The bus dropped us off at the market. There is always something enticing about markets in foreign countries. They are full of strange fruits, smells and objects. It is fascinating to walk around through the stalls looking at the goods and talking to the traders, exchanging smiles and laughs.
We saw a lot of big birds circling overhead. That was the fish market. The fish were gutted and the heads and entrails thrown to the vultures and egrets. As we got near we found ourselves walking through the vultures and egrets. They were standing around waiting to be fed.
Inside the fish were all extremely exotic. The smell wasn’t quite as exotic.
The beach at the fishing port was covered with rubbish with vultures and egrets picking through it. It did not look very enticing. All around was the squalor of decaying colonial buildings. Nothing was maintained. It reeked of poverty.
Belem was an abbreviation of Bethlehem. It did not live up to its name.
There was another day sailing north further up the coast of Brazil towards its largest port – the fabled Santos. Santos was famous for two things – coffee and Pele.
Unfortunately El Nino was exerting its power and unsettling the weather. We had been plagued with unseasonal rain on this trip and Santos was no exception. We headed up the inlet towards the port to find the hills around shrouded with low-lying clouds and the stilted shanty towns along the edges of the inlet all enveloped in mist.
In a coach with windows festooned with droplets we set off to the football ground that made Pele such an international star. On the way we passed by the picturesque bays with islands and sailing boats, long tree-lined promenades and parks. You could see that with the sun shining it would have been beautiful. Even today, in the rain, there was beauty.
Personally I was not enamoured by the shopping centres with their promise of cheap merchandise due to the weakness of the Brazilian currency but I was taken with the leaning apartment blocks. Some architect had miscalculated the ground stability and need for deeper piles. The foundations were not sufficient. In a few decades they’d start falling over. It looked to me that there was a disaster waiting to happen.
At the stadium we looked at the statues, plaques, art, cups and photographic homage to the great Pele. We went out to see the pitch and I marvelled at how small the stadium was. I had imagined a great stage for such a football genius to display his wares. This place was very modest.
Then it was off to the famous coffee house. Back in the day Brazil had been the centre of the world’s coffee supply. In 1922 the Coffee Exchange was built to facilitate this market. The building looks much older with its unique architecture, brilliant stained glass roof and paintings depicting scenes from the very early days of Santos. These days it is a museum and well worth a visit. I thought the architecture was great. It looked brilliant.
We walked back to the railway stage and boarded one of the newly renovated trams to take us round the old town nice and dry. My mistake was sitting on the outside so that I could take some photographs. Half of me was soaked through. But the ride was interesting. My tram was named Pele.
The old town was old. It was a mass of decaying colonial buildings. It seemed to me that the Brazilians did not value their old buildings. Everything was rotting and falling down. Perhaps there was a psychological factor at work here? They secretly wanted rid of all the vestiges of colonial control.
Back on the ship we headed off back out of the inlet passing the masses of wooden shanties housing the poor and looking far prettier, on their stilts, than they really were. Alongside them was a marina for millionaires’ yachts and huge expensive apartment blocks. That seemed to summarise Brazil – a land of extremes of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ which was responsible for the crime and violence.
I was reminded of that Bob Dylan sentiment about when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.
The light was fading as we pulled out. I didn’t think I’d caught the best of Santos. But as we sailed out between the bays and hills and passed the ships moored outside the inlet I was taken with the brilliance of light as it brought everywhere to life. It was magical.
We sailed away from the rather sad town of Puerto Madryn – the drizzle in Patagonia and the majestic sea-lions and cormorants. While the town was a sorry place I would have liked to have gone off into the interior to penetrate Patagonia and see more of those rolling deserts with their unique habitats. I would have liked finding more of the wild-life – the rheas, armadillos and pumas. I would liked to go as far as the ice covered Andes and see something of that beauty.
For now we were heading off into the ocean for two days of sailing. The giant petrels and albatrosses gave way to the boobies as the temperature rose. The shirt and jeans gave way to shorts, T-shirts, shades and sandals.
Up on the top deck the Jacuzzis were bubbling madly and the sun blazed once more. There were books to read, books to write, lectures to attend and meals to eat. The sunsets were great.
Out in the middle of the ocean once again we were travelling north towards Brazil once again. There was nothing to see apart from ocean. It was endless. There were no other vessels in sight. At night I stood alone on the deck as the boat surged forward, parting the waves in a fluorescent bow-wave. It felt as if I was alone, apart from the rest of humanity. The breeze created by the ship’s progress was warm and satisfying.
