Скок means Jump

Fear and adrenalin spreads slowly like hot lava deep inside my chest. My stomach churns with the uncertainty of the unknown. I sit on a rigid floor. Rough, rythemic vibrations driving up through it and into my body. The heat is building up. It’s hard to focus or concentrate. Perspiration is running down the side of my cheek. The straps are pulled tightly around my legs, shoulders and chest.

A helmeted figure indicates for me to get onto my knees. Three men are yelling at each other in some foreign language, possibly of Balkan origin. The door is opened and the wind whips in, an incredulous drop outside is revealed. The figure indicates, forcing me out, I cling desperately to the edge of the door before taking one last breath and stepping out into the abyss. Hands grab me roughly and in less than three seconds I’m flung out.

My mind goes blank for the briefest of moments as I try to quantify what has just happened and then I’m falling, falling, hips arched out as we gain speed, arms and legs splayed out almost gently as if accepting the fate, finality and finiteness of the situation. My mind clears, the tension is gone and a feeling of complete euphoria washes over me as we fall from 3500m in the air. The two figures each side of me hold on tight, keeping me stable as we continue to fall. I run through a series of routines, following a series of instructions from each instructor. The wind presses hard into my face as we “fly” at around 200km/hr backdown towards earth. The view of the Black Sea is absolutely breathtaking, the ground appears almost frozen as we rush towards it.

I take furtive glances of the scenery while keeping a sceptical eye on the altimeter strapped to my wrist, at 1500m I wave my arms to convey my next actions, move my left hand across in line with my right shoulder to keep my body stable while simultaneously reaching back behind me with my right hand to deploy my parachute…. nothing, I find nothing, just my hip and the base of the pack on my back. My heart skips a beat and my right hand starts to search frantically… eventually finding and grabbing hold of the soft leather ball of the deployment chute. I pull it out, throwing it as far out as possible, moments later my feet are swung hard below me as I pendulum at my shoulders while the parachute starts to unfold and deploy.

My leg straps tighten hard and my shoulders are pressed firmly into the back pack as the parachute opens completely and it feels like everything stops, like time frozzen for a moment, no wind, no movement, just the parachute, the view, the clouds, and a beating heart.

The 5am Taxi Express

Late night packing went down smoothly and after running through the check list to end all checklists for the 10th time, we decided that our passports were not going to disappear and it was time for bed. Five hours later Tam kicks me out of bed to make coffee and 20 minutes after that we’re in the taxi heading South to the airport (Luton, Easyjet to Lisbon).
Travelling alone and travelling with a family in tow is quite different. For one luggage requirements vary massively. The normal backpack has been replaced with two cargo bags, two sets of hand luggage and a child carrier. The peaceful settling down to a glass of wine and a movie replaced by a restless, wriggling, kicking little girl fighting an intense feeling of claustrophobia. Relax fellow passengers, she’s not going to stop yelling her lungs simply through your irritable glances, this is Sav in a good mood ;).

Top song for the day…. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks – The National




(Allowing dad to tap away merrily on the Blackberry)

A vague 8th day….

6/09/2011……Starting to get really edgy about getting back now, the Tam/Sav deficiency is starting to kick hard now. Today is a vague day. My vague task is to see a new possible supplier, once again getting picked up by a Portuguese only driver doesn’t help my vague historic knowledge of this city or country, but it does highlight the fact that Brazil is big enough for the majority of the population not to learn a second language. 

Being vaguely received at the office, the main sales lady is unavailable to see me, some vague reason about having a baby or something, so I’m left chatting about all matters vague to the logistics lady, who’s soon to take over the sales role….(Should I be vaguely concerned?) A conversation ensues where great phrases such as reliability, supplier/importer relationships, continuity of supply, commitment etc seem to be vaguely unfamiliar to them and one’s left feeling like you’re likely to better off dealing with a commodity trader. They’re keen to show me the farm so we plan a meeting for the next morning. 

