Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nov 23rd – Sensational Salvador

Before Rio took over as Brazil's main city in the 18th century, Salvador de Bahia was the country's capital for over 200 years from the early days of the continent's exploration by the Portuguese. As a result, there's a tremendous array of colonial buildings to admire in the city's atmospheric historic centre. The varying state of preservation of the buildings tell the story of Salvador's long decline since the 18th century, and also of its tourist renaissance, as many of the city's bright pastel shades have been restored in the last couple of decades.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Salvador grew fabulously wealthy on the back of the sugar trade – a trade that was all based on slave labour. As the colony's capital and one of the closest parts of Brazil to Africa, Salvador became the main port for the importing of slaves from West Africa, and as such, there's a palpable African atmosphere on its cobblestone streets, even today. Around 80% of the city's population have African roots, and so African rhythms are heard everywhere in the music on the streets, traditional African-style clothes are worn by the persistent ladies trying to get us to pose for a photo with them for a dollar, and African-style food is on sale from the street vendors.

The wealth from the sugar and slave trades funded some fabulously over-the-top churches around town (there's over 300 of them in the city) – the highlight being the ridiculously ornate Igreja do Sao Francisco. The interior of the church is a glittering baroque fantasy – virtually every bit of woodwork covered in gold leaf and adorned with more cherubs than I've ever seen in one building. Considering that the Franciscans were meant to have taken a vow of poverty, it was all slightly obscene, but still massively impressive.

There's obviously a lot of poverty in the city, but the number of beggars, hawkers and buskers on the streets, was virtually matched by the number of police on almost every street corner – it was difficult to tell whether the number of security people was re-assuring or unnerving (probably a bit of both), but, thankfully, to my knowledge no-one on the ship was a victim of crime.

The whole city is incredibly beautiful and is one of the most atmospheric places I've been to in a long while – a combination of the heat and humidity, the faded grandeur of the buildings, and the slight edge to the streetlife here, gives Salvador a unique feel that meant it was most people's favourite place on the cruise so far.

The only disappointment was that we didn't have long enough here – thank God we're coming back on the World Cruise in January. What a stunning city.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nov 21st – Fortaleza

The Brazilian city of Fortaleza may be a popular beach resort and the fifth largest city in Brazil, but there's not a huge amount of tourist attractions to see in town. That's why it was so great that Silversea arranged a complimentary "Silversea Experience" – a dance performance in the beautiful Jose Alencar Theatre.

So, we drove into town from the port along the city's slightly scruffy streets, many of the buildings covered in graffiti, before we emerged onto the city's best feature – its beautiful beachfront. Fortaleza has become a popular beach resort for Brazilian tourists, and when you see its miles of gorgeous sandy beaches spreading both sides of the port, it's not difficult to see why.

Eventually our coach made it through the busy traffic to the theatre, a lovely art nouveau design dating from 1910, when it was prefabricated in Britain and shipped out here to the tropics (those were the days when Britain was the workshop of the world). The glass facade of the theatre looked like a Tiffany lamp, while inside it was bright and airy, even if the paintwork was peeling a little.

We didn't really know what kind of performance to expect – all we knew was that the dance company was a charity that tried to help disadvantaged children and keep them off the streets. What we got was far, far better than anything we'd expected – an intense, superbly executed performance of wonderful skill and athleticism. To be honest, I wasn't really sure what story was being told (there was no explanation about what it all signified), but it was all fantastically well done.

It appeared (this is my interpretation, so it may be entirely wrong) that it was portraying the grim life of the kids on the streets, fighting to survive by picking scraps from the rubbish heaps and the struggle to live in a violent and hungry world. They presented a nightmarish world with enormous skill and a depth of emotion that you wouldn't expect from a mainly adolescent cast.

At the end of the performance, we were left kind of shell-shocked by the raw emotion of it all, and the audience rose as one to give these fantastic performers a rousing standing ovation.

Afterwards, we went to the theatre's gardens to have canapés and wine – it felt a bit decadent after the grim spectacle that we'd witnessed, but we soon shrugged off our feelings of guilt. It was also a relief to see the children come out to meet us, full of smiles and shy enthusiasm, rather than the sorrowful and serious faces that we'd seen in the performance.

I think we certainly saw the best that Fortaleza had to offer.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nov 19th – Crossing the Line in Belem

So, we have arrived in Brazil – which means that for going ashore, we have stripped ourselves of everything which can be stolen. No jewellery, no watch, no wallet, just a cheap camera, money hidden in underwear and shoes, and a money belt. It might sound a bit paranoid, but it makes you feel more comfortable exploring the mean streets.

Belem is 90 miles up the Amazon from the open sea, so we sailed upriver and anchored off the city. As soon as our tender got us ashore, we were assaulted (metaphorically thankfully) by a wall of noise. A protest bus was going past, blasting out thumping music – something which prepared us for a constant cacophony on the streets of competing sound systems from the different shops and market stalls.

As you explore Belem, you can see that this was once a very rich place – so many (now-crumbling) belle epoch buildings tell the story of a massive boom in Amazonian rubber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was exported through Belem's port and brought enormous wealth into the city. Unfortunately, the rubber bubble burst when Malaysian rubber started up, and the city has been in decline ever since.

