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Rio after the Rain

Newspapers and TV news all over the world reported about the catastrophy in Rio in the Rain earlier this week. But – except within Brazil – few report about Rio after the Rain now… well, hopefully now is already “after the rain”, so that rescue works hopefully do not have to put up with even more challenges than they already do. The firefighters involved in the rescues are already getting support from many volunteers – but are in need of even more. For now, the rain has ceased – but the clouds are still there and eventual drizzle threatens more water.

What happened during and after the rain was – once again, similar to the situation in Angra dos Reis three months ago – that the rain turned hills into mud, which in the end slid down and took with them the houses built on these hills, most of them without official permission. This week, in Rio and Niteroi, the hill where the mudslide happened actually was not a hill but a former garbage dump, covered with soil as a landfill some 25 years ago. It was never meant to become a residential area, not authorized for construction, but for lack of another place to go, people started to build there and to call the place their home.

On TV, a lady who lost her home and her family in the most recent mudslide explained, with tears in her eyes, that authorities even had come to her house a few years ago and asked her to leave her home for security reasons. But she neither had anywhere to go, nor money or opportunity to build a new existence elsewhere, so she ended up staying. And with her, the inhabitants of the other 60 houses that slid down the “Morro do Bumba” hill in Niteroi. See the video:

While the world is turning its attention to other topics and other countries, the catastrophe in Rio and Niteroi is still dominating the news in Brazil and promises are being made that measures will be taken so that something like this will never happen again. Hopefully they will… so that in the future, when the next rain comes – and it will – all Brazilians can spend the rainy days in a way like those in this video below:

Today, the rain brings up one more proof of just how divided the Brazilian society is and how harsh the differences are between rich and poor.

With best wishes


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Rio and the Rain

You may have seen it on the news already: Rio de Janeiro has been flooded by tropical rains yesterday. Thick black clouds hanging between the usually picturesque green hills, cars being carried away by rivers running where main roads used to be, people crowding stairways or doors watching the waters and wondering how they will get where they are supposed to go… right, you’ve probably seen the pictures.

Flooded streets in Rio de Janeiro on 6th April 2010

Rio and the Rain, 6th April 2010

Or a video:

This is not what you expect when you think of the “Marvellous City”, right?

So what about the Myth of the city of Samba, Beaches, and year-round Sun? Remember the song “It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya, it pours… man it pours” ? Well, I’d say this is something Rio and California have in common!

In the end, Rio does have a tropical climate, and there is a reason why all the picturesque hills beautifully distributed in the blue water of the sea of the bay of Guanabara are so lush and green: a lot of water. Now the reason we usually think of Rio in the sun is this: It does rain, and more than in many other places of the world. But the rain is heavy and short and once the sky clears up the sun is so hot it dries the streets and beaches and heats the city up so fast that you forget it ever rained. Until the next rain comes. And it will, eventually.

This “forgetting it ever rained” is a symptom visitors of Rio share with inhabitants and as well the local politicians. And this is where things get critical. In the first days or January 2010, heavy rains caused a mudslide in Angra dos Reis, a little beach town at a 3 hours’ drive from Rio de Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s 11 million metropolis, it has been raining every day for 45 days in a row during December and January this year, and most of these days the city was flooded. In 2008, extraordinarily heavy rains caused a mudslide which left many victims and more homeless in Blumenau, a town in Southern Brazil, and overflowing rivers destroyed bridges and practically cut off the southernmost state of Brazil, Santa Catarina. According to news and politicians, every time the reason is because “the quantity of rain that fell in an hour was more than was expected for a month”. The time span mentioned in this phrase varies, but you hear it again and again. I sometimes ask myself: Why not expect more rain? And prepare for it?

I recently read an article in a popular Brazilian magazine asking pretty much the same question. It referred to the event in Angra dos Reis in January 2010, where over 40 people died and many houses were destroyed by the mudslide. It stated “The cause for the disaster was not the rain, but the fact that the people were in a place where they mustn’t have been when it rained.” To be precise: they were at the foot of a steep hill of rock covered by a thin layer of soil and high – and heavy – Atlantic rainforest vegetation with no deep roots. The hill reached out picturesquely into the sea, but the soil and vegetation uphill were not connected well enough with the rock below, and when the rain came, they slid into the sea. According to the article, of the about 300 houses at the foot of the hill, only a small percentage had been build with official permission by the authorities, and even those probably shouldn’t even have had this permission had there been a proper geological analysis of the construction site.

