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Gauchos, Gucci and a world beat

Porto Alegre's urbane flair gives it a European cachet, yet it's the blending of local cultural elements that gives it a rapid pulse of its own.

February 08, 2004|Douglas Wissing | Special to The Times

Porto Alegre, Brazil — This is Brazil's most European city, far removed from the beaches and social despair of Rio de Janeiro to the north. Parisian fashions are often seen on the streets here, a season before New York, and democratic thinking is far ahead of its time.

Its many galleries and museums display cutting-edge contemporary works and artifacts of Rio Grande do Sul's long artistic history. Leafy neighborhoods of luxury high-rise apartment buildings with lush, subtropical gardens cluster around the city's center. Chic, urban gauchos, those fabled cowboys of the pampas, throng fashion boutiques and sidewalk tables of popular restaurants.

Porto Alegre, tucked in Brazil's deep south next to Argentina and Uruguay, perches beside the wide Rio Guaiba, which is not a river but a lake that connects to the south Atlantic. It's the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state and the home of Brazil's gauchos. As Brazil's seventh-largest city, with almost 1.5 million residents, it has long been a cultural and business center, with an educational system considered among Latin America's best.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, waves of immigrants from the Azores, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and Japan commingled with the city's existing Indian, Portuguese and African cultures to form an extraordinary melange of people: industrious, independent, educationally rich -- and exotically beautiful.

In the process, the city's diverse cultures and disparate classes have woven themselves into a civic and social fabric that is unique in Latin America. "A city of many and of all," the residents of Porto Alegre say.

I fell for one of those exotic Rio Grande do Sul beauties. My wife, Flavia Bastos, is a gaucha art professor. We traveled to Porto Alegre in December to visit her family and enjoy some of the city's ambient attractions, among them the weekend Brique da Redencao flea market and Feira de Ecologica farm market in Farroupilha Park.

At the markets, which reflect Porto Alegre in all its complexity, urbane gauchos (pronounced gau-oo-shoos) and their rustic cousins from the pampas strolled under the lace-leafed acacia trees. Many sipped electric-green mate tea from gourd-like wooden cuias with silver straws.

Indians squatted beside their baskets, woven with graphic patterns, and round birdhouses, made of dark intertwined vines. Amid a humid fog of sweetness, Portuguese farmers crushed canes of sugar, mixing the juice with lime to make caldo de cana. A ragged blond herb vendor touted the herb mixture funcho, for excess gas and insufficient breast milk, and seven herbs for love and riches. Japanese truck farmers displayed spectacular organic mushrooms and sprouts grown on Porto Alegre's outskirts.

Overhead, a tree flared with deep-red flowers as we sauntered past the vendors and their wares. It was a pastiche of Porto Alegre's cultural mix that included old coins and soccer pins, religious artifacts, vintage Portuguese china, Peruvian bird whistles, minute Barbie doll stilettos in ever-so-fashionable lime green, French Art Nouveau antiques, 19th century country furniture from the German colonies that still flourish in the nearby mountains, old gaucho stirrups, battered leather cowboy hats and ubiquitous gaucho knives to carve the omnipresent hunks of beef.

A tiny blind man with a carved wooden staff sold lottery tickets as behind him amusement park rides whirled in giddy circles. Children's shrieks and laughter mingled with a Brazilian bluegrass band's plangent rendition of "In the Pines."

At a corner of the market, Celia, an African Brazilian woman wearing the typical Bahia dress of a white turban and long white skirt, fried crusty acarajes, balls of white-bean puree stuffed with shrimp and a fish hash made with coconut milk, in golden dende palm oil. She spiked mine with fiery malagueta peppers. As I happily ate one, my ever-fit wife said, "Oh, shrimp, dende oil and coconut milk -- that's sure to be light."

I responded with my standard full-mouthed retort -- "Research!" -- and scuttled out of sight.

Cowboys of the pampas

In the name of research, that night Flavia and I dined at Churrascaria Roda de Carreta, a renowned gaucho barbecue restaurant where meat is served Rio Grande do Sul-style: on sword-length skewers carried from table to table by sturdy waiters.

The 800-seat restaurant, constructed like a pampas ranch building of dark, upright logs and a grass ceiling, is a member of a worldwide gaucho organization, Centro de Tradicoes Gauchas, founded by eight Porto Alegre students in 1948 to preserve gaucho traditions. Today it has more than 4,500 chapters, which stage rodeos, gaucho balls and daily barbecues of leviathan proportions.

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