Monday, January 20, 2020

January 19th – Finding Africa in Salvador

As you walk down the atmospheric cobblestone streets of Salvador, the colourful buildings echo with distant drum music. In fact, this historic city resonates with so many distant echoes from Africa – in its people, in its food, and particularly in its music.

This is all a result of Salvador’s role as the destination port for many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of slaves transported from West Africa to work on the sugar plantations that were to make the city one of the richest in the New World. And, with at least 70% of the city’s population today of African origin, this is the largest black majority city in the world outside of Africa.

But, on the face of it, Salvador’s historic centre has a very European feel to it. Much of the architecture, and particularly the many churches look like they’ve been lifted straight out of Lisbon. However, when you look closely, there’s often an African twist – not surprising when you think that most of the workmen, the craftsmen and even some of the architects were African slaves or freedmen. You see this in the bright colours of the buildings, in some of the decorations on their facades, and even in the subtly Africanised features of some of cherubs and statues in the churches.

We spent a morning exploring this mixture of influences on a fascinating walking tour of the city – a city that was almost overwhelmed with tourist crowds that had flooded off a huge MSC mega-cruise ship. Every time they come into a port it must be a logistical nightmare.

However, our afternoon really was special. We managed to avoid the crowds by joining an exclusive World Cruise Collection Tour to see a private performance of “Bale Folclorico” by an incredibly talented (and supremely fit) bunch of local dancers. From the first drum beat we were instantly transported to Africa, as the rhythms, dances and singing seemed (to my untutored ears) to be wholly African. It’s amazing to think that the ancestors of these people would have been snatched from Africa centuries ago, then they had western religion and musical traditions imposed upon them, yet still the sounds of Africa remained so strong.

We saw how the exotic Candomble religion had formed out of a synthesis of the traditional gods of the Yoruba people of West Africa, with the Catholic saints of their slave owners. This cross-continental fusion has formed something uniquely Brazilian, and it was performed with incredible verve by the young dancers. 

As we saw these different performances, you could see how it was an almost seamless progression from African drum beats and dance into the uniquely vibrant Brazilian Samba – it felt like a lesson in the development of Brazilian culture. The show was rounded off with my favourite Afro-Brazilian dance – Capoeira. Not that you can compartmentalise Capoeira as just a dance; it’s also a martial art, acrobatics show and keep-fit routine (and these guys were supremely fit, not an ounce of spare flesh on them). 

Capoeira is a non-contact sport, but the margins between “contact” and “non“ were tiny – with their athletic kicks and flicks, it seemed like they would kick the head off their opponent, missing them by millimetres. Incredible precision, superb athleticism, and amazing choreography. The show went by in a blur, leaving us breathless at the end of it – how the performers kept the energy levels going is beyond me.

After the possibly underwhelming ports of Fortaleza and rainy Natal, Salvador was bright, colourful, energetic and vibrant. What a wonderful day! 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

January 17th – Natal – Brazil’s “Sun City”?

The fast-growing city of Natal is known to the Brazilians as “Cidade do Sol” (“Sun City”), but today it didn’t seem to get the memo. Instead of the sun-drenched beaches that Natal’s famous for, we were greeted by rain-drenched streets, dark skies, and traffic jams.

But, if the city wasn’t looking its best in the tempest, I did at least get a feeling that Natal is a much more pleasant place to live than Fortaleza. Admittedly, parts of the old town were a bit dilapidated, there did seem to be lots of work going on to restore it; plus, the old town still had a feeling that the shops were busy and catering to more than just the poorest section of society.

Our walking tour was greeted by an enthusiastic samba band that serenaded us as we walked down some narrow lanes. In urban Brazil, you’re often advised not to get too far off the beaten track, but with the band to accompany us, a security guard shadowing us, a police car circling, plus lots of townspeople coming out to photograph the band and enjoy the music, there was definitely safety in numbers! This was my favourite part of the visit – not only because it was one of the few times when it wasn’t raining torrentially, but also because it really felt like we were really in amongst it, seeing Natal’s colourful underbelly (albeit with a musical accompaniment).

