Driving in Brazil: Recreio dos Bandeirantes

I did it! I took the plunge and drove. It isn’t that I have been scared to drive, just lazy. After spending a month and a half in Egypt, traffic here seems much more civilized, at least to my very compartmentalized American mind. I still hear my drivers’ education instructor telling me what and what not to do. Ask S, I often play the role when he drives in the States.

Anyway, given S’s travel schedule and all of our upcoming visitors, I needed to get my feet wet so I can start shuttling back and forth between our place and the airport. And so, on Sunday I decided to do it.

After a week of rain and relatively chillier weather (meaning I had to put on a long sleeve shirt), we welcomed the heat wave on Sunday and headed to spend the morning at the beach.

Instead of heading to the beach in Copacabana we packed up the car and drove south to Recreio dos Bandeirantes. The beach there is less crowded. Large waves attract surfers but a large sandbank allows them to break before they reach the shore, providing a calmer water front for kids than in Barra itself.

We spent the better part of the morning there before meeting up with friends for lunch on the Ilha dos Pescadores, which I will tell you more about some other day. It was a lovely relaxing afternoon with the best food i have had yet here.

The trip out to Recreio in the morning from Zona Sul took a half hour. The trip back in the evening at 6:30 p.m. took over an hour. But the trip gave me the chance to do a bit of everything and it went well (forget the man on a bike going wrong way on a one way who I almost took out). Now, I just have to build up the confidence to take on the city without my co-pilot.

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Escaping the City: Petropolis

On Saturday we decided to take a day trip to Petropolis with some friends and get out of the city for a bit. We took a round about way to get there in order to car pool and were not alone in our desire to escape so with the traffic it took us over an hour to go the 40 miles to get there.

Petropolis is high up in the Serra Fluminense and the last part of the trip is spent climbing steep inclines, looking down on the beautiful valley below.

We arrived late morning and stopped at Casa do Alemão on our way in to get something to tide us over until lunch. Perhaps my perception of German cuisine has been skewed by the fact that I have only visited my close friends in one city on two different occasions, one of whom is not even German, but I assumed that my cappuccino wouldn’t be loaded with sugar. Not true. This is still Brazil.

While Casa do Alemão has decent reviews, I was less than impressed. Partly, I am sure, because I am a vegetarian. I ordered a croquete de bacalhau (saltad cod) and a brioche de queijo for L and me.   L ate the croquete dripping with catchup but totally passed on the brioche. S ordered the chicken sausage sandwich. The place was absolutely packed and had our food arrived warm it might have been good, but overall it was pretty disappointing.

From there we made our way to Quitandinha Palace where we walked around, took the swan boats for a spin, and visited the palace, part of which has now been converted to a hotel and trade center.

Given that S and I both hate shopping, we drove by Rua Teresa while L squeezed in a nap before lunch. Petropolis has a number of factories and is literally a shopping attraction. Bus loads of people strolled along the street, their arms packed with purchases.

We drove back to downtown to have lunch and admired the quaint, if rundown, charm of the tree-lined streets and the European architecture. After lunch we walked through the garden leading to the Imperial Palace. The entrance line snaked around the building so we decided to pass on going through the museum (this time). We spent a lovely afternoon playing with L and avoiding what we probably should have been doing at home all weekend before packing up and heading back.

The final verdict is that it is definitely a place we will go back to. In the spring (October and November) they have a Jazz/Blues Festival and a food festival as well. I think if it had been earlier in the day, L would have actually liked the Imperial Palace and Museum. The city is also filled with a number of other historic buildings and churches that warrant a visit. Good thing it isn’t that far away.

We left later than we wanted, but it was well worth it as we wound our way down the mountain to catch the sunset. We stopped at a lookout and watched the sun disappear behind the mountain and then made our way back to Rio.

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Stuck in the Rain and Stuck on a Decision: Choosing a Preschool

Wednesday was a long day.   L and I went to visit two day cares and got stuck in the rain.   I need to learn how exactly Cariocas do, or rather don’t do the rain.   It rained in the morning but by the time L and I were up and going it was clear.  Having gotten stuck with the stroller in the rain earlier this week I thought the bike would be a better/faster transportation option for our visits.

I was wrong.   We went to the school, finished our visit, and stopped at Gringo Cafe for a coffee and snack.   I locked up the bike and got a table when L excitedly told me it was raining and I should move the bike.   Ugh.   I managed to stuff my bike between the tables next to where we were sitting.    I ordered a cappuccino, a not-so-hot chocolate and a grilled cheese to wait out the rain   Our waiter brought us a word search and a marker.  L is only 2, almost 3, and while her momma thinks she is bright she is not yet word search ready.  Nonetheless, we made good use of the blank pages on the back and decorated a number of flyers.  Two hours later it was still raining.   Every time I thought it was going to let up, the sky opened again.   Finally I convinced L that taking a bicycle rain shower would be a fine adventure and we made our way home.

