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.

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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How to dress for Travel

When I dress for travel, I throw aesthetics out the window right away – no matter how good you look at the beginning of your trip, you will never look good after 24 hours of transiting, so I don’t waste effort on that.* Your loved ones will be happy to see you no matter what, and you’ll have a better trip, and be ready to go faster, if you traveled comfortably. So, keeping that in mind, here are my travel suggestions on what to wear:

1. A baggy T-shirt

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Think the type of T-shirt that you would wear as pajamas. You want a T-shirt that doesn’t have buttons that can dig into you. You don’t want to wear anything lighter than a T- shirt, because they don’t exactly have a long time between passengers on planes, and you never know who/what was there before you – thus, its best to minimize contact with the plane seat as much as possible. But, since you can’t control the plane temperature, you may need to strip down to just the shirt to avoid excessive sweating. The T-Shirt being a little bit big also helps it breath.

2. A hoodie with a zipper front

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Again, since you can’t control the temperature it may get a bit cold – the hoodie helps with that. While I try to avoid zippers as much as possible while flying, you won’t know if your plane is too hot or too cold until you are a little bit into your flight, and its awkward to get up, disturbing your seat-mates to remove a pullover, but the T-shirt underneath should help protect the zipper from digging into you in any event. Ideally, the the hoodie will have pockets to hold onto those items you need immediate access to (that you don’t keep in your backpack), and can double as a pillow/blanket if you want to sleep. The pillow they give you on the plane is meant for your lower back to make the seat more comfortable, not for your face.

3. Running tights and compression socks.

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Tights are useful, but can be a bit revealing without more
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Compression socks, also known as diabetic socks, can be found at almost any pharmacy

For long flights, there can be a risk of blood clots or other issues when you sit too long. If you are young/not diabetic, you likely don’t need to be too concerned, but running tights and compression socks still help avoid the muscle ache in your legs that comes from sitting for too long – I’m not saying there will be none, just less. The tights and, especially the compression socks, are specifically designed to encourage blood flow. If you are diabetic, these are a must, since circulation becomes more of an issue, and flying halfway around the world can test anyone’s limits.

4. Sweatpants

Tights look a bit too revealing without anything to cover them, but jeans/slacks have strong zippers, and buttons that can dig into you when you sit in a cramped seat for long flights. Sweat pants breath and help regulate your body temperature, but most importantly are designed with comfort in mind. Ideally, you’ll want ones with pockets again (like your hoodie), but it is not necessary, because your backpack is for items needed on the plane. Storing items in your pockets just makes your clothing less comfortable, hoodie pockets are better for that anyways.

5. Wear a hat

A hat is useful in case you want to sleep and its still bright out. Even if you have a window, there is a good chance someone else’s window will be open and the light will keep you awake. Or, what if your seatmate isn’t able to sleep, so decides to read a book, and turns on the overhead light. Your best solution is to have a hat that will at least dim things for you.

Common mistakes

6. Don’t bring a coat

Depending on your dropoff/pickup you can just have someone bring your coat (that is how Minha Namorada and I handle it). With trains/taxis/ubers you will probably only have a couple minutes of extra cold weather in the worst scenarios. Coats take up lots of luggage space, and believe me, you’ll regret wearing it on the plane, especially once you get anywhere south of Canada.

7. Comfortable shoes don’t matter

You won’t be standing, you won’t be walking. So, it doesn’t matter if they are your most comfortable shoes. Save space in your luggage by wearing the shoes that take up the most amount of space – for me, that’s usually my dress shoes.

8. Use your backpack unless you immediately need an item

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Backpacks can be a lifesaver on long journeys

When you are waiting in line at the airport, then it makes sense to use the pockets (to hold your wallet, tickets, passport etc.) but after the transaction, return the item to your backpack. It helps you remember not to lose things (since you put them away immediately), but it also avoids you getting jabbed by something in your pocket. Otherwise, follow good backpack practice.

* Minha Namorada (my girlfriend) thinks you can look good and travel, but I would rather the extra 1% of comfort.

