Brazil – The Purest Form of Poetry

Foreward: I’m sitting on a plane about to land in São Paulo. This is my fifth time in Brazil, and I can’t get over how lucky I am to have come here so many times in my life…truly blessed to have the opportunity to reflect on this place.

Cristo Redentor on Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, 2009.

I never set out to learn Portuguese. In fact, I consider it the greatest accident of my life. After studying my other beloved language Spanish for two years as a student at the University of Florida, I took a class on Latin American history. The professor, Dr. Jeffrey Needell, taught Brazilian history as though telling a story. I had never known that Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 led the Portuguese royal family to flee across the Atlantic Ocean for their Brazilian colony. Since the moment I learned that story, I was hooked. Portuguese class? Sign. Me. Up.

Portugal’s royal court flees for Brazil just days before Napoleon’s arrival in Lisbon, November 29, 1807. They would land in Rio de Janeiro where they would stay until 1821, long after Napoleon’s defeat. After being in Rio, I get why they didn’t want to leave.

Since 2009, I have been to Brazil five times…four of those times in the last year alone. Brazil is the purest form of poetry. It is as essential to my life as air or water. Why do I love this country so much? A book of significant proportions is more appropriate to answer that question, but this simple blog post will have to suffice for now.

Let’s start with Brazil’s history. As I mentioned before, Portugal’s royal family fled here, specifically to Rio de Janeiro, in 1807. Prior to that, Portugal’s largest colony, discovered in 1500, served as one of Europe’s major source of sugar, gold, emeralds, and COFFEE. I was really amazed to be in Hamburg, Germany, one of Europe’s major ports, and see a display on the importation of Brazilian coffee there! The dark side of Brazil’s history is that for every 1 slave imported into the United States, 10….10…..were imported into Brazil. A barbaric history that to this day shapes Brazil’s racial and social makeup. With the “Lei Áurea,” or Golden Law, the government abolished slavery in 1888.

An 1888 newspaper in São Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian Museum announcing the “Lei Áurea,” or Golden Law, officially abolishing slavery in Brazil. Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery.

Did you also know Brazil was the Western Hemisphere’s only monarchy at one point? In 1821 amidst what is known as Constitutional Revolution in Portugal, liberal constitutionalists demanded the King of Portugal and Brazil, Dom João VI, return from Rio de Janeiro to rule his kingdom from Lisbon once again, leaving prince Dom Pedro I in charge of Brazil. Over the next year, the Constituent Assembly known as the Cortes subjugated the government of Brazil’s provinces to Portugal, angering both Portuguese and Brazilian-born residents who wanted to keep Brazil united with Portugal as a sovereign monarchy. In 1822, after defying the Cortes’ demand he return to Portugal and then siding with Brazilians opposed to subjugation, Dom Pedro I declared independence from Portugal in the famous “Grito de Ipiranga.” His son Dom Pedro II succeeded him in 1831 and would rule until the proclamation of a republic in 1889.

“Friends, the Portuguese Cortes want to enslave and pursue us. From today on our relations are broken. No ties can unite us anymore” Dom Pedro I said after he pulled out his blue-white armband that symbolized Portugal: “Armbands off, soldiers. Hail to the independence, to freedom and to the separation of Brazil from Portugal!” He unsheathed his sword affirming that “For my blood, my honor, my God, I swear to give Brazil freedom,” and later cried out: “Brazilians, Independence or death!”
Dom Pedro II was emperor of Brazil from 1831-1889. His father, Dom Pedro I, left Brazil in an attempt to put his daughter on the throne of Portugal, thus leaving his 12-year old son behind as emperor. My professor spoke of letters Dom Pedro II wrote his father that still have tear marks on them. Dom Pedro II would rule Brazil until the proclamation of a republic in 1889.