Back at the hotel, I’m distinctly aware that if one has to suffer another hotel meal, I  may just lose my sense of humour so after a few inquiries at reception a taxi arrives to take me out to a restaurant called the Armazem Cafe.

This is a very attractively large restaurant that can probably seat about 200 people. The overall decor makes it look rustic without feeling grubby or dirty. A massive sail stretches across the outside seating area and a variety of galvanised masts stretch out holding the canopy taunt. 20h00 and there are very few people around. The beer is proudly cold and goes down well after such a vague day. A couple of musicians are setting up their instruments, doesn’t seem like they’re going to have much of an audience tonight. 

Armazem Caffe

In complete redemption of all other Brazilian restaurant food, this place cooks the best “mal pasada” steak imaginable. By 22h00 the restaurant is packed and the musician are giving it guns. It is hard to beat good talented Brazilian live music, and this is only “little old Juazeira” somewhere on the banks of Rio Sao Francisco. Salute! The next day is Independence day, thus explaining why everyone is out in full force this evening. I am randomly “assaulted” by a group of 17 year olds who are keen to practice their English and sit around the table enjoying the music. Three of them are from Petrolina and the other three are from Juazeira… and so the arguement continues as to which city is the best. By mid-night, the week is catching up and I head for bed. Thank you Juazeira for this noisy display of local culture. 

Inside the Armazem Caffe

A Grande Experience (Brazil day 7)

Monday, 5th September, 2011. A new day, a new week, a new hotel, a new province, a new grower. A bright and early awakening in the Grande hotel. Don’t be led astray by the name, the only thing Grande here is the magnificent view over the Rio Sao Francisco. There are two regions adjacent to each other in this part of Brazil. Penambuco is the one province and Bahia is the other, and their boundary tends to crisscross over the Rio in this part. Petrolina is the sister city to the north of this river and Juazeira is its grubby little twin to the south. A newly renovated bridge links these two relatives and one can be in either within 5 minutes of driving, depending on traffic. The Penambucans joke that the only great thing about living in Juazeira is that you have a magnificent view of Petrolina.

View from the Grande


 If you are ever passing through Juazeira, the Grande is the place to stay. Not because it’s a great place but more because it’s the only place to stay. Foreigners get fairly nervous traveling around this part of Brazil, a reasonably high crime rate and the threat of being mugged makes folk reluctant to experience more and therefore they’ve probably never bother to find an alternative to the Grande. So due to lack of further Intel, I’m stuck in the Grande. Being on the third floor is the main requirement; all rooms are river facing with the most exquisite view of Petrolina.


Beautiful Petrolina

Breakfast is full of fruit and yogurt so there is nothing left wanting. I’ve come to grips with the fact that there is just no good coffee in Brazil. I don’t claim to be a connoisseur but I can taste when I don’t like something, I can’t tell if it’s Robusta or Arabica, but I can imagine this is what subgrade Robusta tastes like. It’s been the same all over, so one comes to a state of mediocre acceptance that good Brazilian coffee is all exported.

I’m picked up at 8h00 by a Portuguese only driver, the silent drive to the packing facility is broken only by average outbursts as he tries to explain through hand signal the sights and attractions in Petrolina to me. Apparently the slower and more precisely that you speak Portuguese to someone, the better the non-Portuguese speaking individual will understand you. Portuguese and Spanish are not too dissimilar so I can pick up that the women in Petrolina are much better looking than the Juazeiran’s….hmm must be another Penambucan I’m hand signalling too.

The packhouse is only about 30 minutes out of town. it appears my main contact here also speak brilliant Portuguese and no English…no wait sorry, she spik leetle inglis. Excellent news! Unfortunately eh next two questions stump her, “how you doing?” and, “Are you getting busy?” are met with a massive ear to ear grin and nothing more… Hmm spik viri leetle inglis…

Google translate works really well in these cases so without much ado we were soon having a full out convo, albeit with an odd little delay while trying to correctly interpret Google’s sometime outlandish misinterpretations. I’m getting the feeling this is going to be a very long day. The moment is save by the arrival of Carlos the jackal, ah wait, no its Carlos Chavez, an English speaking Agronomist rocks up and the visit speeds up again. My estimation of time required here drops from 7 days with Google translate to 7 hrs with a Carlos machine gunning us through everything. Magnífico!!

