2011 Brazil

Why Brazil?

When I selected Brazil for this trip over a year ago, I didn’t know much about it. I was mostly interested in one of the world’s booming economies; a country that had successfully moved from military dictatorship to functioning democracy; and the stewardship of the Amazon rainforest, a central jewel of the world’s patrimony. I also expected great music, dance, and food.

I’ll be getting all these, and more.

It turns out that Brazil is an intriguing combination of cultures, much of it quite unlike the U.S.. For example, their European Catholicism is overlaid with African spirit gods and local Indian nature worship. Their Western-style rule of law is “flexible,” typically influenced by family and corporate connections—and what we call corruption, they describe as how the system works. It sounds a lot like India, with results that are more reliable and less aggravating.

Brazil’s attitude toward race is complex: on the one hand, the indigenous peoples were brutally oppressed by the early Europeans and the missionaries who succeeded them. This was followed by African slavery on an enormous scale. Unlike in the U.S., however, intermarriage (and sex between races without marriage) became a central part of the country’s identity, where it remains today.

The country is breathtakingly beautiful, which I look forward to photographing and writing about. I won’t go to the forest or jungle, but I will see plenty of water: ocean, river, bay, and one of the world’s greatest waterfalls.

FYI, I’m skipping Sao Paulo (largest city in the southern hemisphere ) and Rio. In a country as big as the U.S., you can’t do everything in just 16 days.

In the last half-century, most Americans have assumed that the world would gradually evolve to become more like us. Instead, however, it appears that we are becoming more like the rest of the world—and ethnically diverse, politically innovative Brazil undoubtedly holds clues as to what we are going to look like in just a few decades.

I hope you’ll follow my adventures (map included here, of course—see button on black nav bar above this post) starting November 24, perhaps even commenting. To be notified each time I post, just click the “sign me up” button above my photo.

Oh, did I mention it will be in the 80s most of the trip? Don’t freeze while I’m gone!

Day 1: Sao Paulo

After an interminable 18–hour flight, a one-hour drive took me to the Landmark Residence, a little apartment building dwarfed by skyscrapers.

Sao Paulo is the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere—20 million residents in an enormous metropolitan area. That’s two New Yorks of people, in an area that sprawls over the horizon in every direction. While Rio is South America’s playground, Sao Paulo is its economic engine—first built on coffee, and now built on commerce of every kind.

After a nap and a shower, I saw a tiny strip of the city. Avenida Paulista makes Fifth Avenue look quiet and quaint: block after block of banks, glass-and-steel high-rises office buildings, designer clothes shops, limos, and extra-wide streets, bustling full of people.

That evening I went to the nearby synagogue, a liberal congregation of over 1,000 families. Said to be the largest synagogue in South America, it was founded by German refugees in the 1930s. In one of those historical twists that would never be accepted if presented as fiction, the Southern Brazil and Argentina that were the destination of Jews fleeing Hitler was the same place, only 15 years later, that welcomed the perpetrators of that very Holocaust. The service was, as are all Jewish services around the world, totally recognizable.

Like everything else in Sao Paulo, the synagogue was enormous. But unlike most of Sao Paulo, security was very, very tight. Interestingly, the Jews I met here say they don’t face what we call anti-Semitism—but extra police, internet wariness, and other measures designed to foil vandalism and violence are routine.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, but Paris and London are cheap compared to Sao Paulo. I’d been warned, but two sandwiches, a juice and coffee really were $35 (plus tip). And this was no chi-chi place; I was surrounded by families and ordinarily Paulistas.

Fortunate, then, that I was taken to dinner. An international businessman I’d met through the synagogue had been to Palo Alto many times (and had an MBA from Cornell). We discussed politics, economics, and software. He’d lived in Israel, America, and now here—far and away the most expensive of the three. Brazil, he said, was like the US in 2007—housing prices through the roof, salaries increasing and jobs begging; the good times were rolling.

He said the Brazilian economy was booming so much they were hiring engineers from the U.S.—who could earn more in Brazil with better opportunities and conditions. “But prices here are so high,” he sighed, “we go to America to shop.” I thought he was joking till I heard the same thing from his cousin. “Yes,” said Flavio. “I went to our Hugo Boss, tried on suits and shirts, took all the numbers, then flew to Miami. I saved thousands of dollars.”

