PC 11 Reflections of Sāo Conrado

When I first went to Brazil in 2012 I went to meet, and stay with, Celina’s parents, who have lived for forty years in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro called Sāo Conrado. It wasn’t until my second trip that I realised that this is actually pronounced “Sock Ohardo.”; well, something like that! Now my fifth trip has come to an end and I feel compelled to describe this very unique place.

Sāo Conrado is west of Ipanema and Copacabana, and is physically separated from them by a mountain on the east side called Os Dois Irmāos (The Two Brothers) and on the west side by a larger mountain called Pedra da Gavea. To the north the Parque Nacional da Tijuca is a wonderland of trails, steep ravines and the usual flora and fauna. Until the late 1970s the only way to travel into the city was either along a narrow coast road that hugged one of the brothers (!) or through a shanty town called Rocinha. As the government’s house building programme failed to keep pace with the growing need, the people built their own shacks and so these ‘favelas’ grew, higgledy pigeldy, cheek by jowl, but the vehicular traffic through the area ensured public visibility. In 1978 the city engineers tunnelled through the Two Brothers (ouch!) and built a dual carriageway all the way through to Barra on the other side of Pedra da Gavea. Rocinha was bypassed and the only traffic that continued was the one concerning drugs! It became a dangerous place, dangerous for those who lived there and for those from outside. Nowadays the programme to clear the favelas of criminals is having an effect; visit Rocinha on an officially-sanctioned tour and you find a bustling suburb of 90,000 inhabitants, with fast-food outlets, banks, churches and all the normal commercial activity that’s needed to support a large population. They even have their own internal postal service; the government delivers mail to a sorting office and Rocinha does the delivery! It’s not perfect by a long shot and it’s not completely cleared of the insidious drugs, but it’s getting better. Sadly the wealthy residents of Sao Conrado still hang on to their memories of the dangerous times and this distorts their view of the place, blaming it for everything bad; apparently Rocinha in 2014 is very different to that 20 years ago.

From the top of Rocinha, the view across Sāo Conrado is stunning. Ignore the roofs of the favela, these days tiled and painted, in the foreground, and the ground drops away towards the coast, with tall blocks of apartments nestling near the beach and a large golf course split by the main road. And here’s one of the biggest visible sights of contrasting wealth in Brazil. From Rocinha, a poor crowded favela, you not only look at the swimming pools and expensive shopping ‘mall’, but also at one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, the Gavea Golf & Country Club (GGCC aka Gavea). The irony is that some of the people who live in Rocinha work at Gavea; others work in the up-market shops or as domestics in the large houses and apartments that proliferate. Is this a pure example of a symbiotic relationship? I’ve got to know this area well and it’s off the tourist routes, unless they want to launch themselves off Pedra da Gavea on hang gliders or parafoils.

The Gavea Golf Club started in the early 1900s; Celina’s grandfather was one of the founder members and lived in a house overlooking the golf course, so I am amazingly lucky, very privileged, to be able to experience life within the club. I hope I’m not being too hypocritical in saying I really enjoy this but at the same time understand its juxtaposition with Rocinha. This is a very very exclusive club …… but I can tell you …..

During the week it’s the old & bold generation who play golf, assisted by caddies in white uniforms and electric golf carts. Afterwards they sit in wicker chairs, drink Chopp (a light Brazilian beer), smoke cigars under the sun umbrellas and talk about that missed putt, that hole-in-one! In the early evenings and at weekends the younger members practise their swings and putts.  I’m not a golfer but there is nothing so wonderful as the sound of a perfectly hit golf ball, the sound of metal striking the hard case of the little ball; it’s a sound one occasionally hears here! When you’ve completed 9 holes you have to cross a road and through an underpass to the next five. Golf carts are not known for their acceleration and watching them wait for a break in the fast-moving traffic to cross to the underpass is slightly unnerving.

