In late March of this year, I received a comment on this blog from Marissa Cortes, a young woman from New York who was traveling through Brazil for several months with her 10-month old daughter Lulu.
I was impressed by Marissa’s spirit of adventure (not to mention her guts) and eager to hear about her exploits. Although she kindly steered me to her blog, travelswithlulu.com – which was full of insightful observations and great photos – I also got Marissa to promise that, after it was all over, she would share some of her travel stories with readers of “Thrill of Brazil”.
In my experience, it’s rare that travel memoirs, guides, articles and/or blogs are told from the unique perspective of a single mother traveling solo with her baby. Last week, Marissa – who, having returned to New York with Lulu, was eager to revisit her Brazilian experiences with some hindsight – kindly agreed to my request by taking part in the following interview (Part I of which is posted below):
Marissa, what motivated you to come to Brazil in the first place?
“Ten years ago I started dreaming of one day taking a few months off of my life to travel through South America. Brazil in particular had always struck me as a passionate and soulful culture that I wanted to experience firsthand. After years of working corporate jobs in New York City, the opportunity to take this break finally came about, but it also happened to coincide with the first year of my first child’s life.
While I was contemplating traveling for an extended amount of time with my baby, my brother was also coincidentally posted to work in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, for 2 years. Although I did not know a soul in other parts of South America to which we traveled, at least there was the comfort of knowing there was someone in Brazil whom we could call should we need help. As a result, we spent 2 of our 4-month trip to South America in Brazil.
What were your initial misgivings/concerns (if any?) about traveling alone as a single mother with a baby in Brazil? How did the fact that you were traveling with Lulu affect the destinations you chose to visit?
“Before leaving the States, I was told by many people that Brazil, in general, was dangerous, and Rio de Janeiro was especially so. This was definitely a cause of concern. On the flip side, I had also heard that Brazilians LOVE babies and that there would always be a willing stranger to lend a hand. I now look back and realize that both were blanket statements about Brazil and Brazilians, so one never knows! There were definitely times that I did not feel safe after reports of kidnappings and robberies. But overall, I did not find it as dangerous as others feared. Meanwhile, I also found that people were not always so apt to offer to help with a baby; quite the contrary.
Brazil’s size was also incredibly daunting. I knew that we would have to fly to most of our destinations, but the logistics and the reality of this did not occur to me in my planning. After 2 months of flying around other countries prior to arriving in Brazil, I had to wonder if all that air travel was doing any damage to my baby. As any parent knows, flying one flight alone with an infant is stressful enough, much less 8 plane rides in 2 months’ time (and that is only counting the flights we took within Brazil.) Doing this much air travel as one parent alone with a child requires good organization, which I eventually had down to a science. (Diapers? Check. Change of clothes in case…? Check. Formula for take-off to prevent ear popping? Check. Something for her to drink while landing? Check. Toys for entertainment? Check.) Ultimately, though, It was a lot more flying than I would have preferred.
I didn’t even venture into renting a car at any point, which in hindsight, I probably should have done in order to see more of the Brazilian countryside. I did have the intention of driving extensively, but early on in Brazil, Lulu’s car seat was either lost by TAM airlines or stolen off of the conveyer belt at baggage claim. This particular car seat was the only one that I could use with the stroller system I had brought along; replacing it with a local one was out of the question since it would have meant adding another piece of luggage to lug around.”
What (if any) advance preparations did you do?
I read my Moon Brazil guide from front to back, of course! I had also researched Brazil on numerous websites along with areas that interested me (specifically Bahia.) While traveling I consulted different travel agents in certain towns I visited, but to be honest, I didn’t find them to be of much help. Time and again, they pointed me solely towards beach areas and, at that point, I was looking for other things I knew Brazil had to offer. Otherwise, I left my travel plans open. I wanted to go where the wind took us, to be open to recommendations from people I knew we would meet and to places that caught my interest while on the road.
Having anticipated a lifetime of travel with Lulu, I had already bought an easily collapsible Bugaboo stroller system with a corresponding car seat that seemed to work well for traveling parents. I also brought as many baby items as I could carry from the U.S. that I thought would be difficult to find overseas – specifically a particular brand of food pouches that were great for on-the-go.
Both Lulu and I also got yellow fever vaccinations before we left; I didn’t realize until afterwards that they are recommended to enter Brazil, but not required. I also filled two prescriptions for malaria pills for both the baby and myself, in case we were to travel anywhere that malaria is an issue.”
What places did you end up visiting in Brazil?
“We first visited Brazil at the start of March, when I crossed over from the Argentinean side of Iguaçu Falls I to visit the Brazilian side for the day. I then returned to Brazil several weeks later. We first flew to Porto Seguro and took a transfer to Trancoso; a place I had wanted to visit for years. Afterwards we flew onto Salvador, then to Morro de São Paulo and Ilha de Boipeba, then to Brasília for a couple of weeks’ stay with my brother. While in Brasília we took day trips to places such as Pirenópolis and the Chapada dos Veadeiros. Then we went onto Rio de Janeiro, where we stayed for 3 weeks. At that point, I didn’t venture into the South of Brazil as I would have liked – I was told the weather was getting chilly come May and we were not prepared.”
Which did you like best and why? How much of your enjoyment depended on how “baby-friendly” they were?
“There were such a variety of different landscapes and places, it’s hard to say which I liked best. Trancoso and its little square was magical, its beach so perfect and serene for a vacation getaway. Brasília was special to me not only for the wonder of all its modern architecture by Oscar Niemeyer, but for the beauty of its changing sky that made me often feel I was going to disappear into the clouds.
I was so pleasantly surprised by Salvador. With its tremendous history, the rich mix of Brazilian and African cultures ever present on its streets— music, style of dress, food – and its location right on the sea, many cities don’t get much better than this. I would not consider it baby-friendly only because the cobblestones in the Pelourinho district alone were brutal with the stroller and even for walking while carrying Lulu. I find any “old” or historical center, in any city or country, to be usually not so baby-friendly (what did they do with babies in the 1500s?!)
I also loved Rio, specifically the areas of Ipanema and Leblon. It felt safe there for us and I loved the beach culture, the bossa nova and samba on the streets, the neighborhood feel and the restaurants. I realize that I’m referring mostly to Brazil’s cities, but the countryside and the beaches were exceptional as well. I did not spend nearly as much time as I would have liked exploring the countryside.”
What did Lulu like most about Brazil?
“Lulu basked in the Brazilian sun! It makes sense, as the beaches seem to be what the country is best known for. I have photos of her asleep in the breeze off the coast of Trancoso, asleep under a palm tree on a deserted stretch of beach in Boipeba, playing with her toys on the sands of Ipanema. She also responded a great deal to the music we heard all around the country. I have one video of her moving her little body on our beach chair in Ipanema while a group of musicians approached her singing and playing their drums. It’s easy for a young child to become musically inclined in Brazil where music is often a part of daily life.”
Marissa Cortes has lived and worked as a marketing and communications professional in New York City for the past 15 years. She was bitten by the travel bug early on, and her wanderlust grew with a career that sent her to Europe, Asia, and around the U.S. Last winter she took several months off of her life in New York to discover and blog her way through parts of South America with her 10-month old daughter, Lulu. Her life will never be the same. They are off again for another three months next winter, this time through New Zealand and Australia.