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When the ball rolled…

Wax figure of Pele at Petropolis museum Photo: Trithi Zalka

Wax figure of Pele at Petropolis museum Photo: Trithi Zalka   | Photo Credit: 21dmcbrazil

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A trip through Brazil, soaking in the World Cup fever, the grandeur of the palaces and the patios, the taste of the food and the warmth on the street

Being a fairly confused and recent college graduate such as myself, one is often keen on taking a ‘gap year’ — a year to travel around, discovering the world and yourself, and all that jazz. Instead of the cliché version of events where one backpacks through Europe, what better travel destination to commence this wanderjahr than Brazil during the FIFA World Cup 2014?

And so began my adventure to the exotic land of alluring, sunny Brazil. Or rather it began the minute I stepped out of the airport at São Paulo to breathe in the fresh, tropical air, after a nearly-two-day-long journey of three tiresome flights across Africa.

Rio de Janeiro was my final destination, but I had just enough time in São Paulo — albeit a stopover — to get a slight whiff of the city. While I was taking a little walkabout nearby, I noticed an imposing wall painted all things football. Upon further investigation, it led me to a football field that belonged to a local fourth division club. Here, I was to learn three important facts about Brazil. First, my entire trip was to become an overly-animated and complex game of charades as practically no one spoke English. Second, football is omnipresent. Third, Brazilians — all South Americans at large — are delightfully amicable and warm-hearted people. After a lengthy and lovely monologue in Portuguese on the part of the generous coach, I left the field with the club’s jersey, cap, and a smile plastered across my face, lost for words, both literally, and metaphorically at the kindness I had just witnessed.

As I arrived at Rio de Janeiro, this third realisation proliferated throughout, with friendly encounters with the natives of Brazil as well as people who had come to attend the “Copa Do Mundo” from all nooks and crannies of South America (for the most part). Despite all warnings against crime on the streets of Rio, I immediately and instinctively fell in love with the people of Rio, and the city would soon follow, creating the most flawlessly whole dichotomy of love there ever was.

Hotels, despite their ever so fluffy beds and top-notch room service, are not my choice of residence in a foreign land; and so I was ushered into the beautiful home of a local family — a sort of paying guest accommodation, which would greatly compliment my experience of Rio. This house was strategically located at the base of the mountain atop which stands Christ the Redeemer, with arms wide open, making me feel even more welcome than I already was.

After wolfing down a ravishing meal prepared by my hosts Ursula, a freelance Portuguese journalist, and Nicolas, an Argentine photographer, exhausted and jet-lagged, my first night was to be an uneventful marathon of sweet slumber.

The next morning, Ursula and Nicolas drove me to Petrópolis — the Imperial City of Brazil, the summer capital during the Portuguese reign in the 19th Century. Situated in the valleys amidst scenic mountains with its pleasant weather, Petrópolis would most definitely have been my first choice for a grand summer palace as well (given the choice). Boy was it grand! A walking tour through what is now the Imperial Museum left me amazed at the not only the contents of the palace — intricately crafted musical instruments, paintings as long and wide as the walls themselves, stately furniture, fine golden chariots and, thrones, crowns, sceptres and jewellery made of gold and all things sparkling- but at how well the palace had been preserved and restored as well.

As we strolled around the city, it appeared to have hosted not only Emperor Pedro II and his family, but also countless intellectuals, inventors, travellers and so on, who’d set up handsome homes, now marked as historical heritage. One of these, the Ipiranga House (House of Seven Mistakes), would surely catch your attention. Much like its name suggests, this house contains seven mistakes in architectural symmetry — sight-seeing and games all rolled into one!

My next stop is Petrópolis’ very own version of Madame Tussauds, the Petrópolis Wax Museum. In this small, two-storeyed house-turned-museum, each room is allotted to wax figurines of the likes of Mandela, Pele, Einstein, Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, and even Mr. Bean.

As we walked blindly through densely amassing clouds into Palácio Quitandinha, the sight inside was worth all the dramatic build-up. The colossal structure was previously a hotel and casino, with ballrooms the size of football fields and chandeliers that would throw even the Imperial Palace into shame. Lost in the sheer grandeur of the hotel, my ever-falling jaw appeared larger than life as well.

The trip came to an end with a visit to the imposing, neo-gothic Cathedral of St. Peter of Alacantara. The impeccable stained glass paintings of the cathedral inspired me to delve into my own little artistic ventures.

Dinner, back at Rio, and every meal to follow was to become a mammoth task of conversing with waiters (or rather gesturing) in order to decipher the Portuguese menus, not much different from long-drawn-out climate change negotiations. But hard work bears fruit, does it not? So it did, as I ravenously devoured one delicious meal after another. The traditional platter consisted of portions of rice, French fries, black beans curry, and a ginormous, succulent piece of something that once lived. Every now and then, though, I would allow myself the guilty pleasure of eating hamburgers at Bob’s Burgers, a local fast food franchise.

My ever gracious hosts did me another favour of taking me to Búzios, a picturesque town with more beaches than my fingers could count. Basking in the lore of the “Brazilian Himalayas” as once was at Búzios, a relaxed day of sun-bathing and lazy contemplations ticked off my to-do list, I settled into the sand with water splashing at my feet, feeling like the perfect picture of abstraction.

Apart from the wanderjahr explanation of my trip, I was also there for my love of football, and so I would find myself at the stunning yet stunningly overcrowded Copacabana beach almost every day, waiting in line to enter the FIFA Fan Fest amongst thousands of people to watch the matches. Every street reeked of the exuberance of a country hosting the World Cup. There were stalls selling all kinds of mementos from key-chains, T-shirts, mugs, flags to noisy contraptions, and what not. Were they really displeased about the expenses of the Copa Do Mundo? Hosting the World Cup seemed to breathe new life into the country, with Brazilian flags hanging out of every other balcony, the city brimming with pride. Such patriotism could not be the result of supposed hostility, surely. Every house, every car, ever store, every single person looked boisterously animated, living and breathing football.

And so the days went by as I explored this gorgeous city, and the day came that I had to return home. They are not wrong when they say that travel expands the mind (for I am much better for it), but to put a silly spin on the depth of this philosophy, the zips of my now considerably larger bags had to be expanded as well, to accommodate all my exotic Brazilian goodies!

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 4:06:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/when-the-ball-rolled/article6229051.ece

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