São João – the unknown Brazilian Festival

Brazil is well known in Canada (and North America generally) for Carnival, even to the point that some stereotypes of Brazil tend to focus on some traditional samba dance wear due to its association with some Carnival celebrations.

However, one of the other big Brazilian celebrations is nearly unknown outside of Brazil, that festival is called São João, also called Festas Juninas.

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Sao Joao is a festival mainly held in the North and Northeast, but can also be found in the interior of São Paulo and other large urban centers. It started as a tradition imported from Portugal associated with St. John the Baptist, whose has a Feast day in June, leading to celebrations throughout the month, and sometimes even into July.

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One major part of the tradition is the lighting of a fogueira (a bonfire) on Saint John’s Eve (June 23rd), which is symbolic of the fire lit to tell Mary of the birth of St. John.

This holiday has now become a celebration of the rural life of farmers  (called Caipira – this word has similar associations to the redneck or yokel though, so they can use it to refer to themselves, you cannot), with boys dressing up in straw hats and plaid shirts, while girls dress in country dresses and pigtails.

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They dance in “Quadrinhas” (think square dances – even the music is surprisingly similar), and the festival celebrates the fertility of the land by hosting a mock wedding as the centre of the Quadrinhas.

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A mock wedding from São João, called a casamento matuto

Common midway games from North America are also found at the festivals, including mock “fishing” for prizes, ring/dart toss, and three-legged races. One-legged races are also popular stemming from their association with the Brazilian folklore surrounding Saci – a Brazilian prankster genie, who grants wishes to those who trap him or manage to steal his cap.

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Saci by André Koehne [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
Essentially, when trying to imagine Sao Joao, think of the Calgary Stampede, with a less rodeo, and a lot more emphasis on country dancing, and you’ll get the gist of it.

Learning Portuguese – Initial Observations

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve now been learning Portuguese for about two years. It is difficult learning a new language, although I still think my progress is going well. But, here are some of my initial observations from when I started learning.

The best way that I’ve found to learn Portuguese is on the Duolingo app for your phone. The lessons are short (15 questions), and there is significant gameification to make it enjoyable, and it slowly builds upon itself. Don’t bother with Duolingo Plus, it is a waste of money. The main benefit of it is the offline mode, but, honestly, how often don’t you have internet connection? Regular Duolingo just requires you to start the lesson when you have internet, you can go offline during the lesson without any issues, so, even an intermittent internet connection is good enough.

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From the start, it’s important to acknowledge that learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect to learn useful phrases right away, for those you should look for a tourism phrase book. Learning a language is a lengthy process which takes dedication and commitment. Duolingo will teach you unusual phrases, and these actually help you remember the words better, but gives you very little useful knowledge at the beginning. It takes time before it all starts to click together.

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You will learn a lot of pronouns, which are useful, but you will almost never hear them used by native Portuguese speakers. Portuguese tends to just use the conjugation of verbs in place of its pronouns. Learning the pronouns will help you to learn how to conjugate words, and will help when you are speaking. They will allow others to understand you even through the (doubtless) grammatical errors of a newbie to language.

Add don’t get upset if your initial progress slows down. Portuguese is very similar to Spanish and French, languages which many North Americans have a fair amount of exposure. This helps a lot in learning the language, as you’ll already have some basics, but you will quickly exhaust those stores of knowledge. You might think that you’ve plateaued, and that can be disheartening, but its actually that you are now at a normal learning pace. Keep going through it, and you’ll eventually hit other milestones as the rules and phrases start to click.

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Note: Duolingo doesn’t have a progress chart like this, but it should.

