Thursday, July 28, 2011


Remember that scene in The Goonies where Sloth is screaming for chocolate? Yeah, this post is for my cousin Beth and her passion for "CAKE!!!!"

This is Maya.

This is Les Delices de Maya, and she's not exaggerating.

The place has fantastic charm and excellent service. Bright and cheerful but still cozy, this converted two-story home feels like and indoor garden hideaway. Even the bathrooms are cool: the walls are covered in decoupage featuring old MAD magazines and italian newspaper clippings.

Marcelo runs the front-of-house operations. He remembers my name, and everyone else's, every time, no matter how long it's been between visits. He pauses for a bit of small chat, engagingly and sincerely, with every table, despite having much to do during the lunchtime rush.

Oh, Lord, and the food....

My dilemma is that I want to try everything on the surprisingly diverse menu (and there's a specialty du jour), but I always get the same dish: spaghetti com lula e limão, spaghetti with calamari and a delicately creamy lime sauce. I can't help myself.

And then there's the CAKE!!!!
Heavens to Beth-sy! I adore the Brigadeiro (a chocolate cake with layers of brigadeiro in between), and the Brigadeiro de Pistache (a white cake with layers of a similar mixture to the classic brigadeiro, except instead of chocolate, the condensed milk and butter are cooked with powdered pistachios, apparently)...mercy! Last time I sampled the Bolo de Cerveja Preta (black beer cake) and Pavê de Figo (a cup of crème brûlée with a layer of fig spread in the middle). Falta de palavras.

Coming from a long line of entrepreneurs, dining at Les Delices de Maya is even more attractive to me because it's a small, family-run kinda place. However, that means they're only open on business days for lunch and afternoon tea, because, well, everybody deserves a life! I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing for me personally: on one hand I would love to go there more often, though on the other hand I thank them for their limited hours of operation, given my deficiency in self-control amidst these sorts of delectables.

Ahh, the stuff dreams are made of.

If you find yourself lunching in Vila Madalena, you simply cannot go wrong as Les Delices de Maya.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Maranhão Outtakes

I wish I had theme music for these outtakes posts. Something circus-y.

Before the first picture, let me recount something I wanted to document on my last visit to Porto Alegre, but was sans camera. When I returned a few days later, the entertaining sign was gone. First, it is important to say that Brazil passed Lei Seca in 2008, which is a zero-tolerance law for drinking and driving--a topic so complicated that it could be it's own post (but won't). I thought it ironic, a few months back, to see a sign in front of Garcia's Bar that advertised free parking during Happy Hour.

Relatedly, on the drive back to São Luís, we stopped at this gas station...

...with signage provided by Brahma Beer. (I know it's just advertising, but still, really?)

On the subject of beer, here's the Saturday night hangout in the community surrounding the lighthouse at Mandacarú. ("Fatty's Chopperia," a chopperia is a bar that specializes in draught beer.)

Perhaps alcohol could explain this creepy thing, just around the corner.

You know you're in a small town, especially in Brazil, when this suffices for the local courthouse.

You might have to click on the image to see, but this palm tree (conveniently located in the middle of the "road") has a 20 km/hour speed limit sign posted. However, in the direction of travel, I would advise less. The "road" ends in about 25 feet.

"Vende-se." Boat for sale. Inquiries within.

I saw two fun-with-English t-shirts on the trip but couldn't photograph them--that would have been rude. One said, simply, "Get Shape." (Yeah, I know. It's on the To-Do List. Thanks for noticing.) The other, Paraguayan apparently, said "Occy Surfboar" on the front and the back. By the way, what is with the massively popular Brazilian surfer-wear and apparel line "Fatal Surf"? Do they know what fatal means? They must. It's the same in Portuguese. Isn't that the equivalent, then, of a pedestrian in Porto Alegre wearing a shirt with this type of emblem?

I digress. A frog smoking the the bathroom, for a change.

Ok, I embellished. He's not smoking. Just ditching class.

Keeping the animal theme, this will be on my list of all-time favorite photos: a steer grazing in the middle of Barreirinhas. There is no fencing around--there aren't even any farms around--just homes, sandy roads, and the cross.