As a side note: in the Amazon and the Pantanal, which suffer much heavier rainfalls over much longer periods of time, nature deals with it without any big disasters. Flora, Fauna and the local human inhabitants have adapted to the cycle and respect it, and even take advantage of it. The variety of plants, animals and birds that only exist in these unique ecosystems are the best proof. It is only where man tries to take control, to build big cities and shape the land according to his wishes, where the whole system becomes so vulnerable.

Another fact that startled me in the article was this: The Federal Budget of Brazil does consider the climate and lays aside millions of reais for “Disaster Prevention” every year, but less than 10% of this budget get used by the politicians. I repeat: Apparently, as soon as the sun comes out, local politicians forget that it ever rained. At the same time, every year, the amount spent on Emergency Help for the victims of Disasters is higher than the budget that had been planned for the prevention of disasters in the first place.

The ability of its people to live in the present and not get stuck in too many worries about the past and the future is an ability I personally admire Brazil for, and is something many more developed countries can learn from. But as with anything, you can go over the top with this one, too. Today the rains ceased in Rio de Janeiro, but there are still black clouds hanging heavily over the hilltops.

For Rio and its people and visitors, I hope the clouds disappear soon and give way to the usual clear blue summer sky. But maybe it would be good it those clouds continued to hang above some people’s heads for another while.

With best wishes

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Happy Birthday Salvador

Happy Birthday, Salvador!

The first capital of Brazil, Salvador da Bahia, is 461 years old today, 29th of March 2010!

Compared with many European cities, this number might not be very impressive, but Salvador is, still, one of the oldest cities in Brazil. And for 461 years, it has a lot of (hi)stories to tell. Founded in colonial times, having played an important role in the era of slavery, and consequently having been one of the centers of the movements of resistance, and for the abolition of slavery and later, until now, of the movements for racial equality, “Salvador” has a special meaning for everyone who lives in or even only visited it. There is something special about the “City of Salvador (the Savior) by the Bay of all Saints”. Despite of the many dark chapters in its history, and despite of the fact that still today, the city struggles with huge problems (social inequality, high unemployment and poverty rate, an inappropriate infrastructure with a tube line of only 8 km which has been under construction for over 20 years and still is not in service, while roads are getting more congested by the day, and a growing crime rate, related to an increase in the use of drugs and drug traffic, amongst others….), despite of all these difficulties, Salvador is a city that is loved and admired by most of its inhabitants and visitors. When asked, they will tell what they love and admire: the beauty of this city by the sea with countless beaches and view of the bay and its islands, the music, the colors, the culture and traditions and dance, the year-round sun and the sea, the food, and – most of all – the smile of its people. Maybe the “something special” about Salvador is just this: HOPE. Despite of all problems, people smile. This may not be the best way to start a revolution to change and improve things quickly, but it makes each day a little bit better. And it fascinates.

Today on its 461st anniversary, Salvador celebrates with a bit of everything. The city organizes educational tours for schools to historical places, to keep awake the memory of both good and bad moments of its history. Several architectural projects such as health centers, public squares and areas for physical exercise have been finalized and opened to the public, to improve the quality of life in the specific neighborhoods in the city. Libraries and shopping centers are hosting photographic exhibitions capturing the visual beauty of Salvador and it people. And one thing that cannot be missing: Music. At night, on the square Praça Castro Alves, Salvador celebrates its birthday with shows with the popular band Parangolé – and with the Gospel Band MD7, which brings us back to the theme of HOPE.

Want a glimpse of the preview of the Birthday Party:

So whether we consider 461 years for a city old or young, the lesson of Hope is a beautiful lesson Salvador can teach. Happy Birthday, Salvador.

With best wishes from Brazil

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Spring and Fall and other contrasts

Today is the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere; after this year’s winter has been exceptionally harsh, the first flowers are finally bringing some color back into Europe’s and  North America’s landscapes. Night and day divide today’s 24 hours equally and in the months to come, there will be more light than dark hours; something many are looking forward to.

In the Southern hemisphere, on the contrary, a hot summer with symptoms of the El Nino Phenomenon in South America is coming to an end. It is the beginning of Fall.

What does “Fall” mean to Brazil?

