Monday, 17 June 2013

A New Beginning – Belem do Pará

Looking out of the plane window I saw a mass of green jungle, brown rivers and grey skies. Then Belem came in sight, a peninsular of high-rise buildings springing up unnaturally from the fertile ground. The next phase of my journey was enshrouded in as much mist as that city, which had now become invisible in the rain. I was off to teach music in a place called Bragança, a small town 4 hours away from Belem. I knew nothing: didn’t know where I’d be staying in Belem, nor Bragança, knew nothing about the music project. I was placing all my trust in a mysterious figure called ‘Diego Carneiro’, a concert cellist from Belem who had studied in London, who I had come to hear about casually while playing in a concert of Brazilian music in London. I had never even met Diego in person but he spoke so eloquently of the necessity of the area that I was persuaded to pack my bags and leave the buzzing metropolis of Rio for the Great Unknown. Whenever I told anyone in Rio that I was off to the state of Pará they all seemed perplexed – “What do you want to go there for? It’s hot and full of mosquitos. Stay here!” However, very few people from Rio had actually been to Belem – they were just full of short-sighted prejudice, as I suppose I would be if a foreigner told me they were leaving London for Slough.

See Belem here, right at the top where the Amazon meets the Ocean

I was met at the airport by someone who I thought was Alex. This person very kindly showed me around the sights of interest of the city, taking me first to the swanky riverside development to eat ice-cream (50 flavours, the majority consisting of tropical fruits with names that I’d instantly forget such as muruci, cupuacú, bacurí, taperebá), then around the historic centre.

The harbour of the old town. There are vultures everywhere here.

Ver o Peso market

The highlight was certainly the ‘Ver-o-Peso’ market (see the weight), which was full of exciting foods, artisan products and indigenous Indian potions to cure all ills. A woman took one look at me and decided that I was in need of natural Viagra, showing me a liquid concoction of Amazonian plants that was supposedly perfect for getting females in the mood. However, I thought that natural insect repellent was much more tempting (for males and mosquitos alike).

 My guide then takes me to the nearest river beach, around half an hour drive out of town. It is beautiful for 10 minutes, and then it pisses it down with rain. “There are two seasons in Belem”, he tells me: “Either it rains every day, or every day it rains”. Home from home, really.

River beach shots - Icoraci, a short drive down the river from Belem

At the end of the day I find out that my guide was not Alex, but Diego’s cousin Damon. Damon was a great guide with some interesting anecdotes about fights, families and family fights. He had served as an army general and trained American soldiers in the techniques of jungle warfare and survival, despite never having experienced a war himself – luckily, Brazil has not been involved in any wars since WW2. Somewhat at odds with the image of a tough army general, Damon is also incredibly spiritual and consequently afraid to enter old buildings. He shuddered as I marveled at the beautiful multi-coloured crumbling colonial facades, and was much more at ease when surrounded by the monolithic ‘predios’ (skyscrapers) of the new town. Damon is in fact a Spiritist, an evangelical sect which advocates communicating with spirits, charity and reincarnation. Spiritism, which developed from 18th century French philosopher Allan Kardac, is particularly strong in Belem.

That evening, I was finally dropped at my destination: Alex’s apartment. Alex, who is a friend of Diego, lives with his wife Fabi and adorable 2-year-old Fernando (or Fefé as he is best known). They very kindly agreed to house me for the week. After living in a hostel for 3 months, it was a luxury to have my own room with air conditioning. I very much enjoyed being a typical woman and taking to the kitchen to cook and gossip with Fabi, a Rio girl (well, 27 year old lawyer) who had met Alex and had been dragged up to Pará. She takes careful note of the bathing habits of all the foreigners that they house, and tells me that I was the first foreigner they’d hosted who didn’t smell. Apparently their last guest was a Frenchman who took pride in the fact he never washed. Upon attempting to leave Belem, he smelt so bad that he wasn’t let on the aeroplane and had to go back to theirs and take a shower. Make believe? I don’t know, but I like the gossip.

Lost for ideas at the request to prepare a typical English dish, I decided instead to attempt to cook a Thai curry. This is in fact a curry a la Rachel – butternut squash, aubergine, curry powder, cashew nuts & coconut milk. Prepared a Vietnamese-style green mango salad with prawns the next day. Not too bad though I say so myself.

Alex, like Damon, is Spiritist, and is involved in many community projects as a volunteer. He has a motorcycle club called the ‘Expeditionaries of Pará’ which travel out to isolated communities in order to bring healthcare, education and entertainment once a month.

They also go to an Old Age Home in Belem once a fortnight to take the pensioners out in the sidecars of their motorbikes. I went along with them one Sunday and played the flute alongside a guitarist to entertain. The poor old folks seemed to have nobody else to visit them. They seemed to be on the whole pretty deaf to our efforts, until suddenly one old lady starts clapping and stamping. I hope this was a sign of enjoyment, though it could just as likely have been in protest. I played a few Brazilian tunes and Beatles numbers. It is fascinating how the Beatles reached such remote corners of the world.

