There are plenty of studies on the world’s happiest countries, but what about the world’s quirkiest? I think Brazil would definitely rate in the top five. Perhaps it’s in part because I got to know Brazil better than any other country, including my own, and any country becomes quirky when you travel through it extensively. But I also just think Brazil is a place where people really value expression and creativity is found throughout society in unexpected places.
I was continually delighted by the unexpected art projects I would stumble upon in my travels. Projects without institutional support taken on as an individual mission in a city or out in the middle of nowhere, even, along a highway.
What do I mean by quirky? I mean unexpected, unique, and unpretentious. Totally individual. There is no real equivalent for the word “quirky” in Portuguese. I always carefully explain the word quirky to Brazilians—that it means good weird, not bad weird, which is “esquisito” in Portuguese. It means that you have the courage to be yourself exactly as you are, without trying to be different. Using the example of Amelie often helps people understand the quirky aesthetic, though of course you don’t have to be cute as a button to be quirky or to plant garden gnomes in gardens.
Here are a few of my favorite quirky places in Brazil.
Jardim do N‚àö‚Ñ¢go . Nova Friburgo. Jardim do N‚àö‚Ñ¢go is a sculpture garden with huge moss-covered sculptures of animals and humans, including a particularly spectacular sculpture of a gigantic women giving birth. The artist is N‚àö‚Ñ¢go. It seemed so mysterious how this garden had taken root out in the middle of nowhere, the product of one man’s imagination and solitude. The government recognized him for his contribution to tourism, but I can’t imagine the garden was commissioned. The Jardim is 13 km north-west of Nova Friburgo on highway RJ-130. The garden is part of the Circuito Turistco between Nova Friburgo and Teresopolis. Drive this road and you can stop at waterfalls, a cheese factory, and a museum about Swiss immigration to Brasil.
Cemitério dos P‚àö¬∞ssaros (Bird Cemetery) on Ilha de Paqueta. Rio de Janeiro. One week when I was feeling overstimulated by the chaos and noise of Rio I took a friend’s suggestion to visit Ilha de Paqueta on a day trip. Paqueta is just an hour away by ferry in the Baia de Gaunabara, but it feels like another world and time period. There are no cars on the island–only bikes (which you can rent cheaply) and horse-drawn buggies. It was a weekday and I was pretty much the only tourist on the whole island. More than 10 guys asked me if I wanted to take a tour in their bike- or horse-drawn carriages. I finally relented. The tour was worth the price when my driver stopped to show me a BIRD cemetery attached to a human cemetery. My guide told me that people from all over Brazil bring their birds here to rest, and that the bird cemetery had been a personal project of its creators. The fact that someone had a vision for a bird cemetery and went ahead and created one made me happy.
O Maior Cajuero do Mundo, or The Biggest Cashew Tree in the World, Natal. What a tourist attraction! A tree that covers more than a New York City block! Planted in 1888, the largest cashew tree in the world got to be so big due to genetic anomalies. Instead of growing vertically, the branches grow sideways and then down into the ground, spreading out without end. The tree has become a tourist attraction that costs R$2 to enter. This for me is the definition of quirkyness–instead of becoming a source of shame the tree’s genetic oddness is celebrated! The town has turned the tree into a Lonely Planet- mention-worthy tourist attraction. I went to see the tree with Brazilian guys, an Israeli, and an Argentinean from my hostel and they thought it was hilarious that I thought the Maior Cajeiro do Mundo was one of the best things I had seen in Brazil. Well, it was! I loved it.
Escada de Selaron, or, the Selaron Steps. Rio de Janeiro. Santa Teresa is the most poetic neighborhood I have ever known, and it’s where I spent most of my time in Rio. Santa Teresa sits on top of a hill with dozens of hidden staircases that descend into various neighborhoods at its feet. Some of the staircases have been turned into canvases for art, and none more than the Selaron Steps, which lead into Lapa. A Chilean artist Selaron started an art project as an ode to Brazil. Now that the steps are well known he collects tiles from tourists who bring them from their own cities and he is ever adding to the collection. There’s a small gallery tucked inside the wall alongside the steps where he sells photos and art. The steps are his love note to Brazil, and he says he will work on it until the day he dies. Descending the steps from Santa Teresa into Lapa is a glorious way to enter the city.
I’d love to hear about other odd, creative, individual projects in Brazil, or really, anywhere in the world. Any ideas? Please suggest them in the comments.
