My favorite thing about Brazil is not Brazilian weed. I love the shameless display of the human body. All shapes, all sizes, all colors, just let it all hang out.
So many places caught in the clutch of Abrahamic religions have added way too much cloth to be comfortable – especially hot places. Especially black and brown places. There’s nothing that makes me quite so uncomfortable as colonial modesty.
I think of Colombia, where girls as young as four years old stared at my bare, unshaven legs in disbelief and disgust. Where the only way to be a woman is to have long hair and pierced ears and makeup, and anything outside of that is confusing and wrong.
Most of these hot places used to be all skin. Maybe a loincloth to keep the creepy crawlies out. And then came the white Christian colonizers with their shaming and their finger pointing. Then came the idea that black and brown skin was dirty and wrong and sinful. And it’s been internalized and it makes me deeply uncomfortable.
Portugal was responsible for over twenty-five percent of transatlantic slavery.
To put that into perspective – the British were only responsible for six percent. Somehow despite that Brazil takes up most of South America it’s easy for me to forget about the Portuguese when talking about the New World.
I know British colonial history in the New World well enough because I am USAmerican. The Spanish are impossible to ignore because even in the US there’s over forty million Spanish speakers, and of course twenty New World countries have Spanish as their official language so it quite literally dominates the conversation.
Portuguese colonial history, though, I don’t really know distinctly from any other. They had a lot of boats, were good at shipping, and did what all the other conquerors did: Conquered, enslaved, and made sugar. Portugal is a lot smaller than Brazil so it just seems forgettable in some way.
So I have no idea why the modesty and Puritanism that permeates the rest of the Americas skips Brazil. It’s not like they didn’t get Catholicism.
There’s a shrine on every block.
I’m grateful for it, though, and it’s super nice to walk down the street in little clothing in hot weather without worrying about what’s bulging or hanging because every direction I look there’s extremes of all kinds.
Most places in the world, I know how I feel about that place immediately upon arriving. I don’t even have to leave the airport to catch the vibe and make a judgment about whether or not I like that place.
Rio is the only place I’ve ever done a complete 180 on. When I first arrive – I hate it. It terrifies me. It feels truly dangerous and uncomfortable, like nowhere else I have been.
The Uber driver who picks me up from the airport to take me to my host’s place in Quintino, a distant suburb of Rio, won’t believe that that is where I am headed. They almost refuse to drive me, telling me that tourists really shouldn’t go there.
On our way, we are pulled over by the police, who search my bags for drugs. Luckily I have none, and not yet any Brazilian weed. The police also react in horror to my destination – telling me that I cannot possibly be staying there, and confirming with me multiple times that I am not being kidnapped.
They’re wrong. Quintino is a family neighborhood. It’s not where the danger lies in Rio. The true danger is in the tourist neighborhoods – Copacabana and Ipanema. It’s here that the prey (rich folk) live, and here where they are preyed upon. Pull out your phone in these neighborhoods, and you’ll lose it.
I do, though, pull out my phone.
There’s a dummy phone in my pocket and I have my actual phone strapped to my chest under my breasts. I carry nothing of value and wear short shorts and spaghetti strap tank tops and explore all parts of Rio in this way.
After a few days, I see the stunning variety and began to warm to Rio de Janeiro. But it’s not until my host takes me to a party in my first Brazilian favela that I fall in love. Maybe it’s the Brazilian weed, I don’t know.
The party is Colombian themed, and in Babilonia. My host helps me procure a few too many sugar free passion fruit caipirinhas, then drags me out onto the floor to dance.
Of course it being Colombian night there are plenty of experienced salsa dancers, and all I can do is move in my own way on time to the music. Not a salsa dancer. The Brazilians try to teach me. The Colombians just smile.
It’s here in the favela that I am finally able to relax. No one is coming to jack my shit, no one cares where I’m from. I’m not seen as a walking dollar bill. Also – I can’t speak a lick of Portuguese, but I do have many years of street Spanglish under my belt, so finally I can hang out and shoot the shit with the Colombians.
I sniff Brazilian weed here at the party and my host sees my eyes widen.
“Go ask them!” she says, pointing to a group of young Colombians. She doesn’t smoke, but doesn’t at all mind if I do.
So, I do ask them nicely, and they are more than happy to share with me in exchange for stories about New York.
I actually don’t know whether it is Brazilian weed, or whether it is Colombian, but it is one of the very few times in my life that I’ve gotten too high from just a few hits. Whatever it is, it hit super hard and kicked my ass. I forget to take a photo of it, but I don’t see the weed itself anyway, just a bunch of overstuffed joints.
It makes me forget for a moment about the history of sugar, which dominates the history of Brazil. I hate sugar.
Also makes me forget about the unique anthropophagic rituals practiced in Brazil, such as the one where they take someone into the tribe as one of their own, fully assimilating them for sometimes years before eating them.
