Designing a perfect Brazilian vacation for my clients is very similar to cooking one of my favorite Brazilian meals for my close friends, which happens to be a Bahian Moqueca de Camarao! A moqueca is a seafood stew of coconut milk, dende oil, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, garlic, fresh lime juice, onions and usually served with rice and farofa. All of the ingredients have to be perfectly balanced, surprising, rich, exotic, flavorful, a little spicy but not overpowering and leave everyone feeling deliriously happy, and satisfied.
The first time I heard of a moqueca was in the pages of one of my favorite books, “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” by the famous Brazilian novelist, Jorge Amado. I devoured Amado’s books while studying flute performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston where I enjoyed the company of many young Brazilian musicians whose contagious enthusiasm sparked my interest in all things Brazilian. Sonia Braga, the beautiful Brazilian actress played Dona Flor in the film version and perfectly embodied the sensuality of Amado’s heroine.
Many years later, while I was on a trip to Brazil with the great Latin American novelist—Isabel Allende I would find myself sharing a moqueca with Jorge Amado in the heart of Bahia at the wonderful Sorriso da Dada Restaurant in Pelourinho. Just as in the great magical realism of Gabriel Garcia’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, it seems that all things eventually come full circle. This past year the magical thread continued as I planned a wonderful itinerary for a family, based around the life of the great Pulitzer Prize winning poet—Elizabeth Bishop who lived in Brazil for 15 years in the 40s and 50s.
Last year, Bruno Barreto—the same director of “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” fame, directed an award winning film about Elizabeth’s relationship with the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares called “Reaching for the Moon.” The Strauss family had seen the film and felt inspired to visit Brazil so Irene Strauss reached out to me. Of course I wanted the Strauss Family to experience something special during their visit to Brazil, but as fate would have it, I didn’t realize just how very special this trip would eventually become! Mr. Strauss wanted to visit the famous residence of Bishop and Soares that is located in the hills above Rio de Janeiro, and is now owned by an extremely wealthy shipping magnate Dona Zuleika Borges Torrealba.
The beautiful architectural masterpiece that was designed together by the Brazilian architect Sergio Bernardes and Bishop’s partner, Lota de Macedo Soares sits on the vast estate behind impenetrable stone gates and rarely has outside visitors. Needless to say, I spent weeks trying to find anyone that could help me find a way to get Dona Zuleika to open her estate to the Strauss family. Unfortunately, Dona Zuleika was unreachable and everyone said that she was very private and rarely allowed outside visitors. I finally reached out to a friend, who happens to be the mother of Marisa Monte, one of Brazil’s top singers, and as divine intervention would have it she just happens to be close friends with the great director Bruno Barreto! Sylvia asked if I thought perhaps the Strauss Family would enjoy a lunch with the director. Of course they would! So with the help of my good friend Sylvia, I was able to arrange a wonderful lunch with Bruno, but I was still unable to get them into seeing the famous Elizabeth Bishop house on the Zuleika estate. This was so important to Ron Strauss so I continued to look for a way to get into the estate that even Bruno Barreto could not get into to film his movie!
A week before the trip everything was set for the Strauss’ arrival in Brazil, a wonderful itinerary with all kinds of Elizabeth Bishop related visits but still no entrance to “the house” — when all of a sudden I received a message from one of my private guides in Rio. Valeria just happened to be at a private party in Rio over the weekend with one of her friends who just happens to be close friends with Dona Zuleika’s daughter! A phone call was made and miracle of miracles, not only did Dona Zuleika give permission for a visit, she invited the Strauss Family to have lunch with her on her estate! Yes, it was now all set. The Strauss family would spend the day on this enormous estate high in the mountains above Rio, and visit the famous Bishop House known as Samambaia. Here is the letter I received from Irene Strauss upon the Strauss family’s return from their trip.
“Without Jill Siegel, our trip to Brazil would not have been the all-encompassing experience it was. It would be so simple to say that Jill worked her “magic”, because she made it seem so effortless. However, her clear understanding of her clients’ (at this point, I’d say friends) wishes, combined with an amazing attention to detail — always completed in a prompt and gracious manner — would be far more accurate.
Our trip presented a real challenge. Three generations (69, 43, 11) all of whom had different visions. Being a history teacher, I wanted to discover Brazil’s past and culture. My son, a physician and student of poetry, hoped to visit all the places where Elizabeth Bishop, the Pulitzer prize winning poet, had lived during her sixteen years in Brazil. My granddaughter, a typical eleven year old, wished for it all — places to see, people to talk to and some shopping thrown in along the way.
Jill fulfilled every request — and more. Our stops in Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto and the Amazon region were perfect. Every day we experienced the diversity of Brazil’s history, culture, people, and food, as each of our wonderful tour guides (thank you Valeria, Celia and Anavilhanas staff) shared her/his knowledgeable, yet personal, perspective of the country. Aside from the landmark visits, we discovered the cashew fruit, which gave Bishop an asthma attack and caused her unplanned stop in Rio, several games of foot volley at Ipanema, feijoada (yummy!) at a local lunch stop, baroque churches and oratorios in beautiful Ouro Preto, and a two room school in a small village on the Rio Negro, where we learned of the problems and hopes of Brazil’s future. And these are only a few of our unique memories.
But the most amazing feat Jill achieved were the connections to Elizabeth Bishop. Before contacting Jill, the best we hoped for was to discover the locations of Bishop’s houses and take photos. However, we not only toured the homes where she lived (which are privately owned and not open to the public,) but we also were invited to lunch and spent the day with a recognized Brazilian mogul, who shared her perspective on Bishop. Jill also arranged a luncheon with Bruno Barreto, the director of the 2013 film about Bishop, Reaching for the Moon, and this incredibly kind and unassuming man discussed his research for and message of the film.
None of this, and so much more of our trip, would have been possible without Jill. I guess she really is a magician.” Irene Strauss