Monday, July 25, 2011

São Luís Sunday

For the sake of brevity (ha ha!), in yesterday's post I skipped the part about the harrowing bus ride from Barreirinhas to São Luís.

You know, there's a big difference between injury in the pursuit of adventure (say, in one of those mad jeeps in Lençóis) and injury in the pursuit of a good night's sleep. I admit that sometimes I can be a bit of a back-seat-driver. Mind you, I rarely verbalize my concern, but I do tense up when I feel a driver is overly aggressive. Knowing this, I tried to just chill out and stay lost in my thoughts on said bus ride, thinking I was just over-reacting to the driver's, um, style. That is, until I saw his young kid, who was riding shotgun, gripping his armrest in fear. Of course I remained silent, but at least I knew I wasn't the only one panicking. The icing, though, was when we caught up to another bus we had been trailing on the highway about ten minutes after we stopped for gas. Man, it's a minibus, not a Porsche!

All's well that ends well.

The Rio Poty Hotel has an unusual design, but all the rooms have large balconies and lovely views.

Despite my arrival shock, I must say I acclimated nicely.
So, too, did the rather large iguana that appeared, to the guests' delight.

He was totally eye-ing my Subway. No chance, lizard.

A quick, after-dip shower amidst the flowers, anyone?

I can't say that I understand the Brazilian obsession with lawn ornaments, but the frogs amused me.

I was equally amused by the Lochness-like sculpture in Lagoa da Jansen.

I spent the majority of the appropriately sunny Sunday poolside, or rather, poolbarside.

That is, until the Women's World Cup Final. What a game! A disappointing end for the U.S. team, but I couldn't begrudge Japan their deserved title and celebration. It was funny listening to the announcers struggle with the names too. For example, on the Japanese side, Miyama became "me ama" (an accusatory "you love me!") and Ohno sounded like an emphatically alarmed "Oh No!"; while on the USA side, O'Reilly was pronounced "Oh, Really???" That last one killed me every time.

On a serious note, during this trip I had intended to dedicated time to putting all of my reflections on My Life in Havaianas in order. In the end though, I was simply too relaxed and too distracted by all of the natural beauty and entertaining activities to be pensive--and what a delightful thing! With far less effort than I had expected to invest in becoming "all in" on the next book of my life, I realized, on the journey back to São Paulo, that I feel ready. I'm free to move forward from this (massive, pivotal, truly engaging) period of my life and discover what other adventures are waiting for me downstream. I suppose that at least one piece of that acceptance came from Raimundo and Gilson, on the day I was starkly reminded that sometimes stunning positives come from scary or seemingly negative starts.

Leap and the net will appear.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lençóis: Day 3

Let me preface my epic Day 3 recap by saying that this: Saturday the 16th would begin tranqüilo, but move on to irritating, then to dubious, then to distressing--but end up being, arguably, the best single day I have ever had traveling. Certainly it is the most thought-provoking.

I checked out of my room and put my bags in storage at 7am as I was heading to breakfast. I was expecting a jeep to pick me up at 8 or 8:15 for my inner tube tour of Rio Formiga (Ant River), which would be a 4-hour land-water-land escapade, before catching a bus back to São Luís in the afternoon. Tudo bem, tudo ótimo.
The jeep was late. After breakfast I killed some time pondering the different palm trees, armed with my new knowledge, and admiring the tropical plants.
A few at a time, all of the other pousada guests were collected for their various day trips as I sat in the garden. By nine-ish, I'm feeling mildly inconvenienced that I had rushed to check out, but no problem. Like the sign says "não estresse" (no stress)--they'll be here.

Shortly thereafter, the staff started making inquiring phone calls to the aforementioned and unrecommended tour company, who assured--every 20 minutes or so--"ele tá chegando!" This woefully overused expression means that "(he/she is, they are, I am) just arriving now," though I know better than to believe it. In reality, it almost always translates to "Have a seat. It's going to be a while."
Or in this case, never. The jeep never showed.

