Tuesday, June 30, 2015

From ‘Brazil’ by Michael Palin

Twice the size of India….home of the greatest rainforest in the world, as well as the greatest river system in the world, and the biggest waterfalls, by volume….extraordinary diversity and richness of its inhabitants…..descendants of those millions of slaves brought to Brazil from Africa, and of the Portugese landowners who enslaved them. Then there are those who have come to Brazil voluntarily, and in huge numbers, from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Italians, Poles, Lebanese, Germans, Japanese, Koreans and many more…..fostered one of Brazil’s most marked characteristics, tolerance…..

The Yanomami are one of two hundred or so indigenous tribes still left from the days when the first Europeans set foot in the country. There were estimated to be some five million Indians in Brazil when the Portugese began to settle here early in the sixteenth century. Today, after the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners, they number no more than 300,000

Manioc, or cassava, is one of the oldest cultivated foods known to man, but it requires careful preparation as it contains toxic elements. Rendering it safely edible is a laborious and time-consuming process involving peeling, grating, grinding and boiling.

….the Yanomami…. The bond between mothers and children seems particularly strong. Small babies spend most of their time in flesh-to-flesh contact with their mothers, and I have hardly heard any of the crying or scolding that we in our enlightened world might take for granted.

Brazil is the largest exporter of beef on the planet, and seventy-five percent of the deforestation has been to clear the ground for cattle.

…..twenty percent of all the world’s fresh water is contained within the Amazon Basin.

Stained and grimy from the heavy rainfall, they make Belem look less like Lisbon and more like Calcutta. Both are at the heart of big river deltas, and concrete and high humidity don’t mix well, creating the impression of cities going mouldy.

The 2,500 kilometre long (1,500 miles) Araguaia, a river which all Brazilians regards as especially magical and magically beautiful.
Because of the blessed combination of the Andes and the Amazon Basin, Brazil generates ninety-five percent of its water needs without any recourse to dams or irrigation. This, together with abundant land and a generally benign climate, gives it enviable potential for cultivation on a huge scale.

Brazilians tend not to be prohibitive and proscriptive; their inclination is to accommodate each other….part of the reason might be that, unlike most countries, they don’t seem to have a natural enemy to rally against. Since the end of the devastating Paraguayan War of the 1860s, Brazil has avoided any major conflicts……Their standing army is small. They have a few fighters, a destroyer or two.

Alto Paraaiso de Goias….where a seam of crystals, 200 kilometres (124 miles) long and 30 kilometres (18 miles) deep, creates a force field of energy which is said by those who live there to have powerful effects. UFOs have been sighted there, and on a NASA photo of the earth from space the area was reported as giving off an unmistakable glow.

…I ask Tatiana if its quite acceptable to be a witch in Brazil. She nods briskly. The Brazilians are very tolerant of witchcraft, In fact, they’re tolerant of almost everything. Especially in alto Paraiso……

Brazilian tourists are already out in force. And, being Brazilian, half of them are as close to naked as is permissible. In this land of the uninhibited, the dress code is as elastic as the tiny thongs which cover less than a leaf in the Garden of Eden. Provided nipples (female only) and genitals are concealed, the rest of the body can be joyfully unencumbered.

…..its very rare to see anyone in Brazil being angry.

Fizzy drinks are hugely popular in Brazil…..

Slavery continued in Brazil for much longer than most countries……

On Brazilian beaches the buttocks are the most admired parts of the female form and they’re referred to as melões – melons…….Beauty criteria are always interesting, and I’m fascinated to hear….that it is the strap marks from a bikini that drive Brazilian boys wild..

Brazilians are night people…..The forro dance steps, done well, are amazing to watch. The couples dance close and the movement seems entirely to come from below the waist, feet moving in a rapid pattern, while hips gyrate rhythmically in a loose and sinuous, constantly rolling movement. This is extrovert, sexy stuff and the best dancers are marvelously agile…

…..no event in Brazil is complete without a sound-system…..

