Saturday, December 10, 2011

Belem, Brazil

Mangoes, mangoes everywhere yet I don't want to eat.

The avenues of Belem are lined with mango trees. It's novel and exotic but it leads to some rather interesting problems regarding slippage. This abundance of tropical foodstuffs had initially perked my appetite. However, eating random crap at small stalls because they look fun has got me to renew acquaintance with that old friend of the backpacker; food poisoning. This has 2 main consequences: My tours of Belem have been rather short and my mood towards the place has been less than charitable. There is a definite before and after. On arrival I would view typical Brazilian displays of enthusiasm as passionate and a sign of a people who wear their heart on their sleeve. Warm people who know how to have fun and mingle etc. Now I tend towards judging them for being indolent, superficial and, in some cases, quite callous. Hopefully I'll be more reasonable once I am off my self prescribed diet of lime juice, peanuts and crackers.

To add to my general toilet related bitchiness is that Belem has introduced me to a famous aspect of developing societies. The very poor amongst the obviously loaded. In the neighbourhood I am staying it's not to obvious as the place is a bit of a shithole but in the nice areas it's very striking to to point of being a bit of a cliché. Scrawny street kids trying to sell crap to bejeweled ladies. Private guards shooing away druggies from the entrance of a shiny apartment building. Macapa and Opaioque had few or no signs of wealth to provide the contrasts and poor people tend to be in small villages on the Amazon. Here, things mix. It's something I will want to look into a bit more but when I feel better and less negative.

It's not all bad in Belem though. It's a strange place as it feels like a boomtown that has slumped but is now booming again. Which is exactly what it is. The old city has loads of derelict buildings whose glory is long gone. There are rails for where the tram used to be. The port that once shipped the rubber (source of Belem's old boom) out is now too small for commercial use and clogged with rubbish. The whole place could do with a scrub up but a look skywards can explain why it won't. That's when you see the tall buildings where the new boom's winners live and work. In effect, the new Belem. The one you see when you get in by boat.

I'm also starting to realise something about colonial architecture in South America. They tend to be pale copies of what there is in Europe. The main difference being a tendency to include native stuff in the artwork. I'm sure I will find this icute but in my grumpy mood it just looks like a rather pathetic attempt to whitewash a very, very inglorious moment in the history of the Church. There is a fresco on the large basilisque here showing JC being holy to a group of Natives on one side and a bunch of whities on the other. Not shown: Whities using JC as a pretext to murder, enslave and dispossess the Natives.

As usual people and their activities come up high on good things to see. My favorite place here must be the Ver-o-peso market. There is a tourist trap section but most of it is a working market. That is unless tourists buy live rabbits, shaved coconut in 20 kilo bags or huge riverfishes. The best part of the market is the homemade remedy section. They have herbal potions for most illnesses and stuff that start to exit homeopathy and enter witchcraft territory. There are a lot of potions to get a person to like you, sleep with you or came back to you once they have dumped you. Most of them instruct you to use them on your target "em segredo". The Amazon kindly presents solutions for the eco-conscious date-rapist.

Beyond natural GHB, the one thing that I found rather intriguing is a bit of a political campaigning going on. It seems there is a vote tommorow on the status of this region. I am mainly guessing but it looks like someone wants to split the State of Para into 2 entities. In Belem at least, they are against. There are flags, adverts, stickers, t-shirts, cars with gigantic banners of the Para state flag and once what seems to be a giant papier mache kangaroo with the colors of the state and the opposiotion slogan of "Nao e nao". To add to the drama the TVs in the cafes often show a song cooked up by local artisst to oppose the move. The video looks like a straight rip-off of Live Aid. Famous folk arriving to the studio, singing while holding their headsets, the big chorus etc.

Anyhoo, I will leave Belem with mixed feelings, a stomach-full of loperamide and a few good photos. I feel a bit miffed that I didn't enjoy the place but that's life. To be fair, this place was just a destination for my boat trip.

Soon I will be on my way to the most famous place in Brazil. The home of Carnaval, samba, tiny beachwear and huge concrete Nazarenes.

Off to Rio,

Take care,


Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Belem, Brazil

I spent my last night in French Guyana next to a river in a hammock watching fireflies. I handed back my wreck and took the only form of public transport in FG (the Cayenne municipal bus service run by a union of all things) to where the share taxis depart for St Georges de l'Opaioque (AKA the border with Brazil). The place is just at the entrance of Cayenne's Chinatown know locally as Chicago. It's not as nice or interesting as it sounds. I had heard about Chicago on the radio in conjunction to the Global Aids Day. I now know why.

My last 2 hours in Cayenne waiting for the bus to fill up were spent watching junkies walk, limp and flail around. These were end-of-the-road druggies. Most had suppurating leg wounds. What clothes they were wearing were rags and they too fucked-up to even beg. Some of them would just sit in the road and talk to themselves as cars went around them. Eventually the cops showed up. Like demi-gods they bounded out of their car and sprung into lifting and elderly Brazilian woman on the minibus for being in the country illegally. We pointed out that she was obviously headed to Brazil but to no avail. She was taken to the airport to be processed and deported to the place she was heading to. It's election time in France and police stats have to show action regardless of logic.

