Brazil has been making all kinds of grim news of late. Even prior to COVID, Bolsanaro and his decisions to rape the rain forest to ever more horrific degrees—a true crime against humanity—had already earned the country a pretty high rating on the “what fresh hell is this?” scale.

Maybe Brazil will get a decent leader after all this. Here’s a link to a pretty fair assessment of impeached president Dilma Rousseff, also the subject of the chilling Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, well worth a watch if you can stomach more of man’s inhumanity to man. Rousseff was far from perfect, but she was democratically elected. Well, she’s out. JB is in.

I would love to get to know Brazil. The architecture in Brasilia alone makes me want to visit, and of course there are iconic sites, beautiful cities like Salvador and Belem, and beaches that aren’t Rio. It’s pretty frightening to envision what will happen to the country, which depends heavily on tourists and has also been horribly hit by COVID-19.

The earth is on fire, pretty much everywhere. Let’s do what we can to make it better.

Brazil? What Happened to Cuba?

Even prior to COVID, I’d written Brazil off for the foreseeable future. Yet sitting at my laptop, confronted with a virtual 10-day high stack of photos and video from Cuba—you may recall that, a few weeks ago, I promised to write about it—Steve suddenly popped into view sporting this chapeau. (That’s not Steve, btw. That’s our metal bird, Shiraz. Also, those are NOT real sapphires. I think they’re plastic. Just in case you were confused.)

At first, I couldn’t place the object. Wherever had we purchased this majestic headpiece?

And then I remembered our epic one-day journey into Brazil, accessed via a rattly taxi on the Argentine border, driven by Moises from Paraguay.

And therein lies a tale of a day we have not forgotten. Even though clearly, I forgot the souvenir.

Argentina, The Truth Is We Did Leave You

In 2019, Steve and I headed to Buenos Aires for 6 weeks to study Spanish at the Academia de Buenos Aires, a very good school with great teachers. We’d head in on the insanely congested Linea B subway line every morning from our studio apt in Villa Crespo, grab a coffee at All Saints—the baristas adopted us—and then go to school from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

 buenos aires, all saints cafe

There were workshops, classes and field trips a few times a week in the afternoons, and we’d hit those as well.

Anyone who thinks Spanish is an easy language hasn’t studied it. Of course, on the surface, it is easy, what worth words like interesante and phrases everybody knows from wherever we know them, like mucho dinero and Dos Equis. But then you get to the verb tenses. Dios mio.

It’s not just that Spanish has perfect, imperfect, subjunctive, accusative, and more. We do too. But think about it: Do you have the foggiest idea of how any of those work in English? Our verb tenses are actually pretty easy, thanks to auxiliaries like “will” and “have.”

But in Spanish, you have to change the endings of the verbs to match the tense. Keeping all that straight when you’ve never analyzed your own language very much at all—and I taught English at community college, for cripes’ sake—is sort of the opposite of easy.

And it was enormously frustrating to find that, after a month of diligent classwork and studying and reading and daily doses of a hilariously awful Argentine telenovela, Dulce Amor, I still couldn’t understand the simplest question from the baristas. They would kindly switch to English.

Oh, well. We got quite good at ordering in restaurants and picking up empanadas from the little shop on the corner.

I Say Iguazu, You Say Iguaçu….

I loved having the routine of school. But it was also lovely to take a break. Steve and I bounced off to Montevideo for our second carnival season there. (Another post with lots of video.) We also had decided that this time, we had to get to Iguazu Falls; the Iguaçu spelling is the Portuguese version in Brazil.

We debated: Did we want to go to both sides of the international park? Brazil required a visa at the time (I don’t know what the rules are now), and research told us to order it just a couple of weeks in advance online. It wasn’t cheap—I think we paid….$140 US for it? But we did the paperwork, got everything together.

My visa showed up in an email. Cool.

Steve’s didn’t. I can’t remember why the delay happened; there seemed to be some reason for it. Meanwhile, we already had our plane tickets and a hotel booked. Steve almost never worries about things like this, and at that point in time, I’d gotten a little better about trusting that it would show up by our departure date.

We landed in Puerto Iguazu, in Argentina, on a Thursday night. It’s a lot like an Argentine version of Niagara Falls—slightly less tacky, but probably only because everything’s in Spanish so it’s easier on the eyes. Our hotel, the Boutique Hotel de la Fonte, was charming, with rooms in little cottages surrounding a couple of shady pools. It was also away from the center of town, surrounded by dusty blocks with one-story houses overgrown by twisty trees, vines, and neon-colored flowers.