The course is beautiful, mown fairways and manicured ‘greens’, all tended by an army of groundsmen. Eighty foot palm trees stand sentinel across the course; monkeys chatter in the trees; and yet you can look up …… and see Rocinha, ……. and maybe on a Friday hear the fireworks that supposedly celebrate a delivery of drugs. I wonder what members think when they see Rocinha, sitting like a boil on the hillside, needing to be lanced, maybe? Maybe they don’t ‘see’ it, see it for what it is, maybe they’re just inured to the way life is here.

In addition to the golf course, there’s a swimming pool where members swim laps, play with their children, cool off or even take some exercise in an AquaAerobics class. In fact it’s only members who can use the extra facilities, of the gym for instance, but we managed to join the pool exercise class for a couple of months until we were spotted …. and banned! There’s always someone who wants to enforce club rules in a very petty way and Gavea is no exception. Maybe because its exclusivity is so jealously guarded they are needed, but The Toad and her deputy, a retired Head Mistress- type, take their self-appointed role extremely seriously. Woe betide anyone who stretches the rules. I did sneak a haircut in the members-only area and hoped that The Toad was snoozing under an umbrella. In the old-fashioned chair Ferdinand cut my hair well, offering well-thumbed copies of either Playboy or an International Yachting Magazine – I certainly couldn’t afford any of  the yachts and as for what was on offer in the Playboy Magazine ….?

I titled this PC “Reflections of Sāo Conrado” and I am reminded of the old adage “Treat people as you expect to be treated” when I observe people at Gavea. The staff here are unfailingly courteous, whether they are the security detail on the gate, the pool staff or the waiters. Nothing seems too much trouble – I guess being employed at Gavea is considered quite a bonus. No one yells “Sanduiche Natural” or “Biscuito Globo” here by the pool! Santos or Clovis appear as if from nowhere and dispense coffee, drinks, and refreshing food; the Japanese sashimi is to die for. One young pool attendant has an alarm call at 0330 so she can make the commute and be on time. Yet I watch the way some people interact with the staff and I think: “Come the Revolution …….!” And of course the current president of Brazil is an ex-Marxist guerrilla so it’s not such a wild thought!!

If you have young children in Brazil and you can afford it, you have a nanny. In fact the Brazilians I’ve met find it really strange that, for instance, my daughter Jade doesn’t. “How does she cope?” “She has two children and she doesn’t have help?” So at Gavea the nanny, dressed in a white T shirt, white shorts and white Havianas, (the ubiquitous ‘flip flop’) is a common sight.

The real irony of this area of Rio de Janeiro is that it is named after a saint who had a reputation for caring for the poor and disadvantaged. Maybe he shakes his head in disbelief when he walks the fairways of Gavea during the night, and looks up and sees Rocinha, its lights twinkling up the hillside. Edgy, incongruous, this is Sāo Conrado.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

Note: If you know absolutely nothing about golf, this is my brief explanation …. and I do not know much!!

You have to hit a ridiculously small ball as far as you can towards a distant hole, and try and get the ball into the hole. To make it easy they plant a colourful flag in the hole. Can’t miss huh?  You hit it with a club which is very special, a stick with a weight on the end, and they costs a fortune. There is no correlation between the cost of the club and the distance you can hit a ball. On most ‘holes’ you need to hit the ball more than once. The longest distance anyone anywhere has hit a ball is 515 yards, but normally 250 yards would be considered a good distance. It’s very competitive; the person who puts the ball into the hole with the least number of hits wins. Simple huh?



PC 10 Paraty

Paraty or Picinguaba? Such a difficult choice; by reputation two of the most beautiful locations on the coast between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and certainly two wonderfully exotic-sounding places!! Picinguaba is to the west of Paraty, and is a beach resort guaranteed to provide a place to unwind, a place to watch men fish and maybe to eat their catch; they’ve named the village after the indigenous tribe that lived here in the C16th. Paraty (pronounced Parachee) is closer to Rio by 40 minutes and has centuries of history – sounded perfect! Dear Brazilian chums of Celina in London had stayed at the Pousada Porto Imperial and had enjoyed it enormously. We booked online; it took a phone call to persuade them not to insist on my photocopying my passport and both sides of the credit card, scanning and sending them!! Accommodation in good hotels in Brazil is not cheap but the Porto Imperial did not disappoint in any respect and its location was excellent.

