Thursday, November 13, 2014

Brazilian Tourist Blog - Part 1, São Paulo beaches and the 31st Bienal

Graffiti on the Pier in Santos
For the past weeks I have been a happy (and well-fed) tourist in Brazil.  I hope my blogs – which I am finally able to start posting; internet coverage in the Amazon is flakey at times – describing the places I visited and the experiences I’ve had will encourage others to visit Brazil.  You will not be disappointed.  Traveling in Brazil is quite straight forward and safe even if your language skills are not that great.  And the effort is so worthwhile.

Together with my sister and brother-in-law, who were first time visitors to this amazing country, I’ve spent my time exploring familiar and unfamiliar places.  My husband Jeff met up with us in the Amazon but while we visited places further south, he continued his scientific studies of that biggest of all rivers.  We left Rio about a month ago for a short visit to Piracicaba – the upstate São Paulo town where my husband is a visiting professor.  Of course we spent a little time at our friends’ nearby charming goat farm.  From there we traveled almost 4000
A happy white goat
kilometers by car, plane, boat, bus and foot.  Although I have lived in and visited Brazil many times over the past 32 years, this trip juxtaposed multiple new aspects of three very different Brazilian states: São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Pará.  We visited two cities – the very big, São Paulo, with its 23 million inhabitants and the smaller state capital of Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais; several thriving towns – Guarujá, Santos, Santarém; and a diversity of small villages, each with its own unique charm – Pereque with its fishing fleet, Ouro Preto, and Alter de Chão.  We were in highly urban, cosmopolitan places; and remarkably rural, often very poor places.  We hiked in the Amazon rainforest; we marveled at perfectly manicured tropical gardens and complete wilderness; we swam in the Atlantic Ocean, the Tapajós River and in black water igarapés (small, groundwater-fed forest streams); we visited museums and galleries, street art installations, churches and landscapes full of contemporary and baroque art of every kind – sound, sculpture, video, photography, paintings, and graffiti.  We explored the history, culture and ecology of Brazil.  We saw many types of birds and animals including botos – the pink Amazon River dolphin.  We ate like kings and queens with culinary experiences that ranged from downhome neighborhood bistros to fresh grilled tambaqui (a large delicious Amazon fish) on a remote beach to fine dining at restaurants that should be or are internationally famous. 
The fishing fleet at Pereque on a grey day

When my sister left, she told me that their visit to Brazil was a trip of a lifetime.  I have to agree. I will post several blogs over the next few weeks focusing on the highlights of our visits.  During this time we also experienced national and local elections in the United States and Brazil.  Like many of our friends in both countries, we feel the magnitude of the challenges and divergent political perspectives that both of these huge countries face.

Museu do Café, Santos
Our tourist trip began with a drive from Piracicaba around the immense urban development that is the world’s third largest city, São Paulo.  Our destination was the offshore beaches of Guarujá for a few days of sun.  But the sun refused to cooperate!  While we had one day of relaxing on white sandy beaches, we spent two less sunny days hiking primitive beach trails and exploring the adjacent city of Santos.  Santos is the largest port in South America and it is one of the oldest.  Like Guarujá, Santos is an island and can, as a result, accommodate a very large number of cargo ships.  Our first destination was the Museum of Coffee, a 1920’s building in the colonial historical center.  The building is appropriately described as eclectic and is the former Brazilian Coffee Stock Exchange.  It includes of course, a coffee bar where we drank the best cup of espresso I have had in Brazil.  Coffee was the nineteenth century source of wealth to the state of São Paulo and the museum was full of interesting exhibits and objects about coffee’s golden age.  For someone who loves coffee and owns not one but two gigantic Italian espresso machines, the museum’s celebration of the delicious dark brown bean was greatly appreciated.    Afterwards we visited Santos’ beachfront and explored the commissioned graffiti art on a large waterfront pier. 

The pier was restored to commemorate the 100th anniversary of immigration and contributions of Japanese Brazilians.  A lot of people don’t realize that there is a big Japanese Brazilian population in Brazil – although you might guess it from the popularity of sushi!  Graffiti is a well-developed art form in Brazil – a far cry from its random origin as spray paint scribbles.  We saw extraordinary examples of commissioned and non-commissioned graffiti in many places but the pieces on the pier in Santos were among my favorite.   In the 1930s Brazilian surfing began in Santos when Oscar Gonçalves pioneered the sport, but by the sixties and seventies the beaches had become too polluted to use.  More recently the pollution was cleaned up and the city built beautiful gardens along the mosaic beachfront boardwalk and established a publically funded surf school.  On the day we visited, we saw surfers of all ages and met the man who runs the surf school.  This school has a program that teaches children and people with disabilities, including blind people to surf.  It is an impressive operation for a town that I had been told is a dirty commercial port. 

A Surfista Sculpture in front of the 1st Public Surf School in Brazil

Our next stop was the big city itself, São Paulo.  We stayed in a central and safe neighborhood, Jardim Paulista.  After checking into our hotel, we walked to a neighborhood bistro for a meal of Brasilian style gnocchi made out of manioc instead of potatoes with filet mignon in a Madeira and mushroom sauce.  The place was classic Brazil, full of folks from the neighborhood enjoying Thursday dinner out.  I know why.  The food was delicious and the service impeccable.  Colorful signed and unsigned futebol (soccer) jerseys from famous professional teams and less famous local clubs hung from the ceiling.  The waiter told us that many futebol players eat at the restaurant and give them their jerseys to display.

