Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Brazil Bus Trip - Part II

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BRAZIL BUS TRIP PART 2 - 2005/2006

December 13, 2005 - January 16, 2006

Brasilia to Maceio

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  Teasers:

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 Drive the strange ultra modern streets of Brazil's capital city.

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Learn about the Calvahada pageant in the colonial Pirenopolis

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Wander deserted streets of old Goias to greet the New Year

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Hunt for the road built by slaves in Diamantina

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Hunt for the elusive modern road to the Belo Horizonte airport

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Watch dancers and learn about Brazil-Afro rites in Salvador

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Hop up the beach stopping at Aracaju and Maceio

 

" Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things - air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it." Cesare Pavese

 

December 29 - 30 Brasilia

 

From the beginning of the Republic of Brazil, the capital of the country was located in Rio. At first the senate was housed in one of the old royal palaces. When it came time for Brazil to produce their entry for the St Louis exhibition, they chose to make a most unusual offering. Their country's pavilion consisted of a metal building that to all practical purposes looked like one of the very durable and ornate stone structures so popular at the time. What was unique was that the whole thing was designed, as decreed by law, so it could be completely disassembled and moved back to Rio after the exhibition. The senate from that point used it until the capital was moved to Brasilia. The building was a huge success at the exhibition, winning the gold medal and rave reviews from all the newspapers. So it is rather ironic that it would be declared an eye sore and torn down in 1974 to make way for a metro station.

 

Prior to the late 1950s Brasilia existed as nothing more than an idea and dream. Back in 1883 Dom Bosco, a Salesian priest living in Turin, Italy, had a dream that a new civilization would someday rise up from the jungles at some location in Brazil between the 15th and 20th parallels. Yet he was not the first person to envision such a capital. A Brazilian statesman named Jose Bonifacio first had this brilliant idea in 1823. His reasons for moving the capital to such an unlikely location was to invigorate the inland economy. In 1891 land was set aside for the new capital and then the whole idea just floundered. Brasilia finally came to fruition in 1955 under the prodding from President Juscelino Kubitschek.

 

This was a rare opportunity for a nation to build an entirely new capital from scratch taking into consideration modern technology and materials. The king technology at the time was the car and this new city was specifically built for a population of car drivers. Which meant nice 4 or 5 lane highways with modern cloverleaf exit ramps. Driving around the city is much like driving around most US cities, fairly easy to negotiate and understand. However, it also means that the designers positioned the main buildings so far apart it's very difficult to visit the city without the use of a car. If you attempted to walk you'd be going mile after mile in hot, humid weather or spend your time waiting forever for buses. It was definitely worthwhile having a car.

 

Another king of technology at the time was the airplane. So the designers included elements of the airplane into their plan. The streets are laid our in the general form of a plane seen from above. The fuselage is a long, long green plaza, narrow at each end like a plane, with one-way streets running the length of each side. From here block after block spreads out from the middle much like wings. Government buildings and monuments are placed along the fuselage and apartments, hotels, and shopping malls spread out along the wings. Both blocks and streets have nothing but numbers for names, so uninspiring.

 

The overall effect reminded us a lot of the mall in downtown Washington DC, only on a much larger scale. What was surprising was that the long green space was filled mainly with grass and scattered trees. You'd think it'd have gardens, cafes, monuments, walking paths, shop kiosks, and all kinds of things to make the space useable or pretty. As it stands it's more of an impediment to be gotten around.

 

Buildings within the capital all data from the 1950s onwards. With the exception of a few strikingly unusual examples, a large number of them are simply ugly high rise boxes. Those built in the 60s are particularly unattractive. They are nothing more than steel structures covered with little windows that are filled with old air conditioners. More modern buildings are starting to add a bit more style. But overall it's much like visiting a modern, rather boring US city with some areas not looking so nice these days.

 

Notable gems in this hodge podge of modernity include the congress hall with its odd, unsymmetrical dishes, the justice hall, the cathedral, and the Intimarty building. They're quite distinctive in design, but as we so often see in 20th century construction, not well executed. The cathedral, for example, has a light airy interior with wavy swaths of blue, brown, and white stained glass across the ceiling. Except the glass isn't. It's plastic and is already breaking down. True stained glass should last for ages.

 

Another example, the justice hall was built in plain concrete. Concrete may start life looking nice, but it rapidly disintegrates and stains. It always seems that just after a few decades concrete structures start to fall apart. Fixing them is not just a matter of sandblasting them clean, as you would do for stone or marble. It'd take a lot more work. It just seems that 20th century construction normally is just not built to last.

 

It's hard to say whether or not a visit to Brasilia is worth the effort for a foreign tourist. There's not too many places in the world where a 20th century city was carved out from scratch with a detailed plan in place in advance, which is why it was placed on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites. Yet, it is a long way from anywhere, difficult to get around without a car, and just how long does it take to see a few buildings. This isn't Washington DC where the Smithsonian museum can keep you busy for days on end. But if bagging capital cities is one of your objectives, then you gotta go.