And while that was the end to the rain adventure, we still have a decision to make. It is time to enroll L in a day care/preschool and I feel like we are swimming in options, which I suppose is a good thing. I have spent the last week visiting nearly all the creches and escolas (day cares and preschools) between Copacabana and Ipanema, interviewing directors, trying to assess curricula, and making a spreadsheet trying to weigh out our options.

You would think this gets easier the second time around, but it is just as confusing as it was the first time, only in different ways. I know more about L, her personality, her needs, and her interests than I did before, especially considering last time around I was still pregnant. But now we are in a new place and she is navigating a new language and culture and so is her mom.

Kids are amazingly resilient and adaptable and L has a head start, S has always spoken to her in Portuguese and so has his family.  But she still has a way to go before she is the same kid with the same confidence in Portuguese as she is in English.

All in all I can’t complain about our options.   A fifteen minute walk in either direction or a metro stop from our place gives us between eight and ten different options, a few of which are quite well known.   Of course, like everywhere else and especially because this is Rio, these come with a price.

Given L’s September birthday I was actually quite relieved in Chicago that we were going to have another year or two before we had to start making the  preschool decisions. Growing up in a small town with decent public schools, I am still floored by the urban preschool culture of reserving spots years in advance and parents who cram their children for early education placement programs.

And while it seems we have escaped some of the insanity that seems to be rampant in States with the whole process, the decision still doesn’t seem to be easy.

Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t think that this is the make it or brake it for L.   In fact, that is why this is hard, the differences are subtle.  We want a place where she can grow and flourish and I want a place where she can play.

For some reason I thought this whole process would be easier, that I could react on my gut, that it would be a little bit more cut and dry.  Instead I am staying up way too late trying to decide which approach–Montessori, constructivism, or direct learning–is the better option.   And because I am me, and because I have spent the better part of my professional career surrounded by academics, I have now skimmed all the major journals, only to find that there is no one answer.  Something, I am sure, you could have all told me from the beginning.

So now back to my spreadsheet and notes to try to figure out what exactly it is that R$30 or R$200 more actually gets us.

Tell me, how did you decide on the preschool?  What was the deciding factor for you?

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First Birthday in Rio

On Tuesday night S and L took me out for my first birthday dinner in Rio. L and I took the metro to the centro to meet up with S. From there we drove to Santa Teresa. Getting lost on the way allowed L to squeeze in a nap before dinner, which worked well since dinners here tend to drag on a bit.

We climbed to the top of some hill and parked in front of a rather nondescript restaurant, Aprazivel. Built into the hillside, you descend a steep staircase into the restaurant that provides spectacular views of the city.

The restaurant itself is quite large with different ambiances. We were seated on the veranda, overlooking the city.

This would be a lovely date venue, but given that we are still sitter-less and had a little one in tow, I can say that it also works for kids (They brought L small silverware, split S’s juice into a little glass with a short straw, and even gave her some little cakes for dessert, which she didn’t even look twice at after seeing what S and I ordered. Nonetheless, they were quite attentive and the restaurant itself was full of little things that keep a toddler entertained–bowls of wooden food in the front, chili plants scattered about, random wooden/iron animal figures here and there to keep L’s imagination going).

The food has a northeastern flair, the region where S is from.  From our experience and from reviews it seems like the food is a bit hit or miss.  It is the ambiance and the view that knocks this place over the top.  Given that it was my birthday, luck was on my side.   S ordered the Delicioso Cabrito, goatling roasted in red wine with a yam puree, caramelized onions, mushrooms and broccoli.  I ordered the Moquequinha do Rio, fish stewed in coconut milk with a side of rice, farofa de dendê (palm oil), and pirão (a gravy made with fish broth and cassava flour).  S thought his was a bit fatty and flat, mine was done perfectly.

S was driving and with the lei seca (dry law) here in Brazil, he couldn’t partake in wine, but I could.  They had a large selection of Brazilian wines, but only one red offered by the glass, a Hex Von Wein Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was better than I expected, but not great.

We had to order dessert, if for no other reason than L assumed that birthday meant there was going to be a party and cake.  Since there was no party, we definitely needed some cake.    I ordered the Petit Gateau, a chocolate cake filled with chocolate sauce with a side of vanilla ice cream and toasted almonds.  S ordered the Baião de Dois, a tapioca ice cream with açaí sauce.   Two very different desserts, but both very good.  L devoured my dessert, but the few bites I fought for and won were worth it.    S’s was subtle and surprisingly not overly sweet like so much of the food is here.

