Discovering Fortaleza: The Nagoya of Brazil

After spending one week in Belem do Para, my next stop on the Brazil trip was Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceara.  My reason for choosing Fortaleza was simply that I wanted to stay in the north of the country, on account of the warmer weather, and I wanted somewhere that had inexpensive-ish direct flights from Belem and to Brasilia at a reasonable hour.  It came down to either Fortaleza, Recife or Salvador.  Fortaleza won in the price category, and so my decision was made.  In retrospect, there’s probably a reason that tickets to Fortaleza are cheaper than the other two cities.  I knew very little about Fortaleza, other than it’s a beachy touristy kind of place.  According to the Ministry of Tourism, “In 2016 the city reached the mark of second most desired destination of Brazil and fourth among Brazilian cities in tourists received” … Seriously, Ministry of Tourism?

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Fortaleza is a nice place.  It’s sunny and warm and has a very laid back, uncomplicated vibe to it.  Pretty much the entire length of the city is fringed with beaches, and as far as city beaches go, they’re decent enough.  The avenue running alongside the beach is lined with reasonably attractive high-rise apartment blocks, one of which I’m staying in. There’s really nothing to dislike here.  At the same time though, there’s nothing really to get too excited about either.  It’s like if you were travelling in Australia and you went from Sydney, to Alice Springs, Fraser Island and then your next stop was Wollongong.  Or if you were in Japan an went to see Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido and then your next stop was Nagoya.  What would you think?  What would you write in your blog?  If you know, let me know.  Maybe I’ll just plagiarize your blog and substitute the word Fortaleza for Nagoya… For me, Fortaleza is the Nagoya of Brazil, albeit a tropical Nagoya.  I will say though, that it’s one of the more attractive cities in Brazil with wide avenues and colourful buildings, and not too dirty or run down… But hey what does that even mean?  It’s like saying Katherine Kelly Lang is the best actress on the Bold and the Beautiful.  You don’t have to jump high to get over that bar.

The view from my maximum security Airbnb, complete with partially built, abandoned aquarium…

Immersing yourself in a foreign language, especially one that you don’t even speak, is a big challenge.  I’ve enjoyed the challenge for the most part, but after a month of trying to speak and understand Brazilian Portuguese, I feel myself running out of steam a little bit.  Hence, this post is a little whingey.  Mind you, I’m quite proud how well I’ve done considering I’ve never studied or self-studied any Portuguese.  I can now fend for myself in most situations, albeit with high level retardation.  And of course, I’ve relied heavily on Google translate.  Some of the time, I just type in single words, and other times I use the speak function and say entire phrases or sentences.  I find that if I have a good signal, speak clearly with no background noise and keep the sentences short, I have about an 80 – 90 % success rate of being understood by Google. If the sentences are too long however, or there is background noise or a weak signal, the success rates just about halves.  This got me wondering about the speaking section in PTE.  I wonder how accurately the test-takers are being recorded?

The Cathedral of Fortaleza…

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Although I’ve been mostly able to fend for myself, I have had some epic communication fails.  The first one occurred at Belem airport on the way to Fortaleza.  I was hungry and went into a little restaurant and ordered, or at least tried to order, a cheese potato bread.  I admit my Brazilian pronunciation isn’t great, but I think I was well and truly in the ballpark. “Eu quero um pao de batata e queijo, por favor”.  Immediately a red flag was raised when she replied by asking me if I wanted a large on or a small one, because I didn’t see two sizes of potato cheese bread there.  But anyway, I just replied “large” and then she indicated that I should sit down, and she would bring it to me.   A few minutes later, she brings me a large cappuccino.  Really?  Cappuccino?  Even in the worst possible mumble, the words “cheese, potato and bread” sound nothing like “coffee, milk or cappuccino”.  The second communication fail happened here in Fortaleza.  I was struck down with a case of diarrhoea on the first day I arrived, so I went to a nearby pharmacy to try and get some over-the-counter remedy.  I entered the pharmacy and with my best Brazilian pronunciation, I confidently announced to the man behind the counter, “Eu tenho diarreia”.  I have diarrhoea.  You would think you couldn’t too wrong with that;  three words straight and to the point with no other words to distract from the message.  After I made my announcement, he replied with, “Eu tenho generico”.  I have generic.  Again, a slight red flag was raised because it’s not really the most logical response.  I have diarrhoea… I have generic?   But anyway, I’m like, “Yeah, sure, generic is fine” and he brings me a generic package with the drug tadalafila.  I’m looking at this name, tadalafila and trying to get an antibiotic or an Imodium kind of vibe from it.  I’m looking at the packet and scratching my head because it just didn’t sound like an anti-diarrhea kind of thing to me. So then he pulls me over to his computer and shows me on the screen that it’s like a kind of generic Viagra.  Thank God I sorted that one out before I started popping three of those a day!  The third communication fail was a minor one, but involved me blurting out retardedly to someone that I don’t like acai, when the question was, “Do you want to go out?  In my defence, the way Brazilians pronounce “sair” (go out) does sound a bit similar to acai.  The letter “r” here is either pronounced as an “h” or not at all.