At 11am a man arrives in a white pickup truck. His name is Eduardo (Edu), he's probably about 25 years old and I get the immediate impression that he is not normally a driver or a guide.
Where's my jeep? Where are all the people that would become my new friends?
Our first stop is the local cooperative through which, I gather, all the various agencies network with each other to organize the details of which tourists will go with which drivers and guides. I am neither amused nor assured by the fact that the older woman, addressing Edu in a tone that was not nearly humorous enough for comfort, says something to the effect of: "This is your chance to prove yourself. Please be careful. Drive safely. Don't let anything happen to her."
This day is quickly getting worse. Should I bail out now?
Because I protested meekly to Edu and the woman about this not being the tour I had arranged and paid for, Edu drove me to my agency to discuss the matter with them. Well, he intended to, but we went to the wrong agency.
This is not reassuring.
I repeat the name of my agency, Maranhão Turismo. He shrugs. His lack of recognition is also not a good sign. I show him the itinerary that has the company's logo--a muddy bootprint--because I know I passed their office on the way into Barreirinhas the other day. A ficha caiu. The light goes on and we drive to the correct agency, coming very close to hitting a jeep en route.
This is also not reassuring.
I enter the agency and I'm starting to feel stressed and panicky. I'm over three hours behind schedule with an afternoon bus to catch, embarking on something completely different than the tour I paid for, with a driver who clearly has no experience as a guide and doesn't even know my agency (which is reciprocated in that the agent didn't know Edu either), and in the first 20 minutes we've already had a near-collision.
This really doesn't feel right. I need to be reassured.
The guy working at Maranhão Turismo, I didn't get his name, had no idea who I was or the situation that had unfolded that morning--which, given that there was obviously a flurry of phone calls about the matter, is completely ridiculous. Worse yet, after being brought up to speed on events, he denied that the company had forgotten to arrange my tour, absurdly claiming that there were no other tourists scheduled for Rio Formiga that day. "Therefore," he continued to BS, "uh, it must have taken some extra time, but hey, isn't it great that someone arranged a private tour for you?!" The guy did nothing to calm me or to fix the situation. Rather he approached Edu, introduced himself, and carried on a brief exchange that went more-or-less like this:
Hi! Who are you?
I'm Edu.
Where are you taking her?
Rio Formiga.
Ok, sounds good.
(to me) Don't worry! Have a good time!
I'm fuming and nervous, but I don't know what to do. So I get in the pickup.
We stop at someone's very modest home and Edu picks up a tractor tire inner tube. I ask him about the mask and snorkel.
What mask and snorkel?
The one that it says here will be provided to me for the river tour.
I don't have a mask and snorkel. Maybe you can rent one there.
I stay quiet in my burgeoning irritation coupled with fear.
(Let me jump ahead to note that, as Edu should have known, there was nothing where we were headed. Nothing. Least of all a place to rent masks and snorkels.)
We stop at a gas station to fill up Edu's truck and put air in the tube.
Is this for real?
The next hour is a bumpy ride along sand roads through nowhereland. Not in the funny, jeep-jostling, amusement park ride sorta way, but in the "D'oh! I'm trashing my vehicle on this road" sorta way. Edu doesn't offer any information on the area or where we are headed. The ride is silent except for the weird mix of forró and Lady Gaga. The internal monologue went something like this:
This is totally awkward.
Where are we headed?
This is exactly the type of situation a solo woman traveler always tries to avoid.
This is how women get kidnapped and held for ransom.
Or mutilated.
No one has any clue where I am.
Christ, I might be sold to human traffickers.
Nearing our destination, we pass three jeeps of rowdy, happy tourists on their way back to Barreirinhas.
I knew it!
Edu is lost. He asks a kid walking on the roadside for directions. We proceed. We make a wrong turn. We go back. We make another wrong turn. We go back and take the right road (after all, there were only three options). We come across the same kid and Edu asks him to help us find the river. We drive to the kid's house to ask his father's permission that he guide us. Tudo certo. Raimundo, a 16-year-old from Povoado de Cardosa, jumps in the back seat.