The service was attentive.  If the States was my point of reference, I would say it was a bit slow, but given my experience here thus far, it was rather efficient.

We were in around 7 p.m. and left by 9 p.m.    Home with a toddler tucked in before 10 p.m. and in bed by 11 p.m.

Let’s face it, I’m getting old.   This was my kind of birthday!

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Bombing Baking

So baking is who I am, or who I was.

When S and I went to our labor preparation class before L was born, the instructor told us to go to a place in the house where we relax or imagine a scene that brought us peace.

Internally, I started to freak out. I don’t really relax. I couldn’t think of a single place in that moment that was my escape. Without missing a beat, S leaned over and simply stated, “Okay, I guess that means you will have to bake when you go into labor.”

And bake I did (after working for as long as I could sit). It is all a blur really, but I do remember S telling me to go make cookies and me getting the dough rolled into balls and onto the cookie sheets before I had to hand it over to my mom.

Baking used to be my escape.

I know that ingredients vary from country to country, but after baking in Egypt with a broken stove and improvised utensils I felt like I was pretty much ready for everything, especially since this time I shipped my entire kitchen abroad and splurged on a convection oven.

WRONG.

My baking here has been a disaster. My cookies are running all over and then they taste soggy. Nothing is chewy.  I have tried cooling the butter, chilling the dough, adjusting the flour, and nothing is working.

Now is the point where S will interject and say that he remembers a time in Egypt, shortly after we met, when I tried to woo him with my baking skills. I attempted to make caramel topped cinnamon rolls in a heart pan that one of my roommates left in our apartment. Without corn syrup or a candy thermometer it all started to go downhill and S was less than impressed. The caramel hardened into concrete and S asked if it was a wall decoration.

That aside, tomorrow is my birthday and as inspired as I was trying to be to make a cake, I can’t find it in me to face another baking disaster, or find the perfect recipe, and then try to find all the ingredients. Things have gotten so bad I actually bought a cookie at a coffee shop last week hoping that it would taste terrible and reassure me that my recent kitchen failures are not my own, but Brazil’s.  Well, now I can tell you that they are indeed mine.

So what is it that is so different here? It hasn’t been that hot. I am buying “manteiga extra“, which is supposed to be the top quality butter even if I do think it has an odd taste. The brown sugar seems twice as sweet than what I am used to but I have stopped packing it in and that seems to help on the taste. I imported vanilla from Mexico.  All my experimenting is depleting my supply of imported chocolate chips.

As embarrassed as I am to post my chocolate chip cookie photo, I am in need of advice on this one. S’s family is coming next week and I really do want to make some kind of sweet.  I have to. 

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If I don’t, they will be worried something has gone completely wrong with me.

Rio’s reality–even in the winter

Randle's Photo Blog

Wander near any of the beaches in Rio de Janeiro and you’ll be quickly reminded why expats recently voted their favourite aspects of Rio 1) the beaches, 2) the people, 3) the weather, and 4) the quality of life.

The beaches personify Rio – sun, fun and sport abound at every turn. Whilst the beach promenades are dotted with numerous outdoor multi-gyms, home to rippling muscles, and palm trees form improvised pegs to a network of tightropes. The adjourning cycle path acts like some mass conveyor belt of joggers, skate boarders, skaters, cyclists and walkers.

Spot Capoeira

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Beach promenades bustle with sporting activities

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Improvised tumbling entertains the more sedentary

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Whilst on the water

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Local colour abounds

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Fut volley raises the bar on more traditional beach volleyball

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Beach volleyball dominates

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From the early morning work-out

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To a mid-week play in the sea

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Making sand castles

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To a more crowded affair

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Or…

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Winter Weekend in Rio: Biking the City

Hearing all my friends and family complain about the heat in the States, I started to think how enjoyable the weather was here. Then it hit me–this is WINTER in Rio!

I have never been one to follow the weather and even after years living abroad, Celsius still doesn’t quite register with me. Instead I try to gauge the weather by watching people pass by my apartment. But here it is impossible. One person will pass by in shorts and a tank top, the next with jeans, boots, and a jacket.

Some days I leave in jeans and a t-shirt and by the time I get to the bottom of the hill, I realize it is too much. Other days it is just the opposite.

This weekend wasn’t hot or cold, but chilly enough that we knew that the beach wasn’t really going to be an option (for us–nothing seems to deter Cariocas from going to the beach). So we finally had the push we needed to get our bikes ready to ride.