….A Portugese expedition….was blown off course while trying to sail round Africa………they stepped ashore on 22 April 1500…..in southern Bahia State……..A later ……Portugese expedition found this to be an abundant source of wood they called pau-brasil, which produced a valuable red dye which glowed like hot coals (brasa in Latin). So the new-found land took its name from its chief product. Brazil

This potent mix of a relatively small number of Portugese, a much greater number of indigenous tribes and a huge number of slaves created modern Brazil…. The city of Salvador ….remains the third-biggest city in Brazil, with a population of over three million, eighty-two percent of whom are black. Salvador is the biggest African city outside Africa.

Do the Brazilians have a word for self-conscious? I cant even think when they’d ever have to use it.

When the slaves were brought over to work on the plantations they were deliberately discouraged from practicing their own religion, in case it became a rallying point for resistance to the landowners. So instead of one all-pervasive belief system, different elements of African tradition became interwoven, both with each other and then with the prevailing Catholicism of the Portugese. Candomble is a syncretic religion, faith-based and animist at the same time, a melding of Europe and Africa, of gods and saints.

In Brazil almost everyone believes in some kind of religion or some kind of superstition. Atheism is considered profoundly weird.

The Candomble ceremony is at times powerful and at times mystifying, but the complexity and richness of quite a commonplace event struck me as another instance of the passion and vitality with which black Brazilians approach their religion. The act of worship has to move and involve the participants in something special. What impresses me is that it also has to be fresh each time. In Candomble no one quite knows exactly what will happen when the drums begin.

……Brazilian means extrovert.

…..my guide Sophia’s observation that in Brazil everyone wants to believe in something.

Hans has lived in Brazil for fifty years, and what he likes about the Brazilians is that they’re flexible; they adapt and move on. What he also admires is their sense of a unifying national identity.

For 200 years after the first European strayed by chance onto the coast of Brazil, the wealth of the country was largely generated by the world demand for sugar. This was serviced from the huge slave-worked plantations in the North-East of the country. Then, in 1693, something happened to change all that. Reports came in from Sao Paolo of an adventurer who had returned from the mountains with traces of gold……… The gold rush that ensured revealted that the mountains were also rich in diamonds and other precious stones as well as apparently inexhaustible reserves of bauxite, manganese and iron ore. God had rewarded them beyond their wildest dreams. Churches were built and profusely decorated. ………Agriculturally blessed as well as minerally rich, it became the new commercial epicenter of Brazil. The capital moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. The transfer of power from the North to the South of Brazil was complete. It has never been reversed.

….despite being the fifth-largest country in the world, Brazil has no peaks higher than 3,000 metres

She is from Peru and works in silver. Which is the one thing Brazil has always lacked.

In Brazil everyone has a nickname………

…..one of Brazil’s most delightful characteristics – a complete absence of embarrassment.

……..Portugese expedition…..In early 1502 …..found themselves at the mouth of what they thought was a great river……It was a January …they called their new discovery Rio de Janeiro – ‘January river’…….It turned out not to be a river at all but a deep, wide bay.

And yet sexual display is less overt than in Europe. There’s less nakedness in street adverts, and topless sunbathing is still frowned upon. I see very few couples enmeshed on the beach. There’s plenty of show, but not a lot of action….For all the apparent openness of Brazilian society, sex is still at the heart of one of its most secret, lucrative and – from what I can gather – universal phenomena: the love hotels, or simply, the motels. Dotted all over the city, and indeed the country, are establishments where for anything from thirty minutes to thirty hours rooms can be hired for sex. And not necessarily sex with prostitutes. They’re used by boyfriends and girlfriends seeking privacy….. husbands who fancy other people’s wives….most important thing is that they’re discreet. And discretion is not something I would have put high on my list of Brazilian qualities.

Brazilians are the biggest consumers of poetry in the world…..

The samba rhythm seems hardwired into every Brazilian

….the two great passions of Brazilian life – football and samba. Football started at the top and seeped very quickly down to all levels of society, whereas samba started at the bottom and became the ultimate in sophistication.

….an historian, Sergio Buarque de Holanda, as suggesting that the Brazilian contribution to civilization is ‘cordiality’. The negative side to all this, thinks Tim, is a national inability, or simply disinclination, to deal with anything bad…..the manic depressiveness at the heart of the Brazilian national character. ‘It pats itself on the back effusively with every victory, and torments itself with every defeat.’

