Blame It on Rio

… or the bossa nova. Toby Saltz­man goes solo and sets sail along South Amer­ica’s eastern coast

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Set­ting sail along South Amer­ica’s eastern coast

i’M FLOAT­ING AT SEA but danc­ing on air. Loung­ing on my sunny bal­cony, the only sound is the rhythm of waves curl­ing out to the hori­zon. Is it my imag­i­na­tion, I won­der, that the wa­tery splashes are echo­ing the pulse of the boss a nova or, maybe, the samba? By now–the last sea day of my 19day cruise on Sil­ver sea’ s new Sil­ver Muse – my senses spon­ta­neously swing to the Latin beats that per­co­lated through­out South Amer­ica from Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and on­ward to the Caribbean. Af­ter be­ing im­mersed in the sights, sounds and lo­cal cul­tures, no won­der my toes are sway­ing to the flow of waves.

The ports of call – a stream of places that are tricky or te­dious to reach in­de­pen­dently – made me feel con­fi­dently se­cure as a solo pas­sen­ger. Though I re­lied on guided ex­cur­sions to off-the-beaten track lo­ca­tions, my ad­ven­tur­ous spirit oc­ca­sion­ally spurred me to ven­ture out alone or with new ship­board friends, al­ways with my wits alert. In­ter­est­ingly – as pas­sen­gers on this itin­er­ary ranged from early 40s to 97 (yes!) – I met peo­ple who ex­plored ev­ery port on their own, some with pri­vate driv­ers, some walk­ing and hop­ping on lo­cal trans­port. A 70-some­thing man sought out ev­ery ex­treme feat, like hang-glid­ing off a cliff in Ar­gentina. One cou­ple – both young teach­ers from Swe­den – had brought col­lapsi­ble moun­tain bikes. In ev­ery port – even when we were ten­dered ashore – they dis­em­barked with their bikes, back­packs brim­ming with pro­vi­sions, and shot off like light­ning for in­land treks.

Af­ter board­ing in Bu en os Aires and be­ing wel­comed by my but­ler, I headed out of my cabin for an al fresco lunch. While at the maître d’s desk, I met a group of Bri­tish pas­sen­gers. Turned out they were among dozens of in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­gers al­ready well into a 66-day cruise loop­ing from Fort Lauderdale that cir­cum­nav­i­gated South Amer­ica. These gre­gar­i­ous Brits were head­ing on to their win­ter homes in Bar­ba­dos, which is also my last port of call.

Dur­ing­cock­tail­hour,Imeta­cou­ple of ladies, like me also vet­eran solo cruis­ers. Plan­ning ahead, one – a re­tired diplo­mat – in­vited me on a Rio de Janeiro tour. She was on board to com­plete her “bucket list of all the Won­ders of the World” with a visit to Christ the Redeemer. The other – a fash­ion mar­keter – in­vited me for the ship’s guided day trip. It would take us north of Rio and up a moun­tain rain­for­est to one of Brazil’s high- est peaks where we would find the Im­pe­rial City of Petr�po­lis and the lo­cal flavours of a famed chur­rasco bar­be­cue restau­rant. Es­tab­lished in 1845, the city is home to the Im­pe­rial Palace, where Dom Pe­dro II, Brazil’s last em­peror, lived.

An on­board pre­sen­ta­tion on Latin Amer­i­can mu­sic show­cased the nu­ances be­tween Ar­gentina’s tango and Brazil’s samba, rhumba and bossa nova and traced the in­flu­ences of African her­itage on the per­cus­sive beats. That in­spired me to join the dance classes – some­thing I’d never done be­fore. By dis­em­barka­tion, I could step into every­thing from salsa to cha-cha to merengue to swing, al­beit not per­fectly or grace­fully. On board, some of us took Span­ish or French lessons or set into spa-fit­ness-well­ness rou­tines. Golf­ing with a gang of funny Aussies, New Zealan­ders, Ir­ish and Amer­i­cans be­came my daily rit­ual laugh bash, too. The easy ca­ma­raderie be­gan feel­ing like an em­brac­ing coun­try club.

IN PARATY (col­o­nized by the Por­tuguese circa 1600), on Brazil’s south­east­ern coast, some of us par­tic­i­pated in a cook­ing class with a famed Brazil­ian master chef, oth­ers ven­tured up river to see the moun­tain vil­lages built by Ger­man set­tlers work­ing the Mi­nas Gerais gold mines. Oth­ers took 4x4s through the dunes and into the for­est or sam­pled the lo­cally made 38 per cent cachaça “fire­wa­ter.”