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.

Cabin Baggage for the Professional Traveler

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The most important part of flying comfortably is to pack correctly – you want to have one carry on bag, that is almost exclusively used for items you will/may need on the plane itself. I say almost exclusively because lost luggage does happen, and its good to have clothes for your first day with you, so that you can still go out before they get your bag returned. You’ll want the following items:

1. Paperwork – Passport, Visa, any other paperwork you need at any point in your flight shouldn’t ever leave your side. The same is true for your travel insurance paperwork, which could be needed at any point in your travels.

2. Cellphone – download the airline’s app, as well as a few shows on Netflix/other streaming service, and music/podcasts. You can’t always download these when in flight, and the airport’s WiFi is always a bit tricky. Bring charging cables with USB end, and an adapter for USB/North American (most airplanes have both outlets, but my experience has been that one is always out of order). Ideally you’d also bring a Brazilian/North American adapter, but those are expensive in Canada, and are better purchased in Brazil.

3. Cellphone Charging block – this is your backup in case both outlets are broken. Most I find can’t keep up with the battery drain from heavy use, but even so, it will significantly extend your battery.

4. Cell phone stand – a lot of airlines have gone to providing in-flight entertainment through personal cellphones. It makes sense, because they don’t have to pay to maintain the hardware, but it can be uncomfortable for long flights. You want a dedicated cellphone stand, that raises your phone up slightly – this way you don’t have to have your neck bent down at an extreme angle for the whole flight. You don’t want it too high, as that risks the phone falling and breaking, but a small distance makes a world of difference.

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This is the cell phone stand I use

4a. Laptop – personally I find that a laptop is a bit cumbersome on the plane, and I actually prefer to watch shows on my cellphone with the stand, because the seats put you so close to the laptop, but to each their own.

5. Headphones – ideally, you’ll have two sets. One earbud style, which is useful for those airlines that only allow this style during takeoff and landing. The other ones you want are Active Noise Cancelling, Over-Ear style. These can be found for less than $100 on Amazon, and are well worth the money. Its a risky purchase online, because youtube videos don’t do them justice, but the trick is to search for 3 star reviews where the complaint isn’t something that bothers you. You don’t need the expensive ones that cancel out all noise, as long as the low-beat of the airplane engines is drowned out, you’ll be able to actually enjoy in-flight entertainment, and sleep much better. These have completely revolutionized flying for me.

6. Candy – If you have trouble sleeping on the flight, a big sugar rush right after the in-flight meal will lead to a sugar crash and may help you nod off to sleep. Having a beer before/on the flight helps with this too.

7. Cash/Card – not everywhere will take card, and not everywhere will take cash – bring both, so you can buy something if you need.

8. Gum – if you have problems with the takeoff and landing, gum can help, although I prefer to just hold my nose and swallow to equalize pressure to avoid the headaches.

9. Medicines – if you need to take them, obviously bring them with you.

You don’t want to bring much more than this with you on the flight, because if the flight is packed, you might have to put your bag under the seat in front of you, and a full bag will take away the precious little leg space you have. Additionally, you’ll want space in your bag for Duty Free purchases.

Journal Day 7

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My final day of my first trip to Brazil landed on Good Friday, and so it was a family-oriented day. One important lesson I learned that day was just how important family is to Brazilians. There is a stereotype of latinos having large families, and while Minha Namorada (My girlfriend) doesn’t have the largest immediate family, the closeness that she has with her extended family more than makes up for this. Her cousins act more like siblings, with her Tia (aunt) and Tio (uncle) were just as welcoming to me as her parents had been.

I remember when I was young sitting around the table with my extended family, my grandfather and uncle laughing, while everyone talked with everyone at once – participating in five or six conversations at once, always eager to jump into another. It is one of my most cherished memories of my family’s farm. As much as my portuguese didn’t allow me to participate in the conversations as much as I would have liked, that was the feeling I got as I sat around the table. The love of a family that are just happy to be in each other’s company. And I was not excluded for even a second, from the very beginning, I was family.

