Monday, December 31, 2007

VENEZUELA AND COLOMBIA


NORTH FROM SANTA ELENA:
I was reluctant to write of Chavez' Venezuela while in the country. Paranoia? Probably. However the country is full of Cubans. Newspapers report the presence of Cuban doctors. Venezuelans I talk with report the presence of Cuban secret police. Why is a Cuban working in the electricity office? Why is a Cuban in charge of the department for Folkloric studies? Are no Venezuelans qualified?
Now, on New Year's Eve, I am safe in the land of strident capitalism, a land ruled by the devil (Chavez's description of President Bush). Time to consult my journal and fill the gaps...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

SNOW TO PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND

DUTCHESS VIEW FARM: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 30
Reading the page proofs for OLD MAN ON A BIKE is done and the proofs returned to the editor. Anya's mother, Abby, has her birthday today. Abby has a cottage on the shore in Rhode Island. I will catch a bus over to Providence. We will enjoy a celebratory birthday dinner with Anya's brother and I will stay a couple of nights with Abby before heading into New York City for a day, then back to the farm. Snow is forecast for this evening. Hopefully the bus will get through in time for dinner. Abby likes to sit up nights. We can watch TV and adjudicate between the Presidential candidates in Iowa as they scratch each others' eyes out.
Huckabee and Romney are the most scratchy. Both are from the religious wing of the Republican Party.
I am an old Lefty. I would pick Edwards as President with Obama as Vice President.
I don't have a vote.
Unfair considering that Tony Blair made the UK a US Colony.

BOTH SAD AND HAPPY

lunar module


DUTCHESS COUNTY: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 29
Anya should have her baby in the next ten days. She and Michael unpack a NASA lunar module. Anya claims that it is a baby centre. How would she know? The directions for assembly are in Chinese English, the line drawings are early Maya. A news item on TV attracts my attention. A tiger escaped from San Fransisco zoo. The tiger killed one man and mauled two others. Michael is calm for the moment. He studies the lunar module instruction manual. He hides his bewilderment. By education, he is a lawyer. He can retaliate should the lunar module act tigerish.
I go upstairs to the studio and lie on my bed. I am immensely happy to be here. I am immensely sad not to be home in England with Bernadette and my four sons and with Sarah and the beloved Charlie Boo.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

ROBERT SHECKLEY

deer well camouflaged


WOODSTOCK, NEW YORK:
I am Anya's adopted father. The writer, Robert Sheckley, was Anya's genetic father. I am honoured to have been one of Bob's friends. English-language critics pigeon-holed Bob as a writer of science fiction. He was judged differently in Europe and in those countries that were part of the old USSR. He was read for his ideas and his wit and his take on the human condition and he was admired as a master craftsman of the short story.
Anya and I drove up to Woodstock yesterday to visit Bob's grave. Anya parked below the cemetery and a herd of deer broke out of the trees. Most bolted up across the graves. Two hesitated and looked back. They were at the corner of the hedge that demarks the artists' corner - the direction we were headed. I took their photograph. Then Anya and I walked up the track. Bob's grave was under snow. Anya and I will visit again when I finish my ride in the Spring. We will have Anya and Michael's baby son with us.

HORSE'S ARSE

CHRISTMAS IN UP-STATE NEW YORK:
I am staying with my daughter, Anya, and her partner, Michael, at Michael's horse farm in Dutchess County. The horse farm is what we Brits call a stud. Michael breeds race horses. He has some 150 mares on the farm and five stallions. I have never been a horse enthusiast. Horses demand too much attention and they lack brains. What other animal sticks its legs in holes unless saddled with a steersman? Or eats food poisonous to them?
My brother is the horseman.
I was proud last year in Peru at riding my Honda at over 13 000 feet in altitude on a viciously bad road. I thought, Hey, what other man my age could cope? Yea, I'm really special.
That was the week that my brother won a Three Day Event. A Three Day Event is an equestrian competition in cross country jumping, jumping in the ring and dressage. Think extreme sports on horseback. Lunatic adrenalin addicts compete. My brother is 76. He IS special. I merely thought I was.

Friday, December 21, 2007

SAN JOSE: SNAIL-SPEED INTERNET

SAN JOSE: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21

I am staying in a charming hotel, Posada Amon, at the intersection of Calle 5 and Avenida 9. The Posada is an old building, once a private home. The owner is correctly old fashioned in forbidding guests to bring women into the hotel. She doesn't approve of sex tourism. Nor do I. She warns me against walking after dark (her husband was assassinated last year). The owner of the bar restaurant where I chatted last night with the film maker insisted I take a cab back to the hotel, three hundred meters!

What else? The Internet connection is snail pace. Posting the previous post took three quarters of an hour. Getting into Hotmail took nearly an hour. I don't have this much patience. I will write once I am in the US and bring the BLOG up to date, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama.

SAN JOSE: WORLD RAZOR WIRE CAPITOL

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 21
I took the bus from Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica - my wife´s advice. She believes I need a break from the bike. The road is a serpentine climb through mountains and volcanoes. Reach the San Jose valley and you are in a permanent traffic blockage. The city is corrugated tin and razor wire. Ask if the city is dangerous and you are told, "Very dangerous..."
So why visit?
God knows. Sex tourism is high on the list. Immature mature visitors from the US balance on bar stools and suck on beer bottles. Over-painted women a third their age cling to their arms and laugh at jokes which they don't understand.
Last evening I was fortunate in finding an Iranian Frenchman for company, producer of educational films. He has lived in Los Angeles, California. He is an optimist. He believes that the voters of the US have recognised Bush type politics as the dead end of the wrong road, that the US will change, recover its liberal roots.
I have my doubts.
I doubt that the US has liberal roots.
The Founding Fathers were my fellow Brits and deeply conservative.
So were the leaders in the war for Independence.
They were racist. They were religiously intolerant.
Many were slave owners.

Monday, December 17, 2007

ONE GREAT CHAPTER AFTER ANOTHER

COLON: MONDAY, DECEMBER 17
I am in Colon. Management at the Harbor Inn welcomed me literally with open arms and a free room in a hotel where prices have risen to where they should be: $35 for a double with a/c and a large bathroom with hot water. If you value safety, The Harbor Inn remains the best buy in Colon.
How was the voyage from Cartagena? Interesting.
The owner of the yacht was competent and entertaining. His help was a disaster: one of those charmless alcoholics that frequent the US yachting fraternity. You may have met the type. They retain a belief in their superiority as Americans while further damaging the already tarnished image of the United States. They believe and declare that all women are whores and are bewildered at being bereft of companionship but for that of their ilk - with whom they quarel perpetually when in their cups.
We lost our mainsail to a squall.
Our treasure then turned off the engine in the night and lost the key.
So, yes, perhaps we are lucky to have found the shore.
I head north tomorrow to catch a flight to New York from San Jose, Costa Rica. Christmas at my beloved daughter's home, time to sleep, rest my rear and catch up with the BLOG. Or so I thought. Now my editor has sent the page proofs for OLD MAN WITH A BIKE. She wants them returned by the 16th. Page proofs don't rate against the pending birth of a grandson.
So here is a Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year to my readers from a very fortunate and privledged Old Man.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CHAVEZ - PRESIDENT FOR LIFE?