Continuing on the whinge theme, let’s address the elephant in room… Vegetarian travel in Brazil sucks the big one.  I mean, it really, really sucks.  It’s a meat country.  At the very minimum, everything has ham in it.  In Sao Paulo and Rio, there are vegetarian places if you’re prepared to look, and to Belem’s credit it has Govindas, but on a general everyday level, you’re pretty much restricted to pastel de queijo and eating the side dishes in buffet restaurants.  Some buffet restaurants are better than others, but they’re basically geared towards meat eaters and so the side dishes are very simple and basic.  For example, there’ll be a bowl of sweet corn, a bowl of canned peas, some pickled vegetables, a bowl of rice and beans, invariably with ham in it.  I think it was eating at all the buffet restaurants that gave me the diarrhoea.

It’s been nice here in Fortaleza having an apartment with a full kitchen and well stocked grocery store within walking distance.  I even managed to find plantains!!

Just some random snaps …

Fortaleza has been OK but now now it’s off to Brasilia my final stop on the Brazil tour.  Everyone I’ve encountered along the way has been absolutely savaged Brasilia.  The general vibe has been take photos of the Oscar Niemeyer building and then get out.  Let’s see.

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Booming and Busting in Belem

After the week in Rio, I flew 3.5 hours north to Belem in the state of Para.  Belem which means “Bethlehem” in Portuguese, sits on the Para river in the Amazon delta, about 100 kilometres upstream from the Atlantic.  It was the first European colony on the Amazon, founded by the Kingdom of Portugal in 1616 but only incorporated into Brazil in 1775.  It is the second largest city on the Amazon after Manaus.  Back in the day, Belem’s economy rose from the sugar industry.   The boom in Belem continued with cattle and then coffee, rice and cotton.  Once Southern Brazil was settled however, these crops could be produced more efficiently there and so Belem’s economy declined.  The city rose once again on the back of the rubber boom.  In 1876 however, a conniving English bio-pirate by the name of Henry Wickham smuggled out a about 70,000 rubber tree seeds back to England, and the British determined they could grow rubber plantations more efficiently in the former colonies of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Africa.  And so, that was the end of that for Belem and the Amazon. Belem went bust again.  It was during the boom period that much of the impressive colonial architecture was built but walking around the city it seems that the “bust” period has had the greater impact.

Arriving in Belem and looking out the window of the taxi, the first impression I got was that this is very obviously a poor city.   I admit, I had a minor freak out.  It was not what I expected.  If you’ve ever been to Manila… Well, it reminded me of that: very run down and dirty, with lots of trash in streets.  Admittedly, I arrived at midnight which didn’t do anything to lessen the creepiness of that first impression.    I took an Uber to my Airbnb in the old town, Cidade Velha.  Usually, in my experience, the old towns and “centros historicos” of cities are restored and well maintained.  The government pumps a bit of money into them because that’s what brings in the tourist bucks.  I was thinking along the lines of Old Havana, Vecriga, The Rocks, something like that.  Well, Belem’s Old Town is a little different.  It’s old in the sense that it’s the historical part of the city, but also old in the sense that it’s a f***ing run-down dump…  And a dangerous dump at that, apparently.  Later however, when I saw other parts of the city, I realised I wasn’t doing too badly by staying there.  It gets a whole lot worse.  My disclaimer to anyone that I’ve just offended: The enjoyment of a city is not dependent it’s economic success.  For me, it’s all about the people and the experiences you have, and in that respect, Belem was up there with the best of them.  Although I knew that the north was poorer, somehow, I wasn’t quite expecting it.  It was a  shock.  After an adjustment period of a day or so, while I changed gears, it was smooth sailing.

