A Travellerspoint blog

In Amongst It

Gettin' down in concrete town...

sunny 30 °C
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Monday 13.08.07

From our suburb in the city's southwest, we caught a bus into the centre. São Paulo is a gigantic metropolis, and with over 18 million people living in one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, it has an equally huge car-culture. There are bus-only lanes on the trunk roads, meaning this mode of transport is often faster than driving. Motorbikes are also popular with their obvious advantages, though with roads best described as 'Sydney streets on crack' - a maze of appearing and disappearing lanes and tunnels, unsignalled merging and erratic driving, all done only a reflector's distance from oncoming traffic, it would help one not to be too precious about the fragility of life.

From Avenida Paulista, a huge road lined with tall buildings which could be said is the pulmonary artery of the city, we went underground to catch the metro to the centre. Two lines and six or seven stations later, we had finally arrived, and emerging from beneath the city, we found ourselves in the plaza of an enormous church, Catedral Metropolitana. Able to hold several thousand people within, the cathedral's concrete pillars stretched skyward like gigantic grey trees, and there was enough stained glass high on the walls to start a Jesus-themed vegetable farm.

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We now walked through the city's centre, a maze of pedestrian-only streets. In amongst the crowds of people we weaved, past street vendors, charlatans and police, business people and the homeless. Street preachers could be found everywhere, letting loose with barrages of rhetoric, working themselves into a righteous lather, surround by people (at a safe distance) who were nodding or observing with a little amusement.

São Paulo is the most multi-cultural city in Latin America, and among the most diverse cities in the whole world. Boasting immigrant populations from many countries world-wide, São Paulo has the world's largest group of Japanese living outside Japan, and a sizable Italian population as well. Immigrants are not the sole reason for São Paulo's incredible expansion, for people from the drought-prone northeast of Brasil (the country's poorest region) have been flocking here to set up slums and shanty towns for more than 40 years. As a result, there is no 'typical' Paulistan, a testament to the city's incredible diversity.

On Wednesday, after being in Brasil for almost 3 months, I finally had a chance to try one of its most famous dishes - Feijoada. It is prepared as a black bean soup, with various pork products floating around in it, and comes accompanied with collared greens and a Brasilian favourite, farofa (Cassava flour)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassava

The weather in São Paulo was perfect, so i went to Edificio Altino Arantes, a 35-storey building standing atop a rise in the centre of the city. The tower on top, reached by two lifts, a set of narrow steps and finally a spiral staircase, offers a 360º view of the huge metropolis. The city stretches into infinity in all directions, and the thousands of tall buildings remind one of bleached white coral outcrops left high and dry from a vanished sea. During my time up there, the tower was buzzed by one of the city's many private helicopters, used by the very rich to get from meeting to meeting without having to endure the terrible traffic below.

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Posted by Jeremy T 08:53 Archived in Brazil Tagged photography Comments (0)

Fade to Grey

São Paulo's colour war....

overcast 24 °C
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Thursday 09.08.07

Everyone who has flown before knows the layout of airports - ground floor is for Arrivals, first floor for Departures. But what is on the second floor? In most airports in Brasil it is a great place to hang out or pass out on the floor amongst your baggage during the inevitable delays. This particular moment I was 'Doing Time on the 2nd' waiting for a bus to take me to meet my friend Kyle, who I had previously met in Rio de Janeiro. After an unknown amount of sleeping time, i was approached by a cluster of curious teenage Evangelical Christians, in São Paulo for a religious seminar of some sort. Their opening line, interestingly enough was, "Do you believe in Jesus?" This of course was followed by a lengthy (and somewhat broken) explanation of my views on the whole saga, which I'm not sure they fully comprehended. In conformity with expectations, the whole thing ended in an awkward stalemate and I ran off with my baggage trolley to catch a bus.

