Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706




























Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706































Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706















Toro Magazine, May 2003

 

IN THE HOUSE OF THE PIRANHAS
By Shawn Blore


EXPEDITION :
SHAWN BLORE TAKES A PEEK INTO
BRAZIL'S HOUSES OF ILL REPUTE


There is nothing more lethal than danger and boredom. I'm afloat on the Rio Paraguay when I make this discovery, alone except for a wiry Brazilian guide with the improbable name of Waldemar. Our little motor canoe is drifting slowly past an overhanging thicket of some tropical plant with the thickness and springiness of alder. Earlier in the day on this very spot, says Waldemar, he saw jaguars - a mother and cub together.

We've sat here more than an hour - drifting with the current, firing up a cranky outboard to putter upstream, cutting the engine to drift back down through a blue cloud of our own exhaust. My eyes run, and I'm struck intermittently by fits of coughing. Waldemar horks out noisy goobers. Ours is not the stealth approach.

Boredom begins to make life dangerous.' What is the point of this?' a very bored brain pipes up. 'Waldemar saw the jaguars. Biologists say there are jaguars in the area. Take their word for it.'

'Hearsay isn't good enough,' counters another, more conscientious bit of Shawn-brain. 'Wildlife viewing is a type of bearing witness. Of testifying to the continued existence of wild things and wild places.'

The brain fragments and I are pleased with that. Real David Suzuki material. On the next pass I tell Waldemar to grab onto an overhanging branch. Secured at the bow, the boat pivots round, then edges slowly in until the gunnel bumps gently against the undercut bank.

Boredom now segues seamlessly into stupidity. My right foot steps onto the sand bank, my weight shifts, and I am up on the same patch of dirt as a large, lethally fanged, protective young mother. The boredom-dulled brain evaluates the situation thusly, "No self-respecting bear would hang out this long, near this much noise. Big cat - top predator; big bear - top predator; pretty much the same, right?"

The throaty snarl that rips out of the thicket pretty much puts paid to that logic. I react like an electrocuted Loony Toon - my hair springs on end and my arms and legs jerk spasmodically, which sends me falling back into the canoe. The momentum - and quick paddle work by Waldemar -pushes the boat back out into the river. Flat on my ass down in the bilge I have one last epiphany: sometimes the gods reward the stupid.

A hint of movement draws my eye to an opening between the shoreline thicket and the deeper brush inland. Framed for an instant in this gap I see the outline of haunches, spine and shoulders, all covered in a slinking pelt of spotted gold. Its head -frightenly massive - turns back, its eyes regard me for an instant, then it's gone, vanished under cover.

Here, indeed, there be jaguars.

And where is here, exactly? Arriving at the height of the summer rains, the first Spanish conquistadors thought that here was a vast inland sea. Brazilian explorers, arriving when the water level was lower, said only that here was a swamp - pantanal in Portuguese - vast enough to rate a capital 'P'. And for the next four centuries the Pantanal remained a backwater, exploitable for little more than fishing and low-intensity cattle ranching. The turnaround came in the 1980s, when the world began to reconsider wetlands. Teeming with fish and caiman and birdlife, the Pantanal won designation as World Heritage Site. The Brazilian government began to tout the area as an Ecological Paradise.

Tales of lands where man and nature peacefully co-exist hold an irresistible fascination for me; I am, truth be told, a bit of an earth cookie. It's this Eden angle that's lured me to here to the Brazilian far west, to an 'ecoresort' - actually a palisade of red-tiled cabanas surrounding a shimmering outdoor pool - which I privately dub Fort Pool.

First thing after check-in I head to the palm-frond bar for a cerveja. Two beers in I'm becoming good friends with some salesmen from Goias, when a wiry brown guide comes up and asks if I want to go piranha fishing. The salesmen grab at their crotches and laugh, "Oi , Gringo, watch out for the piranhas!"

I'm not especially keen, so Waldemar counter-offers jaguar. Which is how I end up on my back in the bottom of a canoe, savouring the retinal image of a full-grown jaguar female.

Time passes. The canoe drifts downstream. Waldemar asks if I want to have a look at his village. Why not?

We put-put south, stopping to gawk at the man-size caiman and the flocks of great birds. Birding in the Pantanal is not the agonised stalking of flit-flitting grey finches it always seemed in Canada. In 15 minutes I've seen dozens of 5 foot tall white and red jabiru storks, flocks of American wood storks, egrets by the bushel basket, roseate spoonbills, caracaras, snail kites, cormorants. Most these birds are beautiful, some are fierce, every one is bigger than your head.

We swing round another loop of river and there's the village: neat and small and suitably primitive. A single arc of houses along the river's edge, every one set on stilts. Further down there's a one-room general store, a tiny school, a trinity of churches, a cemetery and a bar.

"How many people here?" I ask. About 200, says Waldemar. They work mostly as guides, either for ecotourists or - more commonly - for the sports fishermen who descend in droves from Sao Paulo. When the rains come there's no work at all for three months, so everyone stays home. Words of empty sympathy are on my lips when Waldemar flashes me a mouthful of gold bridgework. ' Nice set-up, eh?'. Paradise depends on how you see things.