Apparently, Belem is dangerous.  I’ve travelled a bit in Latin America now, and maybe I’ve gotten used to it, but it didn’t strike me as that bad. At least, during the day it didn’t seem that bad.  At night it looked a little bit sketchier.  I was standing outside my maximum-security Airbnb waiting for my Uber one day when a car pulled up and told me that I need to be more careful and should get back behind the iron gate or put my phone away.

Another night I was trying to call an Uber in another part of town, sketchier than Cidade Velha and was told by some people that the Uber wouldn’t come to this part of town.  That was a bit of a worry.

As I said, I took a day or two to change down gears and then everything was fine.  I spent the first couple of days seeing what sights there were.  Here are a few random snapettes from around Cidade Velha, just so you can get an idea.  There are a lot of Portuguese style houses, just very run down.

The Cathedral of Se is there, which is well maintained however.

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And some snapettes from the adjacent bairros, again just to give an idea:

By the docks:

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I went to the Ver-O-Peso market, which is by the docks and touted as one of the main attractions in the city.  It’s an interesting insight into the local culture, and if you’re into open-air produce markets then it’s an amazing experience.  Students often tell me that they went to the fish market in Sydney, and I think to myself, “what the hell for?  Are you really into fish?” But here I was doing the same.  There are lots of chickens, ducks and rabbits crowded into small cages in 35 + degree heat.  I realise that veganism and vegetarianism is a luxury that we in more affluent societies can afford.  Other people simply have to make do with what they can get. Nonetheless, I found it extremely depressing.

Being surrounded by so much water, fish and prawns are one of the mainstays of the city.  At the market, there are tables upon tables upon tables of raw prawns and dried fish, and again out in the open in 35+ degree heat.  It’s fine if you’re a dozen blind lesbians walking through, but it was a bit much for me. I took some snaps and quickly got the hell out.

Estacao das Docas is next to the market.  It’s part of the old docks that have been renovated and now turned into upmarket restaurants and bars, mainly aimed mainly for tourists.  Think Darling Harbour.

I took a power walk into the bairro, Nazare, which is one of the more well-to do neighbourhoods of Belem.  By the way, if you do visit Belem, then that’s the place to stay.  It’s more attractive and less run-down. The main cathedral of the city, the Basilica of Nazare is located there.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in intense sun, heat and humidity.  I made it to the cathedral but didn’t quite make it back.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in tropical midday sun.  I ended up sitting through the mass because it was the only place with air-con where I could cool down.  I cooled down and then called an Uber and went back home.

The next day I took a boat ride to Ilha da Combu, which is an island in the river, just a short 15 minute boat ride away from the docks of Belem proper.  It was a nice day out… You just sit yourself in a resto-bar drinking cachaca and then you jump in the river.

Mangal das Garcas, a kind of mini botanical garden is another attraction in the city.  The main point of interest is the tower where you can get a good view of the city.

That was about it for my sightseeing.  The tropical heat and humidity didn’t really lend itself well to hardcore sightseeing or maybe I’m just getting soft.  I retreated back to my maximum security Airbnb and decided the only sightseeing I would do from then on would be nocturnal.  Then I stumbled across a club called Malice.  Yes, the club is called Malice, so you can fill in the blanks.

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And then suddenly it was Tuesday.  Time to leave.

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Rio Reflections

I’ve been in Rio for one week now and haven’t had much of a vibe to write anything.  I woke up this morning and realized I’m flying to Belem in a couple of hours so I’m desperately trying to cobble together a few words before I whisk myself up north.  And wouldn’t you know it, just when I’m in a hurry I had a Microsoft password disaster and have been battling with that for the last hour.  What was I thinking when I agreed to a two-step verification process in the event of forgetting my password?  Two step verification in a foreign country is virtually impossible!!!  So, I ended up having to open a new Microsoft account and repurchase Office.  Arrggh!!!  How annoying… And, that would be my second repurchase of the trip.

