Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rooted in Rio – Copacabana Beach and Sitio Burle Marx

Looking at the water feature from the porch of Roberto Burle Marx' home
Living in Rio includes rituals that I love. I do many of these same things when I’m home in Seattle but here in Rio I’m doing them in a tropical haze. It won’t be hard to figure out which ones are a bit different in the city of Rio.

·      Shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at the outdoor markets, the feiras.
·      Walking along Copacabana beach with its famous black and white sidewalk.
·      Saturday morning workouts on the beach.
·      Drinking caipirinhas at the beach Friday night at sunset.
·      Biking around the lake (Lagoa) and stopping for a coco verde.
·      Sweeping fine sand off the kitchen floor.

The city is vibrant, full of energy and excitement. There are many difficult issues in Rio including (often) dysfunctional politics and endless economic and social challenges – but that could be said of almost anywhere in the world, including my home country. As a retired foreigner, who can afford to live in Rio for a month or more every year since I retired, I feel welcome and very much at home.

Posto 1, Copacabana, Rio
One of my (and my husband’s) favorite activities is participating in a circuit training class on Copacabana Beach on Saturday mornings. If you want to get, and stay in shape, circuit training is a very good option – the class here (bhappFIT), and the one we take in Seattle at our local YMCA, include aerobic, strength and flexibility training. Most of all, it’s fun. It is especially fun in bare feet in the sand. Here is my poem about our class and being on the beach last Saturday:

A Day on the Beach         

It’s a day on the beach
The sun beats down
Hot and burning,
The sizzle of the sand
Sears the soles of my feet.

We arrive at Posto 1
It is 9:30 in the morning.
Under the shade of the trees
Last night’s sleepers
Lie wrapped in a final dream.

We stretch and bend
Rub sunblock on our white flesh
The professor, Bruno arrives
He is, as ever, energized
“Na hora,” he says. “Na hora.”

The class begins.
The whistle blows
And the music blares,
We are three men, twelve women,
One young boy with his mom.

We race through the circuit
Weights fall in the sand
We move sweating, in duplo
Run, squat, lunge; run, squat, lunge.
We plunge in one for all.

First round; second round
Sweat, water, drink,
We do it all again.
Then, we’re done; it’s picture time
We jump together and wave goodbye.

Later we’re back on the beach
In bikini and board shorts
Now it’s 2 in the afternoon
The wind blows the heat away
The sand clings, the beer cools.

“I love this song, baby”
Squalls from the vendor’s boom box
I look up at the towering rock,
Silhouetted against the sky
And dig my toes into the fine white sand.

Plant nursery at Burle Marx Sitio
We are not spending all our time on the beach. My husband is working at the Federal University and I’m writing and editing. Sometimes we do take a day out to explore landmarks. Yesterday was such a day – we had the opportunity to visit the former home of Roberto Burle Marx, the Burle Marx Sitio. The Sitio is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Roberto Burle Marx was a brilliant Brazilian landscape architect (1909-1994) whose vision of built landscapes influenced public and private gardens in Brazil and elsewhere in the world. The Sitio, located in Barra de Guaratiba, about an hour’s drive west of the city of Rio de Janeiro, is a public museum and center for the study of landscaping, botany and conservation. There are places that Burle Marx designed that are more well known including Copacabana Beach with its sinuous mosaics and groves of palms, and Rio’s Flamengo Park, but the Sitio is extraordinary. Its hilly 40-acre landscape, more than three thousand tropical plants, water features and beautiful architecture made me feel that I was seeing through the eyes of a genius. I rarely use such superlatives but the Sitio deserves them. Visits are by reservation only and the guided walking tour takes about two hours. 

Plants growing in the nursey

Our group of five including my husband and three friends (one American and two Cariocans/natives of Rio) joined a group of four, another Cariocan, two American women and one French man. In Portuguese, English and French we learned about Burle Marx’ life and his passion for native plants, botanical design and art. Burle Marx was also a talented artist, architect and art collector. These aspects of the man are well represented at the Sitio.

