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

Peterborough to Petrolina (Brazil day 1)

Brazil has always been an enticement and when an opportunity arises to go and see this powerhouse of the southern hemisphere in action, it needs to be grabbed onto with utmost vigour. 

Airlines are always going to try and cram as many people to a flying tube as possible. They calculate their costing as number of humans per square centimetre, and somewhere in-between all of the excitement and profit projection they forgot that 1 human did not fit onto a square cm, and TAP is no exception. TAP goes the extra mile by ensuring that you can’t check-in on line in time and can’t select you seating between Lisbon and Recife, the net result being a feeble attempt to sleep in mid space without the luxury of a window to slouch on.

The Portuguese once ruled the world but that was many centuries ago and the chaos that ensues from a collapsed empire is still evident in the way the airport is designed and operated in Lisbon. No clear transfer zones means hanging around waiting for directions from an over-crowded official. However the long walk through a glass divided corridor soon reflects happy home comers and tourists flocking to the Portuguese capital. A brief, relaxed slander through security, while holding my shorts up (belt through the scanner) and before long one is enjoying TAP hospitality for the next 7 hrs.

It’s always a tossup between keeping the belt on, thereby risking some random security guard frisking you where no man wishes to be frisked and sending it through the big black box and holding your shorts up while tiptoeing through the metal detector. I pity the sorry soul who’s forgotten his keys in his pocket and taken his belt off. He gets frisked with his shorts falling down.

Mid air sunrise
Sunrise over the Atlantic

Arriving into Brazil you start to get an idea of the immensity of this country. Parts of the NE region are fairly dry, with rainfall averaging on 600 to 700 mm per annum. Vast areas of brown thorn scrub are broken occasionally by irrigated farmland and a few towns and villages. The down side of only transiting a city is that all you see is the airport and normally a dingy view of the said city’s less attractive side, on landing and take-off. Well if the city of Recife is anything like its airport then it’s definitely worth visiting. Clean, bright, new and quite impressive all round.

Tour note: rumour has it that the little village of Olinda has a fascinating  history, slave trade market still standing, and “chicken beach” being a must see. When the “entire” world had banned slavery, the Portuguese decided to list them as chicken cargo….hence the name “chicken beach”.

The one hour flight to Petrolina is fairly uneventful. If taken at night one will miss the impressive Saõ Francisco river snaking below. This bright blue (or brown depending on the season) water mass is at least 500 m across in some parts. The city is built on the bank of the SF and doesn’t bode much except for being the centre of a massive grape and mango production region.

Judging from the flights in and out of Petrolina, not many people arrive and leave this place. All four of these flights taken were less than half full. This Ibis hotel is apparently a new addition to the Petrolinian landscape. It’s a 10 min drive from the airport and holds true to its global image that one ibis is as practically identical to the next one (the sales idea is that if you know what you’re getting, then you’ll go for what is known instead of stepping into the unknown). That’s the practical side, the reality is that you never get to experience the culture of a new region unless you take a few risks, and book into something slightly more cultural.

In this instance, after travelling for 27 hours, practical is more appreciated than cultural and stretching out on clean sheets and a comfortable mattress with the air-con blowing gently in the background at 4 am htz (home time zone) beat having to sleep in an upright aircraft seat hands down.