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High Flying in Brazil

Last week, I returned home to Brazil, and was struck once again by how pleasant it is to fly in this country. My Continental flight from Newark actually managed to arrive around 45 minutes early at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo. As I was breezing through customs, immigration, and baggage claim – all smooth sailing, as is usually the case – a gaping 5-hour wait at the airport for my connecting flight to Salvador loomed before me.

Ignoring the temptations of Duty Free – (Brazilian airports allow international travelers access to Duty Free shops upon their arrival, as well as prior to departure) – super-strong cafezinho, and melt-in-your-mouth pães de queijo – I sped up to the TAM check-in counter and within seconds was steered to a “Lista de Espera” (Waiting List) counter where within 5 minutes, I was given a new boarding pass for a flight departing within the hour and my luggage was dispatched. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for the privilege of switching my flight?

[pullquote] While in the U.S., journeying through the skies has become about as appealing as a long slog in a Greyhound bus, Brazil still clings to the concept of air travel as a special experience in which passengers pay to be pampered. [/pullquote]

When I boarded the small, but spacious aircraft, where I had the luxury of three sprawling faux-leather seats to myself, a charming flight attendant passed around a basket chock full of old-school, chewy caramels – twice! Once in the air, a warm snack – ham and mozzarella sandwich on beet (!) bread – was bracketed by service of complimentary drinks (including a choice of three local beers). While nursing my dark Xingu ale (elected “Best Dark Beer in the World in by All About Beer magazine), I leafed through the TAM Nas Nuvens in-flight magazine, a thick, glossy, photo-studded affair, next to which my scrawny Continental magazine was a but a sad little pamphlet.

You get the point. While in the U.S., journeying through the skies has become about as appealing as a long slog in a Greyhound bus, Brazil still clings to the concept of air travel as a special experience in which passengers pay to be pampered. Of course, this ethos is in large part a hangover from the fact that, until 10 years ago, flying was largely a privilege of the upper classes, the only ones who could fork out the lofty sums commanded by the 2 or 3 national airlines that presided over Brazil’s airspace.

However, the booming of the economy, which propelled millions of Brazilians into the lower echelons of the “middle class,” coupled with the arrival on the scene of a handful of leanly run charter airlines that proceeded to undercut inefficiently-run old dinosaurs such as VARIG and VASP (both of whom bit the dust), made the Brazilian skies a much more democratic place. With more companies competing for an expanding number of passengers, fares plunged (it also helps that in Brazil, those with credit cards can pay for airfares in up to 12 (or more) monthly installments. Overnight, people whose most intimate airplane experience was watching dignitaries alight from private jets on the nightly news were flying down to Rio (and other points) with the crème de la crème.

For a while, there was too much traffic – line-ups were endemic as were late and canceled flights. However, in the last couple of years, expanded airports, re-routings, and new hubs have made flying in Brazil a much more streamlined experience. And I’m not just talking in terms of efficiency. There are also the attitudes (or lack thereof) of the professionals working both on and off the ground.

Overall, airline crews and airport staff, customs and immigration officials, are amazingly pleasant, unofficious, and courteous. They don’t scream at you to take your shoes off more quickly (in fact, you don’t even have to take off your shoes when you go through security). Nor do they subject you to Inquisition-worthy questions such as “Where does your mother live?”, “What does she do?” and “Why are you visiting her?”

Oh, and have I mentioned the fact that there are no luggage fees for either your two carry-ons or your two checked bags?

Heavenly…

Currently, there are 6 national airlines operating in Brazil:

TAM
Gol
Azul
(Brazilian version of JetBlue)
WebJet
Trip
Avianca Brasil

If you’re planning a trip, check out their websites for promotional fares (TAM, Gol, and Avianca Brasil all have English sites).

Meanwhile, for up-to-date news and information, in English, concerning Brazilian airlines and airports as well as help finding cheap flight to, from, and around Brazil, check out D Airfare, a great site run by Brazilian travel specialists Rodrigo Purisch and Tony Gálvez (who contributed fabulous photographs to Moon Brazil).

