Category Archives: Brazil

Brazil’s Quirky Soul

There are plenty of studies on the world’s happiest countries, but what about the world’s quirkiest? I think Brazil would definitely rate in the top five. Perhaps it’s in part because I got to know Brazil better than any other country, including my own, and any country becomes quirky when you travel through it extensively. But I also just think Brazil is a place where people really value expression and creativity is found throughout society in unexpected places.

I was continually delighted by the unexpected art projects I would stumble upon in my travels. Projects without institutional support taken on as an individual mission in a city or out in the middle of nowhere, even, along a highway.

What do I mean by quirky? I mean unexpected, unique, and unpretentious. Totally individual. There is no real equivalent for the word “quirky” in Portuguese. I always carefully explain the word quirky to Brazilians—that it means good weird, not bad weird, which is “esquisito” in Portuguese. It means that you have the courage to be yourself exactly as you are, without trying to be different. Using the example of Amelie often helps people understand the quirky aesthetic, though of course you don’t have to be cute as a button to be quirky or to plant garden gnomes in gardens.

Here are a few of my favorite quirky places in Brazil.

A woman giving birth in Jardim do Nego

Jardim do Nêgo . Nova Friburgo. Jardim do Nêgo is a sculpture garden with huge moss-covered sculptures of animals and humans, including a particularly spectacular sculpture of a gigantic women giving birth. The artist is Nêgo. It seemed so mysterious how this garden had taken root out in the middle of nowhere, the product of one man’s imagination and solitude. The government recognized him for his contribution to tourism, but I can’t imagine the garden was commissioned. The Jardim is 13 km north-west of Nova Friburgo on highway RJ-130. The garden is part of the Circuito Turistco between Nova Friburgo and Teresopolis. Drive this road and you can stop at waterfalls, a cheese factory, and a museum about Swiss immigration to Brasil.

The bird cemetery on Paqueta
Cemitério dos Pássaros (Bird Cemetery) on Ilha de Paqueta. Rio de Janeiro. One week when I was feeling overstimulated by the chaos and noise of Rio I took a friend’s suggestion to visit Ilha de Paqueta on a day trip. Paqueta is just an hour away by ferry in the Baia de Gaunabara, but it feels like another world and time period. There are no cars on the island–only bikes (which you can rent cheaply) and horse-drawn buggies. It was a weekday and I was pretty much the only tourist on the whole island. More than 10 guys asked me if I wanted to take a tour in their bike- or horse-drawn carriages. I finally relented. The tour was worth the price when my driver stopped to show me a BIRD cemetery attached to a human cemetery. My guide told me that people from all over Brazil bring their birds here to rest, and that the bird cemetery had been a personal project of its creators. The fact that someone had a vision for a bird cemetery and went ahead and created one made me happy.

The largest cashew tree in the world!
O Maior Cajuero do Mundo, or The Biggest Cashew Tree in the World, Natal. What a tourist attraction! A tree that covers more than a New York City block! Planted in 1888, the largest cashew tree in the world got to be so big due to genetic anomalies. Instead of growing vertically, the branches grow sideways and then down into the ground, spreading out without end. The tree has become a tourist attraction that costs R$2 to enter. This for me is the definition of quirkyness–instead of becoming a source of shame the tree’s genetic oddness is celebrated! The town has turned the tree into a Lonely Planet- mention-worthy tourist attraction. I went to see the tree with Brazilian guys, an Israeli, and an Argentinean from my hostel and they thought it was hilarious that I thought the Maior Cajeiro do Mundo was one of the best things I had seen in Brazil. Well, it was! I loved it.

