From São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus, getting to know Brazil through its cities

When we landed in São Paulo, Brazil, little did we know that we were in for a five-month journey through South America

Sandeepa and Chetan Karkhanis October 30, 2016 08:41:53 IST
From São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus, getting to know Brazil through its cities

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part travelogue series on South America

A dismissive wave of the hand, a musical “Na da” follows every “Obrigada”. It has a ring of “Don’t be silly, saying your thanks and all — is that how you treat your friends?”

That was our first impression of Brazil, as we landed in São Paulo airport for a 5-month trip (we didn’t know so at the time) through South America. Right from the staff at the airport, who guided us perfectly well without a word of English to the airport express bus, a girl who let us use her mobile phone at the metro station — like what’s the big deal about giving your phone to two haggard (it was a 21-hour flight!) strangers, to Steven, who had agreed to host us in his home through the Couchsurfing network and was coming to pick us up at the metro station near his house.

A home to stay at and a family to stay with made it easy for us to absorb all the newness around. Also, the easy familiarity of São Paulo helped — a megapolis, the financial capital, home to 10 million and its fair share of the homeless — all the signs of “home” to anyone from Mumbai.

What wasn’t familiar was the street art. A narrow winding street called Beco do Batman (Batman’s alley — yeah, that’s its name!) in Vila Madalena has walls after walls filled with some trippy work from artists all over Brazil. “They are not just artists, they are all moralists — all their work has a message”, we were informed. Once an artist makes his work, that becomes his space, no one else can touch it!

From So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus getting to know Brazil through its cities

All images © Sandeepa and Chetan Karkhanis

While Beco do Batman itself is one big open air art gallery, all along it, are actual galleries exhibiting these artists’ works. What an ecosystem for art to thrive — use the city space to create your art — and earn your livelihood doing it!

They call São Paulo the cultural capital of Brazil. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise at all, considering one of the many museums (each day we’d hear of a new museum) is run by a bank! Brazil’s oldest bank started Itaú Cultural, to preserve the bank’s art collection and tell the story of Brazilian history.

They even have a museum for the Portuguese language. It isn’t one of those starved for patrons rundown shack. A plush multi-storeyed facility, in Luz — the grand old railway (and now also the metro) station in São Paulo — with interactive digital displays, touch screen kiosks, and auditorium. We saw people turn teary eyed when works of the Brazilian writers and poets were being read out. Such a wonderful, in-touch-with-the-present solution for preserving the national language.

Liberdade is the Japanese neighbourhood (the highest population of Japanese, outside of Japan is in São Paulo!). We went for its popular weekend flea market. A sight we remember from that market is this: in one of the stalls in this Brazilian-Japanese neighbourhood, an African origin lady was selling idols of Lord Ganesh to the French tourists!

If São Paulo was cosmopolitan, Rio de Janeiro was international. Where else would you see people from across the world congregate on a platform to take selfies with the Christ? Christ the Redeemer, standing high above the Corcovado mountains with his arms spread out, seems to be telling Rio: 'Go on, live life to the fullest, I have your back'.

From So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus getting to know Brazil through its cities

Or the Selaron steps, a colourful collage of what might be the biggest collection of tiles. These steps are covered with tiles from every country in the world. We wondered what we would find from India — and weren’t surprised to see the Gods!

From So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus getting to know Brazil through its cities

Our first visit to this city of sun and sand was a washout, however. It rained the entire week. All we got during that first visit was a glimpse of the Atlantic from the world famous beaches which make Rio de Janeiro world famous — Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. The exclusivity of the beach facing properties also increases in this order.

While one end of this beach life was for the rich and famous, the other was where the local Carioca hung out. Men and women — from 7 to 70 — with  fit, healthy bodies running on the beach in tiny shorts and tinier bikinis. Or using one of the many open-air gyms by the beaches. Or surfing and kiting. Even a yoga session. After which, you could energise yourself with a freshly made tapioca or a creamy chocolatey brigaderio. Even better — a bowl of sweet nutrition laden heaven — the açaí! And when done, rollerblade back home!  

We didn’t realise how much we had fallen in love with Rio, until we came back 4.5 months later, on our way out of South America. The moment we breathed in the air of Rio, it felt like we had come back home. We navigated the BRT system and the metro like we had always lived here. We were among the same friendly Cariocas, always eager to strike up a conversation; who, when asked for directions, made every possible effort to make sure you’ve got it right. Who dance wild on the streets of Lapa on a Saturday night — those girls with their stilettos and fast-paced samba with the potential to drive anyone crazy!

This time the weather didn’t disappoint. Many hours were spent in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, getting our last bit of tan from South America.

