Brazilian Diary - 29th May to 11th June 2010

Gadje Dilo were invited to play at the 2010 Brazilian Circle Dance Festival, on top of which I was to teach some dance workshops of my own.
This is my own personal blog of our Brazilian adventure.

Saturday 29th May

The adventure began in style - the number 10 bus to Aberdeen airport. A chance to take the excitement and anticipation of a new adventure and cool it with the tedium of long-distance travel. However our pulses began to pick up again as we arrived at the airport, loaded up our cases and instruments, and headed inside to check in. There had been some uncertainty and concern about how the instruments would be treated, it seemed as if we would be able to carry them with us in the nice, warm cabin but it wasn't totally clear that this would be the case with both airlines. The prospect of surrendering the tools of our trade to the dubious mercies of baggage handlers was not an inviting one but we set forth with hope and optimism.

Appraising the art at Terminal 5

The airport itself was strangely deserted. I had a tremor of apprehension that the BA strike action had escalated and Aberdeen would be the furthest limit of our journey but the friendly official who helped us through the (oddly confusing) check-in process assured me that Saturday evening was always quiet, and that we were on the last flight out of the day.

We checked in without problems and were given the all-clear to carry the instruments with us (hooray!). The big test would come at Heathrow when we would be boarding our TAM flight to Brazil.

After suffering the usual jokes as we went through the X-ray ( "Give us a tune!") we were on to the plane and away. A short hop to Heathrow, arriving at Terminal 5 where we took full advantage of the artwork on display.

At Heathrow we hit our first crisis - after a extensive bus and walking tour of the airport (which seems to be an inevitable part of air travel nowadays) we arrived at the TAM desk to find nobody there. "They closed up and left five minutes ago" a nearby desk worked told us, but seeing the looks of panic on our faces she helpfully rang for more information and eventually found out that the staff had gone to the gate itself, where we were urged to head for with some urgency as technically we weren't checked in and might find ourselves left behind. Eek!

We set off for Gate 48 and, about twenty minutes later, arrived at what seemed to be the furthest point from the departure lounge. (Why does it always seem that when I fly my gate is always the furthest one away? Did I do something heinous in a previous life?) Here we found the TAM staff and checked in, leaving us just twenty minutes to go back all the way to our starting point to find something to eat. Sigh. A brisk stroll with a cavalier disregard for the official boarding time yielded some sandwiches to tide us over but then we were on to the plane and ready to set off.

The plane was full so it was a challenge finding an overhead locker that could hold the guitar but after a few minutes of 'excuse me'-ing along the aisle I managed to cram it in on top of a pile of other stuff. Making a mental note to myself not to be the first person to reopen the locker once we landed I worked my way back to my seat and settled in. Once we were in the air I did a quick check of the in-flight entertainment (verdict - no) before closing my eyes and settling back and waiting for Brazil to arrive.

Sunday 30th May

The flight was long, hot, airless and crowded - not bad for modern-day economy travel. Luckily I managed to sleep, doze or just lie there with my eyes closed for most of it and after what didn't seem like too much of an ordeal I arose to join the hubub of immanent arrival. I accepted the complimentary breakfast (a mistake, as with most airline food, but it had been a long time since I'd eaten and my stomach was bored and in rebellion) tidied my bits and pieces together and with a bump we were in South America.

Waiting to be collected from the airport

After (what felt like) walking for miles and queuing for an age at immigration we made it to the baggage claim. After rescuing our luggage we wrestled our mule-like trolley to the end of the line for Nothing To Declare, an enormous queue of similarly laden travellers that snaked back and forth around the hall. But salvation came quickly - a young airport official came up to us and pointed out that the Something To Declare line could also be used by pregnant women, handicaqpped people... and the elderly. An unexpected benefit of greying hair! We checked that this wasn't a Cruel Joke but she was adamant that it was OK, so in we went.