Escada de Selaron
Escada de Selaron, or, the Selaron Steps. Rio de Janeiro. Santa Teresa is the most poetic neighborhood I have ever known, and it’s where I spent most of my time in Rio. Santa Teresa sits on top of a hill with dozens of hidden staircases that descend into various neighborhoods at its feet. Some of the staircases have been turned into canvases for art, and none more than the Selaron Steps, which lead into Lapa. A Chilean artist Selaron started an art project as an ode to Brazil. Now that the steps are well known he collects tiles from tourists who bring them from their own cities and he is ever adding to the collection. There’s a small gallery tucked inside the wall alongside the steps where he sells photos and art. The steps are his love note to Brazil, and he says he will work on it until the day he dies. Descending the steps from Santa Teresa into Lapa is a glorious way to enter the city.

I’d love to hear about other odd, creative, individual projects in Brazil, or really, anywhere in the world. Any ideas? Please suggest them in the comments.



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Ate Mais, Brasil

A few of my favorite Cariocas

A few of my favorite Cariocas at Bar do Mineiro, Santa Teresa

My time in Brasil has come to an end, and my time in Colombia is just beginning. I left Brasil June 19 on a madrugada (dawn) flight that routed through Lima, Bogota, and then to Santa Marta, where I began my journey through Colombia, on the Caribbean coast. It was not easy to leave meu amor, Brasil. Booking my ticket was torture and took several afternoons. But it was the practical thing to do. And all of my American practicality has not yet been scrubbed out of me by Brasil.

I first fell in love with Brasil on a three-week trip to Salvador, Arraial d’Ajuda (in Bahia) and Rio in 2008 and left with a resolve to come back and spend more time in Rio. Everyone always asked if I had a boyfriend in Brasil and if that was why I wanted to go back. But no, there was no specific one man–there were many! Just kidding.

My fondness for Brasil was born out of a love for the rich culture of music and dance, exuberance, the people. I sensed the country had something to teach me by example. Brasil is full of passion, optimism despite difficult conditions, quirkyness and creativity in unexpected places, and an everyday humor that jives with my personality. After five months, I’m fairly fluent in Portuguese and continue to love learning nuances of the language. Brasil feels like my adopted home country. I’ve met other Americans who feel this way, that you develop a heart connection with Brasil. Maybe I will fall in love with another country harder, now or in another decade, but for now my heart beats for Brasil!

I spent three months traveling in the south and the northeast. I really wanted to settle in one place for at least 3 months. In the end, I spent a little less than 2 months in Rio, which doesn’t seem long at all. I was there for 2.5 months, but in that time, I also traveled to Ouro Preto, Sao Paolo, Paraty, Petropolis, and Manaus! Wow! In such a short time, I developed a number of dear friendships in Rio. It amazes me that I was able to develop a network of friends so quickly, and I really enjoyed introducing them to one another and enjoyed watching some of them become friends.

I am continuing on with my travels for practical reasons, including Brasil’s six-month tourist visa limitation, and the fact that if I am serious about living in Brasil I’ll want to continue my career in some interesting way there, and now is not yet the time for me to get serious about work. Soon it will be time to think about what comes next. I am hoping that the continuation of my career, wherever it takes me, will also feel as interesting and alive as the last five months of learning have been–and that the unplanned adventure will only continue.

I have a number of blog posts saved up inside my brain about Brasil and will be posting there before moving on to writing about colorful Colombia.

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Have a Nietzsche Day in Santa Teresa!

Just another morsel of poetic terrorism in Santa Teresa

Every day when I got on the bus, or on the poetic yellow cable cars rambling through Santa Teresa, Rio’s hilltop bohemian neighborhood, I would see this splash of graffiti, if you could call such simple handwriting graffiti. “Have a Nietzsche Day!”

What an intellectual neighborhood I chose to live in for a while, I thought to myself, smiling. At the nearby Mercandinho, an impossibly small corner store that sells coffee, beer, carpaccio, papaya, laundry detergent, I meet poets who had hung out with Allen Ginsburg. Everyone is an artist, writer, translator, weird Carnaval bloco organizer. Maybe an American working on her Fulbright in poetry. Or someone like me, just bumming around and enjoying.