They tell us that Natal enjoys 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, but we didn’t see a minute of it, and the weather really closed in for the rest of the day. We sheltered from the rain in the Centro de Turismo, housed in the town’s old jail, and then we drove down to the Ponta Negra area, where the city’s centre of gravity has now shifted to. Ponta Negra is the kind of place that I think Brazil would like to become – beautiful beaches, shopping malls, and modern apartment blocks, without too much in the way of razor wire. Our guide told us that people are actually happy to walk around here, and that the quality of life was good (as long as you can afford it).

By now, the weather prevented us even getting out of the bus for photo stops, so it is safe to say that we did not see Natal at its best. So I will just have to come back one day to see if Brazil’s “Sun City” can continue on its path of growth. 

January 16th – A Mixed Experience in Fortaleza

The Brazilian port of Fortaleza is difficult to sum up. Brazil’s 5th largest city seems to be both up and coming, and down and out at the same time. It’s an uneasy mixture of modern and decaying sitting side-by-side. 

From a distance, Fortaleza appears to be like Miami Beach – rows of skyscrapers along golden beaches. Yet close up, the tower blocks are interspersed by with plenty of run-down buildings and people sleeping rough. The mixture of wealth and poverty is so jarring that you really don’t know where is safe for the tourist to visit. Our guide started off by telling me that the historic centre of town was “safe”, and then he admitted that he felt scared walking around there. We walked one way along the beach and there was a real holiday atmosphere; when we started walking the other way a lady stopped us and told us to go no further, it was “perigoso”, dangerous.

Fortaleza’s beaches are undoubtedly beautiful, but the ones in town were being dug up (not a great introduction for people arriving by shuttle bus), and we were advised that they were too polluted to swim in. The cleanest beach, the Praia do Futuro, has some great beach clubs but you have to pass by some pretty sketchy favelas to get there. 

We passed by huge modern shopping malls catering to the city’s burgeoning middle classes, but the city centre seems to have been abandoned by the middle classes and left to deteriorate. To me, the whole city seemed like an illustration of Brazil’s fabulous potential, but also a telling sign of its current inability to reach that potential and the terrible inequality that’s holding it back.

Our guide seemed fairly confident that things were improving – the redevelopment of the beach would be fabulous, the restoration of its historic buildings would be inspirational, and that the vacationing masses of the Brazilian market would bring in lots of wealth. Fortaleza has a long way to go - I can only hope that it’s going in the right direction.

Monday, January 13, 2020

January 13th - A Cool Experience on Devil's Island

For 100 years, being sent to the dreaded Devil’s Island Penal Colony was considered a fate worse than death for French prisoners right up until 1947, and for cruise passengers these days it’s usually one of the more challenging destinations you can visit. That’s because these tiny islands off the coast of French Guiana are located just above the Equator and are usually phenomenally hot and humid. In fact, I can safely say that from previous experiences, it’s about the hottest place I’ve ever been.

However, today it was actually pretty cool by Devil’s Island standards – “just” about 30 degrees centigrade, which is like a cold winter’s day here. The constant gusting winds might have caused the tender ride to be a bit bumpy, but they almost made it a pleasant experience to explore the tropical little island of Ile Royale (the old administrative base of the Penal Colony).

Of course, all things are relative, so it was still pretty sweaty as we made our way around the rough paths that encircle the island. Actually, even those paths have been smoothed out in the last couple of years – is Devil’s Island going soft?

But, as we got steadily hotter, as the warm winds grew stronger, and as we passed the dilapidated old prison buildings that were being swallowed up by the vegetation and crumbling away under the climactic conditions, then we were beginning to get a bit of an insight into what a hell hole this island must have been for Papillon and his friends. The decaying cemeteries, where the 100-year-old inscriptions were almost totally worn away on the broken gravestones were another telling sign of the deadly effects of any time spent here.

If you don’t want to dwell on the death and depravity that the island has witnessed, then there’s always some interesting wildlife to see here – playful monkeys and skittish agoutis (marmot-like rodents) jumping out of the undergrowth, that gives the island a sense of going back to nature. In fact, it’s probably appropriate that nature is dulling the imprint of humankind here – gradually blotting out the reminders of callousness, cruelty and corruption of the Penal Colony.

