São Luís, Maranhão, 9-13 June 2011

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June 17th 2011
Published: June 17th 2011
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We arrived in São Luís at about 8.30pm after a flight with TAM airlines from Salvador via Reciffe where we had a 3 ½ hour stop-over. We also stopped at Fortalaza on the way. We were met by Mike Nelson, who used to be our neighbour on Chapel Hill Road before he and Silvia moved to Brazil. It was fantastic to see them. The last we saw them was on Christmas day last year.

Mike then picked up Silvia from the hospital where she was doing some data collecting for her research with the Universidade Federal do Maranhão (UFMA) in the area of Human Resource Management. We had a lot to catch up on. On arriving to their beautiful home, we had a drink and chat and climbed into bed in their air-conditioned guest bedroom. (Thank you Mike and Silvia. You were wonderful)

The next day, Silvia and Mike took us into the historic centre and we walked around the cobbled stone streets, looking at their interesting buildings. During the drive into the historic centre which is on an Island (so we had to drive over a long bridge) we noticed an incredible number of new high-rise buildings. Mike and Silvia had been back to Sao Luis for the past 3 years, and in that time the number of high rises had gone from about 30 to 100s. There had been a doubling of the number of people in the middle class because of the increasing wealth in Brazil. Amazing.

Silvia and Mike took us for a walk through one of the small markets and we saw dried shrimps, bags of lovely fresh nuts and we also saw Maranhão own version of the guaraná soft drink, called Jesus (nothing religious, it was the inventor´s name). It is pink and rather sweeter than the others. Mike doesn’t like it.

We found a nice restaurant for lunch which has a system of weighing your plate of food after you fill it up from a smorgasbord-style lunch and paying by weight. It was lovely but unfortunately Mike and I were up half the night and not feeling well the next day.

We also visited the President’s Palace which was full of period furniture, some made from jacaranda wood. There was also beautiful vases and glassware, some from France, Portugal and England. The floor was highly polished so we were given material boots to cover our shoes. The candelabra lights and magnificent staircase set the scene.

São Luís is the capital of the Brazilian state of Maranhao. The late 17th-century core of this historic town, founded by the French and occupied by the Dutch before coming under Portuguese rule, has preserved the original rectangular street plan in its entirety. Thanks to a period of economic stagnation in the early 20th century, an exceptional number of fine historic buildings have survived, making this an outstanding example of an Iberian colonial town that adapted successfully to the climatic conditions in equatorial South America. We saw buildings with beautiful azulejo (tiles) walls or painted, ornamented cornices; tall, narrow window bays with decorated surrounds; and balconies with forged or cast-iron railings. Some of the floors are dressed stone. São Luís is known for its tiles which most buildings in the historical centre are covered in. Because of it the city is also known as "The Tiles City".

Features relating to the tropical climate in which they were built include raised piers and shuttered verandas on the inside. There are some 4,000 buildings within the Historic Centre and the cobblestone streets of its well-preserved historic centre have been listed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We also visited a part of the part of the city where there had been no restoration and no one walks around the streets at night – not even the locals. We saw a number of drugged/drunk people in the middle of the day.

The city proper has a population of about a million people and the metropolitan area totals 1.3 million (ranked as the 16th largest in Brazil). The ancestral composition of São Luís is 42% European, 39% Native American and 19% African.

The city is roughly divided in two regions, divided by a river of sorts:
1. São Luís proper with the centre, Old Town and industrial and working class suburbs.

2. São Francisco and its neighbours, which comprise a newer commercial district, all urban beaches, and many new high rise apartment buildings.
São Luis is also one of those places that have a distinctive culture of its own - typical cuisine, popular traditions and festivals and lively reggae parties that make the culture of São Luis stand out among Brazilian cities.
Beaches. These all suffer from an enormous tidal variation, -reportedly more than ten metres on spring. On high tide there is no dry sand left. The most popular and very long beach is Ponta d'Areia. The beach of São Marcos continues into the beach of Calhau covering a stretch of some 5 kilometres with plenty of simple bars and restaurants and a broad pavement by the road.

