In October 2011 our little group: Sonia, Craig, Wendy and Richard visited Brazil. We entered Brazil from Argentina near the Iguassu Falls.
Unfortunately our travel itineraries failed to make it clear that there are two Airports at Iguassu; one in Argentina and one in Brazil. We had allowed plenty of time for an international flight out of Argentina but at the airport in Argentina we discovered we were supposed to cross the border and make a domestic flight form Brazil. Not surprisingly we did not have time for the 30 km drive, plus the border crossing formalities, and missed our flight. This mishap was to be just a taste of things to come when flying in South America.
But missing the flight and the extra time in Iguassu gave us the opportunity to visit the second largest hydro-scheme in the world on the border of Brazil and Paraguay at Itapúa on the Parana River. This is very impressive with 20 x 700 MW units, driven by the huge flow volume. The dam is backed by a vast lake that formed within a few days of completion and completely immersed the second largest water falls in the region.
Little Paraguay is now one of the World's largest electricity exporters. The cab driver Sidney who drove us to the dam had good English but has hardly left this town. Very few people seem to have travelled and its easy to forget how well off Australians are in this regard where almost everyone has been overseas including our children - often to many different countries. We did a count recently and named around 50 - counting the UAE, Hong Kong, Macau etc separately.
Moving across the border from Argentina to Brazil involves a change in language. At Iguassu this is accomplished by the locals by speaking in the native language; the local lingua franca; not so in Rio.
As I have noted before Portuguese is relatively easy to follow when written but totally impossible when spoken - the reverse of Spanish.
We finally reached Rio. We were in a hotel at Copacabana and not far by Metro from Ipanema. First we looked at the beaches - they were just beaches - with very small short surf; nothing to write home about. But then I don't like beaches, all sandy and far to hot. Books discolour; sand gets into orifices; instant burn; memories of childhood and pain. I like swimming in salt water but it’s much nicer in a pool. And I quite like good surf, when the sun is not too hot; but this piddle is neither one nor the other.
But it looks good from a distance and the geography of Rio is a spectacular setting for a city - probably the best in the world. We took the cog-train up Corcovado, the mountain, to see the big statue of Jesus there and to look at the view.
Unfortunately it was a bit too cloudy to get a full view of the city. But the next day went up the Sugarloaf peak by two cable cars; it was truly spectacular. Maybe Sydney needs a huge tower to allow such panoramic views.
Rio is considerably larger, if not richer, than Sydney.
We spent most of our time in museums, cafes and bars (good value) and of course in cabs (also inexpensive) coming and going. Shopping for thongs (flip-flops - not underwear) also occupied some of us. Apparently the Rio ones are special; my $2 ones from K-Mart don't rate. I'm confused; they look just the same. I’m sure they would still be banned from clubs in Sydney.
The Portuguese moved the royal court to Rio during the Napoleonic period with the help of the British. Interesting, as the Brazilian economy was still based on slavery. The museums had lots of information about the atrocities of the period and about subsequent movements for increasing freedom against successive oppressive regimes - mostly driven by the middle classes. Incredibly, the 1989 presidential elections were the first to be based on universal suffrage (under the 1988 constitution).
There is a distinctly colonial feel to Rio - not dissimilar to Sydney. Compared to the extravagance of Europe even the previous ruling classes lived quite modestly. While some grand houses may have had 50 servants, there is nothing like the vast palaces of France, Italy or England. And of course today they are museums, hotels, demolished or in other public use.
Rio is still very comfortable for the rich. It offers inexpensive food and services and there are some very well appointed flats and houses. But it has many poor people and there are lots of precautions against theft everywhere you look. We were constantly warned not to take valuable things with us and not to go to certain places - like the beach at night. But it seemed to us that this was overstated? When we tried to go to such an area (slumming) we found instead an artist's colony undergoing rapid gentrification. Like Paddington or Balmain once were in Sydney. We ended up doing some shopping and having coffee in one of the many cafes.
Rio is undergoing an obvious economic boom.
While it is dominated by the giant Christ the Redeemer; and there are many churches, they did not seem to be full even on Sunday. We went into one that had maybe 20 in the congregation that turned out to be high church Anglican! Religion still seems to be important but not nearly as intensely as I expected, based on our experience in Portugal.
Among the museums we visited was one described in our travel guide as 'resembling a toilet block in a park'; and indeed it did. It's a small, but free, museum celebrating the life of Carmen Miranda 'The Brazilian Bombshell'.
Although I remember her in the movies and her songs on the radio, Carmen Miranda was hardly an icon for me; she was after all, 14 years older than my mother. I doubt even my father, who admired an attractive woman, was overly impressed; she was far too 'over-the-top' in all the wrong ways.
Like Evita, Marilyn Monroe and several other popular heroines, Carmen rose from humble beginnings. In this case her father was an opera loving barber who encouraged her to sing. She experienced the inevitable vicissitudes and accidents; eventually exploiting the fashion for all things Latin American, to become an international stage and screen star in the 1940's and 50's. She was famous for big hats often covered in fake fruit; Latin dances; and her outrageous accent. She briefly became the highest earning woman in the United States.
The museum has clips from her movies running on a loop; photos and commentary in Portuguese and English; a number of costumes; and lots of little platform shoes. Wendy and Sonia were in their element.
The most remarkable thing was how petite she was; and like the wolf in 'Red Riding-hood': what big eyes and mouth she had. Her tiny stature is not immediately evident from her movies, where Hollywood must have surrounded her with other dancers less than five feet tall; or mounted the camera near the floor.
Her life is represented as tragic. She apparently had an unhappy marriage, from which, being Catholic, she could not escape. This is said to have led her to smoke heavily; and abuse alcohol, amphetamines and barbiturates. She died at 46 of heart failure. Her body was flown to Rio where a period of national mourning was declared; 60,000 acquaintances(?) attended her funeral; and reportedly more than half a million Brazilians escorted her funeral cortège.
Leaving we had more problems with flights - somehow all reservations had been cancelled but we had allowed plenty of time and a LAN man was able to fix it for us - very helpful - or so we thought at the time.