Normally visiting Devil’s Island is hard labour – today was as close to enjoyable as this inhospitable place can be.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

January 11th – Catching the Train in Barbados

Of course, Barbados is best known for its superb array of beaches, but for me one of the most interesting aspects to the island is the historical legacy of the sugar industry and the slave trade.  Not only did the evil institution of slavery change the lives of the poor Africans they imported to work here, but it also made a small British elite incredibly rich on the back of the new super-crop, sugar.

We went to visit what is probably Barbados’s grandest Plantation House – St Nicholas Abbey, whose impressive Jacobean architecture dates from the 17th century. Just seeing the opulent architecture and furniture shows that there were fortunes to be made here, while the rum that is still distilled here shows that the sugar industry lives on 3 and a half centuries later.

But, our main reason for coming here, was to try one of Barbados’s newest attractions – the St Nicholas Abbey Heritage Railway – a steam railway service that tours the plantation’s grounds and only began in 2019. It was all superbly done - the evocative old steam engine spewing out smoke and steam, the whistle tooting and the carriages rattling, as we made our sedate progress around the estate. Rarely has such a slow-moving attraction been such a delight. 

Trains were once a mainstay of the sugar industry from the 1880s until the 1930s, but the costly infrastructure of tracks and bridges have almost totally disappeared since then. The revival of this Heritage Railway has been a significant investment in the island’s tourist industry, and I hope that it thrives.

After our low-octane ride, we did a fascinating tour of the house, drank some rum (of course) and then had High Tea in the garden of the house. What a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.

Friday, January 10, 2020

January 9th – Enjoying the Finer Things in San Juan

When there are five ships in port (including 3 monster ships), then the port area in San Juan can become a bit of a zoo of traffic, touts and taxis. But, if you can get beyond the maddening crowds and into the colourful backstreets of Old San Juan, then this picturesque town really begins to show you its charms.

Our mission to find the lesser-seen side of Puerto Rican culture today was helped by the fact that we were joining one of Silversea’s exclusive World Cruise Collection tours that promised to take us on a “Musical and Culinary Journey”. We were taken to what looked like a fairly ordinary old townhouse in the centre of San Juan, which, as if we had passed through the looking glass, opened up into a magical succession of cultural spaces and musical experiences.

The owner of La Galeria, an amazingly youthful 84 year-old called Jan D’Esposo, had bought up and renovated six adjoining 18th century houses in the highest point of San Juan (one of the houses formerly belonged to the Spanish Captain of the Artillery, hence the amazing views from its roof terrace). She now uses the conjoined houses as a Club, a Hotel, and the headquarters of the Puerto Rico Steinway Society, from which she energetically promotes the musical arts scene of San Juan.

We were greeted by a superb duo who played Latin Jazz on piano and double bass – as we sipped on our sparkling wine, it was as if we had been transported to Old Havana, the scene made more surreal by the presence of a gregarious white parrot who sat on the piano and bobbed up and down in perfect time to the captivating music.

We toured the many different levels of this deceptively large house, before we stopped in to hear a breathtakingly good classical recital on Jan’s best Steinway (she has 4) by a young local lad who is studying at Julliard. That this excellent performance was being laid on for just the 15 of us made it even more special.

Our final experience was on the roof terrace, where we savoured the views over Old San Juan with its centuries-old fortresses, sturdy bastions and church towers contrasting against the deep blue of the sea all around, while being treated to a soothing Spanish guitar performance. With endless supplies drinks and finger food it all felt very decadent, and it seemed like we were in another town entirely from the hordes of Carnival passengers we had left behind at the port.

After an incredibly enjoyable morning, we then had a wander around the town, which had emptied out nicely as most of the mainstream cruisers had headed back to their buffets on their mega-ships. Thankfully San Juan hadn’t been particularly affected by the earthquake that had hit the south of the island a couple of days before – the locals told us that they had felt their beds shake and the power went out for a while, but it was good to see that this architectural treasure trove was still intact (and had fully recovered from the 2017 hurricane too).

Many people expect Puerto Rico to be just about beaches, chain restaurants and mainstream resorts, but our day showed us that its atmospheric capital, San Juan, is a vibrant hotspot of culture and creativity. What a great way to start the 2020 World Cruise!