Dark skies couldn’t dampen the thrill of ap­proach­ing Rio de Janeiro for a three-day stay. Shades of dim light cre­ated mag­i­cal sil­hou­ettes of Sugar Loaf Moun­tain and Cor­co­v­ado with Christ the Redeemer atop. On board, the lo­cal Samba Car­ni­val dancers gave spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mances as we took in the view of Ci­dade Mar­avil­hosa (mar­vel­lous city), which is, un­sur­pris­ingly, des­ig­nated as a UNESCO World Her­itage Cul­tural Land­scape. By mid-morn­ing, blue skies il­lu­mi­nated Rio’s beaches teem­ing with lo­cal Car­i­o­cas. Its Botan­i­cal Gar­den, the Sam­badrome of Car­ni­val, the famed Mara­canã foot­ball sta­dium and the swank ar­eas dot­ted with jew­elry shops were all bathed in bril­liant sun­shine. Also within view, the more than 1,000 fave­las, in ar­eas which pas­sen­gers were cau­tioned to avoid.

To call the ex­cur­sion to For­taleza – the city built by the Dutch in 1649, and later con­quered by the Por­tuguese – a rude awak­en­ing is an un­der­state­ment that be­lies the con­trast be­tween rich and poor, safe and bru­tal neigh­bour­hoods. For all the views of the Gothic, Ro­manesque

and Art Nou­veau ar­chi­tec­ture, its white sand beaches and wealthy pock­ets, the cathe­dral with its as­ton­ish­ing stained-glass win­dows and charm of mar­kets brim­ming with leathers and lace, we were still struck silent by the num­ber of build­ings rimmed with walls capped by barbed wire and armed guards posted ev­ery­where. We felt blessed to re­turn to the ship and head to sea.

Búzios, a sleepy fish­ing vil­lage on the penin­sula east of Rio, was a pure delight. It fea­tures a statue of French movie star Brigitte Bar­dot, who made the town fa­mous in the ’60s when she was spot­ted there sport­ing her string bikini and a Brazil­ian boyfriend (call it South Amer­ica’s St. Tropez). Def­i­nitely a cheery spot to sip a po­tent Caipir­inha cock­tail at a sunny café. Sal­vador, the cap­i­tal of the north­east­ern state of Bahia, show­cased the scene thriv­ing among the buskers and ven­dors in its his­toric up­per Pelour­inho district, a UNESCO World Her­itage Site that fea­tures more than 300 churches.

I think about how much of Brazil’s food, mu­sic and the arts are traced to the di­verse cul­tures stem­ming from the slave trade. Even though Dom Pe­dro II was the first in the Amer­i­cas to free his own slaves and start the path to eman­ci­pa­tion, the his­tory of the slave trade, which we learned about when we toured the colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture of Paratay, still leaves a not­i­ca­ble legacy in Brazil. Ac­cord­ing to one guide, “it ul­ti­mately cre­ated 132 dif­fer­ent skin colours in the coun­try.” The fact that there is a count points to the on­go­ing is­sue with colourism and what it means for class in the so­ci­ety. The Por­tuguese in­flu­ences, with the Afro-Brazil­ian cul­tural fu­sion, how­ever, makes for multi-cul­tural jux­ta­po­si­tions that show the con­tra­dic­tion and com­plex­i­ties of the beau­ti­ful and the ugly.

WE LEFT BRAZIL with a head­ing set for the re­mote Devil’s Is­land, Napoleon’s no­to­ri­ous pe­nal colony – ac­tu­ally, an ar­chi­pel­ago of three is­lands – off the coast of French Guiana. Dur­ing a day at sea, we learned of the is­land’s in­fa­mous pris­on­ers. One we know of from the film Papillon, which we viewed on board and star­ring Steve McQueen, who por­trayed the French writer Henri Char­rière – ac­cused of a mur­der he claimed he did not com­mit, and the film is based on Char­rière’s mem­oir chart­ing his es­cape. Past and fu­ture col­lide on this is­land. I was smit­ten with a hand­some throw­back, a French For­eign Le­gion Army sol­dier, who was sta­tioned at port, while the Guiana Space Cen­tre – ru­moured to be a po­ten­tial launch­ing spot for a U.S. space te­le­scope – is in the heart of its jun­gle.

As we sail away from Costa Verde, South Amer­ica’s eastern coast, I rem­i­nisce in my cabin. I have a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for this kind of travel where I can see a part of the world where pock­ets of life vary widely from splen­did so­phis­ti­ca­tion to gritty de­vel­op­ing-coun­try poverty – a re­al­ity check. The ship acted as a con­duit to au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences for those who value their time as a pre­cious com­mod­ity. It also proved that, para­dox­i­cally, a cruise is an en­light­en­ing way to gain a true sense of the land. sil­versea.com

Scenes from Sal­vador: Prac­tis­ing the mar­tial art of capoeira; colour­ful drums in the his­toric Pelour­inho district; (bot­tom) the Museu Im­pe­rial de Petropo­lis, north of Rio

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