Brazilian samba

2013-06-14 10:13

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The mission, for Ivan Fynn and his wife Mary-Anne, was simple: visit Brazil’s 12 Fifa World Cup cities in 12 weeks. The reality: a heady blur of beaches and bossa nova.

One moment I was watching a reality show called Chase the Makarapa on SuperSport, about eight people travelling around South Africa during the 2010 Fifa World Cup – and two years later I was living my dream and, for almost three months, absorbing the sights and sounds of the 2014 host country, Brazil.

Starting this Saturday, six of the 12 Fifa World Cup host cities will strut their stuff during the Confederations Cup, the traditional warm-up tournament ahead of the main event a year later.

The designer capital Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Belo Horizonte, Salvador and Fortaleza will host matches, with the final at the revamped Maracanã stadium in Rio on 30 June.

It is surprising how little we know about this country of almost 200 million people, the world’s fifth-largest by population and area, with a land mass almost seven times that of South Africa.

So it was with slight trepidation that Mary-Anne and I set off on the adventure of a lifetime…

Although i had spent six months learning Portuguese before the trip, I wish I’d learnt how to ask for a SIM card rather than how to order bolinhos de bacalhau (fish cakes)!

‘How do you say, ‘’How much does it cost?’’’ Mary-Anne asked seven weeks into the trip

. ‘Quanto custa.’ ‘Kinta Kunta, questa quanto…’ After a couple of tries, she went into the store, brimming with confidence, about to make her first purchase in Portuguese. Before long she was back

. ‘And so?’ ‘She said something that sounded like sinkwen… I dunno.’

It turns out Mary-Anne had managed to ask the price of the 2014 Fifa World Cup T-shirt, but was lost after that.

At least she had moved on from greeting everyone with ‘obrigada’ (‘thank you’) when she couldn’t think of ‘bom dia’ (‘good day’) fast enough.

One bit of Portuguese she did master, though, was ‘No farofa, please’ after taking a dislike to the toasted manioc flour mixture, a popular side dish in Brazil.

Not unlike South Africa, Brazil has had to bear the brunt of scare-mongering about high levels of crime and corruption.

Since Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff took office in January 2011, seven ministers have reportedly resigned amid corruption allegations.

To allay fears, the government has taken a hard line on crime, taking back hillside favelas (shanty towns) from druglords and crime syndicates.

Rio de Janeiro, in particular, is well policed, with tourist police on bicycles and on foot. The presence of officers in cars with flashing blue lights at several intersections is also reassuring.

Our first peaceful night’s sleep in Rio turned out to be in a B&B in the Tavares Bastos favela, high up in the Catete neighbourhood.

There was a (noisy) building site next to the entrance of our original hotel, three blocks from the famed Copacabana beach strip, and our next hotel, in Ipanema, was too close to a (noisy) bus route.

Sleep was impossible. It’s our own fault: we should have still been out partying! It’s Rio, after all.

On the transfer from our hotel in Ipanema to Tavares Bastos, the taxi driver stopped at the bottom of a long, narrow, steep and winding road.

‘Final (pronounced ‘finaw’),’ I said, remembering the email from Bob Nadkarni, owner of The Maze, who said uttering the word would get me to his place at the top of the hill. We eventually reached the top – and the end of the road.

There was no sign of The Maze or Bob.

I said to the driver, ‘Casa do Bob,’ the other get-out-of-jail-free card Bob had mentioned. The taxi driver approached a group of four women with the magic words.

After a brief discussion, he turned to us with a smile and a wave of the hands to indicate that we would have to walk the rest of the way with our luggage.

Walking with all our possessions in this place? Sensing our unease, one of the women offered to walk through the long passageway with us. ‘Muito tranquilo,’ she said.

The favela is very calm due to the presence of a special police force, the BOPE, in an imposing building just ahead.

With 7 000km of coastline, the beach plays a big part in the lives of Brazilians, particularly in Rio with its world-famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

Leaving beautiful Rio, with its fun-loving residents and iconic Sugarloaf Mountain and impressive statue of Christ the Redeemer, is difficult. But the prices it commands as one of the world’s must-see destinations will help you move on to explore other cities.

Salvador, the capital of Bahia state – known locally as the ‘capital of happiness’ – felt like home. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘South Africa.’ A look of surprise crossed the beach hawker’s face.

‘With that colaww?’ For the first time in five weeks in Brazil I had decided to go bare-chested in Morro de Sao Paulo, a two-hour ferry ride from Salvador on the northeast coast of Brazil.

While my face, lower arms and legs had allowed me to blend in, my pale upper body spoke of many hours spent in my home office. Until that point, even in Salvador (85% black), I was ‘Brasileiro’.

Salvador, the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture, is not for those seeking the quiet life.

At the time of our visit, the city was gearing up for a local election. In addition to the usual wandering troupes of drummers and festivities at pavement cafés, campaign messages and musical tributes to candidates boomed out from gigantic speakers that covered the entire tops of cars.

One night I was tempted to investigate what sounded like a party I should be attending, only to find that just three men with a boombox and lots of beer had deceived me.

On another night out, in the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic district, we caught a live performance by Olodum, the cultural group that featured in Michael Jackson’s ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ video and also on Paul Simon’s album The Rhythm of the Saints.

The other coastal Confederations Cup venues, Recife and Fortaleza – further up the northeast coast – also have their charms.

Recife from the waterways

Recife, trumpeted as the ‘Venice of Brazil’, has an impressive collection of bridges and waterways from which the city can be viewed. The nearby historical city of Olinda is a World Heritage Site.

Fortaleza, whose beaches are the main attraction, looks jaded, with a ‘scaly port’ feel about it which sent us into the welcoming embrace of Jericoacoara, about 300km and several hours away. The village atmosphere far from the madding crowd made it worthwhile.

‘There’s not much to do here,’ the guide announced as we hurried through lunch to join a group on an afternoon walk to Pedra Furada to watch the sunset. A comment perhaps meant to entice us to part with

30 reais (about R140) each to go on a buggy ride, but we didn’t bite – we’d already been shaken up by an all-day buggy excursion a few days earlier. We’d parted with a tidy sum and spent six-and-a-half hours getting there, only to be told that the Promised Land was actually somewhere else.

‘That is why we’re here,’ Mary-Anne pointed out. ‘In Fortaleza they told us there’s not much to do there.’

One of the most fascinating things about the capital and seat of political power, Brasilia, is that it was only established in 1960. Unlike the chaotic nature of many of Brazil’s major cities, Brasilia is uncharacteristically organised – no street names, just block numbers.

There is a hotel district, a district for this, a district for that. Robotic, Mary-Anne called it.

UNESCO, on the other hand, declared it a World Heritage Site, presumably for its architectural landmarks rather than its wide, pedestrian-unfriendly avenues.

Belo Horizonte, another of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s creations, about 364km northwest of Rio, also has a planned feel about it.

For the past year I have been dreaming and scheming about how to get back to Brazil.

And turns out, my hints about missing the warmth of the country have paid off – my daughter will be making next Sunday the best Father’s Day ever, as we return to Rio.

We’ll be spending the day on Copacabana beach, caipirinha in hand, discussing the merits of the caxirola over the vuvuzela as a soundtrack to the Confederations Cup.

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