One old man decided to take me to his room to show me his collection of English books. He had always been fascinated by British culture, and in his 90s had finally started studying English. His roommate grumbled and glared at me as I entered the room. I don’t think he appreciated the foreign invasion.

Since music is the reason I came to Brazil in the first place, it merits a section alone. My entrée to the music scene in Belem was Glenn Shephard, a friend of Diego and an American ethnologist who studies indigenous communities in the region. He is himself a great musician and plays the banjo, along with just about every other stringed instrument. Here's his blog:

Belem has a strong tradition of classical music, and one of the finest theatres in Brazil to house performances: Teatro da Paz. I first came across the Teatro as a carnival float back in Rio, and had climbed up onto the stage and sipped tea out of a china tea cup. It is a beautiful building and a relic of Belem’s heyday in the rubber era, around the turn of the 20th century. I went to hear Belem’s orchestra play music from Classical composers from the region. I couldn’t identify many regional influences, but there was one excellent Stravinsky-like piece that snapped me out of slumber.

My first Sunday night in Belem was spent playing choro music in the Bar do Gilson, a shack on the outside but an expansive music hall inside. It is famous for samba and choro, both music styles which originated from Rio de Janeiro. I was somewhat a rarity there – an English girl who speaks Portuguese and plays choro music in Belem is, after all, not what they see every day. One of the old vetarans, Amador do Bandolim, who is known for having spread the choro tradition in the Amazonic region, presented me with his book of compositions and CDs. 
                                                Playing 'Cadencia' in Bar do Gilson, Belem

I was invited to participate in a choro concert the very following week in the Teatro da Paz to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Pixinguinha, one of the principal composers of choro music - and a flute player. The orchestra consisted of around 50 musicians, and was a mixture of amateurs and professionals, young and old, men and women. They had been rehearsing since March, but I was allowed to jump in on the final rehearsal before the concert. I managed to confuse the starting times and arrived to the rehearsal 2 hours late – much to their surprise, not all Brits are punctual. The most exciting part was being interviewed by the TV crew which was covering the event – my first TV interview ever! Not that I’ll ever see the fruits of it…
Teatro da Paz, Belem. Me and the Teatro da Paz are destined to be. I clambered upon it as a semi-complete float in the Samba Factory, watched it glide by in the Sambodromo, marvelled at its grandeur from the plebeian masses in Belem and finally got to play in it.

The principle traditional styles of music found in Pará are, in order of personal preference, Carimbó, Lundu, Brega and Technobrega, which all have their corresponding dances. The music is heavily influenced by indigenous music, principally in terms of the rhythms, dances, and the use of flutes – Western classical flutes, bamboo flutes and recorders pepper the music of Pará. I am now playing in a band of Carimbo.

The term 'Carimbó' comes from the drum called the 'curimbo' made out of a hollow tree trunk that is traditionally used in the music. It is a fusion of Indigenous and African traditions, and its characteristic rhythm was popularised in internationally with the genre Lambada. Modern carimbó also has touches of Cumbia and Merengue from Brazil's Latin American neighbours. The music is typically danced in pairs, the woman wearing a long flowery skirt and the man a sombrero with corks dangling off the end. The fusion of Portuguese folk dancing (maracas, flamenco style) with African sensuality is evident. Here is an example of Carimbó:

A very 80s Carimbo video with all  Belem's tourist marks - Ver o Peso, old fort and twirling women

The style of music called Lundu comes from the Ilha de Marajó, the largest island of Brazil which is the size of England found at the mouth of the river Amazon. Like a true prudish British girl, was shocked at the extremely sexual nature of the dance. I felt as if I were watching a programme on animal mating rituals on the Discovery Channel. The music, however, is harmless. It is principally instrumental, and consists of a heartbeat on a drum, and a slow decorated melodic line commonly played on the flute.

Brega is tropical pop music from the 70s- it is bearable background music. Technobrega is, as its name suggests, a modern and synthesised version of brega- not my cup of tea. Technobrega has become popular outside of Pará, and the doll-faced popstar Gaby Amarantos even managed to play at the Barbican in London recently.


Belem has a surprisingly varied music scene. Rio de Janeiro lives and breathes samba. As much as I love samba, it was refreshing to hear new sounds. I went to a riverside bar which was playing a mixture of soul, reggae, Balkan beats and electro – what more could you want? (I find it amusing how reggae in Brazil is a sensual couple’s dance. Back home reggae is a single stoned man’s bop.) I was also dragged out to a rock bar, and photos were taken of me with the iconic British rock bands I barely know. I must admit that I am extremely ignorant when it comes to ‘dad rock’ – I can’t identify a single Led Zeppelin or Sex Pistols tune.

