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Day 29: Recife to Salgueiro

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In Brazil, everybody dances. Band in the background. Englishman learns forró in the foreground.
Michael Palin - BrazilA few hundred kilometres to the west of Recife is the land where the forró was born. It's called the sertão, and it's famously hot and dry. We leave Recife in pouring rain as another depression moves in off the Atlantic, but by the time our plane puts down at Juazeiro do Norte, over 500 kilometres (310 miles) inland, there is not a drop of rain to be seen. Nor has there been any for quite a while. Away from the coast the heat is less humid but more intense. Juazeiro is a pilgrimage city, the home, from the 1870s to the 1930s, of the legendary Padre Cícero who devoted his life to the poor and dispossessed. But what turned Cícero from a good priest to a legend was that he was believed to have miraculous powers. During a Mass, a Communion wafer, blessed by Padre Cícero, is said to have bled in the mouth of a woman he passed it to. This and other perceived examples of his powers (there were those who suddenly won the lottery after praying to Padre C) resulted in an enduring popularity. There are six annual pilgrimages to Juazeiro do Norte every year.

We head south from Juazeiro, hoping to find cowboys. There aren't many of the traditional vaqueiros left but their values are still practised and upheld in the remote outback area on the border between the states of Ceará and Pernambuco. At first the road runs through green and cultivated land where the prevailing caatinga scrub has been cut back. There are farms with large ponds, and crops as well as cattle. The small town of Jardim, literally 'Garden', announces itself as 'Capital do Milho' – 'Corn Capital'. The cafés are rough and ready. Most have a brazier outside with hot coals always on the go, for this is meat country and a snack nearly always involves something from the barbecue. We sit and have coffee, without meat, in a small establishment whose walls are plastered with emblems and posters of the Rio football club Vasco da Gama. The team motifs hark back to the early Portuguese explorers: galleons and Maltese crosses. The only other table is occupied by a large contingent of black-clad policemen, bristling with weapons and bearing the words 'Força Táctica' on their backs. Now they are eating meat.

As we continue south the farms get smaller and fewer and the caatinga, with its mix of low thorn trees and cactus, closes in around us. We're almost at Salgueiro, where we're to spend the night, when we come across heavy equipment, construction sites and road diversions. Below us a long deep cut in the hard red rock stretches into the distance in both directions. It's the bed of a brand-new railway. Not a passenger railway, even though Brazil is desperately short of them, but a freight line to transport iron ore and other minerals from the interior to the coast, and from there, almost certainly, to China, now one of Brazil's major trading partners. It's known as Lula's railway, as the ex-President is from these parts, and it will provide thousands of jobs in a pretty poor area.

Maybe this mini railway boom explains the unlikely presence of a modern steel and glass hotel just outside Salgueiro. The only problem is that the hotel isn't finished. Reception is a building site, with cement splashes everywhere, bare breeze-block walls and light fittings on the end of wires hanging from the wall. The staff sit at trestle tables with computer wires trailing around them. The staircase is still wrapped up and not fully attached to the wall. My room, however, is spacious and comfortable, but I have to make my own bed.

A new road, perpetually busy with construction traffic, runs past the hotel. Apart from the noise, it also involves a dice with death to get to the only restaurant in the area. It's a churrascaria, a grill, typical of Brazil, especially here in the interior. 'Sabor do Sertão', it announces. 'Taste of the Sertão'. This turns out, surprise, surprise, to involve lots of meat, fresh off the fire, and brought to the table on long skewers from which you slice off your own requirements. The skewer keeps returning with fresh cuts of beef, so beautifully tender that after ten days of fish, I'm a raving carnivore again. Good preparation for the cowboys.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 29: Recife to Salgueiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salgueiro
  • Book page no: 124

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