(Note: the aerial arrival in Rio de Janeiro featured in the clip is accompanied by Samba do Avião (Airplane Samba), a soaring composition by Tom Jobim, whose lyrics describe his joy at flying over Rio and landing at Galeão airport (which now, suitably, bears the name Aeroporto Tom Jobim in his homage). The song is interpreted by Miúcha, who is not only a member of Brazilian musical royalty – she’s the sister of Chico Buarque, ex-wife of João Gilberto, and mother of Bebel Gilberto – but an accomplished singer in her own right.

I Scream, You Scream

Eat all the ice cream you want this month—Ronald Reagan said it was OK. Back in 1984, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed July would forevermore be recognized as National Ice Cream Month and called upon the people of the Untied States “to observe these events with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

So what, exactly, constitutes appropriate ceremonies and activities?

Well, you could make your way to Toms River, NJ on Saturday, July 17, for their 8th Annual Ice Cream Festival. Or, you could head to Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market for the Ultimate Philadelphia Ice Cream Festival, also on July 17.

The Children’s Museum of Houston is hosting an ice cream workshop on Wednesday, July 21, where kids can make and eat ice cream and discover something new about their favorite frozen treat.

On July 25, the Middleborough Historical Association in Middleborough, MA is hosting an ice cream social from 2–4:00 p.m. with hand-cranked ice cream.

On Tuesday, July 27, the Children’s Zoo in Saginaw, MI is having an Ice Cream Zoofari. Tickets include Zoo admission, ice cream, and train and carousel rides.

Or, you could simply take a friend out for a scoop at your favorite local ice cream shop.

To help our readers at Moon.com celebrate, we’ll be doing an ice cream related giveaway with our friends at Carvel Ice Cream next week. Stay tuned to the staff blog for more details.

Banco do Brasil: In and Out of Line

Scanning the Brazilian press online today, my eye was caught by a headline concerning my hometown of Salvador. that caused me to experience a brief moment of triumph. This morning, a branch of the national bank, Banco do Brasil, located in Shopping Iguatemi, one of the city’s most popular shopping centers, was forced to close its doors due its flouting of the Lei dos 15 Minutos (15-Minute Law).

[pullquote] One of the first things foreigners often notice when they visit a large Brazilian city are the immense filas (lines).[/pullquote]

One of the first things foreigners often notice when they visit a large Brazilian city are the immense filas (lines). Like bloated snakes that have bitten off more than they can chew and are slowwwwwwly digesting, Brazilian line-ups are often long, sprawling, and extremely slow moving. You’ll often encounter them in the early hours of dawn, weaving along the sidewalks, in front of public hospitals and government agencies and, yes, in front of banks.

The bank lines are legendary. They’re especially fierce during the minutes leading up to 10 am, when Brazilian banks open the doors so that the populace (we’re not talking middle class Brazilians who have ATM cards or home computers) can pour in, take a number, pray for a seat, and begin the process known as waiting.

Due to the vast quantity of customers and the minimal number of tellers (not to mention the “relaxed” demeanor of the latter), waiting can take anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours.

It was with the mission of injecting a little humanity into the proceedings that, in 2005, the federal government passed the Lei dos 15 Minutos. Under the new law, banks throughout the land would be obliged to serve their clients within 15 minutes, or else…

Or else what, you may ask?

Or else the bank is slapped with a fine of R$5,000 (around $3,000). Big deal, you say. What bank doesn’t have R$5,000 stashed away somewhere to pay a measly little fine? Well, after a couple of fines (which are doubled after the first offense), banks that continue to make their customers cool their heels for hours, are forced to close their doors – which is what happened to the Banco do Brasil in Salvador’s shopping.

Moreover, to prevent defensive bankers from denying that customers have been waiting for indecent periods of time, the Lei dos 15 Minutos also requires all banks to purchase and install machines that distribute numbers with the time registered upon them. Failure to invest in such a machine carries a R$30,000 (around $18,000) fine.

