Rio and Iguazu Falls
Brazil is almost as large as the entire United States and boasts a population of 200 million. The society is seemingly color-blind and skin color ranges from white to black with a parfait of brown in-between. At present the economy is booming and a woman was just elected President. However, many Brazilians feel that she is a pawn of the previous President. Corruption and high taxes are endemic in Brazil so a rigged election is no surprise.
Our Brazilian month starts in Rio’s famed Copacabana, magnificently set on the ocean surrounded by towering green mountains. The long crescent beach has the famous sidewalks with spirals of black and white tile. Offshore there are wild jungle islands that extend to the horizon. This is the seaward view. When you turn around and cross the boulevard there are chock-a-block hotels packed against each other that resemble the worst of Miami Beach. At least in Rio, the hotels do not block the beach.
In Copacabana and nearby Ipanema, people wear the skimpiest bathing attire. Women, regardless of age or size, sport let-it-all-hang-out bikinis. Young women like thong bottoms and even ride bicycles in that attire. Ouch!
Rio’s population is about 6 million and the richest people live at beach level while the poor dwell in favelas high up on the mountains. Favelas are as varied as the skin color of the Brazilians. Some are controlled by drug gangs while others are home to workers in the construction and electrical trades who build their shanties and live off the grid. Looking across at the favelas from atop Sugar Loaf Mountain, the houses are so close that I wonder if there are any streets.
Our first Rio tour is at night and Alex, our young guide takes us out to samba in the Lapa district. The Scenarium night club is three stories high with an eclectic décor that might have caused Martha Stewart to have heart failure. The first floor has 1960 refrigerator doors on the red wall, followed by 1940s pinups, crystal collections, old portraits of unknowns, a purple wall of stopped clocks, and my personal favorite, a 1929 Ford. If Feng Shui is the modern way to decorate, this is “Shui Feng.”
The place is rocking with a fabulous samba band and we join the dancers. After a few hours a new band comes on with loads of percussion and everyone stands and bounces rhythmically on the dance floor. We leave at midnight as many people are entering.
Within Rio there are a number of unusual forested areas. Alex takes us on a rainy day hike in the Tijuca National Park. This reclaimed forest was once a coffee plantation although we have difficulty believing that coffee really grew on these steep slopes. The hated tree is jackfruit which grows everywhere and makes a smelly mess. Decorative Impatiens plants which we prize in our gardens are called “Shameless Susans” and are viewed as exotic weeds.
Alex relates that his girlfriend is working at a Jewish conference in a nearby hotel. We express our interest to stop at the conference, meet Marcella, and ask her about the Jewish community in Rio. Our question is overheard by Jeanette and her husband Jose, long-time Rio residents, who tell us that Rio has 30,000 Jews. Jeanette is a conference speaker and offers to show us her synagogue the next morning. She has been very active in her large Reform synagogue which now has 1000 families.
Our final full day in Rio involves a two hour car trip and an hour ferry ride to arrive at Ilha Grande, the Big Island. We hike to some beaches with the clearest turquoise water and few people. There are limited accomodations on the entire island. This is how Rio might have been when the first explorers came.
The morning we depart is filled with bright sunshine. We run on Copacabana beach and body surf in the waves. The place is bustling with activity, and considering all the oiled bodies no one worries about melanoma or UV damage. Vendors sell bikinis, rent beach chairs and hawk drinks but there’s no pressure to buy. Unlike Miami, the beach is public and everyone can go anywhere. Adios Rio….
In 1986 we saw “The Mission,” featuring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. The movie is loosely based on the history of the Guarani natives and attempts by the Jesuits (Jeremy Irons et al) to convert them. The star of the film was the most incredible waterfall I’d ever seen ─ Iguazu Falls. I turned to Mark and declared, “We have to go there!” Obviously, it’s taken us a few years.
Both Brazil and Argentine have created national parks around the falls and each country offers glorious views. The various falls composing Iguazu extend more than a mile and a half. This makes Iguazu twice the size of Niagara Falls ─ counting both the American and Canadian sides.
Before Iguazu is visible, we hear the thundering noise. In the pouring rain we join many tourists and walk along the paths and catwalks created for close-up views. There’s an endless roar as the water races to the river below where foam, mist, torrents, and rain intermingle. Occasionally monkeys jump in the trees but the major attraction is always the falls.
The water turns corners and cascades over, under, and through rocky outcrops exploding hundreds of feet below in a deluge of spray and clouds. Flocks of Great Dusty Swifts fly and dart into the falls. These birds are only found at Iguazu. One of the most powerful sections is called Diablo Gargantua, “Devil’s Throat.” Standing next to each other, we must shout to be heard over the booming water.
When the sun comes out the next day we are joyous. The Argentine side is more complicated and requires passports, exit and entrance papers for Brazil, and two border checks. Having a guide with a car makes the process easier. One catwalk is so close to a torrential outpouring that I feel the power behind me as I turn to face the camera. We top this day off with a boat ride that gets everyone under the mist and foam and careening across the high river waves.
There’s an eco-talk as we return through the forest and back to the starting point. A large secondary forest has always surrounded the falls with unusual animals like caimans (small alligators), coatamundi, monkeys, lizards, and numerous birds. There are also gorgeous butterflies and Mark patiently photographs several.
Foz de Iguazu, the dreary town in which we stayed is not for foodies. Most meals and restaurants are done in the “all-ya-ken- eat” buffet style. The hotel breakfast has a number of edible items but poor presentation.
Our most incomprehensible meal occurred in a really bad Italian restaurant. We request a menu and explain that we eat “sin carne” no meat. The head waiter said, “Pasta solamente pasta.” He took the menu and pointed to all the meatless pastas including polenta (a pasta?). Mark was hesitant but I was hungry so we stayed. Waiters arrived, offering platters of assorted dishes. Mark asked for bread and was told, “No hay” meaning, “There’s none.” This in an Italian restaurant? Finally we realized the word was “Basta” meant “enough” and when we indicated “Basta!” the food stopped.
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