Friday, January 06, 2006

BRAZIL: what a meat pie can do to you

The good thing about travelling for three weeks (a drop in the bucket for other nationalities, an eternity for Americans) is that if you have bad weather, or get sick for a few days - hey, you have 2.5 more weeks to spread your fun around. It puts less pressure on each day. You start to just live normally. When you take a 5 day vacation, every day better be damn good or you are sort of disappointed. So that´s why I don´t feel bad when I say that all three of us have puked our guts out on this trip, and not once from alcohol.

Every country has its one street food that you come back to again and again - for the quick breakfast, lunch or dinner. You combine it with the local pop (here, "guarana") and it´s a meal for just a few dollars. In Greece, it´s the chicken gyro. In Costa Rica, rice & beans. In Italy, the panini. In Asia, some variation of fried rice. In Belgium, the waffle. In France, the crepe. In Spain, the tortilla espanola. You are trying to catch a train, a bus, hungry when walking down the street. When you have to eat every single meal at a restaurant or take out from a store for three weeks, you figure out what´s cheap and trustworthy. In Brazil, it´s the meat pie. Either a pastel (fried dough with meat inside) or the empanada/empada (flaky biscuit with meat inside.)

After arriving in Rio, we checked into our little hostel, the Ipanema beach house (2 blocks from ipanema beach!), and wandered around. For a little late lunch we stopped at a cute little meat pie fast food place with a trustworthy-looking grandma face on the sign. Now how can abuela steer you wrong? Kate and Kathy had some meat pie and I had some other pre-wrapped thing and a bizzare-tasting fruit shake that I picked by just pointing to the portuguese menu. Later, went out for a thai dinner, happy to be in Rio, even though none of us were 100%. At dinner, Kate had the familiar symptoms that I had on new years day. nausea, heartburn... We planned on having a night out in Leblon, which is the district next to Ipanema with some good nightlife, etc. Kate felt sick at dinner and we went to drop her off at home. All of the sudden, she violently puked in the taxi. I know the feeling well, because I violently puked in the crepe restauant in Buzios. Poor Kate threw up so much all of the sudden that we had to stop the taxi all of the sudden and she even threw up a little bit on me. The taxi driver must have thought we were drinking, but we weren't, I tried to explain to him. 20 reals and he stopped complaining and drove away.

The cruel irony in all this is that I am completely, unbelievably sick of ham and cheese or meat pies. Even when they don´t give me a.b. And what is the only thing waiting for me in my freezer at home? Why, Ham and cheese hot pockets!

Kate went to bed so Kathy and I decided to try one of the bars near the hostel. Being early (10PM), we had a few chopps (the ice-cold lite draft beer) it was kind of dead so we decided to call it a night. Early this morning, poor Kathy got sick and threw up a few times. It must have been the meat pie, or something the two of them ate. they were both illin´so today I took the favela tour advertised in the hostel.

Favela means slum. A few years ago, a couple of places in Rio began offering tours of the slums. Apparently the movie "City of God" gives a good example of the slums but I haven´t seen it. The tour guide, Luiz, picked me up at the hostel and I joined an Australian couple, a danish guy and a guy from L.A.

I have always been fascinated by slums. As a kid I had a reoccuring nightmare of getting lost in my yard in Battle Creek, then ending up in the slums of New York. I had that same dream at least 20 times. A tour of the slums initially sounds like a bad idea - some people are opposed to it, thinking that it exploits the poor, puts them on display. I went out of curiosity. The little tour company works with the people in the favela, teaching them not to beg but to produce artwork. It educates tourists and exposes them to the problems in Rio. Luiz knows some people who live in the favela, and had a lot of inside information on the rules and social structure. We drove over past Leblon, past Ipanema, over a hill and into a bad neighborhood. We had to be taken to the top of the hill, one by one, on motorbikes. I had no idea we´d be taking motorbikes and held on to my guy tight - pretty much burying my face into this shoulder, squealing and crushing his ribcage with my hands. We sped up a hill, between cars, around moving busses, I was so scared that sometimes I couldn´t look. He knew I was scared because I would shriek NO NO NO NO NO!!!!! and he would laugh YES YES! It was kind of fun, but scary as hell with no helmet, darting around all these moving cars on a steep hill on an angle with no helmet. so much worse than the Vietnam motorbike ride. I knew I wasn´t that much of a wuss because the guys were a little shaken too at the top. The favelas are on very steep hills, pretty much vertical cities.

We started wandering througth the favela - Luiz was a great guide. At the entrance of the little narrow streets, he pointed out a guy with a walkie talkie and told us he was big drug dealer looking for police. When police are near, they set off firecrackers to warn everyone. It´s safe for us as tourists, but police would have trouble there.. 2 months ago there was a big raid and 5 people were killed. The drug lords run the favela. Luiz pointed out gang graffiti, pointed out bad people. There is little or no crime among people living in the favela - the drug mafia keeps them in line, they basically run the favela with an honor system. The people pay no taxes but get free electricity and gas. When we were walking, I heard firecrackers and pops three times. Probably the worst neighborhood I have wandered through for that long, but not shockingly bad. They have water and some little stores. The shocking thing was how the drug dealers run the community and the police and governement can´t change it. Kids and old ladies live there too, they are totally safe as long as the police don´t come, and they get out of the way when they do. There is terrible plumbing and garbage everywhere - horrible, horrible smells. We stopped in a meat shop and a man killed a live chicken for us (yuck! and sad!). I really regret wearing flip flops because it was raining and sewage was running down the street. we stopped in some guy´s house and I bought a small painting that I liked - an abstract painting of the favela. They had the paintings there for sale because of the tours teaching the people to make art instead of beg, that kind of thing. Down the street, some kids were selling some little paintings they had done on cardboard, and bracelets made out of electrical wire. I bought a tiny little crude cardboard painting of the favela with Christo the redeemer in the background. It´s so cute, just a child´s painting, I love it. The kids were cute and polite, it was 5 reals ($2.50) going to my little artist. We visited a day care center and played with the kids awhile. Wandered through the favela some more and got to peer into some houses. The whole thing was fascinating to me but I thought, some neighborhoods in Chicago or New York are like this too. Run by the drug lords. In Morro, Michiel was telling me that when he and Vishalini did the favela tour a few weeks ago, they weren´t all THAT impressed because they work with poverty in Africa every day. Few people really get to see that. The Rio favela had concrete and some (bad) plumbing, unlike parts of Africa. I´m still glad to see a little 4-person company making the most of it, helping the locals and that kind of thing. (http://www.bealocal.com/) It was an interesting opportunity for me as a dumbass middle class Chicagoan but you have to remember that this kind of thing happens all over the world, not just in Rio. I´m really glad I did it, though.

I think Kate is feeling better and we may go to Lapa for some live music for her last night. I think Kathy is still illin´. They have been such great travel buddies. Kathy and I have been on many trips and have pretty much seen it all - having things stolen, looking for a room forever, taking loooooong bus rides, but this one really takes the cake for us all getting sick at different times. The three of us have had a really good easygoing, funny trip. Having good travel buddies is key.

I just had a great dinner of random BBQ meats and some middle eastern salad at a swanky restaurant around the corner of the hostel while K & K rested in the hostel. I´ll try to stir up some more trouble in Rio for you! XO, Schirmy

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