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Day 58: Parati

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Dom João, a keen environmentalist, walks me through the Atlantic rainforest.
Michael Palin - BrazilHe says I should meet the man responsible for it, ex-President Cardoso. FHC, as he's affectionately known. Another good friend of the Prince. But first he wants to show me a corner of the beautiful Mata Atlântica, the forest that once covered the mountains along Brazil's coastline. We drive up behind Parati and are enveloped swiftly in the balmy warmth of a stretch of secondary forest which is reclaiming an abandoned banana plantation. As Dom João points out, the Mata Atlântica has a richer biodiversity than the forests of the Amazon, but is in a much worse state of depletion. Because eighty percent of Brazil's population lives within 400 kilometres (250 miles) of the coast, the pressure on land for cultivation, housing, transport and industry has over the years reduced the Mata Atlântica to less than ten percent of its original size. What remains is subject to various degrees of protection, but here Dom João the conservationist dons his real estate hat and with hardly a pause for breath describes the hotel he plans to put up on the land we're walking through.

I can see why he's chosen this spot. It has the advantage of height and looks across the low-lying spread of Parati, squeezed between two rivers that spill out onto an enclosed bay of islands, hemmed in by forested headlands. The problem of celebrating nature and imposing on it at the same time is not just something the Prince faces. People with the money to be discreet are fuelling a considerable property boom in what's left of the Mata Atlântica.

It's Easter week. The hotels are full and Parati's little airstrip is busy accommodating the succession of private planes flying in from São Paulo. By the waterfront a tall black man in chains is describing the lot of the earliest visitors to Parati, the African slaves who arrived in this pleasant bay after weeks crossing the Atlantic in appalling conditions. When he's finished the gaggle of tourists applaud politely and drop a few notes into a small basket, before making their way into the network of attractive streets that is the heart of this town of 15,000 souls. The streets are not easy to negotiate as they're paved with big uneven stones which were originally brought over as ballast by boats come to pick up the gold. Parents help each other across the mini-boulders whilst their more nimble children trail behind looking bored.

It gets even more difficult later when all the street lamps are switched off for the first of the Easter processions. This begins at midnight after the Missa Lava Pés, a Mass at which the feet of twelve people, representing the twelve apostles, are ceremonially washed. The procession emerges from the imposing Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios and is led by priests in red capes chanting and surrounding a wooden platform carried on their shoulders and bearing a doleful image of Christ with reeds behind him. The congregation follows, carrying candles made of wax-filled bamboo. I'm given one but it won't stay alight, and a kind fellow celebrant takes it from me and gives me hers. That promptly goes out. By now it's clear that I'm not the only one who's having trouble. The one or two brightly burning flames are far outnumbered by flickering embers. Word is going round that it was a big mistake to let the children make the candles this year. I've given up on ignition and am trying to find out in which direction the by now semi-torchlit procession has gone. The extinguishing of the street lights causes much stumbling and stubbing of feet before I catch sight and sound of the celebrants up a side street. They've stopped at one of the Stations of the Cross, which are marked by small altars enclosed behind doors on the side of the road. It takes almost an hour for them to make their way round them all and by the time they reach the waterfront and the church of Santa Rita the functioning candles are so few that their bearers have acquired some quasi-religious charisma.

Once the image of Christ has been borne back to the Church the street lights come on again and the secular celebrations go on long into the night. I admire and rather envy the Brazilians' ability to eat, drink and be merry in public without feeling the need to be in any way aggressive or objectionable. By way of a nightcap I stop at a stall where I'm mixed a powerful cocktail with cachaça, brandy, vodka and an infusion of tree bark called catuaba. This is a Guaraní word meaning 'gives strength to the Indian'. The stallholder nods and winks and produces a long wooden phallus to stir it with. I get the picture.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 58: Parati
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Parati
  • Book page no: 249

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