Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil)

Traveling while living/studying abroad is something I have a lot of thoughts about. Normally I’m usually a big proponent of getting to know the city that you’re living in—not jetting off every weekend to get a superficial glimpse of somewhere else. But Brazil is a big diverse country, and spending nine months here, I want to see what it looks like beyond Caxias.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several opportunities to travel during the first half of my grant, but I sometimes feel guilty when people hear about where I’ve been—like, Brazilians who hear about my trips will sometimes joke about how I’ve seen more of Brazil than they have. My go-to response is that we ETAs have to fit everything into just nine months, but of course that’s not the only reason. Our grant gives us more than enough money to live on, and the US dollar is now worth close to 20% more than when we first arrived. When combined with our part-time hours, I have more means to travel than a lot of other Brazilians do—even here in wealthier Caxias.

Anyway, here are some of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to see:

Torres, Rio Grande do Sul

Situated about a three-hour bus ride northwest of Caxias, Torres is a small city that’s known for having some of the best beaches in Rio Grande do Sul. I went with my co-ETAs Barbara and Justine for its annual Hot Air Balloon Festival, which basically amounted to us standing in the hot sun for three hours while we waited for the winds to die down enough for the balloons to get off the ground. But I’d never seen hot air balloons up close before, and it was some good people watching, so I think it was worth it.

Other highlights included being able to walk around at night, the super friendly staff at the tiny buffet around the corner from our Airbnb, and the rock formations (“towers”) that give the city its name. I honestly could take or leave the beaches, but I loved being able to hike up the rock formations and watch the paragliders soar around at sunset.

Curitiba, Paraná

When my family came to visit in June, the first city I met them in was Curitiba. Curitiba is regarded as one of the nicest cities in Brazil, super well-organized and trying hard to be eco-friendly. It’s a ten-hour (overnight) bus ride north of Caxias, but it’s still considered “in the south” and benefits from a lot of the same geographic/cultural/meteorological factors as Caxias does.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but I have a ton from my highlight of the trip: an encounter with some surprisingly tranquil capybaras in Parque Barigui (my brother, Zach, provided for scale). We also visited the Oscar Niemeyer Museum and the Panoramic Tower, and took a day trip via a mountainous stretch of Atlantic forest (a UNESCO World Heritage site) to visit the nearby town of Morretes.

Curitiba presented a nice change of pace for me—I got to eat Lebanese food, for example, and meet up with a few of the eight ETAs who are placed there. My family also had the unique experience of visiting a Brazilian Chinese buffet, which included wontons and fried rice alongside such south-Brazilian stapes as black beans, lasagna, and stroganoff.

After Curitiba, I rode with my family down to Caxias, and the next weekend, we drove six hours northwest to…

São Miguel das Missões, Rio Grande do Sul

Starting in the late sixteenth century, Spanish Jesuits began constructing missions across South America. Their goal was to convert and educate various indigenous peoples, which by São Miguel, meant the Guaraní. How much the Guaraní gained from this arrangement is unclear. From what I can tell, “education” basically amounted to “Christianization,” and life in the missions was characterized by organized labor that was more European than Guaraní. How much the Guaraní were permitted to practice their culture in the missions seems to be a matter of debate—although the Jesuits did help protect them from the Portuguese slave traders (bandeirantes) who roamed the Brazilian countryside.

São Miguel was also the site of the Guarani War. After the Treaty of Madrid settled the borders between the Spanish and Portuguese empires in South America, much of modern-day Brazil (including the area by São Miguel) was transferred from Spain to Portugal. The Jesuits were ordered to move to the Spanish territory, but the Guarani refused to leave the homes they’d made in the missions. At first they managed to hold their own against a combined Portuguese/Spanish army, but soon they were defeated and forced to abandon the missions.

Anyway, São Miguel is now the best-preserved ruins of the missions as well as another UNESCO World Heritage site. It was interesting to see, but maybe not necessarily worth a six-hour trip. Although the original history of the area was super interesting, what stuck with me most was the graffiti engraved on the ruins. They bore dates from the early 1900s and made me realize just how much people stay the same.

 Foz de Iguaçu, Paraná

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The next stop on the Brazilian family road trip was Foz de Iguaçu, a city right by the border with Paraguay and Argentina. The city’s big draw is its waterfalls, located in Iguaçu National Park (yet another UNESCO World Heritage site). The falls were stunning, but I also really enjoyed seeing a wild toucan in the sky and these adorable raccoon-like quatis that are clearly well-accustomed to human interaction.

These quatis are devious. They made a beeline for any bags within their reach (including mine), and were not above taking advantage of distracted tourists. In fact, I saw one baby quati distracting a woman (who was admittedly dumb enough to lean down to pet it) while three adult quatis took the opportunity to paw through her bag. The quatis also prowled the food court, where workers banged empty buckets taped to the end of broomsticks to scare them off.

On our last day in Foz de Iguaçu, we also took a tour of the hulking Itaipu dam (technically located on land shared by Brazil and Paraguay) and an aviary—the highlight of which was a giant parrot enclosure you could enter to have macaws swoop right by your head. Later that day, I then started a 20-hour bus ride to Caxias, while my family would go on to complete their 5,000km loop by visiting the Pantanal and then driving back to São Paulo.

Salvador, Bahia

I already covered this in my post about the Mid-Year Enhancement Seminar, but I included it on my list because I wanted to share this picture, the view from the gate at Caxias’s tiny airport:

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This is apparently not unusual at this airport. You may recall that the day we first arrived in Caxias, we were rerouted to Porto Alegre and had to take a two-hour bus the rest of the way. This is normally what we ETAs just do when we travel, but the Fulbright Commission bought out flights and would only do so between our host city and Salvador.

Long story short, our flight was delayed, then canceled, and then we took a bus to Porto Alegre, and then we missed our connection in São Paulo, so our tidy six-hour trip there ballooned into a fourteen-hour ordeal.

São Paulo, São Paulo

The nice part about the Commission-bought plane tickets, though, is that they included a layover in São Paulo—where, on my way back, I simply ditched the second leg and went to meet up with my girlfriend, Casey, instead. (Which was easier said than done—radar problems in both of the city’s airports delayed my flight and temporarily grounded hers in nearby Belo Horizonte. But after a seventy-minute Uber ride from São Paulo’s domestic airport to its international one, we were finally reunited.)

The highlight of Casey’s visit was definitely our week in Rio, but we spent a few days in São Paulo before and after. Our time there was pretty relaxed—mostly just enjoying being together in a sprawling city that admittedly doesn’t really have any must-see tourist attractions. After being clueless during Orientation, I was happy to be back and explore a bit more—and coincidentally, our first Airbnb ended up being literally across the street from the hotel I stayed in my first time there.

We didn’t take a ton of pictures, but here’s one from a fancy lunch of feijoada: beans and meat stewed together, rice, pork rinds, farofa (toasted cassava flour), and couve (lightly fried cabbage). It’s your traditional Saturday lunch, and we inadvertently ordered enough to leave us very full after two separate meals.

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Thanks to Gol Airline’s rather lax carry-on policies, this meant we could cart our leftovers via plastic bag to…

Rio de Jainero, Rio de Jainero

I sometimes joke with people here that I used to think all of Brazil was like Rio. They usually laugh, because they know that stereotypes of Rio are stereotypes of Brazil. But even though I know they’re stereotypes, and even though I know we were being total tourists, I was having so much fun living these stereotypes out.

Like, we stayed in a hotel in Copacabana (a graduation gift for Casey from her parents) and sipped coconut water and caipirinhas on the beach. We stood before Christ the Redeemer and rode the cable car up to Sugarloaf and posed on the Selaron Steps. We even took mototaxis through a favela to get to a hiking trail, on which we saw lizards and giant butterflies and a family of monkeys grooming each other. The city is stupidly beautiful, and it’s easy to see how it earned its status as UNESCO World Heritage site.

We also did a lot of fun smaller things, like see a experimental theater performance (the title of which translated to Checkov is a Shroom) and visit the Rio Art Museum, which had a super interesting exhibit exploring the intertwined histories of Rio and its famous samba music. We also took a walking tour of the city center and wandered around the city’s botanical gardens and and chatted with a Danish artist trying to start a gallery in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa.

Granted, this charmed tourism all took place against a backdrop of great inequality and alarming rates of violence. Public security has been in the hands of the federal police since February, but shootings in Rio have only increased. Most notably, activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco—who had criticized police killings in the favelas—was murdered in March. The death remains unsolved, but it increasingly appears like an assassination at the hands of former members of the military.

Maybe as a result of seeing Rio de Jainero in the news every other night, a lot of people in Caxias warned me against going at all. When I asked one guy if he had any recommendations, he glibly responded “the sign of the cross.” Luckily, Casey and I didn’t have any problems; we intentionally stuck to tourist areas and avoided wandering around after dark. But even so, on that mototaxi ride up to the trailhead through the favela, I caught a glimpse of how these different Rios intersect: as we rode uphill, the blue sea glinting between blurred buildings, we passed a man holding an uncomfortably large gun. The favela we were in is generally regarded as safe, but that passing glimpse reinforced just how tenuous that safety might be.

But let the record show we still had an awesome trip and it was one of my favorite weeks of my entire time in Brazil.

For now, I’m back in Caxias do Sul. But with both some time and money remaining in grant, I’ll see if I won’t have the luck to see even more of Brazil.

2 thoughts on “Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil)

  1. Pingback: Winter holidays and other strategies to keep warm in Caxias | In the city of gaúchos

  2. Pingback: The weirdest places I’ve slept in Brazil | In the city of gaúchos

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