After our magnificent week in the hot & dusty Pantanal we set off for the NE coast of Brazil, first stop Olinda and Recife. We are due to arrive at 2 am and, despite numerous emails and entreaties to our travel agent, are repeatedly told we have to go via São Paulo, a journey that will take 8 hours.
To our great delight we find a direct flight and manage to change with the help of a medical student as the airline agent speaks not a word of English. This is common here and a great disadvantage; wish we’d mastered a few phrases before we came!
We arrive in the pouring rain at 9 pm and are met and whisked by our guide to Olinda which is 30 mins from busy Recife. Our hotel the Pousada do Amparo is a traditional 18th century house all furnished accordingly. We are housed in another building opposite on the top floor complete with outside bath and four poster.
Our guide arrives in the drizzle to take us round this UNESCO world heritage town, sites atop a hill with panoramic views back to Recife.
Olinda was founded by the Portuguese who landed first in Salvador in 1501, was captured by the Dutch in 1631, who razed all the churches to the ground and rebuilt them, before losing the coastline back to the Portuguese in 1654.
Twenty churches remain and we visit three of them, the oldest Franciscan monastery in Brazil, donated by a wealthy woman with no heirs to the Franciscans when they first arrived, with charming tiles imported from Portugal, a secluded cloister and an ornate sacristy. There are still 20 monks there and we hear their mystical chanting as we wander through the Our Lady Of the Snows chapel – rather an oxymoron in Brazil!
Interestingly we learn later than one of the most influential and philanthropic Jewish families lived in Olinda and the house still has its Mikva. Now overrun with marmoset monkeys
The Benedictine church is a fine example of baroque architecture and heavily guilded as is the custom here.
By now its raining hard and in Recife we dodge the showers as we thankfully don our ponchos bought for the Pantanal. The first island has been largely uninhabited but is now being rehabilitated for tourists, almost all Brazilian.
There is an interesting Jewish museum amidst a plethora of carnival and other odd museums (common in Brazil we find) where we discover that there were Jewish settlers here in the early 1500s but they were sent back to Portugal during the Inquisition of 1536. We fall for the carnival puppets museum, partly out of curiosity but mostly as a rain refuge!
The fine old Republic Square houses the opera which has seen better days but was a centre of Jewish cultural life according to the museum. The first Jews in New York came from Recife as early as 1654 after being expelled by the Portuguese in their second coming. Later in the 19 and 20th centuries they were allowed to return but suffered under the facist war-time President.
We are relieved to be discharged by our guide who talked non-stop good American English but sought endless approbation. ‘I speak English French German Italian, how do you like my English?…I speak it well even though I’ve never been to England…I know all the words: wellies, loo, knackered’. He did teach us some things like touching your ear means ‘delicious’ and snapping your finger means ‘a long time’ as in I’ve known so-and-so *snap fingers*. But he was exhausting!
Left to our own devices for the next day and a half we wander the streets of Olinda and Recife, admiring the street art and visiting Recife’s bustling market where we lunch at a local stall. Everywhere people are friendly and nowhere do we feel threatened or in danger as warned.
What we do find is streets littered with rubbish, plastic everywhere and lots of very poor people scraping a living via begging or selling tatty trinkets. In Salvador we are to see how the other half live and the huge divide in Brazil’s socioeconomic order. It is the world’s fifth largest country with a population of 206m people and a ratio of 6:1 women to men, we are told due to deaths from gangs and drugs. There are 13 m unemployed or approx 6%. But that has to a conservative estimate judging from what we’ve seen and won’t include all the women and street kids who are beyond looking for work – or those involved as street vendors who pepper the highways.
One thing we agree on is that Brazilian food is a bit stodgy and tasteless, needs a lot of chilli but are unanimous on the delights of Caipirinhas and cachaca.
One final PS to the flight saga, on check-in we are told our flights have been cancelled and we have to pay. Luckily the agent spoke a little English and managed to sort it out. So far travel agent 0 V&R 2! And so to Salvador.