The commercial development of São Paulo and Minas Gerais during the C17th and C18th relied heavily on the development of Paraty as a port, an outlet for their exports, sugar, gold and coffee, to Portugal; in fact the road from São Paulo became known as the Caminho do Ouro (Gold Way). Latterly, as the drinks industry developed, casks of the Brazilian liquor Cachaça, distilled from sugar cane, joined the trail. Paraty was one of the most important ports in Brazil before Port Santos was built, closer to São Paulo, and loved by the Imperial family. Now it’s one of the best preserved Portuguese colonial towns, and may eventually become a World Heritage site.

With the hotel on the eastern edge of the old town, you can walk out of the front door ….. and into the C17th. Well! Almost! It’s easy to sense the ghosts of townspeople past, the traders, the fishermen, the sailors, their feet on the old cobbled streets. Half close your eyes and the throng, noise and bustle of this past life becomes imaginable. The buildings may have been turned into restaurants and bijoux shops selling locally-made arts and crafts, but the structure hasn’t changed. Well-proportioned single storey buildings, with only the odd church, such as the church of Igreja da Matriz Nossa Senhora dos Remedios standing in the main square, and larger mansions, boasting a second level. This was a small town, the old part no bigger than 200m wide and 300m long.

The streets are paved with an uneven collection of stones, the forerunner of the uniform cobble. The centre of the street has a more level line, well, comparatively (!!), probably for the  wheel of a hand cart. If you’re unsteady on your feet, this is not the place for you; but you do get used to it and tread carefully. The only disadvantage is you tend to be looking down at where your feet might go next, and not up at the architecture. One of the tour guides said that physiotherapists did a roaring trade tending sprained and twisted ankles. On the seafront the church of Igreja de Santa Rita Postal de Paraty has become the iconic pinup of Paraty. Fish is plentiful and fresh here, and we ate at Batholomew’s and at the Banana Da Terra. Both restaurants would do well in London; wonderful food but sadly comparable prices!

We had two complete days so decided to spend one on the sea and one in the hinterland. Like all coastal towns that depend on tourism, there are plenty of options. Neptun II, a 30m yellow schooner, provided exactly what it said on the tin. In the company of some 50 others from all around the world, we sailed off into the bay, to anchor off a beach to swim, to watch the colourful fish and dolphins, to visit other islands in the bay, and to have lunch on board. The canned music was tolerable, drinks were available, and the crew did everything they could to ensure we had a fun and safe time.

Fabio drove the truck the next day and was our guide for our trip into the Atlantic Forest, part of the National Park of Bocaina Mountain. A teacher of Capoeira (see note below) and a boat skipper, he took us to the obligatory Cachaça distillery where at 1100 in the morning you are invited to taste this very Brazilian drink – and of course make a purchase in the shop. The sugar cane takes 6 months to grow and develop its juice; the cropping and manufacturing process starts in May and runs until November. Then on to Pedra Branca, a large waterfall with swimming pools and roaring cascades. Strange to swim in natural water that’s not salty! Absolutely beautiful; miles from anywhere, floating in a rock pool, I could easily have imagined I was in paradise – if I could have shut out the noise of all the other tourists, that is!

Another Cachaça distillery, another torrent of water tumbling over smooth rocks, bumping along jungle trails, Avocados hanging from the trees, wild Banana plants growing by the roadside; a nice change from the beach …. and the sea!

Paraty has a more modern commercial part, stretching further inland, but it’s the old town which attracted me so much. No cars, no bright street lights, the houses all painted white with colourful shutters and doors often of differing colours; and I even got to love the strange ‘cobbles’.

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. Incidentally, in the UK if we think ‘international book festivals?’ we think of Hay-on-Wye; here Brazilians think of Paraty, where there is a huge festival during the winter!