In the day I sat reading on the deck. Squalls appeared off to the side. I could see discrete areas of ocean where the rain was teeming down and the wind blew. Sometimes there was thunder and lightning. On a couple of occasions we passed through a squall and the winds dashed rain over the decks causing everyone to run for cover. For half an hour the loungers and chairs were empty.
We nosed along the long causeway – a long line of rocks piled up separating the port from the beaches. We were back in Brazil – back to the heat, the vitality and inequality, the samba beat and steamy jungles. It felt good. We were full of expectation.
It was carnival time. We had been told that everything would be shut. Carnival!! That sounded exciting. I started to imagine myself in a huge crowd, drinking, partying and enjoying themselves as the floats, music and costumes swamped the senses. It was a pointless reverie. Unfortunately we were due to head out in the early evening. There was no carnival for us. It was a delicacy offered but not given.
As we docked at the jetty in Rio Grande I was full of excitement. Rio Grande! I had thoughts of Gary Cooper and a stand-off in Main Street. It wasn’t like that at all.
On one side of the river was the town of Rio Grande, on the other was a green swathe of natural swamp and mangrove. I could make out birds that looked like white egrets on the shore. The twitchers set up their telescopes and were enthusing about the sightings of egrets, herons and a spoonbill. They proudly showed me this magnificent bird wading in the shallows – much too far away to photograph but still exciting to see.
We were taken through the dock area on a shuttle bus and dropped off in the main square. I peered through the window at the decaying buildings. Brazil was decomposing before our eyes.
The park in the centre of the square was full of great trees covered with epiphytes, the usual statues and tropical flowers. We wandered through. There was not a soul to be seen. Around the square there were the pleasant gaudy coloured buildings.
We headed off through the town.
They were right. Everywhere was shut. The only places open were the pharmacies. One street had a whole string of competing pharmacies. Not only that but it was all completely deserted. We wandered through those empty streets taking in the brightly coloured houses and the old churches. At least there was no problem about having crowds blocking your shots. I was able to photograph without annoying intrusions.
We later heard of some of the fellow voyagers being robbed in the square we walked through and others in those deserted streets. I found that incredible. We did not see anyone who could have robbed us.
We assumed that everyone was sleeping off the excesses of the previous night’s carnival. We imagined them sleeping off their hang-overs and recuperating for another night’s revelling. We hoped to at least discover some evidence of the carnival. There was nothing to be found.
This place was so strangely empty that it felt as if the place had been evacuated.
We found the cathedral and walked around the two sides on offer. It was firmly locked up. Then we headed back to the dock. There was a fishing port to discover. Reaching it we toyed with the idea of catching a ferry to the other side. I was tempted. Perhaps we might be able to get close to those birds? But I doubted it.
There was a little activity in the market. Some people were gutting a small number of freshly caught fish. On top of the roof a number of white egrets and a big heron were patiently waiting. The fish entrails were thrown out for the birds who swooped down from the roof, strutted, enlarged their plumage and fought over the scraps.
There were a few boats and nothing much else to see. Carnival time was certainly a slow time.
We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us out to the beach. It was famous. Praia do Cassino was the longest beach in the world being 250 kilometres long. We were extremely thirsty and dehydrated. Nowhere was open to even get us a glass of water. The beach was the only place open.
We hadn’t counted on it being so far away. It was a 30 minute drive. When we arrived we found exactly where everyone was. The beach was packed. There were lines of cars. Everyone in Rio Grande was on that beach. At the head of the beach there was a goddess on a pedestal – the goddess of the beach. Lots of offerings had been placed at her feet. Once again there was the strange mixture of voodoo, Catholicism and superstition.
We arranged with our taxi driver to pick us back up. He chose to sit in his car with his head back and feet up on the steering wheel and catch some zzzzs.
We found a beach café and ordered litre glasses of liquidised fruit juice. They were delicious. The locals tried to get us to try the delicious lemon alcoholic Caipirinha cocktail. We were too dehydrated and took another litre of delicious fruit juice instead. Then we wandered along the beach. We caught up with caipirinhas later!
It turned out that there was no carnival that night. The time of carnival was a holiday. That’s why they had all been at the beach. I suspect that the cruise was avoiding real carnival. They last thing they wanted was for all their passengers being exposed to a proper Carnival. There was too much risk of robbery and violence! A missed opportunity.
Back on board we headed back up along that causeway and gazed longingly at that beach that lay beyond. It would have been great to have spent a few days swimming in that warm sea and test out a few more of those Brazilian cocktails.