 

 

Keeping Hydrated – Water in Brazil

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Everyone knows keeping hydrated is important, but it is easily missed in Brazil (and other tropical areas). This can easily ruin a day or two of your trip, and given the low amount of vacation days Canadians get, you don’t want to lose any of them to easily avoidable situations.
On the left is what you think of when you order water at a restaurant, but on the right is what you get.
Now, to be clear, tap water in Brazil (in most places) is perfectly safe to drink. I know a lot of Canadians think all tropical places have unsafe drinking water, but this isn’t true. In addition, not everywhere in the USA has safe drinking water (for example – Flint, Michigan). Brazil actually has great water purification systems in place in urban areas, and you don’t need to worry. That said, everywhere you drink water, you’ll find it comes in bottles. Tap water is never drank, even in homes, partly because of prior times when it was not as healthy, and partly because their method for purification leaves an odd taste that some people don’t like. Always stop at a grocery or convenience store to buy water if you are staying in a hotel – the hotel will charge more than double the price for half the water, and there is no point in wasting money on water. Feel free to brush your teeth or rinse with the tap water, but the taste is bad enough that you won’t want to drink it straight.
The main problem with tap water not being served is that, like in Canada, restaurants and bars always charge for bottled water. This, combined with the cheap beer/drinks makes it easy to forget to drink water. I have often caught myself dismissing ordering water, because I think “well, if have to pay either way, I might as well buy beer”, and this is even easier do when sometimes (although rare) the beer is cheaper than the water. However, you’d be wrong to do this. As everyone who has ever had a hangover will tell you, drink water is essential. This is even more true in hot tropical climates where you will spend all day sweating. Drink water, and drink it often. I try to make sure to drink water at least one in four drinks, if not more.
Also, it isn’t expensive to buy water even at bars, as the exchange rate works heavily in your favour, but the price is close enough to Canadian prices it will trick you – three Brazilian Reals for Water sounds expensive, until you remember that is only one Canadian dollar. If I told you you could get a beer and a glass of water for four dollars Canadian at a bar, people would be lined up out the door. You need to view the price of buying the occasional water as part of the price of the beer you drink. But if you really can’t get yourself over the knee-jerk reaction of refusing to pay for water, buy it at a grocery store earlier in the day. Water at a grocery store isn’t even expensive in Canada, and it’s much cheaper in Brazil. For a dollar, you can get a large bottle of water to take on your travels. Drinking from it regularly throughout your day will go a long way to keeping you hydrated. Ideally, if you really want to avoid a hangover, you would do both.
That being said, if you do get a bad hangover, or fear one coming, I personally find a water and a Gatorade right before you go to sleep, and another right after you wake up is a good home remedy to keep the hangover to a minimum.
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Journal Day 8

Fast forward seven months, and its my next trip to Brazil. In the meantime, Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had grown much closer, we spoke every day on WhatsApp (video calling is a godsend to long distance relationships), and she had spent a large part of the summer with me in Canada.

This time, I felt much more comfortable walking into her home after a long flight, smelling terrible after 24 hours of travel, and craving a shower – this was a big sign of how welcome her family had made me feel from day one of my first trip. We didn’t hang out too much at her home though, as Minha Namorada wanted me to see the Sunset from downtown and so whisked me away after just enough time to stretch my legs and say hi to her family.

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The couple just ahead of us were speaking in English – it seemed they couldn’t understand each other in their native languages, so they used English as a universal language.   

While I did get some beautiful views, we missed the sunset by about five minutes. Downtown João Pessoa is beautiful though, as I’ve mentioned. It used to be the richest neighborhood in João Pessoa, and the architecture reflects that, but large swaths of downtown are now abandoned. The rich having moved to the coast to be right next to the ocean. Being unable to resell these properties for their values, they have now been long abandoned, and an uneasiness has settled around the downtown core.

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This is not a safe place to be at night, although during the day there are still many tourist attractions worth checking out – just start early, and leave after sunset. That being said, there are still busy bars downtown, so its not all parts that are unsafe. The basic rule is of safety in numbers still applies. If you want to go at night, make sure to check with your hotel if its a night where one of the downtown bars is having a large gathering, and then Uber directly there and back.

Downtown even has a thriving Chinatown community, where everything seemed incredibly similar to a China Town in Canada that, if not for the language. My first trip, I had barely seen any foreigners other than myself, and there are definitely less in Brazil than in Canada (for example, Japanese and Chinese restaurants tend to be staffed by ethnic Brazilians), but there are still lots of expats in Brazil. This trip, my suitcase had broken a wheel, and we went downtown to get it fixed – that is another lesson I liked from Brazil, there is a much stronger emphasis on fixing things that are broken, rather than just throwing them out and buying new. For 45 Reals (about 20 dollars) my suitcase was as good as new.

