Eleanor's travel blog: Brazil

(5-part series airing April 15 - May 4, 2014) Brazil is not just a country of soccer fans. Eleanor went there to speak with the country's best filmmakers and writers.

Recently, the Financial Times described Brazil as "the world's most exciting nation." And Brazil is a land of superlatives. Not only is it easily the biggest country in Latin America - it's as big as continental United States, and occupies about HALF the entire land mass of South America-- it also has the biggest economy, running neck and neck with Britain as seventh biggest in the world. At the same time, the country's historic insularity has kept it culturally distinct from its Latin American neighbours, and not only because Portuguese rather than Spanish is spoken.  
But beyond the clichés both good and bad: of soccer, samba and sandy beaches -- or more recently, drug lords, crime, favelas and rainforests (70% of the Amazon rainforest falls within its boundaries) -- the images we have of Brazil fall far short of the whole story. Brazil remains a country relatively little known to the outside world. 

Flying Off to Rio 
Think about what sticks - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers "Flying Off to Rio" in 1933 or the burst of the bossa nova in the early '60s with "The Girl from Ipanema" - the second most recorded song in history, after Paul McCartney's "Yesterday". The bar where it was first composed by Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes has been re-named Bar Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema) and now there are branches all over the city.
I like to think I had more sophisticated associations with the country through writers such as P.K. Page and Elizabeth Bishop, as well as Machado de Assis, Moacyr Scliar and Milton Hatoum. Or through Brazil's own boom in film in the '60s, Cinema Novo. I've long been attracted to Brazil but slightly daunted by stories I'd heard about the dangers of its vast cities. This is beginning to change with the program of the UPP or Unidade de Policia Pacificadora, whose aim is to "pacify" the favelas by eliminating the violence of drug cartels and introducing services. Its success is mixed and controversial, leading in some instances to favela tours for tourists and at the same time, an increase in targeted violence against the UPP officers. [This is filmmaker Jose Padilha's expertise.]

Eleanor Wachtel on Av Paulista in Sao Paulo.

Samba at Pedra do Sal

My first stop was Rio de Janeiro, a spectacularly beautiful city but with many no-go areas, especially at night, so I became intimate with its abundance of taxis. Well, abundance of everything. Traffic in Rio is so bad that taxis all have miniature TVs and DVD players on the dashboard, even on the driver's side! Plus radios, often all playing at once! 

Returning one evening from hearing traditional samba bands performing at Pedra Do Sal -the birthplace of samba in Rio-- I was sitting beside the driver who switched on a DVD of the finals during Carnival of the samba schools at the Sambodromo, to keep the rhythm going. Pedra Do Sal (literally rock of salt -and there is a massive rock leading up from the small square) is not only the site of a former slave market, it's also where the early Carnival parades began. Located near Rio's port, dubbed "Little Africa," it's where the religious practice of Candomble and the martial art dance Capoeira were introduced to Rio. (An astonishing 40% of Africans shipped to the New World as slaves ended up in Brazil.) But on a Monday evening, the square and steep adjacent streets are packed with remarkably gentle crowds drinking beer and singing along with the musicians who sit around a table, facing each other. Here there's less dancing and more swaying to the music. "The beauty of the samba is in its simplicity, the simpler, the better," I read later. Pedra Do Sal is "a project of resistance and rescue, to maintain the samba and sing the music of the people." But it feels more like joy than any kind of project. 

Another peculiarity of Brazilian taxis is the way the drivers signal their availability or lack of. The cars don't have a light to indicate whether they're taken so drivers make a strange gesture with their right hand - a sort of pincer movement, palm up, all five fingers open and close--to passersby trying to flag them down. It looks obscene but is actually considerate since it's often hard to tell if a cab is occupied. 

Graffiti in Vila Madalena

Hip-Hopera & wall art in Sao Paulo 

In Sao Paulo, I went to the Vila Madalena neighbourhood to see 35-year-old slam poet and hip hop artist, actress and performer, Roberta Estrela D'Alva. Her single-story house is behind a flamboyantly painted wall. Graffiti and wall art are enormously popular all over the city, but especially in her neighbourhood. People come from New York to see the extent of what's no longer possible there. Roberta's wall was painted by a local artist after she spoke on the radio about the phenomenon. She's thinking about having it re-done because it includes a romantic reference that's no longer pertinent. 

An accomplished writer and performer, Roberta has been involved in the World Cup of slam poetry, and was one of the finalists in France's Coupe du Monde, which features 16 international and 60 French poets competing in Paris. When I saw her, she was in the middle of a run of her "hip-hopera brasileira, Orfeo Mestizo," where classics are injected with contemporary resonance. For instance, Orpheus is a student activist trying to rescue his love, Eurydice, who "disappeared" during Brazil's military dictatorship. Roberta performed the role of the "griot" [Gree-oh], a kind of MC or Master of Ceremonies, derived from West African oral storyteller tradition. Her father is black, her mother of Portuguese descent.Another change: Roberta had just completely shorn her elaborate dreadlocks. "Takes too long to dry in winter," she said, while admitting she'll have to sport a wig for the rest of the run. 