 

December 30 - January 1 Perinopolis and Goias Velho

 

Since we'd rented a car and since we'd driven the 450 miles from Belo Horizonte to Brasilia, we had to make sure we got our money's worth. There's absolutely no chance we will ever make the effort to see Brasilia or the state of Goias again, so we had to make sure we saw everything we wanted to see in this one trip. So we headed out from the capital to visit a couple small colonial towns.

 

Perinopolis is located just a couple of hours away and, due to the number of water falls and rivers nearby, has become a major weekend destination for the young and affluent of Brasilia. As we quickly discovered the place buzzes with activity on New Year's Eve. It was absolutely packed and everyone was partying hard, even at just past noon. We couldn't begin to imagine how it would be as the evening wore on. If you are looking for a place to get really drunk on New Year's Eve this is certainly a place to go.

 

There are a few sights to visit, some simple colonial churches that were quite a relief from the far busier churches we were used to seeing. Most interesting is the Igreja Matriz NS Rosario. Destroyed by fire, it is now slowly being rebuilt. The fire took out the entire center building and the two towers. Since then the primary structure has been replaced and the contractors are in the process of replacing the interior. What's most fun is you can don a hard hat and go on inside to have a look at the progress. There are a few displays showing the fire, the post fire structure, some of the structural tests done in preparation for reconstruction, and photos of progress along the way. In the end it will become an exact duplicate of the original colonial building rebuilt using more modern techniques that, hopefully, will stand the test of time better. It'd be fun to see after completion to see what a modern recreation of a colonial church looks like. But that's not enough reason for us to make the journey back.

 

Perinopolis is also home to probably the most famous Cavalhada in Brazil. A Cavalhada is a rather unusual 3-day long pageant celebrating Charlemagne's victory over the Moors back in the Middle Ages. For 3 days the town of Perinopolis turns into a rather fantastical representation of this famous battle. On day 1 a mock battle takes place and the Moors are summarily defeated. It would seem rather anticlimactic considering the outcome is always the same. On day 2 the Moors are converted to Christianity, an occurrence which would take some research to determine whether this actually happened. It would seem unlikely since Morocco is still Muslim. Day 3 consists of horsemanship contests, which include some tests of skill such as stabbing a papermache head with a lance as you fly by on your galloping steed. Awards, money, and accolades are given to the victors

 

A tiny white house just a couple blocks from the center of town houses a small 2-room museum dedicated to this particular pageant. The enthusiastic woman who inherited the museum from her mother is more than happy to usher you in, explain the entire affair in very slow Portuguese, and show you around. In two small rooms she has about 8 sets of the red (Moor) and blue (Christian) costumes. There are corresponding costumes for the children's version of the pageant as well. The kids ride stick horses rather than the real thing. She also has examples of the horse costumes, various paraphernalia from the horse contests, miniature horsemen, and photos all around, especially of her two brothers who happen to be regular participants.

 

We were told that this same pageant is held at several other locations in Brazil as well as in France, Spain, and Portugal. The Perinopolis pageant is held in mid May. Others are held at various times of year, including September. So it appears not to be essential to hold it on the battle's actual anniversary. It's even held on the Azores, islands off the coast of Africa. Since we couldn't see the pageant itself, a visit to the museum was the next best thing and our host made the entire visit well worth the R$2 entry.

 

Since we were in search of a bit quieter place to spend New Year's Eve, we left Perinopolis and headed to the city of Goiana for the night figuring that if there was a midnight "festa" at least we might be able to find a hotel away from the noise. We couldn't have been more wrong. Early in the morning the sounds of explosions resounded off the walls and echoed throughout the city. Climbing out of bed to dare a peek out the window revealed a sight that looked like a scene of war. Flashes of light rose into the sky and smoke floated across the streets. A scene out the window of a Baghdad hotel at the outset of Desert Storm was the first thing that came to mind. At least here the explosions wouldn't do us any harm. Although something did knock out the electricity in the hotel for a few hours. It wasn't until well after midnight that the explosions finally subsided to just a few each hour and we were able to get to sleep.

New Year's Day was dead quiet, an ideal time to drive through this large city and head for the second colonial town, Goias. Unlike Perinopolis, Goias was absolutely the ideal picture of a tranquil small colonial town. Almost nothing was open and hardly a sole stirred. Just a few of us gawking tourists wandered around the empty streets looking for something to see and do. As usual the churches were open for visitation and, for a change, did not charge a fee for entry. The museums were closed, all two of them. Only a couple of shops and restaurants were operating. There wasn't much to do other than wandering, but the empty did at least provide a great opportunity to get street photos sans cars.

