Friday, 30 July 2010


Rio Negro comes from the dense jungle of the north. It's waters are dark, almost black with the decomposing foliage. Rio Solimões comes from the west, all the way up the Andean tops and carries mud. It's colder, travels faster and its waters are brown. As they meet, a little further downstream from Manaus they travel side by side, without mixing immediately, little swirls doing the introductions like shaking hands, getting to know each other. And after a few kilometers the joined twins are called the Amazon.

Around the meeting of the rivers there's a dense forest of extremely tall trees. They have proper trunks-it's not the jungle and the all fuse at the top to form a green umbrella that follows you around. One of them apparently is the largest tree of the continent. Unfortunately it's name eludes me, it's in one of the indigenous languages. The silence is eerie and the black and blue reflections on the water dreamlike. It's a green, fluid, hallucinating maze.

Victoria Regis is the name of the largest lily of them all. It's only on the Solimões, the Negro's high acidity is prohibiting. The monkeys could be using them as giant pools, springs, hammocks, I don't know what. Their flower is white the first day, pink the second and purple on the third. And then it is no more. Don't go too far searching for another one, it's right there, next to you. And another and another. As far as you can see.

I'm afraid I did not spend that much time in the jungle. And to be honest I do not mind that much. I'm happy I'm here but happier this universe is here. The trip down the river, all the way to the ocean has commenced.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Eating Piranhas.

I've wanted to see Manaus ever since I first heard of a city on the banks of the Amazon. Manaus excited me more than the jungle itself. But I had no idea about this place. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting or even dreaming. It doesn't matter anymore.

Manaus is bigger than I thought, much bigger. And it's not even on the Amazon, it lies on the north bank of Rio Negro, a few kms NW of the meeting of the rivers, where Rio Negro and Rio Solimões join to form the mighty River. It would also be a stretch to call Manaus beautiful or romantic. It certainly has a long and glorious past, especially during the few decades on either side of the beginning of the 20th century, during the rubber boom. Inevitably history took its course and left more than a few scars behind.

But I still fell for it. It's gritty, rough and rusty, with old mansions gutted by an urban jungle, with an amazing amount of street stalls, the heat and humidity of hell and it's grand Opera house smack in the middle. The port is as real as it gets. Fish and grains, hammocks, engines, fruits, umbrellas; all are in a constant move through the eternal sweating of the men. Stalls with fish soup and little corner barbeques, plastic chairs with frozen beer fill in a feverish craze through the ingeniousness of the women.You can find anything you want. I found a salami of tobacco to accompany my hammock on my boat trip.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


A bus driving precariously in busy and empty highways, a tiger stencil on the wall, "animals are friends, not food", a skeleton sleeping on the pavement, a car park blasting out Forro, the restaurant across the street Samba, two broken guitars crying about redemption and lies, chattering and laughs, a cat on its sixth life crossing the street among screeching taxis, portable toilets full to the brim, alcohol and meat, on the wall a pregnant woman with a mustache cradling a flag begging to give birth, the revolving red light of a patrol car, someone's child sleeping among empty cups, the smell of urine, two supermarket plastic bags tied around a young palm tree, ancient records on sale, hope and dreams and illusions, travelling ceramic tiles on display, stuck to the stairs with superglue, a Voodoo doll in black and red and white lying among flowers, cans and ice and straws and meat on the streets, a green cloth covering a broken horse-cart, a crippled pigeon stumbling on the cobble-street, loud red lights and wet kisses, a long walk among sleeping tombstones, eyes staring at youth in amazement and disbelief, brave hands and hopeful lips, dancing hips, the doll thrown on the tarmac crying for a home, short skirts and confident unbuttoned shirts, cars and people bumping into each other, speakers talking in tongues, long drinks with gallons of spirits trespassing fences, three men dreaming of beds, litter and vomit and hopes, a dirty wall as a testament, the smell of fire, eternal fire, no more cigarettes, a sickly rain that changed its mind and a sleepy moon, honest lies and fake dreams, memories, ghosts crisscrossing the aqueduct, the red light molesting young cheeks, a laugh and a blush, a kiss and a promise, here's India and there's Boca, a man's vision and the people's nod, plastic chairs in front of graffitis, a foul smell and a perfume, a lying newspaper for a pillow, a great night, the last night, the Voodoo doll found a family.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Smoking Mary.

It is only 12kms from São João del Rei to Tiradentes. And there is no better way to do the half hour trip than on-board the good-old Maria Fumaça. It's the original line from 1870 built  during the textile boom of  São João, one of the first in the continent, with beautiful carriages from the 30s, wooden seats and floors and the original steam engines of the 19th century.

