In search of safe waters

Brazil, a country over twice the size of western Europe, conjures up images of golden beaches, raging rivers and dense rainforests as far as the eye can see. But adventures here may need more than a little "know- how"
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Let's look on the bright side first. The weather was perfect; one day of warm rain in a month. Per head of population, Brazilians must be the most sweet-tempered people on earth. You feel cuddled in the general amiability. There are vast amounts of superb scenery, since Brazil is larger than the US (minus frozen Alaska) and about two and a half times larger than western Europe, they have plenty of room for scenery. And for trees. Trees are the glory of Brazil. They are huge, exotic, sumptuous and everywhere. Britain looks tree-starved after Brazil.

The downside: the whole trip was a shambles. Official Brazilian tourist bumpf and the trustworthy Rough Guide to Brazil both acclaimed 2,000km of unbroken, white sandy beaches along the north-east coast of Brazil, the finest lying north and south of Recife. Once again, bumpf and guide book agreed on Salvador, a city founded by the Portuguese in 1549 which still retains much colonial charm. Built around a beautiful bay, it is the home of writers, poets, musicians, artists. It sounded like the Paris of Brazil.

I made a delicious plan. Three weeks soaking up sun, snorkelling and feasting on speciality seafood; three weeks in Salvador trying to learn something of Brazilian daily life. Local know-how would settle the details.

London to Recife took 15 hours. Snags abounded at once. These dear people speak Brazilian Portuguese and that's it. They do not get out of their gigantic country or even around it, and foreign tourists are as rare as ostrich eggs. I thought I'd get by with Spanish and I was wrong. Also, they are weak on facts but optimistically full of misinformation. You find out the facts yourself the hard way. Finally, Brazil is insanely expensive. They are used to years of inflationary funny money but the Real is now pegged at US$1.05, serious stuff. They continue to charge as if their money was worthless; I fetched up at a small hotel 65km south of Recife where my clean, primitive room and indifferent breakfast cost pounds 79 (same as the super-luxury Winter Palace in Luxor). Local know-how assured me that Galinhas was the ideal beach and my room overlooked the sea. The hotel was in fact built around a paltry swimming pool and a disco machine played loud Brazilian pop from 9am to 11pm. The guests made no noise at all.

I hurried to find the beach across a stretch of sand grass and down steep, wobbly, wooden steps. It looked like the M4 made of sand. Immensely wide, straight, shadeless and forbidding, it ran out of sight and was empty. Great Atlantic waves crashed in.

Clearly nobody used this beach to swim. No problem, they said at the hotel; two universal words to be dreaded in Brazil. Hire a beach buggy and five kilometres down the beach there is a safe bay.

It looked lovely, calm, clear water, with trees fringing its far side. I put on my mask and plunged in close to a rocky point. Before I knew it, the undertow had swept me to the middle of the bay and well beyond the rocks. Swimming harder and longer than I ever have, I did not move. Again and again, I swam as if on a treadmill, well and truly frightened. When I managed to get out, winded, shaken and angry, the buggy boy, on the high dune ridge said yes, it was very dangerous in the afternoon but good in the morning. This was afternoon. Swimming for your life is not exactly my idea of snorkelling.

Observation proved that "swim" does not mean the same thing to Brazilians. They go in up to their waists, wherever the water is smooth, and bounce happily, keeping a firm grip on the sea bed. They know this ocean - 2,000km of beach from which to paddle or drown.

Local know-how suggested the island of Fernando de Noronha 480km north- east of Recife. An ecological paradise, they all said, not having been there. The flight in a small plane took an hour and 20 minutes, the fare being pounds 233. The island is scenically remarkable but I only cared about snorkelling. Again a longish drive, with a jolly Brazilian group, to a guaranteed super-safe bay. It was amusing to swim, untouched, in a cloud of a million sardines, tiny, fast, silver fish, but when I saw the Brazilians had stopped bouncing in the shallows, I assumed it was time to return to the island's only hotel.

When I got out a nice, tall, black islander said "no problem" and told me I should snorkel at the other side of the bay, crystalline water, more fish. He forgot to tell me that here the sea bed was like a whipped-cream quagmire. As my leg sank in, I lost my balance, he grabbed my left forearm, pulling up as I slid down. When we were both standing firmly he took his hand away and, to our amazement, my skin had peeled off with it. "Hospital!" he cried. My arm began to bleed melodramatically, blood dripping off my fingers. The poor hospital had no antibiotics and had not before been presented with the odd behaviour of thin 87-year-old skin. They could only bandage the red mess and advise a Recife hospital immediately.

My "luxury" room reminded me of a Texas highway motel in the Fifties, (price with three fiercely inedible meals, pounds 100 per day). I lay on the narrow bed and knew I was operating under a curse. This trip was doomed.

The Recife hospital informed me that my arm was like a burn case. Kept dry, dressings changed every other day, I could swim again after it healed, in a month. Now there was nothing to do except use my air pass, bought in London, the only bargain in Brazil, and hop around the country. Brazilian transit lounges and planes are kept at cold-storage temperatures, just right for animal carcasses. Brazilians, dressed like me in thin cotton clothes, do not notice this. I got off to a chilled start due to a five- hour wait in the Recife transit lounge. The ticket agent at the central airline office misinformed me of the flight time. I missed my takeoff by five minutes. Recife to Belo Horizonte took six hours and 20 minutes, shivering all the way. The result was a gold-medal cold with a cough like angered geese.

Brazil is divided into states on the US model. Belo Horizonte is the boom capital of a state larger than France, where they mine everything from emeralds to iron ore and produce other untold riches. The city is a comically ugly sprawl of new high rises, cocoa a favourite colour. The lively citizens are proud of it and of the biggest football stadium in the world. The bone-poor live in home-made piled-up shacks on one ridge while the wealthy live in upmarket suburbia-style homes on the opposite ridge.

From Belo Horizonte to Porto Alegre in the deep south was a mere four hours and 20 minutes flight. This pleasant, scruffy little capital lies on a river far wider than the Mississippi. In the big outdoor market, fruit and veg are as splendid as jewels. The main excursion is a day's tour of Brazil's Switzerland, two cute resort villages on high hills. Everywhere, the other tourists were Brazilians only. They took innocent, uncritical pleasure in their holiday. Unlike tourism elsewhere, neither the service end nor the paying public were ever sullen.

I did not really know what I was doing anywhere but I did know I wanted to see the Amazon River. From Porto Alegre to Manaus, capital of the enormous state of Amazonas, was seven hours and 15 minutes in a glacial plane. Local know-how said I must stay at the Hotel Tropicale in the heart of the Selva, the rain forest, on the banks of the river. I imagined a small hotel in a jungle clearing, reached by a rutted mud road. Instead, I took a taxi at the airport and was dropped at the palatial portico of a hotel with 601 rooms. Here, at last, were foreign tourists.

There was no view of forest or river but a swimming pool like a lake. I hated the place, enduring it for the next day's boat trip. The river here is the Rio Negro, a tributary, impressive in its own right since you cannot see the far bank. Between the hotel and the old tourist tub, the rain caught us. We passengers looked as if we had showered in our clothes. All day, rain fell in lovely slanted, silver lines, the only day of rain, the only day I would ever spend on the Amazon.

We chugged upstream to where the bitter-chocolate-coloured water of the Rio Negro melted into the caramel-coloured flood of the Amazon. The birds had taken shelter. The magnificent forest was blurred. Soaked and cold, heartsick at what I was missing, I still felt exultation. Man, so adept at ruining nature, could harm the rain forest but never tame this river.

The plane for Salvador left at 6am. The journey lasted 12 hours but my coughing got me two thin blankets and I dozed, waking to see the Amazon delta at Belem, a caramel water landscape.

If you learned Portuguese and had plenty of time and money, Salvador would be a good city, like Rome or Copenhagen for instance, to dawdle enjoyably, discovering old churches and streets, views, parks, shops. Thanks to Amanda Shakespeare, my sole contact in Brazil, I did get some notion of Brazilian daily life. Alone, she has created a small, happy refuge for street children, an endangered species. They are black sprites, undersized, underfed, undaunted. The central mystery re-mains. How do Brazilians manage to live? Local opinion says that 80 per cent of the population exists in poverty; there is no dole. Three per cent are ultra- rich, the rest are middle class; a middle-class income starts at pounds 71 month.

With such an economic base, you would expect sad faces, crushed people. Instead, you feel around you gladness of life. After a week of active curiosity, I came down to breakfast in the hotel lift with four tiny, grey-haired Brazilian ladies. I let them pass first and, as I stepped out, the steel doors of the lift clamped shut on my right forearm. "Emergencia!" they cried, as blood again appeared. The hotel surgery took over. Stylishly, I now had matching bandaged arms. Clearly for me, Brazil was a country too far. !


GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (0171 730 8111) has return fares from London to Recife in February starting at pounds 573. Return flights to Rio cost from pounds 344 return and a pounds 517 fare will fly you into Rio and out of Recife. To fly between Rio and Recife will cost around pounds 250 if booked here but can be arranged for less through a travel agent in Brazil.

TOURS: Passage to South America (0171 602 9889) offers tailor-made tours to Brazil with all accommodation in three-star hotels or better. A 14- night stay in Recife and Salvador for two costs from around pounds 1,200 per person (including accommodation and flights from the UK). Making your own arrangements is cheaper - 14 nights in Recife, Salvador and Rio costs from around pounds 160 per person, based on two sharing a double room. South American Experience (0171 976 5511) has a variety of tours to Brazil, including one to the Amazon jungle - prices start from pounds 210 for a two- night stay, including round-trip transfers from Manaus, accommodation, all excursions and full board. Flights from London to Brazil are not included.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The weather in Brazil varies widely according to the region. Recife, in the north-east, should be avoided between April and August when it experiences its wettest months. Rio, on the other hand, is moderately wet throughout the year.

Visitors are cautioned not to drink the water. Recommended inoculations include: typhoid, polio, hepatitis, yellow fever and tetanus. It is also advisable to take malaria tablets during the trip. British passport holders do not need a visa to enter Brazil on holiday, but are required to present a valid 10-year passport with six months remaining, a return ticket and proof of means of subsistence while in the country. Further information is available from the Brazilian Consulate General (0171 930 9055), 6 St Albans Street, London SW1Y 4SG.