Grasses and roots

One of his greatest talents was the ability to create real landscape paintings (I mean made of dirt, plants, water, stone, etc., i.e., not a painting on a canvas but in the ground). He did this by massing single species of plants of varying colors, textures, heights and shapes across an area, often interspersing the plantings with a constructed focal point – a stone column, a piece of sculpture, a staircase, a cobblestone path. 

Everywhere we walked our eyes were riveted. The Sitio reminded me of an adage of Japanese gardens – there is no front and no back to the garden; the garden should be equally beautiful regardless of the angle from which you view it. This is more than true at the Burle Marx Sitio. We walked for more than a mile in a broad circle, covering hills and valleys, essentially seeing parts of the same garden from across its 360-degree perspective. 

Burle Marx' porch 
During the tour, we visited four of the buildings on site including his hacienda-style home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired outdoor barbeque venue (a churrascaria in Brazil), an 18th century chapel that he maintained and allowed use by local residents and a reconstructed 17th century building (with the stones taken from a building that was being destroyed in the center of Rio). Burle Marx had hoped to use this latter building as his atelier, a quiet and open studio in which to continue his work. 

Burle Marx' would-be Atelier

Unfortunately he died of cancer at the age of 84 just as the building was completed. The Sitio is an inspiration to anyone who likes seeing gardens integrated with beautiful buildings. The sheer exuberance of the place, its plants and the diversity of colors fills your heart and your mind. 

We left the Sitio and stopped for lunch at a nearby hilltop restaurant where the view across a coastal preserve was as much a feast as the delicious moqueca (traditional Brazilian fish stew). We ended the afternoon with a drive home along the coastline, past pretty white beaches and high surf rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean. Jeff and I didn’t go to circuit training last night. We walked along the Copacabana beach and enjoyed Burle Marx’ gift to the people of Rio. It was a wonderful day.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Connecting in Today's World - Rio and Singapore Biennale

A Rio Landmark: Pão de Açucar
(Sugar Loaf Mountain)
There are days when the complexity of our connected world is beyond my ability to manage with any efficiency, let alone patience. This past Tuesday was one of those days. I spent much of the morning dealing with renewal of various registrations tied my Brazilian cellular telephone. These renewals were required since my 2016 Brazilian cell phone number expired during the months I was out of the country. I had to get a new one. Consequently everything that was tied to my old number had to be re-initiated. Then, via email, I asked friends in Washington state – my permanent home – to facilitate getting connected to a newly installed fiber optic system serving my home there. All of these undertakings were straight forward but time consuming. We’ve all been there dealing with some aspect of our connected society – hanging on the phone explaining to customer service the problem and getting it solved; waiting in line at the local cable service center; going into online help forums to try and understand why a particular action didn’t effect the expected response.

Twenty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or fiber optic systems. Now many of us are spending hours managing these new technologies – all intended to keep us connected. Whew. That is the down side. The upside is that I can email my sister who lives in England and hear back within hours, send loved ones birthday wishes via Facebook and other social media and receive pictures on iCloud from family and friends all over the world. Those are the good things and I’m glad for them. Why should administrative hassles annoy me? I can’t remember what the pre-Internet administrative hassles were but I am sure they were equally annoying. For sure we were not able to exchange photographs and commentary within minutes across continents before the Internet and cell phones were invented. We depended on expensive long distance phone calls and “snail mail” letters that could take weeks and even months to arrive. I guess I just expect it all to work!