And that’s what the U.S. has become—a source of brains for the next American superpower, and a cheap place for their entrepreneurs to shop.

Day 2: Sao Paulo

Today I toured the city—well, a few parts of it. This city’s size reminds me of an old Texas joke. The newly-rich Texas rancher brags to his visiting poor-city cousin “I can get in my truck and drive most of the day and still not reach the end of my property!” “Yes,” replies the cousin, “I used to have a truck like that, too, until I replaced it.”

I’m just gonna say it one more time: this city is really big.

And in general, Sao Paulo is surprisingly quiet for a gigantic mass of humanity. The cars don’t honk, motorcycles aren’t constantly blasting, I didn’t hear one car alarm, the stores don’t blare music into the street (or inside them, for that matter). In fact, the local person speaking on their mobile phone is quieter than in most cities I’ve been in.

The favela, however, was a dramatic contrast. I’d persuaded my guide to take me there, a sprawling hillside slum not far from a neighborhood of gated mansions. “This is not too dangerous,” she said, more to reassure herself than me, I think.

Because suddenly, as if crossing an invisible border, I was in a different world—poorly dressed, unbathed children, beat-up cars on winding, dirty streets, shabby, half-living bushes, unkempt men and women—mostly young—sitting or leaning in doorways.

Coming from these doorways was music, LOUD music. The soundtrack to my wary, 20-minute stroll across broken street stones, it changed about every 25 feet, as residents vied to show who had the loudest radio. The babes-in-arms of their overweight, desultory moms (older sisters? young aunts?), sitting on plastic stools or leaning on decrepit cars, seemed not to mind. But I felt compassion for their young ears. And I was reminded that money is what buys personal space. That’s what poor people simply don’t have.

What I minded most today was the heat. How hot was it? When it gets over 100, does it matter? I just appreciated that the humidity was lower than the temperature—by a least 2 or 3 points. But I was drenched within minutes. If you’ve ever gotten soaked waiting for a cab in midtown Manhattan in August humidity—that’s nothing compared to this. This is the tropics.

I followed up my trip to the slum with a quick stop at a middle-class supermarket. It looked exactly like one in the U.S., although some of the prices were outrageous. Fresh salmon? $20/pound. Organic red rice? $8/pound. And although local ice cream was cheap enough, Haagen Daz was $11/pint. Really. Apparently the government taxes it in a special category. My guide said so few people buy it that you can’t depend on it being fresh when you do.

Eventually it was off to the airport. Since the flight is domestic—north to Recife—security was a breeze. Absolutely no theatre—bring a bottle of water on board, no removing of shoes, clothes, or jewelry, no anxiety that some TSA agent having a bad day is going to ruin yours.

Travel is always reminding us that it’s the little things that make you smile.

Day 3: In the Northeast, Olinda

I woke up in Olinda, a 400-year-old colonial town 5 miles outside Recife (a city of almost 3,000,000) on the Atlantic Coast. Olinda has been a UNESCO world heritage site for 30 years. Rich with history, it’s a bit worn around the edges, a process accelerated by the extraordinary heat and humidity.

This being Brazil, “Atlantic” means slavery. To refresh your memory, European businessmen sent finished goods (guns, knives, beads) to Africa, and collected payment in slaves. They sent slaves to the New World, and were paid in raw materials (sugar, spices, cotton). The slaves worked on plantations harvesting the raw materials. The raw materials were sent back to Europe, to be processed into goods for the “civilized” lifestyle. It was a perfect commercial system—unless, of course, you were one of the slaves.

We drove past an ordinary-looking place that just happened to be the former slave market. Lacking a monument, it’s now just another square selling tourist stuff. How many places around the world have been central to world history—and remain invisible to the casual passerby? I went to another such place—the office of the Inquisition, another import from Portugal. Like the slave market, the building’s history is unmarked and therefore invisible to almost everyone.

The Inquisition is actually responsible for the Jews coming to America. What better place to run (after the Expulsion in 1491 and the ensuing persecution, forced conversion, then persecution for “insincere conversion”) than to the other side of the world? After setting up a Jewish life in Brazil—not terribly far from my hotel—they were joined by Jews from Holland. And when the Jewish community was made unwelcome in Brazil, they fled to another world away—to that new city the Dutch were creating, New Amsterdam. Today we know it, of course, as New York. Ah, those Jews.