Poetic terrorism is what my friend Roma calls it. According to Urban Dictionary, poetic terrorism is a “movement dedicated to spreading random acts of beauty, poetry, wonder, magic and thought-provocation. The concept was originated by the writer Hakim Bey and has appeared in movies such as the cult French film Amelie. Poetic terrorism differs from the concept of “random acts of kindness” in that its acts are not always kind, but its ultimate goal is not malice, but broadening of the mind.”

Roma’s girlfriend Iracema studies Nietzsche. She too lives in Santa Teresa and often tells me to have a Nietzsche day a lot. I don’t think she is responsible for the scrawl, but she has adopted it for her lexicon.

But what does “Have a Nietzsche Day!” mean? I had always associated Nietzsche with nihilism, meaninglessness, being adrift without a moral compass. Why would I want my day to be like that? Downtown from Santa Teresa, which is calm and beautiful, the Centro and Lapa are beautiful too but much more hectic and chaotic. And full of malandros, sneaky characters who lack a firm morality.

Iracema and Roma gave me a different take on Nietzsche. Iracema wrote her doctoral thesis on him, and from what I gather, for them, Nietzsche is about breaking through social rules and affirming life according to authentic desires. Iracema says, Having a Nietzsche day means “a day in which we not ashamed of who we are.”

So having a Nietzsche day for them means smashing paradigms, living fully, authentically. There’s a non-cheesy Carpe Diem feeling to it, a live-every-day-as-your-last, because death is not so bad. It’s just the conclusion of a well-lived, full life.

Our conversations, if not the exact definition, remind me of early talks that I had with my friend Marcello, who also lives in Santa Teresa. Marcello, who works at a bank, and is quirky but not an artist, warned me early on that it’s a crazy neighborhood, and all his friends, some of them expatriates, act like they are living each day as their last. How is that possible to sustain over years? That was his question.

Brazil is very much about the moment, and Santa Teresa and Lapa take the energy around the present moment to another level. The music never stops. Maybe only on Mondays.

In San Francisco, Sunday night is a time to be quiet and prepare for the coming week, Maybe make some soup. Do your laundry. Not in Santa Teresa. It’s time to drink beers in the street in front of Bar do Mineiro for 6 hours straight, or to go to a roda de samba. Living out loud in the streets is relaxation. Life is lived at a different frequency.

Would I be cut out for such a life, for having a series of Nietzsche days? Could I be a superperson? Could you? See below.

Living at a high frequency all the time leaves me rather exhausted. So does rewriting all the rules, though I seem to enjoy tinkering with them.

From Philosophy Pages:

“Nietzsche insists that there are no rules for human life, no absolute values, no certainties on which to rely. If truth can be achieved at all, it can come only from an individual who purposefully disregards everything that is traditionally taken to be “important.” Such a super-human person {Ger. Übermensch}, Nietzsche supposed, can live an authentic and successful human life.”

Or maybe “Have a Nietzsche Day” is a joyfully meaningless slogan, post-Nietzschean prank to get me to write this blog post. From this essay by Bary Brent Madison, “Coping with Nietzsche’s Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer”:

Derrida is the great postphilosophical prankster, the “ironist,” the indefatigable turner-out of texts which are mercifully free from the burden of having to actually mean something (qui ne veulent rien dire, as Derrida himself would say) . . .


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Brazilian Happiness, Part Two

And now, another installment in my quest to understand the fascinating condition of Brazilian happiness–how is that that these people seem to be so unremittingly joyful? Is it because they are so musical, so closely connected through family, do they put antidepressants in the agua de coco? What is it?

Last week I visited Sao Paolo with my new friend Catherine. We met in the strikingly beautiful coastal, colonial town Paraty at the couchsurfing gathering for the Jazz Festival. At the last moment, I decided to chaperone Catherine on her first couchsurfing adventure in Sao Paolo. That’s the joy of bus travel.

