I spend a lot of time in a commercial kitchen surrounded by hot ovens that often have the room temperature hovering around 100 degrees, definitely an attraction during this frigid winter. When it gets that hot and the sweat is dripping off me I think of a March trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – or, as the natives spell it – Brasil.
As it is mid-winter here now, it is mid-summer in Rio. The hot, humid, daytime highs over 100 have everyone on the beaches in as few clothes as possible. Office workers change into immodest little swimsuits to hit the beaches mornings, over lunch and after work. At night, miles of beaches are lighted, with pickup games of volleyball and football played on courts laid out in the sand.
At eleven one night, with the temperature cooled down to 30C (86F for you gringos) the ocean breeze was the only way to cool off in the sticky, late night air. Those not playing ball fill the decks and patios of the shore-front clubs and the folding chairs of the semi-permanent carts in the sand selling ice cold beer. And everywhere there is music pulsing a Latin beat giving a sense that during “Summertime” in Rio anything is possible – except, possibly, cooling off!
Many sidewalks and public spaces are decorated in the black and white swirling tile patterns of Rio’s native son, Roberto Burl Marx. The street vendors and open markets fill these spaces selling everything imaginable, their arrays of food and souvenirs are as colorful as the people buying them. The mix of ethnicities is most evident in the complexions of the beautiful, skinny Cariocas (as natives of Rio refer to themselves) running from light skinned to dark, and I’m not referring to their tans. And everywhere the smell of tropical flowers, cologne and sweat permeate the heavy humid air. Rio is an easy city to fall in love with.
Rio is a hilly city with the vast majority of the moneyed population living along the shore and in the valleys. Many of the hills were once public property, since taken over by the poor whose tin-roofed shacks creep up through the jungle creating homeless camps that morphed into defined communities called favelas. Some have rudimentary electricity, fewer have running water, but all the poor residents share an immense pride in their community.
That pride, and the competition it sparks between communities, is the basis of the Samba Schools (more like guilds or clubs than schools) with each favela associated with its own Samba School. They compete during Carnival (our Mardi Gras) in separate parades involving elaborate costumes, music and dance, with 100s of players outfitted by thousands of members. For some it is the only work they have all year, and it culminates in year-long bragging rights for the winning school.
While in Rio I learned how to say “Good Day” as the locals do – Bon Dia – in their accent (bo gia) with the softest “n” so that I was often referred to as “that Argentinian gentleman”. That and “thank you” – Obrigado – were all I needed to know of the language to get by.
I found Portuguese easy to read (thank you Lloyd Loop for two years of Latin in Saugerties High) so getting around was easy too, especially because everyone was friendly enough to point the way when I showed them my map. With the World Cup, Paralympic Games and upcoming Olympics, Cariocas are used to tourists and are cosmopolitan enough to speak many languages.
Eating like a Carioca means having a light breakfast of fruit, sometimes with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Lunch is the heaviest meal, a veritable groaning board of meats, a starch (usually cassava), and if you’re lucky, a vegetable. Vegetables are so rare that I once saw a sink full of greens in the kitchen of a restaurant (naturally I was in every kitchen) and reported to my tablemates that we would finally have a big salad with our meal. When the greens came out, they were under a whole roast pig!
Caricoas love their meat. In fact, Brazil’s churrascaria restaurants serve course after course of all types of meat, often with the challenge to eat some from every part of the steer, from the nose to the tail.
At dinnertime, a late, light meal is the norm. I frequently had just appetizers with drinks in a local family eatery, called a Boteco. A typical Boteco is Belmonte, which has several locations throughout the city. One night I saw two tables of three generations of family eating together, besides couples of all ages and singles grabbing a bite before hitting the clubs. It was a nice mix of people, and the jerked beef and catubiry cheese empadas were great with the local draft beer.
The neighborhood between Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach is a very convenient area to stay. There are blocks of restaurants and bars, including the one that inspired the hit song “The Girl From Ipanema”, and the ocean is only a block or two away. You can find high-end and lower hotels there, too. I stayed at the Copa Sul Hotel. It fit my needs nicely. With the ample breakfast included for free with my room, and some fruit purloined for lunch, eating in Rio was very economical.
Yes, summer in Rio is palpably hot, at times steamy (and I mean that in the best possible way) but I’d go back in a heartbeat!