Saturday, November 17, 2007


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.


making motos

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 (centre) with child

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 - CNA

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....


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.


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


god girl

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.


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.


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.


diego with camera
victoria with cold beer

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.


east bank, west bank
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.
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..


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


passenger ship to Manaus

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...


defrocked and never frocked

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.


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. 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.