“The King of Portugal had given the region, with its savages
and brazilwood trees, to one Jorge de Figueiredo Correia. This gentleman however,
preferred the pleasures of the court at Lisbon to the hardships of the wilderness. In his
stead he sent his Spanish brother-in-law, who, at his suggestion, placed the region under
the protection of the donee’s namesake, St George. Thus it was that the holy killer of
dragons astride his horse on the moon had been following the history of this land for more
than four hundred years. He saw the Indians massacre the first colonists and in turn be
slaughtered and enslaved. He saw the building of sugar mills and a little planting of
coffee. And for many years he saw his land unprosperous and stagnant. Then came the first
cacao seedlings, and the saint, seeing them, ordered the kinkajous to undertake the
large-scale propagation of cacao trees. Perhaps he was tired of looking in the same
landscape for so long and had no purpose in mind other than to change it a little. Quite
possibly it never occurred to him that cacao would bring wealth and a new era in the
history of the land”.
Jorge Amado giving a remarkably succinct history of his
hometown, in his celebrated novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
I don’t know what I expected of Ilhéus; perhaps a stroll around the
placenames that roll off Amado’s novel; maybe a visit to the master’s childhood home so
that the vibes could permeate my mind and bless it with inspiration.
But then, true adventure presumes an uncertain outcome.
The words you’ll need:
kinkajou = a local forest mammal which wraps its tail around
pousada, pensão = small hotel, B&B.
sertaneja = backlander, from the interior of Brazil
redação = grammar and composition
passarela na copa das árvores = canopy walkway
Cidade Alerta = Alert City, a TV program
Ilhéus was shutting down shop when I arrived in early April. The
restaurants facing Pontal had drawn their curtains and the crafts market in front of
Praça Dom Eduardo was running out of stalls. The town beaches—which I can never
imagine to be clean like Maceió’s, popular like Rio’s or majestic like
Fortaleza’s—were home to a few downtrodden surfers; I bet they wished they were
somewhere else rather than the Cocoa Coast. I just HAD to put that tongue-twister in:
Cocoa Coast. That’s how Ilhéus markets itself nowadays—they should change their
image consultants forthwith. For Ilhéus, despite my fears of being stuck in a 1920s
backwater for the sake of Jorge Amado, is pretty and rather fetching in a subtle,
Excuse me. Did I say non-invasive? Whatever possessed me? The famous
character from the book—Amado’s sertaneja protofeminist beauty with the wide
heart and even wider leg span—is as conspicuous as a politician kissing babies during
an election. There are Gabriela fashions, Gabriela beauty contests, Gabriela foodstuffs
and liqueurs, a Gabriela lottery, Gabriela pousadas and T -shirts even a Gabriela
petrol station 2 kms out of town on the road to Olivença (free showers offered). That
excludes secondary personalities. Let’s not beat about the bush. Ilhéus has been made
famous from Brazilian literature’s best internationally known novel and as Jorge Amado’s
hometown. The inhabitants know it, which is why Vesúvio, Nacib’s bar, was having a blue
paint over and inner modernization facelift. The whole town had a regenerative feel:
streets were being asphalted choking down the Guarani market place where all roads seemed
to be converging; the cocoa museum was shut for refurbishment; the church of São Jorge
appeared to be permanently locked and—and I was the only tourist in town. This hasn’t
happened to me since I had to spend a night in Campo Grande. Pity, because I’d really,
really like to know if travelers come to Ilhéus for its beaches rated one- and two-star
by the Guia Brasil Quatro Rodas: I could point them to several three-stars a little
The Languor of Ofenísia
Ofenísia took out her mother’s shawl, an old heirloom which, as
heirlooms go had seen better days, (heirlooms are fine if they are rings and bracelets
made out of gold and silver and diamonds for they look unseemly in the older generation,
but when they are garments made in Olivença by Dona Quinquina, God-bless-her-soul, in her
younger, less skilful, pre-war days they become like their original owners: wrinkled, torn
and scraggy), lay it on the grassy ground and sat herself on top of it expectantly. At
least this heirloom could be put to good use, if Ramiro decided to act like a man—at
last—and not like a teenage mummy’s boy which he was. Mind you, if you had met Dona
Armanda and heard her blood-curdling scream, midway between the cadences of a ululating
howler monkey and the cry of a mating sow, you might have felt some sympathy for both her
offspring. The older son, Jacinto, had been swallowed whole by that devil of a town,
Salvador, and the younger one, Ramiro was the biggest wimp between Malhado and
Ofenísia sighed for she felt more than sympathy for the young timid
Ramiro, obligingly on her beck-and-call 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, skipping the
morning vestibular courses on Wednesdays and Fridays—he was very good both on
Redação and Physics so he could afford to miss both. She wondered what she’d have to do
to get him to snog her at last. The only time they had kissed was at Malvina’s birthday
party after he had drunk two rare glasses of caipirinha and even then he had hardly used
his tongue. That was a whole three weeks ago and since then, Ramiro had all but
disappeared. Malvina, her best friend, was excited and kept asking her what happened
next—she wanted to know dates, places and details, but Ofenísia was so embarrassed
she could provide none, she’d hung up on Malvina annoyed last weekend. Now that Ofenísia
thought about it, she would call and make up. Perhaps Malvina might help her if she
learned the truth. She might procure from her aunt Dona Glória some of these love potions
one hears about so often. Perhaps Malvina had used such tricks herself, for how else could
she have trapped Aristóteles, whose father was an estate agent and had the biggest yacht
in Ilhéus, moored prominently in the Iate Clube at the end of the Rua do Barão de Rio
Footsteps interrupted her thoughts. The figure of Ramiro, his
zimmerframe glasses sitting queerly on the small protuberance that passed as nose on his
inoffensive, caramel-colored face, appeared from behind the big statue of Christ The
Redeemer and walked towards her. At least he was there.
She waved at him with relief and pointed at the empty space on the
shawl to her right. Ramiro took his time sitting down, murmuring things like: “This
looks expensive Ofé, do you think it will get dirty?” YOU get dirty, thought
Ofenísia as she replied: “No, don’t worry Ramiro, it is so old it’s hardly worth
He sat down and remained seated in silence. They looked out towards
Pontal, pretty and calm in the distance—not close enough to show up the details of
the piles of muddy garbage, worn streets and cracking houses, but not far either for its
characteristic, cutesy little beachfront to merge indistinguishably with the background.
Ofenísia sighed again. This was so romantic. She stole a glance at
Ramiro and—now, this was heaven-sent, she must remember to light a candle to São
Jorge—he caught him steal a glance at her. He looked away. But Ofenísia, emboldened
by the sudden breathlessness in her breasts and the fire smouldering in her loins,
continued to look and look and did not turn away, until his eyes were fished towards her
by the nets of her insistence. Then she looked away.
“About the party”, she heard Ramiro say.
Ofenísia’s heart stopped. She closed her eyes. At last!
“I wanted to say how sorry I am”, he continued. “I never
drink, and I downed all this cachaça, I didn’t know what I was doing”.
“I, I told my mother afterwards, and she was very disappointed
with me. She said that I should apologise to you and concentrate on my studies. And
Ofenísia had heard enough. She turned over and brought her face closer
and closer to his until Ramiro’s head receded so much he fell over. She immediately jumped
on top of him, kissed him edaciously in the mouth and this time she made sure her tongue
was properly ensconced in his palate. And guess what? She felt his body stiffen in all the
That first afternoon in Ilhéus, which provided my first Bahian sun
since the Recôncavo, I walked around the Avenida 2 de Julho which wraps itself around the
southern tip, offering glimpses of the harbor and its distinctive twin long warehouses,
the Ponte Lomanto Jr—another baptized bridge—and eventually, Pontal. It is
there, where the strange geography of Ilhéus is revealed; for the town was built on a
large, alluvial island at the confluence of the Rio Almada, the Rio Itacanpeira, the Rio
Fundão, the Rio Cachoeira and the Rio Santana. However Recife it ain’t, for Ilhéus and
its surroundings are hillier, sturdier and less man-made than the capital of Pernambuco.