 

We headed for the great little Pousada Ipe for lunch and had one of the best and most unusual meals we'd found so far. The restaurant is found behind a wall on the patio of a small house surrounded by a beautiful tropical garden. Sunday brunch consists of an all-you-can eat buffet, a favorite concept in Brazil, with Goias specialties. Tasty pieces of chicken and beef marinated in rich sauces, rice, beans, potatoes, salads, and sweetened cashew fruit deserts were more than enough to fill the tummy beyond capacity.

 

Although, the meal did come with an odd surprise. A local fruit called a piki (phonetic spelling only) has to be eaten with extreme care. As I munched down I soon felt strange prickles in my mouth and on my fingers. This odd fruit is filled with small spines, sort of like the tuna of beavertail cactus of the desert except the spines are in the fruit rather than outside. Staff at the restaurant was well prepared for my reaction as they came rushing out with tweezers and alcohol in hand. Obviously this must happen a lot. I gave up on the idea of getting the thorns out. They were in my tongue, lips, upper pallet, and fingers. Too many, too difficult to see, and too hard to get at. They worked their out eventually. In the meantime, you can have the piki. We'll stick to fruit less dangerous to eat.

 

Down the street we stopped in at the Dominican church, Igreja NS Rosario, and had a pleasant chat with one of the monastery acolytes who, as we discovered, found piki just as uncomfortable a fruit as we did. We just had to ask him about the strange speed signs we'd seen and passed all along the highway. Signs will warn "fiscalizacao electronico". Posted speed limits will suddenly drop from 110 kph to 60 or 40. Then on the sides of the roads are posts that display in flashing red numbers your speed.

 

In the US we've seen electronic speed indicators before, but these are just informative. There's no penalty for going too fast. We've also seen electronic traps for catching people running red lights. These do result in tickets if you're caught. But this was the first time we'd seen the same tactic used to give speeding fines.

 

At first we weren't sure what they did or whether there was any enforcement. However, we did notice that people tended to slow down well below the posted speed. So after a while we figured there must be some punishment for going too fast. Otherwise why would everyone slow down so well. After passing one 40-kph spot at 44 kph, we decided we'd better follow the lead of everyone else and slow down way more than required. But, what about that one 44 kph zone. We worried about it for weeks afterward wondering if sometime a traffic fine would magically appear on our credit card. We also finally noticed that there were some speed traps that did not indicate any speed. Speed traps incognito you may say. Did any of these catch us?

 

So we asked this fellow if there might be any flexibility in the speed. What happens if you go through a 40-kph zone at 41, 43, 45, 49? He told us that there is some flexibility. He knows people who've gone through at 45 and weren't caught. Also, we should know if we were ticketed, as there would be a bright flash as the photo is taken. That we did not recall happening. From that point on we were very careful about going super slow through these speed traps and just hoped we weren't caught in any of the previous. It seems the rental car agency should give folks some warning, as this was quite a novel thing for us to see.

 

January 2 - 5 Diamantina

 

Once upon a time, a few billion years ago, South America was attached to Africa, reminders of which are found in the common geology of the two continents. For instance, the hills located a few hundred km northeast of Belo Horizonte were once filled with precious stones that trace their origins to the diamond rich regions of Africa. When South America floated westward, the diamond deposits were split and two regions bearing diamonds of similar characteristics wound up half a world apart. Ironically during colonial times the Portuguese imported another valuable African resource to extract these runaway diamonds, slaves.

 

Diamantina is a pretty colonial town founded in these isolated mountains after the discovery of the diamond deposits in the 1720s. It turns out that these diamonds were mostly of industrial quality and for a while this small region was responsible for providing a large percentage of the world industrial diamonds. However, before too long the diamond mines played out and better pickings were discovered in the current diamond rich regions of Africa. Diamantina then faded into obscurity, all of which served to preserve the town in a near perfect colonial state.

 

To get there you have to head north along the main highway out of Belo Horizonte for about an hour. Turn right and head into the treeless hills for about another 4 hours and you'll come to this very remote, little visited old colonial town. As pretty as all the other colonial towns in the Minas Gerais State, it's the setting that really sets this particular location apart. The entire old town spills down the side of a canyon to a small river at the bottom and treeless, rugged hills climb up from the other side. It is filled with roads paved with flat stones that have been rubbed smooth after centuries of use. Street after street within the old town is lined with the typical short white buildings with colorful wood lintel windows and doors. Several churches create highlight points that emphasize the rest of the town.

 

The views of this uniquely located Brazilian colonial town are what we came to see. So we treated ourselves to a room in 1960s hotel designed by the famous architect Oscar Neimeyer. Oscar Neimeyer may have been responsible for creating some very unusual and creative buildings, but sometimes he seemed to impose his modern style into places where they really shouldn't have been. A 1960s architect's idea of a 21st century building really should not have been built in the middle of this 1600 and 1700s colonial town. It looks odd and out of place.