We were lucky enough to be in Sao Luis at the time of the Bumba-meu-boi celebration - From 13 to 30 June. The Bumba-meu-boi is a popular farce which takes its form as a grand musical pantomime. Practice is a public affair and begins directly after Easter reaching its climax in June when literally hundreds of groups perform on a nightly basis for popular acclaim. Set personalities and characters play out a comedic tragedy with a metaphor for social harmony at its heart. Settlers, the infamous "Coroneis", Indians, spirit workers, African slaves and forest spirits are enacted though costumes, choreography and music - all performed amongst the all-night revelry. The crowd joins in with singing, dancing and dependent on the groups sotaque (or style) the playing of matracas (two wooden blocks, held in each hand and struck together repeatedly). Like the festival of Sao João and its requisite Forro dance in the North-Eastern states further south Bumba Meu Boi is a harvest festival but with the bull as its centre-piece.

On the Friday night we went to the closest Bumba-meu-boi celebration and you will see by the photos how colourful the stage show was. Silvia, who has been watching these performances for decades, said that she has seen much, much bigger performances. Apparently the final weekend is the time when 1000 performers present the legend and everyone comes with 2 pieces of wood that they bang together along with the rhythm of the performance. Wow, what a noise that would be.

Sao Luis has an interesting history. At the end of the 17th century the Prime Minister of the time made a change that would have the biggest impact on the region. This was the introduction of trade in black slaves and the creation in 1755 of the Port of Maranhâo. Sâo Luis and the island of Alcântara, became the main shipping ports for the region, and were integrated into the world trading system, exporting rice, cotton, and other regional products. The wealth that ensued led to a cultural flowering in both towns.

On the Sunday, we visited Alcântara which is a town also in Maranhao, Brazil. This town has an even more colonial feeling. A 1 ½ hour long boat ride from Sao Luis, got us to what seemed like an island and I think they like to think it is an island but is actually a peninsula.

There was another festival on that day called the Esta em Festai (Festival of the Portuguese Emperor). The vague story goes that the Portuguese Emperor was going to visit the island so all the locals started preparing for this visit. Two wealthy families each built 2 separate houses for the Emperor to stay in. Wisely, the Emperor didn’t come however, and 200 or more years later, the annual festivity continues and is now combined with a Christian celebration. Many of the families today, prepare lunch tables and decorate their homes for the Emperors arrival!

In the town we also saw many ruins of church and other buildings. Most of the homes in ruin were those of the slave traders and with the abolition of slave trading, all these houses were destroyed. We saw a couple of houses where the slaves were kept in the dugout area under the floorboards of the slave traders. The original Cathedral which was used only by white people was struck by lightning and destroyed – just-reserve some might say. Ironically, the only remaining slave whipping post now stands in front of the destroyed church. This was buried on the beach and later dug up
Now all the descendents of the slaves have moved to their own communities in the Island, away from the harbour village.

There is also a Museum devoted to rocket launching site located at military base near Alcântara which we did not had time to visit. And the main history museum was also closed for renovation but apparently they have many years examples of the home decorations from past Alcantra Island Esta em Festai (Festival of the Portugese Emperor).

Portuguese is the official national language, and thus the primary language taught in schools. But English and Spanish are part of the official high school curriculum. However these second languages are often taught by teachers who cannot speak these languages with proficiency so they loose a lot of accuracy. President Lulu who was the President previous to the existing female President. He made many reforms which fundamentally improved life for many Brazilians (hence the doubling of the size of the middle-class). A cornerstone to his reforms has been the increasing of school attendance. Parents are paid a bursary when they send their children to school.

On Saturday, Silvia and Mike invited some friends around for a Bumba-meu-boi lunch. They cooked traditional food, starting with an entree of bar-b-q fish. We learned more Portuguese words and Silvia and Mike’s friends practiced their English. It was a lively day with breeze blowing to keep things cool.

On our last day in São Luís before we flew out to Manaus at 10.00pm, we went into the Old Town and visited the Slave Museum. We had another scrumptious lunch at the fishing village. Have a look at the pictures because there were interesting wall murals. The owner has tripled the size of the restaurant over the years, but particularly within the last 12 months...in time for the increased in Sao Luis’ affluence. We had a local fish dish with a beautiful marinade and sauce.

We then came home to pack and at about 7.30 went to a very welcoming restaurant on the beach road. This meal was fantastic. We had one dish between the 4 of us (thank goodness) because the size of the piece of the shoulder meat, we could have had another 2 people join us. The dish was called Picanha and the side dishes included casaba, mixed vegetables and rice. The meal started with light-pastry pastals which are filled with meat. Washed down with a lovely bottle of Chile red, it was a fitting meal to say good-bye and thank you to Silvia and Mike and we hope we see them back in Australia.

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