Ok, the kid looks harmless enough, but now we're picking up strangers?
A "povoado" is a very small, rural community. Not even a village. This one has, perhaps, 40 families, though most are spread out over a wide swath of forest. There is a school with 4 rooms. Classes are about 6 students each. The younger kids attend for four hours in the morning, older kids in the afternoon, and teens, like Raimundo, from 6-10pm. It was a lengthy drive between his home and the school, so I asked Raimundo how he gets there. He walks. How long does it take? An hour and forty minutes each way. I pause to consider what that must be like, especially during the "wet season" (six months of regular torrential rain).
Sometime after noon, Edu, Raimundo and I arrive at the departure point at the river and are soon joined by a inconvenienced-looking 14-year-old boy named Gilson, who will be my personal guide as I float downriver.
Poor kid probably didn't get lunch on account of the high-maintenance US tourist who is on her own schedule. Way to contribute to the stereotype, Jen. Great.
It would have been helpful if my tour company had warned me to leave everything at home as there is no infrastructure for tourists to store things or whatever. I strip down to my swimsuit, reluctantly leaving my Havaianas, clothes, purse, cell phone, camera, ID and money in Edu's truck. He's supposed to pick me up in an hour downriver.
Really, what could go wrong? Ok, well, fingers crossed.
This also explains why--much to my dismay--I have no pictures of the adventure. Damn it. This was one to remember too.
For the next hour, I floated and bobbed down the river with Gilson swimming along side. The first few minutes were quiet, though I tried to crack some jokes to let him know I wasn't some princess that expects people to say "How high?" as I command them to jump. He smiled subtly a couple times and I realized that his expressions had been more motivated by the awkwardness of adolescence than by contempt. I began asking questions about the trees, snakes, anything I could think of. With each answer he softened a little more, sometimes chuckling gently at my ignorance. Eventually he took the lead as teacher: he would climb up the river bank here and there to highlight the spot where the water runs clearest; to point out that one type of grassy plant had leaves as sharp as knives; that the lily flower only opens at night but he knew a trick to show me what they look like; and, by contrast, the Victoria Regia in the Pantanal, have large thorns on the bottom of them--making them stable enough to walk on. Gilson explained that one particular tree was called "paciência" (patience) because it takes so long to grow, and that the woodpecker-like parrot atop the dead Buruti trees were called Jandaya.
As we rounded a bend near the exit point, I saw some little girls splashing in the water. When they saw me they squealed "a turista! a turista!" (the girl tourist!) alerting everyone down river to our arrival. I shot a grin toward Gilson, which he returned with a half-smile that revealed his minor embarrassment over the girls' frank fascination with my foreign-ness. Catching up to them, I told them to jump on the tube and splashed about with them for a few minutes before climbing out of the river, with seven of them practically attached to my limbs.
Waiting for me at the riverside was Dona Rainha (Madam Queen), pregnant, tooth-deficient, in her mid-20s, and a shrewd businesswoman. She was immediately all up in my grill with a coconut full of homemade hooch. I shot a glance at Edu (who, thankfully, had appeared) and Gilson, both of whom responded with a look that communicated one-half pity and one-half curiosity over my next move. I thanked Dona Rainha and took a swig with such dramatics that my tiny sip appeared larger. Then came the sales pitch. Would I like to buy some placemats woven from palm?
"Lady, I don't even know where I'll be living in a month--I certainly don't have a table and dinnerware," I thought to myself.
Ok then, how about some doce de bacurí?
I bought one for me and one for Edu, in the spirit of generosity, and left her the change for the R$10 (US$6), knowing that a non-gringa would have walked away with half a dozen little cups of jam. For what it's worth, I know that R$10 is what Gilson's dad earned for instructing him to accompany me in my off-hour tour. I know that R$10, in these parts, is a lot.
I only got two pictures before Edu hustled me, Raimundo, and Gilson into the pickup--he was more concerned than I was about catching the afternoon bus.
Dona Rainha on my right (marketing her wares), Raimundo on my left, and Gilson in the green shirt.