Somehting different in every region. In the very South, days get shorter and nights cooler. In the very North, the Amazon, practically on the Equator, there is hardly any difference between the seasons.

And in between, on the coast in the North-East, it is the beginning of the rainy season. After a long and dry summer, thick and dark clouds have been accumulating above the sea, and from the sunny beaches you could watch them waiting for their time to come. This weekend was overcast. Any time soon, the thick drops of tropical rains will fill the air and flood the roads, transform stairways into riverbeds and stop rushhour traffic in hot and humid mist. For about one month, people will wake up at dusk from the sound of water pouring down, as if the neighbours had left the shower running at full power, for an hour; then the sun will dry up the clouds, then the roads, and shine for a day of blue sky perfect for going to the beach.

Later, the rains will get more frequent, lose their regularity, until June will have days as grey and filled with soft but permanent rain as a London November day. These days will be warm though, too warm use a waterproof jacket, but warm emough to feel like summer as soon as the rain stops.

This is, perhaps, the secret: I have not researched statistics, but from observation, I believe that in most (coastal) parts of Brazil, it rains more than in Europe. That is how the land is so green. But as soon as the rain stops, the sun makes you forget it ever rained. Not a bad effect… just do not end up facing the hardest rains in rush-hour traffic and formal clothing, as neither the sewage systems nor umbrellas are up for it.

With best wishes

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day

A Happy St. Patrick’s Day – yes, from Brazil! I have said it in previous email; in Brazil, you do not need a reason to have a party… and when you have a motive, of course you won’t miss the opportunity! In today’s case, celebrate with the Irish.

Being one of the countries of the Americas, of the “New World”, where everyone but the indigenous people is an immigrant and brought the customs from their home country with them, Brazil has created a “culture of variety” celebrating just this cultural variety. Celebrating festivals imported from other countries as well as customs newly created in Brazil and dates that became important for the new country.

The “imported festival” most celebrated in Brazil is probably the “Oktoberfest”, which attracts thousands of visitors with a fable for beer to Blumenau, a small city in the South of Brazil. Blumenau prides itself of hosting the world’s biggest Oktoberfest after Munich Germany.

St Patrick’s Day does not quite reach this scale, but Irish Pubs all over the country are filling up tonight serving Irish Stew and – of course – Guinness.

Sao Paulo is Brazil’s city with the strongest Irish community and boasts the greatest number of Irish pubs and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. There are eclectic St. Paddy’s parties featuring local bands, Celtic music, green beer, and hearty food. And those who prefer certainly will get a Caipirinha as well – after all, lime is green, too, right?

With best wishes

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Musical Seasons – or one season of music

Samba is known worldwide as the “national dance of Brazil”, and Samba music with its electrifying rhythms has become a national symbol. It is true, there is a lot of Samba in Brazil – but there is a lot more music in Brazil than “just” samba. In this young country inhabited by immigrants from all continents, music is the same as its people: diverse, open-minded, creative, experimental and curious and deep inside, it is really the specific mixture of all kinds that is “typical Brazilian”.

This letter from Brazil can only take a subjective point of view. Brazilian music mix is so varied, it is different in any place or state in this huge country. Even if all ingredients together form the mixture, they are not equally distributed over the country’s entire geography. Some styles dominate in one area and are almost unknown in another. Samba, for example, is without doubt popular all over Brazil, but in Rio even more than elsewhere. An objective and complete report would certainly fill a book, not just a letter. Additionally to the geographical influence, observation in this field is certainly personally biased; after all, one hears the music played on the parties one goes to and on the radio channels one tunes into.

One thing that is true in the entire country is that national music is far ahead of international trends in popularity. Being a developing country, Brazil still maintains a mentality of having to follow and try to catch up with first world countries in economical, political and educational issues – which is probably true for many – but when it comes to music and football, most Brazilians are convinced that this is where the world can learn from them.

