When I was a senior in High school way back in 1979. We hosted a foreign exchange student from Brazil. Valeria was my age, my grade, and it took us about 15 minutes to become best friends. Of course ever since that year I have vowed to go visit her. She in fact has been to the states 3 times since then but I never made it down south in 37 years. So this year when my boss said we had some work coming up in Sao Paulo, I called him immediately and told him that I HAD to go.
A couple months later and I was scheduled for a week in Sao Paulo. Well funding was complicated and the trip ended up getting delayed for about a month. THIS complicated things because Valeria was getting ready to come to the states for 3 months, and now I was nearly going to miss her in Brazil. This would have been unacceptable to wait 37 years to come see her and then be in Brazil while she was in the states! So I pushed the process (as fast as the 3 weeks of the visa can be pushed). On Monday, I didn’t have my visa (which meant I didn’t have my passport, since you had to mail the PHYSICAL passport into the consulate for the three weeks). I called the immigration office and the guy said he hadn’t seen it yet, but he’d track it down in the morning and mail it to me. I said that I was concerned because if he didn’t mail it until Tuesday and I had to be at the airport to leave at noon on Wednesday. He said he’d mail it overnight and he thought I’d have it by 10:30 am….. in plenty of time to go to the airport at noon!! Anyway, about a half hour later he found it and got it to me on Tuesday.. Whew.
I flew straight to Belo Horizonte where Valeria lives. After a tour of the town, Valeria, Her husband, Paulo, and I went back to her apartment to drop off my luggage etc. That evening we headed out to a park overlooking the town to watch the sunset. Well, she hadn’t been there in years and it turns out it closes at 5pm, and sunset was at 5:45.
IBM has warned me a LOT about crime in Brazil. (Don’t walk outside after dark, don’t walk with your phone in your hand, etc, etc) and in fact one of my colleague got his backpack ripped off last month in Rio on the beach while he was sitting right next to it. (To which the Brazilians say “Oh, well you should NEVER take a backpack to the beach!”) So while the Brazilians kept telling me the whole visit that the crime is not that bad, and that I should not worry, they always follow it with a qualifier that makes me think the warnings are because what they think is common sense is not really on the radar screen of Americans…. But I digress. Apparently the park closure is a result of the rising crime situation in Brazil. Still we had a nice view of the city, and nearly saw the sunset before returning to her apartment for dinner.
I have eaten at the Brazilian BBQ restaurant “Fogo de chao” twice. Once in Washington DC and once in Vegas. And they serve these breads that are VERY good and gluten free, and I kept asking for more! So when I got to Valeria’s house I told her I had to try them, and we were trying to resolve what they might be while we were making dinner. In the meanwhile, Paulo slipped out to the bakery and picked some up. It is called “Pao de Queijo”.. cheese bread (go figure). Made with Yuca flour. They are famous from the state that Belo Horizonte is in. So I made it my mission to eat some every day! Although I have to say, they were not good at the hotel in Sao Paulo… which everyone says is understandable because the best ones are in Minas Gerais (the state that Belo is in). BUT the baker at IBM must be from Minas Gerais, because they were fantastic! Whew! I could eat one everyday, and didn’t even have to go far. Turns out they are not good the next day, so you must buy and eat them fresh. I got such a reputation for this that one of Valeria’s friends (who I went to dinner with in Sao Paulo, and who coincidentally makes her living making Pao de Queijo and delivering it around the city) delivered a care package of the flours required and the recipe to my hotel in the middle of the night before I flew home. Also the girls in my class gave me a parting gift of Brazilian candies cushioning multiple packages of Pao de Queijo mixes. I guess I’m going to learn to make them! I also think it’s a difficult name to pronounce, but think I got it down before I left.
Anyway, back to Belo. On my second day we went to a nearby town or Ouro Preto, where Paulo went to university. He lived in a small student house where the students that live there, and graduate there are revered alumni. They get their photo on the wall, and whenever they come by the current students must welcome them and share a beer with them. This town was very beautiful, an old mining town on a steep hillside with many old churches and historic places, cobblestone streets.. the works. And Paulo doesn’t need an excuse to visit the student house and have a couple drinks. We visited twice that day! In the middle we walked around town and saw the sites (of course respectfully accompanied by a current student). We visited a historical/mining/gem museum.
We ate a traditional favorite dish at a favorite restaurant for lunch. Valeria told me we would go out for Chicken, but she said people think it gross and won’t eat it if they know what is in the sauce, so she wouldn’t tell me…… (Probably should not have even said that!) So once she confirmed that it was not cat pee or insects of any kind, I decided I’d eat it. It was very good, and in the end the answer was Chicken blood… LOL, that really didn’t discourage me at all. After all the meat had chicken blood in it too!
We drove back after sunset, because that beautiful town has a magical quality after dark… After arriving back in Belo Horizonte we joined Paulo’s neice (who Paulo and Valeria had helped raise, or as Valeria put it, they “grew” her), her wife, and her mother (Paulo’s sister, who was visiting) for dinner at a place where they make sandwiches using Pao de Queijo (told you…. every day). Wonderful day.