VENEZUELA: DECEMBER 3
I have insufficient time to finish the account of my travels through President Chavez' Democracy. I will do so in the US. Sufficient to write of the vote on the Constitutional Referendum. The full Government and Party machine worked for a Yes vote. Streets in every town were pasted and hung with posters and banners all proclaiming SI COM CHAVEZ.
I passed hundreds of buses carrying supporters to Caracas.
Yet, in tens of thousands, these same supporters of reform stayed away from the polls.
They didn't trust Chavez.
They shied away from giving him unlimited power.
He lost the vote.
My congratulations to Venezuelans...

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA, IS HEAVEN

old man, young lady


CARTAGENA: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11
I have been in Cartagena for five nights. Cartagena is heaven. I enjoy sybaritic comfort in a mansion in the Historic Centre. The mansion belongs to a friend of friends back home. I stroll the beautiful streets by night, free of the dangers ever prevalent in Venezuela. I eat shrimp at the stalls in the Parque Centenaria, Thai food at Restaurant San Pedro. Two evenings I have delighted in the company of a brave and intelligent Peace Corp worker, Elizabeth. She has been living for the past two years in a small town in Peru. My son, Josh, will be travelling through South America next year. Elizabeth has much to tell him.

HIGH SEAS

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA: TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11
I have tried to get the blog up to date. However more important was to organise passage to Panama for myself and bike as I have a flight out of San Jose, Costa Rica, on December 22. I fly north to New York and my daughter's home to celebrate the arrival of a new grandchild. The bike is on board a 42 foot steel sloop belonging to a French Canadian, Marcos, who is also the owner of Drake's Bar in Porto Belo, Panama (see description in last year's Panama section of BLOG). Then back to continue the ride. Bernadette wants to know where she should send the cake for my 75th!

Monday, December 10, 2007

I AM A SURVIVOR...

SANTA ELENA: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 25
We got down the mountain. I found my bed. I rise this morning and swim in the pool before taking breakfast round the corner at the Backpackers Hotel. Santa Elena lives off tourism. I am the only tourist in town. I am joined by a Venezuelan in the hotel business. He has worked in Europe and the Caribbean, including the Cohiba in Havana. He has a novia back in Cuba, a doctor. She has been waiting for an exit permit for the past five years. So much for freedom...
President Chavez of Venezuela is a great supporter of Castro and Cuba.
The Constitutional Referendum is on December 3.
Changes to the Constitution will permit Chavez to stand for President beyond the present two terms. Chavez expects to win the referendum. He stated in a TV interview this week that he expects to be President in 2050.
I don't much care for Chavez.
Determining to be President for life displays an unpleasant arrogance and Chavez is drunk on power.
His power comes from the rise in oil prices.
The rise in oil prices is caused largely by the Iraq War.

DOWN HILL ALL THE WAY

SANTA ELENA FULL MOON PARTY: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
3 a.m. and Fidel is drunk and peaceful at the wheel of his jeep. Victoria is in hugging mood. I am in the back with the drums. A wet mountain mist smears the dust and grease on the windscreen. The windscreen wipers don't work. Visibility is near to zero feet. The jeep lurches from rock to rock.
"We will find you a plot of land up here on the mountain," says Fidel with an expansive gesture at whatever lies behind the mist. "You must return. We will help build you a house."
Victoria gives up on watching the invisible track and attempts to hug me over the back of the front passenger seat.
I pray and cling to the drums.

I AM TIRED AND I WANT TO GO HOME

SANTA ELENA FULL MOON PARTY: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
1 a.m. and the Chavez glee club leader gears himself up for a further vocal. My male kidnapper, Fidel, is driving his drums on cruise control. Victoria is his partner in my kidnapping. Victoria is total energy, minimum direction. Her dance partners are a booze bottle and a pair of gourd rattles. She wears skin tight pants. Her arse twitches to the beat. I long for bed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

FREEDOM AND EQUALITY

SANTA ELENA: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
A plump lady in her sixties tells me that the Revolution will give Venezuelans the freedoms and equality enjoyed by Cubans for the past fifty years. Any minor difficulties in Cuba have been caused by the Blockade. I note a similarity between this gathering and the young of the Cuban Revolution's ruling class: none of the guests are black.

ALL HAIL THE SOCIALIST PARADISE

SANTA ELENA: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
We are in a clearing outside a log and wattle house midway up a mountain. The house belongs to a painter and his wife. We sit in a circle round a log fire. The moon is full. A mediocre guitarist bellows songs in praise of President Chavez. I am reminded of the sixties and Ibiza full-moon parties. Ibiza it was smoke and acid. Here it is booze and the Socialist Revolution.

KIDNAPPED

SANTA ELENA: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
Tonight is full moon.
I am kidnapped and dragged up a mountain in a small Japanese jeep. My kidnappers are Venezuelans employed by a Department of the Venezuelan Government. They teach the indigenous people how to live where the indigenous people have been living for a few thousand years and how to make indigenous artifacts that are saleable to tourists.
Or they teach the indigenous people how to vote for President Chavez in next month's Constitutional referendum. Take your choice.
One of my kidnappers is a fake Government employee.
In reality, he is a musician, a great drummer. We stop off on the way up the mountain to collect his drums.
We also collect two crates of beer and a couple of bottles of rum.
Our destination is a housing community of what I term Marginales. The houses are idiosyncratic self-build with help. The road is suitable for athletic goats.

RASTAFARIS

SANTA ELENA: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 24
I am eating a vast serving of chili prawns in a Chinese restaurant. A very fat black man chivies a family of twelve to a long table. The man has Rasta hair and wears a wool hat knitted in the Ethiopian national colours. Earlier today I noticed two women with Rasta hair. The women were young and white and carried backpacks. Presumable they were tourists.
I was copy-editing in Uruguay last month. The copy editor queried a paragraph on Rastafaris. She was casting doubt as to whether readers would have sufficient information to understand what I had written.
Perhaps I am stupid in presuming that people seek information. The web is at hand. They don't need books. Rastafaris are a common sight.

Rastafaris believe that Haile Selassie is God Incarnate.
Haile Selassie was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
He was a murderous autocrat.
He was also an Amhara, Ethiopia's ruling tribe.
One of the oddities of the Amharas is their belief that they are the only white race. Amharas refer to those they consider black as either slaves or outcasts.
Jamaica is the birth place of the Rastafari religion.
Haile Selassie is an odd God for black Jamaicans.

BECOMING A MILLIONAIRE

SANTA ELENA: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 23
I sit on a stool on the sidewalk and chat with the diamond and gold dealer. I remark that I have been riding through Brazil and ask the exchange rate for the Brazilian Real.
He gives me the rate in Stirling and in Euros.
The dollar rate?
He is nervous of dollars.
And Bolivars?
Bolivars have no value. They are an illusion created by the Government. "We have a crazy Government. Chavez is crazy."
He fetches a couple of cold beers from inside the office.
I am trying to get a handle on prices. What does a beer cost?
"Nothing," he says - not much help.
We talk more, the economy, inflation.
It takes a while but finally he realises that I wish to change Reals for Bolivars.
How many Reals?
One thousand.
We go indoors and sit each side of a desk in a small office. I put my Reals on the desk. He fingers them, checks a few against the light. "Two million, seven hundred thousand Bolivars."
Two million, seven hundred thousand is too large a number on which to cast doubt. "Correct," I say.
I am a millionaire.