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Hot Temaki – my mouth waters just thinking about it.

I also insisted that first night that we have one thing I had been craving since I got back to Canada from my previous trip – hot temaki. Brazil has taken the wonderful taste of sushi, and they deep fry it in batter similar to chicken-strip batter, and it is one of the best tasting (and horrible for my waistline) foods that exists.

Porto de Galinhas

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Porto de Galinhas started out being known as Porto Rico, which means port of riches. However, when slavery was outlawed in Brazil, Porto De Galinhas continued to allow the importation of “chickens” (read: slaves) through the city, and the name stuck. Unlike many cities with not-so-glamorous histories, Porto De Galinhas acknowledges its history and has taken it back. The chicken is now a symbol of cultural significance and pride in the city.

After playing spot the chicken for about ten minutes, we realized that it would have been easier to try to find places without chickens, they were everywhere.

Porto de Galinhas has a thriving downtown, but oddly, the downtown is only busy from about 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. I’m not sure what there really is to do in the city outside of those seven hours. The first day Minha Noiva (my fiancee) and I went, we got there a bit late (around 8 p.m.), and while there were still many people there, by the time we had walked the length of downtown it was clear the crowd was slowly dispersing. I do wonder if it might be busier on a weekend (we were there Monday-Tuesday), but other cities (like Pippa) are busy regardless. When we went there the next morning around 1 p.m., entire streets were empty with the stores not opening until 2, although there were a few restaurants open to accommodate the guests of the many cute hotels right in the heart of downtown.

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Porto De Galinhas is a fairly popular tourist spot
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This was just a random Tuesday night in Porto de Galinhas, but it was decorated for a party all the same
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We could tell the crowd was already starting to wind down

However, Porto de Galinhas is very much centred on tourism, and you will find lots of signs in English, and all the restaurants had english-language menus (although I personally try not to use them too much, so that I can continue to improve my Portuguese). Porto de Galinhas is also a less expensive city, with good deals on shopping, and inexpensive food.

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Downtown Porto De Galinhas was surprisingly empty during the day

Outside of downtown Porto de Galinhas, however, there are many resorts and beautiful homes. We stayed in a resort named Viva, which I would highly recommend, although there were many others to fit all sorts of vacations. At ours, it was something called “half-board”, which meant ours breakfasts and dinners were included, but lunch (which is the main meal in Brazil) we were on our own. I liked this style, as it allowed us to try different foods throughout the trip, but also we could also be lazy and just walk in to the restaurant first thing in the morning, and at the end of the day. There is a lovely little bike path that connects all of the resorts to downtown, so you don’t have to worry about getting around.  The hotel was clearly aimed at both families and couples, having a bunch of stuff for kids to do, but also having locations where couples could have romantic meals alone.

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One of my favourite locations next to Porto de Galinhas was the Praia de Carneiros (Sheep Beach), which is located on a beach of an ocean inlet, and has a lovely church on the beach. The church is so close to the ocean, that at high tide ten steps should take you from the front door of the church to the water below. The water is not deep near the church though, with people able to walk more than halfway out towards the other side of the inlet before switching to swimming. The church is a common stop for all of the boat tours of the area (which are surprisingly expensive), and there are even horse buggies that take you back and forth from the church to various resorts along the beach.

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Igrejiinha de São Benedito (Church of Saint Benedict)
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Its so close to the water
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You can see just how flat the ground is the whole way across the inlet
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The horses in hats that take you to and from the Igrejiinha de São Benedito were one of the cutest unexpected things I saw on this trip

 

Recife Revisited

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It must have taken us fifteen minutes to get a picture without anyone else in it.

So, this past trip I went to Recife again, in hopes that I would learn to appreciate the city Meu Cunhado (my brother-in-law) calls home. Long and short, I still don’t like the city, but I found some gorgeous parts.

