Christian and I arrived here yesterday. We’re down here for his cousin Pi’s wedding. Right after landing in Sao Paolo, we got on a bus to the coastal city of Santos, where Christian’s Mom, Vitoria, has an apartment a few blocks from the beach.
The 40-mile drive from Sao Paolo, which sits around 2600 feet above sea level, down to Santos is spectacular. The Serra do Mar mountains drop precipitously right at the coast. Because Santos is the largest and busiest port in South America, the highway, known as the Rodovia dos Imigrates, is one of the busiest on the continent, with more than 1 millions cars traversing it each summer weekend. (When traffic gets bad, they switch BOTH the uphill and downhill sections to flow unidirectionally and they divert the opposite flow of traffic onto an older road.) Across the final 2400-foot drop to the sea, there are 53 bridges and 11 tunnels, and sometimes it’s as wide as 6 lanes to support the cargo traffic coming up from the port to South America’s largest city. So you can imagine riding a bus through the hairpin twists and turns and tunnels of such a massive highway, being passed by huge trucks and trailers, was quite an adventure. Luckily, the scenery around was so spectacular with waterfalls and cliffs that I was able to keep myself from worrying about the road.
Santos is a huge city, over 1.5 million people, though most of us in the U.S. have never heard of it. The beach, for miles, is lined with high-rise apartments and hotels, which give way to the massive port where cruise ships and cargo liners are constantly coming in and out. Santos is historic (founded in 1546) and the port is where the majority of the world’s coffee is exported.
Between Sao Paolo and Santos runs a narrow strip of the Atlantic Forest, again something few of us have ever heard about. The Atlantic Forest is recognized as one of the top 5 biodiversity hot-spots in the world. It’s an unusual combination of rainforest and dry forest, broadleaf and needleleaf, tropical and temperate, that runs almost the entire length of the Brasilian coast for thousands of miles from the northern part of Brasil all the way into Argentina. It’s unique in the world in that the tropical rainforest portion extends BELOW the Tropic of Capricorn into the temperate zone, which brings wildlife that normally live in the tropics, like monkeys, into contact with wildlife and weather that exist in temperate regions. (Think monkeys in Nebraska.) And because the area goes from the tropical coast to alpine mountaintops in such a short span, during ice ages the tropical creatures were isolated to the mountaintops when glaciers filled the valleys. So the Atlantic Forest is filled with VERY bizarrely-evolved creatures and plants.
When we arrived in Santos, we strolled along the beach, and then went to the market to stock up on all of Christian’s favorite childhood foods to bring back to the U.S. We also stocked up on cachaca (pronounced “ka-SHA-suh”), which is Brasil’s trademark liquor. Produced from fermented sugar cane juice, like rum but much stronger, it is used to produce their trademark drink, the caipirinha (pronounced “kai-pu-DEEN-ya”), which is made by crushing limes with sugar and pouring cachaca on top. Because the water in Santos can have high levels of bacteria (no different from the beaches in Southern California), it is strongly recommended to have one or two caipirinhas after a swim. Luckily, beach vendors will whip them up for you for a few dollars and deliver them to your beach chair.
For dinner we went to a Lebanese restaurant. There’s a huge Lebanese population in Brasil, probably the largest outside Lebanon, so Lebanese food is plentiful and superb. This particular restaurant was famous for their yogurt, so we ordered a large plate of it.
It was as thick as cream cheese, tart and tangy, with the richest flavor and consistency I’ve ever tasted. We sprinkled over it a bright green olive oil that was pungent and olive-y, and ate it on whole wheat pitas. Unreal. Maybe the most delicious single thing I’ve ever tasted.
We slept 11 hours last night, exhausted from two short nights in the days before our trip.
Vitoria’s apartment here is GORGEOUS! Each room has its own balcony, with high ceilings and tile everywhere. There are separate elevators and entrances for beach trips, with faucets to wash off feet and chairs, so that the building is kept free of sand, compared to most hotels and apartment homes. Because furnishings in Brasil are so expensive, Vitoria has had almost everything shipped here in containers from the U.S.
Breakfast at Vitoria’s apartment was fresh fruit, a locally-made cheese, and fruit juices. You wouldn’t believe the fruits here. We had a papaya that was almost 3 feet long! And also “cashew apple” which is the fruit that grows on top of the cashew nut. The nut was still hanging onto the fruit, so I decided to break the cashew out of its rough husk.
It wasn’t working with the knife, so I put it in my mouth to try to crack it. Vitoria gasped and said not to, but I assured her it was fine. A few seconds later, my mouth was BLAZING with pain. I flew to the internet and discovered that the husk around a cashew (and the nut itself) contains URUSHIOL, the compound that causes rashes and irritation in poison ivy. Cashews must be roasted or steamed to remove the urushiol before it can be consumed, and workers in cashew factories often have long-term health problems because of constant exposure to urushiol.
I could just imagine my mouth erupting in oozing rashes for weeks, but I’ve never ever reacted to poison ivy, so I kept my fingers crossed. I also gargled with vodka, since urushiol is alcohol-soluble. In an hour, I was back to normal.
This morning we went to the beach. Vitoria said the water was very cold, but I didn’t find it to be any colder than the Caribbean…in fact I remember some trips to St. Maarten where the water was much colder than it is here. The sand in Santos is dingy grey, but across the entrance to the bay lies an island, Isla de Santo Amaro, which has many white sand beaches. On this island is the city of Guaruja, which was where Christian’s family has vacationed for generations. When Christian was young they had a house on a rocky point above one of the longest beaches on the island. Christian still remembers walking around the rocky mountain each day with their maid to bring water from a spring.
Gradually, all the homeowners gave in to pressure from developers, and now the hill where they used to live is covered in high-rise condo units. In fact, the entire island is now one of the top vacation spots in all of Brasil and practically every square inch is covered in condos and hotels. As we drove down the main avenue lined with high-rises, Vitoria told me that when SHE was a little girl, nothing on the island was developed at all. It was completely natural. And in the span of her lifetime, it has turned into Vegas!
We had lunch at a seaside restaurant in Guaruja, and Vitoria strongly recommended that I get Moqueca de Peixe, a typical dish from northern Brasil. It was a very hearty, meaty fish (like shark) that was stewed in a cast-iron Dutch oven with tomatoes and coconut milk. The flavor was so delicate, it was delicious. It was served over rice and topped with Farofa, which is an extremely common side dish in Brasil. It’s made from toasted cassava flour, which is a course, grainy flour from the root of the manioc plant…the same root that tapioca comes from. She also recommended that I get Acerola juice to drink. Acerola is a native Brasilian fruit and its flavor was somewhat similar to passion fruit, but a bit less tart. After some more sightseeing around Guaruja, we had some passion fruit ice cream (sugar free!) and then took the ferry back to Santos.
We’re headed to Sao Paolo tomorrow and things will get hectic…but probably less to write about. (Apologies all around for the length of this entry.)