Mountains of marmosets
Beautiful great fat, splatting drops of rain are drumming on the rooftop when we wake in the morning. Jamie and I cheer loudly. We have had enough of sunshine for a very, very long time. Suzie and David, who have only just escaped a woefully damp Great British springtime, are less impressed. They are heading to the Brazilian side of the falls today to drink in a little more of the atmosphere and visit the Hotel Cataratas, a beautiful, fondant pink confection that sits overlooking the water like a very expensive Mr Kipling French Fancy.
They zip themselves thoroughly in to waterproofs and slosh off, waving us goodbye. We are rather thrilled at the prospect of a whole day doing bugger all and set to reclining immediately. We read, we drink cold beer, we stare at the ceiling, we chat, we drink more beer. It’s wonderful. The rain never ceases and instead, increases it’s insistant thundering to torrential levels. I peer outside to see the owner of the apartmemt complex ferreting about in the garden with a broom. He wades through a pool of water outside our door and vanishes around the corner clutching a handful of plastic water bottles he has pulled from the drain. I grin at the beautiful, drippy loveliness of the outside and the rain ups it’s tempo once more. Jamie opens the front door to have a look and I join him in contemplation. It’s nothing like English rain, soft, drizzly, gurgling down the drain, on this continent the rain is big and fast and energetic. It turns the streets to rivers in minutes, it washes yesterday away and everything else with it. The water pooling swiftly outside our door is getting very deep all of a sudden. If it rises another centimetre or two, it’s going to start coming under the door.
No, that won’t happen.
I say, confidently.
There’s a drain there and he’s just cleared it.
I add, flick my eyes at the owner. Thirty seconds later, the water is creeping under the door, gathering strength as it rises and spilling outwards in three directions. One rivulet heads for Suzie and David’s room, one for the bathroom and one straight in to our room. We stuff rolled towels against the bottom of the door but these are drenched through within minutes and soon I am hurriedly putting everyone’s bags on the beds, tucking in trailing bedsheets and finally, running for a long handled squeedgee from the kitchen. We use the towels to channel the water towards the door as I sweep great, glugging rivers of it back out of the apartment but it is a losing battle and soon, we are stood three inches deep in rainwater, leaves swilling about in the shower and twigs settling between our toes.
It is not until the rain finally begins to ease, the owner has dashed about unclotting the drains of large, dead tropical leaves and we have frantically squeedgeed an ocean of water from the apartment that we finally see dry land again. The friendly wife of our anorakked, drain clearing host appears with new towels and a calm demeanour to dry up the floors and heave away the dripping, vegetation festooned old towels with a patience born of many years of working in hospitality. We have just sat back down to have a celebratory we-weren’t washed-away beer when Suzie and David bundle back in in shorts and t-shirts looking pleased and dry. The rain stopped, they warmed up, dried off and had a wonderful time. They look at us then around the apartment sceptically when we tell them of the flood, assuming we are exagerrating. We point excitedly at the door describing the surgin torrents, showing them where the lake formed in their bedroom, gesticulating wildly.
We nearly drowned!
Cries Suzie, ignoring my exaggerating and it is decided that we will partake of an Argentinian feast at the local parilla; a big meaty grill complete with tasty Argentinian wines and a personal waiting staff of three. The waiting staff don’t come as standard. It is a quiet Sunday and the world is still damp and drippy despite the receding rains. No one is out for a feast tonight and the restaurant is completely empty for the duration of our dinner. We order up a full parilla; a mix of juicy, smokey grilled meats with potatoes, frilly plates of salad, wonderful thick, green chimichurri sauce and two bottles of wine. The roof drips quietly in several darker corners of the building and the the lights suddenly blink out halfway through dinner.
Don’t be scared!
Shouts one of the waiters a little scarily and the lights come back up on our dinner and thus passes our final evening in Spanish speaking Latin America.