Did you also know that Brazil’s capital city Brasília is shaped like an airplane? To accomplish 50 years of progress in five, President Juscelino Kubitscheck commissioned the construction of a new capital, moving the seat of power from Rio de Janeiro to the center of the country, known as the cerrado. It was basically a story of turning nothing into something spectacular. Oscar Niemeyer, one of Brazil’s most famous artists, built many modern buildings in Brasília. He was a lifelong Communist and died at 100 years old! I am grateful to these two men as I did my Master’s thesis work in Brasília and fell in love with the city while there.

Brasília from the air looks incredibly like an airplane, and the two “wings” are called Asa Sul (South Wing) and Asa Norte (North Wing). There is a bridge in Brasília called Ponte JK, or JK Bridge named after Juscelino Kubitschek.
Oscar Niemeyer designed many of Brasília’s most famous buildings including its National Congress.
The Cathedral of Brasília, officially known as the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, is another Oscar Niemeyer-designed building meant to look like Christ’s crown of thorns.
The Juscelino Kubitschek memorial in Brasília houses the late president’s car and gravesite. I really enjoyed my visit here in 2009. The architect Oscar Niemeyer, a lifelong Communist, designed the statue with Kubitscheck in the shape of a sickle, which along with a hammer is a symbol of communism.

Next, let’s talk Brazil’s food. I’m sure you have been to a Brazilian steakhouse where you flip the little green and red card to stop the never-ending flow of beef, chicken and sausage. Churrascarias, the Portuguese name for these steak houses, are incredible, but there is soooo much more to Brazilian food. Feijoada, Brazil’s National dish, is a rich stew of black beans and meat that when put over white rice and mixed with manioc flour called farofa is absolutely to die for. Some of my other favorite foods are moqueca, a seafood stew, and pão na chapa, or french bread with butter cooked on the grill. Don’t forget the mortadella sandwich in São Paulo or the ever-present pão de queijo, Brazilian cheese bread that is a staple snack all over Brazil.

Feijoada is a black bean stew mixed with meats and sausage – it will absolutely make your head spin it’s so good.
My friend Leo is from Bahia and made us a delicious shrimp moqueca, or seafood stew, one afternoon. The African influence is strong in much of Brazil’s food.
Breakfast is simple in São Paulo – pão na chapa, or bread on the grill, is a piece of french bread cut in two, covered with butter and toasted to perfection on a grill. A cup of rocket fuel Brazilian coffee makes this breakfast heavenly.
Me eating a mortadella sandwich in São Paulo’s famous Mercado Municipal. The bread was crunchy and the meat heavenly – absolutely the best sandwich I’ve ever had.
The state of Minas Gerais is said to have the best food in all of Brazil. Anthony Bourdain actually dedicated an entire episode of Parts Unknown to the state. The picture above comes from a Mineiro restaurant in Rio de Janeiro my friends took me to. Just amazing food.
The variety of Brazil’s fruits is incredible – this fruit stand in the Mercado Municipal of São Paulo boasts tropical fruits from all over Brazil like açaí, caju, coconut, guava and so many more.

When you’re done eating in Brazil, the country’s natural beauty and man-made wonders will leave you breathless. Rio de Janeiro is a masterpiece of mountains, green forests and sandy beaches. No wonder the Portuguese made it their colonial capital…if only there were a way to take a time machine to centuries ago to witness their initial reaction to Rio’s stunning beauty. Look up at the Corcovado mountain and the Christ statue will greet you with open arms.

Looking out at Bahia de Guanabara from Corcovado mountain, Rio de Janeiro, 2009. This picture looks like a painting…it is far more incredible to be there in person. Rio can get foggy on occasion…I got lucky the day I went.
Looking down at Morro da Urca from Pão de Açúcar, Rio de Janeiro, in 2009.

Fly south to São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and look out upon one of the world’s most expansive skylines. São Paulo goes and goes…gets some more steam…and keeps going! Nearly 22 million people live in São Paulo metro region. The city is home to large Arab, Portuguese, Japanese and Italian diasporas – some of the best sushi and pizza in the world comes out of São Paulo.

São Paulo’s skyline is breathtakingly endless – if you ever go, stay in the Faria Lima hotel in Itaim Bibi and go to the 26th floor to get a good view!