The following day, Paula (the niece) and company came over for breakfast and made a traditional dish that is much like Crepes, except different.. using dry Tapioca flour instead of batter. Interesting and very good.
For the afternoon we went to Valeria’s sister’s (Cassia) house where her other sister (Denise), spouses, all the kids and her parent joined us for a traditional family Barbeque! Fantastic. I think these are my favorite things… to see the REAL Brazil. And all of the family are such NICE people. Truly enjoyed that. Valeria’s parents do not speak English, but they are very friendly and talked a LOT about my parents visit to them many years ago. The kids are really great, and Valeria’s nephew even broke out the guitar and sang a few songs. After this we went to the university area to introduce Valeria and Paulo to geocaching. Valeria ended up pulling an inner thigh muscle which unfortunately ended our outing suddenly.
Sunday found Valeria out at a street market before we had to head to the airport to get me back to Sao Paulo. In Sao Paulo I took a taxi to the hotel and passed out. I was actually glad to be “stuck” in my hotel the next few days… I had plenty of activity. And with the warnings about the “dangers” of Brazil I just ate in the hotel and worked in the evenings. It was relaxing, and long days at work, and the short days of winter… I really didn’t mind.
The first morning, heeding the warnings from IBM, I took an Uber to work. But after is picked me up, and drove me 200 meters to the IBM building, and stopped to drop me off… I decided it was a bit ridiculous. I truly could walk to work faster and it was safe.. in the daylight, with my bag zipped up, and no phone in my hand, and my bags in front of me! LOL.. Seriously. It sounds ridiculous. But apparently this is the world in which they live. And anyway, it was less ridiculous than waiting for an Uber to transport me 200 yards!
The people in my class were super friendly and super fun. I really enjoyed them, and while I found myself once again in a position of having to teach 11 days of material in 5 days… they all were very cooperative and understanding. I truly enjoyed them. By Thursday, I was ready to get out of the hotel and that afternoon some of the Brazilian IBMers and I went across town to meet with a partner that they were cooperating with. They wanted me to get introduced and get to know them.
Afterward, some of us went out for pizza, which is famous in this town. We had a traditional Margarita pizza, then we two other unique pizzas which I can’t remember.. one with heart of palm, which I also ate every day in some form or other, and finally a zucchini pizza. All very good. But we also had the famous “Caipirinhas” drink.. kind of a Margarita type drink but sweeter. And this one was STRONG. We only had one, and half way through, one of the colleagues, Abner, said, “Boy this drink is going straight to my head” and I thought…. “Oh, right! That is why I am loving this!” When we left the restaurant I was really concentrating on walking straight.. not wanting to fall down in front of the boss!.. Heck, I have enough trouble falling down when I’m sober!
Friday, in a spontaneous move, one of the students suggested at 11:30 that we “stop working and go out for BBQ”.. Well I was game, and the boss was game so we walk to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a fabulous meal. Throughout my visit, everyone was concerned that I try all the unique local foods, which there are VERY many of.. so lots of eating in Brazil.
Valeria, knowing I was concerned about safety and going out alone, hooked me up with one of her best friends, Soninha, in Sao Paulo for dinner that night. She also introduced me to Paulo’s son, Andre, who visits Sao Paulo to see his girlfriend on the weekend.
Soninha was working late (delivering Pao de Queijo) and we ended up going out about 10 pm for dinner. Brazilians eat dinner very late and after the big lunch I didn’t mind. She suggested Pizza, since again it is a signature Sao Paulo dish and although we had pizza the night before… again I didn’t mind. Some other interesting pizza topping choices, ending with Strawberries and chocolate on pizza.
The class had suggested many activities for my weekend. And being daylight it was a safe time to get out and about. And then Abner thought he’d like to join me, so he brought his girlfriend out and we met at the Mercado Municipal of Sao Paulo, a huge indoor fruit and meat market. They give plenty of samples of fruit so you can try all sort of fruit that Americans don’t even know the name of. Then we had the obligatory Mortadello Bologna sandwich which has very thinly sliced and fried bologna, piled high (reminiscent of Arby’s) then with cheese and a sauce. We shared a couple of sandwiches.
I remembered that there was a museum I was interested in seeing, and a train station I was interested in seeing in the neighborhood, so with my Brazilian companions to keep me safe we went over to the Pinokoteca, an art museum, that had an IBM Watson feature they were showing off that as you walked near the art Watson told you about the piece, then you can ask questions about it and Watson will answer or tell you he doesn’t know. Unfortunately, Watson at the Pinokoteca only speaks Portuguese, fortunately, I brought my own personal translators. We had some fun playing with Watson there.