Another 2 hours of excellent French roads got me to St Georges.. There is a bridge to Brazil but the roads aren't ready yet so it was a motorized canoe ride into Brazil. The town on the other side was much more rough and ready than its French counterpart and much nicer. Unlike FG there was some street life. I had a bite to eat and watched folk do stuff before taking a night bus to Macapa, the capital of the Apama state. To make things a bit more fun there were reports of "pirates" stopping the buses with fallen trees and robbing everyone.The road was crap and I was glad I could not see the bridges we crossed (I could feel the planks though). I slept well except for when we stopped at little burghs where the Friday party was on. My introduction to the delights of Foro music.

Got to Macapa and crashed before venturing forth and getting a ticket for the boat to Belem. I found out I was stuck in Macapa until Monday. This was a bit of a mixed blessing. It's not exactly the most visited place in Brazil. There is an old fortress and a monument to the Equator. That's about it. That being said there is a nice waterfront and I had a pleasant time. I sat down at a cafe, ordered a Caipirinha and watched kite surfers do their thing. I was having a drink on the banks of the Amazon.

Once the sun goes down the whole riverbank is awash with small stalls selling anything from very good beef kebabs to ice creams and, of course, more cocktails. It's kind of fun ordering a drink from someone with a cart and two blenders but then again the result is something like a rather lethal milk shake. I decided to opt out of going to a Foro dancehall because I figured that just because the music was different they were still nightclubs; places I loathe with a passion.

Sunday was absolutely dead during the day. A combination of good catholic behaviour in the morning and no end of ungodly shenanigans the night before makes for a very, very quiet city. It was basically a day to drink fruit juices and watch a few cars and motorbikes drive around with huge banners of their favorite football club. I also stocked up on food and drink for the boat trip. A footie match between the 2 big Rio teams compunded the ghost town effect in the afternoon. In the evening said supporters gathered near the waterfront to celebrate or commiserate. Music was provided by people who think the huge stereo in the boot beloved by fuckwits back home is for wimps. They put concert sized woofers on the top of their cars.

The next day I went off to the port of Santana to catch the good ship Sao Francisco de Paula. I was set for one of the things I really wanted to do when coming to South America: the Amazon boat trip. It's also the only alternative to flying here and, to be fair, it is one of the shortest ones you can do at 26 hours. Still, it's one of the quintessential South American backpacker experiences.

The ship was a large 3 decker. The top deck is where the bar is and the other 2 have cabins for a high price or hooks for your hammock. I got there early and slung my hammock in what I thought was cramped spaces. As the boat filled I realised what cramped meant. I hitched up my hammock as high as possible to avoid the bum-in-face situation a lot of folk had to deal with. Once settled I got in and waited for the boat to depart.

It's sort of strange that a trip that is so hyped up can be that uneventful. Most of the time is spent drinking beer up top or napping in the hammock. The Amazon is ridiculously big at times to the point that I think we need new names for fecking humongous rivers. It's offensive that, in English at least, something where you can't always see the banks has the same nomenclature as the Avon. We would occasionally pass huge barges full of lumber neing pushed by tugboats. We did see a dolphin ar at least some sort of creature with a blowhole. If it was a dolphin it has the same habits as the bipeds around here and doesn't really do much when the sun is up .

A more interesting phenomenon was when we passed small hamlets on the riverbanks. Passengers would throw plastic shopping bags at people waiting in dugout canoes. The bags are full of clothes. It was a fun bit of charity giving and it impressed me a lot. There was also some very dangerous trading going on. A young kid drove his tiny speedboat (like a short version of a Thai longtail boat) into our wake and up a short ramp at the back of our boat to flog some homemade booze.

All in all it's rather bucolic. What made it special was that I had a "moment". These are times where what you are doing hits you in the face. After a gorgeous sunset I had a few beers up top, not having to face Sophie's choice of sunburn or Foro music. I would find a quiet spot away from canoodling couples and look out. I watched the dark jungle go by and , as we passed lit houses on the banks or moored boats, I would wonder what the people inside were like, what they lived off and what were they doing. It's then that it hit me. I was getting buzzed and having idle thoughts while travelling on the Amazon. The fucking Amazon! This is why I travel.

Just in case you were wondering.

Take care,


Thursday, December 01, 2011

Dacca Village,French Guyana, France. Regular France. It's just like Brittany really. It's not a colony in any way shape or form.

French Guyana is categorised as a departement. It's not autonomous or anything. The roads are good, the cops are thick (one of them was wondering where my visa for France was), the prices are European or higher and people are snooty (the expats at least). It has got few things that are markedly different. The vast majority of people here are creoles, there are dead sloths on the road and my passport now has a French entry stamp. Another significant difference from the rest of France is that there is no public transport. This means travelling here is tricky and expensive.

