26 May 2014

Rua das Pedras

When my husband Mark and I came to Búzios 12 years ago, we used to walk up and down the Rua das Pedras, or Stone Street, in the evening and say to each other, "Guess we’ll be walking up and down this street for the rest of our lives." This is in fact not exactly the way things have panned out. But, first, what exactly is this Rua das Pedras, or Stone Street? And why would people walk up and down its short length, saying its name in such hushed, awed tones? Well, the Rua das Pedras has been to Búzios what the Boardwalk has been to Atlantic City, what the Via Veneto has been to Rome, what Fifth Avenue has been to New York, and so on. With allowances for scale, obviously.

The Rua das Pedras is a pedestrians-only thoroughfare of extremely irregular paving stones — hence the name — fairly dead during the day when the locals are working and the tourists are at the beach but lively bordering on the frenetic in the evening when the beaches hold no allure and people on vacation are looking for a good time. Most bars, restaurants and stores on the Rua das Pedras don’t even open in the afternoon, let alone the morning. They tend to open around six or seven and then stay open, the stores included, well into the wee small hours or, as they say here in Brazil, until the último freguês — in other words, until the last customer is ready to call it quits.

Getting crowded . . . time to go home!
Actually, the Rua das Pedras was never where any resident of town would be found during the peak of high season or on holidays, when Búzios was packed with visitors and the Rua das Pedras was reminiscent of a subway car anywhere in the world at rush hour. But in low season, which is more than three quarters of the year, it was great. You’d run into your neighbors. You’d run into your friends. In other words, the ratio of locals to visitors on the street would be high. You’d sit down with people, impromptu, and have a drink. Sometimes you’d have two drinks, three drinks. Those were memorable evenings.

So what happened? To simplify, two things. One, Brazil got rich. Or at least a middle class popped up virtually overnight, and people who used to scramble to make ends meet at the end of the month all of a sudden had money to spend on pleasures. Two, thanks to the glamorization of Búzios in a prime-time soap opera, thanks to the press and the town’s own promotional efforts, Búzios came to be the place people thought of first when arranging their once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

The Rua das Pedras got kind of dumbed down. The unique Rua das Pedras institutions — the crazy Takatakatá Bar (run by an even crazier Dutchman), the Czech adventuress Brigitta’s tropical chic restaurant, the old Pousada Colonial with its restaurant serving excellent homemade German sausages — have all disappeared. The brand-name chain stores came in in their place. A few of the old-line places, like Sonia Persiani’s Cigalon restaurant held on stubbornly, but increasingly the commerce on the Rua das Pedras was hard to distinguish from what is encountered in a Rio or São Paulo shopping mall. As for the serendipitous and usually extremely agreeable encounters with neighbors or friends, well, our neighbors and friends aren’t going down there in the evening any more than we are. And, to the extent that any of us are still going down that way, we’re not running into them. We’re all lost in the crowd.

The old Takatakatá Bar, with its papered-over windows, the better to hide what went on inside!

Brigitta’s Guest House and Restaurant, once a Búzios institution

Fortunately, other places to go in the evening have come into existence and one of them, the Porto da Barra, is no more than a ten-minute walk from our house. But it’s actually not just Búzios that has been through a sea change these past 12 years. Mark and I have also changed. We can’t handle those three-caipirinha evenings anymore. Don’t sleep well. So even if the Rua das Pedras had not changed one iota, we would probably still have given up our nightly strolls to stay snug at home, re-watching old Hitchcock movies.

19 May 2014

24 Days to the World Cup

One fine specimen, this Fred . . .
It’s official! The Brazilian 2014 World Cup soccer team has been selected! World Cup fever — always high in Brazil  — is now in overdrive, given that this year it's Brazil that's hosting. It's all World Cup, all the time, on television, on the radio, and splashed in newspaper headlines. But the question begs, at a mere 24 days to opening day, will this super-young, super-cute (if not outright handsome, I mean just look at Fred!) team have any stadiums to play in? Will their hotels be ready? On second thought, forget the Brazilian team, which will be as coddled as a team has ever been. For that matter, forget all the soccer teams, because FIFA has special, hand-picked employees in charge of the players. It’s the fans we should be worrying about. Will visiting fans, both foreign and national, be able to negotiate the airports? Will they find their way around the cities? Will they be okay?

