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Day 9: Belém

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Ver-o-Peso Market, Belém. Thiago's favourite fruit and veg stall.
Michael Palin - BrazilIt seems that most of the Mercado Ver-o-Peso is run by big, assertive women of a certain age. Priscila nods. 'You're right. Women are strong in the Amazon,' she tells me. Which is how the Amazon got its name in the first place. In the early 1540s, a Spanish expedition under Francisco de Orellana, in the course of a remarkable river journey eastwards from the Andes to the sea, found itself fighting a tribe, large numbers of which were women. So effective were they that Orellana likened them to the legendary warriors of Greek literature, known as the Amazons, women who were so honed to warfare that they had no right breast, enabling them to hold their bows and arrows with greater control. This encounter made such an impression on Orellana that he named the river after his adversaries.

As if to emphasize the fact, Priscila takes me to another part of the market where African and Indian charms, herbs and potions are sold by two more strong Amazon women, a mother and daughter. They have bottles, powders, natural oils, barks and leaves. 'Preparations for the body and the spirit,' as Priscila, a frequent user of these traditional medicines, puts it.

She's a great believer in one mixture which can be used for almost anything from shampoo to the relief of arthritis. Their top sellers, somewhat predictably, are 'natural Viagra' and an oil that provides 'baths for love'.

We meet up with Thiago again for lunch at his newly opened, very chic restaurant, Remanso do Bosque, opposite the Botanic Gardens. By this time he is in his starched white chef 's apron with his name embroidered on it. He describes our starter. Shrimp with ace sauce and fried tapioca. All traditional ingredients, but the way of cooking is his own creation. As we eat, I ask Priscila about her city, and once again the word 'traditional' comes up. Belém was the first city of the Amazon. Founded by the Portuguese in 1616 as the City of Our Lady of Bethlehem, it grew rich from slavery long before it became rich from rubber. Though the port of Belém was the indisputable hub of Amazon trade, it was, on the land-side, cut off from the rest of Brazil. Blown north by favourable trade winds, ships from Belém could reach Europe faster than they could Rio, and there was no overland alternative.

'We are very traditional because of our isolation,' Priscila maintains. 'We keep our things as they were. We talk different. We use the old Portuguese that people in the south don't use any more.'

After the rubber boom ended Belém fell into serious decline. Manaus, its great rival, was made a Free Trade Area in the 1960s, and is now connected to the south via a fast new road. And just to rub it in came the decision that Manaus would be the only Amazon city to host a World Cup game.

None of this worries Priscila that much. Brazil's great quality, as she sees it, is its tolerance. The country is vast but its diversity is a source of pride. The North is 'totally different' from the South and yet they are all first and foremost Brazilians. And she does detect a growing interest in the Amazon from people in the rest of the country. They are no longer just looking north for exploitation of the resources. They are seeing in the vast state of Amazonas a rich mix of tribes and a respect for their way of life which they hadn't appreciated before. Our talk turns again to a familiar topic.

'Most of the strong people in the Amazon are women. The power is in them. Men don't talk so much. They keep their place.' She laughs, and stabs a fork in my direction. 'Tomorrow you're going to meet Gaby' – Gaby Amarantos is the name of the rising musical star she represents – 'and you are going to understand the power of Amazon women. You will see, it's not only a legend. It's true.'

The dashing Thiago makes his way over to ask our opinion of the meal so far.
And I realize that throughout our short acquaintance it's Thiago, as fine a specimen of Brazilian manhood as you could wish to meet, who has been the quiet one, and little Priscila the one with the opinions and the confidence to put them across.
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'Preparations for the body and spirit'.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 9: Belém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belém
  • Book page no: 52

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole