Thursday, 23 April 2015

South American Tour - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Peru

While most people were heading home for Easter weekend, I was on a different kind of trip.  Along with the ensembles of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, I embarked on a whirlwind tour of South America.  With a fantastic programme to perform – Bach's B minor mass and Handel's Messiah – we traveled to São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Lima.  Four countries in two weeks!  And now I'll try to sum it up in less than 2000 words.

We started in Brazil.  As we arrived in São Paolo, the first thing people told me was how unsafe it would be.  "Don’t wear any jewelry," they'd say, "lock any valuables in the hotel safe."  One person even told me that people would cut off my finger just to get my engagement ring!  My Brazilian friends later told me this was a dramatic exaggeration.  Yes, you should be careful, as you would in any large city, but it's not so extreme.

There are about 20 million people living in the metropolitan area of São Paolo.  To put that in perspective for me, the entire population of Canada is 35 million.  Imagine two thirds of Canada all living in one city!

The city just goes on and on and on...

On our second day in São Paolo, we were invited to an Easter breakfast at the German consulate.  The consulate was gorgeous – a veritable tropical paradise with white walls, palm trees and a shimmering turquoise swimming pool.  We were treated to a big beautiful meal, complete with gorgeous coffee, fruit so fresh it would melt in your mouth, and a glass of cool prosecco to finish it all off.  But we couldn't help but notice that all the buildings in this area were surrounded by high walls.  What was outside of those walls?  What made them necessary?

Although my options were limited as a vegetarian, I was determined to taste some Brazilian food and drink while I was in town.  For the most part it was delicious – I especially enjoyed the yucca fries.  There was however one major disappointment in my culinary adventures.  One day in the park I decided to try coconut water.  There were loads of people selling it fresh from the coconuts, and I couldn't resist.  It looked so tasty and refreshing – the perfect thing to drink on a hot day.  I'd also read a lot about the health benefits of drinking coconut water, so I couldn't wait to give it a go.  The truth is, coconut water is nothing like what you'd expect… it just tastes like dirty water!  I choked mine down on principle because I'd paid for it, but I would never drink that stuff again.

Coconut water - just don't do it.

The best thing I tasted in São Paolo was definitely the caipirinhas.  A strong punch of sweet and sour soaked in alcohol.  It's my new favourite drink!

Our hotel was in the posh bit of town, where it was not uncommon to see helicopter landings on top of the buildings.  Needless to say, it was beautiful.  We even had some furry visitors for the Easter weekend!

Our very own hotel Easter bunnies

When we weren't performing, we enjoyed exploring the busy city life, checking out the art gallery down the street, taking pictures from the top of the tallest skyscraper, or perusing the Mercado for food and gifts.

Now I would love to be able to wax lyrical about the beauties of Rio de Janeiro, but the sad truth is, I didn't see it.  We were only there for one day, and I was so tired from the flight that I slept right through the afternoon!  The most I saw of Rio was the rooftop swimming pool and bar at the hotel, which was lovely.  Some more adventurous souls went out at 6am the next day, so they could see the beach before they left.  I would have loved to join, but I loved my sleep much more.

From Rio we traveled onwards to Montevideo, which was a welcome change of pace.  After Brazil's big busy cities, it was nice to be somewhere more peaceful.  Montevideo is a laidback city on the beach, and the people all seem very friendly and open.  One guy in the market began chatting with us, and even invited us to smoke a joint with him!  Marijuana is legal in Uruguay, and is pretty easy to come by – as long as you are a Uruguay national and over the age of 18.  (We declined the offer by the way – after all, we had a concert that evening!)

Chillaxing in Montevideo

Like Brazil, Uruguay has a fairly meat-centric culture, and a lot of us enjoyed feasting at the local grill.  I myself stuck to pizza and salad, but enjoyed feasting my ears on the samba band which serenaded us over lunch.  They paraded all the way through the Mercado with high energy brass and drums, the men wearing voluminous purple silk shirts, and the women dancing in high heels and sequined bikinis. I've never had such a lively meal in all my life!

From Montevideo, we took to ferry to Buenos Aires.  Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of South America", and it's easy to see why.  The many Victorian buildings lining the streets lend it a distinctive European feel.  But this city has its own character as well.  Shouting salesmen will hop on the subway waving around chocolate and ice cream, and buskers will serenade you for a few stops, accompanied by guitar and cajón.  If you wander around La Boca, a neighbourhood named for its local football stadium, you'll see plenty of colourful murals, bustling markets, and even tango dancers.

La Boca, Buenos Aires

By some strange coincidence, a lot of my friends were in Buenos Aires at the same time as I was.  Of course, I knew I had friends who were already living there, but there were also friends from Canada, Switzerland, and Scotland who all happened to be there on holiday.  What were the odds?  It seemed everyone wanted to be in Buenos Aires!  I managed to meet up with most of them while I was in town, and together we wandered the city and chatted, and enjoyed eating at the many delicious local pizza joints.  I was surprised at first when a friend ordered only one bottle of beer for the whole table... but then I saw it was a full litre bottle!

Look at the size of this thing!

On our free day, an orchestra member's friend arranged an outing in the country for us.  After riding the subway and the train, we boarded a boat on the Tigre Delta, and drove out to a remote cottage on the water.  It was just lovely!  There were friendly dogs, hammocks in the shade, and a garden buzzing with hummingbirds.  We enjoyed a generous meal in the sun, and were all very happy to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the city.  The friendly old man who owns the cottage told us he makes his living hosting guests like ourselves.  He enjoys his bucolic life by the river, and only ventures across the water once a week to buy supplies.

The quiet life on the Tigre

Later that day, we were invited to give a small concert at the German consulate, after which we were served a beautiful three-course dinner with wine.  Having dinner at 9 or 10pm is pretty standard in Argentina, it seems.  Over dinner we enjoyed chatting with the guests, who came from all sorts of professions and backgrounds.  But again, as in São Paolo, I couldn't help noticing the walls around us, and thinking of what they represented.  It seemed there were two sides of Buenos Aires, and we were being kept safely on the manicured, comfortable side.  I'm sure I wasn't the only one conscious of the walls – my German friends would certainly be familiar with walls and their meanings.

We had many fantastic concerts in South America, and the theatres and concert halls were all truly beautiful.  But for me the most memorable concerts were in the gorgeous Teatro Colón.  The acoustic in this theatre has to be one of the best in the world.  We could go so small and so quiet, and the tiniest musical details would be heard throughout the audience.  It was truly magical.

The Teatro Colón

Our last stop was Lima.  My first impression of Lima was the extreme heat bearing down on us as soon as we left the airport.  You could burn to a crisp in a matter of minutes under that sun!  After the heat there was the traffic.  Loads and loads of cars, buses and taxis, all beeping and squashing together in the streets.  It was absolute chaos!

Navigating the traffic in Lima

Amongst the traffic, we could sometimes catch small glimpses of life in Lima.  Clowns running out at a red light to perform to drivers for spare change.  Big prestigious football academies, where uniformed children flocked together to play ball.  And sunny parks with people taking siestas under the palm trees.

But for the most part, I didn't see very much of Lima.  It was the last two days of the tour, and I was tired and starting to look forward to home.

I did however get the chance to try the famous Peruvian cocktail: the Pisco sour.  Made with pisco, lemon juice, and egg white, this drink was pretty delicious – but I must say, the caipirinha still holds the highest place in my heart.

The caipirinha - pure deliciousness.

Finally, after a long bus ride through traffic and an even longer wait for our boarding cards, we began our sixteen-hour journey back to Germany.  We had an amazing trip to South America.  I hope it won't be too long before we visit this beautiful continent again!

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