TALKING VENEZUELAN

SANTA ELENA: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 23
I have a thick wad of Brazilian Reals. What is a Real worth in Bolivars? The hotel owner tells me to check the High Street. I am a little nervous changing money anywhere but a bank. Venezuelan banks don't change money.
A dealer in gold and diamonds sits on the sidewalk outside his office. His tiny son, three at most, points to my bike: "Moto..."
The child takes my hand and leads me to the neighbouring garage.
"Moto," he repeats. He is pointing at a big Yamaha trail bike.
Is he suggesting that my Honda isn't a real bike?

LET'S BACK TRACK A LITTLE...

VENEZUELA: NOVEMBER 23 - DECEMBER 5
I felt uncomfortable when writing in Venezuela. It was a feeling familiar from Cuba and the same Cubans are present in Venezuela. I refer not to the happy go lucky, sleep with you for a bar of soap and a good meal Cubans with whom most tourists become familiar. I refer to those from the Ministry of the Interior - the political cops.
"They're everywhere," I am told in Santa Elena by a young woman journalist. "There's a physical education teacher at the primary school and there's a new hospital staffed entirely by Cubans. The hospital has everything. The Venezuelan doctors in the old State hospital have nothing. That's the message. Vote Chavez if you want to keep the new hospital. And the Cuban doctors get twice the pay of our doctors. There's even a Cuban in the office here at the Electricity Company. Why do we need a Cuban in the office? He's reporting on what people say." Cubans are practiced in reporting what people say.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

CIRCUMNAVIGATION

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA: FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6
I have done it! I have circumnavigated South America. There were times when I had doubts, times when I longed for the courage to give up and fly home. In those dark moments I drew strength from my wife, Bernadette. Other times were spectacular in beauty. Most memorable are the voyage through Chile's fjords and Carmen and Brian's estancia in Uruguay. For me, however, a journey is more people than nature. Graciela in Rio Grande heads the list, caring for an old man foolish enough to ride a bike on ice. I walk thanks to Pepe Gonzalez, peg-leg medic extraordinary. I enjoyed, through good and bad, the encouragement of my cousins in Bs As. Ming has been in the background, emailing humour. And I am fortunate in the thousands who have bothered to log on to this BLOG. To you all, my thanks.
Now for the Darien Gap...
Should I attempt a relay of dug out canoes?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT


CORO: SUNDAY, DECEMBER 3

I have been reluctant to write of my travels though Venezuela. I prefer to wait until I am in Cartagena, Colombia. Today is the referendum on Chavez and his new Constitution. I am staying in a small town of lovely Hispanic Colonial architecture 400 Ks west of Caracas. It is the only town I have visited since Santa Elena where strolling of an evening is safe.
Visit Venezuela? Why? Do you enjoy the high risk of being mugged? To this common danger, is added now an antipathy to and suspicion of foreigners. We are the capitalist enemy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

VISAS AND WICKED OFFICIALDOM

TO VENEZUELA: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 23
My guide book warns that a visa is obligatory for those entering Venezuela overland. Further requirements are a $75 banker's certificate and, for drivers, an International Driving Permit.
I possess none of these. I don't even have the original papers for the bike. Neither Brazilian nor Venezuelan officials give a damn. The Venezuelan immigration officer points out that the month I request will be insufficient if another truck hits me. She writes sixty days in my passport. The Customs Officer gives me a transit permit for the bike for the same period. Thirty minutes later I am in the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena. I have ridden 1600 kilometres in three days and need a cold beer and a good rest. The Hotel Lucretia is run-down but has a pool and the owner is flirtatious. I am content.

MY SISTER-IN-LAW IS IN BOA VISTA

BOA VISTA: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 23
The owner of the Hotel Colonial dispatches the help to lead me across town to the Honda agency where I have a new rear tyre fitted and buy a new pair of goggles. Back at the hotel I discover that my sister-in-law has dropped by. She has a document for me. Bernadette has three sisters. All three are working in London.
I question the receptionist at length in a language he doesn't understand. He replies in a language I don't understand. However the Spanish for sister-in-law is too similar to the Portuguese for confusion.
With a document?
Yes, she had a document.
Is she coming back?
He doesn't believe so.
Could this be the woman who drew me into the Cathedral last night? Is she a religious sister-in-law, our relationship confirmed by the Spirit?
Was the document a Papal Bull?
Or a Plenary Indulgence?
Such mysteries usefully occupy the mind when riding a long straight road in the heat.

BOA VISTA, FUN CITY (WHEN OPEN)

BOA VISTA: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 22
I ride into Boa Vista at dusk and follow signs to the historic centre. A main street is full of lights and kiosks down the central division selling cold beer and cold sodas. I ask an elderly gentleman for directions to a hotel. He directs me to a five star snake pit. I find a two star hotel on the next block, The Colonial, 40 Reales. The room is paneled in dark varnished wood. The towel is small. I bug spray and shower then collapse and sleep an hour. The hour is too long. I walk back to the great street with the kiosks and the lights. Everything has closed except for the Catholic Cathedral. The architecture is modern-peculiar. So is the service. A chubby white priest in spectacles appeals to the congregation to get with the Spirit. The congregation gets - arms waving above their heads, chanting and swaying.
Wow, where am I? Does the Pope know this stuff is going on?
A woman has grabbed my hand and drawn me into a chanting swaying group.
The priest is summoning the Spirit of the Holy Ghost. "Espirutu," he cries, "Espirutu, Espirutu..."
"Espirutu," cries the congregation "Espirutu, Espirutu..."
There is more, of course, but in Portuguese and I don't do Portuguese. Nor am I good at swaying and waving my arms in the air. Such behaviour isn't British.
I escape and watch football on TV at a corner kiosk serving fruit juice. Brazil are playing Uruguay. I support Uruguay out of loyalty to my dear cousin, Carmen, and because I don't much like Brazil. Four motorcycle cops pull in to check the score.

BRAZIL INVENTED ICE HOCKEY

TO BOA VISTA: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 22
I am surprised at passing a monument acclaiming Brazil's invention of ice hockey. I look back and see a notice. The monument marks the equator. Why with an ice hockey stick projecting from a boulder?
I park and wait for a kindly truck or car driver to take my photograph. I wait twenty minutes in the heat. This is not heat that sun lovers enjoy basking in. It is a heat that makes you long for air conditioning.
I run with sweat. To hell with waiting. A photograph of the bike at the monument will suffice.
I should carry a tripod and read the camera manual so that I can photograph myself.
Or travel with Ming.
I would like to be able to down load the photograph of the hockey stick onto this BLOG.
I am writing this in Santa Elena, Venezuela. Venezuelan computers don't download photographs - not the half dozen terminals I've tried.

MOSTLY DIABOLICAL

TO BOA VISTA: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 22
The road to Boa Vista comes in three grades: reasonable, awful and diabolical. The first and last sections are reasonable together with 80 Ks in the Indian Reserve. The rest is potholed. Try slaloming the potholes - three serves max then Wham! You've hit an elephant trap. Two hits and you give up slaloming. Creep is the only method. Better still, find a local driver to follow. On a bike that gets you grit in your eyes. I hit one pothole hard and lost the suitcase off the back rack. Two rubbers had parted. Clambering out of potholes wore the tread off my rear tyre.