I did come to learn why Brazilians tend to drink more espressos, as I’ve never been one to turn down coffee (especially wonderful Brazilian Coffee), but it was not a good idea to have a mug in a hot apartment. I thought I was sweating before I had my coffee… A second cup was a close-fought battle between my taste buds and my sweat glands. But, I can say that I don’t know how anyone ever cooks a big meal in Brazil, because I would immediately grow to hate the excess heat from a stove or oven – I bet toaster ovens are big there.

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How was I supposed to resist?
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This is a picture of my sweat glands after the coffee

In the evening, we went to get ice cream, which brings me to another point. Brazil is not good for diets, as Canadians tend to think of cold treats as good for cooling oneself down in the heat, and Canada doesn’t tend to get so many extremely hot days.  The cold protects us from indulging too often, because its not healthy to eat those every day, but in Brazil we lose that natural protection.  This is not to mention that Nordestino (Northeastern) Brazilian fare is heavy in cheeses and breads.

All good things must come to an end, and so it was that I concluded my first (but certainly not last) trip to Brazil.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Occasionally I get asked questions about other South American Countries by my readers, so I thought I might write an article to answer a little bit about Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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In Buenos Aires there is a wonderful Hop-On Hop-Off Buenos Aires Bus that has stops all across the tourist locations. They book for 24 or 48 hour tickets, so if you buy at 3 p.m. one day, you can use it until 3 p.m. the next day. They also have audio descriptions, available in various languages, of all the places you visit.

Our hotel was in the neighbourhood of Palermo, which has a bunch of bars and restaurants nearby that are easily walkable. We wouldn’t recommend you stay downtown, because there isn’t much to do at night without taking a Taxi (which are inexpensive), and it is a little less safe than some of the other areas.

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Bleff [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
Some recommended places are:

Caminito – which is a very beautiful neighborhood, very colourful houses and buildings, great for pictures, and has a bunch of nice restaurants. It doesn’t have a lot else to do though, so you won’t want to plan a long time there.

Jardim Japones – a Japanese style garden, very picturesque.

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Teatro Colon – a theatre, again great for pictures inside, even if you aren’t going to a show. They have guided tours. This was Meu Sogro’s (My father-in-law’s) favourite spot of the trip.

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Cafe Tortoni – a dinner and tango show. The more famous one is Senor Tango, but both are nice, and Cafe Tortoni is a little bit cheaper.

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Delta Do Tigre – we didn’t make it here because of the timing, but they have boat trips and is well known as one of the best spots in Buenos Aires.

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La Bombonera – if you like Football, this is where Maradona played. This isn’t the best neighborhood, so take the tour bus there and don’t travel around the neighbourhood outside the stadium. Don’t make any disparaging comments about Maradona there, as Meu Cunhado (my brother in law) almost got punched for making a joke.

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gabriel_12 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D
Floralis Generica – has giant artificial flowers that bloom in the sun, and close at night.

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Some other places that are very popular, but I have reservations about:

  • Cemiterio da Recoleta – a very famous cemetary, absolutely gorgeous, with many famous Argentinians.  But, it is a bit odd to go on vacation to a cemetery.
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Christian Haugen [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
  • Zoo Lujan – a very popular zoo outside of the city, where you can get close up with many wild animals for pictures. However, while they deny giving the animals any sedatives, there is a lot of controversy because clearly many of the pictures wouldn’t be safe to take without some sort of tranquilizer in the animal’s system.

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Blmurch (in Commons and Flickr) [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D
Travel Tips:

  • Water is very expensive, buy it in a supermarket and bring it to your hotel/with you.
  • Wine is cheap though, often we found it was cheaper than beer.
  • As always Sunblock is super important, you might even want to use Blistex with Sunblock because the sun is extremely powerful there. A sunburn on your lips is absolutely horrible.

Thanks to https://abackpackingjourney.home.blog/page/1/ for the great blog post idea!