Portland to Rio

Well, I had every intention of sitting back on the plane to whip out a few words–blog in action, really on the road–but I just couldn’t do it. I was too wiped out from running to planes, etc. It’s late, late Thursday Oct 1, and I’m in my hotel in Rio. I’ll try to get a few things down now, but since I only slept about an hour on the plane, I’m zonked. Oh, the beer and cachaça I just had at my late dinner are adding to my disorientation, but let’s see what we can get. Maybe I’ll just do some free-flowing stuff, thoughts, ideas, reactions to my 14 hours on the ground in the Marvelous City (Cidade Maravilhosa) which is Rio.
I had a long trip, nearly 20 hours from door to door. No sleep on the plane, so that means at present, I have not slept properly for, what? 36 hours? More, probably. Did I mention the beer and cachaça I had at my late dinner??
Brazil has many deep associations for me. I lived here 30 years ago, I’ve pined over the culture for 35 years, I have many friends here. I love it. I hate it. All to be revealed in time. The joint I had my late dinner at brought much of those feelings to the surface. What? The granite in the bar. The little choppes, the small beer glasses. The neighborhoodiness of the place (on the beach road of Flamengo, a great old neighborhood, 2-3 beaches up from the trendy ones. The food, nothing frozen, nothing made in Dallas (or São Paulo in this case), all very, very real. We just don’t have much of that left in our overly mass produced paradise. And most Americans don’t even know what they are missing. Hear me out….
My very dear friend, Celso da Silva, picked me up at the airport. How many times has he done this??? Anyway, he stuck with me as I hunted down bathrooms, ATMs, coffee bars. We hung out at the airport at least an hour after my arrival, getting money, drinking coffee (which, I must say was pretty bad…my espresso is much, much better.)
He drove me to the center of town where my hotel is located, traffic was awful, and it must have taken nearly 45 minutes, maybe more. He was late for a music rehearsal for a gig he has in Bangkok in the middle of October. But he stayed with me until I was totally situated in the hotel, and then took off, but only after setting a lunch time for later in the day, maybe 2pm, maybe 3. It’s Brazil, Jake.
The hotel is the Hotel Regina, located in the old beach neighborhood of Flamengo…the beach isn’t that great, but I can see water from my window if I crane my neck a bit. It’s a nice old hotel, and it used to be cheap, but with inflation and the deflation of my dollars, it is now about twice what it was 8 years ago when I was last here. But it’s comfortable and worth the money I suppose.

So I set up the room, took a shower, checked email, set my room safety deposit box code (for securing my passport and my small fortune in dollars and credit cards. And tried to get some sleep. Fat chance of that. Found CNN, BBC on TV, tried to catch up on earthquake and tsunami news. And I slept for maybe 30 minutes.

Writing this right now is a challenge. Did I mention the 5 beers and the cachaça I had at dinner? The dinner that got me back to the hotel at about 11:45pm???? Don’t worry. Read on….
Celso called at about 2:30 to let me know he was on his way, I told him I’d go down to meet him on the street, a normal way of working things in the Marvelous City. Now wait…yer wondering who Celso is. Well, there’s a nice short story or novella there, but this is a blog, I’ll try to keep it short.