BRAZIL FOR OBESITY

TO BOA VISTA: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 21
I take a room in an inn off the highway in Presidente Figueiredo. The room has a double bed with a good mattress, clean bathroom, hot water. Room rate is 12 Brit pounds, less than half the cost of a bug-infested cabana at an Eco lodge an insane distance up an Amazon tributary.
Before taking a shower, I hit the room with insecticide. Five minutes under the shower and I am ready to make a body count: six mosquitoes and one fly dead on the bed sheet.
I walk down to the town centre, drink cold beer, eat a cheese and ham toasty and people watch. A child attempts a runner to the ice cream parlor across the square. The young mother jerks the child back by the arm. The mother is not happy. I feel for her. In Brazil distances are so great, every small town has the feel of being the end of a line. I see it in this young mother's face and have seen it in the faces of other young women: a kid already, trapped, imprisoned, no way out. She could have gone to Sao Paulo, had a career, become someone (maybe).
Now she is condemned to be a mother and a man's chattel. A man who doesn't bother coming directly home from work. More fun to be had out with the boys. She only twenty and already waiting...screw it, eat another slice of chocolate cake.
No wonder so many Brazilian women are obese. Misery does it.

GOD HAS A MESSAGE FOR US

TO BOA VISTA: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 21
God has filled the rain forest with bugs that bite, reptiles that bite, animals that bite and various lethal plants. God is sending us a message. The forest is the planet's lungs - KEEP OUT. This applies to both Brazilian farmers and Eco tourists demanding a real-life jungle experience.
I am riding in late evening towards concrete sidewalks, a paved square and air conditioning. I dwell for a moment on Victoria (she of the boat trip from Porto Velho). She is fighting for her life in a hut on the swampy shores of a lake 200 Ks up an Amazon tributary. Safely home in Cadiz, Spain, she will tell everyone what a great time she had.
Great for masochists...

STORM IN A GAZEBO

TO BOA VISTA: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 22
My want-to-be host makes a run for a cabana. He opens the door, closes it quickly and dashes to the next cabana. I guess that the first has a leaky roof. Wind blasts the downpour in under the gazebo roof. I tip the table and shelter beneath it. Mosquitoes hate wind. My table is the only shelter. Drenched or devoured? That is the question.
My host returns triumphant. He has killed a snake. He drapes it over a chair. This is a man who wishes to persuade me to spend the night.
Rain has stirred the green sludge in the swimming pool. The lawn hasn't been cut in weeks. We are surrounded by trees. Bomb the place for a month with an insecticide cocktail and the bugs would giggle and dance a samba.
Am I ready to see the cabana?
No, thanks. The rain is slackening. I'll be moving on.

HEAVENLY ASSAULT

NORTH TO BOA VISTA: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 21
I ride back to Manaus and finally find the straight on road to Boa Vista which is a right angle left off what is clearly the main highway. I race a rain storm for 60 Ks before pulling in to a roadside restaurant for shelter. The owner insists on showing me a cabana out the back. We are mid way to the cabana when the storm explodes. We dash for shelter in a Brazilian poolside gazebo - tin roof, four posts, concrete base, garden table, four chairs. No gap between lightning and thunder - we are the focus of the assault. Is a tin roof sound protection?

Friday, November 23, 2007

ITACOATIARA

EAST ALONG THE AMAZON: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20
Itacoatiara is a nice town, clean, tidy and safe. A double row of trees attempt to shade the main avenue which leads to the river bank. Teenagers in school uniform ride bikes and motor scooters. The Hotel Amazon stands above the river. A big freighter lies at anchor over near the far bank. A single with bath and a/c is less than 10 pounds. You can sit on the terrace and look down on the river and watch the ships and boats. Beer is cold. A variety of river fish are on the menu. Not a bad place to chill for a couple of days...

STRAIGHT ON

EAST ALONG THE AMAZON: TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 20
The road north from Manaus divides at the city outskirts. Ask any Brazilian for Boa Vista and he will point and gesture and say, "Straight, straight..."
He or she will tell you this within a hundred metres of the police post that marks the division of the road. Straight on takes you parallel with the Amazon.
For Boa Vista, turn left ninety degrees.
No, there isn't a sign.
I headed straight on at 6.30 a.m. I would have known that I was on the wrong road had I seen the sun. Mist clung to the trees and I wore my leather jacket against the chill and damp. The knees of my trousers were soaked. I wiped my glasses every few minutes.
At around 8.30. the sun broke through the mist. I remained in self-denial for a further few kilometres before pulling into a gas station. "Boa Vista?"
The pump attendant points back the way I've come. "Straight, straight..."
I show him the map.
He can't read a map.
A truck pulls in. I show the map to the driver. I am headed for: "A nice town," the driver says. "Clean and safe."
A further 160 Ks to see a small town on the Amazon River, Itacoatiara: a nice town, a clean town, a safe town?
Sure, why not?

BEACH VOLLEY BALL - SPORT OF THE PEOPLE

THE HOTEL PALACE, MANAUS. NOVEMBER 14 - 19
Guests at the Hotel Palace in Manaus enjoy TV at breakfast. The breakfast is good and comes free with the room. TV programs are either cartoons or beach volley ball. Beach volley ball is the sport of the people. The cost is minimal: a patch of sand, ball, net - and designer shades.

ART WORLD CAFÉS SUCK

MANAUS: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 19
There is a type of bar, café, restaurant on the periphery of the art world. Maybe it includes a gallery or is owned by the younger sister of a critic. It is a place where knowing the help by name gets your served less slowly - though probably with the wrong order - and you pay more for being an insider somewhere a sensible person wouldn't want to be inside.
A New York editor took me to such a place some years back. I recall that the waiter was a Michael and wore a red shirt.
Such places are an invention of the US. A gypsy society without roots, North Americans crave the illusion of belonging and of friendships - hence their habit of abbreviating first names. My brother, Antony, becomes a Tone while I am Si.
The desire to belong fosters restaurant guides which our New York friends study eagerly to discover what place is IN? Then they trek right across town to eat the same food they could have eaten on their own block and pay twice as much.
Celebrity cooks are another menace.
I enjoy cooking. I read cookery books and watch cookery programs on TV.
I do not want to shake the hand of a celebrity cook at his restaurant. He should be in the kitchen. I want to eat his food and enjoy the company of my companions.
What started this rant?
The Café Galeria do Lago on the Square in Manaus...

INWARD LOOKING

MANAUS: MONDAY, NOVEMER 19
A couple of middle-aged bikers park a big, decal-clad Yamaha trail bike on the sidewalk outside Armando´s Bar. I am drinking a cold beer. I ask how the road is to Boa Vista. They tell me the road is badly potholed. These are Brazilians, inward looking. They don´t ask what bike I ride or where I have come from or where I am headed. A minute kitten stalks a cowardly dachshund. The dachshund retreats between my feet.