Kyle met me at Hotel Renaissance, where I couldn't have traded the cost of my entire holiday for one night in the Presidential Suite even if I had wanted to. We boarded the bus toward Morumbi, in the city's middle-southwest. Apartment blocks stood in every direction, standing in groups like couples schmoozing their way around an immense concrete benefit ball. The air was thick, not with expensive cigar smoke, but of smog - a perpetual haze over the city.

I visited another Terreiro of Candomblé on Friday night, with a friend I had just made, Elaine and her family. I was surprised to discover that this particular branch of Candomblé was different than the one practised in Bahia. The Orixás here, standing watch over the room, looked extremely similar to certain characters from the Bible. It is true that the African slaves of old incorporated the figures from the Bible as counterparts to their Orixás so they could continue their worship, but here it seemed they were paying more than just lip service to these icons. So how does one invoke the spirit of a character in the Bible? I may never know...

São Paulo's mayor at the start of this year, disgusted at the sight of billboards and advertising everywhere, decided to ban all of it. Excepting for signs on the front of shops (allowable only on a ratio of 1.5m per 10m of frontage), everything else had to be taken down or painted over in grey. The fruit of the radical behaviour is a gigantic city turning monotone. Look up, and instead of being informed of the latest sunglasses, prestige car or that essential pharmaceutical, one now sees rusting metal skeletons of billboards, fluorescent light innards now laid bare to the open air. Shop fronts are similarly empty - just blank spaces (left by logos removed) or the same metallic skeletons are all that remain. Ironically, the companies that can afford to replace the sign are often the same ones that were responsible for the majority of billboard pollution. São Paulo now is a multitude of greys, from roads to footpaths, power poles to fences, concrete houses and apartment blocks, smog, fog and the banks of the two fairly-polluted rivers that run through the city.

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Grey paint is being used to paint over graffiti as well. São Paulo probably has the best street art in the world, and even has its own style, Pixação - almost looking like a form of hieroglyphics, but readable to Portuguese speakers who recognise the letter shapes. The style itself is generally quite ugly, but impressive for the prominent places where it has been scribbled. One can find the giant form of lettering simply by looking up, to overpasses, the tops of apartment blocks and other near-impossible to reach areas. Pixação differs greatly from the street art in the city due to its nature as a ‘tag’ for the local gangs, and as such, is practised far more by these groups than by regular artists. There are a certain amount of deaths per year attributed to enthusiastic (and often shoeless) Pixadores taking their art a little too far.

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We arrived in a working-class suburb in the northeast of the city on Saturday with several graffiti and street artists for an afternoon of painting the walls in the street. Like a working bee of sorts, it was a family affair, and while all the painting was going on, i busied myself with the Churrasco (barbecue). In contrast to the government's grey politics, here was a group of people lovingly painting the walls in all kinds of colours and designs, making this corner of São Paulo a little brighter, both in colour and spirit.

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Posted by Jeremy T 08:44 Archived in Brazil Tagged photography Comments (0)

Within / Without

(Holy) Spirits!

sunny 30 °C
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Sunday 05.08.07

Salvador is home to many churches, many of them designed in the Baroque fashion, which was very popular at the time of building. The churches, usually ornate on the outside, contain even more detailed structures on their often-gilded interior. We visited two of Salvador's most famous churches today. The first, Igreja da Ordem Terciera de São Francisco, has a beautiful sandstone façade. Igreja Nossa Senhor do Bonfim, a church with an impressive gilded interior stands north of the city centre, the most famous in Salvador for its ability to heal invalids and the sick. In an antechamber off to the side of the hall is a shrine of sorts dedicated to the healed ones, apparently numbering in their hundreds. From the roof hangs more than a hundred plastic body parts and the walls are covered in photos.