It didn't run quite to plan. A few yards after passing the 'Nothing To Declare this way ->' sign we were assailed in fearsome Portuguese and told in no uncertain terms that we needed to take the other path or face dire consequences. Meekly we obeyed. Once it had been established that we were idiot foreigners and would dutifully obey orders things relaxed somewhat and after all of our belongings had been X-rayed (again) we were released from the clutches of authority and passed through the arrival gates into the arms of our Brazilian greeting party.

At least that was the theory. We scanned the waiting crowd with their enigmatic hand-written placards but found no familiar faces, so we circled the trolleys, sank onto the uncaring 'meeting area' seats and waited. And waited. Bill, the only one of us with Brazilian reais went off to buy some water, the rest of us sat around and started making Plan B's for getting to our hotel should we have to do it under our own steam.

Time passed, tempers frayed. After waiting for an hour we decided to give the organisers another half hour to turn up and then find our own way to the hotel, armed with the name & address and a loaded credit card.

Ten minutes later they arrived. Joy was unconstrained, fulsome greetings were exchanged and the fantastical schemes of revenge dreamed up by minds half-crazed with sleep deprivation and stress were released and forgotten. We were led outside, piled into a minibus and were soon off, heading for the city.

Breakfast in São Paulo

As we drove along the scale of the city began to make itself apparent. Forests of highrises sprung up on all sides and could be seen sprouting from the surrounding buildings far into the distance on all sides. As the multi-lane highway started to divide as we got further into São Paulo we discovered another aspect of the city - road repair doesn't seem to have been given a high priority in municipal spending. Shaken and only slightly stirred we drew up at the hotel.

After dealing with the check-in paperwork we hit another snag. Our flight was through the night and had landed at 5:30 in the morning. Despite all the delays it was still only 9 and check-in time for the rooms was 11, no exceptions. Renata, the prime organiser and our guide & mentor, was unfazed by this and led us a short way down the street to a fantastic café with an enormous selection of breakfasty goodies. Well fed and feeling a little more human we returned to the hotel, settled into our rooms and showered away the grime of the journey.

Climbing the Monumento às Bandeiras

Bill and Rory decided that they needed some siesta time to continue the process of post-flight recovery so I joined Jacqui and Lucy to go exploring in the city, possibly with lunch featuring at some point. We made our way up to the main drag and strolled along in the welcome warmth (25 to 28 degrees according to various public temperature readings), vaguely checking on potential eateries but mostly just soaking up the local colour and the glorious sunshine. As an exotic experience it wasn't that impressive - a large, modern street in a big, modern city - but after the trials of our journey it was wonderfully revitalising to just wander along in the heat and sunshine, taking in the sights as incidentals along the way.

After returning to the hotel the girls (as a band member I'm allowed to call them that) decided to stop in for some rest but I was up for more of the city, so with tourist map in hand I set off - destination parkland. The first green space turned out to be an imposing and extensive police compound, fenced and razor-wired, but I kept going and, lured onwards in the latter stages by f(i)estive drumming, found a huge statue (the Monumento às Bandeiras) bedecked with enthusiastic clambering children and beyond that the gates of an enormous park.

Ibirapuera Park was just what I was looking for and much more besides. Acres of greenery, lakes, trees & palms and the whole thing thronging with Brasilieros of all ages enjoying their Sunday. Walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading and picnicking they filled the park with a sense of casual vitality that was like a tonic to my battered soul and left me with a smile on my face and a bit more of a skip in my step.

Returning to the hotel I met up with the rest of the group and we set off for an (early) evening meal. After wandering around our part of the city for a while we gave up on finding something ethnic and funky and ended up in the food court of a monstro-mall. A Middle-Eastern dinner rounded the day off nicely and from there it was back to the hotel and so to bed.

