An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.

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Brazil has steaks. And so much more!

One really cannot speak of travel without including the subject of food. Travel and food go hand in hand. Name the destination, and images of touristic landmarks and exotic cuisines come to mind. When one hears “Brazil” it’s normal for people to think of the Brazilian barbecue or churrasco. The all-you-can-eat-meat-buffet has come to be synonymous with the country of cattle and gauchos. (Yes, there are gauchos in the southern Brazilian states).

But to limit an understanding of Brazilian food to barbecued meats would not do the country culinary justice. Whether Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern, German, Polish or Korean, …

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What's on the Bottom of My Soup Bowl?

During one of my first visits to the city of Manaus in the early 1990s, I was hosted by a Japanese language school in an area bordering the jungle called Cachoeira Grande (big waterfall). Manaus is a major capital city on the Amazon River. When I think of Manaus, there will always be scattered images and memories. Manaus is hazy, like a dream you’d rather forget. It’s a contrast between the raw natural beauty of the Amazon jungle and river against the elegant grandeur of the Manaus Opera House.

In my homestay on the edge of Cachoeira Grande, the …

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Beautiful, but Deadly

Kawashima sensei and I were at a conference outside of São Paulo at a retreat site called Tabor. We were having coffee with a number of community leaders, when a giant caterpillar on a nearby branch caught sensei’s attention.

The caterpillar had the plumpness of a tomato worm and the curious hairiness of a bottlebrush flower. The tip of the “hairs” had tiny glistening drops of what appeared to be nectar. A real beauty!

Sensei was about to lift the caterpillar onto her finger when one of the men in our group yelled out, “Não sensei! Toxico!” (No …

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My first night in São Paulo, Brazil was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.

Based on my first experience of riding in a car in São Paulo, these would be my understanding of the driving rules:

  1. There are lines on the street. They are painted there for no reason whatsoever. Two lanes on the roadway can have four lanes or more of traffic. Oh, and the shoulder adds another two lanes.
  2. Traffic signals are not rules. They are guidelines. After 10pm, they are virtually meaningless.
  3. You have a horn. Use it at every opportunity. Four to five times in …

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Asking for Directions

When you’re driving and you’ve lost your way, what do you do?

A. Keep driving until you see something familiar.
B. Consult the Thomas Guide.
C. Pull into a gas station and ask for directions.
D. Stop and ask a pedestrian for directions.
E. None of the above.

I suppose that living in California, and especially in Los Angeles where we are a car culture, asking for directions is pretty much a normal activity.

Let’s change the venue for a moment and ask the same question if you’re in a foreign city like São Paulo. Here are the responses to the multiple choice question above …

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Brazil churrasco culture food Manaus sao paulo sashimi south america travel