The Daily Telegraph - Brazil, embers of empire
July 23, 2005

Concluding her series, Michelle Jana Chan finds the land of the carefree carnival still coming to terms with the legacy of Portuguese rule.

Long before Britannia ruled the waves, Portugal had established a global empire stretching from Madeira to Macau and Mozambique. This sliver of a nation on the Iberian peninsula was able to beat its European rivals in the race to colonise the world thanks to its people's advanced navigation skills, their great boat-building expertise and their keen sense of adventure.

The greatest prize was Brazil, which the Portuguese stumbled upon during a foray to the East Indies. In the first month of 1502, a Portuguese mission sailed into the great Guanabara Bay. The explorers thought it must be the mouth of a glorious river, and christened it River of January. Still today, Rio de Janeiro commands that mystical illusion with its expansive stretches of water between dramatic sugar-loaf mountains.

Flying into Rio, particularly landing at Santos Dumont airport, gives some bearing on this fractured city of favela shanty towns interspersed with skyscrapers and super-highways. As at Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport, planes must skim steep mountains to touch down on a runway jutting out into the sea. From here, the drive into town is a confusing mass of flyovers, turnpikes and tunnels. But it is also a historical journey past crumbling colonial buildings, whitewashed monasteries and imposing fortresses.

It was in the architecture that I could see the prosperity Rio achieved under the Portuguese from market surges in sugar, gold and coffee. Walking in the old town centre, I came across the wonderfully renovated National History Museum, which occupies an old armoury, and the sumptuous Royal Portuguese Reading Room. Given that Brazil won its independence almost two centuries ago, in 1822, I was surprised to find so much colonial heritage intact.

A nation's past is often more obvious to the visitor than to the local. Many of the Brazilians I met looked at me quizzically or indignantly when I asked them about their country's Portuguese history. "We don't care about that. We're Brazilian," was a regular refrain. Yet they were speaking Portuguese, wearing crucifix pendants, in the shadow of a baroque church. And they looked at me with those deep green Brazilian eyes, an attractive mixture of European, African and Indian heritage - Portugal's most obvious legacy in this immigrant nation. The early Portuguese seafarers didn't take along many women on their colonial quests, and they were soon fathering offspring with the indigenous Amerindian population or imported African slaves.

Nothing here is black or white. Brazil is a palette of browns, from very dark rainforest teak to creamy coffee. It defines its dozens of racial categories with evocative edible terms such as cashew, caramel, cinnamon, peach, chocolate and toffee. I had to dig deeper to learn the actual heritage.

Joana Mendonca, my 25-year-old guide through the streets of Salvador, described herself as a quarter native Indian, a quarter African descent, a quarter Italian and a quarter Brazilian.

"But then what's the Brazilian bit?" I asked her.

She laughed. "We say Brazilian if they come from another state, or if we don't know really know where someone is from."

Well, that says a lot about the country - where the most Brazilian Brazilians are of unknown origin.

It was on the country's beaches where I truly experienced the diversity. I headed to the sands of Copacabana within hours of landing in Rio. Copacabana may have lost its crown as South America's sexiest strip of sand, but it is surely its most democratic. The city's residents come here every weekend, just as Londoners head to Hyde Park.

In his poem, Rio de Janeiro, John Updike praised the city as “too good to be true”:
- a city that empties
its populace, a hundred shades of brown,
upon its miles of beach in morning’s low light
and takes the bodies back when darkness quells
the last long volleyball game; even then,
the sands are lit for the soccer of homeless children.

All along the corniche of Copacabana the city takes its exercise, wearing down the roughly hewn black-and-white paving stones brought here by the Portuguese. These trademark tiles upon Brazil’s sidewalks create curvaceous mosaic patterns along Copacabana, echoing the shapes of voluptuous sun-worshippers and the ocean waves.

Down on the sand, the beach was a playground for the local laid-back lifestyle. Teenage boys play soccer by the water’s edge, T-shirts for goal posts, dreaming of fame in the European leagues. There was one child whose legs were deformed and useless, who travelled across the sand on his strong arms, as adept as any at a tackle, knocking the ball forward with his elbows or forehead.

Zigzagging between sunbathers, peddlers hawked bags of nuts, ice-cold drinks and hand-crafted necklaces. Masseuses set up tables to lather customers in coconut oil and pummel their backs. Bright parasols and loungers were for hire. Families spread out picnics while the children head off to bodysurf or play volleyball. The legendary beauties are there, too, lean and toned wearing skimpy bikinis called fio dental – dental floss – which made my two-piece look embarrassingly prudish. Although they worship the body-beautiful in Brazil, there is also a carefree unconsciousness about paunches, saddlebags and wobbly thighs. Copacabana is truly a fearless feast of humanity.

Yet when it comes to skin colour, it is not that simple. The Brazilian musician Caetano Velosa sings the truth in his lyrics: “I believe in our illusion of racial harmony.” The Portuguese created a complicated legacy of race relations here through a trade that imported 4.5 million slaves from Africa. In Rio’s History Museum, besides coats of arms of Portuguese nobles, I saw metal masks forced on slaves working in the mines, to prevent them stealing gold nuggets by swallowing them.

Marion Alberti, my guide in Rio, explained: “As a colony, we have learnt to obey, to serve and to accept a lower quality of life. You don’t need to study the history of South America to know your history, but we need to study the history of Europe to understand ours.”

European history is perhaps clearer on the streets of South America than in the museums of Lisbon or Madrid. The old capital of Salvador, a two-hour flight north of Rio, may be the strongest testament to the colonial era in the entire continent.

Salvador, now the state capital of Bahia, was the first place the Portuguese planted their flag and the cobbled Pelourinho district boasts the facades of beautiful colonial buildings, carefully preserved as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The real treasures here are the churches, with their extravagant marble interiors, intricate woodcarvings and cracked leather pews. The church of St Francis Church, completed in 1723, has a dazzling gold baroque interior, while all the cloisters are decorated with blue-and-white tiles depicting scenes from early 18th-century Lisbon life. This may be the best record of Lisbon’s history, because the Portuguese capital was mostly destroyed in an earthquake in 1755.

Alongside Salvador’s exquisite churches are temples dedicated to Candomblé, a fusion of African tribal beliefs and Catholicism. From the 16th century on, Salvador became the major landing point for African slaves, who disguised their own beliefs behind the cloak of their masters’ Catholic faith. Over the centuries, the religions became one. At carnival time, images of Candomblé gods and Catholic saints dance together in the street.

Religion is just one way Salvador fuses and confuses. This city has become an extraordinary melange of three continents in one setting. The Portuguese influence is just a part of that mixture -- nowadays, not a very important one, according to locals. An art collector told me: “We might remember Portugal once a year, on the day of independence, but probably not even then.” A businessman condemned the Portuguese as the worst imperial power of all. ‘We don’t have a relationship with the Portuguese, either in trade or anything else, and don’t care to.” Another local Salvador resident added: “Tell me something they did for us. They took our gold and brought us stones.”

I can tell her one thing. Brazilians say Salvador hosts the country’s most liberated and wildest carival. It is easy to forget this celebration has its origins in the Catholic religion, as a Portuguese export. The name comes, some say, from carne vale – a farewell to meat before the beginning of Lent. She might contradict me and say Brazil made it what it is today, and that is the opposite: flesh counts. At Carnival, the crowds sing: “There is no sin below the equator!” Brazil is taking on its history and reshaping it.

Michelle Jana Chan travelled with Kuoni Travel (