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!!”.

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

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.