Destruction of the rainforest and a lesson in rubber-tapping in a remote region of the Brazilian Amazon

In the jungle

It was 4.30am and still pitch black as Francisco, my guide and seringueiro (rubber-tapper) by trade, was trying to persuade me it would be a good idea to wear a poronga on my head, a kerosene headlamp with a naked flame. In fact, these are no longer used and have been replaced by the more sensible, not to say safer, battery-operated ones, but the idea was to learn about how life was for the seringueiros and this was all part of the experience. Nevertheless, being over six feet tall, I could just picture myself hitting an overhead branch and starting a major forest fire, so I posed for a few pictures and then went out into the jungle armed only with my torch.
Learning about rubber-tapping, wearing a poronga

I was spending a few days at the Pousada Ecológica Seringal Cachoeira which stands in a preserved part of the jungle near Xapuri in the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil. So far west, in fact, that it’s in a different time zone from the rest of the country. This is where Chico Mendes first worked on the rubber plantations before his assassination in his house in Xapuri in 1988. Chico organised the rubber-tappers into a union and also fought in direct confrontation with the landowners, loggers and ranchers who began moving in and turning the forest into pastures and farms for cattle. 

Francisco, my guide

My guide for the three days, Francisco, was related to Chico and he had great stories to tell. His first wife came from a family who lived in the jungle and her father taught him much about the plants, trees and animals of the forest. Plus, he has worked there for 48 years and his knowledge of the surrounding nature was staggering. He delighted in tearing leaves of trees and trying to get me to identify them through smell. I correctly got cinammon, but the next was more fascinating – it smelt like an ointment you’d put on a strained ligament and, in fact, that’s exactly what it’s used for.

Samauma tree

On our treks into the jungle he showed me not only how to extract the latex from rubber trees (best done before dawn), but also Brazil nut trees, the samauma (the biggest tree in the forest) and the açaí palm from which comes the purple berry which is eaten all over Brazil usually as a kind of frozen yoghurt in a bowl with granola and fresh fruit. It’s one of my favourite things in Brazil and is a must when you’re travelling here.

Brazil nut shells

Another tree which Francisco showed me was what he called quina-quina, good for malaria, he told me. I realised it was where we get quinine from, used to treat malaria for centuries. Wildlife was pretty scarce. Francisco told me that in all his time in the jungle he’s only ever seen a jaguar three times and admitted to being quite frightened. He did a very good impression of one snorting and roaring though.  

Street, Xapuri

I travelled there from Brasileia on the border with Cobija in Bolivia and the scenes from the bus are ones of depressing devastation. All the way to Rio Branco and further to Porto Velho in Rondônia, a journey of hundreds of miles, the road is lined with cattle ranches and farms. Occasionally, there is smoke to be seen as fires burn, clearing the way for pastures. On the television screen in the bus station the commercials were dominated by companies selling tractors or pest control; cattle flies can really damage your profits if not treated, we were warned. Nobody seemed too concerned about the damage to the environment. 

View from the road – cattle and fences

In these two remote states of Brazil everything seems to be about commerce, raising cattle or popping across the border into Bolivia for cheaper goods. Tourism and indeed ecotourism are not promoted here, with the honourable exception of the Seringal Cachoeira. But when I was there, I was the only guest. 

In the forest

It was a privilege, though, to spend time with Francisco and marvel at how in touch with nature he was. He told me he once spent a year in the jungle and declared that all you need to survive is a lighter and a knife. Not totally true, I replied, pointing to my head, you need knowledge too. He smiled wistfully in recognition, as if aware that that knowledge, like the jungle itself, is slowly disappearing.

Carnival in Brazil

Sambodromo 52
São Paulo Sambódromo

It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.

Sambodromo 19
Rio Sambódromo
Sambodromo 37
Rio Sambódromo

Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.

Sambodromo 11
Rio Sambódromo

The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.

Street Carnival 3
Local bloco in São Paulo
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Carnival in Pelourinho, Salvador

Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.

Street3
Trio elétrico in Salvador

You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.

Gandhi22
Filhos de Gandhi, Salvador

Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.

