Brazil on a motorbike

In the latest dispatch from his round-the-world motorcycle tour, Ted Simon describes his arrival in South America.

Fortaleza, on the north-east coast of Brazil just three degrees from the equator, was already a large city in the 1970s, when I and my motorcycle floated in on a small freighter from Africa. Even so, scarcely anyone outside Brazil had heard of the place. I was regarded with great suspicion from the outset, and within a few days I was locked away by the federal police.

Near the centre of town, not far from the cathedral, is a modest two-storey villa with a basement and one small room perched above the roof. When I first knew it in 1974, it was red brick. Impressive antennae sprouted from the room on the roof, and big black cars roared in and out of the basement garage. From this building General Geisel, the military dictator of Brazil, extended his iron rule over Fortaleza and the poverty-stricken state of Ceara.

In this city of two or three million (depending on how many favellas you count) everyone over the age of 40 seems to know where this villa is, even though the federal police moved out more than 20 years ago. That is a measure of the power they wielded.

It was here that I was locked up. For several days I was afraid that I would not get out alive, and I experienced the terror that so many other captives of that regime must have known. The episode had a profound effect on me. I wrote about it at length at the time, and in even greater detail in my book Jupiter's Travels. For years afterwards I was able to summon up the emotional turmoil of those days. In the event I was lucky. Some people in London discovered where I was, and after 14 days, reluctantly, I was freed. A great many Brazilians were not so fortunate.

Today the villa is painted white, and big letters in pastel colours pronounce it to be the cultural centre of the city. I stand in front of it trying to revive those fears when I waited to find out what they would do with me, or to me, but I can no longer bring them to life. It happened too long ago. To my surprise I find that my own past has become history. I have to read my own book to find out how I felt. Even so, my curiosity is intense. What will it be like inside? I remember it very well, the place where I was interrogated, the tiled area where I shivered through the night in a cold, damp draught, the dark stairs down to what I fancifully thought of as dungeons. But once inside I see that it has all been rebuilt. The room where they held me is no longer open to the air, and it is the office of a grey-bearded poet, de Barros Pinho, who listens to my story with a half-smile.

"How long were you here," he asks.

"Fourteen days," I tell him.

"Ah," he says, "I was here for 120."

I accept my status as a mere dilettante of political imprisonment (although the first days are probably the worst). We shake hands. I ask to see the basement, still hoping for a thrill, remembering the coughing and groans I heard down there. The director, another older grey-bearded man, takes me down, but it's not the same. Today you can go down only from the outside. And the cells have been remodelled, except for one. Its iron-bar door is still intact but it is used for storing office supplies. I ask the director if there was some sense of triumph at having turned this hateful place into a cultural centre. He looks at me intently, struggling to express his bitter thoughts. "There was no triumph. This was not Cuba. There was no revolution. People just let it slip by. If we take this last cell door away, everything will be forgotten."

I can see what he means. When you mention the dictatura to people they are likely to say "that was bad" and move on quickly to another topic. They haven't forgotten, but unlike Chileans and Argentines, they just don't want to think about it.

The overall transformation of the city in two decades is stunning. Everything is completely changed. The docks where I landed are entirely rebuilt. Money from the textile and shoe industry has showered down on the city and its beaches. Fortaleza has become one of the most popular tourist resorts in Brazil.

Modern 20-storey apartment blocks line the fashionable Praia de Iracema. Where once the streets were obstacle courses of broken pavement, sand and floodwater, there are now well-maintained roads, pedestrian precincts, shopping malls. Where there once seemed to be only mildewed and decrepit buildings, there are now clean, brightly painted façades or new construction.

Not everything is better. The once imposing cathedral has had its black brick completely cemented over, and now stands grey and diminished. The area around it, where refugees from the flooded interior once slept almost naked on the pavements, is now fenced in with commercial car parks. Where have they gone? To the favellas, of course. Today there are 600 around Fortaleza.

But it's hard to make a connection with the past I knew, until I find the priests ­ those Irish Redemptorist priests who were both my undoing and my salvation.

