A wild looking man rushed over screaming
that I had to come and see his magnificent view.
‘Climb the steps,’ he told me. So, for the sake of a quiet life
I did and the view made me gasp.
By Philip Blazdell
Sitting watching the setting sun turn my beer glass into liquid fire it was hard not to
believe that I had fallen through another one of Alice’s Brazilian rabbit holes and landed
in another tropical wonderland. A wonderland with no straight edges, where everything was
in a state of transition and, perhaps, if you took your eyes away from their swaying
fronds for just a second, the palm trees would rush the city and once again smother it in
a blanket of tropical calm.
São Luís is often touted by those who write guidebooks and tourist literature as one
of the highlights of the northeast of Brazil; even UNESCO has jumped on the bandwagon
stating that "The late 17th-century core of this historic town, founded by the French
and occupied by the Dutch before coming under Portuguese control, preserves its original
rectangular street pattern in its entirety. Thanks to a period of economic stagnation in
the early 20th century, an exceptional number of high-quality historic buildings have
survived, making this an outstanding example of an Iberian colonial town." Today, it
is home to about a million people many of which who are descended from Bantu slaves.
However, as you wander the calm hilly streets which seem to roll aimlessly around the
town, like a drunk staggering home from a heavy night on the town, it’s easy to believe
that the town is just another one of Brazil’s transient paradoxessomething far too
fragile and precious to be realand that tomorrow when you wake up in your crumbling
hotel the city will be no more and something equally paradoxical and inscrutable will have
appeared in its place.
São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, was founded in 1612 by Daniel de la Touche de la
Ravardihre, a French naval officer. He named the city in honor of Louis XIII (I bet the
locals were pleased that he didn’t name it after himself). It was to be the only city that
the French founded in Brazil. Their colonization was aided and abetted by the local
Indians who had a pathological hate of the Portuguese. However, France at that time was
itself weak and the Portuguese captured it in 1614 or 1615 and set about pacifying the
local population. From 1641 to 1644 the Dutch held it but lost it once again to the
Originally established as a plantation, the decline of São Luís began in the 19th
century when the demand for sugar and cotton dropped. Despite some notable investment in
the city by companies hoping to exploit mineral resources and launch satellites from
nearby Alcântara the decline is still occurring today. Most people who visit will be
drawn to the colorful colonial buildings, which cluster together in the town’s historic
center and will rarely venture away from the historic center.
However, it isn’t the city’s charmingly appealing crumbling colonial buildings or
partially restored town center, known as the Projeto Reviver (Project Rebirth) that will
make me want me to return to São Luís, but rather it is the overwhelming feeling of
transition, the sense of the slow passage of history and a feeling of one’s own mortality
which even a casual stroll through the city brings.
From our hotel’s splendidly decrepit and fragmented balcony which was a mess of brick
dust, cracked ceramic tiles and sweaty workmen, it was possible to look out over the
city’s splintered rooftops towards the thick ring of tropical foliage which fringed the
city. Each day the palm trees seemed to press closer as Mother Nature pursued her
inevitable plan against man’s encroachment on her land.
Perhaps it is Mother Nature’s eternal quest that gives the city its unique tropical
feel. There was definitely something in the air that made me shorten my stride, slowed my
speech and lifted the veil of fatigue from my limbs. More tropical than Cayenne and many
places I had been in the Caribbean, São Luís might just be Brazil’s last tropical
classicalbeit a tropical classic that is gracefully sliding into the sea in a
poignant ballet of decomposition rather like a prominent Prima Dona’s slide into
The decay is impressive to say the least, and despite, perhaps even in spite of, the
commendable efforts of UNESCO and what appeared to be half of Brazil’s bare-chested
plastic-shoed workmen, the town still looks like it could be demolished with a few
well-chosen harsh words. I was never sure if the legions of workmen in the city were
actually knocking the buildings down or rebuilding themhalf the time they never
seemed sure themselves and spent hours wandering around looking for things to bash with
their 5-lb sledge hammers. A walk in the streets left your ears ringing and your clothes
covered in a grimy layer of brick dust.
Parts of the town reminded me of Hiroshima but Hiroshima could never hold a candle to
São Luís in terms of magnetism or refinement. Hiroshima is always too aware of its past
and lives too much on the memories of tragic events, whilst São Luís shrugs its
shoulders to the inevitable ravages of history and lets life carry on as normal; it seems
oblivious to its crumbling surroundings.
Out of a Movie
As soon as I arrived in town I went in search of a beer. The streets even at five
o’clock on a Thursday night were deserted and I walked through the oppressive heat alone
with my thoughts. On one corner where a tangle of wooden scaffolding held a crumbling
burnt out building together I found a tatty group of street children kicking a rag ball
around. The scene was a pure West End production of Oliver and I instinctively put
my hand on my wallet less the Artful Dodger decided to ‘Pick a pocket or two’, but the
song they would have more then likely been singing was ‘Consider yourself one of us,’ and
they happily led me down a rat’s run of back streets to a small lean-to general store
which eked out its existence in a rough timber shack erected between two scaffolding
From this wobbly shop the owner, who was all beer belly and flashing white teeth,
dispensed the necessities of modern day life: cards for mobile phones, bottled water,
contraceptives and beer. He even had a couple of optics for measuring out shots of pinga
(local booze), which I thought was a brilliant touch.