I had planned to fly from Sao Paulo to Rio (rather than taking a bus) and purchased a ticket with Avianca Brasil.  The ticket price to Rio from Sao Paulo was about the same across all the airlines but I was familiar with Avianca so I decided to choose them.  I had flown with them a few times in Colombia and was really impressed with the service and I also liked the red colour scheme they used for both the aircraft and the uniforms.  I purchased my ticket without any problem.  Some weeks later I happened to be googling Avianca Brasil.  You know how it is… It’s midnight and you really need to be sleeping, but then you realize you won’t be able to sleep unless you google the fleet size of some random airline.  So, as I was googling Avianca’s fleet size, I chanced upon some current news stories about the airline…  In short, Avianca Brasil had gone bankrupt.  Most of their planes had been repossessed and their routes had been cancelled. However, they had continued selling tickets for about the last six months on aircraft and routes that didn’t exist!!  What’s more, Avianca Brasil had no connection with Avianca Colombia.  It was just some dodgy low-cost carrier that had  leased the name and re branded itself.  That was extremely annoying but there was nothing that could be done.  So, I had to buy another ticket, this time with LATAM.

As much as I like Sao Paulo and its inhabitants, I was a little bit relieved to leave the city this time.  The combination of jetlag and being stuck in that prison cell of a room with anti-social flatmates took its toll.  And, I was hoping I’d enjoy the nightlife more than I did… It just didn’t do it for me this time unfortunately… In retrospect, I think if Sao Paulo is your first stop after a long haul flight, it’s better to splurge the money and get a really nice room.  Chances are that you might end up spending a lot of time in it, as I did.

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Arriving in Rio almost felt like arriving in a different country after Sao Paulo.  In place of Sao Paulo’s oppressive endless wall of beige are lush, green tropical tree lined streets filled with stunning examples of Neoclassical, Neogothic, Art Deco and Modernist architecture.  It’s kind of like a tropical Lisbon, but on a much grander scale.  It’s quite simply stunning!

To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect coming to Rio.  My image of the city had been largely formed on what I’d seen on the internet and from Brazilian people I’d met in Sydney. And yes, if you know me, Brazilian people  that I’ve met in Sydney, particularly the women in recent months, have not been in my top ten list of favourite people.  I was a little bit reluctant to come… To be brutally honest, I thought the city would just be full of pretentious passive-aggressive, entitled people strolling around in bikinis, snorting cocaine, air kissing and telling each other how much they love them, while at the same time dodging bullets from rival drug gangs.

I couldn’t have been more wrong!!!  The people here, at least the ones I’ve encountered in this last week, have been some of the most courteous, well-mannered kind, friendly and down to earth people I’ve ever met in my life. Brazilian people here are INCREDIBLY NICE. The hosts in my Airbnb are incredibly warm and hospitable and let me treat their house as if it were mine.

To the Brazilian woman in Sydney to whom some months ago I suggested that rudeness might have been a Brazilian cultural thing (in an attempt to try and explain and justify your rudeness towards me) I have to apologise.  I apologise for suggesting that rudeness is a cultural thing.  It’s not… It’s just you.  You are a rude and entitled woman.  Brazilian people are extremely nice.

As for safety, while I realise there are unsafe areas in Rio like favelas, for the most part everywhere that I’ve been has felt extremely safe, almost disappointingly so.  I like a bit of edgy travel but it really feels very safe to walk around anytime of the day.

The most famous areas of Rio, Copacabana and Ipanema for me were the lowlight of the week.  Ipanema is just Bondi but with a kind of Paddington vibe, and Copacabana is Bondi but with more of Darling Harbour and Kings Cross kind of vibe. And with so many Brazilian people living in Bondi, all you would need to do is put a few shanty towns around it and you honestly wouldn’t know the difference.

I bet every fat girl of Ipanema just wants to punch the writer of that song!

The star of the week has been the Centro and the other parts of the city with it’s stunning architecture.

Teatro Municipal:

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Escadaria Selaron:

Museum of Modern Art in Niteroi:

Museum of Tomorrow:

A street scene in Lapa:

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Presbyterian church:

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Parque Lage and Jardim Botanico with Christ the Redeemer in the background:

Sugarloaf:

Some other random scenes:

And now it’s time to go and pack my extremely inappropriate, “just in case” clothing… It’s already 30 degrees and I have tow winter jacket, a cardigan, woollen socks and three pairs of jeans.

Cheers!

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