The tropical heat and humidity really limited my sightseeing today—until I ran right into…Carnival! Actually, Carnival rehearsal! It’s everywhere now, and since Olinda is one of Brazil’s most famous Carnival sites, they rehearse almost half the year. On the way back to my hotel late this afternoon, damp, bedraggled, cranky, I ran into dozens of dancers and musicians moving down the street.

Finding an English verb to describe their movement is an interesting and instructive challenge. Shimmying? Swaying? Slithering? Gliding? None of these capture the joyful, sensuous, unself-conscious yet deliberate movement of the women and men as they moved forward, sideways, and even backwards—all at the same time. They weren’t in their full regalia, but they wore Brazil’s official clothing—tight, revealing, and colorful. Some wore an extra ruffle, headpiece, or other adornment.

One group was led by 6-year-olds (backed up by teens and then adults), another by trombones and trumpets, another by a dozen drummers. Each was loud, raucous, and absolutely perfect.

The crowd swayed and danced—beside the mini-parades, in front, behind, and eventually darting between the group members. As I keep seeing in Brazil, the boundaries between people, and the definition of in-group and out-group, are porous and fluid. This is most obvious regarding race—a category Americans and Europeans tend to think of as strictly defined, but which here is the ultimate ambiguity. More on that later in the week.

Recife: From Golden Chapel to Revolutionary Thinker

Due to a massive screwup by the tour company, I found myself in a UNESCO world heritage site (Olinda) without a capable guide, and no way of getting one at the last second. This is akin to being trapped in an elevator with a beautiful woman and not understanding each other’s language. There’s a limit to how much you can enjoy just looking.

So I agreed to leave lovely little Olinda and drive an hour into one of Brazil’s ugliest modern cities, Recife. I had done some quick research and identified four sites that sounded interesting. Once we got into town, the idiot driver and idiot “guide” remembered that three of them were closed. The best I got from them was the Portuguese equivalent of “oops.”

We did go to the 17th-century Franciscan complex Santo Antonio do Convento de Sao Francisco. The small cloister is lined with large (about 7 feet x 4 feet) tile murals depicting scenes from Genesis (Adam and Eve, Noah & the Flood, etc.), akin to the great stained glass that instructed the semi-literate in so many Renaissance churches.

Once again, I was reminded of how crucial the historic selection of these particular stories was. Imagine if instead of teaching dozens of generations stories about “sin,” blind obedience, and a trust in miracles, people had been learning lessons like “think carefully before making decisions,” “women are excellent companions to men,” and “mind your own business.” Talk about a lost opportunity.

Anyway, the tiled cloister would have been charming enough, but the famous attraction was the Golden Chapel inside. Finished in 1697, all the baroque floor-to-ceiling ornamentation is meticulously covered with gold leaf. The effect is rather overpowering, like a fudge brownie that’s just too sweet to eat. To a poor laborer this must have been a demonstration of overwhelming spiritual power; to the sugar barons who built it, the demonstration was of another type of power.

The whole thing was fascinating (although terribly under-interpreted by my inept “guide”), and soon we faced the same question again: now what?

So we drove 45 minutes to the edge of town, to the Gilberto Freyre House and Foundation. I had run across Freyre in my recent readings in the sociology and anthropology of race and ethnic relations (I’m eager to tell you about Ruth Landis’s “City of Women,” published in 1947 and just republished). I rarely go to the houses of famous people, but it was simply too hot to stroll around town, so here I was.

Gilberto Freyre was born in Recife in 1900, and was a sociologist, essayist, poet, and politician. By the end of his life he’d been honored by dozens of countries. Like many intellectuals, he went into exile (Portugal, then Stanford University) after the 1930 revolution and the rise of Getulio Vargas. In 1933 he published his most widely known work, The Masters and the Slaves. It detailed a radical new idea: that African culture had value and integrity of its own, and that it enriched, rather than diluted, Brazil’s European culture. To this day, his ideas about race-mixing (not just culturally, but sexually and therefore reproductively) are important for understanding Brazil’s complex social structure. He wrote 80 books, translated around the world.

