Jaguars in strange places and reflections on Brazil

May 7-8

Breakfast and last chance to photograph the toucans and macaws at the lodge.

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We set out for the long drive to the Cuiaba airport at 7:30. Eduardo treats the drive as just another birding outing, so we stop frequently to view and photograph birds, and even some small marmoset monkeys that Eduardo has heard, then spotted as he drives down the muddy and slippery “highway.”

The heavy rains have done no favors to the condition of the road, and Eduardo sometimes makes some bridge repairs before crossing, but the scenery remains pleasing.

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Eduardo’s facility in spotting and identifying birds and other animals brings to mind the skills that our guides in Africa impressed us with many years ago. In both cases, it’s a familiarity borne of growing up and living with the animals, not from book learning. Eduardo says that the human population of the Pantanal (the jungle, he calls it, is 200 males). No crops are grown because the soil is too sandy, and work consists of raising cattle, being a cowboy –raising horses for tending the cows–fishing or ecotourism.

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Down the road a piece, Carol and I are traded for a young British woman. Eduardo had told us that he was going to have a new guest arriving, so he was going to switch us over to another guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to the airport. Junior is younger than Eduardo, speaks English fine, knows about birds and drives a far more comfortable and air conditioned car. So, though we’d have preferred Eduardo for the full trip, overall it’s not a bad trade. Junior tells us that people are mixed as to their views of the World Cup. Poor people would have liked the money spent on schools, roads and health. The rich, who are the only ones who will be able to afford tickets to go to the World Cup, will just get richer. Junior makes a few bird sighting stops and we arrive at the airport a bit more than an hour before flight time. We breeze through check-in and security, and board our 2 1/4 hour flight to San Paolo.

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Now for some random thoughts on the trip, on Brazil and, probably inevitably, on life, too. For starters, as always, I’m grateful for the incredible privilege of being able to travel like this. It’s the biggest luxury that Carol and I indulge in, and I can’t think of one I’d enjoy more. Once again, it’s terrific to be able to do it, just the two of us, not subject to anybody else’s whims or schedule. Traveling in a group can have some advantages, but, for us, traveling alone or with only a few friends wins, hands down.

A corollary of the amazing trips we’ve taken over the years is that it’s extremely difficult for any new venture to join the upper echelons of our experiences. And Brazil does not make it to that level. If friends asked, we’d certainly put other destinations higher on the list. Knowing what I now know, I might well have opted for another destination, or, at least, changed the make-up of the trip. But, all of that said, I’m not sorry we went.

The trip had its moments, actually quite a few of them. In fact, it got progressively better as we moved along.

Salvador was not the cultural experience we had expected, and that was disappointing. But the old city certainly had its charm, and spending time with Rodrigo and Fernanda was good fun. The social project relating to treatment of women in the favela was worthwhile and interesting. We had one quite outstanding dinner, our guide was engaging and the hotel quite fine. We enjoyed the performance of the Ballet Folklorico and visiting churches celebrating St. Benedict was an interesting experience, too. Our time there was definitely colored by Carol’s chain having been ripped off of her.

Rio is an absolutely stunning city. Full stop. The views of the city from various vantage points were spectacular. The tour of the favela with Rodrigo was excellent and gave us some appreciation for life in the favela. Luiz did a nice job of showing us around, including two out-of-the-ordinary things, visits to the museum of naïve art and to the synagogue. The modern dance performance at the opera house by the Israeli dance company, Batsheva, was truly outstanding. Of course, that just happened to be in Rio; it could as well have been anyplace in the world. Visiting two samba clubs with Rodrigo was fun, but, sadly, I’m feeling that my samba heyday may well have passed me by. Our dinners with Mike Freed’s friends, Rosa and Paul, and with our friend, Andrew, were both terrific, and definitely highlights of Rio. We loved the Maria Ruisa Hotel/ guest house we stayed at in Maria Teresa and the funky, Bohemian atmosphere of the area. Again, our discomfort with safety, stemming from somebody trying to rob our guide in daylight in downtown Rio, did not enhance our stay in Rio. (But, as I said earlier in the blog, even those unpleasant and negative experiences educate us as to the way many less fortunate than us live their lives.)

The highlight of our trip was clearly the time we spent in the Pantanal, especially the last three days with Eduardo. The birding was both fabulous and exciting. Makes me think that if I were doing the trip over, I would substitute a few days on the Amazon for Salvador. I might also consider Iguazu Falls, if I had time, but I think the Amazon would take precedence.

Here’s something curious. I talked about the discomfort/lack of safety we felt in Salvador and Rio. And yet, we thought nothing of going off into the Pantanal alone with a complete stranger, a 44-year old guy we don’t know from Adam, and trusting him to drive us around on muddy roads over wooden bridges, run the motorboat and guide us through areas that contain dangerous animals. Go figure.

So, what made the Pantanal so great? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nature is the nuts, Man. And I think it may especially be the nuts for city dwellers like us who seem (and are) so far removed from nature most of the time. Sorry if this sounds corny, but there’s something, well, primal about returning to nature. And if a great travel experience gets you away from what you do on a daily basis, for us, nature qualifies. (Makes ya’ think that maybe introducing a more regular dose of nature into our lives might not be such a bad idea.)

The three animal/birding experiences we’ve had have been markedly different. (I’m going to spare you including our search for tigers in India or any of my many scuba diving experiences.). The Galapagos, our first, was unique in that what we saw there is unspoiled and cannot be seen anyplace else on earth. Visiting everyplace by boat was also unique. Africa was, well, Africa. Perhaps there’s a mystique that enhances the experience, but the mystique is powerful enough that it seems real (if that’s not a complete contradiction in terms). Seeing the range of animals that we saw on our three trips there and roaming across the land with them is experiencing the wild in a way unlike anything else we’ve done. The Pantanal is certainly the best birding we’ve done, by far. Carol identified 81 species in our five days there. Unlike in Africa, though, you don’t roam the land in a jeep, but travel down the Transpantaneira “highway,” or walk through woods in search of birds. We saw very little animal life in the Pantanal, and certainly nothing that compared remotely to Africa.