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Out on the street about midnight, a middle-aged man tows a bag of empty cans. Desperate with hunger, he loiters outside a restaurant begging for the people inside to give him money. The manager confronts him and forces him away, while a policeman hearing the commotion watches the pair from a distance. The defeated beggar slumps against a wall on the opposite side of the road and begins to cry; the manager turns on his heels to return to work. A few minutes pass, and a wandering pastry salesman approaches and offers bread for free to the starving man. The man hungrily takes a couple of rolls, and the salesman walks away. What must it be like to have nothing, to be desperate, destitute or derelict? How must a person feel not knowing when they will next eat? Shelter, another of humanity's basic needs, is also taken completely for granted. Buildings cease being a sanctuary to the homeless, and become a barrier between them and society, a barrier that becomes higher, wider and thicker with time and neglect.

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Northeastern Brasil is home to many unique dishes, among them Carne do Sol (meat of the Sun) - dried and salted beef; Acaraje - fritters made from brown beans and shrimp fried in palm oil (served by women in Bahian dress); and Moqueca - a Bahian seafood stew containing coconut milk and palm oil.

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I spent a decent amount of my time in Salvador up rickety flights of stairs trying to find a decent Candomblé ceremony to attend. Finally, on Tuesday night i was picked up in a van and taken to a Terreiro in a poorer neighbourhood. On the way we learned how the ritual worked. The particular ceremony we were attending was in celebration of the Orixá of nature and the forest. The religion of Candomblé came across with the African slaves, and is distantly related to Voodoo. The Orixás are the spirits, or saints of the religion, based on the archetypes, and part of the ritual involves going into a trance to invoke the Orixá.

The Terreiro was simple, indistinguishable from the concrete dwellings that surrounded it, and the ceremony conducted in the front room. Several people were dancing in a circle, while others were drumming or singing. Most were wearing white. Little by little, the dancing and singing became more intense and after a while, a few members stumbled, caught in a trance by the hypnotic music. Presently a figure previously sitting in the corner on a throne of sorts got up and started singing and staggering around. This was the Babalorixá, in this case the father of the household. The ritual was only just beginning.

The entranced members retired, and during a short break, the floor was covered in leaves. They returned having dressed up a little in what appeared to be women's clothing, while wielding leafy branches and smoking cigars to ward off the bad spirits. The Babalorixá took centre stage, and singing and rhythmical drumming filled the room. We clapped our hands to the music as it rose and fell in tone, while increasing steadily in tempo. It was intoxicating, the atmosphere thick with emotion and cigar-smoke, singing, laughing and drumming into an incredible crescendo. Nothing seemed to exist beyond the immediate space, while the Babalorixá pulled out some wild dance moves, the likes of which haven't been seen since the heydays of Rave. Now the old man retired into another room, and the next entranced member stepped up for the same ritual. Soon, i was invited into another room to be granted 3 wishes and blessed by the Babalorixá, which involved being brushed by a leafy branch and a popcorn shower.

Back in the Pelourinho, a street festival held every Terça-Feira (Tuesday) was in full swing. The ever-present drums of the Pelourinho were even more frantic than usual. There was a hedonistic edge to it all, and of course the beggars and thieves were making the most of the situation. Police were stationed everywhere as usual, but now wearing helmets for protection. The Caipirinhas were to once again prove my undoing, possibly because my Chakras were now aligned to the spirits, but probably because each plastic cup-full was about 60% cane spirit, 40% lime and sugar.

Capoeira is another of Bahia's many charms, invented by African slaves for self-defence. Disguised within dance, Capoeira survived through the times of slavery despite prohibition, and finally in the 1930's developed into the form seen today, usually performed in a circle of drummers, strummers and clappers. Singing also accompanies the music, and the strumming refers to the playing of a one-string instrument called a Berimbau, which has the appearance of a coconut stuck to an archery bow. Wednesday night i left Salvador behind, on a plane to São Paulo, the second largest city in Latin America and by my reckoning, the 5th largest in the world.