Monday, November 19, 2007

PERFECT CITY SQUARE

MANAUS: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18
I sat in the theatre square this evening and watched dancers perform a program of folkloric ballet on an outdoor stage. The dancers had more charm than expertise. The Amazonian music, vocal and instrumental, was a delight. How can a people who produce such beautiful music delight in such loathsome pop?
As to the dancing - I am reminded of how difficult is the art of choreography. The human body is limited in its movements. Only the greatest choreographers avoid a repetition of motion or gesture that becomes mundane. The greatest performance of all? For me, the Cuban Ballet's version of Swan Lake. Sensual sadness is a winner and only the Cubans make me weep - this from an addict who has seen Swan Lake performed in Kiev and Saint Petersberg and Moscow and London.
As to the square in Manaus, ballet is only one attraction on Sunday evening. Toddlers speed on electric trikes, actors perform between the twin stairs, a double carriage bus modeled as a Toy Town train beeps on a circuit, the beer is cold and the café on the corner serves smoked fish tarts.
Take ten degrees off the temperature and Manaus would be a good place to live.

FOOD WITH THE CONSISTENCY OF SHARP SAND



MANAUS: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 18
Most days I wake at 5.45. Today I sleep through to 9. I deserve a hangover. I feel grand. Nor have I suffered from cramp since taking the homeopathic pills bought in Porta Grossa - more than three weeks.
Sundays the main shopping street in downtown Manaus becomes a vast open air restaurant. I find a table. The cook brings me a plate piled mostly with things that I don't want to eat. A yellow pap is revolting. What I hoped were fried potatoes are a different and mildly unpleasant stringy tuber - and there is a flower ground from mandioca (what ever that is) that has the consistency of sharp sand. I eat a little and think of my friend and writer, Cliff Irving. Cliff took a five day trip down the Amazon and decamped after the first twenty-four hours. Was it mosquitoes, or the sameness of the jungle? Or the food? Above is a photograph of the food I left on my plate.

DRUNK AS A SKUNK - DO SKUNKS DRINK?



theatre of amazonia,
font and side
MANAUS: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17

I set out for the theatre and a concert this evening. I had high cultural intentions. My mistake was in sitting at a sidewalk table outside Bar Armando. I was hijacked by a young copywriter and his girlfriend in marketing. The girlfriend is a local girl. He is from San Paolo. They have been enjoying an Internet relationship for a while. The physical meeting has gone well. A squad of large empty beer bottles parade on their table. I ignore the warning. A few further beers and I welcome their invitation to visit the girlfriend's mother's bar over in the new city. The mother is in remission after chemo. Her bar has fifty tables outdoors on two levels and serves great fish. The mother judges her daughter drunk. The daughter is in no state to argue the point. Nor is the boyfriend. Nor am I. We sit next to a Japanese/Brazilian photo journalist and her novio, a print journalist specialising in and campaigning on ecology. What do we discuss?
Don't be dumb. This is Brazil. There are only two subjects. Endemic corruption and incompetent Government.
The two journalists drive me back to the hotel at 1 p.m. They warn that the area is dangerous. It is the area through which I have been wandering over the past few days.
I apologise to the copywriter and his girlfriend. This was their last night together and I was probably boring and obsessive.

A FEW COMPLAINTS


MANAUS: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17
I am in love with the Theatre square. Pollarded trees surround the square and shade stone benches. The pavement is a mosaic of white and black squiggles. A monument to the five continents commands the centre. There are joyful juxtapositions: a short-time hotel, a strip joint, the restored house of a music historian, a church, a bar with tables on the narrow sidewalk and in the road.
I have a few complaints.
Office buildings block the breeze from the river.
Musicians play competitively inharmonious noise on an outdoor stage.
Brazilians have little grace in their movements and few are beautiful - I compare with Cuba and the Dominican Republic. On the boat I found only one woman to photograph for her looks. A beauty? No, but attractive.
Perhaps all the beautiful people live on the coast...

THIS IS AMAZONIA

theatre square,
monument to the continents


MANAUS: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15
I am invited to dinner by a young couple, friends of friends made in Porto Velho. We drive along a bluff above the Amazon. Apartment blocks for the rich line the shore side of the road. Apartments sell for upward of a million dollars. Where does the money come from? Hush...
We eat delicious fish at an outdoor restaurant above a river beach. Pale skinned dancers prance on stage. The dancers are dressed in Hollywood jungle outfits: bare feet, feather headresses, mini skirts.
I imagine a true indigenous family straying from the jungle in their canoe. What would they they think of the dancers and apartment blocks?
My young host claims that Brazilians are lazy. The country is so rich, people expect it to do the work for them.
He is a good Catholic and works for charities in his spare time. He ignores red lights and drives to my hotel the wrong way up a one-way street.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

WHY BRAZIL NEEDS LAWYERS

MANAUS: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 17
I asked a senior economist in the Department of Planning and Development why lawyers were in such demand in Brazil.
He said, "To negotiate the bribes," and smiled sweetly.

MOTO HONDA da AMAZONIA

making motos


MANAUS: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16
I am taken on a tour of the Honda bike factory. My guides are a Japanese Brazilian, Mario Okubo, and Francisca Viana - both from the Department of Institutional Relations (what ever that is). Manaus is a 1000 miles from anywhere. It is in the middle of the Amazon forest. Surely an odd place to site a vast factory? Taxes are the explanation. Manaus is a tax free zone. The Honda factory employs 8000 workers in three shifts. All employees, directors or on the assembly line, wear the same white overalls or coats with HONDA on the breast pocket. A new bike comes off the assembly line every 50 seconds - 6000 bikes a day, 13 models. Bikes are exported down river to more than 60 countries and Honda sells 1,200,000 bikes a year inside Brazil in a market of 1,500,000. That is one BIG market slice. It is also a further similarity with the US: Brazil has an internal market capable of sustaining manufacturing.
Workers on the assembly line earn 800 Reales a month - well over double the minimum wage. They receive pensions, injury insurance and medical benefits. I watch the assembly line. The workers don't appear hurried or pressured. What would I know?
Mario Okubo tells me that China is the threat. No country can compete with Chinese labour prices. The Chinese are undercutting home manufacturing throughout the developing world. They are forcing factories into bankruptcy. They are nullifying twenty years of slow improvement in living standards. The Chinese Government is Communist and holds dear the interest of the workers. Yeah, yeah, yeah...

DADDY

daddy (centre) with child



MANAUS: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16
I rode out to the Honda factory this afternoon. My bike met her Daddy: Manoel Antonio Libório dos Santos, Director of Production. Manoel seemed shocked by her condition. He summoned a cosmetic surgeon and manicurist. They changed the rear wheel and the drive sprocket and the gas tank and the mirrors. They wanted to change the fairing for the rear wheel. I protested. We were hit up the backside by three trucks. The black web of repairs are equivalent to German duelling scars.

