Twelve and a half years ago I glimpsed a short article in the Ayrshire Post, not a rag I used to read regularly but, as fate determined, I did that week. In this article the sympathetic writer was appealing for a local family to become host family for a Boy from Brazil who wanted to improve his English. Initially I just turned the page, as you do. I kept, however, going back to it. I had not long been separated. Travel had always been a passion but I could not afford to travel far with my three children, then aged 11, 13 and 15. So the notion developed that I could invite the world to Troon instead, in order to enrich their lives and mine. After discussions with the kids, I phoned up the contact number. They were delighted and it was quite obvious that no one else had considered the risk or rather the opportunity. We exchanged details and I received a form, filled in by the Boy from Brazil, complete with a grainy photo of him and his family. He seemed well educated with polite manners and a very good general knowledge. His name was Filipe Matias. He was 16 years old and wanted to become either an engineer or a diplomat. I wrote to him and sent photos but they never arrived. Eventually I picked him up from Ayr bus station on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September 2004.
Filipe went into 6th year in Marr College, the same school I worked in for most of my teaching career in Scotland. He was a big brother to my kids and we had some great conversations around the kitchen table. He enriched our family life and opened our eyes to another world out there. Somehow the world became a smaller place.During that year I lost a friend who implied that he was my toy boy. Her bad, as Filipe would say.
I was and still am Filipe’s Scottish German mother and that’s the way he introduced me to his wedding guests. I love him and am immensely proud of him. This has never been more true than during our recent stay with him and Renata, his new wife. Filipe has turned into a 29 year old man. We stayed with him and his parents during most of our stay and spent every evening together in a series of local restaurants, exploring the area. Filipe is generous and a fantastic host. He has a deep sense of responsibility; he is sincere; he is calm and well balanced; nothing much flaps him, a great problem solver. He is clearly a loyal and loving person. He is warm and loves to spend time with family and friends. He has ambition but puts family and his relationship first. He is head of heels in love with Renata. I just think he is perfect. God! I’m greeting writing about him! Since he left Scotland we met up again in Troon when his parents came over to Europe for the first time and then again at our wedding in 2014 when he and Renata made their way across the Atlantic to join us on our big day. When we received the wedding invitation, Roddy and I immediately said we would go –what an opportunity – and, after an 11.5 hour flight from Perth to Dubai, a long sleep in a hotel, followed by a 14.5 hour flight to Rio, we were met by Filipe and given a first impression of Rio.
I need to mention the Dubai to Rio flight. It felt like a bus! I have never been on a flight, never mind an Emirates flight, which was as lively as this one. The Latinos are just not as rule fearing as us uptight Europeans. Put down the armrest? Don’t think so! Fold up the tray table? Nah! Sit up and buckle up for take-off? Yes, but only until the stewardess is out of sight, then I’ll lie back down. The seatbelt sign is on during a bit of rough air? Who cares! Groups of people stood in the aisles and near the toilets, not so much to stretch their legs, afraid of DVT but in order to socialise happily and loudly. Only around 30% of passengers left the plane at Rio, the rest flew on to Buenos Aires. When the plane landed, all cheered and clapped just like on a Thompson’s flight. We loved it.
During our 20 day trip we mainly stayed with Filipe and Renata in Gávea, an affluent part of Rio Sur and next door to famous Leblon and Ipanema. The apartments there are the most expensive in Latin America. Many people have housekeepers and maids, as well as security staff in the foyers of the apartment blocks. Everyone lives in an apartment there as Rio is surrounded and squeezed by those impressive granite cone-shaped hill, just like the famous Pão de Açucar or Sugarloaf mountain.
Rich areas are next door to the poorest: Through the tunnel from Gávea is Rio’s largest and most violent favela, Rocinha. A few times I could hear gunshots from the balcony of the apartment. Despite the fact that we did not see any acts of violence or crime during our stay, we were told by everyone how dangerous the streets were, how likely we were to be robbed. So we mostly left bags at home. I wore no jewellery, not even my wedding ring, after Filipe told me the story of an uncle who was confronted by a street robber. The robber threatened to cut off his finger if the uncle was not going to hand over the ring. Unfortunately the uncle had become fat and the ring didn’t budge but fortunately the robber did, eventually. It was noticeable how no one carried any bags or jewellery and it even seemed strangely liberating after a while. I did take my Nikon with me when we went to touristy places such as Pão de Açucar or Cristo Redentor. Some places, such as the Botanic Gardens, are heavily secured by armed guards, so we felt quite safe there, too. The threat is real, though, and we met some, including Renata, who want to emigrate or move away from Rio due to the crime rate but also due to the very high levels of corruption. Some of the police are involved in corruption and even the last President is in jail, because he gave favours to the country’s oil producer in exchange for a lovely beach front house. The problem permeates all of society and politics, which makes some wish for military rule once more.
Roddy and I love exploring and Rio had so much exploring to offer to us. We kept our metro ticket topped up and used the busses extensively. We loved sightseeing from those local buses because you get so much more that just the sights – you see street life in all its shapes and forms and you experience ordinary Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) going about their business. As I speak Spanish I can deconstruct Portuguese quite well and Roddy picked up on it too – him being the Latinate scholartype. So we enjoyed eaves-dropping in on conversations around us.