The following day we are heading back to Rio De Janeiro. We watch everybody else watch the Iguazu Falls recede far below us from the other side of the plane and soon we are touching down at the airport and heading to the famous Copacobana beach. Our new apartment, a ten minute walk from the sea, is large and comfortable and we spend far too much time there in part, escaping from the smothering heat and also because Suzie goes down with a stomach bug. She is the driving force that gets us up and out each day. She’s got no truck with sitting about wanly drinking cups of coffee and marches us from country to country seeing sights that Jamie and I, with our burgeoning travel fatigue might not have seen otherwise.
It is her who prises us from the apartment on our first day to ascend the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain. We take a long walk from the apartment down a long, winding road where the occasional, urban chicken wanders in the shrubbery beside us. Following a couple of tourists we eventually make it in to a blissfully cool shopping centre where we become disorientated and bang about on three floors for a while until finally we are spat out the other side back out in to the steamy heat. A man with a heap of coconuts stands besides a cart beneath the rather wonderfully named Cannonball Trees. Long and tall are these trees but sprouted all down the trunk with thick, green sprouts from which beautiful, fleshy red flowers bloom. They look like a cross between the Crown Jewels and something from The Little Shop Of Horrors. As I gaze up at the beautiful, fat, silky petals, one of the fruits catch my eye. A hard shelled Galia melon-like ball hangs amongst the tangle of branches resplendently. There are loads, my eye is drawn up the trunk alighting on one, two three, four more. I turn to the man with the coconuts to find out what this wonderous tree is called.
Abrico de Macaco!
He says, staring up in to the skeins of flowers. I point at a fruit and try some Espanoguese again, pointing to my mouth,
Can you eat them?
Laughing, he shakes his head, you can’t eat them. Fortunately though, he has a pile of coconuts and those are entirely for the eating. Through a series of gestures we manage to order two large cups of fresh coconut juice and watch, transfixed as he deftly thwacks a small hole from the shell with an axe and pours the liquid in to a funnel. The funnel leads to a coiled, metal tube which idles it’s way around a core of ice chunks and emerges at the bottom in a spout. The juice twizzles down through the tube and is icy cool by the time it is caught in the cup at the bottom. The coconut seller pops a straw in each cup and hands one to each couple and takes a small collection of change for his trouble.
The result is wonderful, cool and sweet with a low tang and distinct saltiness which keeps us bouncing through the streets under trees swaying with vines and tiny windfall figs popping beneath our feet, all the way to the Sugar Loaf cable car. The cable car is extremely humid, especially after our long walk and, though the short journey up the nearly vertical sides of the mountain is wonderful, I burst out the doors at the first stop on Morro De Urca, a smaller chunk of rock in front of Sugar Loaf, with relief.
There are people milling all over the place, queuing for icecream, slurping coffee and curiously, posing in front of a plastic backdrop printed with an image of Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Why do they want a picture in front of a picture of Sugar Loaf Mountain when we are in front of the real Sugar Loaf Mountain?
I ask Jamie who shrugs as we pass and frowns at the bizarre behavious of our fellow humans. We take the next cable car across a vertiginous gap between the two rocks and within few minutes we are atop the famous mountain itself. All of Rio De Janeiro spreads away underneath us. We are surrounded by hundreds of bays and inlets fringed in white sands. The landscape is lumpy bumpy, up and downy as far as you can see and not a scrap of it, except for the houses, is not swathed in ludicrously green vegetation. Far in the distance, back in the rolling hills of Santa Theresa we can make out Rio’s famous Cristo Redentor, the Christ The Redeemer statue gleaming white and arms outstretched embracing his beautiful, verdant city. Despite this wonderful view though, I am suffering in the suffocating heat and am forced to back away from the edge and retreat in to the shade of the overhanging trees. A steep pathway catches my eye and Jamie, Suzie and David spot me up just as I am about to sneak down it.
Within minutes we are totally alone amongst snaking paths beneath the shifting canopy of trees that carpets the entire city. We wander the paths, popping out of the vegetation occasionally to be met by another blazing view across the city or sea and soon find ourselves bumping into a knot of people stood on the path. Everyone is staring raptly in to the trees holding phones and cameras and an Irish man is holding out a twig on to which he has speared a chunk of apple.