 

The amenities of the hotel, however, are quite nice. It has absolutely enormous rooms with patios that have fantastic views over the town, into the valley, and to the hills beyond. Although the huge hallways on the second floor echo with every footstep and the unfinished flooring give it a rather rustic appearance. Strangely we were reminded of a rough ski lodge and half expected to see skis, poles, and boots piled up in every corner. Yet despite being an anomaly, the views from the hotel were well worth the extra expense. We spent hours on the patio watching the sunsets.

As with all these colonial towns, the list of things to visit consists of several churches and one or two museums. There's just barely enough to keep a couple of energetic tourists busy for one day. The Museu de Diamantina has a great display of odds and ends and signs that give an unusually good explanation, unusual for South America that is. For example, instead of pointing out a statue of a particular saint, there would be an explanation of where in Europe that saint is revered when the idols came to Brazil, and where in Brazil they were popular. They talked about the history of the typewriter and that Remington's first design had only capital letters. Also that the sewing machine could not be perfected until a needle with a hole at the point was invented.

 

Since most of the diamonds were extracted using African slaves, there had to be a display about slavery in the museum. This display included iron shackles and other sinister looking torture devices. Above the iron shackles a sign tells of how they estimate that 120,000 slaves were shipped from Africa each year and only about 80,000 to 90,000 survived the trip. They were shipped in chains, attached one to the other, in absolutely appalling conditions. With the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English taking so many people away from the continent of Africa, they estimate that over 4 million people were shipped over the hundreds of years that New World slavery was in effect. It's just amazing that there was anybody left in Africa at all.

 

We were able to glean bits and pieces of interesting information from the signs in this small museum, which added a lot to our appreciation of it. But, it sure would have been nice if the signs had been in English.

 

Somewhere near Diamantina there is a flat rock road that leads out of town and into the hills. It was the original route taken by the wagons from Diamantina to Paraty on the coast. This road was hacked out of the hills by tens of thousands of those African slaves shipped over in those horrible iron shackles. Supposedly the road starts just 2 km by foot outside from the town center. A nice easy stroll. Finding the road, on the other hand, is anything but easy. We started by following the arrow shown in our guidebook. After about 2-km hiking we concluded that this arrow was not only shown on the wrong side of the town, it was pointed 180 degrees off. So much for that direction.

 

Turning around we now followed the directions listed in the book text. This worked for about one block. After that it listed streets that were not signed. All three maps we had were essentially useless outside the immediate area of the town center. They weren't to scale and did not show names for the streets that weren't signed anyway. Asking people for directions was useless. The locals don't know what the Camino dos Escravos is or where it may be found. After a few km walking up and down different streets we once again turned around and headed back to the city center.

 

Returning to the last sign posted on a lamppost that pointed in the direction of the Camino dos Escravos, we followed its directions which did not agree with either the map or text in our book. After following that for a couple km we found ourselves back wandering the streets we'd already wandered through. There were no further directional signs to be found.

 

After a couple hours fruitless wandering we finally gave up. We concluded that the old slave road was probably located some 5 km further out of town via the normal roads, as listed on the tourist brochure. The 2 km foot distance must be some hidden short cut that only the right local resident, if you can find him or her, can direct you to. Disappointed as we were, it was too hot and humid to spend any more time hunting. Instead we returned to the streets around the cathedral and looked for something more pleasant to do than hunt for that elusive road.

 

Every day some of the local restaurants take over the streets by moving tables onto the flat rock slabs in the middle of the road. Surprisingly, traffic is not stopped and just barely enough space is left between tables for cars to pass single file. Fortunately there isn't a whole lot of car traffic, but just imagine coming down one of these steep narrow streets only to find your way blocked by a bunch of tables. Back up? Ha! That was someone else's problem. We took over one of these tables, ordered some drinks, and spent our last few hours in this quiet town enjoying the relative peace. After this it's back to the big city life.

 

January 6, 7 Belo Horizonte

 

Returning the car to the Belo Horizonte international airport was a small adventure in itself. Out on the main highways and even in the country it's fairly easy to find your way. Signage is actually pretty good. However, once in a town driving becomes far more complicated. Intersections that, on the map, appear to meet at a 90-degree angle in the middle of a town actually don't meet at all. Instead you have to keep your eyes open for these makeshift signs that list the next town you are looking for and then follow these through some of the most obscure back streets until you finally come out headed out of town on the correct road. It's not at all obvious.

 

The general condition of Brazilian highways can also be amazingly awful. So bad, in fact, it was a major topic for the nightly news. Nearly every day there was a story in the newspaper or on the television where truckers and drivers complained about the potholes. Even one news channel had a technical discussion of how potholes are formed and how they increase in size over time. It was the hot topic of the month when we visited.

