Silver medal winner, Benjamin Franklin Award
Introduction by Alex Shoumatoff
In Brazil, the blending of cultures—indigenous tribes, Portuguese colonists, and West Africans—has created a people unafraid to embrace life. Here, the primeval meets the modern, and nothing is done in moderation. Notable authors include: Bill McKibben, Diane Ackerman, Petro Popescu, and John Krich.
- Samba the night away with Alma Guillermoprieto
- Explore dark corners of the Amazon with Joe Kane
- Sing to get out of jail with Arthur Dawson
- Search “where the wild things are” with Julia Preston in the lush Pantanal
- Explore the mystical ritual of Candomblé with Christopher Hall
- Attend a soccer match with Terri Hinte at Rio’s huge Maracanã stadium
- Get the whole story of “The Girl from Ipanema” with John Krich
- Get swept away by the sensual tide of Rio’s Carnaval with Cal Fussman
- Experience the heartbreak and song of the dusty sertão with Moritz Thomsen in the streets of Recife…and much more.
by Alex Shoumatoff
Brazil has the seething, epic quality of other developing mega-states like India, Mexico, and Russia, but there is something uniquely intoxicating about it. As you’ll discover in the travelers’ tales that follow, no popular music is at once so joyous and melancholy, infectious and cathartic, as the Brazilian samba; no language is more sensuous than Portuguese on the lips of a Carioca, a native of Rio de Janeiro; no people are sweeter or more generous than the gente humilde, the Brazilian poor; no wilderness is as unfathomably immense or as riotously diverse as the Amazon rainforest; no culture has such a mischievous sense of fun or such a highly evolved sense of the absurd. It is no accident that magic realism was invented by two Brazilian writers, Murilo Rubião and José J. Vega; they were just responding to the surreal edge to Brazilian life. Brazil is the tropical “sex-positive” (in the anthropologist Thomas Gregor’s term) society par excellence, a mecca for repressed souls from the temperate zones. And of course the soccer and the beer are without peer.
Few expressions are more overworked by travel writers than “a land of contrasts,” but in the case of Brazil the disparities—between the South and the North, the crowded coast and the empty interior, the rich and the poor—are so pronounced that it is transcendently apt. The cultural menu ranges from neolithic hunter-gatherers whose villages have been spotted from the air but never entered by any so-called civilizado, to fully up-to-the-minute Internet surfers. In between are all kinds of gradations, like the hospitable, self-sufficient caboclos author Joe Kane meets in “Bodó Sing-Along,” who live in the time of Daniel Boone along the Amazon’s thousands of tributaries and sub-tributaries, trading what they grow, hunt, and fish for a few useful modern goods such as foot-powered sewing machines, shotgun shells, and transistor radios.
Brazil’s tri-cultural makeup—its fusion of Indian, European, and African elements—gives it a special dynamism. It explains the genius of Antonio Carlos Jobim, for instance, and why Brazilians are more spontaneous, warm, and fun-loving than Mexicans, who lack the African dimension and are haunted by the grandeur of their past. Brazilians have zero interest in the past. They have a horror of growing old. The quintessential Brazilian putdowns are to be labeled já era, as having “already been,” i.e., as history, and sistemático—anal-retentive, Germanic. What matters is the present—how vibrant and insouciantly alive you are—and the future, as Alma Guillermoprieto beautifully conveys in “Opium of the People.”
So many things about Brazil are as good as it gets that Brazilians tend to have trouble adapting to foreign cultures, and when stationed abroad are soon overwhelmed by saudade, another key word: they pine for their food and their samba, their Antarctica lager and their futebol. But every culture has its shadow side, and Brazil is no exception. Underneath the sweetness lurks a very nasty streak of violence, the politicians and the police can be as venal and corrupt, the rich as cynical and selfish, as any on the planet. If you commit a crime and know the right people, you walk; if you don’t you rot in jail. The racial fluidity, one eventually realizes, is only apparent; the top stratum is almost pure white-European.