Posted by Jeremy T 07:47 Archived in Brazil Tagged educational Comments (0)

Gone in 10 Seconds

More money matters....

sunny 32 °C
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Thursday 02.08.07

The moment i stepped off the airport bus into the Cidade Alta of Salvador, I began to be harassed by a teenage beggar. I was on my way to the Pelourinho, the oldest standing part of the city - a small bairro (neighbourhood) of colonial buildings, and one of the few places safe for tourists. I shrugged him off, checking over my shoulder to ensure he wasn't following. It didn't matter. Soon i was being chased by another, determined to escort me to my new hostel (for a charge of course). As luck would have it, I bumped into a woman who worked at the very same place, and like a vehicle's windshield, she deflected any more attempts to latch on as if they were gnats on a country highway. This behaviour, seen at about 7.30am in the morning, was but a precursor for things to come.

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Later that day, i made my way to the Plano Inclinado, another way of moving between the Cidades Alta e Baixa (Upper and Lower Cities). Two antique carriages make a short journey on rails on a slope of about 40º between the two halves of the historical centre. At night we wandered the Pelourinho amidst crowds of people, tourists and locals alike. At this time the district throbs with African energy, exciting all senses: The beating drums, the spectacle of performance, the smell of sweat, the push of the crowd, the taste of the local cooking, and there is a sixth feeling, a tangible charisma that sweeps you away.

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Salvador, once the capital of colonial Brasil, is without doubt the most affronting place i have ever seen. It is Brasil's 4th largest city, and having fallen into major disrepair through neglect, is now in a process of restoration. The Pelourinho has been restored, and is mostly safe for tourists, but foreigners are constantly being accosted by dozens of hawkers, paupers, beggars and artists. The remainder of the Cidades Alta e Baixa are not the safest places to be walking around in daylight, and are downright dangerous after dark. Me and a couple of guys found ourselves in one such area in search of a cheap dinner. Recommended by the restaurant owner not to walk back the way we came, we took some bad advice and found ourselves in a deserted, dark lane. Every building still standing was completely boarded up, some with their old interiors heaped in piles over the street. We shouldn't have been there.

It happens so fast. There are shouts from behind, and momentarily maybe six people are upon you, wielding weapons. Is that a flash of a knife? You scramble for your cash to hand over, as unfamiliar hands are grabbing you, reaching into your pockets. Details stick out like bandannas obscuring faces, rags tied over handles of weapons. You are spun around, and moments later, like a chilling breeze, they disappear just as quickly as they arrived. You realise what has just happened seconds after the event, as if it were a dream. Taking stock of your former possessions, you suddenly realise it could have been a lot worse. 60 Reals (AUS$40) from me and more from the others has gone, but in a dark place with the wrong movements, more than money could have been lost.

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Out on some exposed rocks off the beach in Barra, a few kilometres away from the intensity of the streets of central Salvador, life is simple. Spongy mosses, sea urchins and other aquatic species call this tidal climate home. The ever-burning Sun provides energy and light, the drenching waves bring nutrients, and breathing goes in and out, over and over.

Posted by Jeremy T 07:28 Archived in Brazil Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Com Emoção

Wild rides in Brasil's North East

sunny 31 °C
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Monday 30.07.07

We left off last time, with the cash problem still not corrected, and as i found out on this day, even more stress was ahead of me. The flow chart below better describes the week's predicament than any descriptive writing. Emotionally drained by the end of the day, i caught up with friends for a few drinks.

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Canned drinks in Brasil are nothing if not entertaining. There is always some element of mystery involved in cracking one open. Canned beer always seems to taste terrible here, and sometimes the cans are kept so cold that one finds chunks of ice floating in the beverage. Stranger still are some liquids that are chosen to be can-worthy (clearly a dubious title). The strongest Cachaça, Pitu can be purchased in this way. Another oddity is Chopp & Vinho, a bizarre mix of beer and wine in a purple can, which i was a little too afraid to try.

