Sunday, June 20, 2004


Everyone learns quickly that Banheiro is the Portuguese word for toilet. Sooner or later, you will have to buy toilet paper.

I walked into a small shop and asked for a Naap-kin-nae de Banheiro. Like a number of foreigners dealing with a Latin language, I was prone to the belief that if I said the exact same word that I do in English, with what sounds to the English-speaking ear as the French accent, then the words spoken will be understood entirely by the listener.

Naap-kinnay was not a word at all, and was treated as such by a bewildered desk clerk. He was especially taken aback, at what looked like a Brazilian (nobody here takes me for a foreigner, even at tourist destinations, the touts ignore me) not only talking gibberish, but doing it with the fake confidence of a tourist who thinks that the semblance of confidence means people, all out to get you, will not rip you off. He quizzically pointed me to the back of the store. I thanked him and took a step in the direction, and I noticed a door, with “Banheiro” written on it.

Before announcing miscommunication, two thoughts struck my mind – first, Brazilian shopkeepers are really nice, they will don’t have the American prerequisites of “Buy something at my store before you use my toilet.” Second, “Wow – even the smallest cornerstores in Rio have toilets!” While these thoughts were completing their course, I had moved towards from the street entrance of the shop into the labyrinth, a narrow passage by the entry counter.

I then saw bottles, and bottles, and bottles. There was a TV behind the counter, and I wasn’t on it like in the American cornerstore TVs. This was a real TV, and it was showing a game. There were posters of footballers in red and blue, but not placed on the wall with any amount of deliberation or design style. What seemed to me as the check out counter, had a short panel jutting out, with wooden coating, and multiple marks of dripped condensation from little round glasses. I was standing right above a stool, and would dodge several more if I decided to go through with the visit to the Banheiro just to prove that I was an efficient foreign language communicator. I was in a bar.

This was one of the places were being an idiot-tourist-wannabe-local worked well for me, since the counter clerk never figured out what I was looking for. If I had just stuck to English, and said “Toilet Paper” it would have been understood perfectly and followed by loud guffaws, and perhaps a quick snap on his stand-by camera for celebrity guests. A perfect photograph for the wall, as “The American who came to the bar looking for toilet paper” right alongside “Guillehme who vomited on his wife when she came to get him”

The small street bars in Rio are mostly open, many of them just counters, with lines and lines of bottles placed on racks and cabinets overhead. The bartender stands behind what is usually a large rectangular counter, which takes up most of the space in the shop. It leaves only two strips of narrow passageway – one to a side, and one in front for customers to squeeze into.

When you (a non-local) glance in from the outside, if there are no customers, these look like standard shops selling supplies, or a snack shop or juice bar (of which there practically two on every block in Rio). Unless you look closely at the bottles up high, or notice that the innocuous looking pieces of blocks scattered about are actually barstools cramped next to each other, you’d wonder where the bars are hidden away. (this may also be the Indian in me speaking, because my point of reference is what the average Indian cornerstores look like)

Of course, in the evenings, there is no mistaking it. The stools are full assorted evening drinkers long-sipping their “chopps” (the local term for beer) in little tea-cup sized glasses that make the beer drinking experience a much more flavourful one than most pint mugs that lose fizz after three gulps. Now these are the more traditional hole-in-the-wall bars known simply as Barzinhos (~inho is the suffix for “little one”). Other terms for bars include Botecas and the Botequins which each approximate to more or less the same thing. If you are a tourist though, it is likely that you will not end up at any of these smaller bars, and will most probably go to more upmarket ones with tables and chairs that look more or less like very nice American bars, with lots of people talking loudly on wooden chairs arranged tightly together.

Unlike in the US, you can be waiting outside a bar and have the person serve you a beer and drink it in the street (this is actually fairly common in Europe). In some of the more popular Botecas, there is a class of customers that comes, stands outside drinking on the street, to eventually pay and go away without actually waiting for a table to get called. It is an honour system. There is not much gender disproportion here, and though men generally outnumber women at the hole-in-the-wall bars, it is not uncommon at all to see a woman sitting alone and undisturbed at a barstool sandwiched between a number of male of drinkers.

