Thursday, 5 September 2013

Bragança - The Woes and Highs of Living in a Tropical Country

I am currently in Bragança, a small town (population approx 100,000) a 5 hour bus ride (half the time in car) from Belem near the coast of Pará  It looks like it is in the middle of nowhere, and there is very little about it on the internet. See if you can spot it on the map:

Bragança is HOT. It is not just hot, but it is also very HUMID. And where it is humid, there is also RAIN. In tropical countries, it does not just rain – black clouds swoop down upon the sky every afternoon at a moment’s notice and open up to the most thunderous downfall imaginable. The rain consequently makes washing clothes a day-long activity of running in and out and in and out. All these elements mixed together make for the perfect recipe – MOSQUITO heaven.
As you can imagine, I took a little while to adjust to these conditions. Check out my leg mauled by mosquitos (and this was just the one):

My nightmare day.

I woke up in the morning in a hot sweat and itching like mad with the above leg, despite having slept with a sheet, pyjamas and a mosquito net with the ventilator on full blast. I go downstairs to have a shower. There is no water.
Peeved and still sweaty, I go to make breakfast. Coffee has run out. I fetch the cereal from the shelf. Out runs a mouse. (I like to think it was a mouse. It seemed too small to be a rat, but I am probably deluding myself). I check the back of the packet – it had gnawed a little hole and crawled and defecated right in amongst the flakes. Out goes the cereal. Lesson learned – do not leave anything out, even on shelves. All food must be in fridge or wrapped in numerous plastic bags dangling high above any surface.

I am down to my last pair of knickers and need to wash my clothes. Even my clean clothes smelt of mould- that’s humidity for you. I fetch my washing, bundle in the machine and turn on the machine. The machine does not turn on because there is still no water.

I attempt to use the internet. Computer says no. (Internet connection for my first month was incredibly sketchy – it sporadically connected for a short time just to tease, and then decided enough was enough for a few more hours. Apparently this was the company’s method of informing its clients that they hadn’t paid the bills, instead of writing a stroppy letter.)

It starts to rain. My room does not have glass in the window, so the rain splashes in. There is a leak. Rainwater now occupies half of my room.

I leave the house sweaty, itchy and foul tempered and wonder how I am to survive 3 months in this inferno.

Mariana, an AmazonArt volunteer, made me a delicious lunch. Life’s woes were instantly solved.

One month later 

It is incredible how quickly one adjusts. I became thoroughly accustomed to having a wet floor and the mice/rats were quickly disposed of with a few juicy pellets. Internet was still sketchy (the wifi had stopped working and I had to make a choice between internet and tv), but I rather like the excuse of ‘no internet’ to avoid wasting time idling away at writing blogs.

The heat, although still hot, does not bother me so – I have taken to the Paraense way of life by having a huge lunch and collapsing in a shady hammock to digest during the heat of the afternoon. My American friend Sara provided me with 40% DEET to scare away mosquitos (and humans – I had a few complaints about the unpleasant ‘eau de gringo’), which has to be sprayed even underneath my clothes. Now, rainy season is over – the summer here is drier, slightly cooler (still over 30 degrees and humid) and there are fewer mosquitos.

My housemates –  a couple Fagner and Paula - are brilliant people (and even more so for putting me up freeloading for over a month). Their house – a funky yellow setup with an outside kitchen full of plants and plenty of hammock space- is situated right in front of the river Caete. Fagner is local, Paula (the blondest girl in Bragança – she is half French) from Rio. Fagner works as the Minister of Culture in Bragança and Paula is on the environmental team. I can now see why she agreed to accompany him to this town in the middle of nowhere – it has grown on me a lot.

Despite being such a small town, there seems to be quite a bit going on. It is a University town, with its academic specialties in Bio Sciences, which means there is a large crowd of educated environmental folk. When anything happens in town, everyone knows about it and makes the effort to go, unlike London when each day requires a painful decision between so many options that you more often than not go for none. The Vacaria, a cosy hang-out with quirky artwork and tasty food and cocktails, is by far the best venue in town (acai and cachaca cocktail = recipe for instant sleep). There are a  surprising amount of artistic opportunities available for such a small place – during my short time here, there have been numerous dance, choral and percussion workshops. Bragança was the host of a 5-day long free music course (during which I studied conducting) which catered for musicians from the entire region of North Brazil. The spotlight was on Bragança as the town celebrated its 400 year anniversary- July witnessed a whirlwind of shows with top Brazilian artists and talented local musicians.

The beach at Ajuruteua is a 40 minute drive away through a lush ecosystem of mangroves and lakes, with bright red birds (guará) scattering the skies. At first the beach was a slight disappointment. Compared to the breathtaking beauty of the beaches in the South, where jungled mountains sweep down into sky-blue seas , Ajuruteua seemed somewhat plain with murky waters and vast expanses of tidal sands. However, I now find its emptiness enchanting. There are rivers, lagoons and miles of empty coast with wooden huts to be explored. Plus, there’s kitesurfing!

 Vila de Pescadores, next to Ajuruteua beach
 A rainy day at Ajuruteua. These 'palafitas' - huts on stilts - have great restaurants on board
Lakes and mangroves on the road to Ajuruteua. I didn't manage to photograph any Guara, but here's a stolen photo: 

Bragança also has a plethora of folk traditions, including festivals, music and dance. It hosts the Marujada every year, a tradition dedicated to the city’s black patron saint Sao Benedito which originated in 1798 when slave communities took to the streets in song and dance and created an 'Irmandade' (Brotherhood) to celebrate their construction of a church. The festival today is a month-long carnival of song, dance and red and white dresses. The music of the Marujada is retumbao, which is played with large drums, a rabeca (a rustic violin typical of Braganca), and an onça, a drum played with a wet sock which sounds like a bear groaning. There are also regional varieties of the many music and dances which travelled over from Europe and were modified by the indigenous, black and caboclo (mixed race) communities, such as xote (some argue that this has roots in Scottish dancing), mazurka and forró (the name of which apparently is a bastardisation of ‘for all’). Interestingly today, there is little trace of African slave communities in Bragança. There are numerous quilombos (communities of fugitive slaves) in the state of Pará, but on the whole the state has little visible Afro-Brazilian presence. 

 Braganca's de Sao Benedito, which over looks the river Caete (below)

The traditional dress of the Marujada. The dance consists of much twirling and bowing, accompanied by percussion and the rabeca, but internet is too slow to load videos... 

All in all, Bragança is not a bad place to be!

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