We walked across the street to the train station which was Beautiful. Carina, Abner’s girlfriend, is a 5th year student in Architecture school, so that was interesting to chat with her, and she appreciated the architecture too. On our way back to the car, we walked through a park. I thought.. hum, must be a geocache here. Abner said, “What’s a geocache?”… Challenge accepted. Abner found it… and is hooked.
From there Carina wanted to visit her uncle at work. He is a policeman that is a sharpshooter that flies in a helicopter. They had never visited him before so we went… Very interesting. He gave us a tour of his helicopter, including strapping Karina in and demonstrating how he steps outside the helicopter and leans out to get a better shot. He also showed us his rifles. I can’t say what kind they are.. because he didn’t speak English, but it was very interesting.. and especially for Abner who hadn’t really held a gun before. In Brazil they do not have guns…. (Note: Lots of crime, no guns)
Abner was trying hard to find other things for us to do, but I kind of thought we were packing it in, so we skipped a few of his suggestions and instead we went to his uncle’s house. This house was on the 22nd floor of a high-rise building. His aunt and uncle were there along with 3 cousins, a nephew, and a one week old second-cousin. One of the cousins is an architect and had spent a year in Canada, and was looking to go back to North America. He was interesting to talk to. It seems the architectural practice in Brazil is very similar to the US.
Abner’s aunt did not speak English much, but shared some homemade Tangerine jam and coffee with us. Nice to meet them.
Somewhere during the day Abner mentioned said something about Acai. When he found out I hadn’t ever had it, he decided we HAD to have some. I know what the Acai fruit is, and I know of it’s health benefits, but did not know it was from Brazil, nor did I know they make a sort of Sorbet out of it. This is what he was referring to.
So, this cousin, the architect, David, was coming back to his house for the weekend so we left there and went out for Acai. I was not overly hungry so I said I just wanted “traditional Acai” without fruit or toppings. The boys immediately said I probably ought to get fruit because, “Acai, especially for those that have never tried it before, tastes a lot like dirt.” Mmmmm, so glad they were taking me out for a special dessert that tastes like dirt.. even if it is good for you!
So I got the Acai with Bananas, and then they got a little powered milk to sprinkle on top, and it was pretty good… tasted nothing like dirt to me! LOL. When I said that, they said, “Well, have you tasted dirt, because we have!” Maybe I should try it… with Bananas though. Although, I think they meant the texture.
Abner wanted to introduce David to Geocaching, so after Acai, even though it was well after dark, we went to Ibarapuera Park, the big park in town modeled after Central Park in New York. (Coincidentally Sao Paulo is the next biggest city in the world after New York) and found a few caches. This park, within sight of my hotel, was also on my list to see, so that was a fun stop. They dropped me back at the hotel around 10:30pm.
The next day I had to get a little work done, but that fit into the schedule well, because Valeria’s step son, Andre, made plans with his girlfriend, her parents, and me to go out for lunch. The girlfriend’s Mom is from Hong Kong, her Dad is from Taiwan, and she was born in Brazil. They also lived in California for a few years and each of the parents have siblings that live in the states now.
They wanted to go out for Chinese, and suggest we go have a “hotpot”. My Dad used to have a signature dish he learned to make in Japan that was similar, so that is what we did. It was good, although a few unusual ingredients. Nothing that really made me squeamish. After lunch they wanted to walk through China town and go to a street market. When they go to china town they always get Boboli Tea. I know of this tea (think my daughters drink it) but had never had some myself. Interesting mixture of drinking and chewing your tea.
Following that I wanted to go down to Avenida Paulista, a prominent avenue in town that they close to cars each Sunday. It was swarming with People! I guess it always is, but most on Sundays.
There were jugglers, belly dancers, street artists, musicians, etc. AND I wanted to introduce Andre to geocaching. That proved a little difficult to be stealthy among all those people, as well as difficult to use your phone app, without having your phone in your hand tempting the thieves, but we worked it out and found two.
We ended our tour of the street in front of the MASP museum, a popular Sao Paulo attraction, notable for it’s long free span construction. I was glad to see that before returning to the hotel to do more preparation for work.
Andre’s girlfriend’s Mom, Gloria, wanted to take me out the next evening for another meal, so we went out for another Brazilian specialty called Pastels. These are deep fried meat pies, with all sorts of selection of fillings. I enjoyed the food and the company on my last evening in Brazil. Brazil certainly did have a plethora of unique foods!
I felt pretty connected with the class and the last day was regaled with gifts. I drove back to the airport basking in the glow of what had surprised me as a very nice trip! I had almost expected the worst with the warnings from IBM about the Brazilian conditions, crime, and political unrest.. but ended up truly loving the experience. I had a lot of very personal experiences with Brazilian locals, and that, I’m sure, made the experience as unique as it was!
I felt so good that I decided to top off the trip by upgrading to first class for the ride back to the states. It turned out to not be very expensive and did make the trip SO much more pleasurable and comfortable. Brazil has been on my bucket list for 37 years. Flying in the sleeping pods on an international flight has been on my list since they were invented! Nice to check a few items off.