Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Land of Sugarcane

Sugarcane? sounds pretty mundane, doesn’t it?

When Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral  and his crew stumbled upon Porto Seguro and claimed the Brazil territory in 1500 in an attempt to find a new sea route to India for precious spice, what they saw was a vast but undeveloped land and natural resources. At the end, Portuguese did not find desired minerals as they had hoped for and instead brought and established successfully an empire of sugarcane which is indigenous to tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia.  In fact, for the subsequent 100 years, Portuguese, along with the Dutch, monopolized the exports of sugar to Europe.  Even today, Brazil is still the top sugar producing and exporting country of the world.  It is not surprising that one can find sugarcane infiltrated into fabric of life and heritage of Brazilians.  However being the only Portuguese-speaking country of the Americas, we are also reminded constantly who were the ultimate victors and dominant colonial powers. 

Copacabana Beach at Night
A visit to Brazil would not be complete without seeing Rio de Janeiro.  It was Brazil’s capital from 1763 till 1960 when the brand new city Brasilia was built anew and became the capital.  From 1815 to 1821 Rio was the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves after the Portuguese Monarch exiled to Brazil in 1807 when Napoleonic forces captured Lisbon.  With the beauty like the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, rainforests, morros, and hills, it is one of the most scenic cities in the world.  

Panoramic View of Rio from Corcovado
The best panoramic view of the Rio can be seen from the granite peak of Corcovado (hunchback)
Christ the Redeemer
Jaca Fruits
mountain where the 100 ft feet tall (excluding the 31 ft pedestal) sculpture of Jesus Christ - Christ the Redeemer stands in a welcoming gesture with open arms.  For its international fame and popularity, there are many local jokes about the gesture. My favorite is the one that claims there is another Christ statue in Brazil whose hand points towards to the Christ the Redeemer.  That Christ is quoted to be asking Christ the Redeemer do something about the chaos and misery in Rio.  Christ the Redeemer, in response, opened his arms in resignation and said “what can I do?”, thus the gesture.  Nevertheless with a territory comparable in size to the United States and a 200 million population, Brazilians did manage to have the statue win the title as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.   The 20 minutes tram ride to the top of Corcovado is very pleasant and relaxing.  Along the way, one travels thru the Tijuca forest and can see from time to time the ridiculously large Jaca fruits, the largest tree-borne fruit of the world.  

The other popular scenic attraction of Rio is the Sugarloaf Mountain, so named for its appearance.   At almost 1300 ft high off the peninsula in Guanabara Bay, it takes two cable car rides to reach the peak from the shore with a transfer at the lower Urca mountain.  The view up there is breathtaking as well.

Sugarloaf Mountain, seen from Morro de Urca
In contrast to Buenos Aires, Rio’s demography is a lot more diverse.  Historically, compared to other countries in the Americas, Brazil was the largest “importer” of African slaves with a total well over 3 millions (compared to an estimated 645,000 to United States).  With no land and no jobs when slavery was finally abolished in late 19th century, these freed slaves gathered and settled in bairros africanos that evolved to the slums interspersed on the hills now known as favela.    Despite repeated government attempts to eradicate them, favela (now officially renamed “community” by Brazilian government) has been growing in cities like Rio with mostly black and multi-racial residents). 
The obvious deeper problem is a social-economic one.  Brazil, while enjoying being one of the fast growing nation of the world for some time, has had also one of the highest parity of and widest gap between rich and poor of the world by various measures including the well-known GINI coefficient and the ratio of the average income of the richest 10% is to the poorest 10% (at 51+ compared to 16 for U.S.).  In Rio de Janeiro, about 1 in 5 now lives in a favela and for the nation, about 25% although services and life in favela arguably have improved.  If taking the newly available favela tours is too much for you, watching the 2002 Oscar-nominated Brazilian movie City of God will definitely give you a dramatized sample of life there.  

When Argentina and Uruguay were busy inventing tango from their Spanish and African heritage in poor the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Samba dance and music of African and central European origin became popular in Rio de Janeiro and other parts of Brazil.   Today, this highly rhythmic and dynamic music and dance is the most well-known cultural icon of Brazil, thanks partly to the highly publicized annual Carnival of Brazil, 40 days before the Easter and one of the most exotic regular public parties of the world.   The 90,000 capacity 2,000 ft long cement Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí in downtown Rio de Janeiro is a major tourist attraction that always appears on TV worldwide during the Carnival.  Numerous Samba schools with strong local and favela ties compete in parades with their costume, music, and dance, stretched over several days and nights till you drop dead. 

If you don’t want to, or can’t be in Rio at the Carnival time, you can still get a pretty good idea of it at one of those Samba shows that are catered to tourists.  Compared to Argentina Tango which is seductive and dramatic with elegance, Brazilian Samba is sexy, colorful, and full of raw energy with sustained high frequency hip movements.  The contrast is also evident in the music and instrument as well.  Here are some photos from a show at the Plataforma, a popular venue in Rio. 
In the same show, we also saw a performance of the fascinating Brazilian martial art called Capoeira that is a mix of fighting styles/forms and acrobatics, danced to music.   As much as I would love to claim that all martial arts came originally from China, there is no evidence that is the case with capoeira which can be traced back to African slaves with native influence as early as in the 16th century.   Its theatrical display of the skill and masculinity made it quite popular and sometimes can be seen on the streets in American major cities.  Below is a very nice presentation of capoeira I found on Youtube.

Everyone knows the national sport of Brazil is soccer (or fútbol).  The 85,000 capacity stadium Estádio do Maracanã, a major landmark of Rio, is currently undergone renovation in preparations for hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.   You can see and feel the pride, confidence and optimism from Brazilians as they walked out of the shadow of the horrifying inflation of the 80’s and 90’s, became one of the largest and fast-growing economy of the world, and earned those honors.  When Maracana was built to host the 1950 World Cup, the official figure of the attendance (many standing) was nearly 200,000 for the final game when Brazil lost to its rival Uruguay.  You can find many of the superstars’ footprints (or handprints for the goalies) from Pele to Ronaldo, on the one of a kind Maracana’s Walk of Fame.

Don’t miss Churrascaria when visiting Brazil if you are a meat eater.  These Brazilian steakhouses offer wonderful buffet and all you can eat meat where skilled Passadores (meat waiter) continuously and tirelessly come to serve you at your table with knives and a skewer until you surrender with a red card/flag.   On the skewer, it is strung with cut of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, or even pineapple (which tastes surprisingly good).  Don’t miss the delicious palm heart which is the bud of certain palm trees and gave you a temporary relief from the heavy texture and BBQ’d meat.  The real cure though is Caipirinha, the Brazilian national cocktail made with cachaça (sugarcane liquor at about 50% alcohol), sugar and lime.  Can you think of a better way to help Brazilians to consume the abundant sugarcane they produce every year?  OK, ok, I know Brazil is also the largest bio fuels producer and leader of the world using sugarcanes.

Well, our two weeks vacation is coming to an end; time to go home to shovel the snow.  Talk to you soon!

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