Graffiti is evident everywhere in Rio and held a particular fascination for me as you might have seen on my facebook posts (See link at the end of the post). I think that graffiti gives a very tangible insight into the cultural and political vibe of a city and Rio is a very vibrant, dynamic place.
Another thing I noticed was the vegetation. Even in the city itself you cannot help but notice the tropical environment and the very rainforest nature of plantlife. Palmtrees are everywhere as well as jungly looking, huge trees on residential streets. Plants that I knew as the potplants of my childhood home grow outside here and were a fine reminder of the 1970s for me. There is a majestic replanted rainforest just at the back of Gávea, the 120 square km Tijuca National Park, which has lowered the temperature in its city neighbourhoods by 9 Degrees Celcius. Despite the dereliction, the industrial areas and the grime of city life, Cariocas know a thing or two about conservation.
Exploring a Catholic city, we expected to find evidence of devotion but we didn’t come across many Catholic shrines common in Mediterranean countries. People seem to have developed a pragmatic relationship to their religion. It is part of their lives and I am sure they believe in the will of God. The wedding ceremony, for example, was fully Catholic and all guests, apart from us, were fully familiar with all rituals. However, Brazilians are too sanguine, too full of life, to be restricted by their religion, so the carnal and the spiritual coexist happily. The original Portuguese settlers brought over African slaves who created those settlers’ wealth. In fact, Brasil was the last country to abolish slavery but apparently they were also more lenient than their counterparts in other countries. The Catholic Portuguese did not squash the Africans’ many religions. The slaves prayed to spirit ghosts and made offerings of food. To this day their influence can be seen everywhere. We saw plates of food left out in hidden places for the spirits, good or bad depending on purpose and need. Some were beautifully arranged with a variety of food, a cigar, a glass of some beverage and decorated with flowers. Madonnas are often dark-skinned and look more like a sexy gypsy version of Sophia Loren from a 1950s movie.
Despite the recognition of the blacks’ right to keep their own religions (which is more than can be said for some modern day missionaries’ evangelical ambitions) they are still, obviously discriminated against. Around 50% of the Brazilian population is black but the ‘Portuguese’ are still very much in charge. In the affluent areas of Rio, white faces are the norm and people are keen to downplay black or native Brazilian roots. Renata was very open about her joy to ditch her father’s name and to adopt Filipe’s Matias to add to her equally Portuguese name Cardoso. Her father even urged her to drop her Bezerra. In the run up to the wedding Renata also kept out of the sun in order to maintain her white skin. She was keen to avoid too much contrast between her skin and the wedding dress. This despite the fact that she loves the beach! How different to the Scottish fake tan or two weeks in Magaluf brigade!
Another religious observation: Driving past poorer looking parts of Rio on the way back to the airport, we saw many open doors exposing a bare, greenish LED lit room in which Assemblies of God took place. Mostly we would see one person standing with arms held aloft in front of rows of white plastic chairs with only three of four attendees glued to their words. Fascinating! In Buzios, a rich resort town where the wedding took place, we saw a congregation of the same church but this one was packed and full of very well dressed people, clearly awaiting an involving ceremony. Spirituality, it seems, is alive and well in Brazil.
Brazilian toilet protocol seems worth a mention. Imagine our surprise when we went to our respective toilets before boarding the cogwheel train up Corcovado, the large hill on which sits Christ the Redeemer, or Cristo Redentor, and sank into our seats! There is such a thing as a padded toilet seat and it proved to be fairly common. It is seen as the luxurious option. It felt alien to us, plus, I thought that, for the seat to ‘give’, air must escape which is then sucked back in after the job is done, ingesting with it airborne faecal matter – it must! Plus, being therefore porous, it must be hard to clean…. The German Hausfrau in me had a wee shudder. All that hygiene distraction aside, they are quite comfy, though. Another facet of toilet action is that the majority of Brazilians do not flush their paper as the plumbing is traditionally not up to it. This is changing, though, and now seems to be more down to personal preference so that some still put their paper in the bin even though their plumbing is sound. I will not name names as these things are a cultural matter but you live and learn!
When you travel, food is an adventure and one of the weirdest experiences was our taste of some red grapes. They looked like grapes, they were called uvas, which is grapes, but they tasted like cherry throat lozenges and had a jelly-like consistency underneath their slip-off skins. The oddest thing! Filipe thought that they tasted normal. We later found red wine that tasted exactly the same.
