet engaged at all times.

 

Carnaval in the streets of Rio

This Carnaval weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Momo rules and mockery and irreverence are the law.  In the big bloco, or street parades, everything is parodied and pilloried; celebrities and dignitaries, religion, Carnaval stars and Carnaval costumes, Carnaval itself.

Bloco at Barra Beach
Bloco at Barra Beach

On Carnaval Saturday the Cordao Bola Preta (the Polka Dot Bloco) takes Avenida Rio Branco by storm with thousands of caricatures of Rio entities all flaunting their uniform black and white underwear. Later, up in the hills of Santa Teresa, thousands of habits and veils in the Carmelitas Bloco play out an old Rio tale of nun who skives off from her convent for the three days of Carnaval. The next day, at the banda de Ipanema “stars”, “sambistas” “queens of the drummers” drag queens and speedos in masks follow a make-believe vanguard commission of chaps in white top hats and tails.

In contrast, in the Condomble religious parades, reverence and appeasement reign . Late on Saturday afternoon, the followers of Yemanja, goddess of the sea and one of the seven orixhas of Condomble, make their way along the promenade at Copacabana. On the beach a small flotilla of fishing boats, yachts and pleasure craft waits to take them out to sea. Navy ships watch off shore. Out on the ocean the faithful throw their offerings to Yemanja. Those she accepts disappear into the deep, the rejects are tossed on the sands by the incoming tide. On empty, early Sunday morning Barra Beach we skirt around a small sodden bouquet. Further on, a blurred card washes lazily in the shallows.

Yet, for all the colour, life and traditions of the streets,  the iconic Sambadromo is Carnaval’s centre stage, the Samba Schools’ parades are Carnaval’s finest expression and the Special Samba Schools’ parades are Carnaval’s star turn.

But the sambadromo, that’s quite another country. The Special Samba Schools’ Parades, that’s quite another story.