But somehow this progressive intellectual, champion of non-Western culture, turned to support the Salazar dictatorship in 1950s Portugal, and the Brazilian military dictatorship from the 1960s on. Why? How? And how does today’s democratic Brazil, which (mostly) denounces the old military dictatorship, still embrace Freyre? There was no clue about this in my tour of his old house. The young docent talked endlessly about this piece of furniture, that ashtry, this medal from Queen Elizabeth. But of the thinking that revolutionized Brazil’s (and Europe’s) ideas about race, and the analysis (or deals?) that led to the support of cruel, power-hungry regimes—not a word. Why anyone should bother going to this old house would have to wait for another day. Another lost opportunity.

It was a frustrating drive back to lovely little Olinda. But tomorrow, the golden sands of Praia do Forte await. After flying to Salvador out of Recife’s Gilberto Freyre airport.

Mammoth Tortoises: So Powerful, So Vulnerable

Today I took time out from the difficult chore of walking on an empty palm-fringed beach to go to Project Tamar, a renowned center for research and rescue of the Atlantic’s endangered sea turtles.

These gorgeous creatures are enormous—some species grow to 12 feet long and 1,000 pounds. I saw a few swimming in large ponds, and watched a film of the Project’s international work.

They rescue the animals who get caught in commercial fishing nets, which is apparently a full-time job. They tag and safely release them—and have been hearing about other scientists finding them all the way down in Southern South America or, incredibly, in Africa. They’ve also criminalized the hunting or capture of these powerful animals throughout Brazil.

The most important part of the Project’s work, however, is the extraordinary social change they are creating. They are transforming the attitudes of local fishermen from seeing the dwindling sea turtles as a short-term commercial object (for soup, meat, leather, and religious goods) to seeing them as a long-term environmental neighbor. They’ve helped develop the Sea Turtle Samba, and new rituals celebrating various moments in the animals’ lifecyle.

Sea turtles lay dozens of eggs in the warm sand, where they incubate for 7 weeks and then hatch—at night, when the helpless babies are less vulnerable to predators. For literally millions of years, the newborns have made a mad dash to the sea to safety. But now all the artificial light on shore confuses the babies, and they often head inland, where dogs, starvation, thirst, and cars (and people) take their lives.

So Project Tamar is not only working to change the onshore lights standards of local communities, it’s lobbying for new standards in beach communities across South America. It’s extraordinary far-sighted and practical.

All this to help one of the few animals left on earth who coexisted with dinosaurs. They’ve survived cataclysms the mighty dinosaurs couldn’t—and could be undone by a few thousand nets and a few thousand fluorescent lights.

I was saddened, gladdened, and sobered by my trip there. I returned to my deserted beach with new eyes.

Day 6: Colonial Brazil, Alive in Salvador

I spent today touring Salvador, a crowded seaside city of 3 million with a complex past.

This is where Brazil started 5 centuries ago. I saw the harbor where the Portuguese first arrived. It’s a familiar story—they brought guns, god, and germs. Their lust for the beautiful half-naked women, and the natives’ naivete about the Portuguese capacity for cruelty, got things off to a roaring start. The Church decided that any mistreatment of non-Christians was justified as part of saving their souls, so there was no limit to what the Europeans could do with their superior force—and inferior morality.

The natives did get a moment of revenge here and there. In 1556, they killed and ate the first bishop of Brazil, Pero Fernandes Sardinha. Because of his surname, it’s an especially funny local joke. Zumbi Dos Palmares was a free black man who ran an operation that helped slaves escape for years. Seeing their statues within 50 yards of each other was especially poignant.

Continuing around the waterfront, I saw the original square where the Portuguese erected their early municipal buildings. The plain mid-16th-century architecture looked quite familiar, resembling the pre-Renaissance buildings one sees throughout Europe. But as the gold and other wealth started to flow for the Portuguese, the buildings here changed. Walking a few blocks away from the water, the architecture became less functional and more ornamental—and increasingly ostentatious. It didn’t stop at Baroque, either. Eventually it combined elements of Rococo, neo-classical, and a few other things that were just plain gaudy. Is “tasteless nouveau riche” a style?

