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!