 

Many of the roads we drove were abysmal and this is not just small back road either. The main road leading from Belo Horizonte to Brasilia is supposed to be one of their major coast-to-capital highways. Yet today it's just a 2-lane road showing signs of extreme wear. Another major road we drove between Uberlandia and Belo Horizonte was so bad there were sections that were just mud, worse than a dirt road. Potholes that could swallow car, tires and all, were everywhere. Cars and trucks swerved back and forth across the road in attempts to miss holes. Traffic jams happened, in the middle of nowhere, where trucks come to a stop waiting for cars in the other direction to get through the only place in the entire width of road that could be passed. Speeds of at most 30 kph were common. We'd never seen anything quite like it on a major highway before.

 

Now the truckers may be complaining to the government about the road conditions, but we also noticed that the truckers themselves carry some of the blame. Many of the trucks are way, way overloaded. In particular farm trucks loaded with bags filled with who knows what were loaded so high they looked as though they were in danger of tipping over. These roads were most certainly not built for that weight. We noticed that roads that had little or no truck traffic had almost no potholes. Too many trucks, too heavy trucks, and roads not built for the traffic can only lead to one thing, bad roads.

 

Back on a much better road headed toward the Belo Horizonte international airport to return the rental car, we were once again having trouble finding our way. We'd come in from the north rather than from the city, so it was a direction that most travelers wouldn't take. But, you would think there'd be big signs over the top of the roadway indicating the airport exit for both directions. Not so.

 

We got around the city of Sete Lagoas easily. A relatively new perimeter road allowed us to avoid it all together. The road then passed directly into and out of the next two towns without the usual zigzagging through back streets and signs continued to direct us to the airport. Soon we were on a 4-lane highway and a sign indicated the airport was in 27 km. We thought we were home free. There was another sign at 12 km. And then .... Nothing. No more signs, or at least none we could read. The vegetation on the sides of the roads had grown up so much the signs were covered. We went on and on, convinced we'd gone way more than 12 km. Finally we turned around and headed back north.

 

Hunting harder, we spotted one grass-covered sign that appeared to point not to the airport, but to the town of Confins, which is near the airport. So on a hunch we took the off ramp. No sooner had we turned onto the new highway than we finally spotted a sign pointing to the airport. Unbelievable there was no sign pointing to the airport on the main highway, just on this access road. Brazilian road signage just is not up to par that's for sure.

 

Even when we got to the airport there was no sign indicating where rental car return was located. We found buildings for Localiza and Lokamig rental cars, but no Avis. After driving around the airport a few times we finally pulled up to the departure building to ask. There it was. In front of the terminal is a small Avis sign sitting by the sidewalk. This is where you both pick-up and return cars. Not at all clear. No wonder people are always getting lost driving around Brazil. You almost need to know where you are going in advance. Which is not a particularly easy thing for a visitor to do.

 

January 7 - 12 Salvador

 

Tome De Souza founded Salvador da Bahia in 1549 when he was ordered by the Portuguese crown to establish the first capital of Brazil. He landed at the Praia Porto da Barra with a contingent of 400 soldiers and 400 settlers, which included priests and prostitutes. Within the first year a small town of mud brick houses surrounded by a defensive wall had been established on the cliffs overlooking the beach.

 

For the next 300 years Salvador remained Brazil's most important city and capital. Its source of wealth shifted from sugarcane to tobacco and then gold and diamonds. Slaves were imported to the city in enormous numbers making it a main center for the black culture of Brazil even into modern times. It was as famed for its gold-filled churches, many mansions, and festivals as it was for its rowdiness, decadence, and sensuality.

 

All good things must come to an end and so did Salvador's good times. Gradually the importance of the city went into decline as sugarcane production declined. Its fate as a has-been city appeared to have been sealed when, in 1763, the capital was moved to Rio. Through most of the 19th and 20th centuries the city stagnated as a result of inefficient and ineffective agricultural practices. However, recently Salvador is seeing a renewal brought on by new industries such as oil, chemicals, and most importantly tourism. The entire old section has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and, consequently, much needed funds for renovation projects are pouring into the city. Everywhere you turn there are construction projects underway.

Salvador is the heart of the Brazilian music and dance culture. Many of the former slaves remained living in and around the city after obtaining freedom. Consequently, the city has a high mix of blacks and a high mix of African culture. This is where you can find the Condomble, an African spiritual dance that has been molded to the Brazilian cultural. In this dance the main spiritual leader goes into a trance where she shivers and shakes as she communes with the spirits gaining all sorts of advice, assistance, and perhaps a premonition or two as well.