What one doesn’t see, however, are a bunch of old schools. The Portuguese didn’t build any, because they didn’t plan to stay—they just figured to come for a few years, make their fortunes, and go home. To educate their kids they simply sent them to Europe.

To complete the colonial theme, I’m staying this week at a beautifully restored 16th-century Carmelite convent. It’s quite astounding—a sturdy outpost amid the cacophony of children, heat, unrelenting music, and nightlife just minutes outside the front gate. Breakfast is under the cloister each day, the center of which is now an enormous garden of plants three stories high.

While the price for being cloistered—this is where the word comes from—was of course quite high back then (and is today), it’s easy to imagine the relief some young European women must have felt in coming here, devoting themselves to study and self-denial.

In this land of plenty and joie de vivre, though, the locals must have considered them heathens.

Cachoeira & Santo Amaro: Into African Brazil

Today we drove away from the ocean, counterclockwise around the large Bay of Todos Santos that forms half of Salvador’s waterfront (the ocean is the other half).

The further we drove from the ocean, the more African the adventure.

We stopped at the enormous weekly market of Santo Amaro, and it felt more like Nigeria than South America. A different, inland sweltering heat; stall after stall of produce I’d never seen before; and most importantly, black, black people. The faces, the bodies, and the postures were not European. For the most part, they didn’t even seem like a blend of races. These men and women, old and young, were black.

In addition to the exotic (to me) produce, I saw about a dozen different kinds of crabs, all of them smaller than Dungeness. Some had legs blue as the sky. Others had bright red bellies. And then there were mud crabs—grimy-looking, slow-moving creatures which had been dug out of the beach mud just hours ago.

There was also the mandatory meat market—cow tongue, pig head, and various cuts of raw beef, pork, and goat hanging in the tropical sun. No extra charge for the flies. It smelled too much like meat hanging in the hot tropical sun, so after just minutes I was begging for the shelter of my air-conditioned car. Luis, the tall black driver, smiled knowingly as we crept through the crowded street out of town.

My guide stopped at a samba school, where I met the headmaster. We clapped a few rhythms together, and I received his approval as pretty darn musical. (I’m not sure that was “OK,” or “OK for a middle-aged white guy.”) I also learned about how the Afro-Brazilians, when the government prohibited samba, syncretized it with Catholic rites so they could continue communicating their “subversive” thoughts and, more importantly, continue their community identity. These days, UNESCO has declared the samba a “masterpiece of the oral tradition and intangible heritage of humanity.”

Continuing through the countryside, we stopped at a farm operated by MST–the landless workers’ movement. In response to Brazil’s awful centralization of land ownership (and the tremendous disincentives to further crowd into big-city slums), these folks claim that every Brazilian has the right to feed his family from farming.

Movement farmers squat on unused land and farm it in groups as they work for land reform. They build schools in each newly-created community, even colleges for agronomy, law, and leadership development. The courts don’t exactly love these people, but in Brazil squatters develop certain rights once they’ve been somewhere for a while. Fortunately violence reactions by the establishment have been rare.

Cachoeira was another 45 minutes away, a lovely town on the Paraguacu River. The town is still reached by a 19th-century box bridge built by the British. The thing is still a charming bunch of steel.

The highlight there was the cigar factory. Built by the 19th-century German businessman Dannemann, I watched a half-dozen women in a brightly-lit, clean loft sort and roll tobacco leaves. There were lots of steps the stuff went through just to create a stogie. I must admit that when packaged in an elegant wooden box, I felt a bit of regret at not smoking. In fact, I realize I don’t know a single person who does. Perhaps it’s just as well—the highest quality hand-made cigars there (on sale at the factory shop, of course) are $20 each!

For old-fashioned quality goods, though, I’ll still take that old bridge.

Bye-Bye Bahia

Last night was the start of saying goodbye to Bahia, the history-rich, politically powerful, growing-too-quickly center of African Brazil.

Managing the sweltering heat as best I could, I toured some working class and poor neighborhoods, including Liberadade, the neighborhood where slaves first lived after becoming free.