There is also a sense of small-town-ness about it, which is strange given the fact that
it’s the most important commercial center in the South of Bahia; maybe it’s because its
heart is clear, distinct and well-preserved, maybe it is because of its winding nature,
which gives you glimpses of the city from a variety of vista points, or maybe it’s because
unlike other urban successes, it has a mentality steeped in the 1950s, all probity
disguised as coquettishness.
I was rather curious by the sign on my map for a Christ Redeemer statue
at the curve of the Avenida 2 de Julho. I just had to go. It was rather disappointing;
life-size and crude miles away (literally, I suppose) from its godlike namesake on the
Corcovado. Still, the view across the sandbank to Pontal was eye-catching. I took out my
Minolta SLR with the 200mm Sigma zoom lens. Hey, is that the most famous sandbank on the
world? But wasn’t it dredged? What happened at the end of Gabriela? I forgot.
I noticed a movement in the grass below. Suddenly two teenage bodies
emerged. The guy wore glasses and was rather handsome in his Nike sportswear. The girl,
who although could be called pretty, was already on the way to being a fat, bossy matron
seemed very upset at the clumsiness of her boyfriend who had torn off the middle
of—was that a tablecloth spread on the ground? The boy looked dejected and ashamed.
The girl was staring at me with murderous hostility and a look that cried out
I followed her gaze which was fixed at my camera.
I walked away towards the Centro Histórico again not looking back.
I think I messed up over there.
The sky loomed menacingly in the distance.
“Will it rain?” I asked Euclides, my driver.
He looked at the sky and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, it is the rainy season”, he replied. He might have
added to remind me: “And we are going to a rainforest after all”, but he
did not, for Euclides was glad for having a tourist, any tourist at all, out-of-season.
Brazil is famous for its other rainforest in the Amazon basin, which
has attracted all the media attention. But not many have cared much about its other huge
ecosystem along the Atlantic seafront. When Cabral arrived and later, when the Portuguese
carved the land for their various aristocrat capitalists, the coast of Brazil, certainly
in this area of Ilhéus where we were driving, was covered by the Mata Atlântica, the
Atlantic rainforest. It’s a perfect reminder of what can happen to the Amazon, as very
little remains of it, and what remains is kept museum-like in ecological reserves. We were
heading towards the ecoparque of Una, one of the few pockets of virgin rainforest
Here, amongst the hilly, unpassable terrain, the 16th
century Ilhéus grant to Jorge de Figueiredo Correia faced a group of Tupiniquins
who revolted in the late 1550s and destroyed the sugar plantations. But they faced the
iron governor of Brazil, Mem de Sá, who had been successful in decimating the Tupinambás
of Northern Bahia. His campaign against the Tupiniquins of Ilhéus was terminal. He used
on one occasion eight black slaves as decoys to attract the Tupiniquins who attacked and
killed them—and found themselves surrounded and annihilated as a result. He ambushed
them in the woods in the dead of night, slaughtering men, women and children as they were
asleep. He chased them into the swamps and the sea—in today’s beautiful beach of
Cururupe—and sent his Tupinambá allies, their mortal enemies, to swim after the
Tupiniquins and kill them. When the massacre had finished, ‘the beaches [were] covered
with bodies without souls and the ocean surf that washed them turned to the color of
blood’, as the 17th century historian Simão de Vasconcellos informs us.
This was one of the crowning achievements of the Iron Governor: he prayed in a
thanksgiving ceremony in Ilhéus and was carried on the shoulders of the colonists in
gratitude. As John Hemming, an expert in native American history calculates, by 1570
Ilhéus had 400-500 settler families and eight sugar mills.
Vasconcellos makes the mistake of mixing up Mem de Sá’s campaign
against the Tupiniquins as one against the Gê-speaking (Tapuia) Aimorés. The reason is
clear: the Aimorés almost completely obliterated the captaincy of Ilhéus within 30 years
of the Tupiniquim defeat. Aimoré is, by the way, a Tupi derogatory word meaning
‘monkeys’ (and as monkeys steal things, this eventually came to mean ‘thieves’). The
Aimoré called each other many tribal names such as Cariri or, around Ilhéus, Camacan. In
the 19th century, they came to be known as the dreaded Botocudos, from the
decorative disks they inserted into their lower lips.
Whatever their name, these natives who migrated from the interior were
taller, more ferocious, and more skilled in guerrilla warfare, crawling on the ground from
the dense trees to attack isolated workers in the forest clearings devoted to sugar-cane
cultivation. They were nomadic, so they had no village to be attacked in. They were
cannibals who ate human meat as wild game rather than as a ritual like the coastal Tupi.
As the Jesuit João Navarro writes of the fate of an Indian guide
during an expedition in the interior of Bahia from Porto Seguro: “One Indian…
went a gunshot’s distance ahead of the whites. Suddenly a herd of Tapuias came and tore
him to pieces and carried him off in quarters. After that fright, neither whites nor
Indians dared stray from the path from then onwards”. The Aimorés succeeded in
keeping the Europeans well out of Southern Bahia and Espírito Santo until the beginning
of the 19th century. In fact, so feared were they that when peace broke out
with our Potiguars in the Rio Grande do Norte, the Portuguese crown resettled over 2,000
as a buffer against the Aimorés. But in the end, the colonists of Southern Bahia fled
their farms and barricaded themselves in the few coastal towns like Ilhéus. They had
finally met their killer match.
The Aimorés would keep the upper hand until some unrelated events
unfolded further away, in France. A short, ambitious general-cum-emperor in far-out Europe
would seal their fate, although he had no idea at any point of the wave of consequences
his battle victories would unleash.
When Napoleon invaded Portugal in November 1807, prompting Wellington’s
Peninsular Wars, Britain provided a naval convoy to bring the Portuguese court to Brazil.
And what a court that was: Queen Maria was certifiably mad (what, with George the III and
all, there must have been a royal lunacy virus going on) and the country was being ruled
by her son, Dom João, later João VI of Portugal, Prince of Brazil. His wife Carlota
Joaquina de Bourbon, who married him when she was ten years old, was epileptic and her
marriage was a sham: both she and the King looked to men for sexual pleasure: Dom João is
#62 in the list of famous Brazilian homosexuals of the Grupo Gay da Bahia. Of course Dom
João would hardly call himself Brazilian, as he had never set foot on that backward
colony of his, until forced to by circumstances.
Once in Bahia, in January 1808, after a stormy trip which played havoc
with their alimentary system, they were shocked by the grubbiness and uncouthness of the
locals; they took over, nevertheless, the best mansions in Salvador, and later Rio,
without paying a cent. They were planning a long sojourn; Napoleon seemed undefeatable, so
they started founding Universities, and a state bank (Banco do Brasil), dished out titles
and medals to the rich landowners and most importantly allowed direct trade to third
countries—previously everything had to pass through Portugal. One of the lasting
achievements of the first European court on American soil was the annihilation of hostile
Indians, such as the Aimorés. A decree by Dom João declaring full-scale war, was nothing
less than state-sponsored genocide, a precursor of what would happen to the Plains Indians
of North America and to the tribes of Patagonia and the Amazon. By then, the primitive
ways of the Aimorés had started lagging behind European kill technology, and they were
Euclides stopped my rambling thoughts by turning sharply right.
“The ecoparque”, he announced as he parked in a
makeshift awning. And then almost immediately: “What’s this?”