A small packing facility, size grading a weight graded product… (Go figure??) they do about 7 tons an hour. Overall throughput is about 4000 tons a year, majority of their fruit is the more fibrous Tommy Atkins mango variety, but our interest is only in the fibreless Keitt and Kent varieties and then mostly the larger sizes, ideal for processing and fresh cut mango….until it goes brown inside. That seems to be a prevailing problem with Brazilian fruit, all you need to do is look at it the wrong way and it starts going brown. I smiled at every mango I saw, just in-case they were getting other ideas. I’ll know in November if it helped at all.


Fruit being size graded

Another good quality packhouse lunch, traditional beans with rice and well-cooked mutton/tilapia and decent salad goes down very well in comparison to the hotel food.

Mal pasada is the phase used in Portuguese to describe a fantastic steak cooked to rare perfection. It appears beyond comprehension to the extremely friendly staff of the Grande hotel that a high quality rump steak is served anything other than in “cooked till dead” state, combine this with deep fried, over cooked chips and sauce-less rice on a side plate and soon one gets the picture that Brazilian commercial cuisine leaves a lot to be desired. Rare is definitely used here in its “hard to find” form and not in the “exquisitely cooked till just perfect” form.

The Nevada Caipirinha struggles to compensate for this sin.

101 ways to vomit at 730 km's per hour (Day 6 Brazil)

Sunday’s a slow start, too much sun the day before and the only requirement being a plane trip back to Petrolina means there is no intention to make haste. Arriving on time to the airport only to find out that the plane is delayed by an hour means I could have slept in longer, rats! There seems to be a lack of English speaking individuals on this flight, so I find a comfortable recliner and do some reading. A young local lass by the name of Elaina seems to have the same idea. It appears that she’s got a biology exam coming up soon. The lack of common language means that the best you can do is find out how someone is, whether they speak English and what their name is. Any further attempts at conversation require an internet connection and the incredibility of Google Translate.

An hour and a half later we’re on the plane. After being told that my painstakingly booked window seat is meaningless because “there are no booked seats on this flight”, I make my way down to the aisle seat in row 37. Surprisingly Elaina is directly across from me on the same row. She clearly has not done much studying as she’s seems stuck on page 53. A 12 year old that seems to have had some English education enquires where I’m from and what I’m doing in Brazil. She seems to be zigzagging around Brazil on this Sunday trying to negotiate cancelled flights with her baby sitter, on their way to Salvador. All’s peaceful and quiet as we take off and settle down for an hour and a half flight to Recife. The friendly airhostess’ hand out drinks and snacks, some locals are chatting amicably a few seats ahead of me, the occasional wry chuckle makes me wish I could understand a bit more of this language. Such an awesome chilled morning, perfect travelling mood….

A bit of turbulence starts to rattle the plane. Strange how some folk start to stress when the steel tube starts to rattle, you only need to stress if the engine stops, or falls off and then you don’t generally have enough time to stress so no need to start before anything definitive happens. Anyway how this seems to be a fairly turbulent leg of the journey, say around 2 or 3 on the Richter scale, nothing even remotely serious.

A bit of commotion three rows forward, obviously a guy up there is not used to this level of Richter. This guy was obviously just sitting there holding it in too long and stood up to bolt to the bathroom while the vomit was rising. Instead of going to ground and retching it out there on the airline carpet, he decides that he can run the 20 metres to the toilet cubical right at the very back of the aircraft cabin! Then to add insult to injury….or should we say more juice to the tale, he proceeded to hold his hand to his mouth holding it in. Now we all know that one’s stomach, while being smaller than our eyes, is definitely bigger than the mouth. And so u can imagine, full mouth, big tummy, hand acting as pressure valve, you do not have to be a physics teacher to fully comprehend that the ONLY release mechanism in such a situation is to spray all surrounding passengers with a fine layer of vomit as the pressure escapes around flabby lips being held shut by stubby fingers.