We join the group and follow their gaze until our eyes alight on a group of miniscule monkeys who are chattering and leaping through the branches and grabbing at the apple. Marmosets are no bigger than 20 cm long with long, dextrous tails, extremely human hands and faces designed by Pixar. From each side of their tiny heads, a soft tuft of white fur springs out like pigtails and their intelligent eyes have us immediately transfixed. One makes for the apple, hefts it from the twig and immediately loses his grip and drops it. The gathered marmosets stare down at the forest floor but the apple is gone and they chatter in indignant disapproval. The Irishman tears another chunk of fruit, attaches it to the twig and slowly feeds it back out to the gathered monkeys. This time a baby appears, determined to have its share of the action. The baby is gemlike in its tiny perfection. Paler than the adults with a little ringed tale and big, liquid eyes gazing from a soft, impish face, he grabs at the apple, manages to scrabble in a small bite and the piece, once more, drops to the ground. He looks down twitchily then swiftly scales the tree to sulk at the top.
We stare and stare and stare at them, laughing at their victories, crestfallen at their losses. Eventually when I have had my fill I step back from the crowd to find David sitting on the wall a metre or so back from the path. I hop up and join him and look at the group with their backs to us. Everyone is clutching their cameras, snapping and snapping. Jamie and Suzie hold theirs high over others heads taking countless pictures and staring in to the trees. Aware that just moments ago, I was part of this slack jawed spectacle, a thought occurs to me,
Which ones are the monkeys?
I ask David and he laughs and we turn back to watch our respective partners watch the marmosets watching them.
We encounter many more of these dainty little creatures when we are heaved out to the botanical gardens once Suzie has got over her stomach bug. The gardens turn out to be wonderful; cool and lush, full of zigzagging, twisting, curling shadows and imperial avenues of trees. It is a relief to be here, away from the buzz of the city and I peacefully wander off down a path and in to the orchid house where the great petalled ornaments dance atop the sturdy plants. I am peering closely at a pale yellow bloom which sparkles almost impreceptibly when viewed up close when Jamie appears by my side. The chick-like colour and glittering texture holds my gaze a moment.
It’s like it’s been licked by the Easter Bunny….
Come and look at these.
I lead him over to the micro-orchids which are quite literally, microscopic orchids. They look just like full sized plants except crafted for a dolls house. The minute flowers, no bigger than a millimetre across clamber fraily up the gossamer stalks and I find I am looking so closely I almost have my nose in the plant.
Says a voice behind me and Suzie and David appear and take a myopic look over their glasses at the tiny flowers and uttering quiet coos of appreciation. We tour the orchids together oohing at the big ones and aahing at the dappled, open throated, beribboned smaller ones. Finally, we find ourselves orchid sated and wander out the doors and down a long path flanked with palms.
A movement from a nearby tree catches my eye and suddenly I see that I am being watched. A marmoset the size of a small banana scampers down a trunk and fidgets to get a better look at me. I call the others over and within minutes the four of us are standing by the tree delightedly watching a family of marmosets skittering up and down the length of the trunk looking back at us intently. It’s wonderful to have them all to ourselves this time and Jamie celebrates by taking several thousand photos of the chittering, quivering group. It takes much persuasion to get him to move on and I eventually confiscate the camera in order that we can take at least a few photos of things that aren’t monkeys.
And take them we do, Rio is an endlessly photographable city and we snap at everything. Copacobana Beach, though heaving with bronzed flesh during the day, becomes quite bearable at night and we stroll though the pale sand watching the shadows elongate and taking photographs that do the place no justice. Suzie gets in the water for a swim while we watch a couple dance gleefully to Samba music in their swimming costumes. The remaining crowds sip on caipirinhas that are toted about the beach on trays by beshorted vendors and all manner of body shapes, gorgeous in their brown skinned, rolling Brazilian way, tumble past. The sky turns pink and the air soft and we wander up off the beach searching for a bar with the sense of cheerful elasticity that fills your body after a long day in a hot city and the promise of a cold beer.