After dropping Gilson at his family's home in the center of the povoado (about eight homes clustered together), we set off toward the more remote location of Raimundo's place. I continued to ask Raimundo questions about his family, his life, his futebol team (Flamengo) and he happily indulged my curiosity. We came to a fork in the road where we needed to turn left for Barreirinhas, but Raimundo's place was a few minutes off to the right. Edu stopped and basically (rather dismissively, I felt) told Raimundo to get out. Raimundo looked shocked and quietly protested for a second, because apparently that wasn't the deal. Edu shoved a couple reais at him and said we were in a hurry because I had a plane to catch.
Wow, that was a really jerky thing to do, even I'm insulted.

Speechless, I swiveled to face Raimundo as he opened the door, giving him a look that was as much stunned as apologetic. He closed the door hard and Edu sped off as the heat rose into my cheeks. There was barely a word on the long drive back.

The lack of conversation didn't bother me since I had a lot to think about. In addition to the education I got from what Gilson and Raimundo had told me, what was unspoken was just as enlightening. Marcante is the word in Portuguese that most aptly describes the effect the day had; something along the lines of striking, influential, extraordinary, compelling.

By no means do I want to make them sound like simpletons, but their knowledge, like their reality, was (and will probably always be) so different than mine. Neither had ever heard of Chicago: it's quite inconsequential to them. And while I believe TV has made inroads to the most rural of regions, there is still no internet. Barreirinhas, with roughly 48,000 inhabitants, is likely as big a town as they will ever see (if they ever go there), and by comparison to Povoado de Cardosa, no doubt, would feel like a city to them.

I continued listing all the differences later, on the 4-hour bus ride back to São Luís.
I had spotted a condom wrapper in shallow water of the otherwise pristine river. Lest I get lost in the innocent appearance of these "povoados" and project upon them an image of a sheltered, paradisical existence, I started to contemplate the juxtaposition of their unhurried lives and lush landscapes with some of the darker issues that, I know, plague many rural areas in Brazil, particularly in the north. There are huge problems with trafficking (both drugs and people), intimidation, domestic violence, child prostitution, and poverty, among others.

Then, as if to underscore the overwhelming psychological impact of the day, I checked into my room at the Rio Poty Hotel and discovered my balcony and pool/ocean view.

It was beautiful. But what about six hours ago? It seemed so decadent and unnecessary.
Serendipitously, while zapeando (channel-flipping) later that evening, I stumbled upon Anthony Bourdain in Namibia. In his final comment (at 12 min 55 sec), made in a taxi in New York City after he spent several days living among an indian tribe in the desert, he perfectly summarized the thing kicking around in my head. "Are we better off?....I don't know. I really don't."

In the end, what started out as a day spiraling downward became the most enlightening travel experience I've ever had. Were it not for my tour company's negligence, I would never have had such an insightful encounter. Surely I would have bonded with other like-minded travelers and bobbed down the river accompanied by their banter. Instead, I was educated by two teenage boys, Raimundo and Gilson, and the unlikely event of our briefly intersecting paths.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Lençóis: Day 2

I was collected bright and early on Day 2 by an empty jeep for a tour of the Rio Preguiça (lazy river), which would be a full day event. We collected other passengers around the village, though none were the friends I made on the Day 1 tour. I eyed passing tour boats now and then, hoping to catch up with my buddies along the way. I saw one boat (well, heard a bunch of yelping from one boat) that, I was convinced, carried my companheiros: alas, I never did find them.

My new companions were far more tame, though friendly enough, and whatever disappointment I had melted away once aboard the speedboat, rushing along the river on the gorgeous, sunny Thursday morning.

The day's agenda was to travel to the sea via the river, stopping along the way at Vassouras, at the penninsula of Caburé where the Rio Preguiças meets the Atlantic, and at Mandacarú, where there's a lighthouse offering spectacular views of the river, the sea, a village, miles of lush terrain, and even a bit of Lençóis.

Side note: at sixteen (and the years that followed), I loved to be in the driver's seat. Now, driving is ok now and then--I don't mind. But being a passenger is the best. I like to stare out the window and contemplate the scenery and whatever thoughts are dominating the day. I love taxi rides. Friends with cars. I love plane rides. And, I discovered, I really love mad jeeps and boats!

After about an hour on the wide river we veered onto a side street, if you will.

