Archive for November, 2009

On the Street Where I Live

November 18, 2009

After two months in Ipanema I have begun to get to know the neighborhood so I thought I would give you a brief tour.

Map of Ipanema and Leblon

I live on the Rua Visconde de Pirajá, the main commercial street that runs the length of Ipanema (about 1.5 miles).  The street runs in an east-west direction–parallel to the beach–which is two blocks to the south.  Ipanema and the neighboring Leblon (beginning about three blocks west of my apartment) are some of the most affluent neighborhoods (bairros) in Rio.  To the east (around the point—Arpoador) is Copacabana, to the west the Two Brothers (Dois Irmãos) mountains rise up with the Vidigal favela on one side and Rocinha favela on the other.  Behind Ipanema (to the north) is a large lagoon/lake, and rising up above the lake is Corcovado mountain and Rio’s most iconic landmark—the Christ statue.

Leblon and Ipanema looking from west to east with the Lagoa to the left and Copacabana beach around the point

Looking west from Ipanema Beach to Dois Irmãos (18Nov09)

As a rule, real estate values and the “chic quotient” rise as one moves into Leblon and to its west side.  My street continues westward into Leblon as Ataúlfo de Paiva.  This long avenue from east to west is home to many upscale stores and boutiques.  Once you get into Leblon, think M Street in Georgetown (DC) or Westwood in Los Angeles.  The streets on either side of me, especially to the north, are largely residential areas dominated by high-rise apartment buildings, although the occasional old home (built before the 1950s) survives.

My block is primarily high-rise apartment buildings with stores and retail outlets on the street level.  Just across the street I have a small supermarket—Zona Sul.

Zona Sul supermarket

One block to the west is my favorite local bookstore, Livraria da Travessa, which has a very nice café on the second level.  Both stay open until midnight allowing me to come over and browse books, read, and have sandwich or a cappuchino later in the evening.

My favorite bookstore - Livraria da Travessa

One of my favorite spots is a block and half down the street to the east, Polis Sucos (Juice City).  This is a very typical “juice bar” a la Rio.  These places are everywhere and they mix up an astonishing variety of fresh juices and smoothies in minutes.  I am addicted to a thick smoothie made with açaí, a berry from a variety of palm tree.  Brazilians love this fruit.  It is reputed to have health benefits, but I just love the grapelike flavor.  I have to pace myself when I eat this purple concoction with a spoon to avoid “brain freeze”!

My favorite juice bar

Polis Sucos is on a very busy intersection.  I like to sit on the edge of the planter box that surrounds a tree in front of the store.  If I look to the south I can see the beach two blocks away.  If I look to the north, I am staring up at Corcovado Mountain and the Christ statue.  Not a bad seat.  I spend most of my on that spot sipping my juice and watching the people go by.  In my next post I will introduce you to some of the cast of characters in my neighborhood.

Corcovado Mountain & Christ Statue


The Night the Lights Went Out in Brazil

November 15, 2009

At approximately 10:20 p.m. last Tuesday night, the power suddenly went out in my apartment.  Thinking it was something local, I looked out my back window only to discover a city of ten million inhabitants in nearly complete darkness.  Within a few minutes, I could see flashlights and candles appearing in a few of the windows of the high-rise apartment building surrounding me.  When the power did not come back on within a few minutes I could hear rowdy and playful shouts coming from the bars on the street below.  I don’t think the lack of light slowed down the drinking or the singing. . . .

Copacabana in the dark2

Copacabana in the Dark

As it turns out, this was an enormous power blackout (apagão in Portuguese) that spread across most of Brazil—affecting 18 of country’s 26 states and some 90 million people for about three hours.  (In comparison, the blackout on the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada in August 2003 affected about 55 million people and lasted for several days in some areas.)  Brazilian government officials were quick to blame bad weather as the culprit although few Brazilians seem to accept this explanation.  I have to say, that the government explanations have not been very convincing and the Minister of Energy just seems to want to act as if nothing happened.  Officially, several transmission lines short-circuited in the state of São Paulo causing a cascading effect that rippled across the country, in particular, shutting down the massive Itaipú Dam complex on the Brazilian-Paraguayan border.  At the moment, Itaipú generates more electrical power than any dam in the world, and nearly all of Paraguay’s power.  More than 80% of Brazil’s electrical power is hydroelectric.