Another major difference between Africa and the Pantanal was the accommodations, which were often spectacular in Africa and very basic in the Pantanal. I’ll admit to liking the luxury of Africa, the creature comforts. And I’m guessing that I’m not going to value creature comforts less as I age. To me, amazing accommodations enhance, add an element to, the travel experience. Given the option, I’ll take luxury. At the same time, the basic accommodations in the Pantanal did not ruin the trip, or come close to doing so, though nobody would mistake them for a Four Seasons.

Here are a fifteen differences between a Four Seasons/our Pantanal accommodations:

24 hours of electricity a day/12 hours of electricity a day
2. Used toilet paper flushed down the toilet/used toilet paper placed in a little plastic waste can
3. Brush your teeth with tap water/brush your teeth with a bottle of water
4. Running hot water in the sink/no running hot water in the sink
5. Choice of food/no choice of food
6. Perpetual hot water in shower/periodic hot water in shower
7. Shower curtain/no shower curtain
8. No bats in the room/average of one bat in the room per day
9. Amenities kit/teeny bar of soap
10. Shuttle bus from the airport to hotel/truck from airport to hotel
11. Choice of wake-up time/told truck leaves with you in it at 4:30 AM
12. Closet with hangers/no closet, no hangers
13. Laundry sent out, done magically/laundry sent out, done by woman with pail outside
14. Phone in room/no phone in hotel
15. Doorman/no doorman

I’ve thought some about the experience of going bird or animal watching, and why that seems so special. First, there’s the excitement of the unexpected. When you go out looking for birds or animals, you don’t know what, if anything, you’re going to find. And it’s even okay if you don’t find what your looking for. Finding jaguar tracks last night and the anticipation that that created, was almost as good as finding a jaguar would have been. Okay, so that’s a direct lie. But there’s an element of truth to it.

In fact, the opposite is also true, predictability makes the experience less compelling. For example, while seeing the river otters and kingfishers on the river the other day was great, the fact that Eduardo knew where he would find them made it less special. When we went on elephants to see tigers in India, the tigers had been located beforehand. That made seeing the tigers less exciting than spotting tigers unexpectedly from a jeep. No, please, tell me that I’m not really saying that seeing tigers on elephant back is not all that exciting.

Getting back to what makes birding so exciting, another part of it is the complexity. You can identify birds by their size, shape, color, sound (Eduardo was constantly doing calls, sounds to imitate and attract them), flight pattern and habitat, and undoubtedly in other ways I’m leaving out. And, the ability to identify and name them is, well, Biblical. Didn’t God give Adam dominion over birds and animals by giving him the power to name them?

I struggle a bit with the trade offs between just seeing birds and photographing them. Certainly, you see them far better by just looking through glasses (at least with the photographic equipment that I have). But photographing them allows you to see them later, and share them with others. Of course, you could do that using a bird book, which would have far better photos. But, c’mon, that’s cheating, and, besides, it deprives you of the enjoyment of taking and working on the photos. Thinking about this now, I think I may strike the balance a bit differently next time, spending a bit of time looking at each bird through the glasses, before shifting to the camera.”if I miss a few shots in the process, no big deal.

And, since you raised the question, photographically, this will not be one of my more satisfying trips. That’s because my primary interest in photography is people, and I took very few photos of people on this trip. That doesn’t mean that I won’t spend weeks working on these photos and enjoying that. I will, but it won’t be as interesting to me as it would if I were working on photos of people.

Okay, time to end this rambling. Reading back over this summary of the trip makes me realize that it was a pretty damn good trip, after all. It’s been fun having you along, and I’ve appreciated the many comments I’ve gotten from you, both on the blog and in emails that you’ve sent. If you’re game for returning to Ghana and Nigeria (or, for new followers, want to try it for the first time), Carol and I will be returning with our good friends the Kipharts and the Olopades in late August. We’d love to have you join us.

One last photo to demonstrate how sometimes you hunt the world over for something that is sitting in your own back yard, or, in this case, your garage.

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Drenched in sweat and rain

May 6

Our last full day in Brazil starts with a 4:30 AM ride that turns up nothing amazing.

Breakfast, again very good, back at the lodge. After photographing, mainly toucans, around the lodge, in light that is not very good, we set out on foot at 7:30, towards Eduardo’s Uncle Tutu’s cattle farm. It’s already sultry and overcast. Eduardo says it will rain. Heat means a lot of sweat, which makes the bird watching, and walking, less enjoyable.

Arrive at Uncle Tutu’s cattle farm as Uncle Tutu is heading out. Bird life on Uncle’s farm is different and about as amazing as at Jaguar. Mercifully, it begins to cool a bit after awhile, as we get a very light drizzle. Somebody from Jaguar comes to pick us up, and we get into the truck as it begins to rain, then pour very hard.

Get drenched walking the very short distance from the truck to the dining room, but the cold and damp actually feels good. Lot of rain comes through the roof and we sit in chairs that rest in puddles. Carol heads back to our room in her rain jacket to read. I stay in the dining room and pour over a couple hundred photos I took this morning to whittle them down for the blog. The whittling is a very imperfect process, as I eliminate photos based on tiny thumbnails. So, I’m not necessarily working from the best photos, and I can do only very minor work on them before posting. So, with those excuses, here’s a selection from this morning, including one of Uncle Tutu.

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After yet another good lunch, we wait until three for an afternoon drive, anticipating that the rain will have let up by then. But it has not, so we wait another half hour, then set out in what is still a very steady rain. The rain has had the salutary effect of cooling things off dramatically, enough so that I’m comfortable wearing my rain jacket for the first time this trip.