Carrots, why are there always freaking carrots? I happen to be in the lucky isle seat, the biology student next to me, other isle seat, also got the brunt of it. The situation rapidly makes you feel like you could be the centre figure for a Brazilian Ebola outbreak.

The dear old baby sitter in my window seat starts heaving and breathing in and out of her sick bag just in case she blows the safety valve. She offers me an airline serviette but I politely decline as it looks like she’s going to need it fairly soon. The girl and I were ushered to the bathroom to clean up and get given alcohol swabs to “sterilise”.

Then we hit turbulence on the way down so someone else up front started hurling into their bag and out of the corner of my eye I see a young boy starting to blow chunks behind Elaina as the plane is landing. By this time Elaina is looking completely distraught and turns to me and squeals in very broken porto-english, “o my God, get me out!!”.

Irresponsible, Fortalezian Sunburn. (Brazil day 5)

It is great not to have to wake up to an alarm for once, and so as one would expect in such a situation I was awake, up and about by 6h00. The hotel room gets seriously cold with the aircon on and you end up waking up shivering at 5am in one of the most tropical climates in the world.

The hotel is an immaculate structure. The lobby, sensationally cool, calm and serene with waterfalls and in pools in scattered about the floor area. The sound of water is amazingly soothing. Goldfish and Koi cruise aimlessly about, the setting seems ideal for a late night Caipirinha.

Breakfast at this type of establishment is always a decadent affair. Papaya, watermelon, plums, pineapple and many more fruit are broadly displayed. The selection of confectionery is also impressive. Not as grand as what one would see in Bologna, but definitely worth sampling. While eating I noticed two gentlemen speaking to each other in Afrikaans, it’s incredible who you can meet in completely random settings.

Heading out to the beach later, one is overcome by the desire to sit back, watch the surf and enjoy a cold beer at one of the numerous beach restaurants. An umbrella, plastic table and chair are all that’s required to chill in this tropical environment… Oh yes don’t forget the beer. The beaches here are really great. Calm warm water, good quality sand and a low density of the local population makes it rather attractive.

Fortaleza beach

A few locals wander around peddling their goods. Almost anything is on offer here, prawns, sunscreen, cigarettes, T-shirts. Everyone is talking about the World cup 2014 here, and flags being sold all round. The most random item being sold seemed to be tattoos. Not just small stick-on random ones, these are the real needle punching affair. It’s not often that one thinks while lying on the beach “Dolphin” must get a Dolphin tattooed across my bum, but obviously some do. The purpose of these tattoo “artists” meandering around becomes clear soon after politely turning down the offer for some weird Chernobyl spider. The artist promptly sat down and announced he also had marijuana and cocaine on offer…tattoo’s se voet! Thanks, no thanks, Allez!!

Chatting to a gentleman under the umbrella next to me, drugs seem to be quite prevailing in the area. This beach is quite a local beach and not used much by tourists (I’m impressed with my find). Carmen is originally from Switzerland and has been living here for the last eight years. We speak about his love for this country, his Brazilian family and all the best regions to go visit. He speaks of Olinda near Recife, and a 5 day boat trip up the Rio Negro leaving from Manaus. The end destination not to be overshadowed by 500 people on a boat with 3 toilets. A leftist hippy of old he speaks of Europe with contempt and there appears to be no reason for him to head back.

Our conversation is interrupted by another prawn salesman walking past. The Brazilian citizen in general are extremely friendly, we have no intention of buying anything for this bloke but he stops and chats, Carmen chats along in Portuguese and jokes with the guy. They talk for a full five minutes before shaking hands and parting ways. There is none of the Northern Europe impatience seen here, a stark lack of the commonly seen self-centredness that dominates so much back in the UK. A simple but shocking contrast of how a smile and a little eye contact can create amicability between thousands of diverse individuals. As the man heads off he says something loosely translated as “if God wills”, Carmen mocks him gently saying the locals all say this, “If God wills”, smiling as he explains there is no God. My dear Carmen, “if God wills”, you will meet Him soon.