Assembing for a Bloco (Carnaval Street Parade) in Lapa, Rio
Jeff and I arrived in Rio last Thursday for our annual sabbatical in Brazil. When we arrived, it was a few days after Carnaval officially ended. The city was still in party mode. On Saturday, Jeff and I joined a friend at a morning bloco – that is a community street parade with dancing and music. It was great fun to see the different costumes and dance with the crowd along the parade route. Once again I was reminded that keeping up regular exercise is worthwhile so that when an opportunity to dance in a street parade comes along I am ready! Of course in my American life there are not that many occasions when dancing in the street for a few hours is an option. We had great fun – me dressed as a hippie complete with a tie-dyed dress and my husband in an Egyptian headdress. We weren’t the only senior citizens having fun. We saw all ages and all manner of hilarious outfits – one of the perennial favorites is men dressed up as women. My first experience at a Brazilian Carnaval was almost thirty years ago. Someone told me that the key to remember about costumes, or fantasias as they are called in Portuguese, is “The men dress as women and the women take off their clothes.” Perhaps this blanket statement is a bit of an exaggeration but it is still quite apt.

It is more than a month since we left another tropical city, Singapore. During our last week there we visited the Singapore Biennale – a biennale is a large-scale contemporary art exhibit that occurs every two years. In the short time we were back in the United States, I didn’t have the chance to write about this wonderful exhibit. Now I will.
The Great East Indiaman by David Chan, Singapore
Raffles landing in an Imaginary Schooner powered by a Mythical Whale
The 2016 Singapore Biennale showcased diverse art works by 60 Asian artists representing nations from Pakistan to Japan and from northern China to the most southern island nations. It was hosted by the Singapore Art Museum. Like the Bienal de São Paulo that I visited in 2014 (see my blog about it at

Gate by Do Ho Suh, South Korea
A ghostly memory of a lost home
the Singapore Biennale was an eye-opening window on the emotions and visions of the artists and their nations. Many of the pieces (artists from South Korea and Indonesia for example) evinced a longing for home and nostalgia for what the artist perceived to be a more stable past. Others were delightful, even fanciful expressions of the joy of living or remembrance of historical events. What I like about visiting art museums is that the exhibits always show me something that changes the way I see the world. Sometimes it is just a moment of self-reflection or a sense of happiness at seeing something of pleasing to the eye. Sometimes a painting, a sculpture or a mixed media installation sticks with me, influencing my thinking and ability to understand the world around me. If you are ever in a city that is hosting a biennale my advice is go – you will experience paintings, sculptures, collages and other contemporary art forms that open your mind to the beauty and the challenges of our diverse world. I am posting just two examples of what we saw – hoping to tempt you into visiting a modern art museum next time you have the chance. We are so inundated with Internet distributed forms of video entertainment that I think we miss out experiencing art forms that do not adapt so easily to Internet distribution. Okay off my soapbox. I guess I am just a nut for broadening horizons and besides who doesn’t love to visit an art museum?

The Singapore River at dusk
It is interesting to compare the two tropical cities we’ve lived in this year, Rio and Singapore. Rio is known for its samba and beaches while Singapore is known for its strict behavioral standards, its efficient infrastructure and cleanliness. Without question the overall standard of living is higher in Singapore but Singapore is a tightly controlled independent city nation whereas Rio is the historical center of a large, sprawling and complex democracy. Despite the differences, both cities are great places to walk in – both are full of public parks and interesting architecture. Curiously both Rio and Singapore have good public transportation systems. Buses are abundant and cheap in Rio and the subway system is greatly upgraded since the Rio Olympics. While it does not reach as extensively into the neighborhoods as the city-wide system in Singapore does, Rio’s new lines and new train cars are clean, fast and remarkably similar to those in Singapore. There are of course more differences between the two cities than similarities. One that interests me as a former water engineer is the surface water drainage canals in Rio and Singapore. In Singapore, the Singapore River, that drains and flows through the center of town, is almost drinking water standard but in Rio, the big drainage canals that run from the inland Lagoa (lake) to the Atlantic Ocean are quite polluted. After rainfalls in Singapore there is little trash in the river but here in Rio rain flushes out endless forms of trash, particularly plastic bottles and bags. Singapore gets “bad marks” internationally for being so strict about littering. It is illegal to litter in Singapore whereas in Rio, despite many street trash cans, littering seems like the norm. When you see the difference in the water quality of runoff and in the amount of trash on the streets the idea of no littering becomes appealing. But for now the sun is shining and I’m thinking about going out to get some of my daily 10,000 steps in.
The pedestrian path along Copacabana

There may be a little trash here and there on the streets but Rio is a marvelous city. I’m going to walk in Copacabana, along Avenida Atlântica and take my new cellular phone with me – just in case I decide to explore a new neighborhood. Who doesn’t appreciate the fact that the whole world is mapped and those maps are available at the touch of your cell phone screen. I guess spending some time hassling with the administrative part of modern technology is not a bad tradeoff.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Visit to Singapore

The Year of the Rooster
It is almost Chinese Lunar New Year. It is the Year of the Rooster. Everywhere we go in Singapore we see red lanterns, roosters and mandarin orange trees. My husband and I have been in this remarkable city for the past couple of weeks. We are living in a small apartment in the center of downtown.  It is a perfect place to be a tourist – close to shops, close to two subway stops, close to Chinatown – where the new year’s celebrations are about to jump into full force – and close to the old colonial district with its traditional architecture and abundance of museums.  

Colonial Architecture - Chinatown at night

The two districts are separated by the Singapore River which opens onto a natural harbor. Since the early 19th century and continuing today, the harbor makes Singapore an important shipping port. The Singapore River is a point of civic pride, completely cleaned up and bordered by manicured parks, bars, restaurants and promenades. Everywhere you look there are outstanding examples of contemporary outdoor sculpture. I’ve been exploring this wonderful public open space.  Over the course of the past week, I’ve walked along the river, crossed the many old and new pedestrian bridges, and joined many Singaporeans and other tourists enjoying the area. 

The Bird
Several of the sculptures are iconic – one of my favorites is the Bird by Columbian artist Fernando Botero.  The Bird can only be described as fat.  But there is something very pleasing about the Bird’s chubby proportions – he or is it a she (?) makes me feel happy.  As with most of the public art installations in Singapore the Bird symbolizes something positive.  In this case, the Bird represents joy, optimism and peace and these, of course, are thought to lead to prosperity. 

Cloud Nine Raining
Signs of prosperity are everywhere along the Singapore River where crowds of financial workers gather for afternoon drinks, for a jog or just to meet, chat and take selfies.  Selfie sticks are practically ‘de rigueur’ in Singapore.  I still don’t want one but I can see their advantage.  Beyond the Bird I have other favorite pieces – I love the Cloud Nine Raining fountain at the mouth of the Singapore River. Conceived by Singapore artist Tan Wee Lit, it reminds me of an illustration in Winnie the Pooh – whenever the lovable bear was sad, a rain cloud floated above his head.  Here in Singapore the continuous rainfall is meant to symbolize how Singapore overcame all odds to achieve water sufficiency.  How great is that?  No wonder I love the piece. Five giant reflecting sound spheres, located on the lawn in front of the Asian Civilization Museum, fascinate me. The steel spheres resonate everyday sounds, recorded in 2015, 24 hours a day. The area is also full of interesting brass statues of historical events and people and a crazy diversity of architecture, buildings and bridges ranging from the most traditional to the wild avant-garde. It is a feast for the eyes and delightful to see so many people enjoying it. Singapore knows how to do public spaces!

The final installation I want to mention is located along the harbor front. It is the Window of Hope by Sun Yu-li, another Singaporean contemporary artist. It commemorates the landing site of the founders of Singapore when they looked through windows to a better, now realized future.  It isn’t one of my favorites from an aesthetic perspective and the symbolism is a bit corny. However the fact that there is an acknowledged appreciation of the sacrifices past settlers made to create a bright future for all Singaporeans is not corny at all.  In today’s world, where too often it seems like it’s all about “number 1” (AKA me) such appreciation of the hard work and sacrifices of our ancestors is often lacking. 