….eighty percent of Brazil’s population lives within 400 kilometres ….of the coast

I admire and rather envy the Brazilians’ ability to eat, drink and be merry in public without feeling the need to be in any way aggressive or objectionable.

The Amazon Basin occupies forty-two percent of Brazil’s land area. Yet its combined population is less than that of New York City. The southern and south-eastern states of Brazil comprise only sixteen percent of the land area, but sixty percent of its population.

Brazilian women, he thinks, like to dress more daringly than their European counterparts. If they’ve got it, they like to flaunt it……Cleavage seems almost obligatory in Brazil.

Sao Paolo is a helicopter city. As traffic mires the megapolis in endless congestion, the rich and successful take to the skies. ….In 2009, Time magazine reported a traffic jam 200 miles long.

In Brazil, he says, ‘If you want to be respected, you have to be informal.’… Brazil’s relaxed, less uptight attitude to life…….

Brazil doesn’t have a history of social or political violence.

This southern ‘tail’ of Brazil contains some of the richest land in the country and some of its most prosperous cities. If the North-East can be called African Brazil, then the South is predominantly European Brazil.

Apart from some commuter services in Sao Paolo and Rio, Brazil is a passenger railway wilderness……….Brazil is a country where those who move either fly or drive, or take enormously long bus journeys.

Brazilians love a good hug.

Alex, holding the calf down with his knee, finds claw marks in its side which have been inflicted by a jaguar. ….Alex …sprays it with antiseptic. In the days before chemicals, he tells me, they would have used dried cow dung to protect the wound.

As we’ve travelled round I’ve been struck by how little curiosity the Brazilians seem to have about their own country. Many times in the journey I’ve wanted to share with them the beauties we’ve seen here. The power of the Amazon, the splendor of the rainforest…….And more often than not my Brazilian friends nod their heads politely and ask, ‘What’s it like?’

From ‘All Roads Lead to Ganga’ by Ruskin Bond

Guptakashi and its environs has so many lingams that the saying ‘Jitne kankar utne Shankar’ – ‘as many stones, so many Shivas’ – has become a proverb to describe its holiness.

….Bhyundar Valley …..Valley of Flowers…..It would be no exaggeration to call it one off the most beautiful valleys in the world.

….Hindus enjoy their religion. Whether bathing in cold streams or hot springs, or tramping from one sacred mountain shrine to another, they are united in their wish to experience something of the magic and mystique of the gods and glories of another epoch.
Even those who have renounced the world appear to be cheerful…..

There has always been a mild sort of controversy as to whether the true Ganga (in its upper reaches) is the Alaknanda or the Bhagirathi. Of course the two rivers meet at Deoprayag and then both are Ganga….I put the question to my friend Dr. Sudhakar Misra…he answered: ‘The Alaknanda is Ganga, but the Bhagirathi is Ganga-ji.’
One sees what he means. The Bhagirathi is beautiful, almost caressingly so, and people have responded to it with love and respect, ever since Lord Shiva released the waters of the goddess from his locks and she sped plainswards in the tracks of Prince Bhagirath’s chariot…

The Ganga enters the world no puny stream, but bursts from its icy womb a river thirty or forty yards in breadth. At Gauri Kund (below the Gangotri temple) it falls over a rock of considerable height and continues tumbling over a succession of small cascades until it enters the Bhaironghati gorge.
A night spent beside the river, within the sound of the fall, is an eerie experience. After some time it begins to sound, not like one fall but a hundred, and this sound permeates both one’s dreams and waking hours..

….deodar….from the Sanskrit Deva-daru (divine tree). It is a sacred tree in the Himalayas, not worshipped, not protected in the way that a peepul is in the plains, but sacred in that its timber has always been used in temples, for doors, windows, walls and even roofs….. No one who has lived amongst deodars would deny that it is the most godlike of Himalayan trees. It stands erect, dignified…….in a strong wind it may hum and sign and moan…..

I think its only in India that you could find such a situation – a young offspring of the Raj [Ruskin Bond], somewhat at odds with his mother and Indian stepfather, choosing to live with the latter’s abandoned first wife!