Refreshed I left the shop and returned to the tropical night. I could smell the sea a
few blocks away and the slight salty tang in the air was tempered with the rich smell of
the nearby palm trees. The kids escorted me back to the main street and then resumed their
game of football.
The streets were deserted and as the sun began its rapid decent below the horizon I
quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be alone on the streets after dark fall. However, I
shouldn’t have been worried as not only was the city relatively safe there were enough
watchful eyes on the street to deter even the most crazed mugger.
The windows of the houses that lined the street had all been thrown open to the balmy
night and out of each one peered a pair of watchful eyes. Even the most tumbled down
building had its watchful guardian. For the local population it must have been as good as
any other way to pass the night and if hanging out of windows and chewing the fat with
your neighbor ever becomes an Olympic sport I am sure that São Luís will sweep the board
Some faces, which appeared momentarily from the shadows, looked as wrinkled and
crumbling as the city itself, whilst others, especially the wild haired youngsters who
were clearly descendants of Bantu slaves, watched me with what could only be described as
mild amusement. Their radical and street-wise clothing was the only thing modern in the
town but they still seemed to belong here. From their shadow shrouded smiles there seemed
to be no trace of banzo (the profound longing of the slaves for home which would
often result in their death), perhaps, I thought, this would be more evident in the stone
and azuleaw6kx (ceramic tiles) of the town’s buildings.
I laid a hand on a wall, being careful not to demolish it, and tried to read the cities
history from the smooth ceramic tiles. Enigmatically I felt nothing but the dull wet heat
of four hundred years of colonial rule, historical incursions from the French who named
the town, the Dutch who brought some semblance of European culture to the town, and the
Portuguese who filled the town with lonesome Bantu slaves.
On my second day, impressed that my hotel hadn’t collapsed over night, I set off to see
the city’s sites. The wonderfully helpful tourist office had provided me with enough maps
and booklets to open a small store and the hotel’s charming manager had also been ready to
extol the delights of some of the city’s more obscure sites. I had a busy day ahead of me.
I walked back through the deserted Projeto Reviver, which despite ten years of UNESCO
funding was no more than a handful of beautifully candy-colored colonial buildings many of
which were bars or restaurants. Apart from a solitary chewing gum hawker the streets were
deserted and calm. It felt like I was walking through a cemetery and I hoped that the echo
of my footsteps didn’t shatter the morning’s calm.
I wandered into the Museu de Artes Visuais in the heart of the Projeto. Housed in a
wonderfully blue-tiled building, which was reminiscent of Delft’s finest exports, the
museum has an eclectic collection of old ceramic tiles and paintings. The collections of
tiles were arranged in a thought provoking and methodical manner but the paintings were
grouped together in a purely random way. Most of them were badly conceived and
unappealing. I tried to ask my self-appointed guide what was the significance of some of
the prints but she was too busy chewing gum, listening to her walkman and staring out of
the window to help me. She must have been eighty-five years old if she had been a day.
From there I wandered down more back streets and along deserted main streets in search
of the Museu do Negro. Occasionally I would catch a tantalizing glimpse of the sea and a
whiff of salt air, but there was still very little life on the street. The museum was
definitely not easy to find and it took the combined efforts of three school children, two
workmen, a postman and myself to track it down. When I did eventually find it the big blue
tourist sign that the city had given to all its important attractions had been propped up
inside the museum against the bathroom door.
I had expected more from the museum than one bored looking Caucasian curator who had
her head buried in a magazine about Leonardo Di Caprio and one whitewashed room of dusty
fetishes and charms. The building, which had been the storehouse for the freshly arrived
slaves, was now just another forgotten building in a crumbling city. The labeling of the
exhibits was enigmatic to say the least ‘FetishBurkina Faso.’ It tantalized the
mind, but ultimately left me unfulfilled. In a city of enigmas this was perhaps the
bitterest to swallow. It seemed a tragic and heartless loss of an important part of the
The next day, up with the first rays of the sun, I bought a boat ticket to Alcântara.
Although it was still early in the day, the sun was scorching and the day promised nothing
apart from blue skies, palm fringed beaches and tropical escapism. I was joined on deck of
the gently bobbing boat by a gaggle of trainee tour guides who were on a field trip to
learn the history of Alcântara.