 

The spirits of the Condomble are called Orixas and are actually sort of a family. In the manner of the old Greek gods, each spirit has its own unique specialty, war, water, forestry, etc. Colors, clothing, hand utensils, and most importantly beads are all specifically defined for each spirit. During different festas dedicated to a particular spirit, dancers will dress as the particular Orixa being honored. The spiritual leader will go into her trance, shiver, shake, and good advice will come to all. That's the real simplified version. The real ceremony is far more complicated.

 

There is also the capoeira, which is a form of martial art dance imported from Africa as well. In this spectacle the men make kung fu kicking motions that whiz past their partner's head at an all too uncomfortably close distance. Novice dancers go real slow. The very best whip their legs by so fast you have to wonder how often their partner gets a good knocking. The professionals are well worth watching.

 

Salvador also prides itself as the center for Brazilian music. At almost any time of day you can hear drums banging, singers singing, and instruments playing. Turn around a corner and you'll run head long into a band, all in costume, giving some impromptu performance. Old town Salvador is certainly an entertaining place.

 

The city is actually separated into two distinct sectors divided by that original seaside cliff, cidade alta and baixa (upper and lower cities). Looking at drawings made at the very beginnings, it's easy to distinguish the coastal cliffs, which gave the city this split personality. The drawings show a port area hugging a thin coastal strip. Four or five curving roads bordered by small houses extend up the easiest routes to the upper plateau. A hand cranked cable car built by the Franciscan monks for transporting goods from port to city is also shown. The city center with the major churches, seat of government, shops, and residential areas is spread out along this upper plateau within easy sight of the ocean.

 

With a population of over 2 million, today's Salvador has expanded well beyond those humble beginnings. High-rise buildings spread northward along the beaches for miles upon miles. Southbound, major port facilities spread as far as the eye can see. Inland, more high-rise apartments and the ever-present favelas extend to the horizon. Only a small area, the area covered by that original old town shown in the drawings of old, is really of interest to us tourists. The rest is just a normal, busy modern city.

 

Most of the original structures of cidade baixa area down by the water were either replaced in the 1800s or by modern 20th century glass and concrete boxes. Consequently there's not that much of interest with the possible exception of the craft market and the ferry terminal. At the ferry terminal you can take a quick, short hop over to the Ilha de Itaparica. It has a very small community and a lot of laid back beaches lined with thatch covered bars and restaurants. We headed over there one morning for a nice day away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

 

Cidade alta has the most interesting things to see. This is where the best remains of the colonial city grandeur are to be found, although, the buildings do not seem to be from a single time period. There is an eclectic mix of 17 to 20th century architecture. Even within a string of obviously old colonial residences it looks like many of the houses come from very different times. The earliest houses are quite simple. They are one or two storied white stucco structures with plain square doors and windows with very little adornment with the exception of contrast paint. Later buildings add decoration to the roof, doors, and windows. The newer the building, the more extravagant the decorations. At least that's the impression we had.

 

Some of the colonial sector has been nicely restored. But there are significant areas where the buildings are a mix of nicely restored structures and dilapidated buildings much in need of TLC. Cidade alta's designation as a UNEXCO world heritage site is fairly recent. Such a designation usually comes with funding aimed toward restoration and tourist development. Some of that has funneled into Salvador, but much more work is needed. Someday, with luck, the entire colonial sector will be restored to its original splendor. However, this may detract a bit from the real charm and turn it into a bit of an artificial tourist town.

 

Already tourists flood into the city and all along the northern beaches throughout the busy summer season. To our chagrin we discovered that those reasonable hotel prices we'd been finding up in Minas Gerais and Goias were nowhere to be had. Wandering around the Porto do Barro region for over an hour we discovered that anything costing less than around $40 USD was a real dump. Everything in the $50 to $60 range was booked solid. Even the $70 range hotels were mostly booked.

 

We finally got ourselves a room for around $72 in what is a nice hotel, but one that is much more expensive than what we were used to paying. It was summer and just about everyone who could travel was now somewhere along the beach. Hotels were full, beaches were packed, restaurants mobbed. We'd be dealing with this from Salvador to Recife. Hopefully once we started flying and got away from the beaches once again prices would drop and crowds abate.

With a planned 5-night stay in Salvador, it did not take us too long to figure out how to get around and where to go. One quick bus ride took us to Praca da Se in the center of old town. From there cobblestone streets beckoned. We wandered through the streets, stopping at churches and small museums along the way.

 

Having once been Portugal's capital of the New World, the wealth associated with a governing seat is still seen in the splendor of its churches. Beautiful carvings covered in gold leaf adorn the most elaborate of all Brazil's old churches, the Igreja do Sao Fransisco. Even the interior of the light blue painted slave's church has some intricate carvings. You simply cannot go to Salvador without stopping to admire at least a few of these colonial masterpieces.

