Tuesday, 7 March 2006

The Amazing Race 9, Episode 2

São Paulo (Brazil) - Brotas (Brazil)

The best thing about The Amazing Race 9 , so far, is that it’s reminding me of the reasons I like to travel around the world.

What makes for an interesting and enjoyable trip?

Partly, of course, it’s the places. This week, São Paulo. Next week, Moscow. After that, who knows? I do know, at least in part, but I won’t spoil it by telling you. And the racers don’t know until they get each clue. They knew from the start that they had visas for Russia and Brazil, but they also know some of their visas are valid but “decoy” visas to places they aren’t going to go on the race.

As host Phil Keoghan says in his voiceover, São Paulo is by most measures of population the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere (and, although Phil doesn’t say it, one of the ten most populous anywhere in the world). It’s also — along with Jakarta and Karachi, although it’s larger than them — one of the least-touristed mega-cities.

Just the place for a snark! The sort of place most people wouldn’t think to choose for a vacation. But when you find yourself there, you discover it has more life, energy, and diversity than you could ever have imagined — largely unaltered by tourism, since the ratio of locals to international visitors is so large that the megalopolis can swallow an army of tourists with scarcely a trace. (And where you may never cross paths with another foreign tourist outside tiny tourist ghettoes.)

Different strokes for different folks, and this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee or mate, to be more Brazilian). But I found Jakarta fascinating, and I look forward eagerly to getting to São Paulo some day.

Partly the pleasure of travel is in the people with whom you travel, a topic I plan to return to in the weeks to come. (Although not without noting, while I’m on the subject, that this season’s cast seems much better-selected than the crew of fellow travellers in The Hunting of The Snark .)

And partly the reward of travel is in what you do when you get there.

Only a few “Paulistas” travel across the city from rooftop to rooftop by helicopter as the racers did last week, but many make their way through the traffic in locally-made Volkswagen Beetles or by bus, as the racers did this week. VW Beetles are no longer in production in Brazil (or Mexico), but remain common on the roads in both countries. Marcopolo brand long-distance luxury buses — far superior to the vehicles used by Greyhound in the USA — are a worldwide symbol of Brazilian industry. The leading Brazilian bus body builder not only exports half the production of its Brazilian factories, but has local manufacturing plants around the world. And if you don’t think of Brazil as a global industrial power, perhaps that’s a sign that your image of the country is shaped by the tourist sites, sights, and activities of Rio de Janeiro, rather than other places and things more typical of the country. Often, the places and activities that are best-known to tourists are those that are visited precisely because they are so unusual, and that give visitors the least accurate picture of “ordinary” local lives and activities.

For similar reasons, some of my favorite souvenirs are items in ordinary daily use in the places I acquired them, and that remind me of those places as I use them in my daily life back home.

The most characteristically Brazilian task for the racers this week was to put some sugar cane ethanol in the fuel tanks of their Beetles. What they were making by crushing sugar cane, and distilling the fermented juice, was essentially the Brazilian national liquor, “cachaça”. Television viewers in the USA may have been surprised that they were instructed to pour this eminently drinkable spirit into their cars, but that’s actually where most cane alcohol in Brazil ends up: Remarkably, especially so given that putting sugar in the tank will ruin an ordinary gasoline engine, a large proportion of Brazilian vehicles can run on ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of both, at the flip of a switch. So what the racers were told to do isn’t like putting diesel fuel in a gasoline engine, or vice versa.

Cachaça’s a bit harsh for my taste. I’ve got a sweet tooth, but I prefer my sugar cane juice either more or less processed: distilled from molasses into rum, and well aged for smooth sipping (try some 15-year old Tanduay — although you may have to go to the Philippines to find it) or fresh-squeezed with just a little salt, and a wedge of lime stuck into a split in the end of the cane before it’s put through the press, so the lime juice gets squeezed in with the cane juice.

Smells and tastes evoke places at a deeper level than sights or sounds. There’s one store in San Francisco (the sweet shop attached to Bombay Bazaar, on Valencia Street between 16th and 17th Streets) with a cane press and, intermittently, a supply of fresh cane. When I go there, watch them feed the stalks through the “mangle”, close my eyes and sip a frothy glass of the fresh sweet juice, I’m transported to the tropics.

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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