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On the crossing we were joined by large birds which seemed to hang or glide in the air around us. They were boobies. First there was a single brown booby and then a number began to appear. They swept along the side of the boat sometimes hanging in the air feet away from me seeming to be studying me with their astute beady eyes.
There were three types of boobies – the brown booby, the spectacled booby and the red legged booby. They were all magnificent but I was particularly fond of the red legged variety with its yellow tail feathers and blue beak.
The boobies would soar over the waves seeking food. They feasted on the flying fish that scudded away in large numbers, escaping the huge predator that was our ship. As our boat cut through the water the bow-wave would eject flying fish and the boobies would swoop to pluck them out of the air or dive into the sea to grab them as they plopped back into the water. That is primarily what was attracting them to the ship.
Here we were hundreds of miles from the nearest land and yet there were birds effortlessly gliding on the breeze.
As we got closer to South America we were joined by huge frigate birds. They hung in the air above the ship without a single wing-beat, looking like kites. They roosted on the ship’s infrastructure. On one night, as I was walking the deck I noticed one of the giant birds had settled on one of the ship’s long flexible radio aerials. The aerial was whipping about under the weight of the bird and the movement of the ship and the frigate bird was gripping on for dear life. I watched for a while thinking that it would surely leave such a precarious roost. It would be getting dizzy with the violent motion. It was still there in the morning. Perhaps it enjoyed being whipped around?
The frigate birds did not feed directly on the fish. They were rather evil and raggedy looking when perched with dishevelled feathers, like tattered black cloaks of a highwayman from the past, and their long beaks with its wicked point. There was none of the elegance they had when in flight. Their perched character was revealing of their true nature. They were robbers of the worst kind. They would watch the boobies doing the work and then swoop down to bully them into regurgitating the fish from their crops.
There are always some characters who are lazy, arrogant and vicious, who believe that it is beneath them to do any work; they can let the others do it and then simply take the product of their exertions by force. History is littered with the stories of these callous brigands. They’d storm through raping and pillaging, burning and torturing for fun. These scraggy frigates were the avian equivalent. I felt sorry for the poor terrified boobies.
There was other sea-life too. Every now and then a leatherback turtle would drift past the side of the ship with its neck sticking out of the water as it craned its neck to watch us go by. Pods of dolphins would sometimes make a bee-line for us and play in our bow-wave or wake before heading back off into the ocean’s expanse.
There were whales sighted all around us. Blows would be spotted and the fins or tails of a pod seen sinking below the waves. Great fun was had deciding from the height and shape of the blow and the nature of the fin what sort of whales they might be. Occasionally they would be quite near to the ship.
Isn’t it always the case that you never have your bloody camera when they pop up alongside you? That’s sod’s law.
From this account it sounds as if the sea was full of creatures. Sadly that was not the case. They were few and far between.
Back in the day of the old wooden sailing boats the seas did teem with life. The ships used to land on islands in order to restock with provisions and fresh water. Unfortunately the provisions included fresh meat and the sailors would bludgeon every creature that moved. They decimated the breeding grounds of seals, sea-lions, turtles and penguins, taking eggs, young and pregnant females indiscriminately. It wasn’t just the poor dodo that they pushed towards extinction. One of their favourite tricks was to stock up with live turtles that they would stack on deck upside down to kill when necessary. One can only imagine the agony of being left for days and weeks in the baking sun without food or water. It was cruel and callous.
The whalers also exacted a terrible toll. Not only did they decimate the whale populations but also took penguins, seals and even polar bears.
What we saw was the rump of what had once been. These creatures were hanging on as the human populations exploded. Their habitat was being destroyed, their food sources reduced, their breeding grounds taken over and they themselves hunted and killed. The tide of humanity was washing over the entire world.
In order to glimpse the majesty of what was left we spent hours scanning the oceans. But when we saw them they were wonderful.
Those creatures were testimony to the glory of natural selection. Evolution is amazing.
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Day two in Rio started brighter. The sun was shining. Even the birds seemed to be enjoying the sunshine. Hundreds of Frigate birds soared in the blue sky, vultures hung on the up draughts and big flocks of different birds flew in their V formations in all directions. I got off the boat to discover a colourful, yellow night-heron fishing off the hawser.
We’d decided to have a saunter over to the square again, check out the museum, which had just been built and had a remarkable architecture, and have a look round in the sun. That involved a beer at a café and one of those deliciously refreshing coconuts.
The Square looked different in sunshine. Rio was due to host the Olympics and there was a brightly painted block of letters to prove it in the square. Like good tourists we photographed ourselves with the blocks of letters. Then we set off for Sugarloaf Mountain. It wasn’t the one that Neil Young was singing about but it looked just as enchanted.