We had come a long way when we came back into Rio — by our only flight in the 5 months we spent on this continent. By a four hour flight, over an aerial distance of 4000 km, from Manaus. It is the capital of the state of Amazonas. If you look at Google Maps, it’ll show Amazonas covered in the darkest green. It is exactly what the name indicates — it is the Amazon rainforest.

Before getting to the Amazon, when we would look at the map of Brazil, Manaus would appear to be this city in the midst of the forest, far away from anywhere we knew how to reach. It felt like the remotest place we could get to.

Except that, we had got to Manaus, by a cargo boat, through the Amazon river. We had come from beyond the remote. After a few days in the cargo boats in the Peruvian Amazon, we had crossed the Amazonian border into Brazil. This was the remotest, laziest border crossing we had been to. A few more days in the cargo boats, and we had reached Manaus. So essentially, when we got to Manaus, we were coming back to civilisation — and to land — after a long long time.

The wonder of Manaus is based on numbers. It is a major port of South America. The goods imported into the port of Manaus go across the entire continent. And yet, this port is at a distance of 3000 km from the sea! In the heart of the Amazon. It is the farthest port from the sea, in the entire world.

The city itself, had no signs of the “Amazon rainforest” giveaway. Broad roads, flyovers, sprawling malls, commercial complexes, big hotels, and a sea river link — it has it all. To understand what this means — everything comes from over 3000 km away. By boat. Even now, Manaus doesn’t have road connectivity much beyond the state of Amazonas.

It was the birthday of Manaus the day we got there. We knew we were back in Brazil, by the way the celebrations were on. People had gathered in the main square. Friends, families — children, grannies et al. A live band was performing. People were singing, dancing, talking, laughing, and drinking beer. Once we got a bottle of Skol and a glass of caipirinha in our hands, we were comfortable.

Manaus reeks of old money. In the early 1900s, the Amazon rubber industry was in boom and Manaus became home to many rubber barons. They built grand houses here. The public buildings in Manaus also reflect this grandeur.

From So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus getting to know Brazil through its cities

The biggest symbol of this glory is Teatro Amazonas, the opera theatre. A guide giving us a tour of the theatre told us with great pride that it wasn’t any less than the opera theatres of Europe. From the red cushioned seating, marble pillars, wooden stairs, and delicate carved mirrors — it was almost a paradox, seeing it all right in the middle of the forest (A fact well concealed by Manaus!).

A city that doesn’t speak of old money is Curitiba, a city in the south of Brazil. It is a city which probably no one plans to visit. We ended up in Curitiba by a mishap. We had reached the São Paulo bus station after a blissful five days on an island. We wanted to head to the Iguaçu waterfalls, which straddle the Brazil-Argentina border. Visit the Iguaçu waterfalls, exit Brazil, and enter Argentina — that  was our plan. It was 10 pm when we stood in the queue for tickets to Foz do Iguaçu, only to be told that the bus was full.

We had to go somewhere, why not head in the direction of Iguaçu waterfalls, to wherever the buses were available? Curitiba turned out to be this “wherever”.

This was our chance to see a regular, non-touristy city in Brazil. At an altitude of 1000 meters, it is one of the highest places in Brazil, and the coldest it gets here. At 5 am, the city welcomed us with chilly pangs. A warm cafeteria, cups of coffee, and tickets to Foz do Iguaçu later, we deposited our bags in the cloak room and set out exploring the city.

From So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and Manaus getting to know Brazil through its cities

Big red buses — that’s the first thing we saw when we stepped out. Curitiba has one of the best public transport systems in the world. Spanning around 70 feet, with three compartments, they are the longest buses in the world. That, and urban planning — Curitiba is a textbook example for architecture students globally.

Public spaces are dominated by parks. On that crisp winter afternoon, we saw many locals come out for a run. Older people were using the open air gyms. These parks were all well maintained and clearly a huge part of the daily life of the Curitiba people. Gyms and yoga houses — they were everywhere we went that day. In Curitiba, people did take their fitness seriously!

Like the southern parts of Brazil, Curitiba is mainly “white”. Parts of the city are old Italian and German neighbourhoods.

We had read that people here were less friendly than in northern Brazil. Hesitantly, we asked a group of people in the park about a bus we could take to get around. They discussed this among themselves. Then a lady who knew the bus, walked us to the bus stop, waited for the bus to come, gave instructions to the driver, told us what to tell him in Portuguese (just in case we needed to communicate), and waved us good bye only after we were safely in the bus!

If this is less friendly, well, we’ll take less friendly!

Sandeepa and Chetan are full-time travel bloggers and photographers. You can follow their work here. They've been travelling long-term since 2013.

Read parts two and three of the South America travel diary here.

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