Friday, August 24, 2007

Picturesque Parati

It was the description in our guidebook that first caught my attention.

‘UNESCO considers Parati to represent one of the world's most important examples of Portuguese colonial architecture….The town centre was one of Brazil's first planned urban projects, and its narrow cobbled streets, out of bounds to motorized transport, are bordered by houses built around courtyards…’

When we arrived by bus from Rio, it was not at all what we expected. Instead of ornate stone buildings, we found simple, predominantly single story white stucco buildings. However, windows and doorways were painted in different colours, creating a rainbow effect along the street. It reminded me of Obidus in Portugal, which we once visited on Larry Beasley’s recommendation. There, all the buildings were painted white, with yellow and blue trim. However, this place had another interesting feature.

I was surprised to find the very bumpy stone streets quite wet in places, which seemed odd since it hadn't been raining. As we walked down towards the waterfront, we realized what was happening. The streets were being flooded by the ocean. I didn't learn until much later, this was not an accident. It was by design. At high tides, and especially at full moon, water would enter the town and flood the streets, washing away excrement from donkeys and goodness knows what else. A local artist told us that at certain times the water could be so high, he would be stranded if he didn’t leave in time, and have to arrange for a donkey and cart to transport him away from his studio.

Over the years, many of the buildings have been converted to pousadas, art galleries, restaurants, and shops. Much of the town is now geared to tourists, and has become a venue for conferences. While we were there, we met some physicists who had been attending a week long session on quantum physics. I know that my good friend John Swift would have liked it, since he got so much enjoyment from the film ‘What the Bleep do we Know?’ that we saw together one evening in Vancouver.

Since we arrived without accommodation we immediately went to the nearby tourist information centre. We were told the town was essentially booked up for the weekend, but after our expressions of regret, were found accommodation at the Hotel Coxixo, one of the larger hotels in the historic centre. As it turned out, the town was by no means booked up, but would be the next weekend, since the annual cachaca festival was taking place. (Cachaca is to Brazil what Tequila is to Mexico. Except this is made from sugar cane like rum, but without the pleasant taste of rum! Shops around town offered hundreds of different varieties.)

The hotel was very charming, but unusual in that everywhere there were photos and memorabilia of some actress. It was like a shrine to her and there was even a small theatre on the property. It turned out the hotel was owned by Maria Della Costa, once one of Brazil’s most famous actresses. On the hotel literature, she proclaims 'Te espero com cainho'. 'I wait for you tenderly'.

Compared to Sao Paulo and Rio, Parati seemed almost surreal. It was so very comfortable walking around and felt like the safest place on earth. There was only one small piece of graffiti, which I offered to paint over myself if someone would give me the paint. I didn’t have to. It was gone the next day!

In addition to just wandering around, we went on two outings. The first was a schooner trip to some nearby islands in the bay that included an opportunity to go snorkeling. After being at the Great Barrier Reef, this was a bit disappointing, but still enjoyable. While we were the only English speaking people on our boat, we managed to make a few friends. By the time we got back, the weather was starting to change, but the views back to the town were impressive.

We also took a jeep expedition to the National Park of Serra da Bocaina with its preserved rain forest and waterfalls. We visited two typical cachaca distilleries which seemed extremely primative, and sought out the gold trail. In the jeep, we sat beside an English couple who had been traveling the world for about the same length of time as us. We discovered many similar experiences, even though we had taken very different itineraries.

Each evening, we had good meals, including a bouillabaisse ordered a day in advance at a small French restaurant run by a chef from Marseille. Other restaurants were often selected based on the quality of the music.

We enjoyed listening to non English speaking singers doing songs in English. While some were quite good, no one compared with the girl from Albania, who had us convinced she was from an English speaking country until she started to get tired.

One evening we went to the theatre. While I was concerned whether we would understand the dialogue, I need not have been. The Grupo Contadores de Estorias performed with puppets, and without dialogue. And without strings. ‘Direct manipulation’ is the trademark of the company. Their production included seven ‘adult oriented’ scenes including an old man playing fiddle, an elderly couple flirting, and something called ‘erotic awakening and rebirth’. Fortunately, I slept through much of it.

At breakfast each day, we chatted with two Americans who were in Parati scripting a film with an older Brazilian man. When we told them we were from Vancouver, they wanted to know if we knew Bing Thom. It’s a small world. We didn't want to ask what their film was about, but if a film about Maria Della Costa appears at a theatre near you in a year or two, that's probably it.

On our last morning we told them we were off to Brasilia. “Oh no”, they said. “You should have gone to Brasilia before Parati”. We had an idea what they meant, but were going to find out for ourselves.

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