Saturday, May 31, 2008

Festa Junina at Mac's School

Background information on Festa Junina from

Festa Junina, typically termed São João (Saint John) as it is centered on that saint's day, is the name of annual Brazilian celebrations (historically related to the Midsummer and Saint John festivities in Europe) which take place in the beginning of the Brazilian winter, consequently during the European summer. It's mainly celebrated on the following days of the Catholic feast of Saint Anthony, John the Baptist and Saint Peter.

The festival also celebrates rural life and features typical clothing, food, dance (particularly quadrilha, which is similar to square dancing). Usually taking place in an arraial, a large, open space outdoors, men dress up as farm boys with suspenders and large straw hats and women wear pigtails, freckles, painted gap teeth and red-checkered dresses, all in a loving tribute to the origins of Brazilian country music, and of themselves, some of whom are recent immigrants from the countryside to cities such as Olinda, Recife, Maceió and Salvador, and some of whom return to the rural areas during that season to visit family.

However, nowadays, São João festivities are extremely popular in all urban areas and among all social classes. In the Northeast, they are as popular as Carnival. It should be noted that, like during Carnival, these festivities involve costume-wearing (in this case, peasant costumes), dancing, drinking, and visual spectacles (fireworks display and folk dancing). Like the original European Midsummer celebrations, during the two-week June festivities in Brazil, bonfires are lit. They can be seen everywhere in northeastern cities.

São João coincides with the corn harvest. Special dishes served during São João are made with corn, such as canjica and pamonha. Dishes may also include peanuts, potatoes sausages and rice. The celebrations are very colorful and festive and include amazing pyrotechnics. Bonfires and fire in general are thus one of the most important features of these festivities, a feature that is among the remnants of Midsummer pagan rituals in the Iberian Peninsula.
Retrieved from ""

So now that you have the background information, Mac's school, Chapel, had its Festa Junina Saturday afternoon. This was our first Festa Junina, and it was an experience that started earlier in the week, when I had to buy Mac's caipira outfit. Caipira means something like a cross between cowboy and country bumpkin so Mac didn't have to draw too far down into his gene pool to pull this off. I've now learned that you can buy these outfits cheap at Wal-Mart, but I got rooked at the fancy kids' store for this awful plaid shirt that comes with patches that you sew onto jeans. At least they throw in an enormous straw hat for free because I guess they feel so bad about robbing you blind.

Mac, the Caipira

The girls love a caipira!
The festival was filled with dancing by different classes (including Mac's); carnival games like fishing and the ring toss; a lot of food; a bouncy castle, petting zoo, and pony rides; a bonfire and fireworks; and, last but not least, the mechanical bull. Mac couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to try this, but finally he did. We're thinking if a professional sports career doesn't work out like Jimmy hopes, maybe the rodeo?

Mac as a caipira bullrider

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Adventures in the Pantanal

The Pantanal, located in western Brazil, is a huge inland wetland formed by the floodplain of the Paraguay River and its tributaries. When I say huge, I mean "HUGE". The entire Pantanal is 140,000 square miles and 2/3 of that is located within Brazil. The Pantanal is said to be the best place in South America to view wildlife, even more so than the Amazon, which is so dense that you can't see very much. It's an environmental paradise, and Jimmy has wanted to go there since we arrived in Brazil.

Now those of you who know me know that even though I'm a farm girl at heart, I still like the creature comforts of places like 5-star hotels. There are no 5-star hotels in the Pantanal. There are lots of wild animals that can kill you, but there are no 5-star hotels.

We flew from Sao Paulo on Wednesday, May 21, for a long weekend. Thursday was a Brazilian holiday (Corpus Christi Day), and Mac and Jimmy both had the day off. Mac also had off Friday, and Jimmy had off Monday for US Memorial Day, so we decided to make a very long weekend of it.

We landed in Campo Grande in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, got our rental car, pit-stopped at McDonald's and took off for the town of Bonito. Bonito used to be centered around agriculture until I guess they realized the potential for eco-tourism. Now it's a strip of souvenir shops and restaurants that serve food like alligator. Outside of Bonito, though, is a treasure chest of very cool activities.

Our first stop in Bonito was our pousada. The pousada is called Sonho Meu, which translates into My Dream. Possibly this pousada is somebody's dream, but it is not mine. The people are so friendly there, but I can't begin to tell you how far we were from creature comforts. The only saving graces were that it was cheap and it was clean, but that's about the only endorsement I can give.