Major sighting this afternoon is a tapir, which we see for about three seconds as it runs across the road. The tapir is a large, horse-sized animal that lives on a vegetarian diet. Jaguars may try to attack them, but, if they do, the tapir runs into the woods and knocks the jaguar off with the brush. A few other very nice bird sightings, including the capped heron and the purple gallinule, but low light permits only poor photos. Also saw two cavys (rodents). Below, too, are pictures of the famed Transpantaneira Highway and one of its many wooden bridges.

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After dinner, a last night drive in an effort to spot a jaguar. We find fresh tracks, but, despite valiant efforts by Eduardo, fail to find the actual jaguar. As Charlie Brown would say, “Curse you, Red Baron!”

A plethora of parrots and other colorful birds

May 5

Up early. Very good breakfast at 6:30 with Eduardo. The first place we stayed had probably twenty or so people. Here there are fewer. Two, actually. Us.

Set off walking around right near the breakfast place and there is an absolutely incredible array of birds, toucans, parrots, macaws, cuckoos. One could spend the day here watching and photographing. We tear ourselves away and begin walking, seeing many more birds. Eduardo is excellent at finding, identifying and pointing out birds to us. We weather the rush hour traffic, Eduardo’s cousin driving an American and Canadian around. They’ve lived for three years in Salvador, working for Ford, and will be moving out soon; from their body language, happily.

By 8:30, we’ve been out for an hour and a half, and it’s hot already. We get back to the lodge and have a welcome cold drink and a short sit. We take off in the truck for another hour and a quarter, spotting more birds, the return to the lodge, where we have another cool drink and we return to our room, where Carol goes outside for more birding, and I download photos. Several of them are quite presentable, sharp, but many of them are off slightly in focus due to difficulty caused by distance, handholding a long lens and faulty technique. Here’s some from the morning take, including one of Carol and Eduardo, and one of two Pantanal horses, who wade in water and eat grass in the water (I think you’ll be able to identify which are which).

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On our way to lunch, we notice a group of perhaps ten or twelve photographers, loaded with tripods and very fancy (and heavy) photo gear taking photos where we were taking them early this morning. Apparently, our lodge is such a fabulous birding site that guides take groups her (and pay Eduardo for the privilege). While I’m sure the equipment allows them to take fabulous bird photos, I too lazy to ever think about doing that. It’s just not where I’m at with my photography.

Okay, so let’s place our heroes for you. When we flew to Cuiaba (pronounced Kwee-ahba) from Rio, we flew South and West. Our drive to the Araras Lodge from Cuiaba was 50 km West and 75 km South. The Jaguar is another 85 km South. This afternoon, after another good lunch, we drove 36 more km South, as usual, stopping to identify birds, to Porto Jofre. All of this driving is along the Transpantaneta Highway, a dirt road well pock-marked and containing short wooden bridges over water approximately every kilometer. The building of the highway had a dramatic affect, transforming what was a big cattle raising area in which everyone worked together to fenced lots. The ecology was also changed because of the division of rivers.

Anyway, in Porto Jofre, about the southernmost part of Brazil’s Pantanal, after Eduardo negotiated bathroom permission for Carol on a large fishing vessel, we set out for a delightful 3-hour trip in an aluminum motor boat piloted expertly by Eduardo on two adjoining rivers, the Cuiaba River and the Piguiri Riverh. The river was cool and scenic, the bird life plentiful and the highlight was spotting and viewing a family of giant river otters as they made their way home, shortly before a lovely sunset.

Short aside: as Africa has it’s “Big Five,” so does the Pantanal. The Pantanal Five consist of the a Hyacinth Macaw, the Giant River Otter, the Giant anteater, the anaconda snake and the jaguar. We’ve seen the first three, and have one day left to complete the five.

The ride back to our lodge offered more sightings in the spotlight waved back and forth across the road by Eduardo as he swerved from side to side and lined up the many wooden bridges we had to cross. Probably the best sightings were several great-horned owls and a couple foxes. Managed to get a poor picture of the back of one of the owls, which I’m going to spare you seeing.

Arrived home with 5 minutes to wash before our 7 PM dinner, which again was remarkably good. We’re turning in early, because we’re to set out on a drive at 4:30 AM tomorrow. Well, hell, it’s our last chance to see an anaconda and a jaguar.

Here’s the afternoon’s take.

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Dislodging to dat other lodge

May 4

Buffet breakfast, then walk through wooded, foresty, marshy area with a different guide named Thadeo. Among our walking group is Camilla, the Brazilian 20-month old daughter of a German father and Mexican mother. Makes me wish Maxi, 19 months, were along, as long as Carol was carrying him.

Words to describe our walk–hot, long, muddy, sweaty, very hot. Saw more birds and plant life, including pink crab eggs. Here are some photos.

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Buffet lunch outside and goodbyes to people we’ve met the past couple days. Pack and prepare to be picked up for our transfer to Jaguar Ecological Preserve, where we’ll spend our last three nights in Brazil.

Eduardo, owner and guide at Jaguar, picks us up in a truck. Carol is stuffed in the back seat with the luggage as the truck back is loaded with a solar panel. I’m up front with Eduardo in the sorta air conditioned truck. Turns out that when Eduardo was about nine and his father was raising cattle, a guy from Santa Fe, NM was doing research on birds in the area and stayed with them. He told Eduardo’s father that he should give up the cattle and go into ecotourism. But his father said no, raising cattle was what he knew how to do. A few years later, though, he changed his mind. The guy from Santa Fe sent somebody down to teach Eduardo and some relatives how to speak English and, twenty years ago, the ecotourism business started, and Eduardo is pleased with the way it’s gone. Clearly ecotourism is a family business. His brother-in-law is a guide at the first place we stayed and we passed property of cousins on the way down, one of whose fathers was mayor of a nearby town, which accounts for the road that runs right by their property.

