If you are flying down to Rio for the Games, Nicholas Storey, who has called the place home for almost a decade, urges you to look for the real country behind the headlines. Read our insider's guide to what to see and do in Brazil
Follow The Field’s guide to what to see and do in Brazil if you are heading there for the Olympic games. Nicholas Storey, who has called Brazil home for almost a decade, suggests the best way to experience the real Brazil, not the one that makes the headlines.
For more on Rio 2016, read about the athletes making up Team GB shooting. A diverse but hugely dedicated group, they will all be aiming for gold.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL
Despite my profound love of England, I always wanted to explore the people and places of the world. I also had the wish to throw off my shoes, kick over the traces of urban living and write on a tropical beach. One day, someone mentioned that his son lived in Brazil. “Brazil!” my wife and I chorused; we surfed the net enthusiastically.
Brazil was “discovered” by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, who entered the harbour he called “Rio de Janeiro” (River of January) in January 1500. He colonised the land, exploiting its natural resources of timber and minerals. The indigenous population was gradually enslaved. Supplemented with African slaves, they tended the crops of sugar cane and coffee.
Even before the slaves were emancipated by The Golden Law of 1888, miscegenation between the Portuguese and the other races had begun, partly as a way of spreading Roman Catholicism. Brazil remains the biggest single population claimed by the Church of Rome. The result is a country with an extraordinarily diverse genetic mix. This has been added to by spates of further immigration from countries such as China, Japan, Korea and the Lebanon. Such a rich racial tapestry seems to be the cement in the Brazilian sense of nationhood, the depth of which may be measured by their devotion to the country’s football team.
We soon found a website advertising property for sale and it led us to the house in which we live now, in Saquarema, about 50 miles north-east of Rio de Janeiro in the Region of the Lakes. The lakes are actually giant, sea-fed lagoons between the feet of the mist-topped mountains, with their jungle (Mata Atlântica) and our house on the strand.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL: EATING AND FISHING
The worst thing is to run out of English tea, which we have sent or buy in Rio. The food has never presented a challenge. Besides churrasco (barbecued meat), the staple diet here is beans (feijão) in a rich sauce, with rice and meat or fish and maybe with spaghetti and potatoes or cassava as well. Feijoada is beans with meat, normally pork; this was originally thought up by the slavers for their slaves. The variety of fish is fabulous, including shellfish and imported, dried, salted cod (bacalhau). Farofa is a toasted manioc flour, which is sprinkled over dishes.
The grass-fed beef is excellent but lamb is quite unusual. Pork products are plentiful and feature in various bean dishes. Fish (and sometimes meat) is often prepared in a moqueca sauce, which is a rich, yellow sauce based on coconut milk and palm oil, with tomatoes, onions, garlic and coriander, all cooked slowly.
Rhea is a kind of small, South American ostrich and is being domesticated for the table; it renders a healthy meat, low in fat. Snack bars sell savoury and sweet pastries, as well as pastel, which are little fried pasties with a variety of fillings. For pudding, crème caramel (pudim) is enormously popular. Brigadeiro is a round, chocolate bonbon, rather like a truffle. Quite a lot of Brazilian restaurants sell self-service food by weight. The national drink has to be the Caipirinha, featuring cachaça – a rum spirit made from sugarcane in which are muddled crushed lime and sugar; other fruits can be used and there is a version that substitutes vodka for cachaça.
One of the things to see and do in Brazil is fishing. Fishing of every kind is big in Brazil, even amounting to a default activity in coastal towns where adroit beach fishermen can take 70 red snapper a day. But Brazilians don’t seem to hunt anything else; if you want to shoot more than clays, you will need to head down to Uruguay. However, off the coast of Canavieiras, between Salvador and Vitoria, are to be found some of the world’s largest blue marlin (up to 500lb) and idyllic fishing conditions, best between September to December. There are also wahoo, dorado, tuna, amberjack, sailfish and white marlin (to book a trip, go to: www.majesticmarlin.com.br).
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL: THE CREATURES OF BRAZIL
Australians use “possum” as a term of endearment but these primitive, marsupial creatures, which outlived the dinosaurs, are very strange indeed. One of the things to see and do in Brazil is watch out for the possums. They move slowly and will make a clicking sound and bare their fangs if they feel threatened. They also use them. I once found a cat aged about four months in our courtyard with its throat ripped out and fang marks. There are tiny marmosets, known here as micros, which are quite tame and will climb onto our verandahs and take a banana from one’s hand.
At certain times, there are dwarf minke and humpback whales with their calves just off the beach and also dolphins and even orca whales that, despite their man-killer reputation, I have seen swim harmlessly by, a hundred yards away from people in the sea. The sea birds are enormous; the frigatebird has the largest wingspan to bodyweight ratio of any bird (up to 7½ft) and the skuas dive like arrows for fish, in and out of breaking waves. The beach hosts diminutive burrowing owls, quarrelsome plovers, sandpipers, sea eagles and albatross, which, although apparently silent, make even black-backed gulls look small. The cliff swallows seem to know that they should be nesting under the tiles on the seaward side of our house and barn swallows are naturally attracted to the landward side.
There are various snakes, including venomous, true and harmless mock coral snakes. Our sheltered courtyard is home to a colony of golden orb weaving spiders, their webs made of the strongest natural fibre; weight for weight, it is stronger than best steel. Our mornings and evenings are often brightened by a flashing, luminescent humming bird (beija flor, the “kiss flower”); the powerful, melodious song of the little house wren – a long way from the gorgeous macaw – or the loud, urgent cry of the social flycatcher, here called the “bem te vi” (the “good to see you”), from its call.
