The recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro brought back vivid memories of our visit to the former capital of Brazil. We now wonder whether the Games will give impetus to tackling the environmental, economic and social problems or will their influence be ephemeral, like Carnaval?
Our Brazilian friends tell us that, at $R30bn, the Olympics in Brazil are an expensive mistake, that an impoverished country with a stagnating economy cannot afford this type of expenditure on what, after all, is a luxury. On so many levels, they say, the Brazilian Olympics were wrong.
We first came into Brazil by bus from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. As the bus crossed the border, we were joined by a police officer in a leather jacket and a gun shoved down the back of his jeans. Suddenly we each found ourselves doing a favour for our Brazilian fellow passengers, who asked us to hold boxes of electrical goods for just a moment; these boxes were quickly reclaimed as soon as the officer left us.
Electrical goods and cigarettes were bought duty free in Ciudad del Este and Brazilians importing these goods were liable to import duty.
We made a few friends that day on our way to view Iguaçu Falls from the Brazilian side. Spanning 2.7km, the Falls comprises 275 waterfalls or cataracts. The sheer power of so much moving water was astonishing. Iguaçu is located on the border of three countries, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, within one of the few remaining inland rainforests in South America – the Atlantic rainforest.
Our next stop was Rio de Janeiro – an overnight trip by bus, loaded with hundreds of packets of contraband cigarettes bought in Paraguay. At each stop, the tension and fear were almost palpable as the smugglers took their contraband off the bus, away from the possibility of prying police eyes. Why did they smuggle these cigarettes, which would be sold singly on the streets of Rio? The smugglers told us that it was the only way they could make a living. They warned us of the dangers of Rio – theft on the beach, mugging in the street.
But our visit was amazing. Who could fail to be impressed by the iconic Sugarloaf mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer standing atop the Corcovado? Rio surely must be one of the most attractive cities in the world – it is no wonder it is called the Cidade Maravilhosa.
Copacabana and Ipanema beaches (or perhaps girls) have even inspired songs.
The new Museu de Amanhã, designed by Santiago Calatrava, one of the centrepieces for the Olympics, mixes science and art to put over the message that humankind needs to change to avoid climate disaster, environmental degradation and social collapse. The building cost Brazil $R230m (€63.5m).
Our second trip to Brazil in June 2007 centred on Salvador and, remembering the smugglers, we hired a car, which led to different sorts of problems. Having arrived on a holiday weekend, we managed to take the last available room in Praia do Forte, on the seaside just north of Salvador. We had not imagined how much Brazilian partying happens on Dia de São João!
Praia do Forte is a charming resort on the Costa dos Coqueiros with a sea turtle reserve and the ruins of a Portuguese fortress, the Castelo Garcia d’Ávila (1551), the only medieval castle in Brazil.
We quickly learned to cope with Brazilian-Portuguese, and heading north towards Aracajú, we were stopped by police, perhaps looking for a bribe because our British driving licences were apparently not valid in Brazil. Two women tourist police could not have been more helpful, but their road manners were alarming.
Neither wore a seatbelt, both wore high-heeled wedge shoes as they raced around the town, running red lights, it seemed for the fun of it. They bought us coconuts from a roadside vendor, and then disarmingly asked whether men were easy to come by in Britain. Each of them was a single parent on the look-out for a husband.
That night’s Festa de São João on the pier was crowded and immensely loud. Aracajú was certainly more than described in the guide book – “a pleasant enough place to take care of business” – and its people were charming and friendly.
To the south, Ilhéus was once a prosperous cocoa port as well as the home of Brazil’s best known novelist, Jorge Amado, whose family house is now a cultural centre celebrating his work.
The miles of golden beaches encourage bar owners to set up larger and larger loudspeakers, each competing with his neighbour.
The Atlantic rainforest reaches the coast here, and on our visit to the tree sloth recuperation centre, we were lucky enough to see a sloth in very slow motion.
Brazil has its economic problems, and an unenviable reputation for theft and violence, but on our two visits people were friendly and open. Perhaps we were lucky, and we retain “saudades” for Brazil and for Rio.
By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]