In front of us, a tall, white-haired, sunburnt American in his sixties
was facing a Brazilian TV crew complete with boom mike, camera, director and presenter.
They were from the ComAm organization (Comunicação para o Meio Ambiente, best translated
as “Environmental Communication”) based in São Paulo with a web site at
http//www.meioambiente.org.br. And the elderly American?
“Hi, I’m Ian—Ian Green”, he said to me in that
confident, genial American way. “I represent Anheuser/Busch and, oh boy, I’m so
I did not catch it immediately. Anheuser/Busch?
“Budweiser”, he said. “We are the company behind
Budweiser. Have you heard of that?”, he asked in all sincerity.
“This is so exciting”, he repeated.
What was exciting? What was he doing there?
“Mr Green we are starting”, said the director.
“Oh boy”, said Ian and took his seat. Americans are such
naturals behind TV cameras, as if they’ve been taking lessons in Media Communications
since kindergarten. It’s THOSE genes that made America.
“I come from St Louis, Missouri”, started Ian in response to
a question. “and I work for Anheuser-Busch. We at Anheuser-Busch care a lot about
environmental issues and in particular the disappearing rainforest. We have a dedicated
Ecology Department, where I work, and we turned our attention here when we discovered that
the Atlantic rainforest had shrunk to about 8% of its former size. One of the pockets of
the rainforest is here, in Una”.
A hotel bus with Brazilian tourists stopped behind us.
“When I arrived here with my team in 1997, my grasp of the
Portuguese language was nil. I was holding a tool and was asking its name. I had made a
list of words and expressions I needed. You know: ‘What’s this?’, ‘Water’, ‘Rain’, ‘Dig
here’, ‘Get inside the truck’. Phrases like that. When we arrived we had to face the
rains, so we built a portable bridge made out of lumber to move our truck. Whenever there
was an unpassable part, we unfolded the bridge, forded the path, then folded the bridge
back to our truck and continued.”
The Ecoparque bus arrived.
“We brought battery-operated tools, surveyed the ground, gave
lectures and started the project. I was the manager until the local Bahians were able to
finish the project themselves, but this was the highlight of my working life”.
“Have you seen the finished work?” asked the presenter.
Ian grinned cheerfully.
“No, I haven’t. I have only seen the plans and built the first
foundations. And oh, boy, I am so excited. Today, I will see the end result for the first
“What is he talking about?”, I asked Euclides.
“In the ecoparque”, he explained, “you will walk
on a canopy walkway. It’s the main attraction”.
I looked at Ian.
“And this guy built it?”, I asked.
“It looks that way”, Euclides confirmed.
The Loneliness of Gloria
Dona Gloria sat down and looked at the big clock on the wall. It
was nearly time for lunch, but was she hungry? No, she was alone in the house on União
hill, and had been since well, four o’clock yesterday, when her cunhado Amâncio popped in
to ask her if she wanted anything brought back from the ecoparque. He was driving some
tourists tomorrow—today. In the absence of other distractions, she played back last
night’s scene in her mind’s eye one more time.
Ah, Amâncio knew how difficult it was for her to obtain some of her
herbs. There was a time when she could roam in the forest and pick them out as she wanted:
freshly sprouted, in bloom, next to a brook, in the shade of a tree—for even the
location, the time of year, the time of day and the age of the plant was important. But
back then, you could go to Arataca and be surrounded by virgin forest. Now, there’s only a
tiny reserve which they have fenced it off and keep the folk away. She left a small cry
lamenting the passing of the forest. Why, even when the generals moved in back in the
sixties, there had been thick forest from Buerarema to Santa Luzia and Chico, the barber
had claimed that he had once been chased by a jaguar, although hardly anyone believed him.
Who had ever heard of a jaguar hunting in daylight? Everyone agreed that the marks were
those of a lion-monkey.
“Amâncio”, she had said, “don’t bother. If they catch
you, you won’t work there again”.
“Dona Gloria”, he had replied in that squeaky voice of
his—such a big man and a voice like chalk grazing the blackboard—”Dona
Gloria, they’ll never search me and they can’t check me. The tourists go on the trail to
that new canopy bridge and the drivers are left behind to wander alone”.
Dona Gloria had taken her thick glasses off; she always did that when
she thought deeply, because it’s easier to concentrate when you can retire from the images
of this world and contemplate the world of the Orixás. The bitter truth was that she was
running down on her plants. She had long accepted that she had to buy the ritualistic ones
from Salvador at an inflated price: cana-de-macaco, Ogum’s special, required for the new
initiates; powdered canjerana to fight the negative waves in ceremonies; sangue-de-dragão
for ablutions of the head; white flor-de-São José for Oxalá; catinga-de-mulata for
Obá; mãe-boa and orriri for Oxum. She shook her head. No, what she was craving for were
the medicinal herbs which she now needed for herself: erva-de-Santa-Maria for her
bronchitis; jabuticaba for her asthma; japecanga for her rheumatism and
dormideira-sensitiva to make her sleep. Ever since her beloved Josué passed away five
years ago, Dona Gloria’s bed was cold and her sleep disturbed. Perhaps she could have
saved him, had the doctor diagnosed him correctly: she gave him ivitinga for ulcers,
whereas he needed tanchagem for angina. Now that she thought about it, she was running low
on those, too. This is impossible, she must take count and check.
“Come over tonight and I’ll give you a list”, she had
She was indebted to Amâncio, although the herbal fumes of calêndula
she had prescribed many years ago, certainly helped his wife’s heavy periods. Who was more
grateful is hard to judge: his wife or Amâncio himself who had to endure her nerves when
that time of the month arrived.
Dona Gloria gazed at the ocean below; this was another uninterrupted
reverie, one of a string of uninterrupted, lonely reveries, day-in, day-out, month-in,
She heard a knock. Who could that be?
“It’s me Dona Gloria. It’s Ofenísia”, a voice shouted below
Ofenísia? The friend of her niece Malvina? Should she not be at
school? Oh, no, she finished last year. Or was it the year before last?
Long before the time Ofenísia asked for the favour, Dona Gloria had
guessed and had decided on the price, for there’s not many things young girls request from
older women dabbling in herbal potions. When Ofenísia stopped, embarassed and out of
breath, Dona Gloria spoke gravely:
“Your wish shall be granted Ofé, but first we have some business
in the cemetery tomorrow”.
Linde was another good gringo—this time from Germany. Tall, gaunt
and attractive in her jungle gear she directed the proceedings with authority and gave us
a short, but unforgettable introductory lecture. She was a biologist, adventure backpacker
and safari guide in one.
“This is not the Una reserve”, she informed us in faultless
Portuguese. “This is the Una Ecopark. Only scientists are allowed in the reserve.
There are several animals that only exist in this region and are endangered.”
She stood in front of a tableau of pictures.
“This is the most famous of all”, she pointed, “the
golden-headed tamarin monkey, more commonly known as lion monkey—mico-leão-capa-dourada.
It is a beautiful creature, with a very distinctive golden mane, the symbol of the
biodiversity of the Mata Atlântica. But we also have the yellow-breasted capuchin monkey,
the maned sloth and the thin-spined porcupine, the rarest of all American porcupines.
There are also margays—or Brazilian jungle cats, gatos-do-mato, several rare
frogs and tree-hoppers. Any questions?”
A Brazilian raised his hand.
“Yes?”, she asked.
“Where did you learn Portuguese?”
She laughed. “I am a biologist working in Bahia. I had to learn
Portuguese. After three years in Una, I learned. Anyone here does not speak
Ironically, Ian was the only one. Linde repeated it all for him.
