Welcome (back) to another installment of my music/travel blog, not updated since my tribulations in Africa nearly two years ago. Much has changed in the meantime, and much has not: I still travel with guitar, backpack and tent, but my African experiences prompted me to overhaul my packing, leading to a more robust, versatile and compact setup. I hope you will all enjoy this log of my journey, wherever or whenever you may read it! The associated photos may be viewed here.
After an uninspiring stopover in the London drizzle I spent twelve hours airborne to cross both the Atlantic ocean and the equator in order to land in a new and exciting place: Rio de Janeiro. As many of you may know, I am not a big fan of flying. When I started planning this trip back in October, I tried my best to find and alternative. Private yachts, cargo ships; I even went to the headquarters of Carnival UK in Southampton to try to find a position aboard a cruise ship crossing the ocean, but to no avail. It is cheaper and faster to fly, and whoppingly so: about ten times cheaper and forty times faster than the other options I managed to find! Which probably isn’t very surprising now that I think about it, for some reason it was to me.
In the Tom Jobim airport (a fitting start of any musical journey) I found out to my relief that the Brazilian customs office could not care less whether I had any proof of onward flight (which I ought to have had according to their online policy laced with dire warnings). The next challenge, though, would be obtaining money in order get to the city proper. Rio de Janeiro fortunately has a decent subway system which, for some reason, passes by the main international airport indifferently, ignoring one of the biggest transport hubs in the country and paving the way for a horde of taxi drivers, all foaming at the mouth at the very prospect of your arrival. The ATM’s there happily charge you a flat fee of close to ten euros in addition to an abominable exchange rate, only to be matched in their greed by the exchange offices which offer a rate suggesting they have not looked at the inflation number for the last ten years.
Fortunately I noticed a British girl who had been smart enough to get cash in advance and order a Uber, which she was happy to share with me. Arriving in the beautiful neigbourhood of Flamengo, I borrowed a passerby’s phone to call my host Giovanni, who took me to the apartment that would be my base in Rio for the next eight days. He immediately passed me a beer and took me out for some nice food and drinks. With palm trees and white buildings all around, surrounded by the yellow light of streetlights and a light drizzle (very refreshing when it’s close to 30 degrees), I felt like I had entered a different, exciting world of possibilities. Just twenty four hours earlier I had been drinking with a group of friends in the cold, rainy winter of the Netherlands and the combination of sleep deprivation and hangover made the evening surreal.
A feeling that would last for a while as I started exploring Rio. It’s beauty lies in the interaction between the city and the nature around it. Built around a huge natural bay, with heavily forested mountains and lagoons intersecting the metropolis, Rio has a unique vibe that I have never seen before. People are free and happy, spending money on beer and parties like there is no tomorrow. The crisis of 2014 hit hard and sent purchasing power sprawling, and especially the musicians have it bad. Importing quality gear is prohibitively expensive due to import taxes and a couple of compounding factors. The minimum wage stands at about a thousand Brazilian real a month, the growth barely keeping up with inflation. The currency has been sliding for years, making a thousand real worth a bit more than two hundred euros at the moment. Great news for me but not so much for the Brazilians. Not that I hear too many complaints. No, conversation is mainly about football and the upcoming carnival.
I looked up the dates for carnival before I went and jotted it down in my agenda: 21 through 26 of February. Boy, was I mistaken. The day I arrived in Rio (12 January) people were telling me that carnival had started, and pre-parties, band rehearsal and other samba gatherings were already in full swing. Carnival seems to dominate the entire summer season, which by the way is not the season I would have picked as ‘summer’ since it rains a lot and the skies are overcast half the time. We northerners would kill to have a ‘winter’ like it is here: 25 degrees and hardly any rain. So just listen to my wise words: do carnival in July so wearing all the crazy suits is bearable and your parade doesn’t get rained on (pun intended)!
My week in Rio was spent playing Bossa Nova and Choro in various pubs, language meetups, beaches and jam sessions around the city. I also did a couple of hikes, either alone or with my excellent host Giovanni, up the Morro da Urca (a small mountain that juts out into the ocean and guards the entrance of the big bay) and Corcovado mountain, which is most famous for housing the Christ the Redeemer statue but is actually just the eastern vestige of a national park which consists of old-growth Atlantic rainforest. All within the city limits! At the last samba party we attended we developed food poisoning, which resulted in a soul-bonding, agonizing night shitting and vomiting, taking turns in the bathroom, for which we awarded our friendship the honorary title ‘Brothers in Barf’.
Eager to leave the big city for a while, I took the bus on my birthday to a small town on the coast, from where I took the boat early next morning to Ilha Grande, a big island just off the coast which is famous for the virgin rainforest. It has never been developed due to it having been a leper colony first and the site of a high security prison since. Since the mid nineties it has gained great popularity as a summer destination, and the small village of Abraão. I spent a couple of days playing, writing, camping and hiking there, the virgin atlantic rainforest is incredibly diverse. Traveling down the coast I stayed in Paraty (pretty beach town with a Portuguese old town and a thriving musical scene) and moved onwards to Ubatuba, where I reunited with my friend Mark Andrade.
He couchsurfed at my place for a couple of days last July and we had a lot of fun playing music all around Utrecht. He invited me to come to his country to return the favour and so he was actually one of the main reasons for the undertaking of this trip! He took me to a local jam session and at the end of the night I was invited by various people to play gigs all over the town for the days to come. A great start to my stay there and a very refreshing experience, this openness and willingness to share music and gigs. I often find the Dutch scene to be rather closed, with people hogging their networks and gigs and making a lot of promises they never make good on in an attempt to be liked and perhaps get a call for work in the future. This feature of life as a musician never appealed to me and it is very refreshing to see a community of (seemingly) more selfless musicians. I ended up refusing most of the payment though, after calculating how many gigs a musician has to play here in order to pay the rent. An average bar/restaurant gig nets you 100 reais, which at the moment translates to about 21 euros. For this you will play about three sets of an hour each, well beyond what we find to be acceptable in the Netherlands. Once more I was forcibly reminded of the good fortune I have of being able to build my career in the Netherlands, where life is a lot easier for a musician!
I stayed in Ubatuba for five days, playing in bars, restaurants and rehearsals, practicing my Portuguese, learning how to cycle in Brazilian traffic, dancing forro (a genre of music most loved for dancing), reading (I admit I lost a lot of sleep reading the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand that week) and hanging out with Mark and his family, who live next door. Thanks to all the great people I met so far for making my trip memorable, to Giovanni and Mark for being such amazing hosts, and Mark in particular for convincing me to take a couple of months off to visit his continent (though in hindsight I doubt I took much coaxing).
Hope to see you all in the next installment where I talk about my time in the biggest city in all of the southern and western hemispheres: vibrant, majestic São Paulo!