They dutifully ignored their teacher who was giving them a potted history of the city
and rushed over to practice their Spanish with me. As tour guides, they told me, it was
essential that they spoke another language and had all suffered long painful Spanish
lessons and were keen to practice some simple sentences. Their Spanish was as about as bad
as mine and we soon dissolved into fits of giggles and reverted to the much prettier
language of Portuguese. I asked if they perhaps might like to study English, as this would
undoubtedly be more useful for tourism than Spanish. This came as a shock to them and they
ran screaming back to their professor blabbering about mad English men and being
The crossing was relatively smooth but this didn’t stop, despite the administration of
some ingenious patent medicine, one of the junior travel agents spectacularly vomiting
every few minutes. By the time we arrived at Alcântara an hour later she told me that she
had decided to switch careers to something less stressfullike the military police.
Stepping off the boat at Alcântara I had a feeling that perhaps this place would be
something special. I wasn’t sure if it was the peeling fishing boats that were gently
banging against the harbor wall, the dim lean-to bars which lined the main quay or the
lush tropical forest that seemed to blanket the townAlcântara seemed to charm me
even before I had stepped off the boat.
Founded in 1600 by the use of extensive slavery Alcântara was once the hub of the
region’s busy commercial sugar and cotton trade. When the industry went into decline
Alcântara suffered much more than São Luís and entered into a spiral of decline that it
still hasn’t broken free from today. It is a pitifully poor town and despite its many
humble mud brick houses and cracked cobbled streets many experts claim that it is an
architectural treasure and that it contains the most homogeneous group of colonial
buildings to be found anywhere in Brazil. However, unlike São Luís it hasn’t received
any money from UNESCO and the decay and ruination of the buildings is in a much more
advanced stage. The charm factor is also much higher and I found it instantly impossible
not to fall in love with Alcântara. I rarely feel this way about places.
From the quay I followed a cracked cobblestones path up a steep hill towards the town’s
center. Occasionally a small child, wearing only a dirty pair of shorts, would emerge
blinking from a simple wooden house and ask tentatively if I spoke Portuguese and needed a
guide. When I explained to them that I didn’t need a guide they would look at me with
large dark wistful eyes, shrug and then remind me that there was really only one decent
restaurant in the town and to make sure that I stopped by there for a beer on my way back.
I admired their attitude immensely.
As I reached the top of the hill a wild looking man, all raggedy hair, wild eyes and
elastic limbs rushed over screaming that I had to come and see his magnificent
view. He thrust his face into mine and told me that without a doubt it was the finest view
in Brazil. Having a healthy respect for mad people, and not being in a hurry, I allowed
him to drag me down an overgrown path to a quaint white washed church. ‘Climb the steps,’
he told me as he excitedly bounced from foot to foot. So, for the sake of a quiet life I
did and the view made me gasp.
Down below me was a thick forest of dense babaçu palms whose swaying fronds
were mottled in the noontime sun. Now and again this rich green tapestry was punctuated
with the remains of long forgotten colonial buildings whose faded red brickwork was slowly
being re-absorbed into the jungle. Beyond this was the choppy greeny-blue water of the
Atlantic Ocean and miles up miles of unexplored white sand beaches, which were home to
rare red breasted Guará birds. It was another tropical classic. My newfound friend, who
had now calmed down, looked knowingly at me. I had been wrong to doubt his sanity.
I wondered happily around the town for a few hours in the blistering tropical heat. The
locals were sensible enough to lounge in their hammocks or stare out from their cool shady
rooms at me as I walked by. They could have given the locals from São Luís a run for
their money in the staring out of the window and watching the world go past Olympics. One
or two of them shot me quizzical looks as I walked that seemed to remind me that only mad
dogs or English men went out in the mid-day sun.
I passed one shop which doubled as an undertakers and a grocery store: ‘I have a pound
of ham, two apples, a bottle of beer and that lovely wooden coffin on the left.’ In the
center of town, on a wonderfully tended lawn that seemed perfect for a game of cricket,
was the best-preserved pelourinho or whipping post in Brazil. Close to that was the
ruined church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo whose splendid classical arches seemed to mock the
stone post. There was also a large mango tree under which I sat and had a beer. A few
hundred years ago I could have sat here and had a ring side seat for a show of man’s
inhumanity to man. I felt a slight twinge of guilt as I sipped my ice-cold beer.
There wasn’t much more to see in the towna few beaches and some lonely bars. It
was a place of feelings and emotions rather than tangible tourist attractions. I sat under
the boughs of the great mango tree and slowly roasted in the sun. People came and went to
the bars and restaurant and a group of Brazilian tourists wandered past with a video
camera. Apart from that time stood still and I imagined I could hear the whisper of the
town as it slowly crumbled into the sea.
When it was time to leave I felt a pang in my heart and was half tempted to stay for a
few days. It would have been the perfect place to spend a few quiet days and catch up with
my reading, but as ever, distant horizons were calling and I needed to be on the move.
As the boat eased its way out of the small harbor and into the choppy straights I hoped
that one day I would have the chance to return. The travel agent sitting next to me, who
was already being nosily sick, probably didn’t feel the same way.
Philip Blazdell is English by birth, a scientist by training and a
traveler by nature. He has traveled extensively in Brazil and is a regular contributor to
numerous magazines and web pages. When not traveling he can be found in Fortaleza and can
be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org