Brazil Blackouts

São Paulo in the Dark

Despite the massive power failure, the country seems to have survived fairly well.  There was no surge in crime, no looting, and hospitals seem to have managed to take care of the most vulnerable patients.  In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-Canadian blackout—apparently caused by overgrown trees around transmission lines in Ohio—former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson, supposedly said that the U.S. was “a superpower with a third-world electricity grid.”  Given Brazil’s experience last Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, maybe we should say that Brazil is a “third-world country with a first-world electricity grid!”

On Madonna and Penguins

November 9, 2009

I am back in Rio after my travels through the southern fringes of the earth.  Under a hot, sunny sky, I walked down the beach this afternoon to stretch my legs and take a break from work.  (Yes, I am working most of the time!)  Near the end of Ipanema Beach (near the point known as Arpoador, or Harpooner) I came across a restless crowd of photographers, cameramen, and curious tourists ready with cameras.  Turns out that Madonna is in town and she was inside one of the most exclusive hotels in Rio, just across the street.  I sat and watched the crowd for a few minutes and then headed back up the beach toward my apartment.

Strange as it might seem, the gaggle of photographers reminded me of the herd of tourists on my cruise through the Straits of Magellan.  In particular, on the last day of our cruise, we visited a small island across from the main port—Punta Arenas—near the Atlantic entrance to the Straits.  Besides a lighthouse, the island is inhabited by thousands of Magellanic penguins.  They are in the nesting season and the ground is riddled with shallow nests dug into the side of the hill rising up to the lighthouse.

Penguins & lighthouse

Penguins & Lighthouse

When we came ashore early in the morning (7 a.m.), many of the penguins were waddling down to the beach for a dip in the water–and breakfast.  Others were sitting on eggs (usually two) in the nests, and still others wandered around, beaks pointed straight up to the heavens, honking loudly.  (Just in case you wanted to know, they sound a lot like donkeys braying.)

Penguin nesting

Penguin nesting

Much like the paparazzi chasing Madonna in Ipanema, the hundred or so tourists from our boat (Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans, Australians) staked out the penguins and snapped photos with abandon.  Tourists have to stay on a roped off path that leads from the dock to the lighthouse.  At times, the cluster of tourists must have been amusing for the penguins.  (We were told not to use a flash because it damages the penguins’ eyes.)  Occasionally, we were tripping over each other to get out of the way of groups of penguins crossing our path on their way down to the beach, or back.

Penguins & papparazzi

Penguins & Paparazzi

I am not sure why humans find penguins so appealing, but we do.  They are curious little critters with their waddle and tuxedo coating.  The Magellanic penguins are not quite as striking as the Emperor penguins who became media stars after the March of the Penguins movie, but they are incredibly fun to watch.  Fortunately, their population is also expanding.   According to our guide, there are now more than 500,000 Magellanic penguins in Tierra del Fuego alone, and the community is slowly growing.  In a couple of months, they will all hit the water and migrate up the South American coast as far as southern Brazil, before returning next August.  They will come back to the exact same spot in the Straits of Magellan guided by some sort of internal genetic code.

Penguins & beach

Penguins on the Beach

I have to say that I gave Madonna about five minutes, before giving up on a sighting.  Fortunately, the penguins did not make us wait, were easier to photograph, and a whole lot more interesting than Madonna!

Penguin pair

Penguins waiting on Madonna to exit Ipanema hotel


Madonna finally makes an appearance to the delight of penguins and paparazzi in the Southern Hemisphere

Chasing Guanacos

November 6, 2009

I spent most of today chasing guanacos, the camelid cousins of llamas and alpacas.  They look very similar, but the guanacos are not quite as large and they produce less wool.  The guanacos number in the thousands here, up from a few hundred in the 1960s.  They travel in herds of about 60-70.  One alpha male dominates a herd of females and juveniles.  When the young males come of age they set out in search of their own herd either separating off some of their father’s or seizing females from other herds.