Friday, November 16, 2007

STUDENTS IN LANGUAGE, EXPERT IN CINICISM

students - CNA


MANAUS: THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15
I have avoided posting my experiences in Porto Velho. I need distance to clarify my thoughts. I took classes most days at the CNA language academy. English is a prerequisite for any good job in modern Brazil. To learn English, a student must attend private school (CNA has 1200 students). Only the privileged can afford private education. Great way to insure that the advantaged remain advantaged.
Students I worked with were at an advanced level. I sat in class with them and we questioned each other. They learnt of my trip. I learnt their opinions of the problems facing Brazil. Most problems centered on endemic corruption.
I talked with some 120 students. Business Administration narrowly won over law as the most popular degree. Psychology came third (mostly women students). Medicine came fourth (also mostly women). One lone math student gave me hope. None studied science. History seems absent from University curricula.
One student intended working in Government in the hope of changing something. The rest were scornful of Public Service. What ever your intentions, you would soon get sucked into the quagmire of corruption. Everything in Government was corrupt. Brazil is the most corrupt country in the Americas.
A massive new hydro electric plant will be built in Porto Velho. Construction will absorb 50,000 new employees. The city is already short of hospital beds and schools. So far the Government has approved the building of two giant new shopping malls.
I am told this amidst much laughter.
I report what I am told.
In the future I will write at greater length.
Suffice to add that the students and teachers were charming, intelligent and good company and that the administrator, Aya Imajo, is a treasure to know.
I could add a dozen names - Jorge, Daniel and Natasha with whom I spent a splendid evening at a fish restaurant. What did we discuss? Politics, corruption - and so it continued. Deeply depressing....

GAY IN MANAUS

MANAUS: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 14
I sit at a café facing the Theatre of the Amazon, sip a cold beer and try to forget the Japanese restaurant bill. The theatre is glorious. So is the plaza in front of the theatre. I watch a dozen clearly gay young men hug and kiss and hold hands. Perhaps Manaus is the Gay capital of Brazil (I haven't been to Sao Paulo or Rio). The guys are enjoying themselves and seem unafraid of being mugged. Watching them is a pleasure. So is watching three young women at a neigboring table. One of the women smiles at me. Men are errecting Christmas decorations. The woman probably mistakes me for Papa Noel (Father Christmas). I order a second cold beer and forgive the theatre for showing documentary movies that I don't want to watch. I will attend a classical concert on Saturday night. Meanwhile I might as well have another cold beer.

MEETING OF THE WATERS


MANAUS: WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 14
The water of the the Madiera River is yellow. The Amazon is blue/black. The meetings of the water draws a line right down the river. I would post a photograph. However I am in Manaus. Manaus is upriver 1000 miles from anywhere. The internet conection flows against the current. Some emails become exhausted at travelling and give up. Posting photographs is for optimists.
I am staying at the Palace Hotel by the Cathedral. I stand under the shower for thirty minutes. The grime of the voyage flows down the drain. I am in Manaus to introduce my Honda to its makers at the Honda factory and to hear opera in the Theatre of the Amazon. The theatre is hosting a documentary film festival. Tomorrow is a national holiday. Honda will be closed. I search for a restaurant. I am used to Argentine hours. Eating dinner before 10 p.m. is an oddity. Manaus is different. The only place open is Japanese. Every other nation has worked at perfecting the cooking of rice so that the grains are seperate. Japanese have perfected gluey rice with which they can sculpt in pretty designs. The Japanese have also perfected the art of serving the minimum amount of food for the maximum amount of money. My dinner is inadequate and viciously over-priced.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

BRITS ARE BAD AT GOD

god girl



RIVER BOAT: NOVEMBER 12/14
An atractive young woman enters my cabin and sits on the floor. I am seated on my bunk. The woman is in her early twenties. She tells me that God is love and that God is on my side. She tells me that God is patient: he will wait for me to come to him. She tells me this at great length. For punctuation, she kisses my hand. I understand one word in ten - however the meaning seems clear.
Brits are embarassed by fervour and we keep God private. Not knowing where to look, I look into her eyes and attempt to portray understanding and spiritual oneness. Ten minutes of looking into her eyes leaves me exhausted. The woman kisses my hand once again and departs. I sit on my bunk and watch the jungle pass. Jungle is soothing at a safe distance. I like trees and green is a calming colour.

WORRIES

RIVER BOAT: NOVEMBER 12/14
A boy spends much of his time with Diego, Victoria and myself. He is fourteen, tall for his age, good-looking and inteligent. He speaks good Spanish. He learnt the language in Lima, Peru, where he lived for nine months. Now he is travelling to Guiana where he wants to learn English. He travels alone and never talks of any family. He changes three times a day and is always smartly dressed in good sports clothes. One of his T shirts is Australian. Diego teaches him magic tricks. He learns quickly. We wonder where he gets his money. We worry that he sells himself.

FRIARS AND WAR CRIMINALS

MADEIRA RIVER: NOVEMBER 12/14
Breakfast (toasted sandwich) in company with an eighty-year-old German resident in Brazil since 1949. The German was in the SS during World War 2. He wasn't aware of atrocities. Germans didn't know.
Of course not.
Particularly those serving in the SS.
The German army was the only army to be free of barrack room gossip.
The German was captured by Americans in the Spring Offensive of 1945. He did not cut off his SS insignia from his uniform. An American officer cut off the insignia as memorablia.
The German came to Brazil immediately on being released from de-Nazification camp.
In Brazil he had an operation on his nose. The anaesthatist asked how many Jews the German gassed. The German laughs at the memory of such a stupid question. Germans knew nothing of gassing Jews.
The German has been recounting this version of events for so many years that he may believe it.
However he senses that Victoria and I believe him to be a liar.
Not only a liar, we believe him to be a piece of moral shit.
He moves away and keeps his distance for the remainder of the voyage.
Later we are joined by a tall thin Brazilian with a grey beard. He is a Fransican friar and is waiting a visa for Angola. A rain storm thrashes the river in the afternoon. The Friar takes a perfect photograph of lightning forking through black cloud. The friar is delighted with his photograph. He smiles as he tells us that knowing when to press the shutter button is a matter of faith.

BRAZIL POP IS VILE


diego with camera
victoria with cold beer

MADEIRA RIVER: NOVEMBER 12/14
Brazilian pop may be an aquired taste - though you would have to live for many years. Songs have an afinity with the jungle in that each song is indistinguishable from the previous song and will be indistinguishable from the next. Songsters are backed by blond or dyed-blond women uncloathed in mini shorts and bras. The women prance rather than dance. Their actions are ugly and have little to do with the beat. Every few minutes they bend over and waggle their arses at the cameras.
Diego believes that Brazil exports all its good music.
Or is good music illegal on river boats?
I am typing this in a Manaus internet café.
The music is charming.

AMAZON JUNGLE



east bank, west bank
MADEIRA RIVER: NOVEMBER 12/14
The Madeira River is a small stream when compared to the Amazon. The water is yellow. We are seldom further than 60 metres from one bank or the other. I wake at dawn and watch, through the part open cabin door, jungle slip by on the West bank. Jungle is green and mostly trees. I get out of bed and circle the wheelhouse to see the East bank. The East bank is jungle. East bank jungle is indistignguishable from west bank jungle. I go back to bed. I wake again at 8 a.m. and look at jungle.. The jungle is similar to the jungle I watched at dawn. I brush my teeth, wash and go find my Spanish friends, Diego and Victoria. They are watching jungle. They have slept badly. We watch jungle together for an hour. I ask Victoria whether 9.30 a.m. is too early for a cold beer. Victoria says that a cold beer is desirable when watching jungle. We drink a cold beer every two hours. At night I swallow a Parasitimol every two hours.
This is sensible jungle discipline.
Meals?
Yes, food is provided. Medium loathsome is an apt description. We make do with equally loathsome toasted ham and cheese sandwiches from the bar. Sometimes we photograph jungle. The difficulty is in knowing which bit of jungle to photograph.
And we try to ignore the Brazilian pop blaring through a massive bank of speakers..

