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Day 37: The Recôncavo

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I talk to the head of the company, Hans Leusen, on the factory floor.
Michael Palin - BrazilAs, of course, did the tobacco industry, though it's much reduced from the old days. Dannemann survives as a small, high-end operation. A sign, 'Welcome to the Circle of Connoisseurs', sets the tone. And the dozen women who are making the cigars in a clean, cool room with plenty of natural light sit at old rolling machinery looking as if they might be an artwork themselves. Hans points out what it is that makes a Dannemann cigar so special. The workforce has strong traditional skills handed down from mothers and grandmothers who worked here. They roll the cigar in paper, by hand, and not in a press. Then it's left in a humidor for a minimum of two weeks before being cut and labelled. Hans himself is a fine advert for the product. He has a cigar on the go all the time and quietly but firmly rebuts any suggestion that it might be less than good for him.

'Cigarette is for the kick,' he says. 'Cigar for the taste.'

Not that Hans Leusen seems to need a kick. He's a restless soul.

'I'm good at setting things up, but then I get bored.'

Deeply aware of the responsibilities of the tobacco producers towards the people they employ and the environment, he provides educational facilities, like computers and tractor lessons for the farmers. He's worked hard to re-forest the Dannemann tobacco farms, and initiated a highly effective adopt-a-tree project which has helped restore over 100,000 trees in the dwindling Mata Atlântica rainforest, which once ran the length of the Brazilian coast. But Hans has interests way beyond the tobacco business. He sometimes stays in a favela to remind himself what life is like for the underdogs, and he's a regular visitor to the Amazon forests, extolling ayahuasca, a traditional herbal brew with purgative properties, as eloquently as he does cigar-smoking.

'A wonderful way to clean out the system.'

His insatiable curiosity about the world around him makes Indiana Jones look like an assistant librarian. He extols a tribe on the Peruvian border called the Huni Kuin. For Hans they embody the spirit of self-sufficiency that he so admires, living from the produce of the forest and from what they themselves hunt, fish and plant. On a recent visit to them he was quite seriously bitten and, twelve hours away by boat from any help, nearly lost a leg. With his cigar hand he gestures to his upper bicep.

'And I still have an insect in my arm.'

To help his recovery he does gymnastics training seven days a week. Hans has lived in Brazil for fifty years and what he likes about the Brazilians is that they're flexible, they adapt and move on. What he also admires is their sense of a unifying national identity.

His wife, now dead, was Lebanese.

'But she was a hundred percent Brazilian. In Brazil everyone wants to be Brazilian.'
He contrasts this with his home country. The Dutch, by acknowledging and encouraging the cultures of all the different immigrant communities, have lost sight of what it means to be Dutch. He's very happy to stay here, at least until his consulship is up in 2013.

'What attracts me to Brazil is when I wake up in the morning, I don't know how the evening will be and that is a big challenge for you! Cigar?'

We have a late lunch up in one of the farms that have become guest houses. The Pousada Santa Cruz has a fine view out over St Felix, Cachoeira and the Paraguaçu dam and hydroelectric station gouged out of the verdant hills. Once a sugar farm, it could hardly be more different from the jostling favelas of Salvador. Here there is light, air and space in abundance. The trees in the garden have labels. Lunch is served out on a veranda, as eagles and kites ride the thermals and flies worry away at the fresh-fallen mangoes.

It's a glimpse of what plantation life must have been like for the lucky few.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 37: The Recôncavo
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Cachoeira
  • Book page no: 161

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