In Brazilian traditional music, Celso comes from a Royal Family. I know it goes back further than what I’m gonna write (his dad filled me in on the real background many years ago, but i can’t remember the details….beer and cachaça?), but this should be a good start. I met Celso da Silva in late May of 1980 when I had been in Brazil only a few short days on my first extended, 8 month visit during which I was researching music, culture, improving my Portuguese, and screwing off. By accident, well, by nasty turn by the Brazilian customs agents who’d impounded all my luggage at the Rio airport because it contained microphones and recording equipment, I ended up in Rio for a week or so instead of in São Paulo where I was going to live with my dear friend Waldimas and his brother Walmes. Scanning the paper during that week, I saw that one of my samba superheroes was playing at a theater in downtown Rio, I think it was a Sunday. Well, I took the bus to the theater, and soaked up with mad-fan lust, the amazing show/concert of Paulinho da Viola, one of Brazil’s greatest samba singers and composers, born the same year as Paul McCartney. After the show, I had to express my fan-hood, and to met this legendary icon. So, dumb gringo that I was, I went backstage and, when the time was right, introduced myself and began talking with Paulinho. Problem was, my Portuguese at that point was so weak, and combined with my star-struckedness, my ability to be understood was pretty low. After a minute or two of my linguistic stumbling, he pawned me off on his youngish pandeiro (tambourine) player…a guy named Celso. I’m sure his eyes told Celso to, “get this guy off my back.” And he did. Celso, his future wife, and a few other members of the band hauled me away to a late night pizza joint. The camaraderie was amazing, though making myself understood was painful for them, and for me. But they stuck it out. We became fast friends. I even got an invite to Celso’s wedding later that summer. Oh, Celso’s dad is the pandeiro player for Brazil’s greatest choro group, Epoca de Ouro. Three of his uncles were in that group as well, including Uncle Dino, one of the greatest guitar players the world has ever seen. Better than amazing. Better than Stevie Ray Vaughn…any day of the week. He recorded with Carmen Miranda, and appeared on well over 10,000 recordings since then. Fast forward. In 2001, Celso and I co-produced the very last recording of Epoca de Ouro with Uncle Dino, and with Cesar Faria, their stellar guitarist, who, by chance, was the father of Paulinho da Viola. Small world. There’s lots more to this, but this gives some idea of the world I lucked into after that concert in 1980, all via Celso.

Lunch. 2:45 pm. Even in Brazil, this is sort of late for lunch. The place was nearly empty. Oh, the place….Cafe Lamas in the traditional neighborhood called Laranjeiras, founded in about 1874 or thereabouts. I won’t recall that history, the date should scream volumes, let’s just say that it’s been a hangout for artists, musicians, journalists, and so on for well over 100 years. That slant hangs in the air still today.
We ordered our food and began a very long conversation. Now, I said long. And here’s how long: we didn’t leave the table until after 9:30pm. Do the math: that’sseven (7) hours for lunch and talking. Bet you can’t beat that one! The food was predictably good: a small order of fried codfish balls (bolinho de bacalhão), which were fantastic, especially when doctored with a bit of the oil from a dish full of extremely hot and extremely flavorful malagueta peppers. Damn nice. And we split a steak (contra-filé) done in a traditional Rio style “contra filé à Oswaldo Aranha”. Aranha was a senator in the early 1900s who liked this dish, so it was given his name and can now be found around town in traditional restaurants, always the same: nicely grilled steak, absolutely blanketed in crispy, golden fried garlic, with a side of home-made potato chips and rice. The waiter, clad in the traditional white jacket and black bow tie, did a great job of serving the meal, using that very European method of holding a fork and spoon in the same hand and using them as sort of improvised tongs, very cool. The garlic was perfect, the meat was perfect, the whole was perfect. For me, this dish represents Rio…the tradition, the flavor, the story behind the dish, the way it is served by the highly professional waiter. One hundred years of Rio in every bite.
Coffee after lunch, of course. I used a new sweetener I found before leaving Portland which I thought would be better tasting than Splenda…real sugar combined with stevia…I was wrong, it sucks. I’m going to throw away the 50 packets I brought with me. I’ll stick with sugar…

Somehow (actually, quite easily) we kept the conversation going, going, going. Around 6.30 or so, Celso called his brother Jorge Filho who lives around the corner and is the cavaquinho player for Epoca de Ouro. Ten minutes later, this Jorge Filho was sauntering through Lamas, heading to our table. Lots of laughs, lots of stories of musicians on the road (mostly having to do with Brazilians who don’t speak anything but Portuguese contending with restaurants, hotels, music stores in countries where German, Japanese, or English are the languages of choice…very amusing). A beer and several glasses of water later it was time to go…and suddenly we realized it was almost 9.45!!!! We were all astonished that we’d stayed in the same restaurant for seven straight hours! Guess there was lots of catching up to do. And, I’m happy to say, though my head was exploding and I was operating on less than an hour of sleep in 36 hours of traveling, I held my own in Portuguese, caused my share of laughs and guffaws. Not bad for a gringo who rarely speaks Portuguese any more, and so different from my first conversations with Celso and crew when my language skill, actually, my lack of same, was more painful for them than it was for me, and my pain was deep and difficult!

