My theatre professors used to advise writing down all initial impressions immediately upon reading or watching a play. These initial impressions would soon be forgotten with familiarity, and were key to knowing what to highlight for the audience. Thus, I note my initial impressions of Brazil, and in particular of São Paulo and a nearby small town Itanhaém. Just a snapshot perspective that is uniquely mine, and will surely become better informed with time.
During the 11 hour flight from LA while approaching Brazil, I spotted Senegal, West Africa on the flight map, just across the Atlantic – the furthest from Seattle I’d been until now. And still more than 5 hours before we’d arrive in São Paulo on the other side of the equator. The world is massive! And so is São Paulo, a megacity of 17 million people. On arrival, passing through the custodial gates of immigration we were suddenly surrounded by a duty free mall on the scale of a Vegas hotel. My mind reeling, I grabbed a couple more pairs of much needed Victoria’s Secret underwear. As we drove to our boutique hotel, it seemed just about every urban surface was decorated with very elaborate graffiti art. Instead of a few logical turns off a freeway exit, it took many tortuous twists through narrow streets to get to our destination, a beautiful modern room at Hotel Mercure, a three-star hotel which had been through a recent remodel.
From a local perspective, everything in São Paulo is expensive. But with dollars, everything is currently affordable, and you get great value for what you pay. Much of the city looks just like Cairo to me, minus the Arabic, but including the layer of smog. Are all megacities using the same manual for urban planning? Perhaps the same investors? In an attempt to address the extreme traffic congestion of São Paulo, drivers are assigned one day per week in which their cars are not allowed on the road.
Having traveled to many places, what is absolutely exceptional about Brazil is the hospitality, warmth, and sense of friendship immediately established. I’m told São Paulo is on the cooler end of this compared to elsewhere in Brazil, such as the north. However, I can’t imagine how humans could be any warmer! Greeting those you encounter immediately is mandatory. And unless you’re passing right through, this exchange will quickly erupt into a multithread conversation and gestures of kindness. Gift giving seems standard practice between guests and hosts, a delightful practice I hope to adopt.
I am convinced this Brazilian social abundance would do wonders for the US. We are in love with their culture in all other ways, so why not? What if saying “hi, how are you” to every neighbor, store clerk, or person standing beside us at a bus stop were so second nature it would appear abnormal and disconcerting if it didn’t occur? I’m currently reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell, wherein he refers to the Power of Context to explain how such minor, seemingly trivial adjustments trigger sweeping changes in social structures. This may be just the antidote for Seattle’s rapid structural transformation and population growth. Not that I’ve ever been any shining example myself. I’m trying to imagine, how will I get past the inhibiting strange glances in response?
Turn on a TV in Brazil and see no thin thighs. All women (of any race) have big strong muscular thunder thighs and butts, and look spectacular! For the first time ever I felt represented by media. Also, perhaps for the first time ever, my hair has volume! Ironically, this is exactly what most Brazilian girls struggle to get rid of with the Brazilian blowout. The coffee, on the other hand, is never big. Served as shots of espresso, it is much stronger. Order a “long” coffee and you’ll get a bit more. But if you’re an addict like me, you’ll still need several.
If I thought the cheese was incredible in France, I just met its rival. Cheese is in, on, or with just about everything, and the pizza is king of them all. There’s no end to what I could write about all food in Brazil. The banana jam. The feijoada. The many tropical fruits. I’m making a vow to myself to take better care of how I eat when back in the US.
On the other hand, everything you’ve heard about the extreme income inequality is true. However, compared to similar environments I’ve traveled, kindness and graciousness seem to prevail over manipulating tourists for financial gain. I’m sure it happens, but I’m used to it being relentless. This makes a big difference. But the dark side of income (and education) inequality in Brazil is violence. Carjacking is common, and significantly more likely to occur when cars are stopped in traffic, which is often. Knowing precisely the route you’ll drive is also vital, particularly in neighborhoods bordering slums, which appear in random patches among more moderate to lower income neighborhoods. One wrong turn down the wrong street could change destiny. And it’s easy to do with so many one-ways.
Much of this tension has subdued since arriving in the quaint rustic beach town of Itanhaém, the second oldest town of Brazil. Nearby the artist house in which I stay is a huge boulder formation said to have been used as a bed by the first Portuguese priest who founded the town. Not sure if that is folklore, but based on the number of condoms tossed on the other side of the pathway, it is a bed indeed. Gazing out to the ocean you spot a few nearby islands.
One of them is the famous but forbidden Snake Island, with the highest concentration of deadly snakes in the world, apparently discovered the hard way by a lighthouse operator and his family in the 1920s. Inside this lovely town is one of the oldest churches in South America, Convent of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, built 483 years ago by enslaved natives of Brazil, those peaceful inhabitants that lived here long before any Europeans arrived. The statues of the saints were carefully fashioned to appear as those traditionally made of ceramic, but instead constructed of carved wood and hallowed on the inside in order to surreptitiously transport gold to Europe.
I didn’t mean this to turn into a lesson on history and culture. In truth, the caipirinha and fresh catch of shrimp squeezed with lime are already becoming my most prominent memories. But history and culture are of intrinsic interest to me, so I suppose this focus was inevitable. You may be wondering, where is the dance? Yes, there has been samba and belly dance. In fact the workshop I took in Seattle with Robert Luu on Zouk just weeks prior to this trip came in exceedingly handy with partner dancing! And it seems I am summoned to perform a belly dance show this evening. But with this geographic distance it’s been important to also accept distance from my creative work, to cleanse and refresh mind, body, and soul.