Sambodromo 45
Rio Sambódromo

 

Rio de Janeiro – a new view

Praia de Ipanema 2
Ipanema Beach with the Morro Dois Irmãos in the distance on the left

What makes a city one of the great cities of the world? For me, it’s a place that, no matter how many times you have been, no matter how well you think you know it, each visit provides a surprise, a new insight or a different perspective. Standing on top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers’ Hill) 533 metres above Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve, I was struck yet again by the beauty of this incredible city.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
View from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular natural setting and even the manmade structures seem to blend and harmonise with the surroundings from this height. Higher than Sugar Loaf, the Morro Dois Irmãos  offers a view that’s hard to beat; Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are all visible on a cloudless sunny day.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 9
Me on the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

The hill is situated at the end of Leblon Beach and is also home to Vidigal favela. You need to go with a guide and so I booked with http://trilhadoisirmaos.com.br/site/, a well-established company set up by Ana Lima who was born in Vidigal. For only R$59 (£10) I joined a group of interntional and Brazilian trekkers and we were led by Ana Lima herself and an English-speaking guide.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 1
View of Praia de São Conrado and the Pedra da Gávea

We drove up through Vidigal to the start of the trail. The trek is short (about 1.5 km), but it’s uphill all the way and on a hot day can be tiring. The arrival at the top makes it all worthwhile though and the exhilarating sight in front of you causes you to forget instantly any aching limbs and parched throat.

Vidigal 2
Graffiti in Vidigal

The return journey is also interesting, since at the foot of the trail you are guided back down on foot through the favela itself, which gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals. The views are spectacular, but the signs advising people where to gather in case of flash floods makes you realise that life is not easy here. But the residents we passed were friendly and welcoming and it’s now perfectly safe to walk through if accompanied by a guide.

Vidigal 7
The view from Vidigal

It may seem hard to drag yourself away from the beach on a lovely sunny day, but make an effort and climb this hill. Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are mobbed with tourists, but the Morro Dois Irmãos offers a much less touristy and, in my opinion, better experience.

Vidigal 4
Vidigal stairs

 

 

 

Exploring Brazil – Part 2 – Iguassu Falls and Salvador

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

Brazil is a vast country and there is an astonishing range of landscapes, cities and cultures. There are no real mountains to speak of, but there is the mighty Amazon, arid savannas in the interior, beaches backed by red stone cliffs and – in the far south, bordering Argentina – the fabulous Iguassu Falls.

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

The town of Foz serves as a good gateway and you can easily cross the border to visit the Argentine side for a day. In fact the two sides offer different perspectives: the Brazilian side offers long views good for photography, while on the Argentine side there are many walkways which pass very close to the falls themselves, allowing you to get up close and personal with the cascading water. There is also a very good bird park, various boat trips to be made where you will probably get wet and a breathtaking helicopter ride over the falls.

Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador
Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador

The Northeast is one of my favourite parts of Brazil. It’s much more laidback than the big cities of the south like São Paulo and Rio and it’s almost like a different country. It’s also a lot hotter and drier during the summer season, while in the south the summer often brings torrential rain at the end of the day. There are thousands of kilometers of coast here and you can find built-up resorts as well as deserted stretches where it’s possible to walk for hours.

Pelourinho, Salvador
Pelourinho, Salvador

The most interesting city here is Salvador which has its own unique flavour and vibe and a setting on the Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay) which rivals that of Rio. Founded in 1549 in the state of Bahia, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was the first capital of Brazil until 1763. As a major centre of the slave trade, it’s ancestry heritage remains today predominantly African. Its music and cuisine are influenced very much by this, and the old centre (Pelourhino) has some superb examples of colonial architecture.

Carnival in Salvador
Carnival in Salvador

It’s also home to the biggest carnival in the world and totally different to that of Rio where samba and costumes predominate. In Salvador huge trucks with enormous speakers (trios elétricos) take to the streets on set circuits playing axé music to a wild crowd. It’s an incredible experience of five days of solid partying and best savoured with a few caipirinhas. Don’t take valuables with you! I once made the mistake of going out with my fairly expensive camera as things were quiet, but then it got very busy. However, a local woman came to my rescue, called over the polícia militar, and I was given an escort safely back to my hotel. I don’t think that’s a service you can rely on, though.

Carnival in Pelourinho
Carnival in Pelourinho

Apart from Salvador, the best things in the Northeast are the beaches. The ocean stretches for miles right from the city centre, but it’s not always good for swimming. Just north of Salvador, though, lies the small town of Praia do Forte which is quite chic, but has some good beaches. In the far south of Bahia state is another upmarket little place called Trancoso. The beaches here are stunning, particularly Praia do Espelho, one of the best in Brazil.

Praia do Forte
Praia do Forte

Brazil is often overlooked by visitors to South America in favour of the Andean countries, but I think this is a mistake. There is so much to do and so much variety. But make the effort to see more than Rio de Janeiro. Once you do, you’ll find far fewer tourists and you’ll get to know the real Brazil. You’ll probably need to learn a few words of Portuguese, since English is surprisingly not widely spoken.