Celso and I walked back to the hotel, I gave him his booty: a copy of some music recording software for his Mac, a book on swimming fitness for his wife Marluce who is a swimming instructor (she did syncopated swimming back in the day when I met them), and I unloaded some Austin carnaval posters on him. As soon as he left, I was back on the street searching for my late supper…and found all that beer and cachaça mentioned earlier. A few blocks from my hotel I found a place called Boteco da Praia (Snack Bar on the Beach) which was brightly lit and full of chirpy folks eating and drinking at 10.30pm. I decided just to have a few snacks and a couple of beers and ended up with a variety of goodies: more codfish bolinhos, two “fried pies” or empanadas called, individually, a pastel, one filled with shrimp and Brazilian cream cheese called Catupiry, the other filled with yummy palm hearts, and I also had a casquinha de siri, sort of a baked crab cake served in a shell, the casquinha, though in this case it was a scallop shell. All the food was great, and I can attest to the homemade nature of the bolhinos because I found some fish bones in one, something which I’ve never encountered before, but I think is a sign that the dried cod was done in house, and maybe they were just a little sloppy when cleaning it. Now, the tap beer here is cold and refreshing, but it’s typically served in a “tulip” which is maybe 8 ounces. Yeah, I had 5 of these! But that’s equivalent to only about two pints back home, so don’t get nervous…and I wasn’t driving anywhere! Plus, this place featured a full menu of artisan cachaças which is something fairly new in Brazil (maybe in the last 10-15 years). Each offering was described with location, age, and the kind of wood used in the aging barrel. I was shocked when the first bottle on the menu was priced at 30 reais (about $15) for a single shot!!!!! Hell, back in the day, you could get a full bottle of rot-gut cachaça for a buck! Cachaça is a firewater distilled from sugar cane but with a flavor a bit like tequila, but not quite. Anyway, I was intrigued and decided a nice smooth shot (!!!!!) of cachaça would help me sleep faster upon my return to the hotel…
Ok, so I asked the waiter which of the 30 cachaças might be the smoothest…cachaça is not something, or wasn’t, known for it’s smoothness, in fact it was always the opposite…a bit like drinking jet fuel, not that I’ve ever tasted that…or maybe I have! Boris, Natasha: the secret formula you were looking for was maybe cachaça all along! So, the waiter pointed out a few bottles that he thought were smooth…one 3 years old, one 2 years old, and so on. But then he admitted, “But I don’t drink!!!!!” They guy is giving me advice on the flavor characteristics of booze, and he doesn’t drink! How Brazilian, how lovely! But, he kindly offered me a taste of all three, and generous tastes they were! Combined, nearly a full shot glass worth of free booze! One particular brand had a bit of a vanilla aftertaste, which clearly came from the wood in the barrel. Cool. But I ended up with a more neutral “pinga” which I sipped slowly while conversing with two of the waiters about their home state of Ceará in the NE of Brazil…in fact, the whole staff was from Ceará which explained why the menu at Boteco da Praia had such a northeastern slant…very cool. I quizzed them about the cabrito advertised on posters around the joint and they assured me (!) that it was fresh, and very good. So that’s my lunch for Friday…it’s nearby, and it’s cheap, and I can stumble back to my hotel after for a nice long nap….

3 comments on “Portland to Rio

  1. Looks like you are having fun!


  2. Great post SambaMaster.

    Keep it up.

    More pictures of food please.


  3. I wonder who Janie is????


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