“You have heard about the Amazon, you have heard about the
Pantanal. But the biodiversity of the rainforest in Southern Bahia—the number of
species per hectare—is astonishing. For tree biodiversity Southern Bahia holds the
world record: 456 species/hectare”.
Sadly this means nothing to the local landowners. During the 1980s,
half of the population of the golden-headed tamarin monkeys was exported for pets and two
thirds did not survive the trip. As the rainforest shrinks, and as a family of 6-7
individuals (interestingly enough, only one female in a group ever breeds) requires about
40 hectares to live in, the population necessarily drops.
The capuchins—and the yellow-breasted variety was only recently
recognized as a species—exhibit great curiosity and are considered highly
intelligent—although, I’m told that unlike other monkeys they don’t recognize
themselves in the mirror, but we’ll pass on that. By the way, they raise their eyebrows
when they want sex: I will never watch a Joan Crawford film with the same concentration
The maned sloths, masters of camouflage, are slow and
solitary—only the mother with her kid make up a lasting pair—although after
about six months, the mother abandons her young rather abruptly. One unique characteristic
of a maned sloth—which like all other sloths moves in slow motion—is its ability
to swim. Having spent many happy hours watching the tree sloths of the main square in
Santa Cruz, Bolivia, move about one yard, I can’t figure out how they managed to master
such an effort-consuming sport.
Linde was in full flood. It is rare to have a fully-fledged biologist
guiding you in this, one of the newest Brazilian UNESCO Heritage sites, for the Mata
Atlântica reserves have now become such a rarity they need protection like Machu Picchu
“What is the most common animal here?”, asked one of the
Brazilians from the Transamérica Hotel in Una—which, of course, doesn’t mean ‘One’
in Portuguese (this would be ‘Uma’) but ‘Dark’ in Tupi. The Forest of Una means ‘Dark
Linde waved and one of the drivers passed around a bottle.
“The mosquito”, she replied. “That’s why we’re giving
you free protective lotion”.
We obeyed quietly before we marched off to the trail. As I plastered
mine on, I saw one of the drivers—the one with that squeaky voice—pick some
twigs from a tiny bush and tie them clandestinely in a bundle.
Was that allowed?—but there was something else I wanted to
“Are there any jaguars here?”
“Yes, there are”, Linde replied. “But they are nocturnal
and they don’t normally attack if outnumbered.”
I counted. There were about a dozen of us marching in single file
behind her lofty, commanding figure.
“This means that in a convoy the last one is the one most in
danger”, she added. “If a jaguar attacks, it attacks the laggard”.
We all turned around. Ian was huffing and puffing several yards behind.
He looked up and he saw us stopped, our faces turned at his direction. Oh dear, I was the
“What?”, he asked.
We all turned our faces away and continued walking.
“What?”, he repeated. He looked at me. “What?”
“Nothing important”, I replied, in case he speeded up his
canter and overtook me.
“Biodiversity”, Linde went on, as she sapped a rubber tree
and collected the white fluid to show us the process. “Biodiversity. Nature has been
there: from the cloves which cure toothache to aspirin to quinine, Nature has provided us
with a big laboratory which we are only now learning how to study. Look at this old pau-copaiba
tree which produces excellent anti-inflammatory oil. Look at this natural
I touched the sap. She shook her head.
“It’s going to stink now”, she said.
I smelled my fingers with a sense of déjà-vu: as if I had just wiped
myself clean after a bout of asparagus diarrhea.
Did I not do the same thing in the Amazon?
I must have spoken loudly, because Linde turned around with
“The Amazon? You’ve been to the Amazon?”, she asked.
I thought of the canoeing, the hallucinogenics and Martin.
“Yes—seven years ago”, I remembered. “Everybody
wants to go there, don’t they?”
“Did you see any animals?”
She smiled knowingly.
“You don’t in the rainforest, do you?”
“But was it interesting?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
She nodded, like a biologist would and showed us around. “There
are so many species around you—so many”, she said “full of interesting
She pointed at a line of leaf-cutter ants,
“Take these ants for instance. Do you know what they’re
“They are carrying leaves to their nest”, replied a boy.
“And why are they carrying leaves to their nest?”, asked
“To eat them?”
She shook her head.
“No, they don’t eat them. They breed a kind of underground fungus
which feeds on these leaves and they don’t even eat the fungus. They eat the fruit
of the fungus. Believe it or not, they are farmers, just like us. “
She pointed at their anthill.
“You only see a third of it. The other two thirds are below ground
extending into the earth. There is a whole farm underneath and the farm feeds not only the
ants and the fungus, but many more species who in turn feed more species, all forming an
intricate, very delicate ecosystem. And what do we do? We are irreversibly destroying
their habitat and we lose the information Nature has struggled to create for billions of
She stopped and showed us a plant with wide leaves.
“This is called tiririca”, she said. “Rub on
I rubbed my T-shirt against the plant. One of its long leaves attached
itself to my sleeve and fell off.
“Natural Velcro”, she pronounced triumphantly and turned the
Its underside was sharp and rough like sandpaper.
“It is like sandpaper”, she explained. “It’s
aluminum silicate. The leaves are hollow, stacked as if in concentric tubes and stick out.
The silicate makes them uneatable, and then animals rub off the leaves, take them along on
their fur and shake them off elsewhere. It will be no surprise to learn that this is how tiririca
multiplies: by auto-cloning itself. It’s an ancient plant, a grass, preceding all the
later ecologically advanced plants with flowers and pollen and what-have-you. It has
survived much longer than we have as a race”.
I wonder who was worth more according to the Darwinian mores of our
society: me or tiririca?
She stopped in front of a nest built on a tree.
“Now ants like humidity, so they build ant-hills in the soil.
Termites”, she announced, “like it dry, so they nest on trees”.
She waited for us to congregate around.
“Termites may be a disaster in São Paulo, but in the rainforest
they are the refuse collection service. They rid the forest of all dead wood. Keep it
What looked like a wasp flew out of a small hose-like protrusion at the
top. We stepped back.
“A wasp nest”, a kid cried.
“It’s not a wasp”, Linde explained. “It’s the homeless
bee, abelha-sem-terra. It can’t build its own nest and has to invade others’
And what about the termites inside?
Linde pointed at a few termites leaving the nest from the opposite side
of the bee entrance.
“They are still there. They are engaged in a permanent territorial
war. I have been here three years and I know for a fact that it’s been going on for two
Wow! It’s like Starship Troopers: a fight to the death between two
“So far”, continued Linde, “there hasn’t been a
“I would have thought the bees would win hands down”, I
“These termites”, she said, “have a natural antibiotic
which fights off bee venom. Nature has again been there first”.
You had to hand it to Linde: she was mighty impressive.
She stopped when we reached the canopy walkway.
“Before we climb up”, she said, “just observe the leaves
round you in the bottom of the rainforest”.
We looked around.
“They are big, are they not?”
They were huge.
“In the jungle, the plants have to fight for two things: sun and
water. They need to pick out the sun and to collect water to their roots. Some plants
invest in height and their canopy is composed of small leaves, for the sun up there is
strong and plentiful. Others invest in leaf width. In the forest, the rain will fall over
a longer period of time as it will drip slowly from the leaves above to the leaves below.
The function rainforests perform for our planet is that of storage tanks; storage tanks of
fresh water. You destroy the rainforest, you bring in the desert and the drought, as
Brazil itself has discovered”.
“What about the oxygen?”, someone asked.
“Rainforests do not in general contribute to the oxygen
supply”, Linde replied. “Most oxygen produced during the day is consumed during
the night. What generates oxygen is swamps; mangrove swamps. These are the major
oxygen-producers on our planet”.