From ‘Roads to Mussoorie’ by Ruskin Bond

And that’s what I have been doing all my life – plodding along, singing my song, telling my tales in my own unhurried way. I have lived life at my own gentle pace, and if as a result I have failed to get to the top of the mountain (or of anything else), it doesn’t matter, the long walk has brought its own sweet rewards; buttercups and butterflies along the way.

From ‘Mumbai to Mecca’ by Ilija Trojanow

It was fascinating to watch the different behavior of various pilgrims in Mecca……. The black Africans managed to look relaxed even in the ihram, thanks to their athletic build, their way of walking coupled with the fact that they used the upper cloth as a scarf sometimes, draping it around their necks with an almost dandy air. The Afghans benefited from laying aside their intimidating robes – now their regular features and bright eyes were shown to advantage. The moment they pulled on their local garments their proud bearing returned, they stood up taller, feet wide apart, two heads higher thanks to their turbans. They kissed and embraced one another in elaborate rituals – the expression of a connection that went beyond Islam. In absolute contrast to the Afghans were the Indonesians, the largest Muslim population in the world, and perhaps the friendliest… the Indonesians were reserved, gentle, and discreet; they were soft-spoken, and their diminutive height seemed part of their good manners: they never blocked one’s view….

Mecca is a town steeped in history, and yet one with no ancient buildings. Its history is not merely ignored by the prevailing teachings – it is regarded as dangerous. In an amnesia that enjoys an official stamp, believers are to pay no heed to the developments and decisions made in the 14 centuries since the Prophet (pbuh) and the Sahabah lived, but to trust only the Qur’an and ahadith, and, as a pilgrim to visit only the Kaaba – which is an artefact that goes beyond history. The desire to see the sites of the stories of the Prophet’s (pbuh) passion and revelation is regarded as destructive tourism. The Saudis have destroyed what was believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet (pbuh) and consigned the burial spot to anonymity. …..Likewise, Mecca is a cultural centre which has been drained of its culture. Theatre and music are frowned upon, of course, but the public baths and the coffee houses have also gone….. In the bookshops, the great Arabian thinkers of the past, and present, are nowhere to be found….the Saudi interpretation [of the Qur’an] often differs considerably from the classical ones.

Pilgrims from Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo regard the Saudis as parvenus, nouveau-riche, and lacking in civilization. And the Saudis do their utmost to live up to this assessment through their rude and coarse behavior.

During the first capture of Medina by the Wahhabis 200 years ago, the treasures of the Grand Mosque were stolen, supposedly to be shared amongst the poor, but the leader, Saud, sold parts of it to the Sharif of Mecca, retaining the lion’s share for himself. Although the Prophet’s (pbuh) commandments are meant to be followed at all times, certain ahadith are postulated as fundamental principles, while others are simply ignored. One hadith states, for example, that one should not build a house substantially bigger than one’s neighbour’s so that he does not feel humiliated, and yet the immense palace of the king in Mecca dwarves not only the neighbouring buildings but even the House of God.
Another hadith says: pay those who have worked for you before the sweat on their brow has dried. Yet Saudi Arabian employees continue to owe wages to foreign workers who come in their hundreds and thousands from the poorer regions of the Islamic World…..
And the high life of the Saudi elite break another very well known hadith: ‘Allah despises those who squander their wealth.
Wahhabi Islam, referred to ….as ‘fundamentalism’, doesn’t even correspond in its rudiments to the holistic programme of Islam. Neither the absolutist monarchy nor the totalitarian suppression of free expression can find any justification in the Qur’an. The sovereign elite keep tight control of the laws, but if it suits their interests they will also turn a blind eye….. But because they keep the holy sites clean and accessible, constantly improving the infrastructure while ensuring the Hajj is less dangerous and more just, the hosts often receive a great deal of approval. ….The Saudis take their role as guardians of the holy mosques and sites very seriously, and shy away from no investment that could result in a safer and more comfortable Hajj. And thus gratitude is as commonly expressed as criticism.

In Mina, as in Mecca, there are hardly any beggars, but the few that were there, were Indians (‘The Indians, always extreme,’ Richard Burton wrote, ‘are either beggars or millionaires’) Up until a few years ago beggars from India were imported especially for Ramadan so that the prescribed generosity for that month wouldn’t fail for lack of recipients. The beggars were apparently professionals….they had to hand over their alms to receive a wage in return……