We’re switching to Jaguar, well, because of jaguars. We’re hoping to see one, and this place, because of it’s location, gives you a much better chance. Eduardo is understated, and sorta grows on you. Though he makes no show of it, he clearly knows all of the birds and all about them. Along the way, we stop frequently and probably see birds better, and with much less sweat, than we’ve seen to date. Two and a half hours later, we’ve traversed the 85 kilometers and arrive at Jaguar.

Luxurious it’s not, sort of Motel Eight-like, but not really worse than our prior place. It’ll do. The wildlife here appears great, both in and outside the room. A tree located near our room holds a vulture, 3 hyacinth macaws and another big bird whose identity we’re unsure of, let’s call him, “Ralph.” Inside, Carol captures a small bat she spots on the curtain and escorts it outside. The generator Eduardo has turned on generates air conditioning, which is good. The generator operates from 6PM to 6:30AM each day. If you want electricity at other times, you can get it for $75/hour.

We spend an hour in the room, then go up for dinner, which is actually quite good, especially the chicken and a passion fruit custard dessert. Eduardo joins us for dinner and we learn that his two kids, 16 and 18, live with their mother in Cuiaba, where they are studying. Eduardo expects to move to the US in five years or less to help with a mission of his church, perhaps in NY or San Francisco. It’s tough to find somebody to take charge of Jaguar, though. His son, 16, can’t wait to go to the US. His daughter is planning to go to medical school. His wife is not enthused about moving to the US.

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We set out with Eduardo for a night drive, which proves singularly unsuccessful. While that’s a bit disappointing, it’s all part of the game; there are no guarantees when you’re looking for game. We’re back at the room early, which ought to give us a good night’s sleep before our 6:30 breakfast tomorrow.

Into the wild

May 2

We’re picked up at the hotel by Luiz and driver at 5:30 A.M. and drive to the airport, where we have a farewell coffee with Luiz.

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Our flight leaves Rio a bit after 7:30 AM, stopping in the capital, Brasilia, where we change planes to fly to Cuiaba. We’ll arrive a bit after 11, but have to wait a couple hours for our van to the lodge. While it’s frustrating to kill days in this way, there’s no alternative.

Stretching across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland. Although not as well known as the Amazon Rainforest to its north, this gigantic seasonal floodplain is also home to a staggering variety of plants and wildlife.

Imagine a huge soup plate that slowly fills up with water and overflows in the rainy season, gradually empties during the dry season and then starts to fill up all over again. That image gives a good idea of what the Pantanal is like; a unique, rich, but threatened ecosystem located in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

​​The Pantanal covers an area of some 81,000 sq. miles, 10 times the size of Florida’s Everglades.
​​The Pantanal is home to about 3500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325 fish species, 159 mammals, 53 amphibian and 98 reptiles.
​​Average yearly rainfall is 40-55 inches.
​​Over 80% of the Pantanal floodplains are submerged during the rainy seasons.
​​The name “Pantanal” comes from the Portuguese word pântano, meaning wetland, bog, swamp or marsh.

A plethora of animal species can be found in the Pantanal. There is estimated to be about 1000 bird species, 300 mammals and 9,000 invertebrates (note the variation in these numbers from those quoted above from a different source; you can take your pick, because I’m not going to count them), in addition to countless fascinating insects and other species. Some of the very rare and / or endangered animal species include:

• Marsh Deer 
• Giant River Otter 
• Hyacinth Macaw 
• Crowned Solitary Eagle
• Jaguar 
• Maned Wolf 
• Bush Dog 
• Capybara 
• South American Tapir 
• Giant Anteater 
• Yacare Caiman

We are met at the Cuiaba airport by our guide, Aynole, and we are transport by air conditioned van with two women from the Toronto area, Jean and Karen. We stop at a roadside restaurant for a melted cheese sandwich, then make many stops along our two and a half hour drive to spot various birds and caiman (Caimans are alligatorid crocodylians within Caimaninae. The group is one of two primary lineages within Alligatoridae, the other being alligators; aren’t you sorry you asked?) I don’t really have a long enough lens for shooting birds, so the photos are going to be somewhat disappointing.

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We are staying at the Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge, which is quite basic, but comfortable enough. There’s air conditioning and wifi, so nothing else much matters. Carol took an afternoon walk around the grounds, but I was exhausted from lack of sleep, so I crashed. We attended part of an interesting slide presentation on jaguars, then had a perfectly fine, but unexceptional buffet dinner. There are quite a large number of people here, including families with small children. We ate with our guide and Jean and Karen, then took about a 45-minute walk with Aynole under the stars and with the sounds of the swampy land loud in our ears. Managed to spot water buffalo, caiman, bats and a few other animals back to the room to blog and retire at a decent hour.

Favela life and sambas

May 1

Today is a national holiday, the Workers’ Day that is celebrated around the world, except in our country. We start it out with our usual breakfast on the veranda. One could get used to this.

We are picked up at our hotel by, Rodrigo, a new guide from another company, who is taking us to the favela (shanty town) of Pavão-Pavãozinho, which stands on a hill overlooking Copacabana beach. Carol asks whether it’s dangerous, and Rodrigo says, wryly, “I will get you back.” Many of you probably will have read about the riots in a Rio favela that made international news, less than a week ago. Well, that’s the favela we are going to.

We walk down the very steep hill from our hotel to the train station below and take a train to a station close to the favela.

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On the train, we learn that Rodrigo is quite an extraordinary fellow. He’s about thirty and, for starters, speaks Portugese, English, Spanish, Dutch, German and French. As his girlfriend is Norwegian, he’s learning that, too. He runs tours that are oriented to social projects, a bent that he gets from his mother, who long ago started a project to help aged people in Rio. In addition, Rodrigo helps businessmen from Europe, largely Dutch, find potential investments in Brazil, in agribusiness and other types of ventures.

Rodrigo has established relationships with many of the people in the favela we are visiting, has organized New Years parties that bring people up to the favela to view the activities on Copacabana Beach below.

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He also has favela residents involved in the tours he does, thus getting them funds. His goal is for them to take it over. Both of Rodrigo’s parents grew up in favelas and made their way out, against substantial odds through hard work.