 

If you are looking for native dress, Salvador is just about the only place in Brazil where you'll find it. Female African slaves brought with them a form of dressing that today is called the bianna. It consisted of a highly gathered skirt that is calf or ankle length, a white short sleeve shirt, a rectangular cloth held over one shoulder and belted at the waist, and finally nearly 8 meters of wrapped material piled high on the head. Many of the dresses worn by the most famous Brazilian singer and movie star, Carmen Miranda, were based on the biana.

 

Today the biana style has been exaggerated to include extreme colors, lots of lace, tons of beaded necklaces and bracelets, gigantic hoop skirts, and highly stylized hats. You cannot pass through the main plaza without being approached by at least one or two women dressed in this fashion can be found waltzing around the Praca da Se looking to have their picture taken, for a fee of course. We found just as fine photo opportunities at the nearby memorial to the biana, which were free.

The main plaza is the center of tourist activity. Tourist stores and restaurants abound. Amateur capoeira dancers display their talent and ask for tips. Men clean out coconut shells to build the unique string instrument that they subsequently sell in great numbers. Activity abounds throughout the day and well into the night. It is definitely a lively place to be.

 

Finding things to do in Salvador is not at all difficult. There are even a few museums to visit. A well-done Afro Brazilian museum explores some of the unique aspects the African slaves brought to Brazil. In particular it shows and explains much about the Orixas, giving each a personality, color, dress, family relationship within the orixa group, etc. A brochure with English translations of most of the signs was a huge help.

 

The equally small archeological museum in the basement of the same building had some interesting pottery, woodcrafts, and feather pieces. But without much explanation Portuguese or otherwise, we were pretty much reduced to looking at the artifacts for their design and style.

 

One final museum to visit was the Museu da Cidade. Housed in one of the nicely restored colonial buildings, it was a treat to visit the inside of the building as much as it was to see the museum. It had a strange collection of paintings as well as full life size representations of the Orixa in full regalia. One unusual display included a hanging montage of wax exvotives from the famous Igreja Bonfim. It is accredited with producing many miraculous cures for those who leave behind these strange wax figures. These exvotives are representations of legs, feet, arms, hands, heads, boobs, penises, and virtually every imaginable body part. We actually went to the church and saw photos of some of the ills people were hoping to have cured. Many included things that would cure no matter what; i.e. broken legs, which seems a little like cheating in the miracle department.

 

We did have to go see the Bale Folclorico. They are Brazil's only professional folkloric dance team and have done tours all around the world. Dance team members practice 8 hours a day to put on four 1-hour shows per week plus special engagements. They perform a candomble, a fire dance with real fire nearly setting the curtains aflame, and a capoeira as well as a few other dances. When you watch the capoeira you can see why it requires the full 8 hours practice and why the men in the performance look so slim and muscular. It takes a lot of strength. We also got to see how a professional actually plays that odd instrument made from a stick and coconut shell. It's hard to believe such a simple looking instrument can be made to produce such a range of sounds. It was a good show and seeing it in Brazil is probably a whole lot cheaper than seeing the same show anywhere in the U.S.

 

After days of wandering around Salvador city proper, we spent one final day just wandering up and down the beach. Although it's not that easy. Coming directly from the higher, cooler, and dryer inland areas this Salvador region felt oppressively hot and humid. With the sun beating down each day, temperatures rising into the 90s, and relative humidity probably up around 90% it was enough just to find a spot in the shade and sit. We literally did not feel like doing anything. We did manage to walk all the way around the beach and back, with lots of shade stops along the way. With plans to get even closer to the equator, w had to wonder just how much hotter it would be.

 

For our last night in Salvador we stood at the window of our hotel and watched the beach. With one room change we'd managed to get one of the ocean side rooms on the 7th floor near the ocean side corner of the hotel. It wasn't a head on ocean view, but it was good enough. We spent hours watching bathers, waves, boats, walkers, and all sorts of activity go on below. This would prove to be the best view along the beach that we'd get. So we were determined to make the most of it.

 

January 13 - 16 Aracaju and Maceio

 

Dripping up the coast is sort of what we were doing. We were making our way up to Recife in with 2 stops along the way. With time to spare and little to do along the way, there was not much need to hurry. So after a 5-hour bus ride we unloaded at the medium size city of Aracaju.

 

North of Salvador the land seems to flatten and the landscape dries. It starts to look much more like southern California in the dry season than it does the tropics. Aside for a few small rather poor looking villages, there isn't much to see. In fact, you might say it's a rather boring trip. The road doesn't even track beside the ocean so there aren't pretty blue ocean waves to watch either. After about 5 hours we were more than ready to get off.

