Category: Journal

Chapada Diamantina

This year, Joasia and I returned to Brazil to spend time with her brother and his family. He recently welcomed a baby boy, which was a perfect excuse to go and visit for the holidays. When we visited in 2015, we took Joasia’s parents with us and decided to split off from the group and go for a week eco-tourism in Bonito in the south. We had a great time trekking through the jungle, bathing under waterfalls and swimming down rivers. So much so that we decided to do something like that again.

Upon arrival in Brazil, we took a flight from São Paulo to Lençóis in the middle of the state of Bahia. This is an old mining town of eight thousand people, close to Chapada Diamantina, a national park filled with forests, rivers, caves and waterfalls. We had a spectacular time, doing an excursion each day; some of them easy, and some of them quite challenging.

The challenge was ramped up due to the heat. With it being the start of summer in Brazil, temperatures in Lençóis were expected to go northward of 35 degrees Celsius. This meant breaking several of my own rules in order to prevent me from dying of a heat stroke; wearing shorts and wearing a hat.

The temperature was a big difference with Bonito, which was also warm, but not like Lençóis. Guides sometimes spoke English, and the organisation who organised our excursions made sure that our guides could communicate with us, which made things much easier than in Bonito, where we were often left to other people in our group that could translate for us, which wasn’t always the case.

Another thing which was a significant difference was the poverty; apparently the northern states, like Bahia, are less prosperous than the southern ones, and while in Lençóis itself it wasn’t that apparent, apart from a general “frontier town” feel that lacked basic infrastructure and facilities (like proper waste management), but the poverty ramped up quickly in the (even) more rural parts around the area.

I found that there were many buildings that had been built and simply never finished completely. Building materials scattered around, waiting to be used, sometimes for weeks, months or years. One of our guides, Indio, said that this was often due to funding running out, usually due to a lack of contingency planning, foolish optimism, or misappropriation. For instance, a little, two-storey house with a beautiful façade, which lacked even a roof for the second floor, effectively making it a single-storey house.

Another annoyance which my Teutonic brain couldn’t comprehend was that lots of the dirty roads around the small villages were so poorly maintained that we saw lots of cars changing tires alongside the road due to punctures from the sharp rocks. If I were living in one of these villages I would get some people together and literally sweep the roads and clear them of rocks. It would save everyone a ton in car repairs.

In order to keep my frustration at this at a minimum I have told myself that there is likely a very good reason why they don’t that I can’t think of.

Chapada Diamantina was also much drier than Bonito, which meant there was less jungle vegetation and more so-called “Atlantic forest” and savannah vegetation. The soil had this deep, dark red colour, which reminded me of clay and ceramics. Salamanders were everywhere, hunting flies, or baking in the scorching sun. And yet, most days started off cloudy, which quite a few mornings seeing rain showers. There were many rivers, pools, lakes and waterfalls. The vegetation around those was immediate bright green and lush, more jungle like.

The landscape was dotted with “chapadas”, which are hills and mountains with a ramp on one side, a plateau on top, with a sheer, sudden drop on the other side. These created large, beautiful valleys, full of small trails to hike, rivers to follow and waterfalls to explore. We did rather pedestrian excursions most of the time, with a few challenges to our legs and lungs at times, but the real pros did multi-day treks lasting three, four and sometimes five days, camping in the wild or sleeping in abandoned houses that used to belong to the miners.

Until the mid-eighties, the area was a wealthy mining area, looking mostly for diamonds. The techniques used in the mining industry was polluting the ground water so much, spoiling drinking water all the way to Salvador on the coast to the east, that mining was mostly prohibited and the remainder heavily restricted. The are became poor overnight as they lost their entire source of incoming. Soon, a large part was designated a national park, which meant no development of any kind could take place. Some villages, like Lençóis were so historic that they were given dispensation, but all other areas became depopulated as people (were) moved away. Around the park, areas were designated as “protected for preservation of nature” which meant development was allowed but restricted.

Pretty quickly the people in the area started to find new ways of generating incoming, tourism being the biggest of them. They are proud of the beautiful sites they have to offer. A lot of them were very special, too special to really capture in photos properly.