We boarded our cable-car and headed up into the sky with incredible views over Rio, Corcovado, the beaches and islands. The sky was blue, sun blazed, tropical jungle lay lush and green, sea blue, beaches yellow and the views were spectacular.
Up at the top we were level with the vultures and frigate birds. There were monkeys in the jungle, butterflies and flowers. It was just how I had imagined. I immediately wanted to go down and go back up Corcovado to see the views of Sugarloaf from there but we decided that the queues were too long. I contented myself by taking lots of shots of panoramic views that were all identical and having a close look at the vultures perching in the trees.
As the ship slipped out of the harbour that evening, I was on deck taking shots of the city and mountains in the evening glow. They were awesome.
There was a lot of excitement about visiting Rio de Janeiro. It has magic associated with it. I think it was the majestic nature of those two mountains – Sugarloaf and Corcovado (with its statue of Christ the Redeemer). They strongly reminded me of the mountain at Machu Picchu. That was equally stunning. So I got up at the crack of dawn. That was not my usual time for rising from the pit but I wanted to see Rio appear out of the mist.
It was magical. Unfortunately it was overcast and a bit drizzly. Not quite the weather I had been expecting in Brazil. But it was warm and the low clouds, though robbing us of a pretty sunrise, proved atmospheric and created a spectacular backdrop as Sugarloaf and Corcovado came into view on the horizon.
I searched for Christ the Redeemer and was a little disappointed. I expected it to be bigger. As the clouds drifted by it would peek out from the mists.
As the ship nosed forward towards the dock in Rio a bunch of us more intrepid mariners watched the mountains slide by. There was an accompaniment of clicks as the perspective changed and we saw different shots. Planes took off through the clouds, frigate birds soared overhead, vultures circled in and out of the clouds.
We slid into the dock as flocks of cormorants, in V formation, scudded by over the waves and Shearwaters sheared. It had the promise of greatness but for the disconcerting drizzle.
We had two days to sample its delights. Not long but long enough to get a taste. We’d planned out that day one was to be a trip up Corcovado to see if we could be redeemed (an impossibility).
On the way we stopped at the Fabulous Copacabana beach. The drizzle had developed into full-blown rain so it was devoid of all life, aside from a few hardy joggers and a bunch of robust beach volley ball players. It was apparent that Brazilians did not relish aqueous precipitation even if it was tepid. The rain gave it the appearance of Bognor on a typical English summer day. We headed for Ipanema. There wasn’t a single bikini-clad lady in sight to saunter past and turn my gaze. There were some great sand models though. It wasn’t yet raining hard enough to melt them. I noted the relative size of Christ the Redeemer was much exaggerated on the sand castles. We didn’t tarry.
We joined the lines and eventually got on board the train to take us to near the summit. It went through some rich tropical rainforest with views of favelas (the Brazilian slum buildings on the hills), exotic fruit and sweeping rain.
We walked up the remaining steps to the top and joined a crowd of rain-mac attired tourists all peering up into the thick fog where a faint silhouette of the statue could be discerned, in hope that the clouds might part as the seas had done for Moses. Eventually they did. It was bigger than it looked.
We went to the end and peered over into the wall of fog at the non-existent spectacular views. When we had sufficient photos of walls of mist we headed for café and a cup of Brazilian coffee (probably Nescafé).
We made our way back and had lunch. The rain had largely stopped but it was still heavily overcast. But staunchly we decided to head off exploring. We walked miles through the new square, the old town, into churches, cathedrals and museums. We copped a group of female drummers loudly practicing under the arches for the carnival. We went into the new cathedral and were impressed with the amazing stain-glass windows. We sat with the statues of the congregation in the Anglican Church, looked at the colourful murals around the city, the colonial architecture and gaudy colours.
Cape Verde receded into the past. We were now headed for Brazil.
For four days we steadily ploughed our way across the Atlantic through the calm of the doldrums. The sea was spread out like a skein of billowing silk and our bow cut through it like a ploughshare cutting sods. Ships used to become marooned in this placed but our fifty year old diesel engines throbbed as they powered on relentlessly into a rhythm to which I had become accustomed.
I had all the time in the world. There were no chores and no internet. I walked the deck for exercise as it gently pitched, I read with my feet up on the rail and broke off to gaze out over the endless sea. I went to lectures on the wild-life or social/political situations in South America. But mostly I stood at the bow in my shorts, T-shirt and sandals and stared out, partially in hopes of seeing wild-life, but mostly because it was mesmerising. The sun was scorching and tropical and the breeze from the ship’s steady 15 knots was cooling. Ahead it was unbroken. The nearest land was hundreds of miles away, there wasn’t a ship in sight. Behind we were leaving a trail that stretched off to the horizon. I imagined it as a long elongating snake stretching back to that bay in Mindelo.
