Booming and Busting in Belem

After the week in Rio, I flew 3.5 hours north to Belem in the state of Para.  Belem which means “Bethlehem” in Portuguese, sits on the Para river in the Amazon delta, about 100 kilometres upstream from the Atlantic.  It was the first European colony on the Amazon, founded by the Kingdom of Portugal in 1616 but only incorporated into Brazil in 1775.  It is the second largest city on the Amazon after Manaus.  Back in the day, Belem’s economy rose from the sugar industry.   The boom in Belem continued with cattle and then coffee, rice and cotton.  Once Southern Brazil was settled however, these crops could be produced more efficiently there and so Belem’s economy declined.  The city rose once again on the back of the rubber boom.  In 1876 however, a conniving English bio-pirate by the name of Henry Wickham smuggled out a about 70,000 rubber tree seeds back to England, and the British determined they could grow rubber plantations more efficiently in the former colonies of Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Africa.  And so, that was the end of that for Belem and the Amazon. Belem went bust again.  It was during the boom period that much of the impressive colonial architecture was built but walking around the city it seems that the “bust” period has had the greater impact.

Arriving in Belem and looking out the window of the taxi, the first impression I got was that this is very obviously a poor city.   I admit, I had a minor freak out.  It was not what I expected.  If you’ve ever been to Manila… Well, it reminded me of that: very run down and dirty, with lots of trash in streets.  Admittedly, I arrived at midnight which didn’t do anything to lessen the creepiness of that first impression.    I took an Uber to my Airbnb in the old town, Cidade Velha.  Usually, in my experience, the old towns and “centros historicos” of cities are restored and well maintained.  The government pumps a bit of money into them because that’s what brings in the tourist bucks.  I was thinking along the lines of Old Havana, Vecriga, The Rocks, something like that.  Well, Belem’s Old Town is a little different.  It’s old in the sense that it’s the historical part of the city, but also old in the sense that it’s a f***ing run-down dump…  And a dangerous dump at that, apparently.  Later however, when I saw other parts of the city, I realised I wasn’t doing too badly by staying there.  It gets a whole lot worse.  My disclaimer to anyone that I’ve just offended: The enjoyment of a city is not dependent it’s economic success.  For me, it’s all about the people and the experiences you have, and in that respect, Belem was up there with the best of them.  Although I knew that the north was poorer, somehow, I wasn’t quite expecting it.  It was a  shock.  After an adjustment period of a day or so, while I changed gears, it was smooth sailing.

Apparently, Belem is dangerous.  I’ve travelled a bit in Latin America now, and maybe I’ve gotten used to it, but it didn’t strike me as that bad. At least, during the day it didn’t seem that bad.  At night it looked a little bit sketchier.  I was standing outside my maximum-security Airbnb waiting for my Uber one day when a car pulled up and told me that I need to be more careful and should get back behind the iron gate or put my phone away.

Another night I was trying to call an Uber in another part of town, sketchier than Cidade Velha and was told by some people that the Uber wouldn’t come to this part of town.  That was a bit of a worry.

As I said, I took a day or two to change down gears and then everything was fine.  I spent the first couple of days seeing what sights there were.  Here are a few random snapettes from around Cidade Velha, just so you can get an idea.  There are a lot of Portuguese style houses, just very run down.

The Cathedral of Se is there, which is well maintained however.

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And some snapettes from the adjacent bairros, again just to give an idea:

By the docks:

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I went to the Ver-O-Peso market, which is by the docks and touted as one of the main attractions in the city.  It’s an interesting insight into the local culture, and if you’re into open-air produce markets then it’s an amazing experience.  Students often tell me that they went to the fish market in Sydney, and I think to myself, “what the hell for?  Are you really into fish?” But here I was doing the same.  There are lots of chickens, ducks and rabbits crowded into small cages in 35 + degree heat.  I realise that veganism and vegetarianism is a luxury that we in more affluent societies can afford.  Other people simply have to make do with what they can get. Nonetheless, I found it extremely depressing.

Being surrounded by so much water, fish and prawns are one of the mainstays of the city.  At the market, there are tables upon tables upon tables of raw prawns and dried fish, and again out in the open in 35+ degree heat.  It’s fine if you’re a dozen blind lesbians walking through, but it was a bit much for me. I took some snaps and quickly got the hell out.

Estacao das Docas is next to the market.  It’s part of the old docks that have been renovated and now turned into upmarket restaurants and bars, mainly aimed mainly for tourists.  Think Darling Harbour.

I took a power walk into the bairro, Nazare, which is one of the more well-to do neighbourhoods of Belem.  By the way, if you do visit Belem, then that’s the place to stay.  It’s more attractive and less run-down. The main cathedral of the city, the Basilica of Nazare is located there.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in intense sun, heat and humidity.  I made it to the cathedral but didn’t quite make it back.  I over-estimated my ability to power walk in tropical midday sun.  I ended up sitting through the mass because it was the only place with air-con where I could cool down.  I cooled down and then called an Uber and went back home.

The next day I took a boat ride to Ilha da Combu, which is an island in the river, just a short 15 minute boat ride away from the docks of Belem proper.  It was a nice day out… You just sit yourself in a resto-bar drinking cachaca and then you jump in the river.

Mangal das Garcas, a kind of mini botanical garden is another attraction in the city.  The main point of interest is the tower where you can get a good view of the city.

That was about it for my sightseeing.  The tropical heat and humidity didn’t really lend itself well to hardcore sightseeing or maybe I’m just getting soft.  I retreated back to my maximum security Airbnb and decided the only sightseeing I would do from then on would be nocturnal.  Then I stumbled across a club called Malice.  Yes, the club is called Malice, so you can fill in the blanks.

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And then suddenly it was Tuesday.  Time to leave.

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