Last week Jon and I officially began our summer break. Having spent my formative years in the northern hemisphere, it seems strange to crank up the barbeque and watch the temperatures soar into the upper 90s around the same time that Dear Ole St. Nick readies his reindeer and sled for his round the world gift-giving tour. But, who can complain about a two month holiday smack dab in the middle of the school year? I surely can´t.
This year Jon and I decided to spend the holidays in Brazil. We had planned to spend a month last summer traveling the country, but those plans were of course, thwarted by the Big C… This time Jon and I had less time to spend, so we decided to concentrate on only two destinations: Rio and Paraty. Paraty (pronounced Parachi in Portuguese) is a beautiful colonial town on the Costa Verde, about halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo. As you know, Brazil is a GIANT country, so on the map this distance seems minimal, but in fact requires a four- hour drive.
As you also may know if you followed my series of desperately pleading Facebook posts last week, before we left Chile Jon and I experienced a bit of a traumatic incident involving our puppies. When I return home, I will devote an entire blog entry to the unveiling of the story of Chingy and Kublai´s Great Escape, but suffice it to say, we spent an agonizing 48 hours pounding the streets of Vitacura searching for our lost dogs. As of this point in time, only one has returned, but I haven´t given up hope yet. Anyway, Chingy was returned to us around 11:30 PM, the night before our 5 AM departure for the Santiago airport. Bleary-eyed, but full of relief that at least one of our doggies will be waiting for us when we return, Jon and I boarded the plane for the four hour journey to Rio. I had arranged for a transfer company, Paraty Tours, to pick us up at the airport and drive us to our pousada in Paraty. Upon meeting the company´s agent in the airport, we quickly learned that in Brazil, much like in Chile, values such as efficiency and customer service do not carry the same weight as in the United States. We were told we just needed to wait 20 small minutes for some more passengers to arrive, but in fact ended up waiting two hours for the van to arrive. Luckily the drive itself along the verdant coast, mountainous jungle on one side, sparkling blue water dotted with hundreds of islands on the other, was worth the price of admission. And, in the end, fourteen hours after we left our house in Santiago, we arrived safely at the Eliconial Pousada in Paraty.
I can´t say enough good things about our beautiful pousada and highly recommend that anyone traveling to the southeast coast of Brazil stay there. When we arrived to Paraty in the dark, Jon and I were a little miffed that the pousada was quite a distance away from the historic center of the town. In fact, it is in a separate beach town west of the city called Jabaquara. At the time we were completely ravenous and wondering how we were ever going to get back into town to find some food. Also the front of the pousada was completely unassuming. Basically we turned down a dirt road of the beach and parked in front of someone´s garage. Great- I thought, Trip Advisor has failed me once again! Luckily when we opened the door next to the garage we were led into a beautiful oasis courtyard complete with lounge area, pool, sauna, steam room, and an amazingly friendly receptionist with a big black and white Dalmation named Louis. Once we transferred our bags to our cute little bungalow complete with hammock and monkeys on the roof, Robert told us there was a great little restaurant right on the beach that we could walk to. Wonderful, we thought! We spent that night at La Luna restaurant, dining by candlelight. In the daylight, La Luna turned out to be a simple beach kiosk, but that night it seemed like a five star eatery. The grilled fish, the shrimp, and all the garlic cream sauce certainly tasted delicious at the time. It was also at La Luna that the friendly waitress informed me that in Portuguese, my name was pronounced Elizabech, which pretty much sounds exactly like “Eliza-Bitch”. Jon found this new pronunciation of my name to be right on the mark. Considering I had spent the last thirty minutes complaining about how hungry I was and how far we were from the city-center, I couldn´t really refute his charges.
Up until our last day in Paraty, the weather wasn´t so great. Dark, thunderstorm clouds hung perpetually overhead, which did amplify the green of the mountains, but also took lying on the beach off of our list of to-dos. Instead we focused on exploring the town and the nearby rainforest. As I said before, Paraty is on old Portuguese colonial town which has been turned into a fantastic tourist destination with a perfectly preserved historic center complete with cobblestone streets and beautiful white buildings with colorfully trimmed windows and doors. Jon and I enjoyed walking around, snapping pictures, and shopping in the many artisan shops that lined the streets. I always knew I would like Brazil, and Paraty confirmed my suspicions. What a magical place! We dined that afternoon at a lovely Thai restaurant that had been recommended to us. Stuffed, we headed back to the pousada to relax in the Jacuzzi, with kindle in hand. All of the stress of the last month quickly melted off my shoulders and into the warm bubbling water. “Ah, yes. Summer vacation is here, I thought.”