We crossed half of the town until we hit the hills and valleys towards Tiradentes. And along the train tracks we had an impromptu audience, stopped on their tracks and looking in amazement. The novelty of a whistling and puffing steam engine is obvious, that's why I was here in the first place, but it is a regular, albeit limited, service nevertheless. The residents see old Mary struggling her path every week and yet they froze, they felt incapable of resisting it's beauty and optimism.

There was a kid leaning against a fence, waving slowly with dreamy eyes, seemingly waving at a mythical animal, a black unicorn. And  three girls, maybe neighbours or even sisters, smiling shyly at the steel caterpillar with the square openings between its ribs, they appeared to be waiting for us. But not just children with open mouths, unsure what to make of this timeless alien; old people, farmers and drivers and women holding their shopping bags were smiling and waving. And it made me think: what is in a train that captures the imagination of humans? How can an old, black, smoking beast be worthy of such attention? Why do people have the instinctive urge to raise their hand and wave to its passengers, some weekend tourists heading to the next village?

I find it a primitive response to dreams. An escapist instinct, the desire to know more and grow, an instantaneous travel to unknown lands and new friendships. And why this never happens with cars or buses? Is it the firmness of the tracks, the sweet, rusty sound of the steam or just nostalgia? That I do not know but Smoking Mary was generous.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Pulling Teeth.

The first attempt to make a country out of the vastness of Brazil was the Inconfidência Mineira in 1789. And its leader was a man that was to be cut into pieces and scattered all over the Mining Town as an example. The plot was swiftly folded but of course in time his dream materialized. He was born in this little village that bears his nickname, Tiradentes or the "teeth-puller". He was a dentist.

The white and yellow church at the top of the hill, adorned with maybe more gold than any other church in the country, is testament to the mining rush of gone times. And now pink horse carriages with cartoon stickers take the tourists around in bumpy rides. The houses are white with blue and yellow windows, and on the windowsills are girl statuettes, the Namoradeiras, looking at the passers-by with dreamy, smiling eyes. I'm not sure who are they waiting for or what do they think of us but they make for a comforting company.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

North by North-West.

I found myself in São João del Rei and the beautiful mining towns of Minas took a strange turn. The churches are as immaculate as always, the narrow alleys and cobble-streets bumpy and oozing history, the little squares as lazy and sleepy as always. There's a stream cutting through the town, bridges and hills, great views and even a fully functioning textile factory from the 19th century, sweating away night and day. But during dinner came the twist.

A huge truck with a long trailer, both decorated with Christmas lights, bells ringing and colourful spotlights flashing left and right passed by. The trailer had a floor and a ceiling of course but no walls, instead a single bar (or were there more?) was keeping it's stock from falling out. And it was not carrying sheep or cows, it was kids and youngsters, people on board. They were waving wildly at everything on their way, singing and pretending to be dancing to the music screeching out of some well hidden speakers. Nobody batted an eyelid, nobody even bothered to raise their eyes. I thought I was dreaming, it must have been a mirage, an illusion. What was that?

And then I saw it again, different part of the town, different song, me with the same half-open mouth in amazement. Again nobody paid attention, it was as if it never existed. Three times it passed in one night and out of my surprise I never managed to take a picture of it. It always took me by surprise, appeared out of nowhere, and in what felt like super-slow motion, disappeared at the next corner. I guess Rudolf is getting old
by now.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Ghosts And Empires.

Petrópolis is a city of history. The summer residence of the Brazilian emperors and later presidents, home of the palace of Pedro II - now turned into one of the most visited museum in the country, a place with strong German influences from the numerous immigrants during the past centuries.

It sits atop the hills, among the clouds and it's green. A sickly little stream runs through it and the beautiful old houses and mansions of the late coffee magnates are sprouting around. Its Gothic churches pierce the gray sky and it's deceptively large. The people walk in a rush, they seem to have a pressing purpose in their steps, they're going somewhere and could not afford to be late.

And then there are some old mansions, with worn carpets and cobwebs, old oil paintings and stained windows, creaking floors, locked doors. It's like the Overlook Hotel. With it's ghosts running around frantically in shopping malls and restaurants during the day and coming back to their history to sleep at sundown. The streets were deserted after 10.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Feria Nordestina.

In São Cristóvão there's a stadium-like building filled with tents and I had seen it a few times from the bus. I admit that I was a bit bewildered by it, there were clearly no seats and the tents were obviously covering the whole of the area so I could not decipher it in any way. Then I heard that it is a market, purpose-built to house the stalls of merchants that descended to Rio from the north-east of the country decades ago.  And I payed it a visit last week.