According to Mieko Nishida’s new monograph, by around the 1820s slaves could get their freedom in a variety of ways: by saving money (from after-hours work) to buy their freedom; by buying the services of a cheaper slave, who served as a substitute; by having their freedom purchased by a blood or ethnic relation; by inheriting their freedom when their master died; and by successfully escaping. Apparently the first two were the most common. In fact, after the abortive slave revolt of 1835, African-born slaves (in contrast to Brazilian-born slaves) were encouraged to return to Africa. They were welcomed by the British, who were establishing a new colony in Nigeria.

Today Salvador is criss-crossed with major, traffic-choked highways. One side of each is typically lined with new (or almost-finished) skyscrapers, while the other is a rubble-strewn hillside, crammed with thousands of squatter houses. The wretched half-finished houses are generally made of brick because there’s so much of it lying around to be appropriated; some of the squatters even have menial construction jobs. Ironically, brick—expensive in places like Boston and Brussels—is exactly the wrong material for a constantly hot climate. The squatters are, in a sense, baking inside.

After a shower and nap (how do I go entire weeks without a single nap back home?), I went to an early dinner at Café DaDa, which proudly featured a photo of Mama Dada with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton (astonishing to recall what she looked like back in 1997). After a house specialty dish of goat (like slightly-smoky, lean beef), root vegetables (almost tasteless), sautéed bananas (what could be bad?), and large-grained rice, I was back out on the cobblestoned street.

I had bought a ticket to the local folkloric show, a well-known production in a charming little theatre (non-equity for you New Yorkers) right on the same hill. It was quite a spectacle, with 4 drummers, 2 singers, and about 15 dancers. The rhythms and costumes were splendidly colorful, and although I’d never seen any of these dances before, each reflected a vaguely familiar village tale: preparations for battle, the search for love, prayers for a safe sea journey, and so on. As an aside, it was a dramatic contrast with the sexy, modern (and tremendously exciting) current stage show Fela!, which developed in modern Nigeria only a few miles from the source of these village legends.

The next morning I was taken into one of the larger Condomble religious compounds. I actually met one of the priestesses, and watched a disciple prepare a ceremonial dish for the evening’s ritual. She had a big vat of corn meal mush, and was spooning it into banana leaves for use in the temple. Through my interpreter, she assured me that it had to be done while thinking spiritual thoughts. She also said the spoon and pot were very, very old, and were used solely for this purpose. And by the way, menstruating women weren’t eligible to prepare the dish.

As I left, the priestess beckoned my guide and me. The guide kissed her hand, and the priestess blessed each of us in turn. Her forehead was cool against my sweaty brow.


A century and a half before the Bay Area was stormed by 49ers (the fortune-hunting immigrants, not the football team), gold was discovered in Ouro Preto, where I am now.

The most beautiful of the 17th- and 18th-century hill towns 300 miles north of Rio, Ouro Preto was overrun by so many would-be miners so quickly that food actually ran out.  In 1700 there was a famine, and legend has it that people died with gold nuggets in their pockets.

Today I walked Ouro Preto’s winding streets, admiring the colonial architecture: imported ironwork on the balconies, carved wooden doors and inlaid wood floors from lush forests (which no longer exist), stone exterior walls impressed with geometric designs, and of course grand churches.

My favorite was an odd church built by ex-slaves around 1792. Because Ouro Preto was a small frontier town with no organized religious orders to dictate church design, artists were free to experiment with unusual ideas. And so this church is built on an oval plan. And because ex-slaves had very little gold or silver with which to adorn the building, and marble was too expensive, artists were commissioned to paint the wooden interior. The result is a lot of trompe l’oeil; painted life-size statues; textile-looking backgrounds in the niches; and a lovely ceiling. A church interior not completely covered by gold leaf was, after a week of high baroque, restful to the eye.

And although Nossa Senhora and her baby are white as snow, the saints around the church perimeter are black. Tropical vines painted on the stylized columns add to the non-European feel. In another idiosyncratic touch, Portuguese tile adorns the center aisle. In all, it was a charming place to spend an hour.

I also had a chance to see the mineralogic museum. The building started as the governor’s palace, then became the mining college, and now houses a museum of gems, gold, gold mining, and Brazil’s mineral wealth. Its last room was filled with modern maps of Brazil showing deposits of nickel, iron (the largest iron mine on earth is just a few hours from here), rare earths, and other treasurers. I imagine there are a bunch of officials in China with these same maps on their wall, spending their time figuring out how to get all that mineral wealth from here to there.