Rather than try to integrate what we leaned into poetic form, which is Carol’s bailiwick anyway, I’ll just try list some of those things, in no particular order.

1.8 million of Rio’s 6.2 million people live in favelas.

Many of them started in the late 19th century, when slavery was abolished and people moved into the cities. Housing was built by these people, originally of wood, and they squatted on the land. Recent laws allow people who have lived in a place for five years to get title to the property.

As this favela abuts a very well-to-do area and affords great water and beach views, land is starting to appreciate and beginning to be bought by people from outside the favela. The government has begun to put many police in the favelas, originally to wrest control from drug lords. Police are viewed by most in the favela as the enemy.

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The recent riots broke out when police shot and killed a popular dancer, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rioting broke out and fires were set. The photos below include one of a burned out car and another wall with a mural of the dead dancer.

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Though favelas are supposed to be very tough places, oddly, Carol and I both feel safer in the favela than we did in downtown Rio yesterday. This is largely because we are with Rodrigo, a tall, handsome young man who clearly has excellent relations with favela residents.

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The government has paved some roads, put in a new subway station with an elevator, pumped water up to the houses, put in a new school, etc. Things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go. Everyone in the favela has a cellphone, according to Rodrigo.

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We watch a soccer game on a cement lot, meet a young favela artist and see some of his paintings, then walk all the way down the hill and stop for a soft drink.

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Rodrigo puts us in a taxi, headed for the botanical garden. This was not to be part of our tour, but we’ve decided to add it. Luiz offered to pick us up and take us there to show us around, but we didn’t think it was worth the fee and that we could as easily do it on our own. The gardens are huge and impressive, but we’re too tired and hot to do more than go to see a special orchid exhibit, then take a nice, air-conditioned taxi back to our hotel.

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We have large, delicious cheese sandwiches on our veranda. We’re happy to have almost five hours before dinner to relax, blog, pack, shower, etc.

We take a walk over to the studio of an artist whose paintings we’ve admired at the hotel. He is very gracious in inviting us in, showing us around and introducing us to his wife. His current work is with bottle caps, interesting in its way, but a far cry from what we’d admired. He spent five years in New York in the 80′s, studying new techniques for his art. He lives and works I a beautiful old house with lovely views and heavy, chained security.

We walk from there to a local restaurant that had been recommended by our hotel, and we have a very good meal, filet mignon covered with cartelized onions and a nice wine sauce, wrapped in greens and sitting on potatoes. We come back to the hotel, settle up our bill and prepare to taste the night life of Rio.

Rio is renowned for its samba music and informal, laid-back way of life. One characteristic aspect of Rio’s nightlife is the many hidden venues where cariocas (Rio’s inhabitants) gather for a roda de samba. The atmosphere is that of a typical street party – a group of musicians plays well-known samba songs around a table, while a crowd of onlookers sings along to the music, drinking ice-cold beer or caipirinhas. Tonight we pretend we’re cariocas, though the discerning native could probably tell us apart. The first place is a really local bar in which we may well be the only outsiders. People know and greet each other and the musicians. We stay for two or three sets.

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Afterwards we continued to a typical samba bar in a large, funky restored building in the bohemian district of Lapa, to hear live music.

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We call it quits after this bar, say goodbye to Rodrigo and taxi home, arriving at 12:15, not much before we need to arise at 5 tomorrow morning. We’re looking forward to getting to an area where any danger is likely to come from non-human animals.

Rio from the ground, with a hint of Judaism and Israeli dance

April 30

Another breakfast on the veranda on what looks to be another picture-perfect, sunny day in a Rio. Yesterday’s weather was as good as it gets. So far, the beauty of Rio seems to be as seen from atop the city, and driving along the beautiful beaches. What we’ve seen of the city itself does not distinguish it from other large cities. One doesn’t feel the beauty of a Paris or Barcelona, or, closer to home, of a San Francisco, or, yes, a Chicago. But we’re going to explore the city more today, so, stay tuned.

But first, I seem to forget a something each night when I post the blog. Last night, I forgot to report that the 29th of each month is gnocchi night in Italian restaurants, so we shared three different kinds of gnocchi. Good, but very rich. Luiz knew of this and told us that the custom is that you’re supposed to put a dollar under your plate to bring good luck. We didn’t know about that, though.

Luiz picks us up and we take a very bumpy local bus over cobblestone roads down to the city. Carol declines a seat offered to her by several on the bus, because she does not have her hard seat, which she lost in Salvador. We arrive downtown and walk around a good deal. We learn a lot from Luiz about Brazilian history, and see both some of old Rio and new Rio, including an amazing busker who poses motionless as a statue.

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We experience another small world phenomenon, encountering our friend, Scott Turow. Well, not exactly, but we see a translation of his book, Innocent.

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It was Scott who at lunch a week ago had cautioned me to be very careful in Brazil. The wisdom of Scott’s advice was demonstrated yet again when, in broad daylight in downtown Rio, a young man bumps into our guide intentionally and tries to snatch a chain that Luiz is wearing around his neck. Luiz seems unaffected and more or less shrugs. A well-dressed man who witnesses this hands me a small plastic bag and motions for me to put this bag around the camera that I’m wearing around my neck. This experience makes us suspicious of everyone, watching those around us continuously, which is not a comfortable way to live. It makes me think of those who confront more serious threats of violence regularly in their lives and how fortunate I am not to be subjected to that. Our friend Andrew last night spoke of how this fear is the worst part of living in Brazil. He is reluctant to take out his iPhone on the street, locks car doors and spoke of how he knows several people who travel in armored cars. So, maybe you want to think twice about that trip to Brazil.

We walk to see the new art museum from the top of which we can get sense of the ambitious projects being undertaken in preparation for the Olympics, including destruction of a highway that had divided city. From the museum we can see from above the old and new Rio that we’ve seen at street level this morning, including the golden interior of a Baroque church.