Just another morsel of poetic terrorism in Santa Teresa
Every day when I got on the bus, or on the poetic yellow cable cars rambling through Santa Teresa, Rio’s hilltop bohemian neighborhood, I would see this splash of graffiti, if you could call such simple handwriting graffiti. “Have a Nietzsche Day!”
What an intellectual neighborhood I chose to live in for a while, I thought to myself, smiling. At the nearby Mercandinho, an impossibly small corner store that sells coffee, beer, carpaccio, papaya, laundry detergent, I meet poets who had hung out with Allen Ginsburg. Everyone is an artist, writer, translator, weird Carnaval bloco organizer. Maybe an American working on her Fulbright in poetry. Or someone like me, just bumming around and enjoying.
Poetic terrorism is what my friend Roma calls it. According to Urban Dictionary, poetic terrorism is a “movement dedicated to spreading random acts of beauty, poetry, wonder, magic and thought-provocation. The concept was originated by the writer Hakim Bey and has appeared in movies such as the cult French film Amelie. Poetic terrorism differs from the concept of “random acts of kindness” in that its acts are not always kind, but its ultimate goal is not malice, but broadening of the mind.”
Roma’s girlfriend Iracema studies Nietzsche. She too lives in Santa Teresa and often tells me to have a Nietzsche day a lot. I don’t think she is responsible for the scrawl, but she has adopted it for her lexicon.
But what does “Have a Nietzsche Day!” mean? I had always associated Nietzsche with nihilism, meaninglessness, being adrift without a moral compass. Why would I want my day to be like that? Downtown from Santa Teresa, which is calm and beautiful, the Centro and Lapa are beautiful too but much more hectic and chaotic. And full of malandros, sneaky characters who lack a firm morality.
Iracema and Roma gave me a different take on Nietzsche. Iracema wrote her doctoral thesis on him, and from what I gather, for them, Nietzsche is about breaking through social rules and affirming life according to authentic desires. Iracema says, Having a Nietzsche day means “a day in which we not ashamed of who we are.”
So having a Nietzsche day for them means smashing paradigms, living fully, authentically. There’s a non-cheesy Carpe Diem feeling to it, a live-every-day-as-your-last, because death is not so bad. It’s just the conclusion of a well-lived, full life.
Our conversations, if not the exact definition, remind me of early talks that I had with my friend Marcello, who also lives in Santa Teresa. Marcello, who works at a bank, and is quirky but not an artist, warned me early on that it’s a crazy neighborhood, and all his friends, some of them expatriates, act like they are living each day as their last. How is that possible to sustain over years? That was his question.
Brazil is very much about the moment, and Santa Teresa and Lapa take the energy around the present moment to another level. The music never stops. Maybe only on Mondays.
In San Francisco, Sunday night is a time to be quiet and prepare for the coming week, Maybe make some soup. Do your laundry. Not in Santa Teresa. It’s time to drink beers in the street in front of Bar do Mineiro for 6 hours straight, or to go to a roda de samba. Living out loud in the streets is relaxation. Life is lived at a different frequency.
Would I be cut out for such a life, for having a series of Nietzsche days? Could I be a superperson? Could you?
Living at a high frequency all the time leaves me rather exhausted. So does rewriting all the rules, though I seem to enjoy tinkering with them.
Words from a foreign language reveal how people from another culture think, and that can be endlessly fun. This week one word kept popping up in conversation in Rio. It’s a particularly Carioca word called “Malandro.”
The first time that “Malandro” came up I was waiting in a bookstore in Leblon, the most chi-chi part of Rio, with a new friend I had just met. We were waiting for someone I had made plans with and he texted me to say he was almost there, “one minute.” I explained this to the first guy and he reacted with some doubt and asked if I knew the word “Malandro.” No, I said. He told me “Malandro” means a guy who has more than one woman but doesn’t let any of them know, a slippery kind of person. Oh. That night I was looking at Lonely Planet Brazil and noticed the use of “Malandro” in a box of text describing Lapa, the historic center of samba in Rio. A “malandro,” according to Lonely Planet, was a “con artist.”
The next day, a young Lithuanian guy who has lived in Brazil five years and who works at the guesthouse where I am staying asked me if I knew what a “Malandro” is. Amazed, I told him the word had already come up twice in 24 hours. He proceeded to tell me that a “malandro” is like an urban surfer, a guy who doesn’t work but manages to get by somehow and that everyone wants to be a malandro. He’s the cool guy every other guy would like to be. Can a woman be a “malandra”? Oh, definitely not, according to Tita.
