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Snakes, samba and giant meals: five weeks in Brazil

Whilst browsing this website recently I read with interest an article entitled ‘Fortress São Paulo’ by Jean-Francois Cote and it reminded me of a my five week stay in Brazil some years ago and how little things seemed to have changed.

My husband and I were based in São Paulo in a neighbourhood called Pacaembu which is also home to one of Brazils many football stadiums. Our temporary home was an ultra modern, single storey building with enormous windows, bathrooms you could party in and a large and inviting swimming pool and was situated in a wide street where the wealthy residents lived barricaded behind high glass topped walls, large dogs, complex security systems and an armed guard called George who, amazingly, studied by day and patrolled our street by night. The wealth of Brazil, like so many other countries around the world, has never been evenly distributed and in the sprawling city of São Paulo during that time not only were there reputed to be approximately one million children of unknown parentage but it was as easy to acquire a gun as it was a loaf of bread.

After spending the first few days nervously settling in, our first trip away from the city was a weekend at the Iguaçu Falls, situated in the Iguaçu National Park in the Brazilian state of Paraná and home to the most spectacular waterfalls. Our hotel was within the park itself and in the lush green gardens, brightly coloured tropical birds, streaked with flashes of vivid red and green feathers, sat serenely on top of the sun loungers, coolly observing the guests while they sunbathed.

To appreciate the full force of the magnificent waterfalls it was necessary to get up close and personal and this meant donning a bright blue, oversized plastic Pac-a-Mac to enable you to walk out onto a jetty that put you within reach of the spray without getting too wet!

Hearing the powerful rushing and booming of the water, watching the colourful birds and butterflies dipping in and out of the fine mist together with the sun streaming through the falls creating sparkling rainbows amongst the torrents was unforgettable.

The Iguaçu Falls themselves are shared by Brazil and Argentina, who have the larger area and there has been endless debate as to which side is better. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make the comparison ourselves.

We did however, cross the border into Paraguay and spent an afternoon in the town of Ciudad Del Este which is linked to the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu by the Puente de la Amistad or the Friendship Bridge.

There was a bustling market and I was intrigued to see several women sitting on the pavement on heavy, patterned rugs, some with small children, their legs out stretched in front of them with assorted coloured threads tied to their toes which they were skilfully plaiting into traditional necklaces, presumably to sell in the market.

Following our visit to the Iguaçu Falls we returned to our base for a few days and amused ourselves by lazing by the pool, reading and playing table tennis in the play room at the bottom of the sloping garden.

In the city of São Paulo, North American influence was everywhere from McDonald’s restaurants to Sears department stores and enormous shopping malls.

Unfortunately not all areas of the city were considered safe and one morning we unwittingly ventured into the wrong district in order to take a guided tour of a rather beautiful theatre. When we left the theatre my husband and I were making our way to a restaurant for some lunch when a man barged violently into us knocking me one way and my husband the other. A second man put his hand into my husband’s trouser pocket, no doubt in the hope of finding some cash. As my husband was wisely wearing a money belt, all the would be thief managed to grab was a handkerchief and a few low value coins which, were almost worthless as at that time, Brazilian inflation was running at over 18 % per month. Although it could have been worse the incident shook us up and we were relieved to return to the safety of the house in the afternoon.

Some of the loveliest sights in the city were the flower markets which were run by the descendants of Japanese immigrants that had arrived in Brazil a century ago. Old aircraft hangers were used to display the dazzling selection of flowers, deep blue giant headed daisies competing with rich vanilla coloured velvety lilies spilling out of their buckets all vying for attention and sending their wonderful intoxicating scents into the air. They were relatively cheap to buy and whenever we visited the homes of local expatriates they always had several large vases of these magnificent blooms on display.

Brazil is a country of extremes and opposites and nowhere was this more noticeable than in Rio de Janeiro where we stayed for five days for the second of our sojourns away from São Paulo.

While we ate in restaurants that served ridiculously over sized portions at every course, young children could be seen standing outside of the open windows begging for half eaten bread rolls. While we spent an afternoon watching diamonds and other precious stones being cut in the cool clean rooms of a local jewellers, outside in the hot sun children with old faces and bare feet struggled to earn a meagre living offering to shine shoes or by trying to sell small nets of citrus fruits before returning to their homes which were, in all probability, roughly thrown together corrugated iron shacks, famously known as favelas, which could be seen precariously perched on the hillsides on the outskirts of the city and crammed together with thousands of others.

I was glad to leave Rio de Janeiro at the end of the five days although we had had some exhilarating experiences. The scariest of which occurred when we were on our way up to the final stage of the Sugarloaf Mountain in the cable car. It suddenly ground to a halt, hanging in mid air for several minutes before it had to be hand winched the remainder of the way. Somewhat less nerve racking but equally stunning, was the trip up to the 38m high statue of the Cristo Redentor or Christ the Redeemer that sits on top of the Corcovado Mountain with fantastic views over the bay and is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

After a few days back in the city we now returned to the coast, the last place on our itinerary before coming home and it was a real treat to find ourselves in a more safe and tranquil environment for a few days. We stayed in a small lodge just yards from the sea and spent much of the time topping up our suntans in the glorious sunshine on a vast, sandy and almost deserted beach.

Apart from an unusual visit to the Butanta Institute, situated in the park next to the campus of the University of Brazil in São Paulo, which specialises in the study of evolution of snakes all over the world and the development of vaccines, we had seen very little in the way of wild-life.

So, the sight of two large, hungry looking black headed vultures sitting patiently if not a little menacingly on the top of the electricity cables during our stay was both daunting and fascinating as they remained so still and showed such dedicated concentration. In quiet contrast the following night, we were lucky enough to catch a group of fire flies dancing delicately on the edge of a clearing by a small wood, creating a beautiful ballet of flashing, gleaming lights that was quite spell binding to watch.

The final evening of our stay we had been out to dinner and we were being driven back to our lodge. I spotted what looked like an enormous log stretched across the middle of the unmade road. It was almost dark and there were of course no street lights. As we got closer and the beams from the headlights closed in I realised that it was not a log at all but a very large boa constrictor taking an evening slither.

Fortunately for all concerned, there was enough room to drive around it without any harm coming to either us or the snake.

Back in São Paulo again, we made preparations for our return home. I was relieved that we were coming to the end of our stay as at that time there was a degree of political unrest in Brazil with regard to their voting system and one evening, just two days before we left we could plainly hear a number of chanting protesters who had taken to the streets not far from the house.

Brazil is a country with a vibrant culture, a passion for football; dance and life itself and its eclectic mix of inhabitants make it a truly fascinating and exciting place. Perhaps one day a greater proportion of its people will have the chance to experience a better way of life.

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