We find a pleasant, open sided, mildly divey bar in which we order up cheap plates of good, basic food and I chase a caipirinha down with a second caipirinha. The walk back to our apartment leads us through a rather brown shopping arcade with a distinct flavour of the Eastern Bloc. Here we find an extremely laid back supermarket where we overload on tropical fruit and cheap cachaça, a sugar cane based spirit with which we will lace our pineapple smooths very liberally back at the apartment whilst watching bad films on telly.
The arcade is full of antique shops both classy affairs and those more down at heel. We will frequent these many times during our time in Rio, given that it is only a few minutes walk from the apartment. We sort through old spoons, buying up rubberbanded bunches of them in the misguided hope that they are silver. Of course they are not, they are silver plated steel at best, bashed and battered by family history and now they sit in our cutlery drawer on the seventeenth floor in our flat in London. The pits and bends and and bashes in the knives never cease to please me now that I have polished them up. Each time I take one from the drawer I think of this arcade with a smile.
We rifle through antique brass door numbers searching for the correct numbers for Jamie’s brother’s front door and fail, we hold scratched up champagne glasses to the light, we peer at vases and silver cups and we come away with a small Portuguese metal chicken for Suzie who looks distinctly unimpressed when she is given it. Finally, when we have picked over every object in the arcade and been back to visit my favourite pink flamingo standard lamp a few more times, Suzie and David’s last day has approached. We pack up the bags which are now enormously heavy with all the stuff we have bought in the last few weeks and lug them out to the roadside and hail a cab. Jamie and I have booked a rather swishy but curiously cheap hotel for our last two nights and his parents are going to hang out with us for the day until it’s time for a night flight.
The taxi driver bundles us in to his tiny cab and ask for the address then types it carefully in to his sat nav and sets off. After twenty minutes he stops, winds down his window at a junction and shouts out to a passerby who cheerfully ambles over and pokes his head through the window.
He asks and the man confidently points him further up the road but the driver is puzzled for there is absolutely no sign of it on the sat nav at all.
He asks again and a man points him up the hill with a crunchy sounding set of directions and up and up we go. Finally, we are high above the city, lost in a beautiful, tumble down, leafy area of Santa Theresa where we arrive at a junction at which a defunct tram car painted yellow and stuffed full of crafts and junk stands by the road. There are handmade wooden trams also painted yellow all over the place and interesting things hung about, dangling in the breeze. The man attending the train ambles over at the driver’s call and listens at the window then points us up a road where finally, a street sign appears.
Shouts the driver and I peer at the sign as it goes past.
Oohhhh Rua Apravizel!
I cry apologetically. Not Aprazivel but Apravizel. I am suddenly reminded of the scene in Amelie where she discovers the man she is searching for is Bredotot not Bretodot and her search becomes suddenly much easier. I explain to the others in the back and we all laugh as we are unpacking our bags.
We say in unison. We still haven’t got the hang of Portuguese.
Quick Chimichurri Sauce
Slather it on your steak, your salad, your roast potatoes, your face.
One big bunch of parsley
One small bunch of thyme- destemmed
One small bunch of basil
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4 cloves of garlic
3-4 spring onions
1 red chilli
Red wine vinegar- or, failing that, any sweetish, fruity tasting vinegar
Roughly chop the parsley and put it in the blender with the thyme, basil, lemon juice, garlic and whole chilli (deseeded if you wish but why woud you wish this?). Chop the very bottoms from the spring onions and chop them in to 3-4 pieces. Put these in the blender too. Add a slug of vinegar and a biiiig slug of olive oil plus one level teaspoon of sugar and a good pinch of salt. Blend until you have a thick, green sauce. You might need to add more olive oil and vinegar but to thin it but taste it as you go and add in suitable quantitites according to your taste. Add more salt if you need it then slather it on everything in sight.