Feeding the black swans from a safe distance

Strange objects in the park

Stilt men

Monday 31st May

São Paulo skyline

After a good, long night's sleep I awoke at 6:15 in the morning - early but not unreasonably so considering the pummelling my body clock had received over the past two days. I silently washed & dressed and headed down to breakfast, leaving the two sleeping beauties (Bill & Rory) to linger in the land of nod. The breakfast buffet was disappointingly familiar - apart from the dulce de leite I could have been anywhere in the world - but the fruit was fresh and the coffee strong and the day was off to a very good start. Over the next couple of hours I was joined by the rest of the band and after the obligatory British complaints about the quality of the tea (not by me - the coffee was perfectly functional) we were soon fed & watered and discussing the day ahead.

Today was to be a working day - for me at least. At 10:30 we bundled ourselves into two cabs and wove our way through the city to meet Renata at TRIOM, the publishing house and bookshop where she works. Having had a day to settle we could start to discuss the schedule and logistics of our visit in a bit more detail but the primary objective of the morning was to film me going through the steps of the dances I was going to teach at the festival.

I've been videoed while teaching before but never like this - alone in an empty room with a cameraman scrutinising my every move and Renata looking on impassively. I could feel the tension rising within me as the implications sunk in - this film was going to end up on the DVD given to all of the festival participants who would be pouring over it, analysing every movement and gesture as the definitive version of each dance. If I scratched my nose would this become a new part of the dance, dutifully duplicated as it was passed on? If I glanced out of the window would my eye movement be preserved and reenacted? Could I live up to this great responsibility?

Lunch with Frances and Renata - and self portrait

Just as we were ready to go the sound system decided to stop working, sending all three of us scrabbling around checking power leads, switches and iPod settings. Ironically this added complication (would it keep working?) acted as a release for me, having the distraction of something practical to focus on cleared my worries and when all was ready to go so was I. Before I could start worrying again it was time for camera - sound - action!

Once we got going things became much easier, especially after I'd messed up a couple of times and realised that needing more than one take wasn't going to be a problem. We worked our way through the dances and in what seemed like the twinkling of an eye (but was actually closer to 45 minutes) everything was in the can and I was ready to take the rest of the day off.

Reunited with my bandmates (who'd been working on vocal harmonies) we sat down with Renata to talk about some of the plans for our time in Brazil, after which we walked around the block to our lunchtime restaurant, a stylish Italian place filled with shirt-and-tied businessmen. Here we met up with Frances who was to be our guide for the afternoon and my translator for the festival.

We'd been told that the Brazilian style of eating was to have a large midday meal with a smaller one in the evening, so to give due respect to local tradition and culture we approached the buffet with focus and determination. The food was Italian with a strong South American accent and was varied, plentiful and delicious, although surprisingly underspiced.

Strawberry shop front

Decorated manhole cover

Tintin doorway

After lunch we crammed ourselves into Frances' car and set off to see some more of the city. First stop was a funky neighbourhood with quirky shops and some eye-catching paintwork and street art - while the rest of the band investigated some of the shops (ethnic drums and native arts & crafts) I wandered around with my camera:

At this point Frances had to leave us so we headed up over the hill (São Paulo was surprisingly hilly) on foot, back towards an interesting looking street that we'd passed earlier. But by the time we got there weariness had started to set in and despite the ominous warnings we'd been given about rush hour traffic ("It takes hours to get anywhere") we began searching for a taxi to take us back to the hotel. Fitting five of us into one cab looked like an impossible task but when we found one and, in very broken Portuguese and with many creative hand gestures, indicated what was required the driver grinned and magically reconfigured the car to produce an extra seat in the back. We collapsed into the comforting seats and, after a dishearteningly slow crawl up the first street, were whisked back home.

Serious band discussions - with pizza & beer

The tentative plan had been to discuss repertoire and set lists for the festival once we got back to the hotel but after a pause for showers & naps we decided to set off in search of a more salubrious setting, and maybe a light supper. A gentle walking tour ensued but after rejecting several neon-lit cafés and the sterile clamour of the mega-mall we ended up in a cosy little pizza place with a perfectly sized 5-person round table. Pizza and beer was ordered and we set about the process of structuring our set lists for our four festival gigs.