Occasionally we would see whale blows, a pod of dolphins would check us out and have a leap through our bow-wave or a leatherback turtle would drift past raising its head out of the water to gaze at us with those reptilian eyes. I was quite shocked to find how little life there was. Once life used to teem and now it was a rarity.
Sometimes I would lie in the hot Jacuzzi on the top deck with my floppy hat, sunglasses and suncream, under the blazing sun with a beer in hand.
In the evening it was good to check out the sunset as it sank slowly into the sea.
Late at night I would go out on to the deck all alone and stand at the front with the warm breeze ruffling my hair. The ship’s lights were behind me and the moon shone brightly leaving a bar of shimmering light across the sea. The stars filled the sky with the Milky Way like a thick wisp of smoke in a band above my head. I felt all alone. As I looked around I knew that we were about as alone as you could get on this planet – no land for days and the nearest ship well out of sight beyond the horizon. It gave me a sense of what it must have been like thousands of years in the past for those early men before the machine of civilisation was created. I felt an affinity.
Of course there would have been a lot more wild-life back then.
I watched flying fish for hours. The scooted out of the way of our bow-wave fleeing the huge metal predator bearing down on them. Singly or in swarms they would scud out across the waves for hundreds of metres before plunging back down. I found them fascinating.
Behind me was Europe, England, Spain, Gran Canaria and Cape Verde, ahead was Brazil, Argentina, the Falklands, Uruguay and Chile.
I knew what was behind me and I could smell what was to come. It smelt like adventure.
We headed out of Recife for a day at sea on the way south.
Ilheus was different. While Recife was a major port and city catering for transatlantic commerce Ilheus was a small town whose claim to fame was the production of chocolate (now largely in the past). One of the beauties of being in a small ship was that we could get into the small ports. We were welcomed into the port by a samba drumming outfit who seemed to be dressed up in African cotton shirts. They were great.
Ilheus had that same decaying colonial architecture that we’d seen in Olinda. We wandered through the town and looked at the electricity wiring reminiscent of Thailand and India. It hung in swathes across every building and formed great knotted junctions on every corner rather masking the gaudily coloured buildings.
The centre of town was a square a hundred metres from the beach. The Cathedral dominated to one side and the theatre at another. Many citizens sat in the shade of the magnificent old fig trees while other folk did their best to extract cash from tourists. There were stalls selling cashew nuts and raw chocolate, a group of young men doing the acrobatic kick boxing/dance – Capoeira. Well I say doing. What I really mean is that the musicians playing a short burst while two or three put on a performance and then they demanded money from anyone who dared to watch. We watched. It was fun and looked very interesting and the musical instruments were weird. It was worth a dollar.
There was also a very strange big black woman in a headscarf and big flouncy white dress. It was our first introduction to Brazilian Voodoo – Candomblé. For a small payment she would give you a blessing. It seemed perfectly mainstream. Voodoo sat alongside Catholicism. People seemed perfectly happy to come out of the cathedral and receive a voodoo blessing. They were covering both bases.
The Cathedral was heaving with people all joining in with their hands raised palms upward. It always amazes me that the poorer and more deprived the people the more they put their faith in religion and superstition. The evangelicals were making a huge impact in Brazil. There were churches popping up all over the place with massive congregations.
The Cathedral was opulent and a great example of Portuguese architecture though not quite as typical as many. It looked a bit fairy-tale. I enjoyed it. But there were the ubiquitous clutch of beggars.
Out in the cathedral plaza there was some guy whirling around with a huge hat. IHe didn’t seem to be taking money so I don’t know what that was about. I decided it was either some new religion or something for the tourists to wonder at.
I wandered on the beach but, due to El Nino, it was a drab day. The beach was empty and did not sparkle.
We headed out into the hinterland to get a small taste of Brazilian Atlantic rainforest. We saw a waterfall, some pretty birds (including a humming bird) and gorgeous flowers but I was disappointed to find so little life. You could not describe it as teeming.
Alter Do Chao is a holiday resort on the Amazon. It floods to form a large lagoon with sandy shores. Families come to enjoy a ‘beach’ holiday. The water is fresh water and very warm. Extremely pleasant to swim in.I was more taken with the incredible wildlife of the flooded lagoon.