The cobblestones here made my feet ache, and the altitude (almost a mile) was an extra little challenge. But it drizzled all day today, which was a welcome break from the tropical heat up north. I didn’t need the yellow sun—I was surrounded by gold.

The Stories Churches Tell

I know some people worship in them, but churches are among the world’s most precious art galleries. Around the world, the painting, sculpture, woodwork, stonework, and design found in churches is a central part of human history.

With a Catholic history going back over 400 years, Ouro Preto is a living collection of artwork that took my breath away today. I won’t quite call the town a museum, because the beautiful buildings and art are where they were originally created, and intended to be consumed. I climbed a steep hill to get to a church only poor people attended—ruggedly painted, with the simplest of pulpits and almost no saints. In a better neighborhood, rich people built a High Baroque church whose primary purpose seemed to be showing off their wealth. I saw a church with Ottoman-style onion-dome towers—built by an architect recently returned from the Orient. And I saw a church whose members couldn’t afford gold leaf, and so some of the walls were painted to imitate fancy European tapestries.

I even saw a Pieta whose Madonna was draped in the most delicate brocade—which was painted wood. And I saw the artist’s tomb—a simple plank on the floor marked Antonio Francisco Lisboa.

Seeing gorgeous religious art in museums can be great. The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, for example, can change your life. But seeing a chapel out on the street right where a jealous ex-husband built it, seeing the scratches where stone has been worked, seeing a one-towered church originally designed as a two-towered church (whose community ran out of money when Ouro Preto’s gold stopped flowing), seeing a Rococo fountain exactly where a hill-climbing person would be desperate for a drink—ah, that’s entertainment.

So I climbed around Ouro Preto again today, feet aching, clothes damp from the mist. I saw angels appearing to jump out of the walls of one church, eager to support the pillars. I saw building sites carefully selected, so that a new church would be framed by the towers of an existing one. And much more.

Large cities that grow chaotically have their own, um, charm. But small old towns that preserve their architectural and artistic heritage enable us to see and feel how people lived long ago. This is one of the main reasons I travel—not just to better understand how things are now, but to better understand how they were then.

A Word About Brazilian Women

After blogging for two weeks about Brazilian history, culture, and architecture, it’s time to mention the women.

Everyone knows they’re gorgeous, so let me say a little more than that.

For starters, Brazilians are a mix of three races: the indigenous Indians, European settlers, and Africa slaves. Over the last five centuries, the three races have blended continuously. Compared with the U.S. and other societies, there have been relatively few taboos about race-mixing, a process that only accelerated when slavery ended in 1888. Mixing races produces unique and therefore exotic-looking combinations of features. One is instinctively drawn to the mystery of the miscegenation. And nobody looks embarrassed or apologetic about it.

In fact, Brazil’s self-described founding national myth sits atop race mixing, and thus sexuality is embedded in the national DNA. Brazilians frankly describe their national character as both sensual and sexual, often contrasting it with their neighbors’. So neither the women nor the men here feel terribly compelled to feign less interest in sex than they actually have. This makes people pretty damn attractive.

Second, Brazilians breathe music and dance. Watching Carnival rehearsals up north in Olinda was spell-binding; the women move parts of their bodies that I didn’t realize could move in quite that way. They dance with their shoulders, their necks, their hips, followed by their feet. Their torso practically comes along for the ride. I’m certain I wasn’t the only observer reminded of sex.

But what was really amazing was watching the six-year-olds samba. Ah, that’s how adults are able to move like they do—they’ve been doing it since they were six. And while their movements were sensual and their costumes an echo of their sexy older sisters’, their dance scenes had integrity, an organic logic light years away from the phony tarting-up of the child “beauty” pageants in America. These Brazilian children were being themselves, faces beaming, enjoying their bodies.

It was almost too intimate to watch—and far too life-affirming to turn away from. So I watched. I was intrigued by my own hesitation to appreciate children’s bodies in a way that was culturally approved and wholesome.

Another compelling feature of Brazilian women is that when it comes to samba, everyone is eligible. No woman is too large to participate, and when they do, they shake whatever they have. Often, that’s a considerable amount of shaking, and no one scolds. Bodies are bodies, and in Brazil, bodies are good.

