I have begun this Latin American tour. I’m doing a series of “Bikes, Cities and the Future of Getting Around” panels in various cities here with the help, coordination and sponsorship of a combination of the local book publishers (my Bicycle Diaries book is finally out in these countries), local bike organizations and the Instituto de Politicas para el Transporte y el Desarrollo, or ITDP as the acronym has it.
As with the similar panels that were done in North America, these usually have a city representative (dept. of transportation, the local mayor or similar) a local NGO advocacy rep, a theorist or historian and myself. We each give short presentations, under 15 minutes, and then do a Q&A with the audience. In North America most of the questions were addressed to the city person, which to me was a good sign that the audience was there for the issue and not to see me.
The first stop was atypical. A literary festival called Flip set in a small seaside town in Brazil, called Paraty. The festival began in 2003 by Liz Calder, a British book editor who worked at Bloomsbury and got them the first Harry Potter book. They fly a handful of foreign writers down every year and mix those in with Brazilian and other Latin American writers. I heard about it from Hanif Kureishi, who was here years ago and must have had a great time as he wrote and said he now loves Brazil.
Because it’s a literary event my panel was a bit of an anomaly. For a while they tried to get Caetano or Tom Ze to join me, but Caetano is wrapping up a Gal Costa record and Tom Ze had a concert somewhere in Brazil—so it was me and Eduardo Vasconcelos, a writer on transportation and equality in the developing world, who is based in Sao Paulo. He’s perfectly appropriate, and he passionately draws lines between the kinds of transportation in a town and the relative equality and representation of the citizens. Like some others, he maintains that when one mode of transport is privileged over the others (usually the car), then one class of people are being represented and catered to more than others (wealthier car owners in much of the world).
We landed in Sao Paulo and were met by Alexandre Agabiti Fernandez and his wife. Alex is a journalist and he was slated to be the moderator of my panel and that of Joe Sacco, the great graphic journalist from Portland. We drove east through rolling farmland—this would be a 4-hour drive, and then hillier grazing land that was pockmarked with waist high termite mounds. We stopped at a roadside food place, which from the outside looked like anything you’d see on a US or European highway, but inside there were some differences. The first thing you encountered was some glass cases filled with a selection of local cheeses. Near that was an arrangement of local breads and jams. I bought some local honey with propolis and a jar of pollen—nature’s antibiotics. You can even smear honey with propolis on wounds.
Eventually we passed into the range of low green mountains that border the Atlantic from Rio to the south. Most of this area is preserved now—the Atlantic tropical forest, a huge repository of biodiversity, used to stretch from Bahia in the north down to south of here—now there is only about 7% of it left.
We emerged on the other side in a town called Ubatuba, where everyone seemed to be riding bicycles—young, old and in-between. If this was a harbinger of Paraty, then this event would be redundant, or too obvious, but in a good way. Ubatuba is a holiday beach town as well, but as it’s easier to reach than Paraty, it’s not as charming- but the scenery is amazing.
Paraty was about another hour up the coast, and its center is a beautiful preserved colonial town that is now a host to many events like Flip. There is a film festival (even though the town doesn’t have a cinema) a jazz festival and a cachaça festival (a lot of micro distillery cachaças are produced around here). The town was founded in 1667, and when gold was discovered in 1696, it became the place where gold from the state of Minas was shipped out, and where the supplies to extract it went in. Slaves built a rudimentary road through the mountains, and it took days to get things in and out to Ouro Preto, the still beautiful town in Minas where the shipments were controlled. Paraty is on a bay inside a larger bay, and besides being a tranquil port, this meant that gun emplacements on nearby peninsulas and islands could protect the town and its gold from outsiders. Many of those islands are now owned by Brazilian billionaires who park their yachts and host parties on them.
Access to the town was only through this very controlled road over the mountains—and from the sea—so the town was fairly isolated. The road from Ubatuba didn’t get built until the ‘70s.
The streets were designed to be lower than high tide—so the water would fill these shallow gullies and folks could clear out the street waste. Ugh. One can only imagine.
Eventually, Rio, the capitol at that time, decided they wanted to be the gold exporters, and a rail line was built, also by slaves, to Minas. I suspect the lords of Paraty were siphoning off a little during their period of control, and now the capitol wanted to have their turn at it. The supplies still went in via Paraty, but this boom period was over for them. (thanks to Michael, our bike trip guide, for this history lesson)
Another boom followed though, this time with coffee. The slaves were put back to work and Paraty flourished again. But in 1888 slavery was abolished in Brazil, and the cheap workforce was no longer available, so the town went into another economic slump.
There was one final trade boom—cachaça. There were hundreds of distilleries around here that fermented and bottled up the sugar cane liquor. It can be produced incredibly quickly and isn’t often left to age very long, so production was continuous. But even that came to an end. Now there are only a handful of artisanal cachaça distilleries around here. The town was more or less abandoned, except for a few fishermen who could eek out a living. Its days as a trading center were over. The houses were abandoned and because of the isolation of the place it was preserved. It never got developed, and the colonial streets and churches fell into ruin but remained intact.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s it was rediscovered by a new generation—the Brazilian counter culture and bohemians happened upon it and bought up the incredibly cheap and charming houses (there was still no land access), and here they could make art, write and frolic out of sight of the dictatorship that ruled Brazil at that time. There are still some of those folks left—some artist’s ateliers where their work is on display. Now it’s charming, but pretty touristy. The pousada where the guest writers and I stayed had photos on the wall of celebrity guests—Brazilian models and Mick Jagger among them.
I attended a couple of the literary events, sadly just those of the English language writers Joe Sacco and James Ellroy. I’m a huge fan of Sacco’s work, so it was a thrill to hear him explain a little how he works. I could have listened for a lot longer as he described his process—researching historical photos of Gaza refugee camps, interviewing various folks who remembered streets and parts of the camp from the past, and then reconstructing a scene for a flashback as only a graphic artist could do. His drawings are sometimes like cinematic crane shots—a bird’s eye view of a place or moment that captures way more than pages and pages of written description ever could. He puts himself in his journalistic narratives are well, and claimed Hunter Thompson (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) as a big influence—as someone who called out the bullshit and political maneuvering as he saw it.
Later in the afternoon I saw James Ellroy, the popular noir writer (LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia) make his presentation. I saw him in the hotel the night before, holding court with some young Brits, and complaining that he’d ordered his spaghetti carbonara 1 ½ hours ago—ah, Brazil, it does take some getting used to sometimes. His presentation couldn’t have been more different than Sacco’s. Ellroy is obviously a seasoned performer and he made an appropriate entrance. He’s a big guy and he clomped downstage in his hiking boots and a Hawaiian shirt, spread his legs apart, and began declaiming the opening paragraphs of his recent book. His scansion, meter or phrasing—where he would break and pause in a sentence and what words got accented—was bizarre and completely unnatural. I was reminded of a description in an Oliver Sacks book of mentally damaged patients howling with laughter while watching a Ronald Reagan speech on TV. Like many politicians, he taught himself to artificially break his sentences into bite size chunks, and give dynamic emphasis to various words, which varies the dynamics to hold interest. Though, in Reagan’s case, the choices of where to pause and what to emphasize were almost random—hence the laughter, as the brain damaged could see right through his performance, whereas we tend to accept such speechifying as normal. Ellroy was a bit like that. Not really pompous in the normal sense, he’s down to earth and sometimes funny, honest and even self-deprecating, but it was definitely larger than life as we know it. He was refreshingly honest about his likes and dislikes—doesn’t like Chandler and when compared to Dostoyevsky by Joyce Carol Oates, he had to admit he’d never read the Russian classics.
In the evening there was a small festival in front of a church. A band that sounded a little like Mundo Livre played a kind of sloppy but infectious samba rock, and an 80-year-old woman was on stage with them the whole time, dancing and occasionally playing a tambourine. In the audience were giant puppets with people inside, constructed so that they would appear to be dancing to the music as they mingled with the rest of us. One smaller one—a frog type creature—had a little kids face sticking out of the belly.
Not sure if this was part of the Flip event, or if it was associated with Santa Rita, whose church, built for mulattos, is in Paraty. The Italian Santa Rita had a swarm of bees fly in and out of her mouth as a child. Miracla!
My presentation went fine—I got laughs at the appropriate parts, so I knew it was being understood. Eduardo made a good speech as well—a passionate plea for a re-think on the connection between transportation and equality, especially in this part of the world. My publisher, Amarilys, is an imprint named after a young woman who is the daughter of a publisher of technical and trade books—Manole. This is the first book they have done, but it seems they are off to a good start. Her dad came to Brazil from Romania, fleeing repression of the Jews there. He ended up in Brazil selling English language encyclopedias to wealthy Brazilians who would display them proudly on their shelves. He eventually moved into technical and medical books, a steady and guaranteed source of income for decades. Now however, the technical book market is threatened by eBooks and other developments, which may have prompted the decision to diversify into other sorts of books, like mine.
We were invited to go on a bike ride out of town—to a cachoeira (a cascade of water) and back. It would be about 3 hours. The town itself is impossible to ride in—those paving stones are set far enough apart that the water will wash out the garbage in between them but it’s insane for biking, or for heels. As we left, we were trailed by press—who ran after us until we outpaced them. Brazilian newspapers Globo and Folha de Sao Paulo are both very present at Flip, the latter being a sponsor. The route lead upwards, through the outskirts of town, where the remaining locals got pushed when the center got gentrified. There are no colonial houses here, but it’s still pretty beautiful in parts.
We got stuck behind a bullock pulling a cart that contained a baby calf, just born that morning. I saw a very dirty satellite dish in the jungle—so someone is managing to enjoy their telenovelas, even in this fairly remote place.
The waterfall was a little underwhelming as a spectacle, but there was a nice swimming hole and a few of the biking party jumped in. It wasn’t warm enough for me to try it. It’s winter here—though it never gets really cold, you do need a jacket at night.
Dinner at night, courtesy of Amarilys. I was seated next to Jorge Forbes—a psychiatrist, essayist and philosopher from Sao Paulo—and his wife.
We had a good talk and he drew diagrams on a napkin to help explain his concepts while I took notes. I haven’t read Lacan, but he figured in there somewhere. The food at the restaurant, Punto Divino, was amazing—lots of fresh seafood, as you might imagine. Jorge’s wife said they arrived by helicopter, and the view from one is wonderful and we should try it. Well, maybe someday. I had accepted the inevitability of the 4+ hour drive back to Sao Paulo tomorrow.
So, the next day, as we were preparing to go on a smaller scale bike ride, we got a call from Jorge saying we had been invited to hitch a ride on the helicopter back to SP—we jumped at the chance. It turns out our hosts for the ride were really a young man and his girlfriend. He owns a fleet of 200 planes in Brazil (Go is the name of his company). He was wearing a Ramones T-shirt and jeans. Jorge is psychiatrist for both of them. Here is a clip of the helicopter rounding an Atlantic forest hill to reveal a bay and islands on the other side.