Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Brazil, a Land of Contrasts - Part 1

Greetings fellow travelers!

After my last brief trip to Brazil, I decided I had to go back and explore some more. So, last month I did just that - this time around I had a whole month, plus a car full of kids! Here is Part 1 of my latest Brazil adventure.

Brazil (http://www.cat-travel.com/brazil/information) is a truly developing country. There is a constant buzz about it that cannot be denied. You only need to drive along one of its main highways, such as the BR101, to realize that. Trucks, trucks and more trucks, and they’re all over the place! As we tried to get from Recife to Olinda it was still ok, but when driving north to the beautiful coastal town of Pipa it was a mad house. Unbelievable amounts of trucks, carrying anything from sugar cane to cars, entire bridges and other unidentifiable loads transported from A to B in huge bulk. I mean, they are going places, you know? This is a country on the move. No wonder they got the first two letters in BRIC…

I am not sure to what extent this busyness has to do with Lula, the current president that has done so much for Brazil’s working classes, and who has truly made a first attempt to bring the country up from a feudal landowners’ state to an industrialized nation. I have not been here long, or often enough to make that distinction, and that was one of the reasons we decided to make this trip: to get to know Brazil better, even if only a part of it.

As we do every year, Karin and I took the kids during their school vacation for a one-month inspection trip, and this time we decided to go and explore a part of the North of Brazil. So, at the end of January we flew to Recife and picked up the car we had booked for the trip. We had agreed not to stay in Recife, but drive on to Olinda all in one go. Of course we did not count on one of our connecting GOL flights being late, forcing us to take a later flight on our last stretch of the journey, arriving in Recife close to midnight. The car rental pace was still open, but by that time it was pitch dark outside. Still we had a place booked for us in Olinda and it was only a 30 minute drive away, so we decided to wing it. We immediately set off in the wrong direction, ending up on the Litoral Sul towards Salvador, where we weren’t supposed to be going until well over a week later. There are not that many signs on Brazilian roads (well actually there are lots and lots of them, but most do not seem to have anything to do with traffic), but after a while we figured out we were heading in the wrong direction and eventually found a way to turn around without causing an accident. Then, somehow, we got into the right flow of traffic and it seemed everybody was headed to Olinda. From that moment on we got a better feel of where we were as we crisscrossed the canals and rivers that thread through that part of Recife. The town was founded by the Dutch Prince Maurice (The Dutch settled in this part of Brazil for some 22 years between Portuguese occupations) and he must have been homesick for Amsterdam when he had this part of town designed. All of a sudden we were in Olinda, we drove straight through town, made one more u-turn, drove right past our hotel, hit the brakes hard, avoiding a couple of buses racing by, put the car in reverse and finally made it to our destination.


Olinda happens to be the old capital of Brazil, and today it is a world heritage site. The town is a maze of cobbled streets, hills crowned with brilliant white churches, pastel-colored houses, Baroque fountains and graceful squares. It is a nice picturesque place with many beautiful old churches and beautifully maintained colonial houses. Walking through the old town I got the feeling of being warped back in time to the days when sugar cane ruled the world economy.

The beaches close to town aren’t the most attractive, but if you have the time go and see the ones to the north, they are much better.

On our first morning we took the car out for a spin around town to get a feel for the place. We hadn’t quite covered 300 meters when a guy almost threw himself in front of the car, standing up straight, with a commanding hand held high in the air. We kind of took him to be a cop, but he was wearing shorts and a green t-shirt, so that was odd. Against my instincts I brought the car to a halt, and the “cop” took out what I thought to be his notebook. It was in fact a map of the city, and the guy turned out to be a guide. So our second lesson was that Brazilians can be quite direct and persuasive, and one should not always automatically respond to that. Saying “nao, obrigado” (no thanks) and walking or driving on will usually do the trick. Unless you are dealing with a real cop of course, in which case it is better to stop and be cooperative. FYI, in Olinda lots of people offer themselves as city guides. Those wearing yellow t-shirts with the words "Guia Mirim" written on the back and laminated ID cards are official guides.

A third thing that comes in handy is some basic understanding of the Portuguese language as many people speak nothing but it. We only encountered extremely friendly people when asking for directions, but most of their well-meant tips and explanations, sadly passed us by, as our Spanish was not of much use either. It was fun to be in that situation again though, where you never really know for sure if you got the gist of a conversation or not. It reminded me of the time in 1997 when we were driving across the Peruvian Andes, speaking only very little Spanish and asking local peasants who only spoke the native Aymara language for directions; that combined with them being used to traveling on foot, and having a profoundly different sense of time, made us agree to ask the same set of directions over and over again until we had met at least three people all pointing in the same direction… We got lost so many times on that trip that the fact, in itself, has stopped worrying me.

Happy trails!



USCIS said...

Being lost when you travel is part of an adventure and it is fun and challenging especially if you doesn't know the language of the people you are mingling with.

Arti said...

Hi Bart,
I would love to travel to Brazil one day..Olinda looks to be a nice rusty place to be in...