One angry Blatter
FIFA has been badmouthing Brazil for months now, at the same time that they are apparently enjoying the highest profits EVER from a World Cup event. Life is full of such contradictions, right? FIFA’s president, the grumpy (but rich) Joseph Blatter, has harsh criticisms about all the stadium delays (four out of twelve stadiums have still not been completed), and he has gone as far as to blame these delays on the "sluggishness of the Brazilians." He really hit hard on this issue at a recent press conference, particularly since Brazil had — count them — seven years to prepare. Okay, hard not to concede his point. Blatter also criticized the lack of safety for the workers at the various stadium construction sites, and made sure to relieve FIFA of any responsibility for the ten deaths that have occurred. (By the way, have we heard one word, one whisper of a possible criticism on FIFA’s part about the 1,200 workers that have already died while building stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup?)

So where are we? We’ve got FIFA withholding 7% of ticket sales because they have no idea if the seats they’d like to sell will actually exist. (Installation, or rather, non-installation of seats seems to be the abiding problem at the four incomplete stadiums.) We’ve got FIFA unable to conduct the usual and necessary tests of lights, cables, communication setups, Internet, security preparations, food services, bathrooms — in short, everything that has to be tested before opening to the public. FIFA is livid. Want to move on to airports? We’ve got some beautiful new terminals, but if you peek behind the curtains you see roofs that leak, air conditioning not yet working, unfinished parking garages, no lobby seating areas (what is it with Brazil and seating?) . . .

One of Brazil’s most respected and award-winning journalists, Míriam Leitão, wrote a scathing article in last Sunday’s Globo. She wrote that a country should be going after two wins when hosting a World Cup, the game championship itself and the unparalleled opportunity of being a showcase to the world. Míriam gave sharp and well-reasoned opinions as to why she thinks Brazil has already lost its showcase opportunity, and is now merely "patching up its damaged image." The best Brazil can hope for now, she continued, is the actual World Cup trophy. That was one depressing article. But who knows? Maybe Brazil will actually pull it off. Just a few more days and the whole world will have the answer.

No stadium seating? There's plenty in the lakes!
And even though Brazil has not yet f@#&ed up the 2014 World Cup, people are already writing off the 2016 Summer Olympics as a terrible disaster. Rio de Janeiro is waaaay behind in its preparations. Just as one example, one of the solemn promises Rio made to the Olympic Committee was that it would clean up the lakes in Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepagua (where most of the Olympic events will take place). But these projects haven’t even begun. We’re 806 days out, and word is that even if they were to begin working today they wouldn’t be finished until after the Olympics. Here we go again.

12 May 2014

That End-of-World Feeling

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the mini-metropolis of Cabo Frio, immediately next door to the much smaller and much more cosmopolitan resort town of Búzios that my husband and I have been living in for 12 years. But suppose you pass through downtown Cabo Frio, you hang a left at the traffic rotary where the VW dealership is, you pass the campus of the Estácio de Sá University (with its main entrance looking kind of like a Las Vegas convention hotel), and then you continue on, cleaving as close as you can to the coast, through the increasingly high sand dunes on either side of the increasingly sand-swept road. What do you come to next?

What you come to next is the town of Arraial do Cabo, most of which — same as Búzios — is situated on a peninsula extending out into the South Atlantic. A map will show the way these towns line up in relation to each other in a nanosecond. But you could also just think of Búzios and Arraial as the two front claws of a crab, with Cabo Frio as the crab’s useful, but slightly ugly, snub nose.

I really love Arraial do Cabo. Or maybe I don’t . . . I’m never sure. I wish I could resolve this in my head. We started driving down to Arraial back in the early months of our sojourn here when we were still in that hey-what-do-you-think-is-over-that-hill? mode. On one of the principal beaches we found and embraced a funky restaurant called the Narcose Dive Bar, where we were once gifted with a Narcose Dive Bar plate that has served us ever since as a soap dish. Next door was a surprisingly good Arab restaurant, with great hummus and great baba ganoush and tabouli, and every time we went in the owner would pump us as to whether we thought there was a market for a similar place in Búzios as well. That was always entertaining.