That night I asked a few more people about “Malandro.” My friend Roberto told me that a “malandro” was a historical character of Lapa that can now only be found in escolas de samba, samba schools–dapper men who dress all in white. My friend Marcello described a “malandro” as a clever, fast-thinking person who can talk his way out of any situation. He thought “malandras” exist, they’re just fewer in number. Josemando thought a “malandro” is someone that takes advantage of others.
No one seems to really self-identify as a “malandro.” Tita, the outsider, is the only one who really glorified them. Roberto and I joked about going malandro-spotting in a samba school–it would be fun to find some malandros and take pictures.
The word begins with “mal” so I assume that a “malandro” is a shady character but most people say that they’re more complicated than “bad.” That’s one thing I am noticing about Rio. Everything has two sides, everything has a double meaning. At times I wonder if I should be leaving and spending time in another country in order to learn more, be exposed to another culture. But spending more time in one place means that I get to learn more deeply about cultural intricacies like these. And I am still waiting to meet an official “malandro.” Stay tuned for a picture if I ever find one.
My friend Jenny just reminded me that I have a New Year’s problem, which tends to emerge in a particularly virulent way when I travel. The problem is mad indecision. I feel the full force of the road not taken. In San Francisco, I can accept an uneventful New Year’s Eve with close friends, but on the road, I can’t get it through my head that New Year’s Eve doesn’t have to fulfill a vision. Three years ago I couldn’t decide between staying in New York with my friends Jenny and Adam or spending the New Year with my father and stepmother on Cape Cod, which in retrospect, seems insane that there was even a question. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and was afraid of being exhausted and out all night in the frigid New York¬¨‚Ä† cold. I chose safety—the Cape Cod with family option—and cursed myself when I found myself on a couch with my father watching Seinfeld at 11:30. I didn’t sleep anyway, so annoyed with myself for choosing the Most Geriatric New Year’s Ever.
This year I spent New Year’s week in Rio de Janeiro, which is an experience I will never forget. Jenny asked me “What was the high and low of your trip?” All I could think of was New Year’s Eve, a focal point of anxiety for days leading up to the trip, and a story to tell. I was in Brazil for a spontaneous weeklong (second) trip. The flight was purchased in mid-December. No, I don’t have a boyfriend there, which is what everyone assumes. I had just been in Brazil in September. The stars had aligned with a bizarrely cheap ticket and a place to stay for New Year’s, the high point of Braizlian partying for the year, second only to Carnaval. I have this Brazil fascination, which I haven’t completely understood yet.
What I want to tell you about is New Year’s. It’s a first-world problem to have too many choices, but the pain from being unable to decide is real.¬¨‚Ä† I am not as brave as I come off. In fact, I am still shaken by the telling of this story. But I did experience about five minutes of quirkyalone bliss in the midst of this adventure. Because of that . . and because it strikes me now that New Year’s 2009 was also the the tenth anniversary of this birth of this concept (I first uttered the word “quirkyalone” on New Year’s Day 1999) I want to share this tale.
Have you ever gotten sucked into something that you were also ashamed to read? It happened to me yesterday. I was listlessly checking my email when I noticed a text ad that I must have seen more than 10,000 times. “How to catch and keep a man.” Those ads are as oddly ubiquitous as the text link ads for Acai Berry Wonder Diets, but I always assumed that ads with links like “Why Men Withdraw and What to Do About It” were for women who are more pathetic and malleable than me. Yesterday I joined the masses. And let me tell you. I became sickly fascinated. And angry.
I was vulnerable to that horrible ad because I recently heard something along the lines of “I’m just looking for something casual.” Somehow I find that impossible not to take personally. I clicked on the link–“The Ten Most Dangerous Mistakes Women Make”–and found myself swimming through simple, one-sentence direct-mail style paragraphs, like:
“Have you ever slept with a guy very quickly after meeting him, but as it started to happen you got that sinking feeling in your stomach? You knew it was a mistake, but you did it anyway. And then the thing you KNEW would happen actually happened: He unexplainably disappeared from your life. Honestly, have you ever had this happen?”
Of course, the worst part wasn’t that it happened, but that you KNEW you shouldn’t have done it in the first place… but you did it anyway.
Ummm, who hasn’t?
I have a long post saved up inside of me that I haven’t written, probably because the topic felt so overwhelming I didn’t know where to start. I have wanted to travel for several years. The desire was stored up inside me while work took center stage. For years, I was singularly focused on work, whether it was Quirkyalone, my other book and magazine To-Do List, and my street fashion community website stylemob.com. At long last I decided to take the leap, but to be honest, I was petrified. Petrified and elated.