Sometimes, I give my mother reasons to worry.
In late June of 2012, gunshots fired in the Mexico City International Airport — right around the time I flew into that same airport for my first contract with Disney on Ice. When she emailed me asking if was okay, I hadn’t even heard about the shooting yet.
This spring, yet again I worked in a country that dominated news headlines. This time, however, there were a few more headlines than just one incident, between a political upheaval, the spread of the Zika virus, and international spotlight on the lead-up to the Rio de Janeiro summer Olympics.
I spent half of my summer in Brazil. I’m lucky to say that, once again, my mother had nothing to worry about. I didn’t experience any of the hyperbolized media coverage I saw before I left the US in late April.
What I did experience was a bohemian, party-friendly culture. If there was one word to describe my impression of Brazil, it would be “expressive.” The Brazilians I met were proud to share their voice.
Sure, there was plenty of political expression. When I was in Porto Alegre, I heard the news of Dilma’s Rousseff’s impeachment when civilians roared in the streets near local bars. And when I was in Brasília, protestors marched several blocks toward the government buildings in the Three Powers Square with signs that read “DEFEND SOCIAL SECURITY!” in Portuguese. (I should note that the demonstration was peaceful and the protesters were smiling, contrary to the impression of volatile protests I had made based on US media.)
But what struck me more than politics was how expressive the artistry was. In São Paulo, street art coated all the roadside buildings for miles. These were more than simply rushed etchings of graffiti that I’m used to seeing on urban backlots. An entire high-rise building downtown is coated with a painting of a colorful flying fish. Lower buildings have a parade of colorful cartoons and abstract figures that compete for your attention. Each painting, whether it was distinct from its neighbor or it intersected with it, was masterfully drawn and beautifully painted.
Another art form that surprised me was capoeira. I knew that capoeira was a part martial art, part dance from Brazil. When a group of us went to the Áfricanamente Escola Capoeira Angola in Porto Alegre to watch a class, I didn’t expect to be performing the dance myself — nor did I expect to sing. The school taught us that Capoeira Angola originates from African slaves in colonial Brazil. This explains the importance of call-and-response music in Capoeira Angola. After we learned the basics of interacting with our dance partner —
the overhead kicks, the lunging dodges, and the cartwheels — our instructors sat us in a circle, gave us drums, and began singing short phrases that we echoed. I couldn’t identify the language we were singing or what we were saying, but the instructors and other students encouraged us to sing loudly and drum confidently. We each took turns singing and performing the dance. Despite clumsy movements and off-tempo drumming, the locals did their best to make us feel welcome.
During the moments I was put on the spot to sing or dance, I felt awkward. This was completely out of my comfort zone. But learning more about this part of their culture and bonding with the locals made this one of my favorite experiences of Brazil.
I discovered more Brazilian art at the churrascarias. These Brazilian barbecues bring out slabs of meat on large skewers to your tables until well past the point when you realize you’re full. Some are traditional pork, beef, and lamb meats, and others are more obscure, like chicken hearts. Of course, I visited a churrascaria a few times a month.
At two of the churrascarias we went to — one in Porto Alegre and one in Iguazú Falls — our dinner was accompanied by shows. My coworkers and I cheered when we watched traditional Brazilian dancing, including the partner dance with long skirts called the “carimbó” and the shimmying women in beaded thongs and enormous headpieces called “passistas.”
Speaking of Iguazu Falls . . . okay, Iguazú Falls deserves more than a casual mention. The waterfall is one of the largest in the world and spreads across the borders of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. On the Brazil side, there is a bridge that takes visitors to a lookout point to a drop-off between two layers of waterfall. Watching curtains of mist fall from above to my left and seeing them tumble down out of sight to my right made me feel like I was floating in a non-terrestrial zone.
We hopped over the border to Argentina for a day and did an adventure tour over there that consisted of hiking, zip lining through the jungle’s trees, and rappelling through a small waterfall. Without diminishing the awe of those activities, my favorite part of the trip being surrounded by that arena of rushing water on the lookout point on the Brazil side.
For as exaggerated as some of the stories in the media are about crises in Brazil right now, my experience in the past few months was fairly ho-hum. Maybe it was because I avoided seeing Rio de Janeiro, but I never came across a Zika epidemic with my group when we were in the most populated city of São Paulo, nor did I come across any rioting in the country’s capital of Brasília.
But my memories of Brazilian art and culture are exciting enough to stay with me for the rest of my life.