South American Trilogy: Part 1
Updated: Feb 12
By Paul Mitchnick:
The invitation had come sometime in dark November. Michaelin and I were being invited to a wedding celebration in Chile—far away from Toronto, that’s for sure.
My second-cousin Karin’s son Alexi was marrying Karla. Growing up, Alexi spent six months in Canada and six months in Chile. Alexi and Karla had been boyfriend and girlfriend since the tenth grade. Earlier in the year, they had married in Toronto, but this was to be Karla’s family’s celebration in Valparaíso.
The wedding was to be held February 28th at a vineyard outside Valparaíso. We had never been to South America before; we just never had a reason until now. It would be summer there and definitely winter here. Perfect timing.
So South America . . . if not now, when?
We decided to make a six-week adventure, eventually landing in Valparaíso in time to meet other family members from Canada and enjoy the wedding.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, would be a must see. We could have an Airbnb apartment with a balcony in San Telmo, the older part of downtown Buenos Aires within walking distance of lots to see. We like to eat, so walking tends to mitigate some of those unintended consequences.
Michaelin found a dude ranch north of Buenos Aires. My aunt and uncle had a cattle farm, and there would often be a saddled pony when we visited as kids. I have been hooked since. Michaelin is adventurous and willing to try.
In Valparaíso, my cousin Karin had made arrangements at a nice hotel for her family and some other out-of-towners, eazy-peazy.
Each country required a different visa and a different fee and a different visit to a different embassy headquarters in Toronto. No country required special vaccinations. Neither Michaelin nor I have ever spent time in prison, so we anticipated no problems, and there were none.
Swimming is fun for us. Being in the water has always been an important part of my life. In my early days, my mother would drag me for weekly swimming lessons at the Hamilton YMCA. The brown and yellow–glazed bricks made it noisy, and the over-chlorinated water made it smell. A bunch of nine-year-old boys swimming naked in the pool. Why naked, I have no idea. Didn’t bother me much swimming with other boys, but all the mothers watching me naked made me uncomfortable. Being chubby, I was self-conscious enough, adding naked didn’t help. To this day, I never swim naked no matter what the circumstances. I did, however, learn to love the water.
So swimming often dictates where we go. For our South American adventure, my job was to find a great beach. Best Beaches in South America. Click. Most beaches were judged on their surf potential—not so good for swimming. The next search was for Best Snorkeling Beaches in South America. Click. Two of the top beaches were on the island of Fernando de Noronha off the northeast coast of Brazil.
There is no trip anywhere, anyhow, anytime without a camera. I am not so whole without one. A Voigtländer Bessa III folds up quite small. It is a modern remake of a folding medium-format bellows film camera from the forties. One lens, built-in light meter, the case is part of the body. Perfect. And, of course, the ubiquitous iPhone.
Traveling with film internationally requires special handling. Refrigeration is always important. Hotel room fridges, hotel kitchen fridges, friends’ fridges. Stopping customs officials throwing the film through the x-ray machines is always a challenge. I beg. I charm. I cajole. I tell overly polite jokes so it gets hand-checked at airports. Usually with resounding success.
But however charming I might think I am in English, it is not the case in any other language. Twelve flights through five countries would be certain disaster. Why film and not digital? Well, I still believe it looks richer and more organic; this from a guy who listens to a vacuum-tube stereo.
Something written on hastily put together letterhead in Portuguese, Spanish, and English ought to help—a formal letter giving a brief accounting of me: who I am, what I do, and a link to my website. It also stated how important taking photos has been all my life. The travel agent translated the Spanish, and Janet at my dentist’s office had her husband translate the Portuguese. There were lots of copies.
We flew from Toronto to Miami, had a brief layover, and then off to Recife in Brazil. It’s on the northeast coast and the closest jump off to Fernando de Noronha. Michaelin had booked a few days in the nearby colonial city of Olinda before heading off to our island paradise.
Founded in 1535 by the Portuguese, Olinda is built on steep hillsides. Lots of 18th-century architecture, baroque churches, convents, and monasteries, it’s now an artist’s colony with galleries, workshops, museums, and the whole historical center is designated as an UNESCO world heritage site.