“No, the destruction of the rainforests will bring desertification
and the annihilation of our supplies of water. The biggest problem of the 21st
century will be water. In twenty five years’ time drinkable water will be a most precious
commodity. In fifty years’ time, we will see wars. And do you know how you can save the
“Eat more chocolate. Cocoa trees need the shade and the
wetness of the rainforest. The Mata Atlântica survived for as long as there could be made
profits from the cocoa plantations. It was afterwards, when the price of cocoa collapsed
that the farmers started logging”.
The thought of eating chocolate for our planet brought tears to my
eyes. Protest never is so enjoyable.
I heard Ian cry behind me.
I turned licking my lips. A jaguar?
No. We had reached the entrance to the passarela na copa das
árvores Ian had built—Ian with Anheuser-Busch, he would have corrected
He ran to the front next to Linde with his sixty years suddenly shrunk
“So, there it is”, he said.
The walkway starts on a small hilltop—you don’t have to climb a
tree to enter; and it hovers over 20-25 meters over the jungle floor for a good 100
meters. In the entrance there is a small wooden cabin for rest.
“That’s when I left”, said Ian proudly. After we finished
this cabin. Built with a local palm tree.”
“Piassava”, popped in Linde.
“Yes, piassava”, he said. “Rather sturdy. I remember
putting the foundations for this cabin”.
He ran on the side and a family of bats flew out from below the cabin.
“We had to dig those holes on the side by hand”, he said
excitedly. “And they had to be deep enough for stability. In the US we’d have
automatic nailers, pneumatic drills, motorized diggers—here we only had
He was gesticulating like a South American.
“I tell you what”, Ian continued. “They say Bahians are
lazy. Gee—believe you me, they’re not. The Bahians love to work. They lack knowledge
and infrastructure—but you show them how something is done and they never say ‘that’s
too much for me’, no sir. These guys can do wonders with their machetes. They dug these
holes in 30 minutes. “
The Brazilians were watching mesmerized.
“Those poles—those 36-foot poles. I had no idea how we could
raise them; in the States we would simply order a helicopter. We ended up clamming heavy
three-in-one pulleys. Twelve people started pulling like a crane and one had to go down
and risk his life, while he guided the tip into the hole by hand.”
He breathed in proudly.
“I’ve done things in my life, but this tops it all”.
We sat around silently.
“Go ahead”, we offered. “You go first”.
“No”, he replied. “I want to stay behind a little”.
The walk from tree to tree on this aerial bridge was fun; the
rainforest lay below us, its leaves thick and impenetrable like a deep green marsh. The
top branches were full of small yellow, red and green leaves and …
“Bromeliads”, said Linde following my gaze.
“There are twelve species of bromeliads just on the canopy. Birds bring the seeds and
they sprout wherever they can.
“I have only seen them on the floor”, I replied.
“They are actually a canopy plant”, said Linde. “They
can grow anywhere—in the poorest of soils like their relative, the pineapple, as long
as there’s a lot of rain. The reason they can is because their leaves are bunched up at
the stem storing water and mud and dead leaves: an organic soup which serves as nutrient
to them and many other species. Look”.
I looked down and saw a giant web with many small spiders crawling
“Social spiders”, said Linde. “Normally spiders are
solitary and they’re cannibals. But this species of spider build a huge web together and
live socially like ants”.
She gave me a sideways glance.
“Do you think that rainforests are more interesting now?”
“Fascinating”, I said. “If you are with someone who
knows their stuff”.
We looked at Ian who was enjoying his slow canopy walk.
“You are lucky”, she said. “Having Ian here”.
He stopped in the middle and looked down, up, left and right. He took
another step and looked left, and then right and then behind, like Tweety checking out for
“Do you like your job?”, I asked Linde.
She breathed out still looking at Ian who was enjoying every inch of
the walkway like a Gucci model on a catwalk.
“I wouldn’t do anything else. My work is my life and I enjoy
“You don’t miss Germany?”
“Europe! ” she scoffed. “We have forgotten how to live.
We are spoiled.”
Ian wasn’t walking; he was dancing in slow motion.
“Stuck in our offices. Playing with our computers. Dehumanizing
ourselves with factory farming. Bleeding our planet to death. All for the sake of comfort.
We are even losing the power to communicate face-to-face, to socialize, now with the
advent of the Internet. We have lost touch with reality.”
“What is reality?”, I asked.
“Reality”, she said, “is hard physical
I see what she meant: Ian was elated, because he had tamed Nature with
his brain and his own hands and with the help of other people. That is what our species is
designed to do: triumph over adversity in a group and there’s not much left to triumph
over in the West any more.
We reached the end of the walkway all too quickly, every single visitor
in deep thought. Even the small kids seemed taken in by Ian’s elation.
A Brazilian came up to us.
“All this without the help of the Brazilian government or the
state of Bahia?” he asked.
“Entirely private capital”, said Linde.
I remembered something I’d read at the entrance.
Anheuser-Busch. Hotel Transamérica.
“Who built this again?”, I asked.
“A Consortium called Conservation International”.
“Who are they?”
“Anheuser-Busch, Hotel Transamérica / Grupo Alfa de
Investimentos/(US-AID) and Ford Motors. There are two more such canopy bridges they have
built. One in Ghana and one in Indonesia”.
“There is a Hotel Transamerica in Una”, I said. “These
It all clicked. I spoke slowly intoning every word.
I turned to Linde.
“Do you use the walkway for scientific purposes?”
“Oh no”, said Linde, “But there are plans to”.
“So, so, this is all a tourist attraction!”.
“It’s mostly for tourists, yes”.
I felt betrayed. Ian had only just finished. I shook my head but said
His great achievement was a friggin’ gimmick!
The Secret of Malvina
Malvina put the phone down tired. She had been talking for a good
hour or so and she had been constantly on her guard not to upset Ofenísia like she had
last weekend. Since then, the twice-daily phone calls had stopped, and she had not seen
her best friend. She missed Ofé twice as much as they spent weekends lying on the beach
in the Jardim Atlântico and without her, her parents refused to let her out on her own.
“Not as long as you live under my roof!”, her father had
“But daddy, Aristóteles and his posse will be there.”
“And he likes you because you are unavailable. If you were a
little trollop, he wouldn’t even look at you with all his father’s money.”
That was always his argument: that Aristóteles would lose interest in
her if her morals were looser. It was a winning argument because Malvina could not
divulge—to her father of all people—that she had had sex with her
boyfriend—although, ah, forget it…
She started preparing the moqueca. The fish was almost ready. Two juicy
kilos of fresh, top-notch Atlantic sea-bream. She arranged it in the saucepan and juiced
the zest of four limes over it. She had to let it marinate for at least half an hour.
She chopped finely several sprigs of cilantro and onion while she
waited. Aristóteles would be coming over any time now with his friend, Tuísca to have
dinner with her family. She looked at the two glasses in front of her. This was going to
be tricky. She could not afford to make a mistake. Damn Tuísca!
So Ramiro had finally been slain and her friend was on cloud nine.7
She chopped off the tomatoes and the pepper. And then she added a
little bit of témpero baiano. She checked the fish. Ten minutes more.
Ofenísia had told her everything: how she had French-kissed Ramiro in
the party, how she had lured him by the statue of Christ, how they had lain on her
mother’s shawl and how that pervert had started taking pictures when she found herself on
top of him like a kinkajou on heat. Ramiro had been so shaken, he had torn a hole the size
of Ofenísia’s cleavage on the shawl.
She laughed on her own when she imagined the scene.
But Ofenísia had gone on and told her about their subsequent escape to
her house on the União hill looking down on the center of Ilhéus; how they quickly ended
up in her room with the narrow bed and the Daniela Mercury posters on the wall; and how
she felt during that tingling, scary, pleasurable moment when she walked through the
threshold of womanhood to the subsequent worry of conception. She already knew before she
heard from Ofenísia that she had visited her aunt for those herbs girls procure when
their relationship with a boy goes beyond the purely platonic. Ofenísia still had to
perform that sacrifice to Oxum later today in the cemetery.
