A (Brazilian) Winter’s Tale

Last night I donned a hoodie and a leather jacket over a long-sleeved shirt and got into a friend’s car in which the heater was blasting. Just a typical Brazilian winter’s night….

Most people – myself included – find it hard to reconcile the seemingly antithetical notions of “Brazil” and “winter.”

Most people – myself included – find it hard to reconcile the seemingly antithetical notions of “Brazil” and “winter.” In the collective imagination, Brazil is synonymous with beaches, bikinis, and sun tans (or burns). As a resident of Salvador, Bahia, for the last 13 years, such imaginings have always dovetailed neatly with my reality.

Having grown up in Canada where temperatures of 0⁰ C (33⁰ degrees) were considered mild, “winter” in Salvador – and in much of the rest of tropical Brazil – has always struck me as a somewhat surreal, and hilarious, concept. In Salvador, people shy away from the beach when the temperature plunges to 25⁰ C (77⁰ F). They complain about the cold when night temperatures dip below 20⁰ C (68⁰ F). And they actually shiver when they recall historically cold winters of years ago when the thermometer hit 18⁰ C (65⁰ F).

As such, it came as no surprise when my Bahian friends implored me to pack roupa de frio (literally “clothes of cold”) upon learning that I was traveling to Diamantina, a town perched in the Serra do Espinhaço mountains, at an altitude of 1,250 meters (4,100 feet) above sea level. I laughed off their concern, reminding them that I grew up in the company of “real” winters, the kinds in which if you didn’t completely dry your hair before venturing out into the polar blasts, individual wet strands would freeze into icicles.

However, when I arrived last week in Diamantina, two days before the official start of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, the laugh was on me. It turns out that years of suffering through Salvador’s balmy winters have pretty much destroyed my once glacial resistance and Arctic hardiness.

Like much of the Interior of the South-East and South of Brazil, Minas Gerais, experiences bonafide winter with temperatures that can rise above 20⁰ C (68⁰ F) during the day and then plunge below 10 C (50 F) at night.

Such extremes are famously pronounced in the city of São Paulo where it’s said that you can experience symptoms of all four seasons within a single winter’s day. I remember being in Sampa in the winter of 1999 and experiencing nights so cold that I could see my breath. I was staying in the apartment of a friend from Bahia and we spent our time indoors bundled up in bed with a laughably small and ineffective portable heater aimed directly at us (yes, although winter does truly exist in Brazil, central heating does not).

Of course, I’ve never been to the South during the winter, but I’ve seen the national news reports in which (ephemerally thin blankets of) snow covers the high plateau towns of the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. I’ve also visited tony, faux-Swiss mountain retreats such as Campos de Jordão (São Paulo) and Gramado (Rio Grande do Sul), where well-heeled Brazilians parade around in showy boots, scarves and fur coats, taking time out to gorge on hot chocolate and cheese fondues (although true to my tropical nature, I visited in the off-season, i.e. the height of summer).

Meanwhile, back in Diamantina, I’ve stocked up on tea and have been downloading recipes for winter soups from epicurious.com. My home office has taken up temporary residence in bed, beneath the hothouse climate of an eiderdown quilt. Although I can’t work up much enthusiasm for icy beer, I’m thankful for the heat-inducing comfort of fiery local cachaças. I also have to congratulate myself on the foresight I had in bringing (let alone hanging onto) a couple pairs of thermal lumberjack socks purchased 20 years ago at Canadian Tire – who would have thought they’d prove so essential in July of all times, and in Brazil of all places?


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