The Monastery of St. Benedict was rebuilt in 1660 after a town fire, and there are three other churches of almost the same vintage. It is one thing to stumble across old churches in Europe, but this was very, very nowhere in the 17th century. All the craftsmen, designers, materials had to come from Portugal. So imagine you are sitting at home in Portugal having dinner with your wife and kids and find out that your next gig as a church painter, builder, designer, or marble worker is half-way around the world . . . for probably the next 5 years of your life.
We arrived at the Pousada dos Quatro Cantos ("Inn of the Four Corners"), a restored 18th-century mansion with great verandas and colourful open spaces. Decorated with local arts, it felt quite homey. Our small, breezeless room was not mentioned on their website and was probably originally servants' quarters. The hallway was wide enough for a person but not wide enough for a person with a suitcase. It was slapstick getting to our room.
Parking Brake & Pousada - Photos: Paul Mitchnick
Olinda is old-world pretty, with countless pastel-coloured houses. I believe some are painted every few years for the tourists’ benefit. To our great joy we found graffiti—lots and lots of beautiful, exciting, visceral, hip graffiti that was social, that was political, that was creative, that was arresting. Everywhere: on city walls, abandoned buildings, not-so-abandoned buildings, old half-walls of sometime-to-be-demolished buildings, people’s homes . . . everywhere. And just when we came across something fabulous, ten minutes later we saw something even more so.
Apocalyptic & Mirror - Photos: Paul Mitchnick
A perpetual early riser, searching for new graffiti became my pre-breakfast ritual. The original site of Olinda was chosen for its natural harbour and the defense its hills provided. So I wandered up and down every hilly, cobblestone street of old town in search of new graffiti. It was quite exciting to see such open, public creativity. Whatever discovered that morning was shared in the afternoon with Michaelin. And I got to visit them twice.
One artist in particular drew my attention. Graffiti of grace, elegance, power, and humanity. His work was on walls, on gates of boarded-up buildings, on houses that were being torn down, and on the side of hills. His signature is "Enivo," and his name is Marcus Vinicius. It would have been great to take some of his work home with me; however, getting the side of a wall into my suitcase wasn’t going to happen.
We had been very seriously advised to stay in the old town, as there were lots of security cameras and more police to look after the tourists, so we mostly hung out in the neighbourhood near our hotel. But one day, we went for a walk along the beach harbour. It was hot, and we wanted to swim. Something about vicious bull sharks kept us from pursuing that notion further.
We walked as far as the town square that divided old town from the somewhat darker energy of everyday Olinda. It was the only time we encountered a hustle. Nothing came of it, but a guy spent twice too long following us, trying to chat us up, and wouldn’t leave . . . easily. We had ventured outside the walls of the old town and were a certain kind of prey for a certain kind of shark. And later, when we ran into him outside a church, it was as if we were his long-lost cousins.
Olinda is full of galleries. Michaelin and I are usually very careful about buying. We wait until we find something we really love. However, here, we walked into a gallery, met the artist, and looked at his work. Didn’t buy anything, but we were thinking about it. Later that evening, he spotted us in a restaurant, sat down, and continued chatting . . . and chatting. He made us watch a YouTube interview of him from Miami. It ate up all the data on my phone. We went to his studio, and that evening we walked out with a print (a big smile on his face), something we carried home, framed, and hung for a while; now it sits alone and unloved.
We arrived in Olinda ten days before Carnival. Everyone knows about Carnival in Rio, but Olinda’s is free and unfenced. A real street party. It is big on life-sized masks, music, and local dance troupes. Everyone participates. Papier-mâché masks and papier-mâché human forms. On display. For rent. To purchase. You could walk around with a seven-foot face. Great fun.
Evenings in town were full of pre-Carnival music and dance rehearsals. If you are rehearsing at night, your kids and partners watch. The streets were full of musicians, dancers, families, and children. Everyone. Practicing, watching, hanging out. Real joyous life.
Three busy days later, we boarded our flight to Fernando de Noronha. The flight is a 350-km hop on a jet, and it was the most expensive of all our flights. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its abundant marine life, Fernando de Noronha was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. An archipelago consisting of a number of small volcanic islands, only one is inhabited, measuring 10 km long by 3.5 km wide. In the 1700s, it became a penal colony that stayed in operation until 1957. This tiny island also has a mini Sugar Loaf Mountain similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro. You could see it from almost everywhere, which, thankfully, kept me from getting lost.