on my way back from the beach today, i drank a guaraná natural (sort of a bug juice made from the high-caffeine guaraná berry) in one of the endless juice shops in ipanema. it was way too sweet, as usual, but it was also a lot much had a much stronger flavor than normal. it made me remember the sensation of drinking guaraná eight or nine years ago, during my first visits to brasil. at the time, the flavor was still a novelty for me, something exotic that reminded me how far i was from home. the sensation wasn’t just of refreshing myself; drinking guaraná felt like a kind of communion, a way of feeling the place i was through taste. it felt like i was drinking brasil.
selling brasilianess in new york: açaí and "jungle love" (no one drinks banana in their coconut water)
back then, i was so taken with the different flavors and possibilities of brasil that i stuffed my face with everything unknown: sonhos (deep-fried donuts) filled with doce de leite and heart-of-palm turnovers at bakeries; grilled cheese skewers and acarajé (deep-fried bean cakes, hold the shrimp) in the street; guaraná and iced mate tea anytime and anywhere. every time i left the house was an opportunity to taste this new and enchanting place, to smell, sample, and digest the country. i developed an arrival ritual as soon as i landed at galeão airport: i would sit in a dingy airport café with a can of guaraná antárctica (a soda made from the same berry), sipping the sensation of localness while my eyes absorbed the different colors of clothes and of skin, and my ears re-acclimated themselves to a language that i more or less understood, but was very far from calling my own. for the rest of the visit, my tastebuds were on high alert, and i was constantly in search of new sense experiences. it was only during my fourth visit to the country, when i came in on a two-year visa, that i stopped eating like a tourist, that i finally understood that the sonhos at the corner bakery weren’t going anywhere, and that there flavor would always be available to me.
these days, guaraná natural is just another junky soft drink that i drink on the beach, or any other place where i can’t buy seltzer. sonhos are an occasional breakfast option for when i leave the house too early in the morning or feel an uncontrollable craving for doce de leite. on my visits back to the united states, though, i’ve gained the tendency of eating uncontrollably, going after indian, chinese, mexican, and thai food; everything that’s hard to find good or cheap examples of in rio. i tend to gain about a half-pound every day when i’m in the states, a phenomenon i call the “first-world 15.” and it’s by no means limited to high cuisine or “ethnic” restaurants. the last time i got to new york, i left the apartment i was staying in, stopped at the first newspaper stand, and bought a pack of cool ranch doritos, which i adored in fifth grade but hadn’t bought since high school. (it may be that we have cool ranch doritos in brasil; i honestly wouldn’t know, since i’m usually a bit more hippy-ish in my eating habits). at that moment in new york, though, cool ranch was the only thing i wanted to eat. i stood on a corner in chinatown munching my chips and drinking a ginger ale, swallowing the sensation of being right there. it didn’t matter if it actually tasted good: what i wanted was to taste the united states, in all its artificial glory.