The viewpoint I take in this letter is from Salvador, Bahia, first capital of Brazil (before Rio de Janeiro and, today, Brasilia), and center of African heritage due to the slave trade in the first centuries of Brazil’s existence as a colony and later independent state. As I mentioned in precious letters, Salvador is so close to the Equator that it does not really have summer and winter, much less spring and autumn. To divide the year into seasons, the temperature is of not much use – it remains relatively stable throughout the year, day and night, and feels pretty much like summer. You can rather divide the year into seasons by the weather (dry and rainy season), or… by music. Right, by music. In most parts of the world, you would not exactly listen to Christmas songs in July, and some radio stations identify “the greatest summer hit” of each year, but apart from that, most songs can be played year round. In Salvador, there is a musical calendar. The year begins officially in the summer, in the run-up to Carnival. The music of Salvador’s Carnival is not so much samba, as in Rio, but Axé: happy, fast-paced, light-hearted music with lyrics easy to remember and to sing along, and a dance that might be described as jumping from one leg on the other and sometimes with both at the same time. When Axé singers like Ivete Sangalo, Claudia Leitte, the bands Chiclete com Banana (translated Bubblegum with Banana) and Asa de Aguia (translated Eagle’s Wing) want to make their audience dance, they shout “Tire o pé do chao” (Take the foot off the floor), and are the first to do it themselves.

After carnival, and after recovering from the carnival hang-over, the next big festival to look forward to is Sao Joao (Saint John’s), officially on June 24th, but actually celebrated for at least a week in most small towns in the state of Bahia and the whole region of North-Eastern Brazil. The music of Sao Joao is Forró. Legend tells the name comes from the Brazilian pronunciation of the English “For All”, which apparently they heard as relieved exclamations from English-speaking immigrants when those finally saw a dance style and rhythm which they found they could accompany: significantly slower than samba and with a basic step “two steps right, two steps left”, Forró is indeed much more student-friendly for beginners than other styles. But as often, the devil is in the detail, so that there is a long way to go for foreigners before they manage the swing of the hips quite the way Brazilians do. Apart from that, Forró developed figures of steps reminding partly of Salsa, partly of Rock’n Roll, which most prefer to watch than to try for themselves. Forró music is kind of the Brazilian equivalent of country music; obligatory equipment for a band are Accordeon, Triangle, and peasant’s hats, and lyrics tell funny or melancholic tales of life in the countryside.

The second half of the musical year in Salvador has its climax in December on the national day of Samba with a traditional parade of – of course – samba bands.

Before, after, in between and during these distinct musical seasons, however, a huge variety of styles of music and dance move Salvador year round. Afro-music influenced by the afro-brazilian religion Candomble and its ceremonies, Samba-reggae and percussion by bands such as Olodum, which became world famous with the video clip they produced with Michael Jackson for his song “They don’t really care about us” in the streets of Salvador’s historical Pelourinho district, and styles originating in Samba, such as Arrocha and Pagode are just a few examples. And if you’re looking for it, of course you’ll find Funk from Rio de Janeiro, Bossa Nova, Tropicalia, Reggae, international music and… and… and…

Therefore, whatever your taste… Salvador will have a music for you, in any season.

 With best wishes

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A special Beach Party

The new year has begun in Brazil. Carnival is over, but the summer isn’t quite yet. Honestly, it never really is in large parts of the country, which is so huge and in its Northern part touches the Equator. If  summer is the season of  parties, music and festivals, the season does not need to ever be over, either, right?

In Brazil, you do not need a reason to party, you might rather need one for not being in the mood for a party, should that ever happen some day. To me it does sometimes, usually for no specific reason whatsoever. It does also happen to most of my really close Brazilian friends – but it simplyfies your life if you adapt to the local habit of inventing a reason why unfortunately you will miss this party instead of trying to explain you prefer to do something else… the latter is a time-consuming project and unlikely to receive much understanding.

When you are in the mood for a party, though, there is plenty of choice. Yesterday, there was a special one in Salvador, Bahia: a beach party with a marathon of music shows from a stage floating between the fisherman’s boats in front of the Porto da Barra – one of the most picturesque city beaches. From 12 noon until 2 am, several bands played giving examples of the huge variety of rhythms and melodies, from modern Axé to typical samba and traditional songs performed by regional bands and orchestras from the smaller villages in the interior rural areas of the state. The audience was sunbathing on the deckchairs, swimming or just drifting in the slow waves, in watching the performance on the stage in front of the panorama of the sea and the distant island while the sun was setting behind it. Later on, when the darkness took away the heat of the cloudless day and the almost full moon spread its white light over the scene coloured in yellow, pink and blue by the lights coming from the stage, they started to dance. Some on the sand, others in the crystal clear, warm water of the sea.

Well, maybe you do need a reason for not being in the mood for a party like this!


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