View from my hotel room

The herds move freely around the eastern side of the park, on the grassy steppes.  They seem very comfortable with the tourist buses and vans, but keep a distance of about 10-15 meters.  The trick is to ease up as close as possible before they get nervous and move away over the hills.  I was lucky enough to get some good photos, including one with a spectacular mountain backdrop.

Guanaco & Peak

Alpha male

The weather today was fickle, as always.  We woke up to a small snowstorm that covered the ground and blocked all view of the mountains.  By 9 a.m., the clouds had lifted and the view from my hotel room was stunning.  As we moved through the park in search of guanacos and a coveted photo of the towers (torres del paine) we went through patches of sun, snow, freezing rain, and (always) tremendous wind gusts.


The Torres obscured by clouds today

At lunch time we came to a beautiful lake with the view of the torres behind the lake.  Unfortunately, the torres were obscured by clouds.  When I was here four years ago, the weather was spectacularly good, so I had a previous image to compare with today’s.  Despite the obscured view, the scenery here—both the fauna and the landscape—are endlessly fascinating.  I have never been anywhere (except the Grand Canyon) where the scenery is as beautiful and inspiring.  Ansel Adams would have been very happy here.

Horses and towers

The Torres on my last visit in 2005

Stark Beauty

November 4, 2009

Sometimes, nature’s beauty is not lush and colorful,  sometimes it is stark and austere.  Here in the southernmost reaches of Patagonia I have seen some of the most beautiful natural scenes imaginable.  On the five-hour drive up from Punta Arenas, Chile to Torres del Paine National Park, the landscape is very much like sections of Montana or Wyoming—long stretches of rolling prairie with sparse vegetation, snow-capped peaks rising up from the plains, and enormous skies shifting constantly from clouds to rain to snow to sun.

Grey Glacier

Facing Grey Glacier

The Andes Mountain range stretches from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego thrust upwards over millions of years from the infinitely slow and continuing collision of tectonic plates from the Pacific sliding under the tectonic plates of the South American continent.  Down here on the southern fringes of Chile and Argentina, these spectacular mountains were carved up for tens of thousands of years with the advance and retreat of glaciers.  Since the end of the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, the glaciers have been receding, leaving behind deep and beautiful channels among the mountains.  Some of these channels filled with water from the oceans forming the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.  Others created the seemingly endless fjords that stretch from Tierra del Fuego up the Chilean coast for a thousand miles.

Glacier chunks

Glacier fragments

Unlike the heavily forested Rocky Mountains, the peaks in Torres del Paine are stark, bare rock carved by glaciers, snow, ice, and water.  Today, as we moved around this vast national park the weather was constantly shifting.  As we approached the long, flat gravelly terrain that spread like a beach for about a mile I realized that it was the bed (moraine) of what had once been an enormous glacier.  What was left of the glacier was ahead of us across an icy lake containing icebergs—large chunks of ice that had broke off from the face of the Grey Glacier and were now floating across a vast body of water in front of the glacier.  Rising up on either side are rugged mountains covered with snow.  By the time we reached the shore of the lake the clouds had begun to roll in.  As we made our way up the path rising above the right side of the lake the sun still shone down on the glacier and surrounding mountains.  By the time we reached the lookout point and started taking pictures, a small blizzard completely obscured the glacier and a dry snow began to cover everything—the trees, mountainsides, and our clothes.

Grey Glacie2

Grey Glacier from lakefront

As we made our way back down the slippery path and across the expanse of the gravel field, a layer of snow covered the entire area.  Yet, as we drove out of this valley, the snow subsided, and we began to move across an open valley washed in bright sunlight.  Our elevation had not changed more than a few meters.  What they say about Patagonia is true—wind, rain, snow, and cold come and go with great and unpredictable speed.  The weather shifts constantly.  This fierce and fickle weather, however, produces a constantly morphing landscape that is striking and spectacular.  I am fortunate to witness this stark beauty at the end of the earth.