Praia do Espelho
Praia do Espelho

Exploring Brazil – Part 1 – Rio de Janeiro

Sunset behind Christ the Redeemer
Sunset behind Christ the Redeemer

Rio de Janeiro has one of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular settings of any city in the world. Whether viewed from street-level while sipping a caipirinha or watching the sunset from Sugar Loaf mountain, the place never fails to impress and inspire. I once taught a student from Rio who commuted to São Paulo for work and English classes, but always went back to his home city for the weekend. Like all cariocas, residents of Rio, he was proud of his city and also knew how lucky he was to live there. He gave me a tip – sit on the right side of the plane when flying from São Paulo to Rio for some incredible views if you are arriving at the local airport. No matter how many times he had done this journey, he told me, he always got quite emotional at the sight of Rio from the air.

Night view over Rio
Night view over Rio

You could spend days or even weeks here. There are must-see sights like taking the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain and the funicular railway up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. But for me one of the best things about Rio is simply hanging out and people watching. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema have a spectacular setting and each area of beach attacts its own crowd. But rememember these are city beaches and just one block back from the seafront you’ll find bars, restaurants and boutiques with locals strutting the streets in speedos and bikinis. It’s all very laid-back.

Sugar Loaf
Sugar Loaf

The centre of Rio is the business area and also has plenty of colonial era buildings, many of which are currently being restored. Lapa is the place to go on a Friday night when the neighbourhood becomes one vast outdoor party, with food and drinks stalls lining the streets and samba music blaring out everywhere you go. I first went there in 1998 before it had been re-developed and was still a pretty dodgy area, with the only music coming from speakers propped up in the doorways of decaying buildings. Nowadays there are some high-end restaurants and it’s pretty safe, but watch your pockets in the crowds.

Fisherman in Arpoador
Fisherman in Arpoador

In fact, safety is one of the major concerns that first-time visitors have, although I reckon that reports of violence are often exaggerated in the foreign press. When I first came to Rio in 1996, I was convinced that I was going to be jumped on by gangs of thieves within moments of leaving the airport. Now, I don’t believe it’s any more dangerous than many big cities around the world. You just need to have your wits about you and don’t take any risks.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi
Museum of Contemporary Art, Niteroi

If you want to see more than just the obvious tourist sites, head for neighbourhoods like Catete and Botofogo. These lie between the centre and Copacabana and began to be developed as the city expanded in the 19th century and contain some lovely turn-of-the-century buildings. Also recommended is the Parque Lage, a wonderful oasis near the Botanical Gardens. Another worthwhile day trip is to take the local ferry across the bay to Niteroi and visit the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by the great Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. But if this all seems like too much effort, it’s quite easy to just sit down at one of the many barracas or beach bars, buy a fresh coconut juice and watch the world go by.

Búzios
Búzios

As fun and as exciting as Copacabana and Ipanema can be, you really need to get out of the city and explore the fabulous beaches along the coast. Heading north for a few hours takes you to Búzios, a place made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the 60s. In fact there is a statue of her in the town. It’s quite upmarket and the beaches are small and nestled in picturesques coves.

Brigitte Bardot, Búzios
Brigitte Bardot, Búzios

Heading south on the way to São Paulo is Paraty. It’s an old town with many beautiful colonial buildings and cobbled streets – practical shoes are a must here! – which partly flood when the tide comes in. There are no beaches in the town itself, but there are boats in the harbour which will take you around some stunning beaches and islands. A short busride away is the town of Trindade, popular with surfers and with a very different vibe.

Paraty
Paraty

If you’ve ever thought about going to Brazil, now is a good time to visit. The clocks have gone forward and summer is approaching. Not only that, but the devaluation of the real means that visitors are going to get some great bargains. Although Brazil is not a cheap destination by any means, the real is now worth only half of what it was a year ago, making things much more affordable. The effects of El Niño are also promising record temperatures this summer. There’s no better place to start than Rio de Janeiro, a cidade maravilhosa, or the marvellous city.

Praia Cachadaço, Trindade
Praia Cachadaço, Trindade
Paraty street
Paraty street

Fernando de Noronha – the most beautiful beaches in Brazil

Praia do Sancho
Praia do Sancho

“Welcome to the most beautiful beach in the world!” proclaims the sign at the entrance to Praia do Sancho on the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. When you travel a lot, you get used to these kinds of hyberbole, but it’s certainly one of the nicest beaches I have ever been to. Access is not easy, however, as it’s backed by high cliffs. You have to climb two vertical ladders down through a narrow chasm and then the rest of the way is along stone steps cut into the rock. But once you’re there it’s all worthwhile. Fine white sand, waters of every shade of blue imagineable, and all kinds of marine life await you if you have a snorkel.