So egregious are the social inequities that it is no coincidence, either, that Leonardo and Claudio Boff, two of the leading exponents of liberation theology, which prioritizes basic human rights in the here and now, should be Brazilian. As a 16th-century Portuguese navigator sailing up the Brazilian coast remarked famously, “There is no sin south of the Equator.” This attitude, which Cal Fussman describes in “Rio Risqué,” accounts for both Brazil’s seductive charm and its chronic problems.
But it would be a gross injustice to end on a sour note of negative stereotyping. Impunidade is another important word for understanding Brazil, but the most important word of all is alegria, the loving light-heartedness that is at the soul of these beautiful people. Come discover their world in Travelers’ Tales Brazil.
Alex Shoumatoff is the author of ten books, four of which are about Brazil: The Rivers Amazon, The Capital of Hope, In Southern Light, and The World Is Burning. From 1978 to 1990, he was a staff writer at The New Yorker and is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has two sons by a Brazilian woman, and lives on a mountaintop in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.
James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger
Essence of Brazil
Once Upon a Time in Ipanema
Edward A. Riedinger
Tambourine Men of Recife
Where the Wild Things Are
Whose Vice Is It Anyway?
Soul of the Sertão
In Search of Miracles
A Place for Living
Some Things to Do
Opium of the People
Where the Sun Dines
High on Iguaçu
My Night of Candomblé
Costa Verde Magic
Brasília the Beautiful
María Cristina Jurado
Where Life Comes in Slices
City of Black Gold
Fishing for Peacocks
Going Your Own Way
Jim Lo Scalzo
He’ll Have Another
Alan D. Eames
Benin via Bahia
Rachel Christmas Derrick
Alone and Unarmed
Finding Uncle Will
Belém Takes Its Time
A Close Encounter
Sailing Down to Rio
My Maravilhosa Career
A Walk in the Forest
The Ultimate Road Trip
The Guy from Ipanema
In the Shadows
Down the River of Doubt
Young, Down, and Out
The Word Denied
William R. Long
Two Fitas and a Tattoo
Ryan S. Kelly
A Thou on the Dog
The Last Word
The Real Brazil
Books for Further Reading
Index of Contributors
by Terri Hinte
An Americana and a stranger move as one in a samba’s embrace.
Marcos and Marinha Nascimento were taking me to a Christmas party. I had arrived in Belo Horizonte the night before, our visit having been arranged by Zé, my host in Rio. True to his promise, they made me warmly welcome.
Laconic Marcos, with his cap of tight black curls and wiry frame, stood in contrast to his copper-haired wife, affectionate and expansive and gordinha (a little meat on her bones). The couple’s three children shared Marinha’s ruddy coloring, especially the toddler Hipolita, a Titian cherub; the kids and their friends watched my every move, this blonde Americana with her inexplicable Rio accent. From the Nascimentos’ modest apartment, filled with the creations of painter and craftsmen friends, I took in the rolling emerald expanse of Belo, capital of the mountainous interior state of Minas Gerais.
As we arrived at the party at the home of the Passarinhos that perfect summer evening, I felt the gears in my brain start grinding in preparation for social chatter. My Portuguese served me well enough one-on-one but tended to stall when required to produce quick banter in large groups. Marinha was my safe harbor while I sized up this gathering.
I found the refreshments and helped myself to a cold chopinho, then walked outside for some air. Typically, the Passarinhos’ house was enclosed by a high solid wall that afforded security and privacy from the street. Partygoers were thus mingling in the front and side yards, the sultry air perfumed by jasmine and the flamboyant trees in flagrant, scarlet bloom.