The fish was ready. She poured the rest of the ingredients on top and
put them all in a low fire. Another ten minutes.
Ofenísia had told her everything, like a best friend should.
And yet, she, Malvina had kept concealed the most important parts of
her relationship with Aristóteles.
She nearly forgot. The boys would be here any time now.
She had to climb up a chair to reach that special bottle of dark rum
she had been hiding—she could not afford to buy many herself, and her father was fond
of white rum.
But white rum would not do.
She poured the liquor into the two glasses. Aristóteles would have the
lesser amount so that she could tell which is which.
She opened the cellar door and looked at herself in the mirror as she
passed. Although thin, handsome and bronzed, she still could do with a few centimetres
around her bosom. Ofenísia might be on the fat side, but she had breasts to nest the
whole termite population of Southern Bahia.
She walked down the cool cellar—she could hardly use the fridge,
could she?—and from a dusty corner she picked up the small vial she had filled last
night: a vial full of a dark red fluid.
When she returned to the kitchen, the moqueca had cooked. As always she
had not turned over the fish in the big earthenware pot. She added a generous dose of
dendê oil for flavour.
Then she opened the vial and added a few drops of her own menstrual
blood to the glass containing Aristóteles’s rum, before she was unexpectedly confronted
Things I Like About Brazil: Moquecas
Give me seafood and you can have my soul. Give me, hot fresh fish
with lime and cilantro in a deep-pan cataplana with the aromatic dendê oil, which
constitutes a moqueca and I’ll be your sex slave for eternity.
The most impressive construct in Ilhéus is not a church—the
centrally located church of São Sebastião (with its three-dimensional temple which
pretends it’s 2D) is far too recent (1968) to attract the eye; nor any of the Amado
locations: Nacib’s bar had its twin floors demolished and the result is a hangar-like Bierstuben
only suitable for long Oktoberfest tables; and the mildest that can be said about the
Bataclã night club is that it is not quite its namesake, the Parisian Bataclan in
boulevard Voltaire. The fin-de-siécle Palace of Paranaguá, built on the
foundations of an old Jesuit College which serves as the Town Hall, is neo-classical,
austere and restricted in the confines of the Praça Seabra; not even the eccentric statue
of Sappho (what?) in the square outside saves it.
As for Amado’s patrimonial house, which has become Casa de Cultura
Jorge Amado—it is an unassuming two-floor colonial house with a grand central
staircase, period floors and not much more. Yes, it’s full of memorabilia by the
author—including some sculptures, pictures, posters and videos, but loses out
architecturally and in terms of exhibit appeal to the grander Casa Amado in Salvador’s
Pelourinho. Yes, this is where the author spent his youth from 1920 onwards, before
becoming a University student; here is where he first put pen on paper and wrote his first
novel, País do Carnaval, but there’s no redeeming household touch, no sofa, bed or
even chamber pot to liven up the place.
No, by far the most striking and distinct building in the whole of
Ilhéus is a school. I had noticed it on my first day, as I was walking down the sloping
circuit of the Avenida 2 de Julho. It stood opposite, on the Alto da Piedade, its
neo-gothic spires dominating the landscape, sharp as if drawn like a film backdrop, clean
and shiny as if it had been built yesterday. It is the old convent of Nossa Senhora da
Piedade which now houses a Catholic school run by Ursuline nuns.
Today I stood in front of it gasping for air. The hill was steep and my
legs had run out of steam. I had an hour to kill and had decided to go for the
view-by-sunset. The school was still open and the porter let me in after I gave him a tip.
I didn’t quite understand how it was open at that advanced hour, but didn’t complain
either, as the views towards the old city center, the ocean and the river mouth calmed my
breathing softly. This is a large complex housing also a chapel and a museum of Sacred
Art; it was the work of a French nun, Mother Thaís, who founded the convent back in 1916.
Nuns seem to go a long way in Brazil; and this one had the whole street named after her.
It was getting dark. I started walking slowly in the direction of my
hotel. I passed the open space of a cemetery seemingly built at the edge of a cliff. I
could not resist a final view. I jumped the low colonnade wall and got in.
I wasn’t alone. A kid was playing leapfrog with the crosses, and two
women, both dressed in white, an old mulatto woman thin as they come and a young fat girl
who looked familiar were tending a grave. I walked towards them to take a picture of the
landscape. The young one raised her head and saw me holding my camera. She was kneeling,
lit white candles and plates of food scattered pell-mell around her. I had seen that look
before. Was it …?
I knew at once what was in store.
“Be careful gringo. This is a dangerous area after dark “,
shouted the old woman.
Was that a threat?
I looked around. The kid had stopped running and was watching me
with curiosity. I smiled, bowed respectfully, turned around and left.
Perhaps I can make up a story out of this.
As I walked down the road round the cemetery, I looked up. The boy
was still watching me silently. I smiled. He took this small gesture of friendship and
magnified it like only a poor Brazilian boy could: he jumped up and down and beckoned
back. I took out my camera and asked with my eyes. The boy’s face beamed as he waved. I
That’s how I want to remember Brazil.
Back in my hotel room, I came out of the shower and turned on the TV.
Things I Dislike About Brazil: Cidade Alerta
Oh dear, oh dear. Not many TV programs make me wish I were a
cultural dictator with powers to shut down, banish and eliminate unworthy formats but this
one did it. This is screen violence pornography for REAL. There is no robbery, shootout or
car crash where the show’s cameras don’t intrude and expose the human pain to voyeuristic
eyes. I watched with my mouth open as the camera helicopter filmed the arrival of an
ambulance to a heavily wounded motorcyclist; the artificial respiration; the cardiac
massage. At some point during this, the crash victim died—on camera, his death more
famous than his life. Obscene!
My stomach started rumbling. There was only one place to go for dinner
in Ilhéus. I had seen it by the sea-side: Os Velhos Marinheiros again straight out
of a Jorge Amado book title.
That man again. And that book.
I’ve complained elsewhere that the greatest living Brazilian
storyteller has not been granted the Nobel prize—unlike his two friends of old, the
two famous writers of Spanish America Pablo Neruda and Miguel Ángel Asturias. The trio
emerged as the continent’s left-wing propagandists, who had joined the Communist party and
had suffered as a result. Amado was born in 1912 in the fazenda Auricídia in the district
of Ferradas in Itabuna son of coronel João Amado de Faria and Eulália Leal Amado,
the oldest of several children, but moved to Ilhéus in January 1914.
In 1922 he went to Salvador, where a Jesuit College teacher spotted his
literary talent and introduced him to the Portuguese classics. He became a journalist in
several papers, until he moved to a small pensão in Rio off the Avenida Copacabana
(he later shared a flat in Ipanema). There, in 1931, he enrolled in the Law School to
satisfy his father, but simultaneously published O País do Carnaval, in a small
publishing house owned by Augusto Frederico Schmidt who became his lifelong friend. It was
in Rio he networked himself—and shared apartments with many big names in Brazilian
literature such as Oswald de Andrade Filho or Alberto Passos Guimarães.
In 1934 he joined the Communist party. When the dictatorship of the
Estado Novo was established in the following year, he went into exile; Cacau, his
story of the bad landowners and good cocoa workers was first published in Argentina. He
returned clandestinely in Brazil, but was arrested in Manaus and spent two months in jail;
his books were publicly burnt in Salvador. Eventually he fled the country again. All of
his early novels are seeped in the social realism so beloved—some would say
dictated—by the Stalinist Communist party.