The next day was Christmas and Jon and I knew that probably everything would be closed. Luckily Paraty is a town that caters to tourists and so several tour operators were forgoing dinner and presents with the family to take us Xmas orphans on jeep adventures through the nearby National Park of Serra da Bocaina. And here it was on Christmas Day that I learned a second truth about Brazil, which is that people here, of all ages, shapes and sizes, like to wear as little clothing as possible. Our guide was barefoot, bare-chested, and wearing a Santa Hat when he picked us up, along with 5 Portuguese tourists in his bright orange jeep. The day was cloudy again and the sky threatened rain. Robert did not care. His 4×4 capabilities allowed us to zoom up muddy, dirt roads to find hidden spots in the jungle with waterfalls and natural water slides. First we clambered over a poorly constructed suspension bridge with a clearly displayed warning sign (only two at a time). Then we were told to take off our shoes and scramble up some muddy dirt path in order to reach the top of the rocks. Here, we found many people bathing in the water in their butt bikinis and taking turns sliding or surfing down the rockslide to the pool below. I didn´t think this activity would be such a good idea, mainly because I am a total wuss when it comes to trying new outdoor sports. I tried to get out of it by cashing in my cancer card and holding my back in pain, but Jon wasn´t having any of that. So there I was, screaming and sliding down the rock, hoping my new swimsuit would not fall off and reveal my surgery scars. Luckily, the suit stayed on and it was actually an extremely safe and fun ride. We spent the rest of the afternoon clambering around rocks, and marveling at the tiny bikinis and speedos, and their owners who certainly had no business wearing them.
The hard part about traveling on Christmas, (besides missing our families from back home, of course) is that it is always very hard to find a restaurant open. Our jeep tour guide drove us from local village to local village searching for someone to feed our crew. Up a dirt road, next to a chicken coop, we found a woman who agreed to open her restaurant and fry us up some manioc chips and fish. Unfortunately this was to be our only meal of the day because Jon and I could find nothing open within walking distance of our pousada later that night. The owner even called ten places to see if someone would deliver a pizza, but no luck. Feeling pity on us, he handed us two oranges, a kiwi, and a mango, so we spent Christmas dinner dining on tropical fruit.
Our last day in Paraty was definitely the best and most action-packed. When we woke up, we were surprised to find sunny, blue skies, and no clouds in sight. This was a fantastic omen because we were supposed to spend the day on a private sailboat with a friendly, yet crazy, Argentinian named Miguel. The little red boat was waiting for us on the beach outside our pousada and Jon and I waded into the water and climbed aboard. I was armed with sunscreen, towels, and cute new swimsuit cover-up and Havianas (Brazilian flipflops) purchased the day before. Thinking of my beach wedding about to take place in less than a month, I was determined to get an even tan to compliment my white, strapless dress. I applied and re-applied sunscreen throughout the day as we hopped from island to island, sunbathing on the deck of the boat and gloriously floating in the bay whenever we stopped. Paraty Bay contains no less than 365 islands of various sizes; most of which are private, but all of which have beautiful coves of beaches to visit. Luckily Jon and I had avoided the tourist schooner trip by renting the private sailboat so we were able to be by ourselves on the islands for much of the day. The only sad part about the day was that the bay, which is normally clear for snorkeling, was invaded about 6 weeks ago by a green algae that made visibility almost negligible. I hope the algae is a result of something natural, and has not been caused by all of the tourist traffic. For lunch, we sailed to the most inhabited island where we dined on our first green salad of the trip, along with pasteis. Pasteis are basically fried empanadas, but better than the ones in Chile because they are filled with delicious seafood stews and flavorful chicken mixtures. It is then that I learned the third truth about Brazil: they sure do love their palm oil, which could account for the heaviness of the owners of the skimpy swimsuits. It is definitely a culture that loves to indulge. As a result many people are overweight, but they seem to believe the body is beautiful no matter what. No one is afraid of being judged no matter how many belly rolls hang over that brightly colored thong.
On the ride back from the islands, Jon and I both fell asleep which was a total mistake because, despite my care in lathering up with the sunscreen repeatedly in the morning, one of my arms and both of my kneecaps somehow went from pasty white to bright red in about 20 minutes. Mysteriously, none of the other body parts seem to have changed color at all, which is completely annoying. So, yep, here I am three weeks before the wedding: still pasty white with one red arm and two red kneecaps. That wedding dress is going to look amazing!