The next day, despite the fact that we were in a gigantic urban center, our breakfast (café de manha) included a farm offering of traditional cakes, corn breads and farm eggs as well as tropical juices and fruits, sliced ham and cheese, pão ƒrança (little French rolls), and coffee with hot milk.  After breakfast we walked about 2 kilometers to Ibirapuera Park the site of the 31st Bienal de São Paulo.  The walk was through a bustling mostly residential neighborhood and felt safe.  The hotel concierge had told us not to worry about safety during the day and of course we used the same urban awareness that we use in big cities anywhere in the world.  The park reminded me of a smaller Central Park – it is a well used and well kept green space in the middle of a dense urban area, complete with small lakes, sculpture gardens, fountains, flowering trees, athletic fields and several world class museums.  The Bienal
The interior ramps at the Bienal Pavilion
is a celebration of contemporary art housed in a purpose built pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer – arguably one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished architects.  The building is typical of Niemeyer structures – it is concrete and white; it sits above the ground as if floating in air; its interior is massive, airy and compelling with sinuous galleries that beckon the visitor to explore.  The theme of the 31st Bienal is “Como Falar de Coisas que Não Existem” or in English “How to speak of things that don’t exist”.  The Bienal includes more than 250 works by over a hundred invited international artists.  The exhibits express in multiple different art forms the challenge of living and yet still working in the midst of conflict; imagination; and community transformation.

Graffiti on the Public Bathrooms in Ibirapuera Park
I loved staying in the urban center of São Paulo and going to the Bienal.  I am no expert on art but the Bienal was an experience to remember.  It is ridiculous to speak in hyperbole – fantastic; surprising; awesome; stunning – all words are inadequate to describe the Bienal reality.  It is the experience of being in the pavilion with its harsh concrete spaces and the brutal feeling of the unfinished cement walls contrasting with art of all kinds.  En route to the pavilion, we walked through a skateboard area in the park.  The skateboard area is purpose built – itself a huge expanse of smooth concrete with a roof held up by cylindrical columns.  Young teens were inline skating and boarding in organized chaos, practicing new routines and signature moves.  It reminded me of the warm ups before ice skating competitions when all the competitors twirl and jump together, respecting the rhythm and space of the others.  Graffiti murals decorated the walls of central public bathrooms, commissioned pieces of the most basic urban art form – a great introduction to the Bienal itself.

Inside the Bienal, we wandered through spaces that continuously opened up to a new artist or collaborative installation.  Individual works range from more traditional paintings and photographs to sculptures; videos; tactile environments; found objects and experiential displays – a complete mishmash of styles.  I remember flashes of art, virtually all artists I had never heard of but will now look for – Halil Altindere’s video of disenfranchised youth in Istanbul; the grainy photos of Tony Chakar mixed with his poetry and Baudelaire’s – found faces revealed in the background of other images; the sharp incisive photos of poverty in Salvador and Bahia, stark interiors, deserted streets, empty fields; Jo Baer’s paintings and Anna Boghiguian’s honeycombs, her drawings and poetry – the City of Rivers; Bruno Pacheco’s luminous paintings of the English uplands and wooly polka dotted hats; a violent collage about an international tragedy – the street murder of young men; Juan Downey’s painted maps of Continental Drift and the Amazon basin; and Walid Raad’s open frames of stories never told and yet forgotten.  This is just a partial inventory of the art we saw – one video, which consisted entirely of interviews with Jews either out in the open or still living in secret in São Paulo made my heart ache for the pain our world imposes on those who believe in something else.  That night we walked to a nearby Argentinian restaurant and ate meat that melted in my mouth and watched tango dancers undulate in the spare space.

The next day we visited Brazil’s largest and most well known art museum, MASP or Museu des Artes de São Paulo.  Despite my life long love affair with impressionists, I found most of the painting very traditional after seeing the thought provoking pieces at the Bienal.  The MASP building itself is impressive, set on multiple levels high above traffic-choked arterials.  When we stood on the MASP terrace on famous Avenida Paulista – São Paulo’s 5th Avenue – we counted six layers of urban infrastructure (arterials; viaducts; pipes; wires; public and private buildings) looking only down.  Inside, the familiar warmth of Renoir greeted us on cold cement walls.  We saw Vuillard and Monet, Turner and Constable.  The one featured contemporary artist, Julian Schnabel was not to my liking.  His work did not offend me but was not attractive enough to interest me.  It was perhaps only notable for its outsized size.  Curiously the only Schnabel we liked was printed as a small poster on the back of his brochure!

The Fawn in Trianon Park
Later we visited the lovely Trianon Park right across the street – yet another safe feeling (at least in the day time) tropical green space.  We walked past the sculpture of the fawn that guards the park.  We followed Avenida Paulista to visit Casa das Rosas.  There we sat outdoors in the garden café amid box hedges and orchids and ate delicious chicken pies and drank ice cold beer.  Formerly the private home of a wealthy Paulistano, it now belongs to a foundation that promotes poetry and literature.  After lunch, we toured the big house.  When we walked in, a young poet asked me if I wanted to buy a book of his poetry.  For less than $10 I did.  By way of thanks he signed it and wrote me a short poem in English – although he barely spoke a word.  I think it will be an inspiration to write more poetry.  We should all be writing poetry or making art to explore the wonder of each day.  Perhaps we can write just short verses or haikus to help the power of words inspire the world to change.  Perhaps all of us can create the kind of art that the Bienal inspires.

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