Luís Carlos Prestes, the secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party in
the 1930s became the subject of an Amado hagiography which was banned in Brazil. Even the
books that were published were brushed over: there is, for instance, a passage in Suor
(Sweat) where one of the characters says ‘This appears like a subversive party cell”
instead of “This appears like a Communist Party cell” which he wrote originally.
So much had his novels changed that he has spent many of his later years—and he is
now in his late 80s with a 1997 heart surgery in Paris behind him—revising his books
against his manuscripts to restore the original text for eventual re-publishing: the
Author’s Cut one would say. He was so loyal and disciplined, he was put forward by the
party as a candidate for the Constitutional Assembly in 1946—and elected. His
crowning achievement as a Communist Party member must surely be his winning of the Stalin
Peace Prize in 1951.
Then Stalin died. Khrushchev told the world about the tyranny, the
secret police, the show trials, the gulags and Jorge Amado in his own words, became sick
of being told what to think. He abandoned the party, but not the political philosophy:
“The socialist countries gained freedom indeed, but their people did not have the
material capacity to enjoy that freedom”. And something remarkable happened when
that author with a talent to draw multi-dimensional portraits of Bahian society threw away
the restraining chains of discipline and wrote from the heart and head for the first time,
for the heart had room for the whole world and the head had wizened up from disillusion.
Amado published Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, his first
work after he left the Party. 20,000 copies were sold in a fortnight. By 1962 there had
been 20 editions and 160,000 copies sold just in Brazil. It had also been published in
France, Argentina, USA, Germany, the USSR, Hungary, Holland, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland,
Portugal, Italy and Czechoslovakia. It is the best-known Brazilian novel ever, turned into
a movie with Sônia Braga in the lead, and gained Amado international recognition and
fame. Why? Not just because it is a novel steeped in optimism, but also—as if to
shake off the cardboard characterization of his early revolutionary work—because it
is a novel in which no character is fully good or fully evil, for flaws and redemption are
twin aspects of the human character and Amado loves all of them like a benign Almighty.
And the sweep of his vision was grand: no less than 250
characters—some of them silent or passing—are mentioned in the novel and the
protagonist, Gabriela doesn’t appear until a quarter of the way through. What the novel is
about is even grander: the breakdown of the old patriarchal morality whose destruction is
brought about by Gabriela’s twin weapons: clove which represents her scent for she
is the most beautiful woman in Ilhéus and cinnamon which represents her culinary
ability, her métier, for she’s the best cook in town.
Coinciding as it was with the rise of women power after the mass
production of contraceptive pills and the fight for legalization of abortions, Gabriela
looks now like a feminist novel which captured the Zeitgeist. The transformation of
the morality of Ilhéus, Brazil and the world as such came about not because of the Nazi
defeat, the Cold War, the demise of Imperialism or the student revolutions—it came
about whenever women refused to play ball and took their lives in their hands. It is no
coincidence that the four parts of that book are called “The Languor of
Ofenísia”, “The Loneliness of Gloria”, “The Secret of Malvina”
and “The Moonlight of Gabriela”.
I think I’ll change that last one. My style.
“You what?” shouted Gabriela.
Ofenísia cringed for the outburst was directed at her.
Malvina looked at her oldest sister sheepishly.
Gabriela’s beautiful features were distorted. Her smooth olive skin was
wrinkled with spasms of irritation; her hazel almond eyes had become two black horizontal
slits peering down with contempt; and her rich, red lips were pouting in anger.
“You what?”, she repeated.
It had been confession time amongst the trio and Gabriela was
incandescent with rage. She walked up to her cupboard opened the drawer, took out
something and threw it in the face of Ofenísia.
“Now, you use THAT”, she shouted. “Haven’t you heard the
news? The middle ages are over”.
Ofenísia looked at the green packaged condom in front of her. So
that’s what they look like. Not that she understood any better how to use it.
“This is the only way Ofé”, said Gabriela. “The only
way. Learn before it’s too late”.
“But Dona Gloria is an expert”, Ofenísia mumbled. “My
mother, my aunts..”
Gabriela nearly hit her.
“How many kids does your aunt Jerusa have?”
Ofenísia shrugged her shoulders.
“And what’s the age difference between the last two?”
Ofenísia felt strangely out-debated.
“Right. FIFTEEN YEARS. Your cousin Miquelina is in her thirties
and the Lalú is your age. Do you think that Lalú was planned? Does that look as if Dona
Gloria succeeded? “
Ofenísia looked at Malvina for encouragement.
“But Malvina here swears..”
Gabriela turned sharply to Malvina and spoke through clenched teeth.
“TELL HER! TELL HER NOW!”, she bellowed with a voice several
decibels above unseemly.
Malvina looked at Ofenísia.
We haven’t really done it”, she said slowly.
Ofenísia jumped up. “But you said…”
“I SAID WE’VE HAD SEX! We’ve had sex many times. But, but I
haven’t let him…you know”
“That does it”, shouted Ofenísia and got up. “I’m
Gabriela pushed her down.
“No. I haven’t finished”.
She turned to Malvina who squirmed in her seat uncomfortably.
“Have you ever heard of AIDS?”
Malvina looked up.
“What does that have to do with the potion?”
Gabriela squatted in front of her and put her hands on Malvina’s
“Listen little sister”, she said calmly but resolutely.
“Sex is fun. Sex is fantastic. But sex nowadays can be dangerous. It can be dangerous
because there is a deadly disease out there which is transmitted by a virus. That virus
lives in the blood and semen. By giving your disgusting potion to Aristóteles, you help
spread the virus.
“It’s a gay disease”, Malvina replied. “And I am a
virgin—how can I have it?”
Ofenísia sprang up again. “That’s why you wanted to know all the
details. Because YOU HADN’T DONE IT!”
She fell back on her chair: “What a fool I’ve been—what a
fool”, she kept repeating.
Gabriela stood up and leaned against the window to calm herself down.
The ocean was turbulent. The tide was coming in. She looked up. It might rain tonight.
“One”, she said. “AIDS is not a gay disease. It used to
be back in the 80s in the US and Europe and São Paulo. But it isn’t any more—not in
Brazil. Two: Yes, Malvina you probably don’t have AIDS, although if you had any other type
of sex—I don’t want to know”, she interrupted with her gestures a distraught
Malvina, ” you still might catch the virus. If you don’t fuck Aristóteles, how do
you know he doesn’t fuck someone else? “
Malvina stood up with a jolt. “He WOULDN’T. I KNOW him!”
Gabriela laughed. “Men. You think you know men. Hell, their
fathers encourage them to lose their virginity in a brothel so that they can say they have
done their duty and wash their hands off the rest of their upbringing! Everyone in that
surfer lot go to prostitutes. Can you vouch that no one has caught anything?”
The two girls were silent. Malvina lowered herself slowly and fell back
lifelessly on the sofa. Gabriela’s tone turned soft.
“Prevention is a state of mind”, she said slowly. “You
don’t let blood be exchanged. If you don’t know for sure, you assume that the virus is
present. You don’t give Aristóteles any potions. You use condoms.”
There was a long, long pause. Ofenísia felt her eyes water. She saw
that Malvina was weeping.
“Not only do you use condoms, but you force your men to buy them
and wear them. They won’t like it; they will insist they dislike the feeling. But remember
one thing: your life—and THEIR life, because men have two brains, one up here and one
down there— is in your hands. If you love them you’ll protect them”.
Ofenísia’s sight had blurred from the tears. Something somewhere had
gone astray. With the corner of her eye she observed Malvina who was lifting her face.
Their eyes met. It felt comfortable.
Gabriela picked on the vibes and held both the girls’ hands.
“Ofenísia?”, she asked.
Ofenísia nodded affirmatively.
“No more Dona Gloria? No more sacrifices to Oxum?”