We found a bike shop a few blocks away, filled our tires with air and continued to the beach. Biking the city is less than ideal. With no bike lanes we had to weave between pedestrians, parked cars, and newspaper stands on the sidewalks to get to the bike path along the beach. Once there, it was lovely.

On Saturday, we rode to Ipanema and stopped for lunch at Manoel & Juaquim. While the food looked good, the fish was dry and the broccoli and rice were greasy. We were less than impressed. From there we biked to Lagoa and up the mountain to the house. I had been dreading that incline alone, let alone with an extra 40 pounds (L plus the bike seat) on the back of my bike, but I made it, and I feel it today!

On Sundays the city closes Avenida Atlantica during the day and people pour out to run, bike, skateboard and walk. But mostly people come out to stroll along the waterfront, which just gave us more room to weave in and out of a pedestrian maze. While somewhat annoying, it provided the perfect venue for people watching and a game of I Spy.

We rode to the edge of Leblon and took a break on the beach where we could watch the parasailers land in the distance and tractors move sand. Biking home we found a street leading home with an actual bike lane. It was hard to tell if it is actually respected, but we took our chances and enjoyed a few blocks of uninterrupted riding.

Now that L and I have the bike, I am ready to take on our mission to visit every park in Zona Sul, provided my successful trip up the mountain wasn’t just beginners luck!

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Waffle Saturday

Before I left Chicago a co-worker bestowed me with a circus animal waffle maker. I thought it was a bit on the ridiculous side, but L things it is the greatest thing since syrup.

The only problem is, it only makes lions, elephants and clowns. This morning L wanted a hyena and I was at a loss.

Stray Cat Park: Praça do Lido

Last year when we came with S on a business trip to Rio, we stayed in the Windsor Plaza Copacabana Hotel, right at the tip of Copacabana on Avenida Atlantica. Upon seeing us check in for a week with a toddler, the clerk upgraded us to a corner room that would be a bit bigger. The “crib” they provided was a death trap for sleeping given that L could have easily launched herself right over the side onto the marble floor, but it was the perfect lookout platform for watching everything she loved: the ocean, helicopters, sand, cars, buses, trucks, airplanes landing at the municipal airport, and “Cristo”.

The area itself around the hotel left much to be desired. Not the best restaurants. Not the cleanest area. Lots of prostitutes. But walking up the beach hides most of that, so we mostly stuck ocean side.

During the day we used to visit a park a few blocks away. It wasn’t the best park, but it had everything L needed and it was the very first place she ever really went on a “big girl swing.”

Fast forward.

On Thursday L and I visited a school up the street and afterward decided to stop by the market and pick up stuff for a picnic and then hit a park. Why not take a walk down memory lane?   Unfortunately, I completely misjudged the distance (it was a good mile and a half away).

L and I bought food and started our trek. It took us over an hour to arrive as L decided that she wanted to ditch the stroller and take a stroll for herself. By the time we arrived, my stomach was grumbling and our stroller was filled with a collection of leaves of all shapes and sizes.

I remembered that the park wasn’t the best, but I definitely forgot just how rundown it actually was.  Apparently it has come a long way from the 1920’s when it used to be the place to go to eat, dance, and listen to the symphony.   From the front it isn’t so bad, looking out over the beach across the street. They have a collection of public workout equipment that is in good shape and that people actually use.   In the very back, neighboring a grade school, is the playground equipment, right next to men sleeping on benches and just across from the public bathrooms.

I noticed the smell of the bathrooms immediately. L could have cared less. She hopped on the slide and climbed on the monkey bars and then we saw them . . . the cats!

L is obsessed with any and all animals. She gravitated across the park, shadowing the cat woman who was pouring mixed up powdered milk into cut up bottles and caressing the heads of all the critters.

L stuck out her hand and found one that stuck his paw back. I reminded her what happened to our friend in Egypt when he stuck out his hand for a street cat and she pulled hers back as we approached a bench full of cats.  Black, white, brown, striped–every kind of cat.   L was totally enthralled.   I thought we would never get out.   Finally we broke free of the cats when I told L that I would let her play on the workout equipment, just like papai does at the gym.

When we finished we worked our way back home with L insisting on walking most of the way again.   We tamed a temper and stopped for a coffee.   L refused to nap, not in the stroller, not at the house.

By the time S got home, I was exhausted and other than the school visit and the park, really didn’t have all that much to show for the day, other than sad pictures of cats.

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Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

Because everyday needs and outing and today was to the park right by Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas.  It was recently redone and offers one of the best views of the city.

It earned toddler bonus points for having funny animal cutouts by the shore, a dog park, hungry pigeons and two cranky parrots.

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