In fact, the large women in Brazil dress exactly the way their thinner sisters do: skimpy, tight, and colorful. There’s even a style of tank top that deliberately exposes the belly, inviting it to hang over their short shorts. In America most women would be horrified to expose what we delicately call “rolls of fat.” In Brazil that same flesh is called, um, flesh, and it’s not seen as a moral failing or aesthetic calamity. It’s part of a woman’s body, and they apparently don’t feel the desperate need to cover or disguise it. If it’s a woman’s body, there are plenty of men to celebrate it. As a result, there are Brazilian women of every size preening. And that’s attractive regardless of how a woman is constructed.

And did I mention that the Brazilian women are gorgeous?

A Day of Extremes

Tonight I had the best beef I’ve ever tasted. I was tsunami’d with the biggest volume of water I’ve ever spluttered in. And I saw, felt, and tasted one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, Iguassu Falls.

The Falls are divided between Brazil and Argentina. (Paraguay is just a few miles away.) I’ve come here for the last two days of my trip, to this fancy resort that’s actually within Brazil’s national park. There’s a long, easy trail that winds along the side of a mountain—kind of parallel to the river below that both feeds and then divides the Falls. I walked along and saw miles of Falls. And heard miles of Falls. Together, the sensory input was almost too much, almost too perfect.

About every hundred yards there was yet another angle from which to see the magnificent Falls. Legend has it that when first seen by Eleanor Roosevelt, she remarked, “Poor Niagara!” I saw that little U.S.-Canadian joint venture five years ago. She’s right.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other yakking, photo-snapping tourists to keep me from having too spiritual an experience. For the first time in my life I envied Bill and Hillary: when they visited, Brazil closed the park for a half-day. Now that’s my kind of tourism.

But it isn’t enough to see and hear the Iguassu magic. No, one has to smell, taste, and wear it. So into a zodiac boat I tumbled, life jacket and all. We (about 15 of us) put-putted down the calm river, awaiting the soaking we were promised. Soon the river wasn’t so calm. And neither was the driver of the boat, as he swooped us and leaped us and bounced us.

Soon enough we were a little moist.

And then we headed right for the Falls.

Note: I won’t exactly say I was scared, but I don’t really yearn for recreational activities that require safety equipment and insurance forms.

If you’ve never been in a little boat a few yards from where millions of gallons of water come thundering over a 200-foot cliff, I can describe the primary experience: you get wetter than you’ve ever been. It’s like having buckets of water the size of houses thrown at you by Hercules. Over and over. As a bonus, you get a combination rush of adrenaline and negative ions. I haven’t felt that alive since, well, never.

I got really wet. My zodiac-mates, young and old, were thrilled. We all shouted. We dripped all over each other as our hearts slowed down to normal.

We eventually came back to land. Dry, delicious, land. Dry until the jungle humidity set in. Then it was damp, delicious land. Fair enough.

The beef? It’s the slow-roasted, perfectly-marbled, ultra-tasty national dish both here and in Argentina. Fish? That’s for the river that separates the two countries. Beef here is for grownups on land.

Ending The Trip At Itaipu

Today I saw the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It’s on the Parana River, jointly operated by Brazil and Paraguay (not to be confused with Iguassu Falls, jointly operated by Brazil and Argentina).

After starting construction in 1974, they diverted part of the river in 1978, and started building a gigantic dam. The dam raised the level of the river behind it by 200 feet. As the water plunges that distance down through a dozen enormous pipes (each one wide enough to hold a bus), it picks up speed and eventually turns 6,600-ton turbines housed underwater, creating electricity.

I can barely grasp the magnitude of the accomplishment. Imagine being the one to push the button the day it opened in 1984.

The two countries share the electricity; it powers every lightbulb and TV in Paraguay, while Brazil gulps its half (sending it as much as 1,000 miles inland) and buys most of Paraguay’s share.

It was spectacular, a nice companion piece to the thundering water of Iguassu. One natural, one artificial. One eternal, one brand new. Each one administered by people and nations with agendas. Each one uniquely powerful—and uniquely vulnerable.

I wish I trusted the administrators of either one just a little more.

Speaking of water, I’m off to a shower, then a car, then a plane. See you back in the U.S. tomorrow.