The plan was to hire a car and sod off to find the only cheap sleeping optons in French Guyana which are carbets. These are basicallly shelters where you can sling a hammock for 5 to 8 euros. Chucking in a few extra euros will get you luxuries like showers. My plan failed on the first day. I had met a French couple in Suriname. We would go to the border together and they would give me a lift to Cayenne in their hire care. I would go to a car hire place and get out of the rather charmless town of Cayenne. Being in la republique screwed this plan.

The couple's car had had its window smashed in St Laurent du Maroni (France-Suriname border) despite parking in front of the cop shop. Said cops were also so busy letting crime happen that they would not take a complaint untill 15.00. This made things very tight but still feasible time-wise. France still had a trick up its sleeve. The authorities have decided to participate in the South American sport of having constant pointless checkpoints. More time-wasting and explaining to the gendarmes that Brits haven't needed a visa or France since forever. Finally got to Cayenne 1 minute after closing time and, this being France, the idle bolshevik tossers couldn't remain open and extra 10 minutes. One very expensive night in Cayenne.

The next day I hired a wreck and went to Kourou, home of the 2 famous places in this country/region. The first one is the Isles du Salut. Frenchies and students of Gallic antisemitism know this place as where Dreyfus was sent. The rest of the world knows it through Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman and butterfly tattoos. I decided to skip this for several reasons. I would have had to spend another night near Kourou as the boat leave at 7ish AM, the tour is pricey and I have seen islands and ruined prisons before. I therefore chose to go for option number 2 that is both free and much rarer. The Centre Spatiale Guyanais, home of the European Space Agency and named Europe's Spaceport. Being in South America doesn't seem to bother them.

It's actually very interesting and good fun. I am old enough to be impressed by space stuff and the free tour is pretty impressive. They put you on a bus and drive you around the complex (it's huge). The guides try to be educational and give you info in the form of a Q and A. Why French Guyana? It's close to the equator and benefits from the slingshot effect (my mumbled answer: If it fails and the rocket crashes into a small village in FG, the French politicians can probably live with that). Who guards the place? The Foreign Legion in what I suppose is the less romanticised part of their jobs as they basically shoo away maroon poachers before a launch. Why is the fire brigade from Paris? They are soldiers hence are cleared for high security type stuff (my answer: They are soldiers and hence can't refuse to be posted here).

The quiz was held between slow drives past the huge hangars where they prep the rockets. The final destination was the launch pad of that great example of European space pioneering: Soyuz.

Europe has developed Ariane, a huge rocket, and Vega, a small one but they needed an intermediate launcher. Soyuz was proven (It's not often but when the Russians do make something that is reliable it is very, very solid) and the Russkies have the problem of their base being really far from the equator and verything else. Basically, the ESA have subcontracted the Russkies hence the Cyrillic at the Soyuz launch pad. The guides told us there is a bizarre set-up to avoid tech stealing. The top 2 floors of the mobile hangar are European only as they put on the payload and the lower floors are only for Ivans. I presume shitloads of spying goes one.

Anyway, got to stand on the blast exhaust trench and wonder if anyone had cooked something in it. After that it was back to the main base and the Jupiter control room. Old footage of NASA launches have conditioned me to think it would be huge with many shiny buttons. Not so. PC's have really taken the romance out of Space travel. Even more disappointing, there is no button or key or anything to launch the rockets. Boo!

After that, I hunted down a carbet on a farm nearby. The plus side was that the farmer let me pick bananas and mangoes, the minus was that he showed me the whole place. I'm glad I saw where coffee and chocolate come from but to be fair it was a bit dull. I am now in a Laotian village (more evidence of a colonial past) near the Kaw swamp where I might hire a canoe or just faff in a hammock. I'm definetely hunting for Laotian food.

Not sure what to make of FG. I see why it's dismissed by the trail. Without speaking French it's nearly hopeless to visit. There is a strange resignation even in the tourism adverts. One of them asked you to spend an unforgettable experience in French Guyana. The last sentence was "no one will believe you". Quite. More amusing for those who speak French was "La Guyane, ca vous bagne". A play on words on a more famous ad campaign for Brittany and referring to the mythologised French Guyana of gold-rushes and prisons. Amusingly there is still loads of illegal gold panning here with consequent dumping of mercury and anti-Brazilian attitudes and there is, of course, a prison but it's locals only now.

It is pricey and most of its tourism industry is based around weekending expats. Apparently FGis not a cushty posting in the Frog civil service and something of a punishment which might explain the jaw dropping stupidity of the plod. Basically FG from a tourism perspective is overshadowed by Suriname. Even local people prefer the old Dutch colony for hols. The bizarre official reality of the place makes me ponder as to wether or not I have been to a different county or a very weird and moist part of France. Fuck it. I'm counting this as one in the bag and I have the stamp to prove it.

I'm not sure when I will post again. I am going to Brazil tomorrow to try and catch a boat across the mouth of the Amazon to Belem. Even if all goes well and there is no waiting it's a 2 hour trip to the border, a 15 hour nightbus to Macapa and then a further 25 hours on a boat. Realistically I will be in Belem in 5 days. Should be fun.

Take care,