MADEIRA RIVER BOAT

DOS HERMANOS: NOVEMBER 12/14
I have been on a river boat for the past three days. I have a cabin. The cabin has two berths and no sheets. I was promised sheets. I was also promised a fan. I have a fan. The fan doesn't work. I meet a charming Spanish couple who have hammocks slung on the upper deck amongst one hundred or so other hammocks. The Spaniards' hammocks have mosquito nets. They have a solar cigarette lighter, a variety of mini lanterns, knives, forks, spoons, plates. They lend me a sheet. I store their cameras under my bunk at night. I have matresses on both berths. I put both matresses on the lower berth. I tie one end of a shoelace to the door handle and the other end to my knife. I jam the knife in the bulkhead. The shoelace holds the door open a foot or so. The door funnels cool air off the river into the cabin. I sleep an hour, then thread my way between hammocks from my cabin behind the wheelhouse to the lavatories in the stern. A woman cleans and unblocks the lavatories each morning. Get up early and you may even enjoy a clean seat.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

DEFROCKED BAPTIST IS A SAINT

passenger ship to Manaus


PORTO VELHO: MONDAY, NOVEMBER 6
I was fortunate in being treated by a one legged orthopaedic surgeon in Rio Grande. Now I am in the hands of a one-eyed, defrocked, Baptist Minister. Again I am very fortunate. John drives me down to the river. A boat will sail on Saturday. I reserve a cabin. Meanwhile John invites me to teach school. He teaches English at a private language academy. As a US Baptist missionary, he earned 9,000 reales a month. Defrocked, he has joined the Brazilian economy and earns 1200 reales a month. 380 reales is the minimum wage.
Can a family live on 380 reales a month?
They can exist, just...

CASH AND DEFROCKED BAPTISTS

defrocked and never frocked


PORTO VELHO: MONDAY, November 6
Rains are late. The Madeira River is some thirty feet below its high water mark. I am offered passage on a steel cargo barge pushed by a wooden tug. The tug is painted white and has two decks and a tiny wheelhouse up top. It resembles an accessory to a doll's house. I need to buy a hammock to sling on the barge. The agent says the voyage to Manaus will take four days.
Are there any river boats with cabins?
No, there are no boats.
I open my travel guide. No boats?
One boat. But it only sails every two weeks. The boat left yesterday. I will have to wait two weeks - or travel on the barge.
I am suspicious of this information. The bank below is lined with river boats. Surely one of them sails to Manaus?
The last cash machine that accepted my VISA card was in a shopping mall in Brasilia. I am down to fifty reales in cash - at 3.65 to the pound.
The concierge at the hotel directs me to a bank with an ATM machine. The machine scorns my card. I am on foot. I walk from bank to bank. I even take a 15 reales cab ride out to a supermarket with ATM machines. None accept my card. I am desperate. My ankle has ballooned and hurts like hell. I try a Western Union office. In walks a burly citizen of the US, early forties, one glass eye. He is a defrocked Baptist minister. His dad is a Baptist missionary in town. His brother is a Baptist missionary in town. His sin is to have divorced a blond from the Bible Belt and married a dark-skinned Brazilian. His dad and his mum and his brother and his blond, enormously fat sister-in-law no longer speak to him.

END OF THE ROAD

PORTO VELHO: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5
I ride into Porto Velho through a rain storm and book into the Hotel Centro, big room with twin beds and a/c. Porto Velho is the end of the road. It is built on the eastern bank of the River Madeira. The Madeira runs north into the Amazon at Manaus. South it forms the border between Brazil and Bolivia.

GOOD FARMING IS BEAUTIFUL

RIDING WEST: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5
Good farming is beautiful. I think of those small fields in Europe, slopes smoothed by centuries of toil and passion. And I think of those vast fields in the US, not a single tree planted, no attempt to please the eye The soil is beggared; natural nutrients are replaced by greater and greater quantities of chemical fertilizer; top soil beomes increasingly friable; a gust of wind blows it away.
Most farms in Brazil looked cared for. Arrable fields are countour ploughed to protect the soil. On ranches, tress shade the cattle. Sadly there is a long stretch at the approach to Porto Vehlo that resmbles a war zone. Every tree has been felled, jagged stumps form the kernel for termite mounds.

Friday, November 09, 2007

STUDENTS OF PORTO VELHO

private education - CNA computer room


PORTO VELHO: FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9
Larissa of Porto Velho has left a comment at the BLOG, GATEWAY TO THE AMAZON. Comments are valuable to me, both as a writer, and because I treasure the effort and courage demanded to publicly comment in a foreign language. I have been priviledged in Porto Velho to converse with some 100 students. The students have opened to me a very small window into the Brazil that lies below the facade we tourists experience. I entered Brazil in a state of total ignorance. Without the students I would have remained ignorant. They have been patient and very kind and have permitted me to pose questions that many may have found impertinent or painful.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

BUTTERFLY AND ALL THAT

ROAD WEST: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5
Early mornings are misty and cool and beautiful. Trees appear out of the mist, miracles of survival in an agricultural landscape of cattle ranch and freshly sewn serials. A small fluttering of yellow butterfly is remarkable only because these are the first I have noticed in two weeks of travel through Brazil. Once noticed, the scarcity of butterfly nags. And bird life is minimal - none of the doves and pods of small black birds on the road side, partridge, quail, to all of which I became accustomed in Uruguay. The road enters a stretch of forest. A small animal with a ringed tail darts across the road. Later, in a second stretch of forest, I spot a plump red animal with fine legs, size of a medium dog, possibly a deer. Orange, single-seater spray aircraft are common. Do orange planes spray Agent Orange?

A SMALL PLEASANT TOWN

ROAD WEST: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4
Brazilians improve the further west I ride. So does the food. I pull off the highway into a small town this evening. Nondescript would be a polite description of the architecture. Sidewalks are tatty, so are the road surfaces. The grass in the square hasn't been cut in a year and is strewn with drink cans and plastic bags. Refuse blocks open drains. A couple of bikers and a woman walking a dog take time out to direct me to the only hotel. The hotel is run down or has never come up. However the staff (two women) are kind and helpful and work at communicating. I shower and change into clean clothes. The women point me to a restaurant where I devour great fish soup outdoors at the standard white plastic table. The temperature and humidity are a little high for perfect comfort. Not that I care. I am content. I have stumbled on a place of which I can find nothing good to write except that it has a pleasant and friendly feel. What joy after Brasilia...

BRAZIL BEEF REFUSED BY VULTURES

ROAD WEST: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4
Today I passed three dead cows on the side of the road - not a vulture in sight. Is Brazilian beef too tough for vultures? Or have Brazilian vultures immigrated to glut themselves on Peruvian garbage?

