Friday, September 7, 2012

Discovering Belém

Sorry for the delay in posts.

It's been an eventful few months, not without its share of hardships. I'll tell you what, though, I am very happy to be in Brazil! In the last few weeks leading up to my July vacation break, I made it my mission to get to know this city I'm living in.

Belém is not a city that makes a good first impression. It's rough around the edges, with stark inequality and lack of adequate services for thousands of its residents. It's dirty, disorganized, and fairly dangerous. But, hey, it's home! Here, at one extreme of the Amazon Basin, I've come to enjoy this 19th-century rubber capital turned backwater Brazilian urban sprawl.

Looking at pictures of Belém from the turn of the century, it makes me sad to see how far this city has fallen. Cobble-stone streets lined with boutiques and business offices had streetcars running down the middle. Portuguese-tiled store fronts and houses made what is now the Cidade Velha reminiscent of Lisbon's port district. The latest and greatest of European architecture and engineering brought iron constructions, opera houses, and canal systems to the city. Had the rubber bubble not burst, like so many other single product economies of its kind, Belém would have been on its way to becoming the Venice of Latin America.

Alas, it wasn't to be. The thousands who flocked here to make their fortune either left, or stayed to scratch out a living in a ruined economy. Over the years the lack of money took its toll. Belém was largely ignored by the various Brazilian governments throughout the 20th century and fell into disrepair. Most of the old architectural treasures now lay rotting in the humidity and harsh sunlight. The old commercial district still exists, but the majority of the once beautiful facades are unrecognizable, or perhaps just barely, and most of the merchandise sold there is cheap Chinese knockoffs. And it’s fairly obvious that the city’s waste management, water, and power distribution is not up to spec.

Those are the qualities of Belém you would notice if you came for a long weekend and didn’t know what to look for. The excitement and treasures are hard to find, but with the right guide, or enough time of stumbling around on your own, you would fine it’s a pretty neat place to live. Taking a walk here can yield some interesting finds. My fellow ETA Jamila and I set out to see what there was to see, and we’ve come across some great stuff. There are tons of little stores tucked away in the surrounding neighborhoods, selling everything from religious items and Amazonian potions, to toys, gifts, quality (but overpriced) apparel, cupcakes and candy. Brazilians are big on open-air markets, and several can be found within walking distance of us.

Some forward-thinking urban planner from the last century had the good sense to make plazas an important part of the original city’s layout. My favorite is Praça Batista Campos, which has a very Japanese feel to it, with tons of little parabolic bridges over koi ponds and artificial streams. The large gazebo, where you can usually find some capoeira or other dance performance happening, always has an egret or other water bird perched on top.

Then there are the hundreds and hundreds of barzinhos and bakeries all over the city, where old men sit all day sipping ice-cold Brahma beer and eating salgados. I was a regular at one of these for a while, but there are only so many variations on salty, deep-fried snacks that I can handle in the middle of the day. I’m more of a salty snack past midnight kinda guy, so I save these delicacies for the less choosey moods I find myself in at 2AM.

That’s my segue into nightlife. Brazilians pretty much know how to party wherever they are, and the state of Pará is no exception. There is no lack of clubs or bars, of varying qualities and genres, in this sweltering city. I don’t think that even with nine months I will have the time (or the money or endurance of liver) to discover all the ways to enjoy a Saturday evening in Belém. Sertanejo, forró, reggae, brega, techno-brega, funk; these are just a few of the most popular genres of music and their accompanying dances and parties that you can find in Belém, not to mention rock and all the top North American hits that play constantly.

Besides the drunk food of the early morning, Belém has some quality local and imported cuisine. There are lots of great restaurants and reasonably priced lanchonetes all over the place to settle an apetite. I’ll go into the details of food in Belém in one of my next posts, but rest assured, I certainly haven’t been going hungry.

In short, Belém has turned out to be a really interesting place to live. I certainly am not experiencing Brazil from the perspective of someone living in Rio or São Paulo, but I’m glad of where I am. In fact, traveling to those places and many other Brazilian cities has made me want to come back to Belém and get to know it as best I can. Despite some of the negative aspects, the city is growing again. There’s an excitement here, a pride I can see in the faces of the Paraenses whom I’m coming to know so well. I’m proud too; proud to have been placed in a city with such a kind people and interesting culture. I’m proud of bringing my own culture and experiences here and sharing them with in such a different place from any I’ve been before. And I’m proud that I can share this with all of you!

Keep reading! More to follow!

1 comment:

  1. It's a pleasure having you here in Belém Michael, the city actually has many difficulties and inequalities, but there are many good things in this town. Welcome!