Wall art in Vila Madelena

50th anniversary of military coup   

Exactly fifty years ago, a coup in Brazil triggered one of Latin American's first postwar military dictatorships and also, one of its longest, twenty-one years. All this anniversary year, an extensive exhibition of the history of Brazil during the dictatorship through newspaper and television images has been touring the country.  At the permanent museum in Sao Paulo -Memoria da Resistencia, part of the city's downtown Pinacoteca or Art Gallery--there are emblematic photos of Latin American dictatorships: demonstrations by mothers of the disappeared.  Also the actual cells meant to accommodate two that held more like 30 people.  

Roberta Estrela d'Alva in front of her house
I was there during the week leading up to the anniversary when there were demonstrations in major cities - anti-dictatorship, of course, but also a small faction of pro!

At Brazil's recently convened Comissao Nacional da Verdade or Truth Commission, a retired colonel admitted to torturing, killing and mutilating the "disappeared" - without regret or remorse. His photograph and the story appeared "above the fold" in the prominent daily, Folha de S. Paulo.

Porto Alegre in Gaucho Country

Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost region in the country bordering with Argentina and Uruguay, is identified with the South American cowboy or gaucho, which is what everyone and everything is called in this state. The large influx of European immigrants also had an impact on its culture and economy. But the capital, Porto Alegre is a sophisticated city of 1.5 million, known for its museums and universities and -with its 1.5 million trees-- for being remarkably green. (I wasn't told who actually did the tree census but there is an abundance of lovely flowering trees.) I went there especially to see one of its native sons, Luis Fernando Verissimo, a satirical novelist, columnist, cartoonist and playwright and one of Brazil's most popular and witty writers. Whenever I was asked in Rio or Sao Paulo who I would be interviewing for my series, I'd be quick to mention Luis Fernando Verissimo. And they'd smile, yes. His father Erico is even more famous, with his own museum and city boulevard named after him. He's best known for an historical trilogy, a saga called Time and Wind that's read in schools and has been made into movies and a television series. Erico Verissimo was a professor at Berkeley in the 1940s and cultural director of the Pan-American Union (later the Organization of American States) in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s, so Luis Fernando spent part of his childhood and adolescence in the U.S. which is where he also pursued his passion for jazz. A saxophone player himself, he'd go up to New York to hear Charlie Parker and other greats. At 77, Verissimo still plays with his own combo. 

Luis Fernando Verissimo in front of a portrait of his father

Despite his enormous popularity and recognition in Brazil, and more than sixty books to his name, Luis Fernando Verissimo remains relatively unknown outside Brazil. Only three of his novels have been translated into English -and they're wonderful: elegant and erudite; charming "literary mysteries" that reflect his ironic take on politics and culture. I visited him at his home, one of the few houses left on what's become a busy street with clusters of apartments. It's a place he's lived in since he was eight years old, full of paintings and artwork. There's a library more or less intact from his father's time. And in addition to his own studio for writing and drawing, there's an extension across the lawn for dining, entertaining, and the famous Portuguese churrasco or grilled meat. 

Verissimo is famously shy, reticent. I was a little worried ahead of time, but he's also very forthcoming in a soft-spoken way. Afterwards, his wife of fifty years -they were married three weeks before the coup!-- came back into the room and joked, "Now I won't hear from him for a month, he spoke so long to you. 

Soccer stadium in Porto Alegre

The Beautiful Game

Sports journalist and novelist Sergio Rodrigues, author of The Feint, inspired by the virtuoso maneuver of star soccer player Pelé in 1970, quotes the late social historian, Eric Hobsbawm:  "Anyone who saw Brazil play the World Cup in 1970 cannot deny that soccer is a form of art."   Rodrigues went on to say:  "The moment when we played our best football was also when we had the worst of the dictatorship, 1970, the most killing and torture."  He continued: "The coach was a famous Communist who was fired just before the World Cup but his work was already done and we won."  Wes Anderson's latest film, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," is inspired by the most popular writer in the world of the 1920s and '30s, Stefan Zweig, who came to Brazil in 1940.  He wrote Brazil Land of the Future.  And Brazil still is the land of the future, some people joke, pointing out that despite all its economic advantages, the country still suffers from corruption, violence, lack of adequate infrastructure and especially, education.

On my last evening in Rio, I take advantage of the beautiful light just before sunset and walk along the boardwalk overlooking the beach, when I spot what I initially think is beach volleyball but then realize the players aren't using their hands at all, only feet, chest and head to hit the ball.  Apparently this is a uniquely Brazilian combination of soccer and volleyball called futevolei.  Impressively agile, just two players a side.  This kind of deftness and ingenuity makes you think Brazilians should have little trouble juggling a heritage of inequality with a promising future. 

Sunset from Ipanema in Rio



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