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Day 9: Belém

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Unloading fruit on the waterfront at Belém. Turreted market building in the background.
Michael Palin - BrazilYou have to make an early start to catch the fish market in Belém. But it's worth it. In keeping with the Brazilian penchant for nicknames, the market complex is called Ver-o-Peso – 'See the Weight' – for it was here in the days of the Portuguese that goods for sale were weighed to assess the taxes payable. Now it's a wonderland of stalls selling fruits of the Amazon, religious charms and potions, T-shirts, jewellery and as rich, exotic and complex a selection of polpa de frutas – fruit juices – as I've ever seen. But it's the fish that are the stars of Belém Market.

Belém stands at the southern portal of the Amazon delta. Its opposite number, Macapá, is 350 kilometres (220 miles) away to the north. A casual look at an atlas will show that it is the last city on the river. A closer look will show that Belém is in fact not on the Amazon at all. The wide stream that flows past the market is the Rio Guamá, a tributary of the mighty River Tocantins, which is itself a tributary of the Amazon. Not perhaps so surprising, then, that the Amazon's outflow is of greater volume than all the rivers of Europe put together. Over 770,000 cubic metres (170 billion gallons) of river water is disgorged into the ocean every hour. Nearly fifty-seven million gallons every second. The clay-brown plume of the Amazon stretches 400 kilometres (250 miles) into the Atlantic.

Geographically epic as its location might be, Belém is a place of few pretensions. Its long history has created a multi-layered city which has some grand buildings but no grand gestures. Like a well-lined face it betrays a life of hard-earned experience rather than easy comfort. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than down by the jetties where the fish are brought in. On two sides of the waterfront are old colonial houses with tall first-floor windows, ironwork balconies and colourful, tiled exteriors. On the roofs of these bright facades the black turkey vultures gather, shifting from leg to leg and occasionally opening their wings as they wait for the fish to be unloaded. Some are already down on the ground, tearing away at piles of discarded entrails on the side of the solid stone jetties. The fishermen's boats are small and, like the houses, brightly coloured. They will have come in from the scattering of islands to the north and west of Belém, bringing the produce of the ribeirinhos – not only fish, but fruits and vegetables too. All around baskets are being unloaded, often by chains of men tossing them ashore. Much of the produce is sold from upturned boxes beside the boats themselves. The fish is either gutted on the spot – skin scraped, tails chopped off, innards flung into the water or snatched in the greedy beaks of the vultures – or sold untouched, the lines still sticking out of their mouths. The jetties are hosed down by council workers in the orange overalls of the Prefeitura de Belém, but the water is treated like a rubbish dump, with all manner of filthy debris sloshing around, trapped between the boats and the harbour wall.

Set back a little from the quayside and looking like a small fortified town is the covered fish market, constructed of Glaswegian ironwork and opened in 1901. It has a wide, square, floor plan with silver-grey iron walls, cormorants perched on the roof, and, at all four corners, pointed iron turrets covered in fish-scale tiling. Despite the jauntiness of its appearance, there is an air of serious purpose about the Mercado Ver-o-Peso, to which I'm initiated by my guide to Belém, Priscila Brasil. And that's her real name. Priscila is quite short, with a pale complexion, dark hair and lively dark eyes. Born and brought up in Belém, she's at one time or other been an architect and a documentary film-maker, and currently she's managing one of the hottest properties in the local, and hopefully national, music business.
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Fishing boats from the mouth of the Amazon crowd in.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 9: Belém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belém
  • Book page no: 50

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