Strings of tiny lights illuminated the yard as darkness finally fell and the music rose from background to main event. The irresistible sounds of samba brought a number of people to their feet, and started mine itching as I sat sipping my beer. It wasn’t long before I was invited to dance, by an ardent bear of a man named Tadeu. He was sweaty and sour-smelling and a bit drunk, but I was quite thrilled to be up and moving with the crowd. Tadeu, in fact, was dancing by himself, off in his own sensory world, and so, therefore, was I. But that was fine with me. In a fundamental way, I had traveled thousands of miles to be doing exactly this—seeking some kind of intimate knowledge of the samba, with the body as hierophant and the soul the ecstatic recipient of its gifts.
While conversing with the rhythms on the dance floor in the vicinity of the frenetic Tadeu, I scanned the yard, savoring the styles of the dancing couples. One man in particular was making the samba all his own with movements of wonderful finesse and a captivating swing (or sue-wing-ghee, in the local parlance). As soon as the record was over, I bade Tadeu adeus with a thank-you-man and wasted no time in approaching the evening’s prize dancer.
“Quer dançar?” I proposed, a bit breathless with anticipation.
“Lógico,” he smiled, taking my hand. But of course!
His right hand alighted on my blue-draped hip, my left on his shoulder; our remaining hands found each other high in the air, laced loosely, as hips and legs and feet began to respond in unison to the tensile rhythms. It was simple, and sublime.
We introduced ourselves not long into our maiden dance—his name was Argentino, a handsome man of mocha complexion, slender build, and uncommon grace. He described himself as a poet. I was Teresa the Americana, as usual the only one present and therefore charged with the burden of explaining American politics. But Argentino offered instant expiation; like everyone I’d met in Brazil, he brightened at the mention of San Francisco, my home base, and offered the requisite compliments on my Portuguese (“Você fala muito bem!”).
Frankly, though, talking got in the way of the purity of the dance. We were a team now. As each record ended, we remained poised for the next, grinning, relishing our glorious calibration.
Doubtless there are men in the world who love to dance and are good at it and who can lead a woman partner through an experience where two are one and aren’t even thinking about taking off their clothes. I had just never met such a man. Dancing with men meant dancing near them or at them, as with Tadeu, or leading them, as with my friend Jim, who could expertly follow my every step and spin.
But here with Argentino, it wasn’t even a matter of his leading me; it was more like his moves were my moves, we were just making them together at precisely the same moment. Moreover, his sue-wing-ghee was of a piece with mine—closer to the pulse of the music, right in it rather than spurting out from it. Peripherally I could see many such gushing dancers in the yard, exhausting themselves after one go-round. Argentino and I, we kept percolating, marveling at the persuasiveness of a hip with intent, exploring the rich dimensions of movement in the smallest possible space. We were the heartbeat of samba.
How many hours passed? We hadn’t left each other’s company all evening, nor had the smiles left our faces. But the music had quieted down, the party was rapidly thinning out, madrugada was settling in. Marinha and Marcos were saying their good-byes to the Passarinhos, and that meant I would have to bid farewell to Argentino.
We faced each other with this task, still aglow. “Você dança como um anjo,” I said helplessly. You angel you.
Not missing a beat: “Aprendi esta noite contigo,” he replied, the picture of serenity. I learned tonight with you.
In English the concept of speaking with someone is self-evident, but in Portuguese you also learn with someone, not from them, and you dream with someone, not about them, suggesting that these are not solitary activities. Clearly Argentino and I had both dreamed of a mutual surrender to the music on a tropical Christmas night. As we danced together, we learned how to make our dreams come true.
Born in New York and “actualized” in California, Terri Hinte fell in love with samba and bossa nova many years ago and studied Portuguese in order to travel to Brazil. She has worked as a music business publicist for more than twenty years, and contributed to the Brazilian music section of The All Music Guide. Whenever she travels, she pines for her garden and her Siamese cat, Eartha.
Annette Haddad and Scott Doggett are staff editors of the Los Angeles Times and have traveled extensively in Brazil. They are both former newspaper and wire service reporters, and their articles have appeared in hundreds of periodicals worldwide. Together, they’ve visited more than 70 countries and look forward to visiting 70 more.