GREEN FIELD CATHEDRALS



ROAD WEST: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5


The agricultural wealth of Brazil is worshipped in green field cathedrals of galvanised tin.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

GATEWAY TO THE AMAZON

GATEWAY TO THE AMAZON: SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 5
I long for the Amazon. Enough of the café-free designer city, I am out of here. I reach Cuiba the first night. Ahead lies the Amazon Highway: 1500 kilometres to Porto Velho. I ride 800 Ks on Saturday, twelve hours in the saddle and a new personal record. Today I leave at 6 a.m. and face a mere 700 Ks. I halt every 150 Ks for a bottle of water and coffee and I break for Sunday lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the outskirts of a small town. The place is packed. Many groups are friends, relatives or neighbors - small farmers, many of them. I face a family at the next table: Mum, Dad, two daughters and a son. The daughters are early teens. The boy is a couple of years younger. He is a good-looking kid with fair, sun-streaked hair. He sits slouched deep in his chair. Parents will recognize the attitude. Why did you bring me here? You must hate me. Why did you bother having me?
The girls finish eating first and find school friends to chat with.
The boy sinks deeper into his chair.
The parents face each other diagonally across the table. They have nothing to say to each other. Dad finally reads Mum something off the label on a big bottle of Coke. What ever he reads fails to elicit a response.
The boy leaves the table.
Dad shifts seats to sit directly opposite Mum.
Shifting seats doesn’t help.
He gets up and pays the bill at the cashier’s counter.
Had Bernadette been there, she would have kicked me under the table and told me not to stare.
I know I stare. Staring is what writers do. People interest us.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE...

BRASILIA: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31
Brazilians in Brazil either whisper or shout. Their language sounds brutal. At first I presumed that they were quarrelling. However their use of language is mirrored in their behavior. They show little courtesy.
I wondered whether this perception was a misconception arising from my lack of Portuguese. My ankle resembles a football. This evening I take my crutches for a walk to the shopping center. In Buenos Aires, Argentineans would have made way for me, offered to help me at the curb. Here, in a walk of three hundred meters, I am twice jostled off the sidewalk.
Do Argentineans recognize that they are courteous?
Are Brazilians aware of being impolite?

TAWDRY CROWN OF THORNS

BRASILIA: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31
The Metropolitan Cathedral in Brasília stands on an island surrounded by urban thru-ways. The Cathedral is built in the shape of a crown. The design is drawn from the Crown of Thorns. The image is trite. The building is weak. I long for the majestic simplicity of a 16th century Christian/Islamic dome. And I could do without the thru-ways. Thru-ways fail as aids to contemplation.

DREAM OF GREENERY

BRASILIA: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31
The dead grass and red earth of parkland Brasilia depresses me. Professor Lucio Costa was the city’s designer. Did he fail to consider the months of drought? Or did he imagine an irrigation system greening his open spaces? People would delight in the swish of irrigation sprayers. The city would be cooler. The water is available. Brasilia overlooks a vast artificial lake. What do I know? I am merely an old Brit passing through…

ONLY GAYS READ BOOKS

BRASILIA: WEDNESDASY, OCTOBER 31
In her nightmares, Mrs. Thatcher must have imagined British Embassies peopled with men such as the Mexican Cultural attaché, men who read books, attend concerts, discuss ideas. The Cultural attaché suggests a historian I should seek out when next in Mexico City. I doubt that the charming young lady with a degree in Business Administration who manages the British Council in Brasilia could name a historian. For Brits, culture is suspect. Read books, you are presumed to be homosexual.
Sulman Rushdie is the most important and least parochial of modern British writers. His work touches on dangerous territory. Islamic fanatics have issued fatwa against him. He spent years unable to walk to the corner shop without police protection.
Our ex Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, recently remarked that he was incapable of reading Sulman Rushdie’s work. In any other European country, such a confession would make of the Minister a laughing stock.

DEAD BODIES AND MILLIONS OF FLIES

BRASILIA: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31
The Mexican Cultural attaché wishes me to believe that those about to be sacrificed were joyful at being honored.
The victims clambered up the pyramid. The steps are steep. The angle is designed to ensure that a dead body rolls back down.
At the summit, a priest gouged out the victim’s heart with a stone knife.
The temple must have stunk of blood and faeces – though I must check with a medical expert on this last point – if I can find an expert on hearts being gouged out. Does the victim’s bowels let go? Almost certainly.
Imagine the pyramid covered in blood and shit.
Imagine the stink
Then imagine the millions of flies. The flies must have risen in a black cloud each time a fresh body came tumbling down the steps and would have buzzed around the victims as they climbed. Honor? No, Sir. I am deeply sorry but tell me another story.
Witnesses from the period are unreliable: suggesting that being opened up with a stone knife was anything but a great experience got you opened up with a stone knife.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

THATCHER WOULD HATE HIM


BRASILIA: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 31
The Mexican Embassy in Brasilia is a fine example of brutalist architecture. An Olmec head in front of the embassy is equally brutalist and a brilliant juxtaposition. Lawns are watered and green. Barcelona chairs round a square glass-topped table in the atrium make a calm meeting place. My companion is the Mexican cultural attaché. He is immensely cultured. He does not have a degree in business administration. He teases that I have cast myself as an aging Kerouac. We discuss the Conquest and the Christianising of Mexico. He mentions the Madonna of Guadalupe. I am a fan of the Madonna. I wear two images of her round my neck and one lapel badge. The medallions were a gift from a Colombian wholesaler of wind-cured hams. A Mexican dentist's wife gave me the badge. They were gifts to keep me safe on my journey. I was wearing all three when the truck struck me. The Saint Christoper on the bike keys was a gift from my brother. I suffered one hell of a crash and survived.

BRITISH COUNCIL, WINDOW TO BRITISH CULTURE

BRASILIA: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31
In my youth, culture was considered an important aspect of the National image. Poets and erudite novelists represented British culture abroad as officers of the British Council. Lawrence Durell was of their number. THE ALEXANDRIAN QUARTET was a product of his posting to Egypt. Transfer to Cyprus produced the equally brilliant BITTER LEMONS. Today I visited the British Council offices in Brasilia. The manager is a young and exceedingly beautiful Brasilian woman. She boasts a degree in business management. She is a child of Thatcherism.

DEAD GRASS AND BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE

BRASILIA: MONDAY, OCTOBER 30
Brasilia is a creation of the Fifties. The architecture is concrete brutalist. Many of the buildings are magnificent. The designer envisioned these massive structures rising from soft green lawns. The effect would be superb. The lawns are dead straw liberally patched with bare red earth. The effect is not superb.

For those unfamiliar with brutalist architecture, my daughter out of law is a noted architectural photographer. Her web site features some of Britain's finest examples. http://www.sarahjduncan.com/

BRASILIA IS FOR CARS AND NOT FOR PEOPLE

BRASILIA: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 30
Brasilia is designed. Everything has its place acording to the master plan. Embassies are in the Embassy sector, hotels are in the hotel sector, Ministries are in a long line in the Ministry sector, so it goes, so it goes. Sectors are separated by great swathes of parkland. Understand the design and you can find your way - if you have a vehicle.
Corner shops and cafes don't feature on the grand design.
Arive fifteen minutes early for an apointmet, what do you do? Sit in the car and broil? Squat under a shade tree that provides too little shade?