Naming an Eye Twitch

After just having a small conversation with Joasia on eye twitches and what to do about them (more potassium and magnesium, I say), I was reminded of a Friday afternoon I had with Wai Yip when we were probably fourteen years. I had been afflicted by an eye twitch for weeks and it was time that we give the twitch a name. We spent some time coming up with name that were more akin to transformer names than anything else, until we came to the realisation that we weren’t really sure whether the twitch was living underneath my eye, looking up at it, or hanging off my eye like a bat who was looking down at my eye. So we decided to come up with a name that you could read looking down at it as well as up. We came up with the name “otto”, spelled “o++o”, and we thought we were very clever.

An Indictment of England

It’s rather remarkable how big the wealth gap is in England. I don’t mean the gap between working class and the elite class, but the lower class and the upper class, since the middle class hardly seems to exist. People seem either more than comfortable, or they are living pay check to pay check, barely able to keep their finances together.

You can see it in the amount of homeless people. It’s not just London, Birmingham and Manchester, it’s even in small and mid-sized cities. Also in Exeter, as city that barely reaches above 100 thousand people. Sleeping in doorways, panhandling, begging, and largely ignored by the average passers by. They are ignored because the average person has their own issues to deal with and they know that helping won’t change the systemic problems that caused them to become homeless. Help one off the streets and another will take their place. These people have no place to go because there are no shelters and there are few resources that can help them get a grip on whatever problem caused them to spiral into homelessness. Whatever services do exist have limited funds and simply can’t help everyone. And so you see people sleeping in doorways and pitching tents underneath overpasses.

You can see it in the corpulence of the people. So many of the people here are incredibly obese. To me this indicates that people either don’t have the funds for nutritious food, don’t have the education to differentiate nutritious food from garbage, or eat because it offsets some of the misery they deal with in life. It’s not surprising that people rely on the NHS so heavily, since their overall levels of health are so poor. They have no choice.

This ties neatly into part of the xenophobia underlying the Brexit sentiment, because the debate was successfully framed by Brexiteers as a matter of free movement causing undue strain on already strained social services like the NHS. Of course, research shows that people from outside Britain were less likely to make use of these services, and that if they were to leave, the NHS would have a crippling shortage of qualified personnel that British people wouldn’t be able to fill.

Another sign; education is slowly becoming unaffordable in the same way that it already has in the United States. A lot of people who are recently graduated are stuck with enormous debts which will take a decade or two to pay off, depending on their chosen field. This means that people start buying houses late, don’t build their assets, which causes anxiety in a society where retirement benefits are a joke. England has enormous levels of personal debt.

I could go on. In the end, anxiety reigns, which in turn leads to sincere mental health issues, which exacerbates all of the above problems. Unless you have a good income, some personal wealth, then you are better off growing up elsewhere in Western Europe, where there are more opportunities for upward mobility.

A Quick Update About the Move

Moving my belongings over to England has been quite successful. The moving company that gave us the best quote allowed us to fill a dedicated truck full of items and have them driven over. The alternative would have been to share a truck, which would drive the cost down significantly, but unfortunately, no trucks to this area were planned for a while. So we filled the truck, using about one-tenth of half a percent of the truck’s capacity.

The driver was a cool Polish guy named Bartek, and he was not very eager to drive a 150 pound crossbow across the border, but did everything in his power to make it happen. It worked out well.

Now the apartment in Amsterdam is pretty much empty, and we managed to arrange for Robin to live there for the coming year. That would allow me to have a fall back scenario just in case things don’t work out with the new job here. His girlfriend moved over from London a few days before I moved to England, and they’re going to move in together. I can’t imagine having an easier transition in that situation than that.

I’m going to miss gaming, but we’re scaling back our frequency to once a month (but with more hours each session). We even picked up a new player by the name of Eugenio, in the wake of Edwin deciding to quit gaming. He sat in on a session and seems really eager. I’ll likely be back in Amsterdam for the weekend mid-October and have another session.

And now I have another handful of days before I start my new job, which I’m both excited and nervous about. In the meantime, I am being confronted with English bureaucracy. Opening a back account, applying for a national insurance number, getting background checks done for my work as well as my landlord, etc. It’s unpleasant. I’m not very good at this. I consider it a distraction. It costs me a lot of time.

It’s lovely to continue living with Joasia now that her sabbatical is over. The situation at my previous employer was the spark, but the idea of continuing to live together was the catalyst. My family is very supportive, which is nice. I will have to make sure to go back often enough to cater to everyone, while simultaneously also getting to have fun. Hopefully I will be able to make that work.