The standard drink of the evening is beer – Cerveja (pronounced Ceh-way-zhaa). This can vary quite a lot if you move out of the cities and into the inland areas, though beer is generally big throughout Brazil – the weather is warm, sunny and perfect for chilled drunks. Moreover, after playing football on the beach or going for a vigorous dip in the Atlantic (yes, the Atlantic exists in the southern hemisphere as well) there are few better ways to lay back and absorb the lush sunshine than through a chilled teacup of light frothy lager. There are also local dark beers that are slightly on the sweeter side, though it seemed to me that it was more of a drink of richer yuppies.

Now even though every bar I’ve been to (no matter how small) has a fairly extensive menu of alcohol (including a range of American and European whiskies), most bottles on the wall seem like they have been there for years. Like in India and Thailand, Whisky is a “gentleman’s drink” (gentlemen usually being a middle-aged businessmen) here too. And a drink that means almost nothing in the US – Johnny Walker Black Label – is as big in Brazil as it is almost anywhere else in the rest of the first classes of the third world.

Finally, there is Cachaca – the sharp distilled sugarcane juice drink that tastes a bit like concentrated white rum, and goes fabulously with lime. The drink is strong, and comes in many varieties. It was generally considered a poor man’s drink (refashioned in time as more upmarket), but as one moves away from the cities into the rural areas, there are more and more ad-hoc-bottled Cachacas, in much greater variety than in the cities, where branded Cahcaca rules roost. In the poorer sections of the cities, generic brand Cachaca gives beer more of a run for its money as the most preferred mouthful.

Wine is a strictly upper-class drink, and Gin and Dark Rum are among the bottles that spend a lot of time on racks without much attention. Martini, Peach schnapps, Irish Cream and assorted liquers are mostly absurd and will get you very unwelcome stares should you ask for them, even though they are technically available on the wall racks. Remember, the racks are to only to theoretically prove that all those drinks exist, and that even the most finicky Boston tourist can drop in for a drink, and rue the wonder of alcohol imperialism, before proceeding to order a local “Brahma” or “Skol” beer.

Note to Indians receiving this: All those bars in India called Copacabana and Ipanema that serve Pina Coladas thought that Copacabana was in Hawaii. You cannot ask for coconut water mixed with whatever here and expect not to be sniggered at, or possibly even taunted with some causticity. Notice your waiter isn’t wearing a garland of flowers over his nipples.

Cachaca does a great job of absorbing the flavour of anything you put into it, so a few black peppercorns into the drink, and let it stay for a week, voila, you have a great black pepper flavoured Cachaca. Among the variety of things that you will find thrown into Cachaca bottles, there are the standard popular ones – Tangerine rinds, Passion fruit, Cinnamon Sticks, Pepper to the more extreme ones such as little creatures quaintly embalmed in alcohol. Most people outside of Brazil know it for the famous Cachaca drink – Caipirinha (pronounced Kaee-pee-reen-yeah, but said faster). This drink involves chopping up a lemon, crushing it with sugar, and pouring Cachaca over the mixture. The drink is had with the squeezed lemon thrown in, and a share of ice equal to that of Cachaca.


At 2:06 PM, Anonymous ferguson said...

I found your site when I was googling for the Portugese word for bar. A friend had sent me an article he had written for a Brazilian newspaper which I needed to get translated. I told him I was heading out to Happy Hour at the local (word) and grille to find a translator. I thought it would add autheticity if I used the Portugese word for bar. I think now, though, that I will need to go to Brazil itself and hit some of the different types of bars your blog mentions and describes so well. As a recent convert to caipirinhas, I think I owe it to myself to try the real think...they've got to be better than the ones I get in Boston though far be it for me to complain about anything alcoholic!

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At 11:34 PM, Blogger Rodrigo said...

Very interesting. I have actually been to one of those Indian corner stores to buy toilet paper, so reading your story had a nice symmetry to it. :-)

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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BTW I help out some ex-IIMA guys who with another batch mate run where you can post links to your most loved blog-posts. Rambhai was the chaiwala at IIMA and it is a site where users can themselves share links to blog posts etc and other can find and vote on them. The best make it to the homepage!

This way you can reach out to rambhai readers some of whom could become your ardent fans.. who knows.. :)


At 5:16 PM, Blogger workhard said...

He he he.. its funny how in certain places they think that toilet paper is not a necessity...

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