WIndow of Hope
This doesn’t mean that all aspects of a better future (i.e., freedom and opportunity) exist for everyone in Singapore. Of course that is true everywhere including in my own country, USA. But there is a lot of opportunity in Singapore and social benefits like public education and health care are top notch and available to everyone. To be honest as a woman who travels widely, one freedom that exists in Singapore is the freedom to walk around alone and not fear that my purse is about to be snatched. Although there are unacceptable human rights limitations in Singapore, such as the fact that homosexuality is illegal, many such limitations are now being successfully challenged.

Last Saturday we decided it was time to venture further afield and visit one of the city’s gems, the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  The botanic garden was awarded World Heritage Status in 2015 and boasts one of the world’s premier collections of orchids.  Orchids are the national flower of Singapore.  The Botanic Garden has played an important role in the global propagation of orchids, starting in the 1930’s.  Today, the Botanic Garden is responsible for many of the world’s most famous hybrids and for maintaining the breeding stocks for many globally important orchids.

The Botanic Garden is huge – more than 180 acres in size. Entrance to the garden itself is free and it serves as a city park to everyone.  We saw whole families – from grandparents to little toddlers, other tourists, fit joggers and groups of friends, colleagues, and lovers wandering around enjoying the magnificent plants, expansive vistas and 150 year old heritage trees.  The Garden contains many unique areas, including a garden of trellis (climbing) plants, foliage, ginger, a children’s garden, several lakes and many other delights.  The crown jewel is the Orchid Garden, where a small entrance fee is required.  Since we are both over 60 we paid the nominal fee of S$1, or about US$0.70.  Well worth the cost.

The Orchid Garden is extraordinary.  I am a global aficionado of botanical gardens and this garden is a one of the best.  The sheer variety and abundance of orchids boggles the mind. The colors range across the entire spectrum of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – and include multiple variations on these basic seven colors. We saw orchids in every shade of pink, an almost black violet, gold, magenta, tiger lily, ivory, white and more.

The orchids are impressive – ranging from tiny flowers barely bigger than a fingernail to the giant tiger orchid, sometimes known as the Queen of the Orchids.  This largest of all orchids in the world can grow in the wild to be as big as 3 meters. It blooms rarely in “captivity” so we were delighted to find it flowering. The Orchid Garden contains several special areas, including a green house or Orchidarium, a Cool House and a Mist House. 

In memory of Princess Diana!
The orchid paths ascend a small hill and at the top is the VIP Orchid Garden where hybrid orchids, cultivated for heads of states and other important visitors are displayed.  One of my nostalgic favorites was the simple Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, hybridized in her memory after her death in 1997. I’m not a raving royalist but it was nice to see an exotic flower in her memory. 

We walked past several lakes and enjoyed the floating Vitória-régia – a giant water lily native to the Amazon River.  We loved the giant heritage trees and the open woods and traditional gazebos.  All in all the Botanic Garden is as beautiful a garden as I’ve ever visited. I recommend it. It’s also a great way to get in your daily 10,000 steps.  According to my new FitBit – I did over 12,000 steps on Saturday. That was my weekly record! Walking is how you stay fit when you’re a tourist.

We left the garden and walked to nearby Orchard Road for lunch. Orchard Road is famous for its classy shops – and for sure they are there. I’ve never seen as many fancy boutiques for watches that cost more than most folks’ annual income. Fortunately we were there for lunch and there are plenty of reasonably priced choices. While we shared a delicious wood fired pizza the sky opened up – Singapore weather is very wet at this time of year.  After waiting for the worst to pass we ventured out in our raincoats, holding our umbrella high.  We were only a few blocks from the nearest subway station.  For less than two dollars and within 10 minutes we were walking back to our apartment.  What a great subway system Singapore has – clean, efficient, fast, cheap – and it goes everywhere in the city.  Now that is an urban amenity I can get behind.  Next stops will be several of the museums; the Art Museum and the National Museum are at the top of my list. Let me know what else you’d like to 
hear about and I’ll see what I can do.
Modern Architecture by Moshe Safdie - the ArtScience Museum symbolized a lotus flower