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We take a taxi to get to lunch at the iconic restaurant Confeitaria Colombo, the oldest coffee shop in Rio de Janeiro, originally opened as a meeting point for intellectuals and aristocrats. Built in 1894 and refurbished in 1914, it is a living portrait of Rio’s Belle Époque, retaining much of its Art Nouveau charm, with famous Belgian mirrors in hardwood frames and lovingly preserved Italian marble benches. See if you can find Carol in this photo.

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After lunch we take a half-hour tour of the opera house with its elaborately refurbished interior, done in the very early twentieth century for the centennial of the founding of the Kingdom of Brazil, where we’ll see a performance this evening.

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From the opera, we take a subway to Beth El, an orthodox synagogue. We are greeted warmly by the director, who studied in the U.S. And has two children living in Israel. We speak mainly English, but a few words of Yiddish and Hebrew are thrown in. This type of immediate connection is common whenever we stop at a synagogue when we travel.

Our host shows us around and encourages us to take photos. There is a beautiful tapestry above the ark and some very striking stained glass windows. The women are separated from the men and sit upstairs in a balcony. The congregation has a thousand members, and we’re sown a separate building that is used by younger congregants. Rio has approximately 50,000 Jews, San Paolo about 100,000 and there is a smattering elsewhere in the country.

Our host says that I should keep the kippah (yarmulke) he’s loaned me to wear while I’m in the synagogue, which I later discover was from Clara and Victor’s wedding on Nov 30, 2008. Amazing that today marks exactly 5 years and 5 months since Clara and Victor were wed. Doesn’t seem possible.

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Taxi to Santa Teresa and walk around, visit a few galleries, stop for beer at well-known local bar, across from murals visible aside reflections of the bar in a mirror, where we meet a young lady who has spent a year and a half in Brazil doing various and sundry things and is heading home tomorrow. At a shop, Carol buys a nice platter. But she’s not intending to use it as a platter, but as a seat to replace the one she left in Salvador.

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Back to our hotel to shower and rest/blog before heading down for a very good and leisurely dinner at Bistro Villarino, a restaurant near the opera house at which we stopped in to make a reservation earlier today. We then round the corner to the opera house where we see an absolutely fabulous modern dance company called Batsheva, which is based in Tel Aviv and somehow affiliated with Martha Graham. Make sure to keep an eye out for them, and, if you see they’re on, don’t miss them. Carol said that if they were doing the same program tomorrow (they’re not), she’d go see it again, and so would I. Back to the hotel to turn in.

Viewing Rio from on high

April 29

Breakfast on the veranda of our room. Ah, yes, it’s a tough life, but I know that somebody must live like this, and I’m prepared to do my part.

A footnote (pun intended) to yesterday’s blog. Walking along the beach with Rosa and Paul last night, we noticed some boys playing a game at a volleyball net. We assumed they were playing volleyball, but when we looked more closely, we noticed that they were getting the ball over the net using soccer rules, i.e. never touching the ball with their hands. It’s called foot volley, and is quite amazing to watch.

Picked up at 9 by our guide, Luiz, who had met us at the airport yesterday. A full day of traditional Rio sightseeing. At Corcovado and Sugar Loaf. After a scenic ride along the Rodrigo de Feitas Lagoon, we arrive at the Cosme Velho district, where we board a cog-train, which takes us right through the Tijuca Forest, to the top of Concovado (hunchback) mountain. On our way up, we enjoy beautiful views of the Guanabara Bay,the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the beach of Ipanema and Leblon and the Rio-Niteroi Bridge. Arriving at the base of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer, we have a stunning 360 degree view over the city. The statue was paid for, constructed and owned by the Catholic Church. Though it was intended to be completed for the centennial of independence in 1922, delays in raising funds and construction postponed its completion until 1931 (query whether the work planned for the World Cup and Olympics will meet a similar fate). The statue is almost 100 feet high, about the height of the Statue of Liberty, minus the torch, and the arm span of the statue is some ninety feet.

Carol, of course, had to feed a monkey a pistachio nut she had in her purse. Riding back down on the tram, we are entertained by some young Brazilian musicians, who are playing for tips and succeed in getting several of the women on the car to dance with them. Fun.

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The afternoon involved taking two cable cars up to the top of Sugar Loaf, a mountain that looks back on the city of Rio and Concovado, rather than looking out from the city towards the bay, as we did this morning. Now, I know this sounds like a pretty boring day, and the photos below won’t do it justice, but it’s impossible to overstate how breathtaking the city of Rio is. Looking at it for a day was well worth the time.

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I lied a little bit, though, because we did do several other things, the most interesting of which was stopping at a museum of naïve art that has a collection of some 6000 items from all around the world, the collection of a Jewish jeweler. Wonderful to look at, and many of the pieces were extremely good. We also stopped for lunch at a Brazilian steakhouse in Ipanema, whose ample salad bar of seafood items more than satisfied Carol. And we ran three errands, two of which were successful (buying tickets for a modern dance concert at the opera house tomorrow night and getting cash at an ATM). The third, trying to find an orthopedic seat for Carol at two different places, was not.

Returned back to the hotel to rest. You’ve probably figured out by now that, for me, “rest” is a synonym for “blog”.

Took a taxi to D” Amici, a very good Italian restaurant in Copacabana, where we met Andrew Janszky, who heads up the Brazilian operation for a large New York firm, Milbank. I had gotten to know Andrew almost thirty years ago, when he was the hiring partner of Shearman & Sterling, a consulting client of mine. Andrew is based in San Paolo, but was able to arrange business in Rio, so that we could have dinner together. So, if anyone needs proof of the smallness of the world, in less than a week, Carol and I have had dinner with a Brazilian oncologist and his radiologist wife, a Brazilian cardiologist and her economist husband and a Brazilian/American lawyer.

