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Oba! Brazil!

Exclamation marks, samba, football, coffee: apart from the commonplace clichés, Brazil with its coastal metropolises, never-ending forests, the river that the early explorers called the “sweet sea”, shows us the legacy of a violent and splendid history, a dramatic present, and a passion for the future; the fortunes of magnates, the misery and frenzy of Negroes and the pathetic decline of the Indios in the hidden villages of the Mato

 

Children of the Xavantes tribe play in the water of the Rio das Mortes. We are in the Mato Grosso, in one of the aldeias of the Indios; a village with huts set out in a semicircle in a little clearing in the impenetrable forest. The Indios are becoming extinct: less children are being born and illness is taking ever more lives. The indigenous races are completely defenceless against the diseases of the Whites. An Asian influenza that in Europe can be cured with some tablets and hot milk here becomes a scourge. The times of extermination have long gone: the days are finished when Conquistadores, pioneers and adventurers massacred at sight any Indian they met near the sugar plantations, goldmines or vast rubber estates. Of the 1,5 million indigenous before colonisation, only 200,000 are left. They are helped with medicine, advice and work implements donated by the employees of the Indian Protection Service (spi), an organisation founded in 1910 by General Rondon. Even in this Xavantes village there is a spi man. He lives in a small bungalow not far from the natives’ huts and received the regular visits of the DC3 when it lands on a rudimentary runway built near the river; he helps the pilot unload the supplies and then hosts them for the night. The small cemetery at the margins of the forest has four graves of Whites: they were killed by the tribe leader who still lives in the village and every so often invites the spi employee to his hut. The order that General Rondon gave in 1910 to the volunteers of the organisation was: “Die if necessary, but never kill”.

The abstract city of Brasilia is now taking form; people queue at bus stops, other who go out for evening strolls, or sit in the cafes or go to the cinema. […] Brasilia is 900 kilometres from the coast, and it is the capital of the “Frontier”, an exorbitantly expensive symbol of the marcha para o Oeste that still binds the Brazilian people together: a race towards the riches of the West, hidden above and below the ground in a vast region of several million square kilometres. Simple leaving Brasilia and penetrating into the surrounding savannah is sufficient to comprehend how difficult this new “conquest” will be.

Two melancholic riders have made a good catch, and now they are taking their baskets full of fish to the market in São Luis. Every day they travel to the beach in Olho d’Água from the city, 20 kilometres in the morning and 20 at night on their mule or on foot. They lower their coral, a sort of wicker mat shaped to form an enclosure, and then wait for the high tide. The fish scamper through the rising water towards the shore and swim into the enclosure, but they realise too late that the receding tide leaves them imprisoned. The fishermen arrive, empty the coral filling their baskets and depart once again for São Luis. The road runs along the coast, blinding white with sand as fine as flour; indeed, so fine that it sticks to the feet and hands, but a quick puff of air and it’s gone.

Pink, blue and yellow houses, grey bell-towers, shining cobblestones: this is Ladeira do Pelourinho, one of the most beautiful squares in Salvador, in the State of Bahia. But this is only the official name of the city: nobody in Brazil says Salvador, everyone just calls it Bahia. Colonial 1700s architecture, superb villas, marble, plasterwork and 228 churches. The former sugar capital today is a splendid photo album and home to poets, guitarists, and refined tourists. The city starts with the silence of the grandiose buildings and austere streets in the upper part; down below, near the port, it is filled with vibrancy, colour and noise. For two centuries 3,5 million Negro slaves disembarked here to toil in the sugar cane plantations, and now 350,0000 of their descendants sell sweetmeats, alcohol and knick-knacks or unload cargo ships. Every so often they abandon themselves to that fascinating and mysterious rhythm of the Candomblé, a religion with Christian saints and pagan names, a remote obsession celebrated through the rhythm of dance. […]

It is Carnival in Rio and the Negro girls dress up as French countesses, daughters of Portuguese plantation owners, the Queen of Sheba or Cleopatra. This is the festival of the Negroes and of samba. The Whites remain on the sidelines observing. It lasts for three days, Sunday, Monday and Shrove Tuesday: the students and teachers of the city’s Samba schools parade dancing down the six kilometres of Avenida Presidente Vargas to reach Avenida Rio Branco, only to lose themselves exhausted in the Flamengo and Botafogo neighbourhoods. This, however, is only the “planned model”: the parade is not an orderly procession, it divides up into a thousand small groups, rivulets of dancers trickle through the streets, paralysing and deafening the city. The inhabitants are so caught up in the delirium of samba that some years ago 300,000 people participated at the funeral of a popular singer killed in a car accident. At a certain moment, a sole voice from the crown improvised a funeral dirge with a samba rhythm; some standers by took up the refrain and in a few minutes, tens of thousands of persons were singing the farewell samba and crying.

Leaning on a palm tree on the beach of Itapoan, near Bahia, the jangadeiro poses for the photographer. In a few hours, he will be on the open sea in his jangada with a fellow fisherman, hoping for a good catch. It isn’t an easy way to fish, and the jangada is not a comfortable vessel: a sort of raft with six large trunks and a white triangular sail. Not even a nail: the trunks are held together with an ingenious slotting mechanism and then bound with robust ties. They leave in the morning and stay at sea for two or three days, always with their feet in water. Depending on the season, they fish for lobsters, prawns or other crustacean. They don’t use nets; and all they need are some lines with hooks, open and attentive eyes, a ready hand and much experience. When they have caught enough, they return to the shore. From the distance, their womenfolk can be seen waiting for their return: their wives or mothers wave and ask if the catch was good. […]

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