Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Benjo in Brazil

Last post from somewhere that's not in Kenya I promise! I'm flying back this weekend.
As some of you may know I've been in Brazil with my little brother for a wonderful month of travelling and visiting an A Rocha Brazil (sort-of) project in northern Brazil. We spent an intial week in Rio, followed by a week in the state of Bahia to the north, two weeks on the nose of Brazil near Joao Pessoa and back for a final week in Rio. This entry is a bit of spider's walk of different stories and thoughts while we were there and  actually gives a much better idea of how we saw Brazil than a chronological activity report could give I think.
In many ways Rio is the post-card image that people imagine with crazy mountains, skyscrapers and beach bums. Its a huge city and there's loads of wealth around, so its not exactly a budget destination (excellent prior research on my part, oops). We found an awesome little hostel near Copacabana, up a hill towards the jungle, which eventually takes over the steep slopes of Rio's geology. As you leave the flat areas near the beach and enter the favelas the roads become more broken and the faces become more African. Arriving in the favela of Babilonia late on a Thursday night the street was full of people with live samba music and dancing, quite an incredible welcome.
In many places we went we were welcomed strongly, perhaps not with music and activity, but with enormous acts generosity and acceptance as we travelled around. In Joao Pessoa Hernani and Maru (connected with A Rocha), welcomed us into their house for two weeks, in a busy period of transition and change on their organic coconut farm. During that time they took us to great beaches, did activities with us and made sure that we went home knowing the best of that time we were with them. While there we went to a capoeira class in the local village to the farm, and again there everyone was so glad to see us, not in an overpowering awkward way, just in a simple acceptance and joy. The mestre gave us a free CD of his music and kept the class going for an extra hour so we could enjoy it to the full (also meaning our muscles wouldn't allow us to walk for two days afterwards!)
Hernani and Maru

Back in Rio, the generosity we experienced in our hostel, called Chill Hostel in Babilonia, was second to none, so much so we went back for an extra week at the end of our stay. So many times we were given free food and drink, or taken to some incredible place that most tourists wouldn't get to see, such as the party at Alto Vidigal, on our second night being in Brazil. We were told it was one of the best parties in Rio and only happened once a month, so we much go! After Ollie convinced me to fight jet lag and come out we went with people from the hostel and the taxi starting winding higher and higher through a favela near Ipanema and we began to wonder where on earth this party was. At the very top a bar terrace overlooked Ipanema bay and out to sea. It was an unbelievable view and, true to the recommendation, an incredible party. However, when we came out at 5am in the morning the only option was to walk all the way down the hill! Nutters living on improbable mountains.
The next day, after recovering from our hangovers, we went up Sugar Loaf Mountain. The geology in this city is mad. The mountain rises near vertical from sea level to 400m and somehow they built a cable car to the top. As we stood on the top geologist Ollie looked out across the stunning views and said, "I think this mountain is Gneiss", after half a second I replied, "yeah its not bad is it? (weirdo)". As the sun went down over the city and lights began shine, it gave an idea of how big the city was and how it just kept going and going into the distance. There's around 10 million people in Rio (depending how you cut it) and another 14 million in Sao Paulo, not a million miles away. Brazil itself has 200 million people living in what feels like quite an isolated Brazilian world, where everyone is connected by Portuguese and therefore separate from everyone else in South America. Their economic growth is evident everywhere, and just the attitude of consume and construct was fascinating for someone from a stagnant economy. They are doing things their way and don't worry about anyone else. As a result they have some unique foibles, such as turnstiles on buses, drink tickets at bars and paying by weight in restaurants (forget the vegetables and stock up on steak!).
The first week we were in Rio the whole city was buzzing for Rio 20+ conference, a repeat of the seminal World Summit in 1992 for sustainable development and environmental justice. We hadn't planned on getting involved, but it was impossible to avoid the numerous events across the city and the many suited foreign delegates, including meeting President Kibaki's bodyguards at Christ the Redeemer and, believe it or not, Richard Branson when we were walking through Santa Teresa! Little did we know, but the favela we were staying in was a show-case for sustainable growth. Its not clear to me exactly how, but in the first week we were there it was transformed. There's now a tarmac road all the way to the beach, new plastering and white wash and even a flower bed, in just 5 days! They even had a couple painting days where they covered the walls in incredible art work on the road up the hill. Its difficult to know what to think. Of course a nice road and fixed pavements are a good things, but what does this re-beautification tell us about the council's plans from Babilonia and the many favelas like it? On Saturday night there was an enormous samba party and dance off with everyone from the local houses; such an incredible community spirit in this enormous city. It would be a shame if it became converted into yet more apartment blocks like Copacabana below, but money talks and developers want to sell the stunning views that this favela has enjoyed for free for so many years.

Ollie's ex-girlfriend Danni often says that many of my stories just sound like rubbish if I tell them to an average person in the street in England. Ollie and I have laughed at some the crazy things that have happened on the trip and how out of context they sound mad. Here's a few of the best tall tales, with photos to prove their validity!

Jesus and the Armadillo
One day four friends decided to go and see Jesus, so they woke up early and climbed up a mountain covered with thick rainforest to go see him. As they neared the top they found an armadillo, who sneezed in terror when they approached. Sadly when they reached the top of the mountain Jesus was covered in clouds and the friends didn't see him that day. 

Rivers for Life
One sunny day on the beach hundreds of Amazonian tribes people came together all dressed with feathers of all the colours of the forest and painted in their traditional way. They sat in strange groups, often facing the backs of the people in front, sang and chanted. High above a tiny helicopter with a camera revealed their message to the world; Rios para a vida - Rivers for life.

Party on the Steps
In a city far far away there are some steps leading through a neighbourhood on a hill. These steps are no ordinary steps they are decorated with the tiles of every colour in the rainbow and come from over 150 countries around the world. Not only this but they are constantly changing, being removed and replaced by a man, who is often depicted as being pregnant, with an enormous moustache. Every Friday night thousands of young people make a pilgrimage to these steps and the creativity and passion of the pregnant man's masterpiece seeps into them, resulting in one of the greatest parties on earth.

The Pregnant Man

The Pregnant Man

Diamond Mountains
High above a hot dry desert the diamond mountains rise vertically into the sky. The two brothers wandered through the sleepy village at sunrise trying to find somewhere to sleep until they met the Spaniard call Lefty, who led them through the rainforest to his home where they camped. Once they set up camp, they started walking up into the mountains, first up the vertical sides and then horizontal across the top. On the far side of the mountain a small river fell off the side of the mountain to the jungle many hundreds of metres below in a great plume of water which evaporated into smoke before it reached the bottom. After enjoying the views for a while they walked back across and down the diamond mountain to their camp.
Two other friends of Lefty also stayed there and the four sang and talked late into the night; or so it felt, but in fact the tired brothers fell into bed at just 8:15pm! As the sun rose over the mountains and forested valley the next day the campers enjoyed tea and cake before heading into diamond wilderness once more.
They started the day deep under the mountains where water trickled through the billion year old rocks to form crystals, disco-balls and even a portrait of Bob Marley. They then went into the mountain snorkelling in a sapphire lake with hundreds of fish, into a tunnel through the heart of the mountain. Lastly they climbed to the top of a small mountain no bigger than a cube and the sun set over the desert below, they felt quite patriotic.


  1. Ben this is brilliant, but also some of my favourite writing of yours ever :)

  2. hey Ben this is beautiful... did you know the pregnant man died? so sad history man... we was so lucky to meet him... keep living in your freedom... lot of love from Yasmaine and Me Luisa!