BELO HORIZONTE Minas Gerais (MG)

'Beautiful Horizon' in English, this city is situated in the state of Minas Gerais, or 'General Mines.' I came with my brother to Belo Horizonte to visit a friend, and found the city exemplary of Brazil's connectedness with nature. Monkeys are frequently found running along the power lines, and a wide variety of birds are available at the central market.

At the zoo, my friend feeds his Easter chocolate to a monkey, who seems to enjoy it; I point out a sign which says "please do not feed the animals." He explains that the sign is referring to the zoo animals, and not the monkeys which are just regular citizens of the city.

Also exemplary of Brazil is the hospitality of our hosts. We were given our own room, our own beds, fed morning, noon, and night; taken to the bakery and grocery store to pick out foods that are to our liking. We were introduced to a belly dancer who insisted that we see her python and even went to see her show later that evening.

CURITIBA Paraná (PR)

Curitiba is the capital city of the state of Paraná in southern Brazil. It is known for its pinheiros, tall pine trees which dot the landscape with wide-spreading branches, giving them the nickname 'candelabra pine.' Unlike Rio, which is often cramped for space, it has large urban parks and plazas. Of particular interest is architect Oscar Niemeyer's Museu da Olho.

In Curitiba, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of Brazilian college students who very quickly became my friends and tour guides. After my first few days of navigating the city alone, I received e-mails asking me to meet them for lunch, come to their parents' houses for dinner. In two weeks, I was taken out dancing no less than five times, to small, smokey underground clubs packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

I arrived a stranger, but by the time I left was thrown a going away party (despidida), driven to the airport by a small committee, and taken all the way to my gate. They even waited in the airport to watch my plane leave. This is typical of Brazil: visit one friend and you'll have three by the time you leave.

RIO DE JANEIRO Rio de Janeiro (RJ)

'River of January' in English, Rio is a city of beaches, mountains, rain forests, and clouds. Nestled in the mountains which jut up along the coast are large favelas, or slums. At night time, the small light bulbs which favela residents have strung up along their streets shine like thousands of small candles. The favelas are strangely beautiful, and dangerous.

The beaches inform the attitudes of Cariocas (residents of Rio), and the atmosphere is defined by taking your time, eating well, and being prepared to meet friends at the beach, or at a bar. For some variety, I stepped into the Cemitério São João Batista and found many beautiful statues; a rare place of quiet in an otherwise loud city.

I had the pleasure of staying in a neighborhood called Urca, which is a time capsule of 1920s Rio. Carmen Miranda lived in this neighborhood, and you can find the Casino da Urca where she was discovered by a Hollywood producer in 1938, launching her US career. It is called the Cidade Maravilhosa, and not without cause: it the most beautiful I have ever seen.

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