Brazil is a country for travelers who find occasional discomfort too high a price to pay for adventure but who dislike the notion of a guided tour. It's far away, it's exotic, yet it's an easy country to travel in on your own. It functions: Buses and planes leave and arrive on the minute, people are friendly, and it's clean.
Have you ever been in a country where not only the bus stations but the bays where the buses park are scrubbed with soapy water at least once a day? Brazil is also very inexpensive for Americans; and since it is in the southern hemisphere, it's warm when we in the north are cold.
Brazil is not only Rio, as many people seem to think. It's also the mysterious and dangerous Amazon rain forest, the broad greenish-brown pampas of Rio Grande do Sul, endless beaches along the Atlantic Coast, one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls and colorful, historic old cities.
Brazil is an immense country, nearly the size of the United States, and I had only six weeks to see what I could. But during part of that time my Varig Airlines airpass allowed me to make a vast circle tour, from Sa o Paulo on the southeast coast northwest through the frontier, back east through the Amazon region and back down the east coast.
People, I discovered, were the best thing about the country: They were open, generous, courteous and helpful. In Sa o Paulo, an enormous city with some 12 million inhabitants, even native Paulistas get lost -- and so do taxi drivers -- but residents are always willing to help with directions and even accompany you to make sure you find your way.
It seemed to be an ugly city, grown helter-skelter without focus or design. High-rises and modern supermarkets were next to ramshackle shops; half-finished projects attested to the desperate state of the economy; handsome residential sections bordered on favelas, Sa o Paulo's innumerable slums. Brazil is slowly recovering from the severe recessions of 1982 and 1983, but it is saddled with a $100 billion foreign debt and a 220 percent inflation rate that may be accelerating.
Yet occasionally, while climbing to the top of one of the city's many hills, I suddenly glimpsed a vast cityscape of surrealistic beauty. The city currently is hosting the Sa o Paulo Bienal, an international art exposition that will end Dec. 15.
After a week in Sa o Paulo, I began my series of flights with a one-night stop at modern, bustling Belo Horizonte, Brazil's first planned city and gateway to Ouro Pre to. Belo Horizonte lies 300 miles northeast of Sao Paulo, with Ouro Pre to just a 50-mile bus ride away. There I found myself suddenly transported into a Mediterranean town. I spent a day climbing up and down the steep stone-paved streets, looking at houses with low-pitched red tiled roofs, admiring terraced gardens, monumental fountains and lovely baroque churches, built at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century with money earned from gold mining.
Inside the churches amid a wealth of gold ornamentation stand stern-faced saints, many of them carved in wood or soapstone by Antonio Francisco Lisboa, Brazil's Michelangelo.
From the 18th century I flew straight into the 21st. Brasi'lia is an unreal, coldly artificial yet startling city. Designed in steel, concrete and glass by architects Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, Brasi'lia was a brainchild of the late President Juscelino Kubitschek, who wanted a capital in the middle of the Goias state's unpopulated uplands that would replace Rio de Janeiro and the predominance of the coast.
Designed for 500,000 people, the city was formally inaugurated in April 1960, and the population has grown to more than 1 million. Slums were not envisioned by the planners, yet they sprang up anyway and now ring the city. It took my bus an hour to travel half the circle (this local bus route serves the slum dwellers).
I got out at the end of the line amid shacks built of every conceivable material: scraps of wood, boxes, tin, plastic sheeting. While I waited for the bus that would complete the circle back to Brasi'lia, I got a whiff of laughter, of animation and human interaction that belied the surroundings.
A few days later brought more contrasts as I courted adventure -- perhaps a bit foolishly -- in Po rto Velho, a rough frontier town 100 miles from the Bolivian border in west-central Brazil.
I had been warned not to go out at night but did so anyway. Darkness had fallen when I came to a small restaurant with wide-open doors, with a huge horseshoe-shaped counter in the middle. I went in and ordered a beer and a cheese sandwich and studied the customers.
They were indeed a wild-looking lot, made up mostly of settlers who stream into the Amazon region, usually from the drought- and poverty-stricken northwest. Perhaps they had heard of land to be had and were to discover -- if they were lucky enough to get any land at all -- that after two or three years the fragile tropical soil stopped producing. Or perhaps they were people working for lumber companies, often illegally cutting down forests in areas demarcated for Indians.
Or perhaps they were garimpeiros, prospectors looking for gold on the banks or under the swiftly flowing waters of the Madeira River and its tributaries. Some 250,000 are estimated to be working in the Amazon region. Braving malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis and the violence of their competitors, they have helped to make Brazil one of the largest gold-producing countries in the world.
After a four-day visit that included a number of side trips into the rain forest, I flew 550 miles across the green canopy of the rain forest to Manaus, which became a city in 1856 and over the centuries has developed into the trade center for most of the Amazon region. Today it is the capital of the state of Amazonas, and a duty-free port with bargains in imported merchandise sold in shops and market stalls. Its legendary and incongruous opera house, which has become a mandatory tourist stop, speaks of former glories. So do palatial homes built by rich merchants during a 30-year rubber boom, which ended in 1920. In the evening I walked down lively tree-lined streets where cars are prohibited and pedestrians jostled each other, shopped or sat on benches watching the world go by.
A day-long trip by boat up the river and then by canoe up a creek provided another glimpse of the jungle: giant trees towering above a second canopy of lower trees, and underneath that a third layer of vegetation -- an impenetrable undergrowth existing only wherever light touched the banks. Flocks of yellow butterflies rose, and every once in a while enormous blue iridescent butterflies fluttered out of the forest across the water.
"Don't stay in the middle of the old town, you won't be able to walk around at night," advised the man in the airport information booth in Salvador -- or Bahia, as it is commonly called. I had arrived there after quick visits to Bele'm, a port city with a lively municipal market, and Sa o Lui's, famous for its colonial houses decorated with Portuguese tiles and wrought-iron balustrades. I was disappointed because I had wanted to be near the famous baroque houses, convents, churches and cobblestone squares, but I didn't want to risk ignoring the official's advice.
Instead I took a bus to the suburb of Barra and stayed in a hotel that overlooked the Bay of All Saints. At night, I walked and walked without fear of being robbed on the sidewalk skirting the beach. (Officials have cautioned visitors to Brazil not to leave personal possessions unattended while at beaches, and to avoid wearing expensive jewelry that might attract attention and guard their pocketbooks when walking in the streets.)
Just before the beach curved and the bay and ocean waters met, I passed a statue of Stefan Zweig, his sculptured head mounted on a plinth that bore his name and the dates 1881-1942. Who in Bahia, I wondered, would remember this Jewish writer who had fled to South America from Hitler and his native Austria and ended up committing suicide in despair?
But then Brazilians have a strong literary tradition. Bookstores are everywhere, and they are filled with books not only by Brazilian but by foreign writers. And the city of Bahia has, of course, been made famous by its own writer, Jorge Amado. At any moment I expected the naked ghost of Don a Flor's dead lover to come skipping down the street. In his novels Amado caught the spirit of this city -- part African, part Portuguese -- discernible in its dances, its food and especially its religion: Christian saints are integrated with African gods, Catholic beliefs blended with voodoo practices.
Bahia is on two levels. Below is the cidade baixa, the "low city" with the port, the morcado modelo where handicrafts are sold and open foodstalls where women offer spicy fish stews cooked with dende (palm) oil. The Elevador Lacerda, 210 feet high, lifts you in seconds to the cidade alta, the "high city" -- right into the old town and the 18th century. I walked enchanted to the Largo do Pelourinho, a cobblestoned triangle of a square where slaves used to be pilloried.
Amado calls the Pelourinho "Bahia's heart and soul where music and dance were born." Indeed, as I approached I heard samba music and then saw Bahianas in their ample skirts and head scarves dance in a circle. Sambas alternated with capoeira, a form of foot fighting brought by slaves from Africa.Young men leapt into the middle of the circle, challenging each other, advancing, retreating, kicking out with their feet, avoiding the kicks by deftly rolling away -- half-dancing, half-fighting.
Another flick of the Varig airpass and I was sitting 1,400 miles away in Foz do Iguacu -- cradled between Paraguay and Argentina in southern Brazil -- at the side of a swimming pool.
I had come to see the famous Iguacu Falls -- grander, I had been told, than either Niagara or Victoria Falls. Spurning an organized tour, I took the local bus and then walked alone along a path through rich virgin forest. I heard the thunderous roar of the water and saw a cloud of rainbow-colored mist 100 feet high before actually seeing the multiple falls themselves. In an arc nearly 2 1/2 miles wide, water cascaded in giant steps over a 210-foot precipice into a canyon. There are dozens of cataracts because of the uneven lip of the precipice, and the falls extend across the border into Argentina.
From Iguacu I flew to Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul. My three weeks' flying time -- the maximum allotted by my pass -- were up, so I switched to bus travel, going north in slow stages, from Floriano'polis, a lovely island city off the east coast, famous for its university and its giant hanging bridge connected to the mainland, to Joinvile and Blumenau, two 19th-century German towns with streets lined by half-timbered houses, then to Curitiba, a modern pleasant city in the state of Parana.
From the bus windows I noticed how few private cars travel between cities and how rare service stations are. Enormous trucks lumber along, one behind the other, so traffic moves slowly.
I ended my Brazil trip in bewitching Rio. Squeezed into a narrow plain between the ocean and the mountains, the vibrant city beckons enticingly from its incomparable setting. Out of this plain rise single, strangely formed morros, huge granite peaks, like the 1,279-foot Sugar Loaf or the 2,300-foot Corcovado topped by the famous statue of Christ.
The Cariocas, as the inhabitants are called, seem to have a special need for living. All year round they relish their fabulous beaches (though some of them have suffered from pollution). People in bathing suits, dodging traffic on busy thoroughfares while going to or coming from the ocean, certainly lend the city a special cachet.
But Rio is also an important city of industries, commerce and universities -- and poverty. At least one-third of the inhabitants live in favelas without running water or sewage systems. But even favelas are better in Rio than elsewhere. Many of them cling to steep mountain slopes commanding spectacular views.
I said goodbye to Brazil regretfully at Rio's Galeao Airport. My last impression was of armies of silent women pushing wide mops in slow motion, beginning all over again as soon as they had finished their section of the waiting lounge.