What a wonderful place it is. Completely different from anything else I've seen and since I have not visited the north-east (other than Bahia) it was all new to me. Restaurants are in the majority but you can find pretty much everything else. From food and house-ware to booklets of traditional myths and stories, sometimes biographies (or is it hagiographies?) of legendary bandits of the previous century. And there's families, kids with traditional costumes, young people with their dancing shoes on, the older generation revisiting the glories of the past. It's vibrant and colourful. And then the two stages, one on either side of the stadium, where the speakers spit out Forro unhealthily loud and the dancing is frenetic! How can you not love this place?

(By the way, besides the normal daily opening hours, from Friday 10am the market is open until Sunday night!)

Monday, 5 July 2010

C'mon then!

It' sweet and funny how little kids look at you sometimes. They have that innocence and benign suspicion in their eyes, the curiosity. And they almost beg to be noticed. They pretend they're cool, they're just checking you out, they're not really bothered and couldn't care less. They stare at your camera and at you, camera again and they almost whisper "ask to take a photo of me, I'll make out that I'm thinking about it and then I'll reluctantly agree. Just try it, it'll be fun."

It was one of these fleeting occasions today, three of them, one bolder than the others. I deciphered the whisper, I almost never miss it by now, asked, he thought about it and nodded "sure, I thought you'd never ask". I snapped the photo, the others just smiled shyly. But the catch was still to come. The brave one, walked casually to his mum, and returned even more coolly, grasping proudly her own little camera. He asked us "where are YOU from"? And on our reply, foreign, distant, tiny countries, not sure whether he'd heard of them before, asked to take OUR photo! It was the first time ever. We were truly and utterly equal! Best friends ever, fellow travellers on the same ferry towards the same mystical destination. My brain buzzed and my heart melted. That was something special.

The ferry by the way was taking us leisurely to the island of Paquetá, in the bay of Guanabara. We had to negotiate a forest of steely giants, tankers and self-washing ships, cities-of-vessels. But the sun, hot peanuts for R$0.50 and an enthusiastic bunch of youngsters playing Samba kept our spirits sky high. Paquetá used to be a top destination for the Cariocas but since the massive development (see pollution) of the bay has somehow faded. It's a gem of a place though! Beaches and forests, a park and dirt roads, no cars and hundreds of bikes in all shapes and colours. A queer array of oblong shaped rocks litters beautifully the tiny bays and the little dark specs on top of them I took for prehistoric birds. In fact were it not for the oil refineries and oil tankers in the horizon, you could have mistaken it for an earthly mini-paradise. This was a beautiful Sunday out and the huge swan-shaped pedalos gave it a pinch of sweetly kitsch nostalgia.

(Oh, I almost forgot. The brave kid and his gang stormed back to their family after our pic exchange and couldn't stop laughing. There was obviously a bet as to where we were from. There were no other gringos in the ferry, nor the whole island.)

Saturday, 3 July 2010

End In Two Acts.

Woke up startled yesterday morning. Explosions, fire brigade sirens, shouting and radio at full volume. Or was it the TV? Did not get up, the big game was scheduled for this afternoon and I thought that the neighbors were just testing their equipment. Shifted sides and on the first gentle meeting of my eyelids a familiar melody met my eardrums. The Brazilian national anthem. Could I possibly be wrong-could the game be in the morning, in 2 minutes to be precise? We had big plans for today, a grand, alcohol and samba infused fiesta. Everything was in place to celebrate the semis. Could this not be another perfect day?

Three hours later, with just a coffee in me, my yellow jersey in a wrinkly mood and a silly numbness in the air I found myself at Flamengo beach. A can collector asked for my empty container of liquid sugar. He was very animated, got excited about my origin but mostly my English. I was lazy but got excited about his origin and his Portuguese. He sat down, we gifted each other a three course meal of grammar, syntax and vocabulary and before sunset parted. While on his way, he fired back that he was very upset after the game, but now he was happy. Another day is coming tomorrow and he practiced his English, what was wrong with that? Me, I was on my way for another coffee.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Short Stories (to be told).

Brave blonde with braces and the glass-eyed waiter.
How a prawn stew can make you a pimp.
It's not 4-1, it's 0-0.
Burning cars and pop-corn.
On midget dermatologists and sharp scalpels.
How much?
When possessed, wear white!
One-armed taxi driver in a hurricane.
Followed by suspiciously suspicious drunks.
Blind barber with Parkinson's.
Smugglers, dogs and cheeseburgers.
Good evening, oral sex?
Beef and Pineapple; or The Balcony.
Plastic chairs.
Always know your wife's name.
Dropped your egg? Here's another.
How to grill cheese with a DVD case.
Bats, cigars and headless chickens.
Monkeys for breakfast.
Don't shave that!