 

Aracaju is a rather nondescript coastal town of around 500,000 that became the state capital in 1855. It has some of its old colonial character left in the main downtown area with a line of modern high-rise condos strung southward. Downtown is a sleepy affair whose shops and restaurants shut tight almost as soon as the sun sets. Downtown is so deserted at night we were warned not to wander after dark. Too many criminals and too few cops. So we restricted nighttime travel to just getting back to our hotel. South of town across the very polluted river is a beach area that is the main hopping place at night. It's got upscale restaurants and hotels. Normal folks would choose to stay at the beach. But, since we were only staying 2 nights we stayed downtown.

 

As its name suggests, Aracaju seems to pride itself as being the capital for cashew growing. Caju is the Portuguese word for cashew. It's got a cashew statue at the entrance to the park area and another near the yacht club. Phone booths and trashcans are all made to look like oversized cashew fruits. Vendors sell all sorts of cashew souvenirs; key chains to pencil holders made of wood to look like cashew fruit. You can get almost anything cashew in form that you can think of.

 

Cashew fruit has to be one of the strangest looking fruits; even stranger than the star fruit which is plenty odd. In the US we only see the cashew nut, never the fruit. So it came as quite a surprise to see what the fruit actually looks like. Picture, if you will, a small yellow or red pepper. One that is about 3 inches in length and 1 1/2 inches in diameter at it's widest point. Now put a very large cashew on the larger end sticking straight out. The other end of the cashew fruit is attached to some sort of vine. It is absolutely weird. We had always thought that cashews grew on trees like walnuts or underground like peanuts. It never occurred to us that they would come attached to a fruit and that there would be only one nut per fruit. So that explains why cashews are so expensive. In Brazil the fruit is often made into a tasty juice or ice cream. But it's still only the nut that we ever see in the U.S. Too bad.

 

Apart from walking up and down the beach about the only other thing to do in Aracaju is to visit the small aquarium. This small but interesting aquarium is run by the Tarmar project. Initiated back in the 1980s, this is a Brazil wide effort to save the sea turtle from extinction. They've undertaken a wide range of activities including building several aquariums to educate people on the sea turtle, survey and protect turtle nesting areas, convert local turtle fishing activities to other means for economic gain, and a major turtle hatching effort. The turtle-hatching project has been so successful that in 2003 they hatched and released over 3 million baby turtles. If you want you can get involved with the release program. You get your own tiny baby turtle to place in the sand and then direct toward the water. Just watch those little flippers spin.

 

After Aracaju and another 5-hour bus ride through more nondescript country we arrived at the beach town of Maceio. Our main purpose for coming to Maceio was to cut an 11-hour bus ride into a more manageable 5 1/2-hour ride. There really wasn't much of interest to see in Maceio other than the beaches.

Arriving just as the sun was setting, the first thing we did was get on the right bus heading in the wrong direction. The instructions we got from the tourist office gave us the name of the bus headed to the beach. What we did not realize was these buses do not go in a circle. They have "ida" and "volta" (coming and going) directions. We were supposed to be on the ida bus but wound up on the volta bus. Fortunately the woman who sits in the chair by the usual turnstile, this time in the center of the bus, allowed us to get back on a second time in the correct direction for free. At least we were finding that the bus drivers and moneychangers are extremely helpful.

 

Back in the correct direction, by the bus station for a second time, we snaked our way through town around unknown streets through some mighty rough looking neighborhoods. Finally we arrived at the beach area to begin a difficult search for a hotel. This is the high rent district and with it being summer season and the Maceio beach evidently a major summer tourist attraction, finding a hotel room proved to be mighty scarce.

 

Had we known that finding a hotel in Maceio would be so difficult we may have considered just going onto Recife despite the long bus ride. In the dark with high temperatures and equally high humidity causing a continual flow of sweat down our backs we searched from hotel to hotel to hotel. Our original destination, the Ibis, was full for this night but available the next. Every other hotel with the exception of the over priced Hotel Paraiso next door was also full. When the rain started coming down, with around 10 hotels checked, we finally checked into the Paraiso for one night and made a reservation in the Ibis for the next. This was not a great start to our one-day stay in Maceio.

 

The next morning we could not check into the Ibis until noon which meant we wound up spending most of the morning just waiting to change rooms. We decided there and then to avoid further hotel problems in Recife by making an internet reservation. Even as we scoured the web for inexpensive options we watched as one after another hotel suddenly disappeared. So we grabbed the least expensive option we could find, swallowed the $20 US hotel-booking fee, and called it a day.

 

The only tourist thing we got to do in Maceio was to visit one small Museu da Gente, which has just a few folkloric type items, and walk along the long, long beach. We never got into the downtown area where the bits and pieces of Maceio's former colonial era remain. This business with booked hotels along the beaches was beginning to get on our nerves. Time to get away to less crowded areas.

 

References:

Lonely Planet Brazil, 2005 edition

 

Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Acknowledgements

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We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.

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Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site, http://outthereliving.com


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