Baia dos Porcos
Baia dos Porcos

Fernando de Noronha is renowned throughout Brazil as a tropical, paradisiacal, but high-end and costly destination. Outside Brazil, though, it’s not that well known except as the place where Air France flight 447 tragically crashed in 2009. Fernando de Noronha is actually an archipelago of 21 islands 354 kms off the coast of northern Brazil. Recife and Natal are the gateway cities and flights are not cheap, nor is accommodation or food and drink. But with the current devaluation of the Brazilian real, foreigners will find things pretty reasonable right now.

Praia do Leão
Praia do Leão

The best beaches are in the national park, for which you need to pay an entrance fee, but they are superb. Praia do Sancho and Baia dos Porcos are visually dramatic and have excellent snorkelling. Praia do Leão is wonderful and is a short walk from Baia do Sueste where you can snorkel with turtles. I also saw a shark there, but don’t worry, they’re a harmless species.

Baia do Sueste
Baia do Sueste

Even the beaches outside the designated park are stupendous. On Praia da Conceição I saw seabirds diving into the water to fish and thought there must be something worth seeing there. So I put on my snorkel and waded in. Just metres from the shore I was astonished to find myself surrounded by millions of sardines. Even more spectacular was swimming very close to a stingray. On the beach at the port I also snorkelled with three turtles.

Mirante dos Golfinhos
Mirante dos Golfinhos

There are some great trails. The most popular and easiest is to the Mirante dos Golfinhos, the Dolphin Lookout Point. Huge numbers of spinner dolphins are to be found all around the island, but this is one of the best places to spot them and the view is amazing.

Spinner dolphins
Spinner dolphins

If you’re prepared to stay in homestays like I did and walk and take the bus rather than hire taxis and beach buggies, then you can cut costs dramatically. There is a steep daily tourist tax to pay which goes towards the preservation of the island. But this, and the fact that tourist numbers are limited, means that it never feels crowded and it’s really easy to find a space to yourself – even on the most beautiful beach in the world!

Praia da Conceição
Praia da Conceição

Travelling in time

Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia
Ploughing the fields in Tetebatu, Lombok, Indonesia

Some of the best journeys are not just through geographical space, but back in time itself. We often read in guidebooks of places which are unspoilt and timeless. Many people dream of escaping today’s busy world and fleeing to faraway places that are not only remote, but give us an insight into ancient cultures and more traditional ways of life.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

We might wander around gazing in awe at the Pyramids in Giza or the Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, magnificent buildings that were built to impress, but were also creatively designed. Or stand astonished on the Great Wall of China. Or we might stroll through still habitable places like Lamu Island in Kenya which has barely changed in centuries. Or marvel at the ingenuity of Inca farmers who adapted the land for irrigation or at how people in Indonesia and India still use ploughs and oxen to till the land today.

Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia
Rice fields at Selogriyo, Java, Indonesia

Travelling the world helps put so much into context that dry history lessons never managed to do. You can see what different civilisations were achieving, often at the same time, but separated by thousands of miles. People learned to control the land, constructing astonishing agricultural terraces from Peru to Papua. They built magnificent temples, palaces, churches and mansions which have lasted for centuries.

City Palace, Udaipur, India
City Palace, Udaipur, India

But, as so often happens with travelling, it only goes to highlight what is wrong or unsatisfactory with things back home. In the case with time travel, it makes you think about what we are achieving in the modern world. Islamic State is intent on destroying their culture and history. Chinese dam projects are destroying villages all along the Mekong. Today we are not just controlling our environment to survive, we are destroying it through greed.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan
Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

In London, New York and São Paulo gentrification marches on apace, seemingly oblivious to the wishes of local people and the need to preserve our history for future generations. It’s not enough to keep building higher and higher. We need originality, creativity and vision. Where are the buildings of today that tourists 500 years from now are going to stop and wonder at? What cultural legacy are we leaving for those future generations of travellers?

Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil
Portuguese colonial architecture, Salvador, Brazil

I think the biggest question we should be asking ourselves now is, what do we want people of the future to think of us? What will be written about us in the guidebooks of the 25th century? In the meantime, though, let’s just be grateful that so many countries are doing wonderful work in preserving and maintaining their heritage. Just pop into your time machine and take a trip ….

Lamu Island, Kenya
Lamu Island, Kenya