TREES! Spectacular trees, with thousands of arching branches that curved back into the river seeking muddy, watery roots! Our guide taught us a lot about the vegetation and I have an entirely new respect for the many different varieties of palm trees. I never gave much thought to the different sizes and shapes before, but ever since, I notice them more. And now I know, for example, that the buriti has the most durable palms and is typically used to roof shelters and to make goods like placemats, purses, etc.

Some of them even grow yellow coconuts. Perhaps all coconuts begin yellow, but if that's the case, then I never saw them so young.

Out of the tree tunnel, we saw a hut across the water where the dunes meet the forest. This is Vassouras, our first stop.

At first I thought the makeshift bench and tree branches ruined an otherwise perfectly vacant sandscape. I came to like it though, finding it kinda artsy. Perhaps the purpose is to create a visual landmark so that when you're wandering the sandy hills, you know where you need to aim on the return. Just an uneducated city-girl hypothesis.

The entire area is an environmental preserve, and Vassouras is simply a hut tucked away there where tourists and local fisherman can stop to stretch, laze in a hammock, take in the views atop the dunes (where the sea is visible, unlike our stop in Lençóis where the sea was 50km of sand dunes away), and refresh with an água de coco or a light snack.

They keep lots of animals too, who are very accustomed to, and hospitable toward, visitors--mostly in the name of earning scraps like leftover coconuts.

Monkeys! They are fickle though. Hard to photograph. Always on the move and if you're not offering the goods, they have no time for you. (I know some people like that too!)

This is the bartenders pet... raccoon (type...thing...)? Same rule applies.

I'm sorry, I forgot your name, pretty bird.

Our next stop, a quick one to order our lunch, was in Caburé. Then we bolted off for a swim where the mouth of the river opens to the sea. Luxo total. Total luxury, floating in shallow, warm, clear water and collecting seashells along the shore.

This is the life.

It's so pretty here: so humble, so natural, so undeveloped, so pristine. Even the speed boats of tourists were few and far between and there was no trace of pollution from us, or them.

I enjoyed that, despite my intention to use this trip to put all my thoughts about moving in order, to reflect on everything I've done and seen in three-plus years in Brazil, I didn't think at all. I just existed and enjoyed. I was simply carried along on an amazing journey, away from noise and choices, philosophizing amid disturbances. What calm--and what fun! (So this is what They mean when They advise us to "live in the moment"--huh.) What was I saying? Oh, yeah. It was so sunny.

Back on the boat on another "side street" that our guide chose in order to show us something. If you click on the picture, perhaps you can see the bubbles in the shady part of the water.

Those aren't bubbles. Those are eyes!

They belong to dozens (we saw hundreds, actually) of fish that jump like frogs across the water. Close up to follow.

We returned to Caburé to eat lunch and had some extra time to swim, again, this time in the open sea just across the dune. There were 4-wheel mini-buggies for rent if one was inclined to go racing along the shoreline. I was happy to play in the waves...

...and with the dead fish. Look! It was one of those frog-like jumping fish who had obviously lost his way and paid the price. I thank him, posthumously, for giving me a chance to investigate and learn.


Look at the teeth! Too late for the orthodontist.
He looks like he had something left to say in this life, no? "But... I... uuggghhh"--dead.
He's cute though, in that last-picked-for-the-team kinda way.

As I was playing, err, conducting my scientific study, a bird circled. We eyed each other. I don't speak bird so I couldn't advise him that I had already eaten, so he was welcome to depart with his lunch. I'm sure he figured it out later. But first, The Staredown... a triangle of nature: human (sneaking in off screen), bird (left), and defenseless fish (right).

Then it was off to the Farol de Mandacarú (the lighthouse).

Not to be missed views, as advertised.

On the way back to the boat for the last ride, we stopped for ice cream. I thought this little boy was adorable, though he seemed agitated that the Guaraná Jesus can was empty, and he scowled at me for not sharing my ice cream.

I also admired the locals' resourcefulness, crafting a walkway out of empty bottles stuck neck-down in the sand. Clever.

Another hour on the speedboat and we were back in Barreirinhas, where I enjoyed a few beers and a rising full moon along the riverfront, surrounded by quirky, relaxed, unpretentious locals. This is my kind of night.

Another brilliant day in Maranhão. One more, em seguida...

Paulistinha Maranhense