We caught the shuttle into the slightly scruffy centre of town and walked back from there, passing the grand opera house (from the days when the city had pretensions of high culture), and the incredibly busy and boiling hot shopping streets. Every other shop seemed to be either a shoe shop or an underwear shop, each one staffed by an average of at least 20 shop assistants who followed you around like zombies.

We slowly headed for the port, and ended up at the famous Ver-o-peso market – an enormous fish and produce market, where goods from the Amazon are sold. Some of the enormous Amazonian fish had to be seen to be believed, while the medicinal potions from the jungle seemed to offer miracle cures for most ailments.

Walking around the old port, some of the stenches were so foul that you could scarcely breathe, and as we fled the smells we obviously ended up in a slightly dodgy area, where a woman stopped us and told us "cuidado" – be careful. Needing no further prompting, we immediately headed back to the more crowded areas, where at least there was some safety in numbers.

That was our only brush with danger, and generally the city had a fairly laid back feel to it (if you ignored the frenzied music). The architecture of the city is its main feature – a wonderful mix of grand buildings that are now charmingly scruffy.

All too soon, it was time to get back on the ship for our 2pm departure, and our crossing the equator ceremony (Belem is one degree below the equator), where King Neptune inflicted various punishments and humiliations on willing crew members.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

November 17th – Escape To Devil’s Island

Today we got to visit one of the most evocative prisons and feared penal colonies in the world – the infamous Devil's Island, the home to the story of "Papillon".

Confusingly, there's three islands in the Ile de Salut group, which collectively came to be known as "Devil's Island" – we were visiting the largest island, Ile Royale, while the forbidding island of Devil's Island itself is strictly off limits to visitors (it's impossible to land there because of the rocks, the dangerous currents and the frequently heavy seas).

For 101 years from 1852 to 1953, 70,000 French convicts were sent to these remote islands off the coast of French Guiana, and out of them, 50,000 died due to disease, malnourishment, or mistreatment at the hands of an incredibly cruel regime.

The islands are situated just above the equator, and so they're unbelievably hot and humid – one of the reasons why a prison sentence here was so feared. We were already sweating before we got off the tender, and as we climbed up into the centre of the island, the heat was oppressive. Apart from the debilitating heat, the thing that struck us most was just how beautiful the islands were – lush green tropical palms swaying in the hot winds, the floor littered with cocoanuts, the forests and paths inhabited by monkeys and the strange-looking agoutis (looking like a cross between a rat, a rabbit and a squirrel).

When faced with the almost idyllic views, it was hard to reconcile it with the suffering and misery of the poor prisoners banished here, in what was to be an almost certain death sentence. However, it got easier to get in touch with what we'd seen depicted in the film Papillon, when we made it to the solitary confinement cells – tiny, claustrophobic concrete cells with scarcely any light or air. When the heavy wooden door slammed shut behind me, it was a nerve-jangling moment.

The other thing that struck me, was just how recent it was that prisoners were sent here to this incredibly inhospitable environment, until the 1950s. When you think that modern prisoners can take the government to court if someone denies them access to their TVs or blackberries, then this place felt a million miles away.

It's a fascinating place to visit, but there was only so much sweating that you can do in one day, so the call of a shower and air-conditioning was becoming too hard to resist. So, instead of throwing myself off a cliff on a bag of cocoanuts like Steve McQueen in Papillon, I jumped onto the tender to get back to the world of 5 star luxury. Whether you were an escaping prisoner, or a pampered cruise passenger, it's always a relief to escape from the heat of Devil's Island.

Nov 12th – Beautiful Barbados

Of all the islands we've been to, Barbados has had the most organised and best executed tours – without fail, all the passengers came back saying how much they'd enjoyed them.

My tour, the "Barbados Sugar Trail", took us up the so-called "Platinum Coast", past all the mega-luxury resorts and millionaire's developments, like the super-expensive Sandy Lane Hotel, up to Barbados's second town, Speightstown. Here we visited the new Arlington House Museum, housed in an old merchant's dwelling, which had a number of multi-media exhibits detailing the history of the island, from the British takeover in 1625, through to the development of the sugar plantations and the slavery system, and onto independence.

From Speightstown, we ventured into the centre of the island, to one of the most historic buildings in the Caribbean – St Nicholas Abbey, a grand old Plantation House dating all the way back to the 1650s. This impressive manor house was built in Jacobean style, with high gables and large windows to let in the cooling breezes – apparently it's one of only three Jacobean buildings to have survived in the whole of the Americas.

Barbados is the first island that we've visited on this trip where sugar is still cultivated on a large scale, and the house still sits at the centre of a large sugar plantation surrounded by green fields of swaying cane. The whole thing was so well preserved that it wasn't too difficult to imagine the days when the plantation owner would have owned a large gang of slaves to harvest and process the cane. We saw the old windmills and the steam-powered crushing plant that replaced them, and the distillery where rum is still produced – it tasted more like cognac to me, and had a fairly lethal kick to it.

Finally, as an added bonus, we bumped into a heavily armed army patrol, so we got to hear why the wearing of camouflage clothes or imitation army dress by the public (including young children) is banned on the island. Apparently a few years ago, a group of bank robbers donned fake army uniform to carry out their raids, and now it's illegal for anyone but the army to wear camouflage clothes. Fortunately, combat pants and camouflage clothes don't feature too heavily in the average Silversea passenger's dress, so we weren't arrested.