Around sunset, about a hundred trailers show up on the esplanade and start setting up for an evening market. Everything is Brazilian making a refreshing change to the usual “Made in China” cliché. Brazilian carvings, course cotton dresses, shoes, fridge magnets, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts and many other random original Brazilian sales goods.

Wood carvings in the night market

The night life is vibrant and loud, people milling around, the restaurants and bars are heaving on Saturday night in Fortaleza. 

Randoms for sale
Small trailers forming the alley ways

Melons for Afri…errr… Brazil! (Day 4)

4.30am: Drift awake slowing, uncertain of my circumstances, mouth dry as a ice of sundried leather, my body feeling like a steam roller has driven over me. The luxury of a nonchalant rollover, close your eyes, drift back to sleep ceases to exist when your next flight leaves at 06h45.

5.00am: Pack – check passport – check wallet – check out – check taxi – aeroporto obrigado (Airport thank you) – check in – check wallet – check passport – hold on tight. The repetitive process is the same for each flight. When travelling away from your home country there are two items that you keep on you at ALL times and hand over on threat of death alone. Passport and debit card, one can lose everything else but without either of these two, life will rapidly take on a series of complications no one would want to face. In the instance where you’re working in a foreign country the loss of a passport with accompanying work visa will very rarely have a happy ending. Baggage can get stolen but to get my passport you lever it from my cold dead fingers, good luck!

The flight to Fortaleza from Petrolina also transfers through Recife. Touching down in Fortaleza just before 10h00 it started to feel as if the steam roller has moved up and was trying to crush my skull. This is a massive city, there is a noticeably larger amount of vehicles on the road. It seemed like we drove for almost an hour before we were even out of the city. About 300 km south east lies the Mossoro region which over the last 20 years has been changed radically with an increase in agricultural output. The area is extremely sandy, hot and very dry. The sea lies close by but the rainfall remains significantly low. (600 mm average with temperatures reaching mid 40C means that red and brown are the two most common colours for the region, the latter being the vegetation and the former the sand).

Agricola Famosa is predominantly a melon grower. This grower illustrates very clearly the enormity of the Brazilian agricultural powerhouse. A total area of 24 000 ha under their control, they have 6000 ha of melons alone, at the peak of their season they are selling over 300 containers a week. Each container holding 20 tons of fruit, an annual production of over 140 000 tons of melon.

In addition to this they grow a large area of papaya and banana, and continue to supply and develop a healthy internal vegetable market growing tomatoes, sweetcorn and aubergines. They have a talapia fish section consisting of 28 growing tanks.

All their plant material is self propagated in their nursery as well as the laboratory in fortaleza.

The amazing aspect of this place is that there is no surface water available at all in this region. All irrigation water is pumped from boreholes up to 800 m deep. They needed to use oil drills to get this far down to find water.

This is one serious operation going down in one very small part of one very large country. 

Brazilian Roulette (Brazil day 3)

Thursday is a fairly chilled day on the farm. With the packing facility being expertly run by Willi’s team, there are few issues and concerns in respect to the quality being packed and the level of attention given to the process. What Willi says, Willi does, sleep easy.

A frustrating four hours are spent trying to arrange an internal flight between Petrolina and Fortaleza. The flight is available, however, the internet is slow, the payment terms are Brazilian and the traveller has a British Visa card. Eventually, after a few long drawn out frustrating moments, and numerous Portuguese telephone calls, the problem is attributed to a faulty website and payment’s to be made at the airport instead.

A night drive in Brazil can become a minor Russian Roulette quite quickly. If it’s not the crazy drivers on the road, then it’s the diverse range of livestock that is insistent that the dry vegetation is not as dry on the OTHER side of the road.