In theory, it sounds pretty marvelous to imagine that you’ll be in and out of a bank in 15 minutes flat (although the time limit is extended to 25 minutes on days preceding and following long holidays, and to 30 minutes on days when civil servants receive their pay checks). Of course, in practice, many bank agencies don’t comply with the law, and lack of public monitoring, along with customers who are unaware of their full rights (or shy about denouncing abuse of such rights), means that long lines are not yet a thing of the past (as proof, check out the home-made, and rather rough, but poignant denunciation videos on YouTube, one of which is posted above).

Of course, the banks are none too enamored with the Lei dos 15 Minutos. In fact, in 2007, the Federation of Brazilian Banks (Febraban) went to court and succeeded in temporarily suspending the law. Fortunately, in February of this year, the ruling was overturned, and the 15 Minute Law came back into vigor with a vengeance. In the last two weeks alone in Salvador, municipal officials have descended in surprise “blitzes” upon 190 bank branches; 79 of them received fines.

Although gringos living in Brazil have to learn to live with filas, most travelers, armed with ATM cards, can often avoid them. However, in the event you find yourself in a potentially long-lined situation – having to visit a hospital, extend your tourist visa, or report a robbery to the police – here’s an essential piece of advice: make sure you have the protection of a thick and engrossing book.

Corcovado Reopens visits to Christ the Reedemer

View of the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Rio's Corcovado mountain.
Christ the Redeemer atop Rio’s Corcovado. Photo © marchello74/123rf.

Late last week, Brazilians sobbed and beat their breasts as they mourned the tragic and unexpected elimination of the Seleção at the World Cup in South Africa. Bars continued to do booming business, but table talk revolved around post-game analyses that minutely dissected every wrong move that led to the Brazilians’ loss to the Dutch. Amid the atmosphere of a collective hangover that reigned throughout the country, there was, however, one bright spot: the re-opening of visits to Rio’s Corcovado.

Back in April, torrential rains, accompanied by floods and mudslides, had wreaked havoc on Rio de Janeiro. As I reported in an earlier blog post, one of the casualties of the meteorological mayhem was the city’s most iconic landmark, the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue.

[pullquote]The Cristo Redentor is a benevolent and secularly sacred presence that can be glimpsed throughout the city, no matter where you are.[/pullquote]
Hovering atop Corcovado mountain, its arms open in the most welcoming of embraces, the Cristo Redentor is a benevolent and secularly sacred presence that can be glimpsed throughout the city, no matter where you are. In the years since it was first unveiled in 1931, it has become Rio’s top tourist attraction, luring over 2 million visitors a year. More importantly, it has become a symbol of Rio itself.

Accordingly, Cariocas reacted strongly when their beloved icon was not only damaged by record rainfall, but defiled, shortly afterward, by vandals who sprayed graffiti all over the statue’s head and arms. Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes referred to the sacrilegious attack as a “crime against the nation” and offered a reward of R$10,000 (roughly $5,000) for information that would help track down the perpetrators (who were subsequently apprehended).

Prior to the events of April, there had already been plans to restore the world’s largest Art Deco statue, which will be celebrating its 80th birthday in 2011. A budget of over R$7 million (almost $4 million) had been set aside for activities that included repairing cracks in the Cristo’s forehead caused by lightning, scraping away fungi that had invaded the Cristo’s chin, and removing tiny plants that had sprouted up amid the Cristo’s toes.

The original restoration project was to have been carried out without closing the landmark to visitors. However, once the rains forced the closing of the entire site, restorers took advantage of the situation to perform a major overhaul that involved over 100 workers climbing up and down scaffolding that covered the entire statue. When it was discovered that rain had seeped into the Cristo’s outstretched arms, 300 liters of water were drained from each limb and 300 bags of cement were required to patch them up.