Beachlife! Of course I was keen to explore the famous beaches and with Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches at our doorstep, this was easy to do. Kilometres of golden sand stretched out along boulevards and framed by those iconic black and white patterned pavements. On Sundays they close the roadside nearest the beach so that whole families and neighbour groups sit in their chairs on the road and on the pavement whilst others promenade, rollerblade, scooter and listen to the fabulous samba and jazz bands. Others stand on the sand. Yes, they stand on the sand. Men especially do not sit or even lie. This was particularly obvious on the gay beach – as the beaches are so long, they are subdivided into sections and each section has a speciality. The gay beach was easy to spot as all men stood, like penguins, with no women lying in deckchairs. No one takes their towel to the beach. Some sit on Sarong-style cloths but the idea is that you just rock up. No one brings food or drink as there are numerous vendors selling all you can desire as well as rows of stalls and bars selling delights such as Açai, which is the frozen pulp of the now ‘superfood’ plant, and Caipirinha, a traditional cocktail made of sugarcane alcohol mixed with lime and ice. Some vendors carry with them tiny stoves containing glowing coals, on which they cook up a wee storm. Expensive apartment blocks grace the edges of Ipanema and Leblon but Copacabana is fringed by iconic hotels such as the Copacabana Palace. The water, though, was disappointing. Rio has 7 million inhabitants. The water felt a little bit oily and impure but, I guess, after being spoilt by WA’s crystal clear beaches with water coming off the Indian ocean, being a sparsely populated country and no oily industries off-shore, it comes as no surprise.
A warning! One thing that I loved was that all women wore bikinis! Young or old, thin or fat. The ‘presumptuous’ idea seems to be that everybody has the right to enjoy the beach as they please and no one has the right to tell someone else that they are too old or too fat for this or that. People seemed to be very comfortable in whatever bodies they were in and oozed confidence about their appearance. No hunched shoulders or crossed arms to hide the flab. A revelation and something I am contemplating! WA watch out!
Roddy and I kept busy throughout. We saw all the big sights: the huge Cristo, the Sugarloaf, the Lapa Arches, the new and the old cathedral, Santa Teresa, Centro, cemeteries, markets, several museums. We travelled on old trams, newer buses and the brand new metro. By the end of it we felt we knew Rio quite well and it’s definitely a city like no other and one that we would like to visit again.
During the week before the wedding, Roddy and I took ourselves off to a little island in Guanabara Bay, just off the Rio coast. Alina, our Scottish friend who used to fly the Rio route as an air-hostess in the 70s had recommended it to us. There are no cars on Ilha de Paquetá and it felt like a step back in time. I had found a great wee guesthouse, the Hospidaria St Bárbara. Run by two great guys, both architects, the rustic and romantic charm of the house made for a tranquil stay and we delved more into Brazilian culture through our interesting morning conversations with Leandro and Ricardo. We hired bikes and explored the island. I guess nothing has changed since Alina was there, just that the last horse has died and the horse drawn carriages have been replaced by bike taxis and electric bikes. The highlights, apart from the beauty of the island, the quaint houses and ages old dirt roads was the bird cemetery, the St Francis of Assisi chapel and the general feeling of peacefulness and friendliness for man, beast and bird alike. So after two days of silence we were ready for the highlight of the trip: the wedding. It took place in the beautiful house that Filipe’s parents bought only last December. It is in Armaçao de Buzios and we had been there for two days at the very start of our holidays. That drive was also the one that showed us Filipe the driver. When he was in Scotland he didn’t have a licence so I had no idea! Filipe is a mentalist yet being in the car with him also feels strangely safe. The official speed limit at certain stretches of the road was 80km but Filipe drove between 120-140km and always in the fast lane because, well, of course you would! We survived to tell the tale and on our second trip to Buzios we were driven by Marlene, Filipe’s mum. I must learn Portuguese because we just could not communicate. Speaking pidgin Portuguese on the street and in shops is one thing but you can’t hold a decent conversation so we felt we missed out on what would have been interesting conversations with both parents. Going to another country expecting the locals to speak your language is arrogant and irrational so this must be remedied before the next visit.
Buzios town and beach is like a tropical film set. It has cobbled streets and at night there are fairy lights everywhere. During the day it has that decadent tropical flair of light decay, brightly painted walls and sumptuous, large leaved greenery. The town is a tourist magnet and we felt honoured that Filipe’s parents reserved a bedroom for us in their own home so, just as in Rio, we were always connected with a real Brazilian home rather than an anonymous hotel. This also allowed us to be very relaxed about the day of the wedding as no travel was involved.
I have never seen so many flowers. Such opulence and generosity! There were 6 groomsmen and 6 bridesmaids, plus flowergirls. The wedding planner, Renata’s cousin, had a large team of workers who created flower displays, bouquets, brought in decorations and tables and chairs for 170 guests. The celebrant, another cousin, conducted a Catholic ceremony and it was beautiful to witness the two beautiful young people make their vows to each other. It was very emotional and heartfelt. A string quartet played on the lawn during the ceremony and a cool looking DJ played old and new tunes, some familiar, some of the Brazilian tunes not so much. By some chance we sat next to two of the bridesmaids , one of whom lives in Munich with her German boyfriend who was also there. Her German was perfect so conversation was easy. We had a great time and danced the night away. Roddy wore his kilt and felt much cooler when the sun went down. Due to his attire the photographers were on him like bees to honey and he loved it.
Rio de Janeiro has been one of the most fascinating cities both Roddy and I have ever visited and we both feel blessed and thankful to Filipe and Renata for inviting us to their wedding and into their home to share this special time with them.