Our first adventure took place on the night of our arrival. We went to this place called Projeto Jiboia (translated as Boa Constrictor Project). Henrique, the very entertaining and engaging guy who owns the place, is proficient in English as he was an exchange student in Australia and he lived for a few months in Florida learning how to work on Harley Davidson motorcycles. He started the project to demystify snakes. Mac and Jimmy loved it, but snakes are still a mystery to me.

Mac getting "kissed" by a boa constrictor

Like Father, like Son....But not like Mother!

The next day (Thursday) we did the Boca da Onca Eco-Tour ( This place was fantastic. It's a full day of hiking up and down the mountains, swimming in cold mountain rivers and streams under waterfalls, and eating a traditional and delicious pantaneiro lunch. Jimmy and I learned something invaluable on that day trip: Mac is the ultimate supertrooper kid. He hiked for 5 1/2 hours straight, he got into freezing cold water, he ran up 904 nearly vertical steps (yes, Jimmy counted) at the end of the hike, and he never complained. It was an awesome experience for us as parents. Some photos from our day at Boca da Onca follow:

On Friday we visited the Gruta do Lago Azul early in the morning. This 160-foot-deep grotto has a crystal-clear freshwater lake at the bottom. At a certain time in the morning, the sunlight comes through the grotto opening and shines on the lake making it appear aquamarine.

After the Gruta, we went to snorkel along the Sucuri River
( This is supposed to a lovely, relaxing, tranquil floating trip down nature's ultimate Lazy River. The current is strong enough so you don't have to do anything but enjoy the scenery, and the wetsuit and life jacket you have to wear give you all this buoyancy so you're not fighting to stay afloat. The problem for me is that Sucuri means "anaconda", so instead of enjoying the fish and subaquatic gardens in this crystal-clear river, I was busy looking for snakes (and alligators) and got a grade A kink in my neck from the "tranquil" activity. Mac got to snorkel for the first time in his life, and he got the hang of it right off the bat. After our snorkeling trip, we were served another delicious traditional meal for lunch after which we relaxed by the reserve's pool while Mac played in the stream.

On Friday night, Jimmy was determined to eat the exotic meats of the Pantanal, so we went to a restaurant that served a trio of these meats, the trio being alligator, peccary (wild pig), and capybara (a large South American rodent). I really tried to like these foods, and I actually ate a couple pieces of the rodent (it was wrapped in bacon and everything tastes better with bacon), but I really just prefer steak and probably don't need to taste any of those things again.

On Saturday morning, we said farewell to My Dream and went off to our next lodging place, Refugio da Ilha ( Refugio is about a 3-hour drive from Bonito. With the exception of the drive from the airport to Bonito and a little bit from Bonito to Refugio, the roads we were taking were all dirt roads, some in better condition than others. We were there during the dry season, but there are large parts of the Pantanal which are impassable by car during the rainy season.

Refugio da Ilha is a lovely family-owned and operated fazenda in the middle of nowhere. Once you get there, you're there! You're provided three extraordinary meals a day plus snacks, and you have an early morning and late afternoon activity everyday. From Saturday afternoon to Monday morning, our activities included a nature walk where we met a 12-foot long anaconda that was about 3 feet away from us; a johnboat trip upriver where we saw tons of birds and capybara; a johnboat trip downstream where we saw tons of birds, otters swimming in the river, a family of monkeys swinging across the river; and a jabiru stork (the largest stork); and a jeep safari where we saw giant South American anteaters, a crab-eating fox, hyacinth macaws, and parrots coming to roost at night. And of course, there were always caiman alligators popping up and down in the water. In between activities, Jimmy and Mac fished in the lake (but not in the river which is illegal) where they caught their very own piranha, and they swam in the river. Needless to say I did not swim in the river as there is no net to keep the alligators away from the swimming area!


Caiman Alligator

Anaconda Head
Pretty Bird

Boat Ride Scenery

Pantaneiro Sunset

Boys on the Boat

Although I think Jimmy liked all the adventure activities of Bonito best, I loved the stay at Refugio da Ilha. Don't get me wrong - I was terrified that my only child was going to be devoured by an alligator or strangled by an anaconda. The setting was just so peaceful, the food so delicious, the stars so vibrant and the hosts so gracious, that I was completely relaxed after 2 nights there.

Now we're back in Sao Paulo and already the pollution has got Mac coughing and work is crazy and the traffic is insufferable. But we still feel like we've had a vacation and there's a lot to be said for that!