While the statue itself is fashioned out of reinforced concrete, the exterior is covered with tiny mosaic tiles (see photos) made of soapstone that hail from the state of Minas Gerais. Luckily, the Archdiocese has a reserve from the original quarry stockpiled in Rio; 60,000 tiles were needed to replace cracked or broken ones. In order to keep the Cristo safe during electrical storms, new lightning rods were implanted in the statue’s head and arms.

Although the unveiling of the statue, and the reopening of Corcovado to visitors on June 30, was a joyous event, the raison d’etre behind the new lighting scheme – green and yellow floodlights meant to send a special signal of support to the Brazilian Seleção – was short lived seeing as on July 2, Brazilian’s hopes of becoming World Cup hexachampions were dashed.

While they wait for the next World Cup to roll around in four years, Brazilians can perhaps find some solace in the words of the immortal Carioca bard, Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, whose bossa nova classic, Corcovado (featured in the clip above), speaks of having:

Lots of calm to think
And time to dream
From the window one can see Corcovado
The Redeemer, how beautiful

Flavorful Travels: Add Cooking Classes to Your Travel Itinerary

With the growing popularity of food-based travel shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, travelers are increasingly aware of how they experience cultures through food. But beyond savoring the local cuisine, more and more travelers are seeking out cooking classes while on vacation so they can recreate regional specialties at home, long after the actual vacation is over.

A good pozole or huevos nopalitos lets me relive my trip to Chiapas, Mexico. A spicy vinegar barbecue will take me to Raleigh in an instant, while a deeply smoky barbecue will transport me to Austin (I’ve been known to drop a couple y’alls after eating this type of ‘cue), and Hawaiian-style imu barbecue (can you say kalua pig?) takes me back to O’ahu. Thankfully, I’ve learned to make reasonably passable versions of both pozole and kalua pig at home.

To recognize July’s status as National Culinary Arts Month in the United States, I’ve pulled together a sampling of some of the culinary experiences offered in Moon travel guides. Instead of just telling your friends about the fabulous food you had on your trip, you can let them taste it too! And they’ll have something delicious to nosh on while looking at your fabulous vacation photos.


United States

Jane Butel Cooking School, Albuquerque, NM

In Albuquerque, learn to fry the perfect sopaipillas at Jane Butel Cooking School, presided over by a Tex-Mex maven who has written numerous cookbooks; day, weekend, and week-long classes are available.

EVOO Cooking School, Cannon Beach, OR

After a day on the beach, spend an evening at EVOO Cooking School, where three-course dinner classes ($89 includes dinner) are offered at least a couple of nights a week. Specialty classes on topics such as bread baking and cooking seafood are also offered.

Charleston Cooks! Charleston, SC

Affiliated with hip local restaurant chain Maverick Kitchens, Charleston Cooks! has gourmet items and kitchen ware, and even offers cooking classes in Lowcountry cuisine (think toasted Carolina aromatic rice, grilled peaches, lemon pound cake, shrimp and grits, and more), as well as classes in Cuban, Jamaican, and Italian cuisine, and even cooking classes for kids.

Denver Public Library, Denver, CO

Denverites love their libraries; statistics show that Denver has the highest number of library cardholders per capita in the country. But the Central Library of the Denver Public Library system is no ordinary library. In addition to the Western Art Gallery on the 5th floor, the library also hosts film series, guest lectures, book clubs, concerts, knitting, and even cooking classes throughout the year. Pick up the Fresh City Life magazine at any library for the current month’s schedule.

The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, Napa Valley, CA

Although they’re closed for students’ summer break in July, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone has it all: a restaurant, a café, a gourmet shop, one-day cooking classes and demos, a food history museum, and a stunning set of campus buildings set into the forests and vineyards near the town of St. Helena, right on Highway 29. If you’re a for-real foodie or cork dork, consider signing up in advance to attend a cooking demo or even a seminar at this haven for haute cuisine. And be sure to take a few minutes to wander the charming grounds and marvel at the imposing structures of the campus—made from (of course) gray stonework.