After the boat ride, Jon and I spent one more fabulous hour enjoying the amenities of our pousada and preparing ourselves for the culminating activity of our Paraty adventure. I had read in the Lonely Planet about a woman named Yara, a cookbook author, who gives cooking demonstrations and serves gourmet Brazilian food out of her home. It is called the Academy of Cooking and is recommended by several guidebooks, Trip Advisor, and the New York Times, so Jon and I were ready to be impressed. Because I am not so good at small talk with strangers Jon and I went into town early to do a little souvenir shopping and grab some pre-dinner cocktails. It is here that I discovered the most delicious drink I believe I have ever had: a ginger, passion fruit, and tangerine fruit juice with cachaça, the national alcohol of Brazil. Yum!!! So we headed over to the Academy of Cooking, which really was just the couple´s home on a side street of the historic town, near one of the churches. The home was lovely and we were greeted with amazing smells as we awaited the arrival of the other dinner guests. We were joined by two other young couples. The first was a Saudi man and his Belgian wife who both resided in Dubai, as well a good-looking couple from West Hollywood. Halfway into the meal we discovered that they were actors and that we were indeed dining with the stars of the hit ABC crime show, Castle. (Apparently the show has been on the air for six years, but I´ve never heard of it. And I watched a lot of TV in China….) Anyway, the conversation was pretty lively as we watched a demonstration on how to properly make a caiparinha and then helped Yara put the finishing touches on the dinner in the kitchen. The only bad thing about the evening was how long everything took. We arrived at the house at 8 and the food wasn´t served until about 11:30. And in that time, all I was offered to drink was the one caiparinha. Poor form for the amount we paid for the meal, I think.
Yara explained to us her vision for the meal, which was called “Fruits of the Land” because she used traditional Brazilian ingredients in new and interesting ways. Apparently she had studied Food History at Radcliffe and had a lot of knowledge about the topic. “Food history… why don´t I have a degree in that, yet?” I thought. Anyhoo, the menu consisted of:
1) Tomato stuffed with manioc flour that had been sautéed in butter, garlic, cashew nuts, and a strong homemade cow cheese, and served with greens and vinaigrette. I was in charge of carving out the tomatoes, stuffing them, and plating them once they were done. Although the plate looked pretty, the tomato was just alright, because I found the manioc flour to be too dry and crunchy. It basically had the consistency of uncooked couscous and I don´t think the tomato was cooked enough.
2) The piece de resistance: a fish filet that was pounded, stuffed with a crab mixture, and rolled tight with a blanched green onion. (I pounded, stuffed, and rolled the fish). The fish was served on top of an easy to make risotto: basically you mix rice with a béchamel sauce and palm oil so that is tastes creamy and sticks together. The fish and rice were served with a delicious creole sauce of roasted peppers, onions, tomatoes, and stock, blended together into a puree. I would most certainly make this dish again!
3) A green salad with mangoes, cashews, and vinaigrette to cleanse the pallet. Good, but nothing special.
4) Caiparinha mousse which was made by the Belgian woman and did not have enough sugar in it for my liking. It was basically like eating a fluffy alcoholic lime gelatin. Not my favorite, but I appreciated the creativity.
All in all, it was a memorable meal, if mainly for the company. Yara´s husband had quite a few interesting (read naïve and inappropriate) comments about the history of Brazil that he chose to share with us as fact. My favorites remarks: Apparently the Portuguese really cared about the native Brazilians and didn´t try to subjugate them under king and cross like the Spanish did… hmmmmm. And also, slaves in Brazil were treated well, unlike in the Southern United States, because they lived in the basement of the same home as the master and not in separate quarters like in the US… another deep head scratcher. The final touch was a comment about how there is no racism in Brazil like there is in the United States. I´d like to ask an African from Bahia how many black government officials there are in Brazil, and get to the bottom of that assertion.
Anyway, despite the wildly inaccurate political commentary, we ended the night without Eliza-bitch revealing her true feelings about this revisionist tale of Brazilian history and emerged feeling satisfied. I learned a new cooking technique: stuffing fish, and Jon learned how to make a new sauce that could go with just about anything. So our thanks go to Yara and her husband for sharing their home with us, and also for giving me an idea for a new business opportunity back in Santiago. I can cook food, Jon can serve and talk about wine, and both of us can completely make up facts about Chilean history and tell them to our guests. Lonely Planet: here we come!