Add a short sighted driver to the equation of fun and you have a highly adventurous three and a half hour ride back to the hotel. The cherry on top of the wobbly mango cake came later when lunch decided under no uncertain terms to disagree with my fair constitution in every possible way. I have come to the conclusion that the reason why God gives us sickness is to make us grateful for good health.

That evening I was under no illusions as to the ungratefulness of health.

A night in Belem…… (Brazil day two)

Seven hours later found us travelling E-NE (7h30 local time) heading out to see a mango grower 250 km’s further down in the Sao Francisco river valley.

This amazing farm has almost 800 ha of producing mango situated in a mostly hot, arid environment. With an annual rainfall of only 600 mm and tropical temperatures, it’s no wonder that so much of the vegetation is succulent and cactus. A significant effect on the landscape is the presence of an acacia thorn tree that makes this region look remarkably like certain parts of the South African lowveld. Apparently this tree was brought in for its rapid growth properties, which it proceeded to do very well and now is an invader species. Later, while walking through one of the orchards, we came across a brightly flowered little thorny bush known as Lantana Camara, apparently it’s native to the region, it’s possible the Africans traded favours with the Brazilians, they have our Acacia, and we have their Lantana, apparently we got the dud end of the deal.

The thorn tree that has invaded Brazil from Peru.

My host, Willi, whom I’ve only spoken to on Skype before, turned out to be as friendly and helpful in person, as he’d been on-line. Willi is in charge of costs and planning and his enthusiasm in this matter is clearly evident. Exhibiting his extensive knowledge and mastery of excel he whips through production plans, costs, and estimates, tasks and sheet sizes that have clearly outgrown his 5 year old Dell, which drudgingly tries to keep up with his enthused typing.

The jewel of this farm is the Isla de Varsea. A 148 ha production block sitting in the middle of the Sao Francisco River.  The river must be close on 800 m wide at this point and the 10 minute boat trip out is unique. The water this time of year is azure blue, and invitingly calm. Chatting to Willi while standing on the bow of the longboat, one begins to realise the passion and enthusiasm that he has for this enterprise.

Once on the island, the logistical nightmare of farming on an island becomes apparent. Harvesting and carting 4000 tons of fruit off the island annually, not to mention the daily management, fertilisation, irrigation etc., that’s required to ensure peak production from these trees. While wondering around the island a common encounter was a strange medium size black parrot like fork tailed drongo which the locals call Anum. Multiple Sagui can be seen tiptoeing from tree to tree. These tiny little tree beasts must be a species of monkey (similar to South African bush babies) and are exceedingly cute to watch as they trip over each other when you approach too close to their branches.

A side channel off the Sao Francisco

Far too soon it’s time to return to the ‘mainland’, the long boat weaves its way back downstream, the experienced helmsman skilfully navigating the subaqueous rocks. Passing by a fisherman’s sail boat sporting ancient canvas serves as a reminder of the selectivity of progresses’ timeline.

That night is spent in a nearby village of Belem. Willi, with a grin spanning the breadth of his face, describes it as having two streets, one for the shops and one to use to get out of there. Many years ago the drug barons ruled this part of the country. Its complete isolation meant very little interference from the outside world, and with the river acting as the perfect irrigation source, it makes an ideal environment for marijuana production. Willi speaks of seeing an occasional strange show up in the middle of nowhere with an AR 15 rifle, and then pop back into the bush. That was not many years ago, and the police have made a big drive to clean out the area. Unfortunately the Brazilians have inherited the corrupt nature of the Portuguese, and so this problem will persist for a long time.

Church in Belem

Supper with Willi and his beautiful wife Simona is a relaxing affair. Sitting outside a Pizzeria, watching the general populace of Belem musing about, eating steaming slices of pizza is therapeutic. And while Viviane, Willi’s youngest of 18 months, never sits still their son follows his little sister faithfully ensuring she doesn’t go running into the street.

For all appearances life is very relax in little Belem, Sao Francisco.

Street view in Belem
Arty Belem