The main thing about Arraial, though, is this one very special spot at the top of the great mountainous formation called the Atalaia, which means watchtower or lookout, way out at the very end of the peninsula. Stand there and look down at the ocean churning underneath you and you get that incredible feeling of being at the very edge of the known universe. Beyond it . . . nothing . . . except, somewhere far off to the east, Namibia. This is a feeling I know from only three other places in our world, the Pointe Ste.-Barbe out at the westernmost tip of France (in the department of . . . well, they don’t call it Finistère for nothing), Sagres in the southwest corner of Portugal’s Algarve and Ushuaia at the bottom tip of Argentina. But people who have been in South Africa tell me that there are places where you get a similar chill there. And I’m sure that there are dozens if not hundreds of other such places around the world. But this one is ours.

On the dizzying approach . . .

Once on my birthday we checked into a pousada in Arraial, even though it’s not more than an hour from where we live. The idea wasn’t just to give me a treat, the ostensible idea was that we’d be able to go out and have dinner at one of the more serious Arraial restaurants, wash it down with a drink or two, and not have to risk a breathalyzer on the way back. But the birthday was really just an excuse. Arraial keeps pulling me back, and I think it’s that end-of-world feeling up on the Atalaia that’s most responsible, that feeling of standing right at the edge of the abyss, which is frightening and exhilarating, depressing and seductive; it’s 45 minutes away and on occasion, it’s just too chilling for speech.

For those who are interested, the remoteness of Arraial do Cabo is vividly caught in this short men-against-the-sea film from 1959. No titles, but you don't need them.

05 May 2014

Seriously Now — Where Would We Live in the USA?

"This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California, to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me."*

Two blogposts ago I joked about the difficulty that eventual repatriation to the United States might present. I said that one of the obstacles to moving back was just plain not knowing where in the U.S. a person would repatriate to. There’s a lot more serious truth in that than just the jokey attitude I took in the blogpost. Sometimes when it’s late at night, and friends with whom we’ve shared a few bottles of wine have left, and Mark and I are alone on our terrace with our nightcaps, we get to talking. "Let’s say we had to go back," the conversation starts . . . (By the way, the motive for returning is never spelled out in these hazy dialogues in the dark. Have to go back? Are we being deported? We don’t ever explore that issue.) Okay, back to where we were, under the influence of a little buzz. "Let’s say we had to go back . . . where in the U.S. would we go?"

We’ve read all the articles, like The Ten Best U.S. Cities to Retire To, The Ten Cheapest U.S. Cities to Live In and The Ten Most Beautiful Cities in the U.S. We recently read America’s Ten Most Miserable Cities, too, thinking what the hell, maybe we could get a great deal on property! Anyway, it’s a big country, and you’d think we’d have no trouble choosing a new home. We’d just be looking for some place affordable, where the quality of life is high, and where there is excellent medical care (we're getting on in years). A big plus would be easy access to an international airport, for I suspect a steady stream of Brazilian friends would start to visit immediately. What seems to happen, though, is that instead of coming up with some easy, obvious options, we end up thwarted by an exhausting process of elimination.

We can’t go back to New York, it’s too expensive, too fast, too stressful. And what would we do, spend the rest of our days going to the free movies at the Museum of Modern Art? I’m pretty adamant about avoiding snow and ice and freezing wind, so that rules out the entire top tier of the United States, including Alaska. Let’s see — I was born in Florida and that state always looks enticing, but Florida is hurricane territory. My mother’s stories of her standing at the front door with a shovel, killing snakes as they slithered into the house after a hurricane, still reverberate. California, here I come** is fun to sing, but do I really need to test my earthquake survival skills? We’re thinking we should also avoid the entire tornado belt running down the middle of the country. Hawaii looks promising, until you start thinking about tsunamis. Not much left to the United States once you consider weather.

Around Cathedral Rock, photo by Bo Montenegro
Years ago we took a car trip around some of the southern and south Atlantic states, just to see if anything grabbed us. Nothing did, but I suspect our hearts weren’t really in it. Lately, we’ve been talking about a similar trip around the American southwest. A Brazilian friend of ours lives in Sedona, Arizona, and his gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous photographs have stimulated our interest. (Check out more pictures on his Web site, http://www.bomontenegro.com) It’s very tempting, but there is that little problem of Arizona being a Red State . . . I don’t know. For right now, we’ll keep thinking and talking. We’ll keep on staring out from our terrace, which just happens to be in a place where the quality of life is high and where there is excellent medical care. There’s also pretty easy access to an international airport. So, wait . . . what’s the problem?

*Woody Guthrie, music and lyrics
**Buddy DeSylva and Joseph Meyer, co-authors