To help you enjoy Brazil’s natural beauty is its music. The Girl from Ipanema is, of course, the most recognized of Brazil’s modern music, but have you ever heard of Marisa Monte, Beth Carvalho, Maria Gadú or João Gilberto? How about Vanessa da Mata, Grupo Revelação, Thiaguinho or Caetano Veloso? Brazil boasts multiple forms of lovely music from the smooth bossa nova to the more festive pagode to the hip-hop beats of funk.

Caetano Veloso is one of Brazil’s most famous singers. Veloso is known for his participation in the Tropicalismo movement in the 1960s, which combined theater, poetry and music. I started listening to his music when I was learning Portuguese and then got to see him live in 2009.
João Gilberto’s “Wave” will always be one of my favorite songs. The Portuguese lyrics are so lovely.
Aquarela do Brasil is one of Brazil’s most famous and recognizable songs
This song and I have a special connection. When I was in Chile in 2007 studying Spanish, I had just spent the prior semester learning Portuguese and decided to attend a Portuguese class at the university where I was studying. The professor played this song to introduce us to Brazilian music. Ever since then, I have been hooked on Marisa Monte’s music – some of the best in the world.

Wanna speak to musicians, or frankly anyone else in Brazil? You have to learn Portuguese, which I consider one of the best parts about Brazil. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America and it is the largest Portuguese-speaking country on earth. A Romance language, meaning a language that derives from Latin, Portuguese is the sixth-most spoken language in the world with speakers in Portugal, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola and São Tomé and Principe. One of my favorite parts of Portuguese are its nasal sounds and accent marks. If you see an ã or an õ, that denotes a nasal sound (come visit me sometimes and I’ll do them for you). If you see an â, ê, or ô, the accented vowel is the stressed syllable in the word and has a closed sound (pronounce an “o” with your mouth a bit more closed or an “e” more like an I). Portuguese is relatively easy to learn for Spanish-speakers as the two languages shared 60-70% of the same vocabulary – the only challenge is the pronunciation and accent, especially when it comes to words that are the same in both languages but are pronounced slightly different in Portuguese.

Finally, let’s talk about Brazil’s people. Brazilians’ kindness knows no end, their generosity no limits. In the 15 years I have been speaking Portuguese, I have met hundreds of Brazilians and they are all such warm people. Brazilians are very social and will throw the best parties with, of course, the best food and music on earth. If you want to visit Brazil and have close friends there, expect your Brazilian friends to offer to host you and to care for you as their very special guest. When I visit Brazil and need something, I can expect to get help from almost anyone I talk to. During my last trip to Brazil, I actually got sick and had to go to a clinic. The driver my company hired stayed with me the entire day to make sure I was okay and got home safe. I was so grateful.

My dear friends Doriam and Luciana live in Niterói, a city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. I met Doriam and Luciana while studying at the University of Florida where I used to practice my Portuguese with them.
My Brazilian friends at work are some of the greatest treasures of my life. They are so kind, make me laugh, help me when I need it and even show me around their country! I am grateful for all of them. Sorry for the picture quality – this is the only one that includes them all!
My friends Marina and Tania were my Portuguese teachers in Rio de Janeiro in 2009. Last year, I got to hang out with Marina on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro – it was so great to catch up with her after ten years and give her some almond M&M’s!
You can make fast friends with Brazilians – when I got sick on my last trip, the waiters in the hotel restaurant cheered me up and served me chicken and rice every night. They are so kind…hope I get to see them in September if I go for my company’s Symposium.

Brazil is truly one of the greatest countries on earth. I’m so fortunate I have had the opportunity to learn Portuguese and visit Brazil as many times as I have. Every trip there is special – I learn something new about the country every time I go. The kindness I experience there as a gringo make me miss it every time I leave. For the rest of my life, Brazil will be inseparable part of my being. Trip #6 will be in the works soon, and I can’t wait to see what new things I discover then.

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