Friday, June 21, 2013

Rest and Unrest

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived safe and sound in São Luís, Maranhão. As I stepped off the plane, I could already hear the percussive sound of folkloric drums being played. And that is not meant as a metaphor-- in the airport, a group of dancers donning the traditional junina costumes danced and performed to the delight of the recently arrived tourists (the vast majority of whom were Brazilian).

It was about 3 in the afternoon when my advisor, Tania, and I arrived. We were met at the airport by one of the undergraduate students participating in the conference next week. He drove us through the confusing streets (paved and unpaved) of São Luís. It seems motorists here in São Luís need not a driver's license but a contract with God or the devil to be able to navigate the intricate and ever-changing traffic patterns. An example: on a road where at one time there seems to have been a stripe painted down the middle, implying two lanes, we are weaving between three and sometimes four lanes of traffic. Another example: it is perfectly acceptable to drive down the wrong side of an unpaved road in order to avoid Escalade-sized potholes (naturally).

As I peered out the car windows, I took in my first glimpses of the city. The green of fruit trees, though ubiquitous, is often eclipsed by the neon paint covering small shops, hardware stores, car garages, and community centers. The breezes from the nearby Atlantic offer a welcome reprieve from the otherwise dense, humid air during this (winter!) season, two degrees off the equator.

Jimi Hendrix, the Brazilian dog
When we arrived at our hosts' house, we were greeted by a small pack of adorable little dogs, and hugged and kissed by our hosts (a handshake is such a cold greeting- I'm giving it up!). We were immediately given a tour of their beautiful garden, which had coconut trees, carambola (star fruit trees), sweet chiles, spicy chiles, and buriti palms (a tree with which people of this region make a huge variety of goods).

After the tour of the garden and the house, we were told to go shower! Due to the humidity and heat, one showers about 3-4 times daily, as a matter of cleanliness but also comfort. My host joked with me, saying "When you come to Brazil they say, 'welcome, do you want to take a shower now?"

Food, wine, and rich conversation about Brazilian history followed. After about 27 hours in airports and cramped airplanes, I felt I had died and gone to heaven.

This morning, Tania and I ventured into the historic downtown of São Luís. Many of the buildings were built in the 17th century by Portuguese colonists. This area was declared a cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 2002, but since then, there has been little restoration work on many of the buildings. I'm told that the houses are privately owned and many owners chose not to spend the money for repairs, simply waiting for the buildings to fall into such disrepair that they can demolish them and build a parking lot, which is apparently much more lucrative than a house that is about 500 years old. Other  owners are just hoping that the government will step in and complete the necessary repairs. Either way, it is a little bit sad to see heritage crumble in places.

Nevertheless, the city center is gorgeous. The buildings' facades are adorned with beautiful Portuguese tile and, due to the 20-day festival held every year in June, little flags stretch between the balconies.

Lanterns, waiting to shine at night
While Tania and I explored the area, we popped into a number of different shops selling artisanal goods made by local indigenous groups. We went to the Igreja da Sé and the Igreja de Carmo (I didn't take photos inside, as people were praying). We stopped into a hat maker's shop, too, as I am on the hunt for a chapeu de cangaceiro for my husband. We also had fresh coconut water in the middle of a cobblestone street. Finally, we visited a free museum (located in an 18th century house) dedicated to showing the works of Dom Nhôzinho, an artist who was crippled from birth, had claw hands, one foot, and one eye. He fashioned his own wheelchair and made art compulsively. It was hard to get pictures from inside the museum, but there are no other images I can find available online.
Hat maker

Coconut seller: first she wields the knife...  

...then she gives you a delicious drink.

Note: the street I'm enjoying this coconut on was constructed in the 1600s. 

Ceramic plate depicting traditional masks and costumes of the junina festivals

From inside the Museu de Dom Nhôzinho, looking out

Giant puppets

The Museu is located in a 18th century colonial house- this is a fountain inside

Dom Nhôzinho's art work

Dom Nhôzinho

Dom Nhôzinho

A collection of art studios next door had this giant statue of Christ, watching over the painters....
I believe that tonight I will get the chance to see the Bumba meu boi celebration. I am not sure if I'll be able to take the camera, however, as it will be a very crowded event, and it takes place at night... we shall see, fair petticoat rustlers!

I also wanted to note that the Brazilian people, in cities all over the country, are in protest of the government's shameless appropriation of their money and the rampant corruption that plagues the political system here. I have not seen, nor been part of, any of these protests yet. I suspect (hope) I will see one, and be able to relay to you what it was like. I am very impressed by the peacefulness and tranquilness with which the people demonstrate their agitation... it allows their movement to retain dignity and integrity-- two things they are attempting to get back into government.

Until next time- keep rustling those anáguas!


  1. Wonderful! Love reading your impressions and looking at the great pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  2. what a gem, your blog, taiko! fantastic to read about, see, sense brazil through your intelligent eyes. you are definitely in the right place.

    xxoo, e&g