(Forgive me; I did not get pictures of it, and we currently can’t find any of Steve’s pictures from the trip. The hotel doesn’t even seem to have a website, or I’d send you there.)

That night, the visa still hadn’t come through. The concierge helped us figure out where the Brazilian tourist office was in town, and figured we’d pop in in the morning, straighten things out, then head on over.

We ate a yummy dinner with these churro/cannoli thingies for dessert. I did, at least, take a picture of the food.

brazil churros

The Glorious Efficiency of Latin American Bureaucracy

This is February, the tail end of South American summer, and blisteringly hot. No worries! We’re champion walkers doused in sunscreen. So we walk to the tourist office, which is manned by some very bored young Argentines. They know nothing of a Brazilian office, but they look at the address we’ve been given, wave their arms vaguely, and then turn their backs.

We trudge over a paved but dusty and increasingly hot road and get to said address. There are plate glass windows with some tape haphazardly criss-crossed over them, as if the quickly vacating Brazilian Tourist Office personnel, or lone IT guy running some weird scam, couldn’t get the tape to unroll in this miserable heat. There are a couple of old school land line cables next to a sad phone on an otherwise empty desk in the otherwise empty room.

We flag down a taxi, and Steve gives him a location. After a couple of minutes, I say, “Why are we going back to the hotel?”

Steve says, “No, we’re going to the Falls.”

Um, no. We are indeed heading to the hotel. I realize why the fare has been so cheap. I ask the cab driver, named Moises, where he’s taking us.

And this is where I suddenly realize that, while my Spanish is still somewhere between “awful” and “a joke,” I can nonetheless communicate to this fellow who speaks not a word of English, other than “hotel,” because it’s the same freaking word.

Somehow, between Steve and I fumbling like mad, we get it across that we would like to go to the Brazil side of the Falls today, and that we have to try to work out the issue with Steve’s visa. Moises appears to believe that we can go to the Falls no problem since I have my visa. He drives us, about 20 minutes, past the big fancy package hotels and to the checkpoint that we have to cross in order to get into Brazil.

At the Border

We go into the checkpoint office. There are three guards, all looking fairly stern. I think they were actually Argentinian, not Brazilian; in any event, they were in charge of stamping the passports.

My guard looks at my visa, I show her that Steve’s is pending approval. She speaks slightly more English than I speak Spanish.

There’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed in foreign countries I’ve visited. First off, many, many people, particularly in Europe speak “a little” English, which is usually between 10 and 1000 times more than you speak their language. Secondly, if they’re closer to the 10 times mark, they get really annoyed with you, not for the fact that you can’t speak their language as much as for the fact that you have forced them to reveal that they don’t speak it as well as they think they should.

So her exasperation level may have been due to that, or to the visa situation, but she was still very polite. She asked where we were going, and we said just to the park, just for the day. She asked more than once if we were definitely coming back in the afternoon, and we said yes. She stamped my passport but not Steve’s, said, “You HAVE to come back today,” and then dismissed us.

So. Phew. We made it.

Brazil Is for the Birds

Moises told us we had a couple of options before the park: A helicopter ride and a nature park. We opted for the nature park.

The first thing you notice in Brazil is that there are a lot of really great-looking people. I’ve seen beauties all over Latin America, but Brazil definitely seems to have a pretty high per capita rate of gorgeous. I mean, sure, it’s doubtless an asset to be young and pretty anywhere, and maybe that’s who gets hired. Still, I thought pretty quickly, oh yeah. Brazil. Where the nuts and the models come from.

The park on the border, Parque das Aves, bills itself as “the only institution in the world focused on the conservation of the beautiful and exuberant birds of the Atlantic Rainforest, offering an up-close, immersive and charming experience with them.” This is, honestly, a pretty great summary. First, of course, there are the birds. Here they are in motion. I didn’t get a ton of decent footage, but this is at least a glimpse.

But a big part of the charm is the other animals, like turtles and butterflies and this giant lizard. Look at his eyes!!