In the remoter parts of the lagoons there are small cayman alligators. However, the greatest danger here is the dengue mosquito, which carries “break-bone fever”, of which there is a mild and a potentially fatal type. There is no vaccination – or cure, except rest – and the stronger type can result in death from internal haemorrhaging. Prevention is better than cure and we avoid leaving standing water in which they could breed.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE CLICHES
Most of the clichés about this country and what to see and do in Brazil have at least some truth about them, including reports of extreme violence in certain favelas and Peter Fleming’s girls with bold eyes but, outside the big cities, in my experience, Brazil’s poor reputation is over-written. We have been told off by Rio policemen for looking too smart but, thankfully, Rio muggers seem to be fazed by striding people in London clothes and, by the time that they have “clocked us”, we are gone.
However, I was once attacked by a knife-man in our Sleepy Hollow. One dark Sunday evening I went to get cold beers from the little bar and, returning through a drizzle, saw a tall, thin man almost obscured behind a lamp-post, with a rusty bicycle at his feet. Passing him, I realised that, possibly thirsty for cold beer, he had decided to come after me. He moved fast and tried to grab me around the neck but I defeated this; he then lunged at me with a knife and nicked my back. I dropped the bags of beer and shouted at him in English but my sandals were slippery from the rain, which meant that I could not do much. He had not gone away and still had the knife, so I threw a bottle of beer at him. He dodged it and then, as I reached for another, he ran comically to his bicycle and sped off. I felt curiously unmoved by it all, possibly because his assault had been feeble.
Moreover, in the spirit of the place, had he just asked me for a beer, I would gladly have given him one. Thankfully, in nine years, that is our only direct experience of violence. However, here too prevention is seen as better than cure and houses are often walled and gated and the gates are kept locked. There also seems to be a decided feeling that trespassers deserve whatever they get.
Some degree of recklessness is often evidenced against red flags along the beach, and we have seen several people swept out by ferocious rip-tides and then rescued by the firemen. Sometimes, they are not saved. However, I often wonder whether it is recklessness or fearlessness that governs the Brazilian spirit and where is the line between them? I have seen workmen, supported only by their feet under rails, leaning out over drops of 40ft or more to nail wood on verandah overhangs and there is a small boy of maybe seven who takes this splendid, great white horse on the beach. He has a rope halter, bare feet and no hat or crop. He certainly has no fear. Yet he is plainly this creature’s complete and beloved master. Whether he is mounted or not, just by command of voice and gesture he makes the animal rear-up, make pessades and do exactly as he says . Then he rides him joyously up and down the beach, before he washes him down in the sea and takes him home.
Brazilians are not great drinkers, even if some do drink weak lager for breakfast and, apart from the defeated and the dispossessed, I do not think that I have seen any Brazilian fighting drunk and have only once seen youngsters pushing and scruffing – over a girl. They are excitable but seldom aggressive, will help anyone in trouble and a smile is always preferred to a frown. They love queues, which turn into social events, and they burst into detailed conversation with strangers; once, waiting on a seat in a bank, the elderly woman next to me handed me a sweet and told me, very fluently, the opening chapters of the story of her life.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL: CARNAVAL
Carnaval (note the Brazilian spelling) is the highpoint of the calendar here. It is not an event confined to Rio de Janeiro or even to Brazil, as it is a form of the extended celebration of the Mardi Gras of the Roman Catholic world; “Carnaval” derives from the Latin for “farewell flesh”, denoting a feast before the fast of Lent. All towns and cities throughout Brazil have their own celebrations, often arranged in blocos or blocks of buildings, which vie with each other for best costumes and musical and dance performances and it all goes ahead, come rain or shine. However, the parades that take place in a permanent arena, called the Sambódromo, in Rio and other cities, are a world-famous spectacle, for participation in which selection and training and rehearsals take place throughout the year. Besides lacking the preparation and size, English summer village carnivals and the Notting Hill carnival in West London obviously do not share the religious significance.
Samba is, first and foremost, the typical Brazilian music because it is associated, worldwide, with Carnaval. However, there are many other types of music, often involving fusion between European, African and Amer-Indian styles: forró, lambada, bossa nova, funk, Brazilian rock and rap. In the Sleepy Hollow, a band arrives on a Sunday evening and people congregate in large numbers around a little bar and stage and dance the forró under the moon and stars into the night. This is not some “shake-it” dance but a gentle, partnered dance, drawing on European folk dances, including the polka, and many Brazilians can dance this from a young age and carry on doing it for as long as they can stand up.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN BRAZIL: FINDING THE REAL BRAZIL
Time really is nearly empty of meaning here and the cult of deferring toils to the morrow is strong, although the pleasures of the present are certainly to be savoured. The disregard of time can be either a tremendous release or a terrible frustration in planning what to see and do in Brazil but, especially bearing in mind the friends that we have made here, overall, in the English lyrics of Ary Barroso’s famous song: “Brazil, Brazil… For me… For me… Brazil.”
If you do come flying down to Rio, please look for the real Brazil when you are planning what to see and do in Brazil, outside the cities, and don’t just follow the tourist trails. And, by all means, do drop by Saquarema. Everyone knows where the mad gringos live.