Amber House Bed and Breakfast, Rocheport, MO

Convenient to Kansas City, the Queen Anne Victorian–style Amber House Bed and Breakfast is a luxurious retreat that offers packages to coincide with various local events. Satisfy your inner foodie with the Amber House Cooking School Culinary Getaway, a two-night stay that includes a demonstration cooking class for 6–8 people (from $30/person plus the cost of room).

Santa Fe School of Cooking, Santa Fe, NM

Santa Fe School of Cooking offers day classes not only in contemporary Southwestern cuisine, but also in traditional Native American cooking and New Mexican standards (author Lois Ellen Frank instructs). Nice farmers market trips are offered too.

Comida de Campos, Dixon, NM

For a more rural experience, try Comida de Campos in Dixon, north of Santa Fe. A stay at this school involves learning about the working farm its set on. Day classes cover basic dishes such as tamales and lessons in how to bake in a traditional horno.


Latin America

Café Brown, Cabo, Mexico

612/145-0813

Attention to detail and a love of improvisation set Café Brown apart from your average small-town café. Enjoy a limited menu of home-style cooking made from quality ingredients. The owners love to share a good time, from informal cooking classes and independent films to percussion instruction and salsa dancing. Look for Café Brown in the back of the Maria Bonita Hotel (formerly Hotel Misión del Pilar) complex.

<a href=”http://www.peruculinaryvacations.comPica Peru, Lima, Peru

U.S. tel. 303/513-8878, or 866/440-2561
info@peruculinaryvacations.com

In a country renowned for its cuisine and flavor fusions, Pica Peru offers culinary vacations. The creative nine- and ten-day trips were designed by a U.S.-based food journalist and a Peruvian gastronomic press trip organizer. The first days are spent eating in Lima’s excellent restaurants, before participants head to provincial cities for interactive cooking classes and sightseeing.

Cordon Bleu, Lima, Peru

01/242-8222

For those familiar with Lima’s culinary delights, it should come as no surprise that it hosts a cooking school licensed by the Cordon Bleu. There are a variety of classes, including short-term seminars on Peruvian food, international food, and even desserts.

Cenfotur, Lima, Peru

01/241-4726

Another option is the hotel and restaurant management school Cenfotur, whose workshop classes also feature cocktail making and wine-tasting. At either of these institutions you will have to make special arrangements for English speaking classes.

Los Dos, Mérida, Mexico
999/928-1116

Spend a day in Mérida learning about Yucatecan cuisine at Los Dos school. American David Sterling, a Manhattan transplant and accomplished chef, conducts fun and informative classes at his gorgeously refurbished colonial home. The “Taste of Yucatán,” the most popular course, includes a trip to the local market, salsa and meal preparation, and a grand, white-tablecloth dinner featuring your creations, plus complimentary wine and beer. Private classes and three-day workshops are also available. Reserve your space at least 48 hours in advance—and preferably more—as the schedule fills up fast.

Seasons of My Heart, Oaxaca City, Mexico

044-951/508-0469 or 044-951/508-0044

Susana Trilling offers an unusual mix of Oaxacan culture, cooking, and eating, with a lodging option, at her Seasons of My Heart cooking school in the Etla Valley, north of the city. Susana’s simplest offering is a one-day cooking adventure, including a morning trip to a local native market to buy food, then preparing and eating later at Susana’s ranch. Other options are a long Thursday–Tuesday cooking and cultural adventure, or an extended one-week version of the same thing.

Guayabo Lodge, Turrialba, Costa Rica

506/2556-1628

The delightful Guayabo Lodge, near Turriabla Volcano National Park, enjoys a hillside setting. This modern two-story structure has 20 uniquely decorated rooms with parquet floors and delightful decor that includes wrought-iron beds. When not exploring the 80-hectare finca, settle into a hammock and enjoy the superb views. The finca has its own dairy and cheese factory and hosts an occasional cooking school.

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