Note: Capoeria

Capoeira is a Brazilian form of Martial Arts, combining elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed by the slaves who came from Africa to labour in the sugar cane plantations. Through Capoeira they learned how to fight and defend themselves, but disguised this as a dance, thus escaping punishment. With the abolition of slavery in 1888 those trained in Capoeira became a nuisance in the cities. As a consequence, the teaching of it was banned in 1890 and that ban not lifted until 1941. Today masters of Capoeira, Capoeiristas, teach all over the world and the Martial Art has a huge following.

PC 09 PS to PC

It’s a little known aspect of life in Brazil but there is something of a fixation on the bottom here. Is it the only country in the world to have a competition for the most beautiful bottom? Have you ever heard of Andressa Soares aka Mulher Melancia (Watermelon Woman), who’s famous for having an enormous bottom that she shakes and …….. you know the sort of thing? For those with more time on their hands than sense, look at her on YouTube.

Why do I feel the need to tell you this, to add this as a postscript to my PC about beach life here in Brazil? Well, I had talked about the dental floss and how popular it is. A few weeks ago, we were on our way back from the beach to find a cab and we were walking up a side street full of parked cars. It was that time of day when families leave the beach for home, and ahead of us a couple were loading their beach paraphernalia into their car boot; they had a young child so there was a lot! The woman hadn’t bothered to cover up and was still as she had been on the beach. Celina drew my attention to the fact that her dental floss had, er!! shrunk? It was going to be one of those situations when you had to drum up courage to pass by on the pavement …… just as I did, she leant over the boot. I should say at this point that she probably would not have made the regional heats for the Best Bumbum Competition (Yes! Really! That’s what they call a bottom here – bumbum!!). I have never been so close to so much exposed cellulite on a public street in my life; I squeezed past, averting my eyes and trying not to cry, laugh, get stressed, feel awkward.

I do think my heart rate increased though so was glad I’d had that bypass!!

Just thought I would share this with you!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 08 Beach Life in Brazil

Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beaches, for their proximity to the centre of the city and therefore for their ease of access, for their cleanliness, for the clarity of the water. And Brazilians love the beach; as the sun comes up the beaches and paved areas come alive with joggers, walkers, fitness fanatics, swimmers, surfers, volley ball players. The names of two beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, are recognised throughout the world. Maybe people come just to search for that girl on the latter?!

When we go to the beach we go to the 18km long beach of Barra da Tijuca, which starts some 6kms west of Sāo Conrado; it’s only 10 minutes by taxi as opposed to 40 to Ipanema – such is the traffic in the city!

The beaches are overlooked by Life Guard stations located every 500m or so. From here fit men and women keep an eye on what’s happening, and help those in difficulties. Despite the lovely looking water the offshore currents are strong and potentially dangerous. Beach sports proliferate; put up a net, stake out an oblong, and the ball gets punched backwards and forwards. Closer to the sea a couple will hit a small hard ball to each other with a table tennis-like bat; it’s known as Fresco ball. Again, and again and …….. the hard ball on hard wood produces a sound that carries across the sand ……the sound of beach life in Brazil. Some days we walk along the sand, just on the water’s edge, from Life Guard station 2 down to Number 5 or even 6 or maybe (!) 6½! If you get too hot, the sea is cool and refreshing.

“Sanwhitches Natooral, Sanwhitches Natooral!” In Portuguese this is actually ‘Sanduiche Natural’, but this is how my untrained ear hears it. For me it epitomises this beach life in Brazil. The chap carries a coolbox over one shoulder, but his body is bent by the uneven weight, his head bowed and he seems to drag his feet through the hot sand, forever crying “Sanduiches Natural” with great enthusiasm! Honestly, would you ever want a sandwich when it’s 36°C? He’s become so familiar to me that when I don’t hear him, I wonder whether he’s OK!! But he’s not the only salesman; you hear them all shouting their sales pitch down the beach – “Mate!” (pronounced ‘matchee’) – a strong sweet tea in a can, “água!”, “chapeu” (think Panama-style hat),  sun tan lotion, bikinis, wraps, and of course “Biscuito Globo”. This thin doughnut-shaped ‘biscuit’ isn’t really a biscuit as you or I would know it. It’s made of polvilho flour, is extremely light, and in the beach environment, just to die for!! Anywhere else you would think: “What is this tasteless, flavourless snack”!!! At weekends an enterprising Brazilian of Arab decent (?) rides a fibreglass orange camel, the panniers stuffed with kebabs and other Middle Eastern food. It is SO bizarre, the Arabian music heralding his progress down the beach, his helpers pushing and pulling the camel, and people queuing up to purchase his food. The cash box is under the tail!

