Wednesday, 23 May 2007

See you in Rio

I just said that to the Dutch couple I met, and it felt like an almost impossibly glamorous and exciting arrangement to make, like "Meet you in the Red Lion at half past eight" but with added international pizzaz.

Sorry, I had to have a slightly smug moment there, because the last few days have been gruelling - almost as bad as being at work, in fact. Maybe it's a hangover from the Manaus aggravation, maybe it's gustatory ennui after spending a fortnight eating pasta, rice and beans every meal, maybe it's claustrophobia due to lying *rse against elbow with a load of sweaty Brazilians on a boat that couldn't accommodate a tenth part of their body odour (Brazilians don't shower much. I think it interferes with their mojo). I don't know what it is, but I've finally come to the conclusion that river boating the length of the amazon has to be considered one of life's great mistakes, like Luton, pickled gerkins and wearing your trousers round your *rsehole so people can see your pants*.

Mind you, by the time you next hear this story it will all have become a fantastic adventure and jolly exciting with it. Time is a great healer, as they say, and blatant lies are pretty useful, too.

* I hope that modern youths are getting married like this. I want them to look back on their wedding photos in thirty years or so, when their brains are fully developed, and say "Why did no-one tell us?"

(Obviously if any of you wear your trousers in this way, it's only a joke. It's a good look. It suits you)

Anyway I have no better way to express the full horror of this recent five day boat trip except to say that on the first afternoon they ran out of beer.

Day one, no beer. Day two ... no beer. Day three ...

Brazilian beer isn't great anyway, to be honest. I can think of many ways they could improve it (avoiding the flavour and aroma of badger urine maybe), but adding some alcohol would be a good start. After you've been drinking solidly for more than three weeks and have consumed the equivalent of about three cans of stella, you start to get some funny ideas on the subject, but I definitely want to tell the breweries here that fermenting some yeast until it actually generates alcohol would be a pretty neat idea.

Because it's so hot they serve it in thimbles as well, which an elderly asthamtic basically inhale in one fairly shallow breath. This enables you to build up a really good relationship with a barman since you'll get to see him every twenty seconds or so. The Brazilian barmen like this, since they view all forms of trade and commerce as impediments to the serious business of flirting, so they try to keep the disruption to a minimum.

Brazilian guy - "Wow, have you finished your beer already?"
Dutch girl - "He's English, remember, this is like water to him"
Me - "I thought it was water"

It might have been hysteria caused by lack of alcohol, it might have been the result of some bad pasta, rice and beans at lunch, but I swear that at one point on the boat I could feel myself sobering up.

Note that my first boat out of Peru didn't even have a bar, and that was okay because we all bought some at the numerous stops. Obviously having a bar with no beer is far worse than having a beer with no bar.

I think this boat was run by the temperance movement, because this time you weren't allowed to bring your own booze, and they'd packed six crates of small beers to supply about seventeen thousand people for four days. Six crates of twelve cans of 300ml of weak beer. That's twenty one point six litres, which is thirty eight pints of beer for the entire boat, for five days. I don't think they ever intended to run a bar, I think that was the first mate's personal stash. Luckily several of us had wisely ignored the bring-a-bottle prohibition and the otherwise undrinkable cane spirit kept us going for a while, but when we stopped for supplies on the third day I think there would have been riots if the ship's captain hadn't bought the entire town's beer supply.

That lasted another couple of hours, I think.

I managed to wangle the first can of the new batch. The barman didn't want to sell any because they were warm and they'd give the drinker indigestion, but I patiently explained to him that I would no longer consider myself an Englishman on the day that I couldn't stomach warm beer.

So I'm now in Sao Luis, on the east coast of Brazil, where the river gives way to the beach, the jungle gives way to surf, and mosquitos make way for ... more mosquitos. At least I'm now out of the malaria zone, or so I'm told by the same kind of people that swore there was no malaria in Brazil anyway.

I think a country admitting to having malaria is equivalent to a school-mum admitting that their child has headlice.

A lot of what you hear about Brazil is myth - for instance, the music is rubbish. I'm sure that there's some great stuff going on in exclusive clubs somewhere, but what the average Brazilian is listening to makes Europop sound like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. They can dance to it, mind, but I think that's a result of the sugar cane alcohol, booze that makes even rocket engines splutter and cough. There may be an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but it's almost all undrinkable filth. I was told the infrastructure was more developed than Peru, but it's now been three weeks since my last hot shower.

Mind you, if there ever was a nation in need of a collective cold shower it's this one.

After all the hype, Brazil really is football mad to an extent that makes England seem like a country that watches the odd match, in between the cricket and the curling tournaments. When Brazilian children are born, they come out practising their goal celebration. When they cry, instead of "Waah!" they scream "Goooooooooooooooooooooooooool!". When they're baptised they're not given a bible, they're given a tiny pair of boots and a copy of the rule book.

And so on.

On the boat we drifted past many a tiny settlement, with three houses, a church and a football pitch. One place we passed consisted of one shack in the middle of the jungle, except that the guy that lived there had cleared enough space beside his hovel for a very well maintained five-a-side pitch, just in case nine of his closest friends dropped by for a kickabout. I pictured him as the kind of person that would complain if a decision went against him, whining "It's my pitch, and you're not playing!" every time he got tackled, though maybe I'm doing him a disservice.

On the boat I watched Flamengo beat Botafoga to win the Brazilia Cup, a 2-2 draw at full time and then straight to penalties. After every goal, everyone watching went crazy, no matter who they were supposed to be supporting. In Belem I watched on TV as Romario scored his thousandth goal and you'd have thought he'd risen from the dead the way they carried on.

Their love of football seems to be so great that some of them even support the England team. I've seen more England shirts here than in anywhere outside England, which almost seems perverse when you have such a heritage to fall back on. Possibly they like the understated charm of our single world cup star compared to their five, or possibly they wear the shirt in an ironic way, as we now watch the TV shows from our childhood - you know they're dreadful but they have a certain naive charm. Perhaps our style of football seems strange and exotic to them - like our dignified unwillingness to run up the pitch, our reluctance to score goals even in penalty shoot-outs, or our gentlemanly habit of hoofing the ball upfield to the opposition whenever we get hold of it.

Although football is clearly the state religion, nominally Brazil is a catholic country. Every business has a picture of a very white and very blond Jesus behind the counter, because the Son of God likes to rip off the gringos as much as anyone. In terms of actual behaviour patterns, however, it's a cross between Dirty Dancing and the Wicker Man, but Brazil has all the charm that Bolivia doesn't, so I'm looking forward to heading down the coast for the next few weeks.

All the best


No comments: