Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Carioca Charisma, Porcine Paradise, Calming Curitiba and Flippin' Floripa

Steaming dumplings straight off the frying pan in Liberdade. Coffee and organic bread in Jardim Paulista. Graffitti art in Vila Madalena. Acai, passion fruit, guavas and star fruit at every turn. Wavy Niemeyer modernism on the streets and in the bends of downtown. Art and light at the Pinatoeca do Estado; Van Gogh, Renoir and Dali at the MASP. This is all that Sao Paulo has to offer.

No, it’s not a pretty city, but its tantalizing flavors keep me coming back for more. Unfortunately, this semester is not the hedonistic romp across the world that I secretly wanted it to be. With its highfalutin name, the International Honors Program takes itself pretty seriously. And that’s slightly inopportune for vagabond young souls like me who want to spend the semester goofing off in museums and cafes. The program does not leave you a second to breathe, with days jam-packed with lectures on politics, economics, development, urban planning, race relations and the list goes on endlessly. We spend hours discussing contentious contemporary issues, always wary about our stance as an outsider and always frustrated at our inability to access all corners of knowledge. The fact that there is so much going on means that the seams are often frayed and parts of the program are executed sloppily. At times it can all get a little exhausting, a little exasperating, a little claustrophobic… a little much. But though I often worry about the fact that I am traveling all around the world with a group of 31 students all affiliated with American institutions, I realized one thing today: that loving, caring atmosphere that I found at Williams is following me around uncomfortable situations across the globe and there’s a real value in that. It is quite the departure from my summer travels and I delight in knowing that I’ve dappled in two extremes.

I took a break from the hustle-and-bustle of Sao Paulo to visit what is arguably Brazil’s most iconic city: Rio de Janeiro. Nine of us piled into a bus at midnight to undertake the 6 hour-long journey to find shelter in the shadow of Cristo Redentor. We arrived Saturday morning to a rainy, overcast weekend. Was that going to stop us? Hell no. We put on our rain gear and headed out to the beach, welcomed into Christ’s open arms. We spent the morning running around Leblon and Ipanema before ducking into a cafĂ© in Copacabana for some Irish coffee to warm our hearts up a little. We spent the afternoon eating Bahian food in a hut by the lake, the night in Lapa's bars drinking and playing games followed by clubs dancing to Carioca funky (imagine M.I.A on ‘roids). The next day it was to Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Ipanema beach hippie fair. One last walk by the Atlantic before we hopped back on a bus and came home to Sao Paulo for dinner. The image of Cristo Redentor swathed in a sheet of fog will be burned into my mind forever...

About ten days ago, the program took us to a site of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – The Movement of Landless Rural Workers). The MST is an organization in Brazil through which activists seize land from private owners of latifundias (large plots of land that stretch out for hectares and hectares) to allow the rural and urban poor to come farm the soil using sustainable techniques in a radical effort to redistribute resources in a highly unequal society. The encampent we visited was in the rural village of Itapeva, located in the south of Sao Paulo state. We arrived to a small community of dirt fields with basic lodging, a large pond and several agrovila settlements that had every thing from bakeries and pig farms to banana trees and pharmacies.

We even got to witness pig manure produce methane gas to power Our night in the village, replete with porcine company, caipirinhas and samba, brought our individual political ideologies to the forefront: dealing with a movement that stands on the far left is enough to bring out the most vehement of arguments. But we all left content, stomachs filled with rice and beans straight from the fields in the backyard and butts covered in dirt.

We moved on to the city of Curitiba in the state of Parana. Curitiba is supposedly world-renowned for its efficient transit systems, green spaces and waste management. Well… I had never heard of it. Curitiba is a buzzword for urban planners worldwide and its system of flood drainage and transport interconnectivity is a model for cities all across the globe. The classes we had might have been informative, but the best part of our Curitbano experience was our host family. Rob, Andrew and I got to live with Yara, her daughter Gabriella, her son Rafael, his wife Juliana and their six dogs. They were the warmest, most welcoming people I have met in a long, long while. They showed us around the city’s many beautiful parks, took us out drinking, sent us off to clubs, fed us happily and then drove Rob and I to a fantabulous weekend in Florianopolis, the magical island. Florianopolis is nothing short of amazing. I knew it was destined to be good when all Rafa played on the four- hour-drive down was a Glee medley. Beautiful beaches, palm trees everywhere, breathtaking panoramas, an expansive lake, dunes, amazing bars… yes, it was the winter and yes, it did rain, but it definitely did not stop our parade. We went out to a bar on Saturday and got the band to let us join in on their cover of “Save Tonight”. We spent a lazy Saturday afternoon walking the beach, eating fresh mussels and going out shopping in little island stores. Though we left early on Sunday, I still got to go do early morning sun salutations on Barra da Lagoa beach. The most unfortunate part of the trip? My camera was out of battery. Oh, and that now, I’m broke.

It’s now our last week in Brazil and there are a lot of different emotions surfacing among the group: restlessness, relief, happiness and sadness are all mixed in together. In such a tight group, it’s hard not to be confused about what you think. Personally, I am ready to move on, though I will miss this place dearly, just like I do any city I’ve spent a lot of time in. People who came to Brazil expecting an island paradise were disappointed – as they should be, since that Brazil exists only in the imaginations of tourists. Sao Paulo is a driven city of the future and I will think about its smorgasbord of delights for months to come.

One to Cape Town, with a brief 12-hour sojourn in Buenos Aires!

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