Black Coffee, Black Slaves

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
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25
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Trip End Sep 05, 2006


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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Thanks to everyone who has expressed concern following our 'incident' in Rio last week. We are currently driving through the hinterlands and once again feel quite safe. The towns we have been staying in seem much like a small city at home complete with clean streets, fast food and hotel chains. It is not that exciting, but not dangerous.

Last night we stayed at a 19th century coffee plantation that had recently been lovingly restored by the family of the original owner. The site has been declared a historical landmark and they have written several brochures about the history of the plantation (all in Portuguese.) The land was granted by the Portuguese crown along with the title, Count Pinhal. Pinhal (Portuguese for pinecone) was chose because of the the giant pinecones that were found the throughout the property. In an amazing feat of environmental stewardship, Count Pinecone quickly cut down all the trees to make way for cattle grazing and coffee. Thereafter, he was reduced to carving statues of pinecones to remind people of his greatness.

Something seemed amiss as we studied the many photos of the lily-white Pinecone family dressed up in their formal British clothes. (I was impressed at this commitment to fashion in the Brazilian jungle.) None of these people looked like they got their hands dirty. Who was doing the work?

The hoteliers recognized that we had no idea what was going on and hired an English-speaking guide from the local university to give us a tour. As with most students, it turned out she had a bit of a rebellious streak. She quickly informed us that the labor was done by 40 slaves until Brazilian abolition in 1888. (Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. The decision was driven by an economic boycott led by the British. Britianīs position may have been driven by fear of low cost labor rather tha moral qualms about slavery.)

What is now the hotel dining room was used in the 19th century as the slave quarters. Each night the slaves would be chained together in the very spot we were now slurping our delicious soup. This seemed a bit creepy to me.

I haven't spent much time in the US south. Are there antebellum plantations that give tours? Do they discuss the darker side of their past?

From what I can tell, race relations are very poor in Brazil. The population is 45% afro-brazilian, (This is my PC term. They don't seem to use it locally.) but there are no black faces at the nice restaurants and hotels (aside from staff and prostitutes.) Every advertisement for a local product contains only white faces. The only black advertising model we have seen has been for Pepsi. (I guess Pepsi has figured out that not just white people are consumers.)

Education may be even worse. There are university slots available for only about 2-3%of the population and entrance is determined by an exam. If you attend a public high school it is almost impossible to pass this exam. The private high schools are expensive and do not offer many (if any) scholarships. Our tour guide told us there were no black faces at her university.

Based on this, I am not surprised that there are armed gangs of black youth wandering the streets of Rio. I fear Brazil may be sitting on a powderkeg. I don't want to be here when it explodes.

On a lighter note, we are headed for the Pantanal, a giant wetland that is famous for its outstanding wildlife. There was an article last summer in National Geographic that had pictures of the local caimans (crocodiles), anacondas, piranhas, jaguars, anteaters, toucans and other exciting fauna. After perusing the article last year, I handed the issue to Kia as an example of the wonderful places one could go in a Jeep. Unfortunately for me, Kia immediately turned to the section where they described the hardships entailed with writing the beautiful article. There was much talk of clouds of mosquitos, knee-high mud and an insect that burrowed into the author's scalp to lay its eggs. I countered with bug repellant, four wheel drive and a tight fitting hat. We are headed in with our hats securely on our heads.
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