Every now and again there’s a Barraca, a temporary tubular steel construction of shade from which you can hire chairs, an umbrella and buy cold drinks. The one near Life Guard station Two is run by Severina. She is an absolute delight. Fifty something, during the week she runs a small shop; during the weekend her Barraca is the centre of beach gossip and wisdom. She’s known Celina for many years and welcomes us in true Brazilian style. Call from our chairs for some ‘água sem gas’ and a Zero Coke, and she dives into her huge cool box and hands them to Mineiro. He’s in his 80s, needs a knee operation and is not a good example of dental health; he hobbles across the sand, oblivious of its scorching temperature, and smiles as he hands them across. He loves being useful!

Brazil is famous for its beaches and for its beautiful people. There has been a gradual move away from near nudity in the carnival parades of the past and it’s little known internationally that being topless on a beach is unlawful. But I’m never quite sure when reality ends and imagination begins; never more so than on the beach! We all know that Brazil invented the ‘Brazilian wax’ ……. and it doesn’t take long on a beach here to understand why it was necessary. You know that term ‘dental floss’? Well, some women spend a huge amount of money for very little material to go around ‘you know where’. And the men? Well, they simply ‘strut’ and ‘pose’. Tattoos are numerous and colourful, upper bodies are honed, smoothed and packed  …..  and then they just stand, like a peacock, flexing, puffing, colourful. There are, of course, more numerous ‘normal’ people, of varying shapes and sizes, just enjoying the sunshine.

Further to the west are the smaller beaches of Prainha and Grumari, where the biggest waves in Rio de Janeiro attract numerous surfers. You need a car to get here, out beyond the urbanisation, and the undertow on the beaches discourages families with young children; worth the drive if only for the lack of other people. But there are no cries of “Biscuito Globo” or “Sanduiches Natural” and, despite the thunder of the waves and the yells of the surfers having fun, it isn’t quite ‘beach life in Brazil’!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 07 Carnival time in Rio

The beat is incessant, the rhythm infectious; welcome to Samba time in Brazil! You can’t help but join in, unless your feet are nailed to the earth; even staid cool Englishmen move, if only a little, a gentle shake here, a loose hip there.

I certainly had no real knowledge of what ‘Carnival’ meant here. I understood it took place over four days before Ash Wednesday and involved everyone, but imagined street parades with floats and dancers and extravagant costumes. Back when it started in 1823 it might have been, but now it is more, much more …..

Firstly there are the Blocos, street parties where seemingly anyone who can create a stand for a DJ and/or a singer, order the beer, simply has to wait for the crowds of 20-30 year olds to turn up and party, some in crazy costumes, some smeared with paint; Oh! And it needs to be next to the beach if possible. ‘Carnival’ here is a holiday and the local newspaper named 90 places where there would be a bloco. Sadly the rhythm of Samba seemed absent from the ones we heard, replaced by techno or somesuch, but my sources say this is not usual. My abiding memory is of huge unattractive noise during the gathering and huge unattractive rubbish everywhere when it was all over. The Rio street cleaners chose Carnival this year to stage a three day strike over wages; they’ve now been offered a monthly salary of Rs1200 (£300). I feel sorry for them as they clearly take pride in cleaning somewhere, only for uncaring souls to drop more rubbish, the beer can, the take-away food wrapper. Sadly I sense this is the same the whole world over; certainly London and Brighton are not immune from this loutish behaviour.