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My friends pulled up in a dune buggy in the morning, and i jumped on the back for a ride up to the dunes to the north of Natal. The shortest route for now is to take a ferry across the Rio Potengi, but a huge bridge is currently under construction to connect the city to the so far mostly unspoiled northern region. But before the place becomes a popular area to raise a family, before big business moves in with apartment blocks and restaurants, and hopefully long before the prostitutes flock to the tourist boom, let's go to a simpler time, a time where raw petrol-driven buggies raced across the sand, and the air and water were clean: Tuesday July 31, 2007....

Now across the other side of the river, the buggies roared into life toward the dunes, except for ours, which was broken down by the side of the road. After some unnecessary parts were jettisoned, and all of us pushed the thing some distance along the road, it stirred, sputtered and then started, and soon we were accelerating northward as if the very passage of time was too slow to catch us. Between the dunes of Genipabu we raced, into high banked turns, almost vertical plunges and plenty of sideways drift. It was all done in a fashion the locals call Com Emoção (with emotion), to a soundtrack of gangster rap and reggae. It is worth noting at this point that Brasilian pronunciation of such English terms ends up sounding like Hippy Hoppy, Haggy or Hock & Holl.

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The dunes themselves sit on top of a reservoir, which can be seen from time to time in the form of freshwater lakes here and there. One of the lakes we visited has chairs and tables set up in the shallows, while another sees people plunge into its depths from atop a dune by way of zip line and water slide, Com Emoção if you please. All over the area, via the coastal buggy route, river crossings by pole barge were necessary, sort of like gondolas of the wild west. After a late seafood lunch, we persuaded the driver to take us further north, to the place where Brasil's coastline turns from north to west. The coast up in this region has a more remote feel to it, of windswept palms swaying together, sleepy white-washed towns and miles and miles of empty beach.

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I embarked on the final leg of my cash transfer on Wednesday, sitting frustrated in the bank for some time, watching a female security guard idly playing with the handgun bullets holstered in her belt. Brasil itself is drowning in bureaucracy, from medical insurance hassles, to the difficulty of purchasing airline tickets without consulting an agent; and even such simple things as banking or buying a drink at the bar are tediously time-consuming. The protocol for many bars is to decide what to drink, buy a ticket for the chosen beverage, and then proceed to the bar to redeem the ticket, sometimes at the other end of the venue. I have seen small green grocers with 15 employees, and service stations with 12 people standing around the pumps. It is this 'due process' that can make Brasil an expensive and sometimes frustrating place to be.

This lack of efficiency can be translated in other means, as the recent air crash in São Paulo may attest. An Airbus A320, with a long list of problems, was cleared to land with only one thrust reverser operational, onto a short, badly-surfaced runway in the rain. Upon landing, either the speed brake system completely failed, or the throttle was jammed, and the aircraft ploughed into an inappropriately placed multi-story building at the end of the runway. This tragedy, the worst in Brasilian history, only a year after another airliner vanished without a trace into the Amazon, could have been completely avoided.

This brings me to my final point, that being the fate of the cities of Northeastern Brasil. Development and tourism are not terrible things, especially when the whole community can grow and profit from them, but there is a distinct lack of responsibility for development in this region. It is not the multi-storey apartment blocks popping up all over Ponta Negra, amazingly constructed of just bricks and concrete, nor is it the bridge facilitating expansion into the northern regions, but prostitution that is strangling the cities. It distances the locals from the tourists and drives out the families. I hear prostitution has all but claimed Fortaleza's appeal, and all of Natal will fall shortly if action is not taken. Praia dos Artistas, as the name suggests, was once a bohemian beach hang-out when Ponta Negra was just a fishing village. The three main beaches in Natal, including Artistas, slowly fell to sex tourism, until Ponta Negra was the only place for everyone else. Now it too is suffocating, and the local government is either too lazy or itself asphyxiating in bureaucracy to lift a finger. I left Natal on Wednesday night, to return by air to Salvador, where i was soon to find my battle with the buck had only just begun.

Posted by Jeremy T 04:42 Archived in Brazil Tagged educational Comments (0)

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