Now, one important thing you will notice in Recife is the heat – unlike many coastal towns in Brazil, Recife grew too big too quickly, with large apartment buildings all being built right along the coast. While this is nice for those who live in those buildings, this is poor city planning. The large apartment buildings block the ocean winds, and the entire city suffers from higher temperatures as a result.

However, the city has tried some other ways to actually improve the gentrification and prevent the poor from being pushed out of their homes. Basically, they have attempted to prevent there to be as many designated favelas (read: ghettos) as compared with the affluent areas. Instead, even right across the street from a very expensive apartment building, there will be some housing that looks as though it is falling apart. However, I don’t think this has created the intended effect, as you can easily see that the decrepit houses still have volvos and other expensive cars parked in their driveways – simply disallowing the building of new, expensive housing doesn’t prevent the rich from pushing out the poor.

This is also true of businesses, where right next to expensive looking bars, that would not seem out of place in Manhattan, there will be very run-down bars that won’t generally feel safe. Even the tourist areas are not well separated, and while Recife has a booming tourist culture due to Carnival, I got the impression the rest of the year it does not get many visitors and isn’t as safe. My guess is that it is similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where the city changes completely for a few days every year. I also don’t know how it manages anything during Carnival, as the traffic was bad enough without an additional couple hundred thousand tourists. Although, from the pictures I’ve seen, I doubt many people drive during Carnival.

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The Streets of Olinda during Carnival

Oddly, attached to the City of Recife (similar to how Kitchener and Waterloo are attached), is the much smaller city of Olinda, which was absolutely gorgeous. The streets there looked beautiful, and were reminiscent of Dutch streets, with little bars and cafes that looked beautiful, and even the poorer looking houses seemed pretty nice. Olinda’s downtown has actually been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this seemed like a perfectly wonderful place to stay – even not during Carnival. If I was going to Recife for Carnival, I would stay in Olinda, and go to the parties there.

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This house is exactly how I picture dutch houses
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Olinda from a bit further out, you can tell they get a lot of rain in this city.

Downtown Recife does have some absolutely gorgeous churches and locations that are worth exploring during the day, although parking can be an issue. As is common in many places of Brazil, the free parking is controlled by individuals who charge money to watch over your car – they will ask for 10 reals, but it can be negotiated down to 5 fairly easily (although sometimes you have to say no and get back into your car before they reduce their price). While the parking is free, you really need to pay this money or your car might get broken into – I don’t like it, but such is the downtown of Recife. There is some convenience though, as they will help you find a spot (sometimes moving their own car to give you a space), as well they will help you get out of your spot despite the bad traffic – so, its annoying, but not horrible.


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The historic downtown from which the City grew
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This tower marks the oceanside edge of Recife across from the historic downtown, and was created by this one family of locals who have spent generations developing the city into a cultural hub.

The Golden Church in downtown Recife

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In traditional baroque style, the gold encrusted portions tell religious stories, which is contrasted with porcelain or marble sections which tell stories of science and natural events.

We went into another church that was attached to the Golden church, which had a completely different style (it seems common in Brazil that old churches were often connected to one another), and it was filled with some (creepy) statues recreating scenes, but far more interesting was the contrast here in materials. The marble/porcelain stone they had placed in the wall here had actually been imported from Portugal, with exact stonework being removed from the walls to place the marble, and it told the biblical stories instead of being used to show the distinction from science.

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Biblical scenes created in marble
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Here you can see the accurate stonework necessary for them to place this marble exactly right.
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It is hard to tell, but the depiction at the front of St. Francis’ stigmata is three dimensional
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I realize what they were going for, but these just seem like creepy statues to me
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Again, I’m sure they didn’t intend for this to look so creepy
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I really wouldn’t want to be here at night.

Journal Entry Day 6

Day six in Brazil, Minha Namorada (My girlfriend) and I had to go to Recife for Meu Cunhado  (My brother in law) to attend a Concurso.