The Samba Schools represent both ordinary neighbourhoods and favelas and are a hugely important part of the social fabric of these communities. Whilst the actual carnival parade may take a school just one hour, the work in deciding on a theme, in designing the costumes, in making them, in rehearsing – in fact the thousand and one things that go into making a successful endeavour – will start for the 2015 carnival in the next few weeks!

The Samba Schools here in Rio parade not along the streets any more, but in the Sambodromo. This unique stadium was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer; completed in 1984, it is a 13 metre wide stretch of concrete, 700m long, with banks of 14 viewing stands on both sides. The Sambodromo has a capacity of 90,000 and will form part of Rio’s Olympic facilities in 2016. (For what I’m not sure!!) Each school gets an allotted start time for their parade; with over 5,000 people in each school, the timings are sensibly flexible, but you can imagine the logistical nightmare of getting the right group into the right place at the right time. The schools compete to go into the Special Group, the winner of which gains enormous prestige and kudos.

So now I have a better idea of what one aspect of carnival is all about but then you have to get some tickets. You might think it was easy, reasonably straight forward; Celina will tell you otherwise. After looking at vaguely official websites and worrying that they might just take your money and run, she rang around some hotels and found Livia in the Hotel Windsor in Barra. After 36 hours of telephone calls we secured two tickets for one of the viewing stands, Number 11, opposite the judges for the Sunday night. (See below) I say night because nothing starts until 2100, and the last samba school, Beija Flor, was not scheduled to start until 0350!! Start!! Not finish!! But this is Rio de Janeiro …….

We bought tickets for a coach from the hotel and arrived at the Sambodromo rather late due to the traffic, after the first school had started. One is assaulted by noise, by the Samba beat, by people singing and sellers selling beer and soft drinks. We climbed up into Stand 11, up and up, until we stood at the very top, hemmed in on all sides by the multitude of people, mainly locals but a smattering of tourists from all over the world; there was no space left in the concrete stand to sit so we stood!. The sheer enormity of the spectacle is awesome; thousands and thousands of people, in the parade, on the stands, staffing it, security, stretching the half-a-mile down to the start. It didn’t seem necessary but to herald the start of the next school, we had 5 minutes of fireworks, cracking, whistling, banging overhead.

Each Samba school decides a theme, and the floats and dancers interpret the theme, telling the story. They say Brazil is a creative country; well, the creativity and sheer exuberance on display here is breath-taking. To the inexperienced ear, the ‘samba’ beat remains the same, only the words to the songs peculiar to the school, but the costumes, colour and displays vary so much and are simply amazing. Gradually the next parade moves along between the stands, each set of dancers showing off their outfits with a vibrancy and enthusiasm that emphasised the fun and delight that they obviously all feel, to take part in the “Greatest Street Carnival in the World”.  We felt really privileged to have seen it.

Celina has a Latin sense of rhythm and for her the sound that gets her on her feet is the sound of the drummers. These Bateria play a vital role, keeping the beat going and loud enough to be heard by the parade participants. In the Sambodromo there were possibly 300 drummers in each Bateria, creating sounds out of a huge variety of drums.

Time slipped by. I got rather blasé about what I saw, judging one better than another, more of the same, but different!! Eventually after a school called Mangueira were half way through, we decided to make our way down to a coach; it was after all 0255! We were in bed by 0400 and learned later that there was still a traffic jam around the Sambodromo at 0730. What an experience; what a night!

Whilst the spectacle of the Sambodromo was huge, electric but impersonal, one evening the previous week we had gone done to the beach at Sāo Conrado and watched the local samba school of the Rocinha favela practise. Here the bateria was 60 people …… 6 feet away! You could see the concentration on their faces, these creators of the beat, their joy at being part of such a family, the sweat; people started dancing ……. “and the beat goes on”, as they say. This is where it all starts, with a group of people wanting to dance to the samba beat.

Listen to the beat and smile

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

PS If you ever go to Rio for Carnival book through Central Liesa de Atendimento in Rio de Janeiro. Ticket prices vary enormously.