To my astonishment and delight, two of them are still here. At the parish house of the church of Sao Raimundo, I find Padre Marcello, otherwise known as Patrick Lavery. It was Marcello who took me on the bus ride to Iguatu, where the floods were at their worst. It was at Iguatu that I was seen taking the pictures that got me locked up. Marcello is 67 years old now, thin and slightly stooped, but still bright as a button with an impish eccentricity about him. He tells me where to find Ned Going. Ned and Brendan Walsh (who later left the priesthood) were the two firebrands of the group, the ones most anxious to deal with the practical injustices inflicted on the people. So it comes as no surprise that Ned is living in a favella. We get him on the phone and I hear his big, bold voice inviting me to come and see for myself.

It's hot when I arrive, and Ned comes out of his hovel to greet me with a wide smile, wearing nothing but jeans, sandals and the grey woolly hair on his chest, although he puts his shirt on later for the camera. He lives and works in two tiny rooms built of unfinished hollow-core bricks, but he is very well connected, with a computer and a cell phone. He seemed very strong and healthy. He and his colleague have the job of "looking after" 20 favellas altogether, and they get around on small motorbikes.

The favella he lives in is not too bad today. Most of the buildings are now built of brick. "When they first moved in here they were just mud and plastic," Ned tells me. "Seven times they were kicked out and their homes were destroyed. After that they were left alone.

"They've been very clever. You see this whole area has been laid out for development. There are spaces for private houses, and spaces for public streets. They managed to get hold of the plans, and they've only put up their houses on the streets. It will be much harder for the municipality to kick them off without rehousing them."

Especially since it will all take place under the nose of the powerful governor of the state. High above us, overlooking the favella and the ocean, the governor has his mansion, and next to it is the equally imposing home of one of Brazil's star footballers, Jardel.

Ned delights in these stratagems, although he denies indignantly, with a wink, having any part in them himself.

"Have you heard of the MST?" he asks. "No? Oh, you must get into that. The Movimento dos Sem Terra, for those without land. It's very strong now, all over the country. They had a big demonstration here recently. The governor wouldn't speak to them, so they got a crowd out on the big avenue along the beach and blocked it completely."

Eventually the governor ordered the police to surround them and starve them out. But people came up behind the police cordon and threw food over their heads. Ned, of course, was in the thick of it. "When that first loaf of bread came flying over," he said, beaming through his glasses, "well, I can't tell you how good it felt."

Finally, one night the governor sent a fleet of buses, and ordered the police to ship them out by any means, but someone got wind of the plan. Journalists rushed down there. "I hurried down myself," says Ned. "We all had cell phones and we were calling all over the world, human rights organisations and so on." The governor was suddenly flooded with calls of protest, and couldn't go through with it.

Even Ned will agree that for the poor in Brazil things are a bit better than they were, and I have found this true too. I had to ride 2,000 miles north from Rio to return to this city, and all of Brazil seems to have leaped ahead. Nowhere else on this journey have I seen such improvement, and I wonder whether the rest of South America, the despair of the world in the 1970s, will look so good.

In Rio the favellas are much improved. Public transport is not the horror it can be in Africa. Brazil has gone frantically plastic. Credit cards work everywhere. Getting money used to be a torture, but today there are more cash machines than shoeshine boys.

Cars and trucks are modern, and small motorcycles are everywhere, where there used to be none. They have even invented the MotoTaxi. Young men in uniform jackets with a small bike and a spare helmet will take you anywhere in town for 50p.

The roads on the whole are not bad, but there is still a lot of the old Brazil. The most important routes in the north are still two-lane, and commercial traffic is very heavy. On the principal highway linking Rio to Fortaleza, north of Salvador, there are many miles so broken up that they are more pothole than road surface. Truck drivers, who will do anything to save their suspensions, swing wildly from one side of the road to the other. When two strings of traffic meet the effect is awesome. Huge 26-wheel vehicles cavort around each other as in a drunk-driving nightmare.

This tipsy terpsichory of titanic trucks and tankers is a wonder to behold, but a dangerous distraction for a motorcyclist. I won't join in. It may be Brazilian to dance, but it's British to stay alive.

'Jupiter's Travels', Ted Simon's account of his original journey around the world, is published by Penguin, price £7.99. WHSmith.co.uk is offering Independent on Sunday readers 20 per cent off. Go to enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/For more information on Ted Simon's current journey, go to www.jupitalia.com.

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