Tropical charm in Belém

First view of the Amazon

The two mature ladies sitting at the table in front of me dissolve again into scratchy cackles of laughter as they order their third large bottle of cold beer and blow large billows of smoke out from a long drag of another cigarette.

It is a humid Thursday afternoon in the city of Belém, which perches elegantly at the mouth of the Amazon river.

After spending an hour unsuccessfully trying to find somewhere to do a bookswap before our boat trip, Phil and I have stopped for a snack.

The small, ornate kiosk with outdoor seating that we have stumbled across in the shade-dappled square is, we later discover, a bit of a much-loved institution that attracts the high and low of society at night.

Ver-o-Peso market

I soon get chatting to the terrible twosome and am slightly taken aback to learn they are well-travelled architects. I draw the conclusion that Belém’s inhabitants can be as surprising as the place itself.

Although in parts a bit rough around the edges, the city’s spacious mango tree-lined streets, old buildings and various attractions offer a warm charm I think I last felt only in Rio de Janeiro.

Earlier that day we had sipped cool avocado smoothies at a stand of the Ver-o-Peso market, which overlooks the calm, wide brown waters of the river.

Brazil nuts at Ver-o-Peso market

The bustling indoor and outdoor stalls offered everything from Amazonian fruit juices to natural viagra. And, of course, piles of tasty Brazil nuts.

An old woman with hardened hands deftly chopped the rough brown skin off piles of manioc, while a few metres away a fisherman on the pavement scaled a huge gutted fish in the sunshine – watched with a keen eye by the vultures circling overhead.

Hot red and green peppers were sold fresh, sun-dried or made into a thick yellowy chilli sauce that is poured into old plastic water bottles, and the fragrant scent of herbs filled the air.

Fishermen by Belém harbour

We stopped to suck on frozen pineapple slices and sample fresh acerola and tamarind fruits, watching the crowds of people from all walks of life gather to eat fried fish and unsweetened açaí.

“Is it hot in Germany like it is here?” Maria hiccups, back in the square.

“England,” her friend corrects her, pressing another cigarette between her pursed lips using a hand adorned with neatly manicured, deep red fingernails.

We go on to compare notes about our respective countries and Belém as the sun beats down.

A scarlet ibis

I mention our trip to the tranquil Mangal das Garças park, where we strolled among fluttering butterflies and scarlet ibises, and how we saw white-whiskered monkeys peel bananas and swing from their long tails for fun at the rainforest-filled Museu Emílio Goeldi.

We chat about the tongue-tingling properties of local speciality Pato no tucupi – duck in manioc juice and jambu leaf sauce – and the ladies grin knowingly when I tell them our short-lived pledge to not drink any beer for a while was smashed to pieces with one visit to the “Amazon Beer” microbrewery by the old docks.

The famous statue of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré

They tell us that hundreds of thousands of people from all over Brazil join in Belém’s most popular attraction – the Círio de Nazaré, where the statue of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré is paraded through the streets every October.

A pink-faced, Polo-shirted man with a receding hairline approaches our new friends clutching a bottle of beer. He says something to make them roar with laughter again.

Phil and I say our goodbyes and head off to the imposing basilica that houses the famous statue, believed to have been sculpted in Nazareth and capable of performing miracles.

We marvel at how something so small in size could provoke such an immense following.

But then, what else in the city of the unexpected?


About travellingtoothbrushes

We are a couple of journalists with restless toothbrushes. Our teeth scrubbers seem unable to leap out of their respective washbags to take up a permanent residency on the bathroom shelf. So, we've decided to let them live the way they want to and take them on a trip around South America...
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3 Responses to Tropical charm in Belém

  1. Lieske says:

    Loving your blog – very evocative. Keep the posts coming!!

  2. Lieske says:

    What a colourful account! Just like a movie. Makes me wanna be there. So jealous. Pete X

  3. Tia Annegret says:

    Wow – Awesome Amazonas…anyone mentioned the piranhas yet – ;.))))

    Just back from the “original” Belém, near Lisbon, where the nearby monastery has a taller version of the Madonna of the manifold miracles…and the Tejo looks just as wide for a bit!…How’s that for a co-incidence? With a pack of travel agents in tow I never get a chance to meet “real” people, so I enjoy reading about your chance meetings even more!

    My colleagues could barely hold back with uttering something stronger than “stop gloating” …
    Proudest Aunt Ever…:-) Keep writing, keep Phil from eating suspicious looking thingies and never give up on just enough booze to kill off the germs…

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