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Our man in Brazil: Blog

GOOD MORNING MANAUS

Brazil, the place I have dreamed of visiting since I was boy came to reality at sunrise on June 24th 2014. It was then I awoke from my slumber on a luxury coach (air conditioning, so powerful that I had to sleep in my tracksuit top), having been driven 11 hours through the dead of night from the border of neighbouring Guyana.

I say neighbouring, the 697 miles I had travelled by coach, taxi, light plane, two border taxi’s – one black and Guyanese, one Latin and Brazilian – two totally different languages-  before arriving in a World Cup city. That my route was so circuitous was down to the poor infrastructure connection between the Caribbean and its South American neighbours. With millions flocking to Brazil, a route via the Caribbean surely was a profitable alternative for those with larger wallets. Particularly as Americans have to fly over it and after all, what else are the English, Italians, Aussies and Spanish going to do after early World Cup exits Anyway?

Pele, Jairzinho and the boys from Brazil were responsible for my fascination with their country. My earliest memories are of watching the greatest team that ever played football, aged 4 in London. I have no idea whether those images were live in 1970 or came later probably from replays but it certainly was my first memory of seeing black players on TV.

Having reluctantly handed over my traveller’s tax (the price you pay for arriving in a city unknown to you anywhere in the world, with suitcases) to a total of four different taxi drivers I arrived wearily at my Manaus hotel. I had paid a bit extra for a nice hotel ADD HERE and it paid me back with a central location, which meant walking, no more taxis. This gave me time to acclimatise to a new world of Latin South America where shamefully my best words in Portuguese where Pele and Gol!

I had chosen Manaus as my entry point as I had arrived from Barbados, via British Airways to Barbados, then a flight to Guyana for the celebration of my maternal great uncles 100th birthday.  My uncles’ 100th birthday trip had been at the behest of my mum Mama G. It was a great experience accompanying my mum and the morning I left Guyana they carried my tribute to him on Guyana national TV. I had never sounded so English! More of which in future posts.

Though life there is basic (Guyana is one of the poorest countries on the planet), Mum says Home is Home. Being lucky enough to have at least four identities (Bristol & London, Guyanese and British) I did what I do best and acclimatised. In her ageing yet defiant years Mum didn’t want luxury she wanted family so we stayed with our cousins. It was a simple life, family who couldn’t do enough for you, skipping to the kitchen for food or beer. Theirs however is a hard life, cooking, attending to babes or the elderly before sunrise. Sometimes the water is on, sometimes it isn’t. Having humble origins, luckily it is in my DNA and I simply just adjust. It was a wonderful week where I finished the first draft of my first book, My American Odyssey, From the Windrush to the White House. I was up at 6 reading, writing, exercise, eat, walk, writing, football, drink, eat again, more football, another drink or two, write and eat, bed at 10 to read and listen to some of my favourite podcasts. Forget the mobile phone, my I-pod is the most valued commodity, particularly as my phone packed up and I haven’t missed it but couldn’t do without my music and podcasts. The only thing to worry about was the mosquitos – who just love the Griffith’s, and dogs never my favourites species, here they guard and bark for Guyana. Now I know why the Monks go into sanctuary, not a habit I’m going to make but certainly recommended as an occasional foray!

Manaus is the state capital of the Amazonas which we know as the Amazon which is shared with Guyana. I’m a frequent flyer but more used to Jumbo’s than the model airplane that only seated 13 and was making me giddy as it dipped and flowed through the crystal blue sky. Before I forced myself to pass out (trick of the veteran traveller) I had to take in the wondrous views below. I didn’t know there were so many shades of green. Not just light and dark green. Emerald greens, lime greens, avocado greens, jade greens, olive greens, all beautiful, beautiful shades of forest green.

Incredibly from the height we flew at in such a tiny aircraft you could watch the shadows of the clouds on the trees below. A panoply of nature lay below me of creeks, rivers, lakes, mining sites, villages all waving me Buenos Dias as we passed overhead.

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I’ve always argued football does more to bring people together than it does to push them apart. Within 24 hours I had met people from Europe, Asia, North and South America not forgetting us Brits. Like the sand, as they say, we get everywhere. From my previous World Cups taken at eight-yearly intervals starting with France 1998, Germany 2006 and even by my standards, crazily, Brazil 2014, I know from those trips the more unheralded the place the warmer the welcome.  Paris and Berlin are world cities used to staging major events. They always have an air of indifference until the final, when then, they know they are on the world stage and suddenly get out the city-make-up kits and red carpets. But travel out to backwaters to Lens, France (Jamaica vs Croatia) or Kaiserslautern, Germany (Trinidad & Tobago vs Sweden) you will find the town declaring a public holiday and welcoming you as warmly as any dignitary. Finals or qualifiers these are equally my fondest memories.

Manaus with a population of 2.5 million is somewhere in between. As we are told, Brazil has an image problem so if you are going to go, you will visit its beautiful beaches of Bahia or conduct business in the metropolis of Sao Paulo or visit the allure and charm of Rio de Janeiro. Manaus was certainly taking its opportunity transforming it into a cultural centre for the World Cup. As the stage announcer boasted ‘Manaus is putting on the biggest cultural event in Brazil with the football’ called the Amazonas Terra de Todas as Artes – Amazonas the land of all arts.

New films, art screenings, exhibitions, music festivals, open-air concerts, dancing, drumming and not forgetting the wonderful Teatre de Amazonas (Amazonian Opera House), an Opera House in the middle of the Amazon. Just writing it seems weird as my friend Becky Walsh reminded me on FB ‘Did you know every bit of that place was shipped over from Europe, down the Amazon? Which makes a change from ‘shipped from Amazon!’  Up close, it is pretty spectacular with its gold dome shared with the ubiquitous colours of the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag.  I await my Jazz concert as part of an impromptu Jazz festival being held there on Thursday with anticipation.

The main square erected two giant screens to show the football. One of which doubled up as a performance stage in between the goalmouth action. By night Manaus had done Brazil proud with the opera house lit up if not quite Sydney (what else is) certainly is its own jewel of the Amazon. The stages had free performers to the thousands who ate, drank and absorbed the heat. Dotted around the edges older Brazilian women swayed back and forth to the hypnotic music. If anything it was hotter by night than by day. At least the sun gives you a reason for being hot. By night it turns into an enveloping cloak of damp suffocating humidity. Guards patrolled the edge of the square backed up by military police in the shadows. I’m told it’s more to reassure as a show of force than it is to scare. As for the protests, only on TV! I know my colleagues who did the One Love Breakfast Show for BCFM and Ujima broadcasting from Rio de Janeiro found the love their too. We shall see, I have three weeks to explore.

Manaus was taking the opportunity to put itself as a tourist destination, which armed with Mother Nature via the Amazon and its wonderful natural gifts, they are hoping to prove an irresistible future lure back from the turistas.

I sank my final Caprinha and (pronounced Caprine in Brazilian Portuguese) and headed back to my hotel. The first day/night had exceeded my expectations but tomorrow I had to make sure I secured a ticket for the Switzerland v Honduras match and I would need my street skills. I had vowed to Ujima’s business partner and our friend Maddie Probst (she is of Swiss origin) from the Watershed that I would be there, though I did not say who my allegiance would be with. However after 24 hours I can answer, Brazil is first, everything else comes second.

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