Saturday, January 5, 2013

to Belém do Pará

This had not been a happy trip.  If I were to recite my litany of complaints they might seem trivial, so I will say that I tried to do too much in the South and Brasil is a huge country and a tropical country and a Latin country and manageable as any of these might be alone their combination wore me down and I felt I was in one of those frustration dreams and I wanted to be someplace where, if nothing gets done, it is to be expected.  So I left Belo Horizonte in the evening and my plane stopped in Brasília and Carajás, little islands of light in a sea of dark forest, and arrived the next morning in Belém do Pará, at the mouth of the River Amazon.

My flight arrived at 2:00 a.m. and since I had no arrangements for a place to stay I decided I might as well remain at the airport until things would be open in town.  Temperature was pleasant enough, but even at that hour the humidity was oppressive.  A poster urged us to be nice to tourists.  The only coffee shop was on an open deck with a fine view of the airport, but was unfortunately also open to the noise of jet traffic.  I hadn’t slept that night, but I must have been in a good mood as time was passing quickly.  I listened to flights being announced  --  Cuibá, the Cataracts of Iguaçú, Marabá  --  and I thought how I only needed to buy a ticket and I could go to those wonderful places.
     Due to currency controls, I considered myself limited to such money as I brought with me.  I could use my credit cards, but their transactions must take place at the official exchange rate, which was about a third less that what you got everywhere on the street, so I thought them an extravagance, to be held in reserve for some dire circumstance or burst of self-indulgence.
I was sitting in the open-air coffee shop and at a quarter to six in the morning color began to appear in the eastern sky.  Sunrises are never as impressive as I think they ought to be.  Dawn never cracks, but seems more to creep, oozing snail-like over the horizon.  There was fog in the trees at the end of the runway.  By 6:30 the sun was streaming in, flat over the horizon, driving me out of the coffee shop.  
     At a little after seven I left the modern airport on a bus  into town.  We passed a military base with a cement water tank on stilts leaking a stream of water from a large crack.  We drove down unpaved streets, past ramshackle houses with unglazed windows and people sleeping in doorways and dogs sleeping in the street and naked children peeing in the gutter, lush greenness and cement walls covered with fungus-like growth and men in undershirts and I could feel myself begin to relax.

I found a nice hotel, $13 a night for a small suite of rooms overlooking a park in the oldest part of the city, just a few blocks from Ver o Peso Market, and had breakfast, my first meal since yesterday morning, lushly-ripe tropical fruit and a fly on my table the size of a small car with whom I attempted to make small talk in Portuguese.  It was drizzling rain outside and after breakfast I went back to my room and to sleep.  In the bathroom I noticed that the shower was apparently a later addition, as the light switch was inside the shower stall.  (I have actually run into that before, but then I do not stay in pricey hotels.)  Later, I went out for a walk.

While looking for an hotel I had noticed that there were thirteen stores listed in the Belém phonebook that sold articles relating to Umbanda, a Brasilian mix of Catholic and African religion, and within a block of my hotel I found one, an ordinary-looking storefront with a large painting on the cement block wall of an old black man in a white suit and arrows and cups and other symbols which I suppose spoke to points of their doctrine.  One of my businessman contacts in São Paulo had told me that Brasilians were mainly practical atheist, that they went to church on Sunday and observed the forms, but had no real faith.  He was speaking, I suppose, of the middle and upper classes, as was my surfer seatmate on the flight to Rio who had told me that Brasilians didn’t care about religion.  For those who live closer to the hard edges of life and are not nourished by the thin gruel of the social gospel, there is the more direct contact with the forces of the world provided by Umbanda and Candomblé and the experiential faiths that have arisen among the Brasilian poor and in some of the cities speaking also to the spiritual hunger of other classes.  By a tree in a park I see what appears to be a shrine, with burnt-down candles and offerings of coins and ribbons and small bottles and a dried cup of coffee and no recognizably Christian symbol.

My hotel was near the river.  I was told that it rained every day in Belém, but in the late morning the sidewalk merchants were laying out their goods and I took this to mean that no rain was expected for a while.  I passed through the municipal meat market, a marvelous old iron building with cast iron grills and columns and enough hanging meat to make a vegetarian of you.  I passed on to the stalls set up along the embankment where fruits and vegetables were sold and then to the fish market where I saw some very odd creatures that had only that morning been swimming in the Amazon.  And the lady parts of a dolphin, which appear to have some cultural significance to some of those who dwell along the great river.

There were boats of all sizes on the river.  Ocean-going freighters and river cruise ships and local transports and there were small craft of all sizes, quite a few of them named “Miracle of God”.

I gave a beggar 50,000 Crusieros, which at current rates was about 30 cents, and he declared that God would bless me and bring prosperity to my family for generations to come.  In the United States, a beggar would likely return the money, saying that I plainly must need it more than he did.

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