Now, as a first thing, Minha Namorada and I are not yet married (although we are engaged, so sometimes you will see me refer to her as Minha Noiva – my fiancee).  So, it may seem a bit odd for me to refer to her brother as Meu Cunhado.  However, it is common in Brazilian Culture to refer to the significant other of a family member, even if not married, as if they were married.  Accordingly, Minha Namorada’s parents refer to me as Genro, and I refer to them as Sogro (father in law), Sogra (mother in law), and Cunhado (brother in law).   Some Canadians may be a bit scared by this, especially those who are afraid of commitment, but I found it very wonderful – from first meeting them, I had a place in their family.  I guess that’s more of a reflection of how I already felt about Minha Namorada than anything else, but it also felt so welcoming.

Now, a Concurso is a public competition for a job.  Think of it like any Canadian Federal Government job – usually there is a test involved, and a few interviews, and you are ranked against a number of other candidates with the top candidates getting the job.  These also tend to be the best jobs in Brazil, so it was important that Minha Namorada and I support Meu Cunhado in attending his Concurso.  This threw a wrench in our plans for the week, but as I told Minha Namorada, this was clearly important, and all I really cared about was spending time together, so I didn’t mind at all.

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RioMar, Recife

We drove out early, dropped off Meu Cunhado, and then we decided to spend the day at the mall while we waited to him, not knowing how long it was take.   The mall was very pretty, with very similar stores to what you’d find in Yorkdale or any other Canadian Mall).  Being tired though, I thought it would be a great time to explore Brazilian Coffee.

The first thing I noticed was that almost no store in the mall served brewed coffee or Americanos.  Even dedicated coffee shops almost exclusively served espresso.   I found this frustrating, but I realized it does make sense.  In a hot climate, you don’t want something warm to sip on for awhile – you want something that will get you the same effect but smaller so it won’t warm you up, hence the reason for the espresso.

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The other thing I realized is that coffee was surprisingly expensive in the mall.  After seeing how inexpensive I could find beer in places, I was surprised at how expensive coffee was relatively speaking.

Eventually I decided that the Canadian in me wouldn’t be satisfied with an espresso, so I elected to go to McDonald’s for a brewed coffee – banking on that McDonald’s is basically the same all around the world.  However, this turned into an adventure in itself, as Minha Namorada and I experienced a very hostile employee.

  1. First we were told they didn’t serve coffee, despite it being on the menu.  Luckily, the manager was walking behind the employee, overheard, and corrected the employee.
  2. Then we ordered, and the employee wouldn’t take credit card, because he said the internet was down.   We didn’t have enough cash, so had to leave and come back (the bank being a 10-15 minute walk to the other side of the mall).
  3. Then when we came back, we tried to order the coffee (along with other breakfast items), and we were told they didn’t have change to give us from the bill.  We were paying with a $100 note (about $40 Canadian), for a meal of about $28 (about $10 Canadian), nothing unreasonable.
  4. Afterwards, we decided to directly approach the manager, who was clearly upset at his employee, who then said he had lots of change.   We finally got our order (which had two wrong items the manager fixed for us), and left.

Now, I could have very easily been turned off by this experience.   The employee gave me many dirty looks, and it was clear he gave us trouble because I wasn’t Brazilian.  In fact, he even explained his actions to his manager that Minha Namorada just hadn’t understood him – presumably, not realizing that Minha Namorada is Brazilian.  However, this was a complete one-off situation.  I met countless other Brazilians on my trip who were excited to practice their English with me, or had large amounts of patience as I attempted to speak to them in Portuguese.   I just felt bad that this guy must have had a bad experience some other time by a foreigner to make him dislike me, and it just increased my resolve to show good manners as a guest in Brazil.

Surprisingly, Meu Cunhado finished his concurso shortly after we had our delayed breakfast/lunch, and we headed off to pick him up.    We went out to celebrate him finishing the Concurso (it is important to celebrate finishing BEFORE you know the results – so everyone can celebrate, that’s what Chartered Financial Analyst’s do in Canada).   I won’t tell you the results of the Concurso, because that is Meu Cunhado’s story to tell, but I will tell you that the restaurant we went made a giant Risotto for us, and between the four of us (Meu Sogro, Meu Cunhado, Minha Namorada and myself), we ate enough “servings” for six, of which I probably ate half.   The food is just so good in Brazil.

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I ate probably four times this much