“No”, she whispered.
Gabriela turned to Malvina.
“No more blood potions?”, she asked.
Malvina didn’t answer.
“No more blood potions?”, she repeated.
Malvina’s gaze upwards was desperate.
“The blood binds him to me”, she said. “It’s a spell.
Without the spell…”
“Malvina”, said Gabriela, “he loves you with or without
Malvina looked at her friends. Could it be true?
Gabriela guessed her thoughts.
“You’ll never find out until you give up”, she said.
Malvina’s eyes crossed Ofenísia’s. She squeezed Gabriela’s hand.
As if rehearsing for a threnody, they all fell into each other’s arms
in an exculpatory embrace. It seemed ages before Gabriela stood up and cleared her throat.
“I have to go to the restaurant”, she said. “Anyone for
Before any of the two could answer, she continued.
“I feel like a duet tonight”.
If location, location, location is the secret of a successful
establishment, the restaurant Os Velhos Marinheiros has won the lottery; no, it’s not a
particularly scenic spot it occupies, but one of convenience. It’s on and off the beach;
close to the center but not too far; large enough to have the numbers but small enough to
have good atmosphere. Like most places in the Northeast, it’s outdoors, but thankfully
protected by thatch against the downpour which started as soon as I arrived.
When I sat down, I froze. Tonight was videoke night. Oh, the spread of
the Japanese curse; Latin America has been highly prone to its influence: stand up there,
open your mouth, shake your booty and you are a star for the night. I remember someone
proudly boasting in Santa Cruz (funny how memories of that city have come back twice in a
chapter) that it was the karaoke capital of the world with no less than 50-odd bars
offering non-stop entertainment. Now there’s a city I will never return to.
Thankfully, there were only about seven or eight tables full on this
Thursday night; and as far as entertainment goes, it was rather educational. In Brazilian
videoke, they show the videos on a back screen, and as the lyrics appear simultaneously,
the whole set-up was rather instructive for my Portuguese, so I sat it out. In fact, I
recommend it for learning any language deeper. Many a Brazilian youngster can mouth “I
will always love you to the Dark Side of The Moon Scaramouche,
Scaramouche do the fandango, Billy Jean is not my lover”, by listening to pop
songs. They might be mouthing nonsense, but at least it’s nonsense in English. In the same
way, Kerosene Jacaré might not be poetry of Marília de Dirceu quality, but every little
The waitress took a shine on me.
“Where are you from?”, she asked as she took my order. She
was very pretty, in her early twenties, with shoulder-length black hair and smooth copper
skin; she wore her distinctive waitress uniform with innocent sensuality.
“I’m from Athens via London”, I said ordering a moqueca de
“Oh”, she jumped up. “What are you doing here?”
“Passing through. I’ve been traveling in Bahia for a few weeks.
I’m off tomorrow”.
“The South. Curitiba”.
Her wide almond eyes sparkled with admiration.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m John”, I said. “And yours?”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yes. Like the book. There are many of us in Ilhéus named after
characters in the book. My friend there “she pointed at a girl sitting at a table
amongst a gang of surfers—”is called Malvina”.
I made a mock sniffing noise..
“No aroma of clove”
“And certainly no cinnamon. I don’t like the taste. I don’t like
“No clove, no cinnamon”, I said. “As if you can find
them anyway now with the disappearing rainforest”.
“You get them in the market”, she jested. “You have been
to the ecoparque de Una then?”
“What did you think of our pasarela na copa das árvores?”
I grinned in disappointment.
“A gimmick”, I said. “A mockery”.
“It’s just for the tourists. It serves no purpose. To hear some
people make so much out of it as if it were a big achievement”.
Gabriela had to go.
“I’ll see you later”.
She brought me several large Brahmas and my moqueca which could
lead one to a spiritual experience, like the sourpuss Danes in Babette’s Feast:
fresh king prawns, thick tomato sauce, orange-yellow dendê oil and divine-smelling warm farofa.
My skin positively glowed. Good food, a beautiful girl called Gabriela, and I am in
Ilhéus. What’s missing to make the Amado story complete?
I saw Gabriela get up with her friend Malvina—and they sang a song
together; a song about boys and girls and love, their cheeks aglow as their bodies shook
to the rhythm. We all clapped for ages.
But Gabriela stayed on the stage. She looked at me and she sang a
song—in English. It was one of the few Caetano Veloso songs I knew: London London.
I’m wandering round and round nowhere to go
I’m lonely in London, London’s lovely so
I cross the streets without fear
Everybody keeps the way clear
I know I know no one here to say hello
I know they keep the way clear
I’m lonely in London without fear
I’m wandering round and round here, nowhere to go.
I nearly hid my face in the cataplana for embarrassment. When she
finished, she acknowledged the prolonged applause and came up to my table.
“Now it’s your turn”, she said.
I would have none of it.
“I know no Brazilian songs”, I countered.
“We have some English pop songs, too”.
“No way”, I said curtly, and I know how to say no.
She didn’t insist.
“How did you learn English?”
“I study tourism. I am finishing soon”, she replied.
“You have a good voice. You should become a singer”.
“No”, she said. “I want to be better than that”.
I was one of the last clients to go. By midnight everyone had had a go
at the mike, bar me, and everyone had eventually gone home to sleep. Gabriela brought me
my bill and I left her a large tip.
“That passarela”, she started as I was leaving.
“What about it.”
“I knew someone who built it. It was difficult. You shouldn’t
laugh about it”.
“I’m sure it was difficult to build, but what purpose does it
“It brings in tourists”.
“So”, she said with seriousness, “fewer trees get
logged. The idea behind it was to show the landlords surrounding the area that it is to
their advantage to keep the forest pristine, because there is money to be made out of
eco-tourism. It may not seem much to you, but the farmers in this area would rather chop
off the trees and make money and space for their farms. And if the government doesn’t like
it, then they burn the forest. But if we can attract enough tourists, and they can make
money another way, then the forest is saved”.
I looked at her speechless.
“It’s true”, she said. “This passarela is the
best thing that happened to Ilhéus and the Mata Atlántica”.
She was right of course. I did check out the conservation.org’s site
later. The most difficult part of saving the rainforest has been the change in mentality
of the farmers in the region who used to see it as a commodity to be exchanged, not as an
inherited heirloom to be passed on to the next generation. As the site says
diplomatically: “By studying the options available to landowners in Southern Bahia,
we were able to formulate a conservation strategy in tune with the prevailing economic
political, and social realities”. It is only when the locals start seeing that they
can make money out of their heritage that they may change their attitude towards it.
Gabriela was right and I was wrong. The canopy walkway was not a
eco-gimmick; it was not a Disney rollercoaster ride; it was a noble construction, a
lifebuoy to the golden-faced lion tamarin and all the other unique rainforest species.
Incidentally, I also found out why there is so much biodiversity in South American
rainforests. It was the Indians with their nomadic lifestyle and their small cultivated
gardens here and there who contributed to this marvel. The Tupiniquins and the dreaded
Aimorés, now extinct, played their part in producing those 450 species per hectare which
we, the civilized, are busy extinguishing.
“If you want to save the rainforest, tell your friends to come
here and visit us”, she said, as I departed.
“And eat chocolate”, I added.
“And eat more chocolate”, she agreed.
is a computer programmer and occasional journalist working in London,
England using his earnings to travel between contracts. A fluent Portuguese
speaker, he has traversed the whole of Brazil from Manaus to Porto Alegre
and from Recife to the Pantanal sampling the life and history in the
course of four separate journeys. The author can be contacted at
This is an extract from his extensive Brazilian travelogue, which will be published by Summersdale in June 2003
entitled Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul. Many pictures from the travelogue
His personal site is in
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