Dinner with Andrew was terrific, once we finally found the place. The taxi driver could not find it and dropped us at a spot that was not our restaurant. After getting help from a couple people we found, who, luckily, spoke English we located the restaurant.

Andre (his real name, which he goes by in Brazil) is a lot of fun, lively, and we picked up pretty-much where we left off some twenty-five years ago. He has a unique perspective, having been born in Brazil of Hungarian parents, moved to and lived in NY, and now living half time in NY and half in Brazil. Andrew loves the Brazilian people but finds it frustrating to live with constant concerns about safety. I think it’s fair to say that he’s down on many aspects of Brazilian life, when compared to life in the U.S. After a delightful, long dinner with much conversation, Andrew sent us back to our hotel with the driver he uses in Rio.

Hi-Ho Hee-o, and Hurray for Mama Ruisa

April 28

After finishing our packing, on which we’d gotten a good start last night, we enjoyed another good breakfast at the hotel. Picked up by Gabriela and our driver at 8:30 and arrived at the airport two hours ahead of time for our 11:15 flight. We’re sitting here in a modern, but not very well air conditioned, airport. I ask Carol whether she thinks there’s early boarding available for people who are impatient. She says I can try.

Some reflections on our time in Salvador. It was not what we expected. We’d gone there because of the strong African influence and, while we understand that and saw and heard some of it, we did not really feel it the way we’d anticipated. Part of this may have been the poor timing for seeing the Candomble religion in action. Undoubtedly, too, our experience was colored by Carol’s necklace having been stolen, after which we were constantly on the watch. Gabriela and others warned me about my camera, so I wore it around my neck and kept a tight grip on it.

On the other hand, one can argue that this adverse experience was a dose of the reality of Brazil. And there certainly were aspects of our days here that were great–meeting Rodrigo and Fernanda, the Calafeta social project, the ballet folklorico, traversing the streets of the Pelourinho in the pouring rain with Gabriela, some very good food, the church experiences–so it was far from a total loss. The Pelourinho area holds considerable charm, but also a certain unreality. Rodrigo told us that, while Fernanda had lived in Salvador her whole life, she’d really only been to the area (other than to eat at some good restaurants) two times. So staying where we did was probably not experiencing the real Salvador.

Now for a bit of information I’ve stolen from various sources about Rio. First of all, so that you’ll really feel in the know, Rio is pronounce Hee-o. You can be obnoxious, as I’ll almost certainly be, and correct folks next time they show their ignorance by mispronouncing it. (Just as I assume you correct people when they mispronounce the Spanish city of Barthelona.)
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Rio is the capital city of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city of Brazil, and the third largest metropolitan area and agglomeration in South America. There are approximately 6.3 million people living within the city proper, making it the 6th largest in the Americas and 26th in the world. It is the only state to be bordered by all the other states in the same macroregion. These are Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and São Paulo. It is also bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. This state has a total area of 43 653 square kilometres.

Although originally inhabited by native tribes, Rio de Janeiro is considered to have been ‘discovered’ when Portuguese explorers encountered Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1502. The name Rio de Janeiro means “River of January”, and is based upon finding this destination on this date. It would be some 53 years later that one of the islands of Guanabara Bay was colonized and occupied by 500 French settlers. Today, this island is known as Villegagnon Island. Then, on 1 March 1565, the Portuguese established the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, while Guanabara Bay was called Rio de Janeiro.

During the 1600’s, Rio became a convenient port for the transport of gold and precious stones. For this reason, the colonial administration was moved to the area in 1763 from Salvador. In 1808, the city saw an influx of Portuguese royal family and associated Lisbon nobles, who were escaping the Napoleonic invasion in their homeland. These Portugese ousted those who were occupying homes and territory within Rio to take over their established abodes. With these noblemen and royals came hundreds of thousands of slaves, who crossed the ocean from Africa. In 1808, when the Portuguese Royal Court transferred itself from Portugal to Brazil, Rio de Janeiro became the chosen seat of the court of Queen Maria I of Portugal, who subsequently, in 1815, under the leadership of her son, the Prince Regent, and future King João VI of Portugal, raised Brazil to the dignity of a kingdom, within the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and Algarves. Rio stayed the capital of the monarchy until 1822, when the War of Brazilian Independence began. It subsequently served as the capital of the independent monarchy, the Empire of Brazil, until 1889, and then the capital of a republican Brazil until 1960.

Rio de Janeiro represents the second largest GDP in the country (and 30th largest in the world in 2008), estimated at nearly US$201 billion, and is headquarters to two of Brazil’s major companies—Petrobras and Vale, and major oil companies and telephony in Brazil, besides the largest conglomerate of media and communications companies in Latin America, the Globo Organizations. The home of many universities and institutes, it is the second largest center of research and development in Brazil, accounting for 17% of national scientific production—according to 2005 data.

Rio is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere and is known for its natural settings, carnival celebrations, samba, Bossa Nova, balneario beaches such as Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. Some of the most famous landmarks in addition to the beaches include the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer (“Cristo Redentor”) atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; Sugarloaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) with its cable car; the Sambódromo, a permanent grandstand-lined parade avenue which is used during Carnival; and Maracanã Stadium, one of the world’s largest football stadiums.

Rio will be one of the official Host Cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and its Maracanã Stadium, which held the final of the 1950 FIFA World Cup and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, will host the final match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympics and the Summer Paralympics for the first time a South American and Portuguese-speaking nation will be hosting the event. It will be only the third time the Olympics will be held in a Southern Hemisphere city.

We’re about an hour late. Rio looks beautiful, mountains on one side, water on the other. A tremendous amount of work is being done, some of it in preparation for the World Cup, and major stuff in preparation for the Olympics. The old waterfront is being completely rebuilt and roads moved, so that we are routed through the downtown area to get to Santa Teresa, where our hotel/guest house is located. Fortunately, the tour I’d thought we were doing this afternoon had been switched to another day, as we would not have had time to do it.