There’s also super cool plant life. I admit it freely: I heart fungi. This reminds me of the sleeves on the shirts that guys wear during carnival.

brazil parco das aves fungi

As well as these crazy lipstick plants.

brazil flora

But of course, you’re there for the birds. Like these technicolor flamingos:

And this parrot in repose:

So yeah. We felt like between this and the helicopter ride, we’d done pretty well.

Back in the cab. Off to the falls.

Yours ’til Iguaçu Falls (and after, because it falls all the time)

When you begin your Iguaz/çu inquiries, you will told frequently that you must go to both sides. Brazil has the views, but, in the words of one of our teachers at the Academy, Julian, “Argentina has the magic.” In Argentina, you are right on top of the falls (that video’s coming). In Brazil, you’re standing back from them and sort of freaking out at how amazing they are.

The Brazilian park is simple. You ride a bus in, then about a mile before the Falls, you get out and you walk on a wide path built atop the big cliff that cuts down to the Iguazu River, a tributary of the Parana. There are a couple of vantage points where absolutely everyone gets their picture taken.

There are also crazy amounts of coati, this Amazonian animal that is continually on the look out for junk food. Initially, you are all, “OMYSTARS THAT IS SO CUTE!!”

But after a while, you think, damn. These coatis clearly don’t do much but eat and reproduce, and they’re honestly a little sinister. And seriously, do not take junk food in in your backpack. You do not want those guys leaping onto your shoulder and getting their head stuck in your biz. I mean, that probably doesn’t happen that often, but I bet it’s happened at least once.

But, back to Iguazu. The coolest thing about it is that you think it’s going to be like Niagara Falls or probably any other big waterfall you’ve been to, i.e., one big giant impressive view of a waterfall. But No. You walk, and you see something like this:

Then you walk and see this:

And then you get here, and it’s completely, completely insane. And you walk right over these suckers; the walkway lets you get very, very close to a bunch of dropoffs, you feel this glorious cool mist, and they’re so big, you don’t even feel like it’s that crowded. The video starts with a long view, then ends on the walkway. I was so into just staring at the water right before it dropped over a cliff.

We did take the elevator up to see them from on high. But, well, it’s a cramped elevator and for me, the view from the ground was so much better. On the plus side, the elevator has a gift shop from which you can procure a festive chapeau. Which you then put on your equally festive metal bird with plastic sapphires once you get home. Or on your head, if you’re Steve.

We ordered these fritter things and caporinhas from another incredibly good-looking bored young Brazilian. The Brazilians manage to make boring pretty charming. Then again, it’s pretty hard to be a grouch when you’re eating these tasty things that are absolutely not good for you, the falls rumbling just past your elbows.

How to Make a Cross Border Guard Smile

The Brazil side of Iguaçu is extremely straightforward, and we were done in 2 hours. Moises was there to meet us at the park entrance.

In his taxi, I checked my email, which miraculously had loaded on my phone. (I’m almost always in airplane mode when we travel internationally, so I have no idea how this happened.) What did I find but…..Steve’s visa!!

Miracle 2, our same border guard was available to give us an exit stamp. I showed her the email, and she smiled hugely. No more shady two-gringos-for-the-price-of-one nonsense for her; now, we were both legit. Steve’s passport has the unusual distinction of having an entry and exit stamp with the exact same time stamp. Brazil. Was he even there?

Samba Crosses the Border

After dinner, Steve and I heard a lot of drumming. It was still relatively early, before 9, which is dinner time by South American standards. We followed our ears to a small park in our regular-people, non-touristy neighborhood.

It was February. Carnival happens kind of randomly in Argentina and Uruguay; Uruguay’s tends to be earlier, and in Buenos Aires, people seem to have a lot of trouble switching from the somber tango (I confess I find its gravity to be a little corny) to the speed and pure libido that’s samba.

But here in Puerto de Iguazu, one could, if determined enough, walk into Brazil. And given that what happened next seemed entirely Brazilian and not Argentine at all, even though it technically happened in Argentina—well, it’s going in the Brazil post. I mean, I only get to do one.

The neighborhood was practicing for the big parade. It was a joy to see a dedicated drum corps pounding away as little kids and teenagers threw down. About halfway through the rehearsal, these two gloriously beautiful people, clearly the Carnival King and Queen showed up. About 30 seconds in, you’ll see a woman in heels and a kind of yellow tank top in the background; she’s a spectacular dancer. But she never smiles.

The King and Queen, on the other hand, wear sneakers. And embody pure joy. Check ’em out.