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

Recife

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Sandro Helmann [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I will freely admit that I did not get a good first impression of Recife. My first time in Brazil I flew into Recife, but the airport, and highways out of town (we were staying in João Pessoa, 1.5 hours away), are near some favelas that are not nice. In addition, I had just flown for over 24 hours (including the layovers). I felt a bit uneasy about Recife, and Minha Noiva (My Fiancée) even apologized for the part of Recife we were in, and told me not to judge Brazil by that area. To be clear, it is not all of Recife, just the area by the airport and the highway out of town that was a little bit rundown. There is also a bit of a city rivalry between João Pessoa and Recife (think Toronto-Ottawa, Calgary-Edmonton, or Montreal-Toronto), and with Minha Noiva’s family living in João Pessoa, I have to be loyal to her city. My trips to Recife have always had a specific reason, rather than simply enjoying what Recife has to offer. My next trip will involve a lengthy stay to see the sights in Recife, and I’m hoping to change my opinion of the City.

That being said, Recife is actually a very well-known city in the Northeast of Brazil, being one of the three biggest locations for Carnival in Brazil (the other two being Rio de Janeiro and Salvador). Despite Carnival not starting until February, events begin in Recife in November or December, and even that early tourists start to arrive.

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A bloco party on the streets of Recife Raul [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
They regularly have indoor-outdoor block parties you can attend (called blocos) and random live shows either outside, or inside bars – remember though, like many cities in Brazil, if you are in a bar and a band starts playing, you may be expected to pay something towards their compensation. It is worth it as Brazilian Music is wonderful, but just be aware.

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A frevo dance and music performance Prefeitura de Olinda [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As a major tourist destination, there are lots of English on signs and in malls – one of the most unusual sights I saw was a Ben & Jerry’s, where all the signs were in English, except for the actual names of the Ice Cream, which were still made up of English puns.

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Praia de Muro Alto Cleferson Comarela [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
Recife is named after the reefs just off its coast, so you can imagine that it has some beautiful beaches. However, you need to be careful in the water there, as the reefs are not coral reefs, and so the beaches do not have the same protection from sharks that other beaches along the Brazilian coast have. Attacks, while still rare, are more common on the beaches here than in other locations. In fact, surfing has been banned on the beaches of Recife specifically because of the risk of shark attacks, and swimmers are specifically warned by many beach signs to avoid swimming beyond the reefs. Personally, I stay on the dry land.

Journal Entry Day 1

Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had met the previous summer, and she’d even come to visit me over the Christmas holidays in Canada – arriving on a freezing cold day in Toronto when we broke a fifty year old record, but that is another story.

I had flown from Canada on a ‘milk run’ through the United States, and first arrived in Sao Paolo. As with most countries, I went across the border and through customs in Brazil in the first city I landed, São Paulo, it was a simple process because I had done my research ahead of time, and then I had a short layover before heading to Recife. I was actually worried I would not catch my connecting flight initially, because of a long line for checking in, but luckily there were many signs in Engliish. Following them, I saw that there was a second check-in tucked away in a corner, specifically for connecting flights, and where there was no line.

I had an uneventful flight to Recife, which is the State Capital of Pernambuco, just under two hours away from Joao Pessoa. Then I was back in the loving arms of Minha Namorada – I won’t bore you with the romantic details, but she was a sight for sore eyes.

Recife is not a city that I have visited much, or that I particularly like, and the route we took out of the City did not help. I’m sure it has many beautiful areas, and I’m sure it actually is a nice city, but if you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ll understand how I could have accidentally seen only the bad portion of the City.

Baggage comes out much faster in Brazil, which was refreshing. One time I was standing waiting for my bag for ten minutes, and staff actually came to check on me, because it was so unusual – that time was my own fault, I followed someone I thought was on my flight, and ended up waiting at the wrong carousel.

My first stop in Brazil was at a place in the airport called Casa Do Pao de Queijo. Pao Do Queijo is one of my two favourite Brazilian foods, the other being Carne De Sol but I had yet to try Carne De Sol. Pao do Queijo, however, is common at Brazilian Steakhouses in Canada, whereas Carne De Sol is not.

After a quick snack, we were off to drive to Joao Pessoa. The countryside in Brazil was very beautiful – the part between Joao Pessoa and Recife has a number of hills, and some beautiful sugar and pineapple farms. Coming from Western Canada, as I do, I found the similarity and yet differences between the farms so interesting – also, I had somewhat forgotten that Pineapples grow in the ground.

We arrived in Joao Pessoa, and that’s when I got to meet Minha Namorada’s family. Sweaty and smelling from a long day of travel, I was welcomed with open arms. Her brother was excited to see me, and had been practicing his English specifically so that we’d be able to talk, and with a small group of people they very kindly spoke slowly and waited for Minha Namorada or her brother to translate for me so that I could respond, as at this point I basically spoke any Portuguese.

Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, and so Mass is an important aspect of life. We went to a service on Saturday, as we wouldn’t be able to make it on Palm Sunday (it was right before Easter). Services in another language are difficult to follow, but they do give you a handout to read, and at least some parts (like the Lord’s Prayer) always have the same rhythm, so I did my best. Like many places in Brazil, it a very open building to allow a breeze, but it was still very hot.

We then went to see Minha Namorada’s mother, who is also lovely. She and I spoke through Minha Namorada and Google Translate (make sure to download Portuguese for offline use ahead of time), and we had fun.

Prior to arriving in Brazil, I had heard many of the stereotypes. First and foremost was the crime. I did some actual research, and while the crime rates are high, it is largely confined to the Favelas. Crime statistics are sometimes misleading, Acapulco in Mexico hass the third highest per capita murder rate in the world, but no one thinks twice about going there for Spring Break. If you stay out of the Favelas, then the crime rate drops significantly. There are Favela tours which some people go on, I do not. While there is debate about Favela Tours themselves, sufficed to say, they are just not for me.

However, one thing that is initially unnerving is that every building you see will have a wall. It is unnerving in the same way that it is unnerving when you see security at airports in The Netherlands carrying machine guns – why would they have them, unless they need them? But what I realized while sitting on the apartment patio, right next to the (relatively) low wall, chatting with Minha Namorada’s mother, is that a large amount of the reason for the walls are that they are a form of security theatre. I do believe it helps to make a big show of security, as it deters some would-be criminals or crimes of opportunity. Obviously, you shouldn’t take stupid risks, but that’s true of anywhere, and ultimately, I felt perfectly safe in Brazil after that night.

We then went out briefly to a bar, again it was wide open with an extended roof to protect us from the rain, and we relaxed with two of Minha Namorada’s friends. A lot of the bars have live music, and you should be aware that if you stay to listen, they’ll come around and ask you to pay a small fee to the band – essentially a cover charge, but one that comes alongside your bill at the end of the night. They play lovely music, often Forró, which is a big in the Northeastern culture, and it is definitely worth the money to experience such a riveting part of the culture. The cost will be a minor amount anyways – less than a GST/HST charge, which Canadians are used to anyways. Remember, the exchange rate is heavily in your favour.

I was tired after travelling, and while I am probably better at sleeping on a plane than most, we called an end to my first day in Brazil.