We are staying at the Mama Ruisa, a colonial-style hotel located in Santa Teresa overlooking the Bay of Botafogo, 30 minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from Copacabana and Ipanema, and 10 minutes from the historic centre. The French-run property has only seven rooms, all with exclusive decoration, and serves breakfast on the verandah overlooking the bay. Okay, so that’s the stock description of the place, but doesn’t come close to describing how lovely it is. Gorgeous, huge room with bath, shower and walk-in closet, spacious living room with great art work, fabulous views, pool and garden area, wifi. (The photos below won’t do it justice, either.). We may never leave this place.

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We took a walk up the hill from our guest house to the main street, which feels funky and a little Bohemian. There are a number of small restaurants, bars, arty stores, etc. As was true in Salvador, murals line many streets, though they appear to be less polished, if that’s a word that applies to graffiti, than many we saw in Havana.

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We wound up stopping for a small snack at what turned out to be a movie theater. There we had a long conversation with a young European woman who is building a house in Santa Teresa, but whose 7-year old daughter is in Italy with her husband. She’d lived in London and other places, and spoke articulately about the shortcomings of Brazil, including infrastructure, education, corruption, health. She described it as chaotic, but, at the same time, clearly has a love for the country.

Returned home and made arrangements to have dinner with Rosa (more below) and cleaned up and rested a bit. We met for dinner with a pediatric cardiologist who is a good friend of our close friend, Mike Freed. Rosa Barbosa took a 6 month sabbatical in Boston, where Mike is a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s. Rosa has set up a foundation and a cardiac hospital to take care of indigent children with congenital heart disease in Rio. Great time with Rosa and her husband, Paul, who is a retired economist. Rosa’s dedication and drive for the work she does is amazing. Her diminutive size notwithstanding, one underestimates her at their own peril.

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After dinner and two delicious caipirinhas, a typical Brazilian drink that they introduced me to, we taxied back to our guesthouse.

Kaleidoscope in the rain

April 27

Excellent breakfast in the hotel before being picked up by Gabriela for a walking tour around the historical old town at 9AM. The Pelourinho is situated in the historical center of Salvador. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985, it is a great example of colonial history and symbol of the black movement in Bahia. Pelourinho literally means the pillary where slaves were beaten, pillaried. The Pelourinho contains a number of churches, museums, local artists’ studios, galleries, shops and restaurants.

We had a bit of a zany tour, because it started in drizzle, evolved to a really heavy rain (which caused us and Gabriela to purchase umbrellas) and eventually subsided, after we stopped for coffee. The umbrella business was definitely the business to be in this morning. We ducked into various artist studios, shops and churches, in part to explore them and in part to escape the rain. Because it’s Sunday, many places are not open. A holiday in honor of St. Benedict was being celebrated, with music and processions in the elaborate São Francisco Church and in a Black church named Our Lady of the Something-or-other (not its actual name) and we visited the Cathedral Basílica. As we walked we saw the cobble-stoned, colorful streets of the historic district.

We walked (in pouring rain) to the Elevador Lacerda, built in 1873 and connecting nowadays the Upper City and the Lower City as an important means of transport both for locals and tourists. From there we would have gotten a panoramic view of the All Saints Bay and Mercado Modelo, except that we pretty-much couldn’t see shit (slight exaggeration, blogger’s license).

Gabriela is a fun guide and companion, and her personality engages everyone we encountered.

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After we left Gabriela, at noon, we visited a very interesting museum that combined African masks and statuary with a fascinating collection of odd musical instruments made by a Swiss craftsman. We wished we could have understood more (or at least some) about the instruments, but they were most interesting to look at, anyway.

So, there emerged a sort of pleasing kaleidoscope of an experience to our morning, not exactly what we’d optimally have planned, but memorable and enjoyable nonetheless. I hope that the photos below capture something of the scope and nature of that experience.

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Rodrigo has trouble getting near the hotel, but does eventually, minus Fernanda and Julia, because the latter has a runny nose. We try to park nearby, but nothing is around, so we engage the services of a young boy to lead us to a spot. By the time we get there, Rodrigo decides that this is not such a good idea, but needs the help of the boy to lead us out. Rodrigo gives the boy some money to change, so that he can give him a tip. I can’t believe Rodrigo has done this and, of course, the boy never returns. Rodrigo is philosophical about all this, and we’re now aware that it’s not only tourists who get taken in.

We drive to the Igreja do Senhor do Bonfim church, where a service is in progress. A young woman is tying a ribbon to the fence, like the ribbons at the church we saw this morning.

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We go into a room that has wax arms, legs and organs hanging from the ceiling, tributes for the healing that people whose pictures and letters of thanks are displayed in another wall of the room.

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We see the odd instrument that the guy played at the ballet last night, and Rodrigo tells us that it is called a berimbau, and that he knows how to play it. It seems that he studied martial arts for two years, and knows how to do the acrobatic dancing/fighting that the dancers did last night. Those who learn the martial arts are required to learn how to play the berimbau, as it is viewed as part of the same training. So, the things we saw at the ballet last night are starting to make more sense.

From the church, Rodrigo takes us to Sorventeria de Ribeiria, an ice cream place that was founded in 1931. We feel compelled to partake, Carol toasted coconut and me, at Rodrigo’s suggestion, tapioca. After the ice cream, Rodrigo takes us back near our hotels. Our good-byes are not that sad, as we’ve agreed to have dinner in Chicago with Rodrigo and Fernanda when they come for a big oncologists’ meeting late next month. We’ll finally get to meet Julia, but in Chicago, not Brazil.

Carol and I go straight to a restaurant Gabriela has recommended not far from the hotel, called Maria Mauro. It’s quite good, but not as wonderful as last night’s meal.

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In the lobby, we chat for over half an hour with a couple from New York, Anne and Charlie, a FDA lawyer. They’ve been to Rio and Iguazu Falls, and then had a fabulous time on the Amazon.

We go up to the room, where Carol packs and I work on this damn blog.