Belem means Bethlehem in Portuguese. It is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly religious city, home to the biggest Christian festival in the world. Every year in December, the city comes alive with 3 million people dressed in white to participate in the ‘Nossa Senhora de Nazareth’ celebration. The festival commemorates a ‘miracle’ which occurred 400 years ago in the early days of the city of Belem. The story is the following: a man finds a statue of the Virgin in a stream a little way out from the centre of the settlement which is now Belem. He takes the statue to the church in the city. The following day, however, the statue had disappeared from the church and appeared in the same stream where it had been found the previous day. Astounded, the devout man built a shrine in the Virgin’s desired riverside resting place, and with time the Cathedral of Nazareth was built to mark the spot. The festival of ‘Nossa Senhora de Nazareth’ celebrates this happening with a giant-sized Virgin statue being dragged by hoards of people from one church to the other, and back again the following day. It is apparently a joyous occasion which brings people together, and unlike Carnival, is peaceful. Students are the Virgin’s principal rope-pullers - it is a great excuse to take the day off studying, says my student friend.

Cirio de Nazare celebration
Belem's Cathedral

Religion is everywhere in Pará. Every street is littered with Evangelic and Catholic churches, ranging from terrifying modern buildings to crumbling colourful shacks in the ‘invasões’, invasion being the unpleasant word here for favela. One of the most popular churches here is the evangelical church ‘Assembleia de Deus’ (Assembly of God). Its chief Minister was involved in a major corruption scandal a few years ago, but this hasn’t seemed to affect its popularity amongst the poorer sectors of Brazilian society. It is very rare to escape from religion in Pará: every shop, every car, every home and every public building has some form of religious paraphernalia or slogan. Religion is also a certified road to political success: the mayor of Bragança is a former priest. Every time I turn the radio on I hear soppy God pop. Jesus sells everything here.

Being the foodie that I am, I was incredibly excited to try the exotic tastes of Pará. Its reputation as a food capital has apparently been established since a famous Brazilian TV chef recently lauded its flavours. The population of Pará consists principally of mixed-race descendants of indigenous communities, which is reflected in its cuisine.

Mandioca – a white potato-like root sometimes known as cassava in England, and the basis of most dishes. There are two types of mandioca: the sweet mandioca is known as macaxeira and is fried to make chips. The second kind, known simply as mandioca, is poisonous and must undergo a rigorous distillation process. The mandioca is squeezed in a net-like sock. The liquid is collected, and naturally separates into a gluey substance called ‘goma’ and a clear substance called 'tucupi’.  The goma can be dried to make ‘farinha de mandioca’, little puffy balls of mandioca flour. The mandioca which remains in the sock is used to make ‘farofa’ – a flour-like substance which is cooked up with garlic and bacon to garnish most Brazilian dishes.

Farinha on sale at the market

Jambú – a spinach-like vegetable which makes your mouth instantly numb when chewed- a very strange sensation. Pasteis de jambú, or fried up pasties with jambú inside, are delicious. It is also made into a cachaça, which leaves you numb and burning.

Tacacá – a soup made out of tucupi (the poisonous broth from mandioca) with jambú, prawns and goma at the bottom. It is served in a bowl made out of a pumpkin shell (cuia) and sipped directly from the bowl, with a tooth pick to get the prawns and jambú – spoons are not allowed. It is a common street food snack. (When it is hot, Paraenses – inhabitants from Pará – like to drink hot soup. When it is rainy, they go for ice-cream. The logic? Don’t ask). The soup itself is tasty, if slightly acidic, but having your mouth buzzing at every bite of jambú is perhaps more of an acquired taste. I was enjoying my tacacá until I got to the snot-like goma at the bottom... How anyone could enjoy that is certainly beyond me.

Eating/Drinking Tacaca with Cibele, Braganca's volunteer co-ordinator (and amazing person)

Maniçoba – Pará’s answer to the feijoada, Brazil’s national dish of a been hot-pot. This contains, unsurprisingly, jambú. It looks like sewage but is apparently very tasty. I haven’t tried it yet.
Açai – now we’re talking. Pará is the home of açai, the super-food berry that is consumed in vast quantities all over Brazil. I used to have açai on an almost daily basis in Rio, but there it comes as a frozen paste mixed with guaraná (a natural energetic syrup that tastes like red bull) and is served with banana and granola. Paraenses turn up their noses at this way of preparing açai and have it au natural, with sugar and little crunchy balls of farinha. Açai berries are tiny balls that grow on palm trees, which collected by men who climb up trees with contraptions on their feet to hold them in place. During early mornings the main harbour comes to life with the barter of açai bundles as the boats from the nearby islands arrive with their stock. The açai season is in January, when it is dirt cheap. It is still readily available, but the price triples.
Note – acai is not very sexy. It gives you purple teeth and a black tongue.

Acai berries on a palm tree

Pupunha – these are small yellow balls with stones inside which you peel, a cross between a chestnut and an avocado. Great slightly salted with coffee.

Acerola & Cupuaçu – of all the tropical fruits, these are my favourites. Acerola looks like a pink cherry, but is extremely sour. When sweetened and turned into a juice, it is delicious and refreshing. Cupuaçu has a strong and creamy taste and is delicious as ice-cream. 

Other things which are abundant in Pará are brazil nuts (known here as Pará nuts), fish and sea food. I am incredibly happy to have fish back in my life – despite Rio being a sea-side city, fish was surprisingly hard to come by and seafood was expensive.

There you have it – Pará in a few paragraphs.

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