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Day 19: São Luís

Michael Palin - BrazilTo go north in Brazil you have to go south first. The major airline hubs are in Rio and São Paulo, cities with a combined population of nearly thirty million. So I find myself, three hours out of Guarulhos airport in São Paulo, face pressed tight to the window, as the landscape below me slowly changes from the hard, weathered crust of the interior to the green, thickly forested banks of a river delta. If I have a feeling that I've seen all this before it's understandable. We're almost back at the Equator, and only a couple of hundred kilometres from the mouth of the Amazon.

We're descending towards the coastal city of São Luís. Two wide rivers curl through the dense greenery below. As our path and theirs converge I see small settlements; red-roofed houses surrounded by palm and banana trees, girder bridges carrying roads across the swamp and then suddenly, and almost shockingly, the great bulk of a refinery, a waste pond of red mud catching the last of the sunlight. Then we're out over the Atlantic making our final approach to the capital of Maranhão State, set on an island in between the two river mouths, with bridges connecting it to a populous mainland. São Luís, named by its French founders after their king, Louis XIII, grew rich shipping cotton and sugar from the plantations. Its economy collapsed after slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but there are plenty of signs of twenty-first-century life down there. Despite decades of north-south emigration, there are still almost a million people living in the city below me. Long lines of high-rise blocks run parallel to the sea, and I count a line of seventeen ships waiting to enter port.

This is our introduction to the North-East, that great jut of coastline projecting Brazil into the Atlantic and giving South America the face of its elegant sea-horse outline. From here on, down through Recife to Salvador, Brazil comes to within 3,000 kilometres (1,850 miles) of the African coast, and if ever geography were a key to history it is here. The neat fit between the wedge at the top of South America and the hole on the side of West Africa is exactly what it looks like. The two continents were once joined together. Many million years later, after the landmasses had drifted apart, huge numbers of Africans were brought to Brazil as forced labour. The physical connection may have long gone but, thanks to slavery, a social, cultural and emotional connection has taken its place. The North-East of Brazil still feels very much a part of Africa.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 19: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 91

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