Our host was Alberto, a true gem who picked us up at the bus station, paid our metro fare on the way to his home, and bought us beer and wine to chill out at home and enjoy our first of two nights together. Alberto showed us Sao Paolo the next day, and I was so happy to finally put a face to the name. So many Cariocas and others have talked negatively about Sao Paolo, so it was exotic to finally see it for myself. I liked it, for two days anyway! Alberto is the rare young Brazilian who lives alone and it was a lot of relaxing fun to hang out on his couch and watch Brazilian MTV–surprisingly different and better than American MTV. More weird videos and sophisticated programming.

Alberto brought up this question of Brazilian happiness with me. He initiated it, referencing a conversation with a Canadian he had hosted, who had asked, Why are Brazilians so joyful and warm and open and North Americans are not? Alberto had his answer ready for me. Little did he know this is my blogging fascination of the moment. His answer was rather simple: Brazilians are used to living with insecurity, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Jobs, money, housing, violence, and I would add relationships (in the sense that infidelity is so common). Because they never know what’s going to happen, Betao (his nickname) said, Brazilians learn to enjoy every day as it comes, to suck every bit of pleasure they can from each day. That’s his life philosophy, anyway, to live as intensely as possible so he as stories to tell his grandchildren. He’s also the kind of traveler who arrives at his destination without a guidebook, only a backpack, no plan, just relying on God and luck. God, that fetishizing of the non-planned adventure!

Alberto’s theory is that Brazilians are de facto Buddhists. Because their lives can’t be planned, they realize they have no control over the future–they are much better at focusing on the moment. Pleasure is better than pain, Alberto said to me. And I though, how simple and true! (Certainly that’s true with regard to Brazilian men–they are very good at focusing on the pleasure of the present moment when they see a woman they want to kiss.)

In some fundamental way of the universe, Alberto is absolutely right; we pretend to ourselves that we have control in the U.S. and Europe, but at any time, an accident could happen, a spouse could leave, a lottery ticket could prove to be the winner. According to his theory, our stable lives always leave pleasure for the future–in a stable day to day life, you know where you are going the next day, and the next day, and life becomes more routine, less spontaneous and pleasure-filled.

I read somewhere a long time ago that one of the cornerstones of mental health is to feel control over your life. I always believed that to be true. That when I feel in control of my destiny, my environment, and know that I have enough money in the bank to cover my bills, my mental health is more stable. It’s fascinating to me to think that these people seem happier than I am on a daily basis but they live with such insecurity. On the other hand, people in many other countries live with great insecurity too. How happy are they?

And then there’s the mask of Brazilian happiness. I wonder what’s really going on when people go home for the night from the samba party. When I got back to Rio from my two-week trip to Nova Friburgo, Petropolis, Paraty, and Sao Paolo, I bumped into the expatriate crew in Santa Teresa. These are young women from England and Norway who who have settled here and are teaching English. I shared some of my frustrations with Rio, that it can be hard to feel connected here in a city where everything is about fun, fun, fun, and everyone is always wearing this joyous smile. They have had Carioca boyfriends, so they have gotten in a little deeper than I have, in a sense. They talked about the mask of happiness in Rio, that’s all tudo bem, jovial smiles out at the bar, but when they get home, their boyfriends expressed a real lack of trust in anyone, and seemed awfully depressed, not wanting to go out. Obviously, this is an anecdotal hearsay, but I do think there’s something to that, the way people present themselves out in public here has to be different from what they really feel inside.

I adore the joy here, but it does me a lot of good to talk with English people who are more culturally similar to my friends in San Francisco. We are more unafraid to talk about our problems and get in there and analyze them, look for solutions. Perhaps this happens among intimate friends in Brazil, but it has only happened with me once–with my dear friend Natalia in Florianopolis. She too thought that Brazilians have a problem with talking about their problems. I felt closer and more comfortable with her ultimately than any other Brazilian woman that I have met traveling, yet.


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