This sort of blows my mind. Other cannibalism makes some kind of sense to me, consuming a piece of the vanquished enemy to take their power, eating people for food – why not. But the whole “hey here’s a wife and a house you’re one of us now” and then years later “mmmm, no, hey sorry we’re going to eat you now” is new to me.
For a moment I am lost in the amazing beauty of the city, and I realize that because the favelas are up high while the rich neighborhoods are down low: the favelas have a better view.
That night, high, happy, walking down from Babilonia with my host who takes good care of me when she realizes that I am higher than I meant to get – I discover the street artist Wark Rocinha and become obsessed with his autobiographical work.
I decide that even though there was just last week a major gang war in Rocinha that ended up in dead gang members and dead police and even some dead bystanders (all innocents, as usual, shot by the police. The gangsters don’t make those mistakes), I have to visit. His large works are only in the favelas, and to see them I gotta go there.
And so, a few days later I spend the day in the most notorious favela in Brazil: Rocinha. And once again, I feel safer here than anywhere else in Rio de Janeiro. People know who I am, where I am, and are very happy that an outsider is brave enough to come in and check it out firsthand.
I take a moto taxi to the top and walk down. Rocinha is vibrant and people are happy. I don’t see anyone living on the street like I did in downtown Rio. I note that only the front side of the buildings have been painted – recently – so that when news teams covering the recent Olympics showed the hillsides they were colorful and cute. The backsides of all the buildings in the slum are crumbing, gray concrete held together with chicken wire and rebar. You can’t see the open sewage from the base of the slum. No one wants to think about what it’s like for people there. They’re just wallpaper.
Yet still, I’d rather live in the favela than in a tall, gated building full of rich prey. The former is less of a prison than the latter.
I smell some Brazilian weed and stop near a clutch of multicolored men in white tees and tank tops, and smile. They instantly know what I want and many joints are passed to me. I’m happy they don’t roll with tobacco, like the stupid Europeans. They are happy to share their stuff with a pretty girl. We communicate in Spanish as an intermediary language. Many jokes and much laughter.
I’ve switched hosts and places at this point. My host now is a member of the Brazilian military who flies Black Hawk helicopters for a living. He’s got a model of one made out of Brazilian hardwood in his living room. He tells me of the time he was carjacked in Rio.
They took everything he had including his vehicle, left him naked, face down, in the middle of the highway. He tells me that had they known he was military they surely would have killed him.
Everyone I meet in Rio has stories like these.
Alas. It is a beautiful city. It’s too late for these stories to make any difference. I am in love with it despite its brutality.
The next day I leave for São Paulo, which is certainly a contrast to Rio. I spent a lot of time hunting street art and enjoying gentrified hippie neighborhoods.
My host shares some Brazilian weed with me and I am horrified. It’s brick weed. Compressed with all the sticks, stems, and seeds. I smoke it anyway, but meh. Clearly Brazilian weed comes in all strengths and formats – just like Brazilians themselves.
I spend some time relaxing in the hammock at my host’s place, but most of my time hitting the streets. I like the high rises and the sprawl, it’s more familiar than the strange contours of Rio, but it doesn’t spark the same love.
My host tells me not to go to Crack City, but I accidentally wander in on my way to see the museum that covers Plan (Operacion) Condor.
Right before deepening my knowledge about the brutal, US-celebrated dictatorships and the disappearances that make up every country in South America – I stumble across an empty city block surrounded on all sides by police and military.
In the middle of the block, in full, blinding, hot Brazilian sunlight with no shade and no services, are the most severe addicts of São Paulo. They are puking, shitting, shooting up, and nodding out while being surveyed and penned in by men in uniform with automatic weapons.
Though I have seen extreme ghettos all around the world, and am no stranger to crack houses and skid rows… nothing quite compares to Crack City. It’s a zoo. I try to take photos but am chastised by law enforcement, so instead I just circle the block a few times incredulously, and then walk into the nearby museum to learn about multinational businesses that gained their initial success by supporting Brazilian regimes and using slave labor kidnapped off of the streets during the 1960’s-1980’s.
Today, thankfully, it is over. São Paulo is home to the largest number of Arab, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese diasporas as well as the largest Jewish population in Brazil. The diversity and tolerance please me (also has the largest or second largest Pride parade in the world – depending on who you ask – New York is the competitor).
I decide not to wallow in the pain of the place and visit the art museum, which is truly world class – and currently hosting an exhibition on sexuality.
I dine at one of the best restaurants in the world, D.O.M.
It’s an excellent meal. Uses local and indigenous ingredients paired with modern gastronomy and all the lovely influences of the some two hundred countries that São Paulo has immigrants from. I recognize the same Brazilian hardwood that my host’s Black Hawk helicopter is made from in the tables.
Not really a nature person, but the mystique of the Amazon can certainly be felt even in the heart of the city.
I’m sure there’s better Brazilian weed to be found in São Paulo but I don’t seek it out. Certainly someday I will return to Brazil to see more of the country, and to smoke more Brazilian weed.
More weed in Latin America: