BY: SINEAD MULHERN
The bartender pops the cap off a Heineken and sets it down in front of me. The green bottles behind him sit like a row of bowling pins each with a different city printed on its label. New York, London, Berlin, and there’s Rio de Janeiro. When I mentioned my upcoming travels to Brazil, almost everyone assumed I was going to Rio but this hotspot will have to wait for another time.
“So what’s a Canadian journalist doing in Recife on vacation?” asks the man I’ve been chatting with. I tell him that I’m visiting my friend Mirella, her mother, and her sister, Marcela, who are giving me a taste of Brazilian culture. In my eyes, their hospitality is better than any resort.
Recife is a city on the northeast coast of Brazil that was named after the dried reefs (recife in Portuguese) visible from its beaches. The city saw plenty of tourists for the world cup, but in September; that’s long finished and with my red-blonde hair, I stand out. After walking with Mirella’s mother on my first day, Marcela was sent a photo of me. “Who’s the gringo?” read the attached message.
I met Mirella two years ago in Toronto. I promised I’d come visit her in Brazil – eventually. I starting looking into travelling at the end of a busy summer and was drawn to South America. My feelings towards group trips were mixed. Wine tasting? Cool. Mountain biking? Awesome. Salsa lessons? Nah. Salsa dancing in a bar in front of locals? Humiliating. Plus, I needed time to myself. Mirella’s home in Recife where I could catch up with her and fall in with their pace seemed the best option.
I’m not the only one who craves the local experience. For many travellers, becoming immersed in the local scene provides a more authentic and less superficial way of exploring the world. By staying with locals, you will learn new things about the culture you’re getting acquainted with and this will be the genuine version, not the culturally-appropriated or misinformed interpretation that is too often the issue with token tourist attractions.
In 2007, Tripbod.com started as a way to connect tourists with city-dwellers knowledgeable of hidden gems. Tripbod.com now boasts that they can advise tourists on the best spots to visit. Their advice comes from local experts who will “help you get straight to the best bits and feel more like a local, less like a tourist.” In 2008, a year after Tripbod was started, Airbnb launched. Search your destination on this site and you’ll be able to find someone to stay with. Try dropping “bed and breakfast” into a conversation now without hearing mention of Airbnb – it’s grown massively and has now spread to 34,000 cities worldwide making staying with locals more accessible. The popularity of sites like these that cater to tourists looking for off-the-beaten-path adventures only goes to show the demand for local tourism. Tripbod’s slogan, “Feel like a local anywhere in the world”, might as well be the motto for the local tourism movement.
“It’s not just tourist stuff that you’re doing,” Marcela told me one evening. I had just agreed to meet a running club at 5:30 a.m. the next day. “You’re doing what we actually do.”
When I woke up the next morning, I looked out the window at indigo clouds, the normally traffic-jammed city calmer than I would ever see it. “He says you get to do mountain running today,” Mirella’s mother, Rossana, told me after speaking with the coach. I remember thinking “Oh shit.” I didn’t know that this Brazilian running group would take me on one of the coolest runs in my fourteen-year running career.
We took off through the empty streets, past shops and businesses. When we reached a farmer’s market, we veered right and began to climb. From Mirella’s high-rise apartment, I had seen a smattering of brightly coloured homes adding colour to the foothills. Now I was in the midst of them passing stray dogs as we went. I passed the homes around me amazed by the oranges, yellows and reds that made up this neighbourhood. We neared the top, and off to my right was a view looking down on Recife. Waking up early was worth it just for that view. “You went running in a favela,” Mirella later told me. I had heard of the favelas (slums) and seen a few rough looking ones. “Maybe it was just a poor neighbourhood,” Mirella said. Either way, it was clear I wouldn’t have found that route alone and I seriously doubt it’s ever been on any travel group itinerary.
We were on a road trip to Pipa, a beach spot four hours north of Recife and after driving an hour in the wrong direction—or “the scenic route” as Mirella called it—we arrived at midnight to meet Tabatha, their friend from a nearby province. We had the kind of fun you shouldn’t try to plan. “Who brought the cups?” Tabatha said holding a bottle of vodka. No one did. “I guess we’re doing shots out of mugs then,” she said. The girls taught me to flirt (poorly) in Portuguese and then we hit the bars. I managed to put my bar-tending knowledge to use and Mirella, being one of the most social people I’ve ever met, made friends all night. We stayed up until dawn and went wading in the ocean. The next day, Luana drove us to all of Pipa’s most beautiful lookouts. Later, I ate some of the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted and drank purple vodka (I’ll admit a resort’s beverage selection would have trumped us here, but the killer game of king’s cup that ensued made the grape slush worthwhile).
Back in Recife I settled in to a leisurely breakfast. It wouldn’t have been a Brazilian vacation without the food. Like every other morning, I was drinking fresh-squeezed pineapple juice. Lunch was the main meal and while I was there, I ate traditional Brazilian cuisine cooked by Mirella’s grandmother. I stuffed myself with black beans, brown beans, beans with pumpkin, creamed chicken with raisins, mashed root vegetable, corn cake, quail eggs, shrimp, about twelve types of steak, and my favourite, coxinha – deep fried chicken balls. It felt amazing to be in South America for the first time and feel so at home with someone else’s family – an experience you can’t get from an all-inclusive. Mirella and Marcela have done their fair share of travel. Both have been to Europe and the States. Mirella has spent time in Canada, Cuba and Argentina too. “Your children aren’t your own children,” Rossana once told me. “They are children of the world.” It made sense. Here in Brazil, Rossana was taking over for my own mom, reminding me to wear a hat and sunscreen, showing me around and buying my favourite fruits.
On a rainy day, I sat drinking coffee. Mirella’s stepfather, Luis, joined me. Soon we were deep in conversation about the upcoming election as well as the corruption in Brazil. As I sat there, Luis, a politically-savvy ex-military man, told me of an oil refinery that was to be built and how despite millions of taxpayer dollars being funnelled into this project, they have seen nothing. He told me about a government that benefits from the money—living in their mansions and driving high-end cars—while the poor in the favelas stay dependent on grants and never rise out of poverty. He talked about the journalists who are paid off by the government to tell a different story and the ones who were killed after refusing. He said nobody running in the election would make any of this better. Through a cab window on a later day, I saw posters of politicians faces plastered on slum walls. How mounting your face on the homes of Brazil’s most suffering could ever win votes was beyond me.
The driver pointed out a mall on the outskirts of the favela in case I felt like shopping. Malls are built beside favelas because it’s the easiest way to get land – they just push the poor people out Mirella told me. These were all ugly sides of Brazil but you shouldn’t get to pick and choose just the pleasant parts of any place. This country with its beautiful beaches, friendly people and rich culture is not without struggle, and as a visitor, I was glad to be told about this.
Marcela and I finished another lap of Parque da Jaqueira, a gorgeous park with mature vine-covered trees, tropical plants, and a one-kilometre trail weaving through it. “If you write about Brazil, what will you write?” Marcela asked. “I don’t know,” I said. A few evenings later, I looked out my airplane window at clouds that looked like smashed blueberries. I felt sad to be leaving such a lively country but satisfied to have seen Brazil unedited—and knew that if I wrote about Brazil, I would leave that unedited, too.