In December we visited tiny little bits of Brazil in the second leg of our transatlantic cruise. know I know, you want to know whether Mike’s naked body was daubed in blood by Amazonian shamans and whether, as I may have inferred over Christmas drinkies, Ronaldo really did plead with me to have breakfast with him. Well…….
In the early 2000s this fifth largest country in the world and by far the largest coffee producer was in with the BRICs (Brazil, Russia India, and China) according to economists who tipped it to be among the world’s rising star performers. Errr…we’re still waiting. High interest rates (around 14%), red tape, poor infrastructure and a strong currency have dampened its potential, and despite hosting the World Cup and Olympics in 2014/16, it didn’t feel like a country on the up to Mike and I even though, admittedly, we were there so briefly that despite my impressive intake of Tiger beer*, I didn’t visit a single Brazilian rest room.
Brazil’s native Indians were colonised around 1500 by the Portugese who brought African slaves to work the plantations and you don’t need to be a trained anthropologist, or indeed visit a single WC, to detect each of these three distinct cultures in Brazil today.
Our first stop was Recife on the north-east ‘hip’ of the country’s vast territory. It is to Brazil, it claims, what Venice is to Italy. It isn’t. It has some industrially functional bridges over some water, but beyond that their perception of Venice is just wrong. Home to 2.5million people you don’t see much effort to reconcile the lives of the ‘reeech’ with the very ‘poooor’ but to be fair its stunning seven kilometre beach must be a fun-filled lag on the whole city’s GDP judging by the number of bathers and footballers there on a Tuesday afternoon.
Much prettier was Salvador da Bahia further south, chosen by the Portugese to be the capital city of their New World colony. The Iberians’ preference for building cities on ridiculously steep terrain is never more evident than here – overcome in Salvador by the same vertical lifts used in Lisbon. Nowhere else, though, have the descendants of African slaves retained their heritage so … slavishly. Among its pastel-coloured European architecture (relentlessly pocked by the grey mould of humidity), drummers are everywhere, engrossed in menacing rhythms that were small solace for Mike’s love of a nice Strauss waltz (although Michael Jackson did record his 1996 song They Don’t Care About Us here alongside a Salvadorean band). Police were omnipresent, patting down legions of bare-footed adolescents against shuttered doorways. Reassuring you’d think, until our guide whispered ‘they are the most violent police force in South America’. Noted.
Then there was Rio. If you haven’t been – go. Visually it’s everything you heard about, laid out in one landscape. SugarLoaf Mountain, Copacabana beach, a cool airstrip in the middle of the bay andChrist the Redeemer on the Corcovado Mountain (not as bum-clenchingly terrifying as you’d think to go up there). Even the famous hillside favelas (slums) look picturesque from afar. Drug cartels take care of law and order here we were told, and when we saw its hinterland – a maze of haphazard breeze blocks and water tanks housing 1.5m of Rio’s 6m residents – you have to accept that your average PC would actually just lock themselves in their Panda car.
More and more people are buying apartments in Rio and why wouldn’t you. The beaches are stupendous and with its hot climate it’s as cool as a Cosmopolitan but if, like me, you imagined any Girl from Ipanema to be a smoldering beauty a la Victoria’s Secret, you should recalibrate – she’s more garrulous Dawn French in yellow vest and flip flops. Generally these giant Brazilian ports were hard to read. To Western eyes their African approach to rubbish collection is unappealing (i.e. there isn’t one). Their architecture isn’t picturesque or impressive and if there were sexy little bars and restaurants, they weren’t immediately visible, but their devotion to having a good time (we were left in no doubt as to the priority given to carnival-time) and robust beach life did give these cites a feeling of fun. Although Brazilians appear more irrepressible than irresistible and their country more waning than waxing, its inarguably a fascinating place to visit.
*Tiger Beer: Tackling the issue of its dwindling supplies on board MS Marina is a good example of the cruiselines’ excellent service. Despite not having a drop of Glaswegian blood in him, our waiter hurried over to us in Rio and confided: ‘Another couple are ordering Tiger beer, I push them over the side yes?”