Curitiba, Brazil

Curitiba seems to be the envy of Brazilians from other cities. Every person who I told that I would be flying to Curitiba would nod in approval and offer some sort of compliment about the place. It’s not hard to understand why: the city’s full of green spaces, it’s not sweltering hot in the summer like the north (every day of this trip has been above 30°C, with a couple days above 40°C), it’s relatively safer with a lower crime rate, and it’s got world-famous urban planning and public transportation.

It’s definitely a great place to live. For a tourist, it’s a pleasant short stop, usually on the way to somewhere else. But for me… this is an intentional stop. Sure, I’m going somewhere else to end my trip, but I’m in no rush: I’m here to visit my dear friend Mabi, a Curitiba native who now also lives in Vancouver, but is in town to visit her family after a two-year gap, while also searching for a wedding venue.

It’s always great to see a familiar face while on a trip, and while catching up and hanging out was the focus, Mabi and her family gave me a whirlwind tour of Curitiba. Just off of Praça Tiradentes and the city’s main cathedral, surrounded with tile art by native son Poty Lazzarotto, the lovely colonial-style Largo da Ordem and its surrounding streets turns into a massive feirinha (now that’s an oxymoron) on Sundays, full of artisans, handicrafts, musicians, and a ton of food. Can’t forget to grab a palm-heart pastel!

Those famed green spaces are an understatement — giant parks are scattered around the city, including the Jardim Botânico, laid out like some royal European palace grounds with a beautiful greenhouse (currently under renovation) as the centerpiece. Parque Tanguá, on the opposite end of town, features similarly European-like fountains overlooking a panoramic view. Both have their share of flowers, but it’s really the unique pinheiro, the critically-endangered but aptly-nicknamed “candleabra” tree endemic to southern Brazil, that steals my attention. Its seeds (pinhão) are harvested and eaten as snacks, but only in winter – too bad for me!

There’s also the Passeio Publico, the city park smack in the middle of downtown with its own aviary and aquarium. which I visited with Mabi’s sister, Amanda. And near the outskirts of the city, the famed Opera de Arame, an elegant auditorium stage built of wire in just 74 days, is surrounded by its own green space, a quarry that probably makes for some interesting acoustics.

The most eye-catching place (pun very much intended) in the city is the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, designed by and dedicated to the famous Brazilian architect, and shaped like an eye on a tower. Just the lower floor showcases his work — grand modernist buildings around the world as well as basically the entire city of Brasília, with an emphasis on clean facades, simple but striking structural elements, and curves. The rest of the museum showcases temporary exhibits of modern art from around the world — the usual mix of engrossing and baffling.

When on my own, I took Curitiba’s pioneering bus rapid transit (BRT) system around — purportedly the first in the world, and still a model of efficiency if a bit overcrowded at times. A system of station-like tubes, custom buses that board from tube or from ground, pre-boarding fare collection, clear route maps, dedicated bus lanes, and easy transfers, it’s a far cry from any other Brazilian city, let alone most cities in the world. I’m a transit geek. This feels like a subway, complete with overlapping express and local “tracks” that remind me of the NYC subway, and despite its implementation in 1974, still puts other BRT systems around the world to shame. (I’m looking at you, Vancouver B-Line. And Surrey’s very misguided, now-shelved LRT idea could easily have been a much more economical Curitiba-like BRT system instead, but noooo…)

Of course, I wasn’t on my own most of the time. And while Curitiba’s enjoyable, what was most memorable was my time with Mabi’s family, who of course wanted to make the most of her time at home, while inviting me along. I felt overwhelmed by their welcome (and the sheer amount of people), and really appreciated a slice of regular life in Brazil, albeit in fast-forward: nights out for drinks and/or samba, giant family gatherings at her father’s place for feijoada (one of Brazil’s national dishes, a bean and beef/pork stew) or even just a snack, simple afternoons at home with the visitors of the day, Brazilian breakfast (more of that pão de queijo please!), Brazilian pizza (overloaded, served with condiments), Brazilian sushi (often cheesy, fruity, deep-fried, or all three), Brazilian rösti (giant, thick, and stuffed with cheeses and meats), Brazilian churrasco (all you can eat, servers arriving at your table every five seconds with a different cut of meat)…

Through all that, from Mabi’s enormous extended family, there were at least some thirty people to talk to: about Mabi (and how awesome she is as a person!), friendship, about myself, my background, being Chinese, being Canadian, interests, Brazil as a foreigner, and then all my own questions about the country or things I didn’t know. And of course, there’s seeing her family relationships and friendships play out, how the whole long distance family thing is going, how deeply they influence her as a person, and the culture that brought her up — how all of that plays into the friend I got to know in Canada.

While Mabi and I communicate in English, virtually every interaction I had with other people was in Portuguese. This was the most tiring part of my entire trip: well-rested and well-fed as I was, having to function 24/7 in a new language and attempt deep conversation was mentally draining. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But one particular question I had to answer in Portuguese became second-nature for me to respond to, after coming up in conversation multiple times with her friends and family. Given that I started at the far north of the country and have hopped around more than most people, what’s my favourite place in Brazil?

Well, how do I compare, in such a large country? Every place is different. I also haven’t even reached my final stop yet.

The food is different — different fruits in every region, different signature dishes. Food is spicy in the northeast and hearty in the south.

The accents are different. Paraná is known for its hard “r” sounds, its sprinkling of portuñol, and the hilarious overuse of the word “capaz” to mean “okay”. Bahians speak up and down melodically and slowly, like singing a song. Cariocas dominate the media with the aspirated “r”, soft “d/t” sounds, and turning every “s” into a “sh”. And way up in Oiapoque, you’ve got people mixing in a bit of French.

My goals in each place were different. Macapá was admittedly a transit point. Across Bahia, I wanted to see Afro-Brazilian culture, hit the beach, and go hiking. In Rio, I wanted to hit the famous sites. In Curitiba, I’m visiting a friend. How are any of those situations comparable?

And of course, the people are different. From flowery pillows written in Ukrainian at the feirinha to the mosque in the centre of town to the various signs for German, Polish, and Italian businesses I recall driving past, and all the vaguely Eastern European faces, it’s immediately clear that Curitiba has a distinctly different history of immigration. There’s even a Japanese plaza, and for some reason a statue of Confucius.

I’ve liked everything I’ve seen in Brazil for its own merits. All of it is still Brazil though! Same flag, same language, same currency. Same love of samba, even in places with its own regional music. Same habits of lunching at the pay-by-kilo restaurants, of snacking away the afternoons at padarias. Same love of caipirinhas. But most of all, no matter the people, the emotions are dialed up to 11: the high energy never dips, the spirited warmth and openness is infectious, and, oh, the saudades — the longing for everything to appreciate in the country they call home, for the company you’re with even if they’re still right there in front of you, and for every memorable moment not to end.

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