The Amazonian basin is nearly twice the size of India -- can you handle this factoid? (Representational Image)
I am feeling like Vasco da Gama in a saree after discovering a new world: South America. I am "Brazil-Argentina" returned, and not sure whether to keep dancing the samba or break into a tango. The jet lag lasts a week or more, given the vast distance between Mumbai and Rio (13,414 km), to say nothing of the Southern Hemisphere syndrome and its effects, real or imaginary, on sleep patterns. To admit this long and arduous trip has been an overwhelming experience, physically and mentally, is to underplay its impact. One can read detailed and brilliantly written travel guides, watch dozens of National Geographic documentaries and talk to erudite, seasoned, polished diplomats from both countries (Joao de Mendonca Lima Neto, Brazil’s consul-general in Mumbai, and Guillermo E. Devoto, Argentina’s consul-general), but nothing prepares you for the real thing.
Frankly, Indians have far more in common with Latin America than the United States -- the neo-colonisers of the twenty-first century. Our shared love for heritage and history should make South America a magnet for intrepid travelers. But we didn’t encounter any Indians, not even at Brazil’s best-known tourist site (Corcovado Mountain), where the imposing, magnificent 125-ft Art Deco statue of Christ the Redeemer faces the Atlantic Ocean with 92-ft arms spread, and welcomes visitors to Brazil’s shores. But it’s the bikinis and beaches, the caipiranhas (Brazil’s national drink) and the Carnival that dominate our imagination of this, South America’s largest country and the world’s fifth largest.
Rio’s Carnival, often described as "the biggest street party in the world’’, is just that and much more, as we experienced at Sambadrome, where a crowd of 200,000-plus revellers enjoyed the spectacle without a single glitch or mishap to mar the mega celebrations.
The Amazonian rain forest deserves at least a month for a truly immersive experience -- we could only spare a few days in the dramatic submerged forests, teeming with exotic species of trees, birds, reptiles -- home to the anaconda! The Amazonian basin is nearly twice the size of India -- can you handle this factoid?
Aaaah… the Girl from Ipanema is not just a song-writer’s fantasy. There are hundreds of "tall and tanned and young and lovely’’ women strolling along the bustling, beautiful city of Rio clad in nothing more formal than skimpy bikinis (our Urfi Javed looks overdressed in comparison), while casually strolling along the crescent shaped strip of Copacabana -- the most famous beach in the world. But wait, they don’t change into street wear at all -- there they are, these gorgeous Beyonce/JLo/Shakira clones in fluorescent lame thong-bikinis languorously buying groceries in a busy supermarket, gliding through hotel lobbies, sipping cocktails at trendy bars -- nobody ogles, nobody is surprised. Lazing on deck chairs all day long, Copacabana sees local grandmothers in tiny bikinis playing with grandkids, while young, fit adults indulge in vigorous beach volleyball games. I asked a local: "When do people go to work?" He grinned: "In Rio -- rarely! But Sao Paolo is different." My one major grouse? No desi chai available anywhere in Brazil. Worse, nobody speaks English. Portuguese only.
Our external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has pitched India as an important destination for Brazilian investment. As of 2022, India had $6 billion investments in Brazil, while Brazil’s investments in India is around $1 billion. But given the presence of several Indian biggies already there (Wipro, Sterlite, United Phosphorus, Tata Motors, Infosys, Sun Pharma, to name a few), it certainly looks like this is the beginning of a beautiful affair. If only Brazil would introduce chai and tasty khaana! Our chaiwallahs are the best in the universe, as our PM Narendra Modi will readily endorse. Vegetarian options? What’s that? I am sure Gautam Adani will do something about this soonest… a li’l birdie tells me Adani likes Brazil. A lot. Samba-Garba time! Dhokla is the new empanada.
Aaaah… Argentina! Brazil’s Spanish-speaking cousin, and so entirely different in character! The two share more than just a border -- they also share the awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls, which span the Iguazu River. We enjoyed the falls from both countries. Interestingly, when I saw a serpentine line of cars from Brazil at the Argentine checkpoint, I wondered why the neighbors were rushing over on a particularly hot weekend. "To buy alcohol, petrol and groceries," our chatty Argentine driver said with a wink. Everything (almost) is a hefty 50 per cent cheaper, given the exchange rate. What’s more, brisk business is transacted with the "blue dollar" (black money, to us). It’s a huge parallel economy that’s gone half-legit. Parillas (grills) dominate local cuisine since carnivorous Argentina has the second highest consumption of beef in the world, after its neighbor Uruguay. The average citizen consumes 57 kg of beef a year -- most of it grilled, without marination, with a dash of salt, and chimichurri (green chutney) on the side. I’m sure chimichurri goes great with dhokla. Vegetarians, kindly take your own theplas, since all you can expect to find in eateries is potatoes and basic "kachumber".
Messi and Mate are worshipped by fans. Neighbourhood "futbol" and tango clubs (milongas) are recreational passions that see enthusiasts flocking to watch their favourites. Despite memories of the "Dirty War" during the 1970s and 1980s, and periods of political instability, military coups and dictatorships, the three million people of Buenos Aires ("Paris of South America") are relaxed and chilled-out, elegant and formal. The Spanish word "tango" means to touch and feel -- the poetry and intimacy of the dance is best expressed by an Argentine poet who wrote: "You don’t dance the tango, you live it!’’ It was singer-actor Carlos Gardel who took the tango to the world, while composer/lyricist Enrique Santos Discepolo, friend of discredited Argentine first lady Eva Peron (Evita), described the tango as "a sad thought that dances…". Women are well represented in business and politics, which is evident in everyday interactions.
Argentina used to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in the early 20th century. Just like India. With a population of just 47.3 million, rich in minerals, silver, gold, the potential to develop trade and boost bilateral relations is emphatically great! India exported refined petroleum worth $161 million, with total exports of $2.53 billion (2020). Gautam Adani is set to build three giga factories as part of a $70 billion green investment. Time for vegetarian, limbo-paani Asados in Argentina. And yes… I was delighted to see a gigantic ("Hamara") Bajaj showroom in Buenos Aires. They say it takes two to tango. Come on India-Argentina… let the jugalbandi begin!