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Day 10: Belém

Michael Palin - BrazilFirst thing this morning I take a stroll in the Praça da República, a sort of open-air museum of what the rubber boom meant to Belém. Although it can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a park or a tropical rainforest, it has an evocative air of celebration about it.

As in Manaus, there is a fine opera house at its centre, called the Teatro da Paz, with columned porticoes and loggias. In front of it is an impressive, if somewhat neglected, statue celebrating peace. On top a woman in swirling cloak brandishes a sword and on the plinth below are commemorated heroes of Brazil's struggle for independence from Portugal. Though independence was granted in 1822, Brazil didn't get rid of the monarchy and become a Republic until 1889. All the old buildings in the Praça hark back to Europe. In celebrating their break from nearly four hundred years of Portuguese rule, the burghers of Belém chose to make their city look more like Lisbon than ever.

There are two bandstands, both of elegantly fashioned green ironwork. The finest of them has been beautifully restored with a wood-block ceiling and an elegantly curved roof with a cupola above it, topped by a wrought-iron harp. As I walk past, marvelling at its elegance, a foot rises slowly above the parapet, stretches, then withdraws. A moment later a thin column of smoke rises from the same place. I peer tentatively round the side and there's a young homeless black man lying on the floor with a thin sheet over him and the first cigarette of the day between his fingers.

Beyond the Praça, multi-storey apartment blocks seem to have taken over the city. Stained and grimy from the heavy rainfall, they make Belém look less like Lisbon and more like Calcutta. Both are at the heart of big river deltas, and concrete and high humidity don't mix well, creating the impression of cities going mouldy.

At street level though, life is vibrant, visible and noisy. To sample it, Priscila takes me to meet her very special client, the Queen of Technobrega, Gaby Amarantos. Gaby lives in a side street in a predominantly black area of town. Outside her house, boys are kicking a football about and two men are loading up a wooden cart with what look like old circuit boards. There's a constant procession of people being dropped off by the private Kombi-taxis that pull up at the junction with the main road. Cars go by with huge speaker systems on their roof-racks, blasting out invitations to listen to a new radio station, or visit a new club or, more often than not, just go to a party. Every door, window and balcony on every house has a security grille attached.

Gaby owns two houses in one and access is through a warren of rooms in which various members of her family live. There are religious pictures on the walls of the rooms we pass through on our way up to the first floor. From there we step out onto a spiral staircase bolted, rather perilously, to the outside of the
building. This leads us up to the top of the house and at last I see a few glimpses of Gaby's profession: a rail of costumes, a clock with the Beatles' Abbey Road album cover on its face, a wicker frame for a skirt, feather headdresses and, on a low table, a music magazine with what I assume is Gaby's likeness on the cover. A well-built woman with arm raised and fist clenched, her strong, striking features contorted into a mock snarl.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 10: Belém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belém
  • Book page no: 52

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