With our working schedule set out and agreed for the next week (JOKE!) we meandered downhill back to the hotel. Knowing we'd be packing and travelling to the festival venue next morning we headed up for an early night, although I then spent an hour catching up with email, texts and this very diary - typing quietly so as to not disturb my sleeping room mates. But finally my drooping eyelids persuaded me to turn off the light, curl up in my little bed, and slip into slumber with the promise of new vistas awaiting me in the morning.

Tuesday 1st June

I rose to wakefulness but decided to check my watch before leaping out of bed. Just as well - it was 4:00am. So much for effortlessly sailing through jet-lag - my biorhythms had their own schedule for getting into Brazillian time and weren't going to be rushed over it. I rolled over and made an agreement with my body that I'd stay in bed until at least 6:30.

The hotel breakfast spread

After a couple of hours of drifting between sleep and wakefulness we renegotiated our agreement and shortly after 6:00 I was down in the hotel restaurant, alone, starting on breakfast and updating my diary.

I'd been sitting at my table for a few minutes when another couple of guests arrived. In a large room where I was the only other diner they came and sat directly behind me at the next table where one of them proceeded to start talking very loudly on his moby. While I was wondering whether this was some sort of interesting cultural contrast to my northern European reserve the miasma of their combined aftershaves washed over me like a chemical weapon attack and I retreated to the far end of the room.

And then then next person who came in also decided to sit right behind me. Bizarre. Was my animal magnetisme finally kicking into life? My new neighbour's choice of personal grooming products were less life threatening so I decided to stay put and the room slowly filled as I worked through my morning repast.

Today we were moving to the venue for the festival, an hour's drive from our current hotel. As we checked out some of the band members helpfully provided some Scottish language tips as we falteringly chatted to the staff, but I suspect describing See you Jimmy as a greeting may lead to cultural misunderstandings in the future. Washington, the driver from our journey from the airport, was there to meet us in the lobby and after loading up the minivan with our collective luggage (and ourselves) we were off and on our way.

Brazil has a much higher than average level of representation in Formula One motor racing and it was soon clear that this was no mere statistical quirk - the pursuit of speed in a motorised vehicle was something approached with determination and dedication by what seemed like the vast majority of São Paulo drivers. As we found our way onto larger roads the risk from potholes diminished (somewhat) and we raced along in and through the traffic - Washington with steely purpose, the rest of us silently invoking Saint Christopher. The one pause for sightseeing came when we passed the São Paulo football stadium which was pointed out to us with something approaching veneration and awe. We dutifully oohed.

Hotel Rancho Silvestre

As we drove the vast size of the city became more and more apparent, rather than passing into the suburbs that I would have expected in a European city there were just more and more tightly packed buildings. After a while they became more primitive and spartan, clusters of plain brick cubes packed cheek by jowl over the rolling terrain, set back from the large trunk road by the warehouses, depots and other business ventures that lined the carriageways. The houses didn't have the look of deprivation and squalor that I'd seen in some other countries but it was clear that if you had money you moved into the city rather than out of it.

After what was probably around half an hour but felt like 30 laps of Monza we turned off of the main road and started to find our way through smaller streets. Soon it became clear that the road maintenance schemes of São Paulo could be used as benchmarks of quality for neighbouring areas to aspire to. On one stretch of road we had to slow to walking pace as Washington guided our minibus between potholes that could have swallowed us whole! Well, maybe taken a wheel off. To be fair this was by far the worst example of chaotic terrain we had to traverse and soon we were back with more regular potholes and bumps, with more and more greenery appearing between and behind the buildings lining our route. Eventually this became almost pure forest and within a couple of miles we arrived at the imposing entrance to the Hotel Rancho Silvestre, our home for the next five days.

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