He goes to crank up the engine; I have a last look around at Eden. I note a large white house off by itself at the upstream edge of the village. "What's that?" Waldemar looks uncomfortable and fiddles with choke. "Over there?" I ask pointing. "Uma casa de piranha," he mutters. A fish house? What the hell is that?

The guide makes a fucky-fucky gesture and says something about Paulista fishermen. I remember the salesmen clutching themselves back at Fort Pool. In the local slang, I learn, piranha also means puta. Over yonder is a whorehouse.

That evening, the denizens of Fort Pool assemble upstairs to dine. I am seated with Walter and Janet, a prim and happy mid-50s couple from the academic end of middle America; Walter teaches at a smallish university. Janet's in administration. With them is Paulo, an English-speaking guide hired by their US travel agent. He has the chubby cheeks and pockmarked skin of Manoel Noriega, and the accent of a Ozark hillbilly - the legacy of a decade of illegal domicile in West Virginia.

Janet and Walter begin dinner bent on pity. They pity the villagers their homes. They pity them their schools. They pity them their lack of roads and supermarkets and television. They pity everyone and everything that isn't white and suburban and American.

I have to make it stop. I consider taking up a small aluminium coffee spoon and slowly scraping off their retinas. But that would be messy, and quite socially unacceptable. So for pity's slake, I bring up whores.

"Seems to me the villagers have all the necessities of life," I said. " School, church, cemetery, bar.... whorehouse."

Walter chortles politely. Janet pinches her face up tight. Paulo, to my astonishment, picks up the conversational ball and runs with it.

"There's lotsa whores round here. I got two whorehouses next to my hotel, just down the river. Up in Corumba, they've got 5 or 6. Big, fancy whorehouses." he says.

He goes on. He tells of the whorehouses next to his other hotel. He tells of the Paulista men who come to fish, and how as a good host he has to take them over to the bordellos. He tells of the big fancy whorehouses in Corumba, the ones where you have to buy the girl 2 or 3 glasses of overpriced champagne before you can even so much as nod in the direction of the bedroom.

Eventually, Janet enters the conversation. "These women, they're from here?"

"No, most are from Sao Paulo."

"They're forced?"

"No, they like it here. No one knows them . And they make a lot more money than in Sao Paulo. That big whorehouse in Corumba? No way you can get out of that one without dropping at least 500 bucks."

Silence.

There's a tension in the air that troubles Paulo. He decides to tell a funny story. A funny and somewhat confusing story about a row of whorehouses in Baltimore and the whores there who somehow ripped him off. He gets some way in before Janet finally lets fly her righteous middle-American wrath."Well I can't say I feel sorry for you. Those women are so exploited. They have no sense of self-worth at all…."

Paulo mouths 'self-worth' silently.

"…most have been sexually exploited since before they were 14 - that's been shown pretty clearly...."

Martin jumps to join the winning team. "Yes, yes, I think the studies have shown that very clearly."

"...and it's not women that abused them," continues Janet. "They have scars, scars so deep no one can see them. And those scars were put there by men."

She glares around at us, the gender-guilty. Walter continues to examine his toes. I sip my cafezinho. Paulo, discovering at last that it's a fool who talks whores with his boss, zips his Noriega lips shut.

Later, before bed, Paulo catches up to me outside my cabana.

"I think I made a mistake, talking like that about whores."

"Hmm, Paulo. You think?"

"You believe all that bullshit, that women are forced. That's bullshit, Oprah TV bullshit."

"Hmmm."

"One thing it's good maybe I didn't mention is what the fishermen pay money for. It's not just sex. Not normal sex. They bring along vibrators and that kind of thing, and they like to see the girls play with those. Especially, you know (he motions) up the back way."

"Yeah, Paulo. I'd say it's a good thing you didn't mention that."

Next morning dawns hot and bright. Taking notes over cafe com leite, it hits me that I may have let a story slip by. Paradise/Whores. Ecotourism/Prostitution. I hop it up to the front desk to ask after Paulo. He and Martin and Janet have already left for Corumbá. I get the number of his hotel. Next day, I decide, I will go back to Corumba. I will call Paulo. I will search for whores.

There's pure crass commercialism in this decision: cheesecake flies out the door so much faster than earth cookie. But there's also a genuine issue at stake. Ecotourism, according to government and environmentalists alike, is crucial to the survival of this Eden. Ecotourism brings money into local economies while preserving natural values, they insist. That it comes packaged with prostitution is something they appear to have glossed over. Does this matter, I wonder? Or is there room for whores in Paradise?

Back in Corumba, I call Paulo's hotel and ask for the owner. 'Who?'

' The dono. Paulo.'

' The dono's not called Paulo.'

I explain I met this tour guide.

'Oh, him. He's not the owner.'

Nor is there right now. I leave a message, then go out.

Corumba is a tiny gem of a city; Normal Rockwell tropicalis. Quiet, regular streets. A formal central park with a bandstand and a statue of a general. Stone tables where old men play dominoes, and pretend not to notice the pretty hips of the young mums pushing children on the swings.

Six brothels in this city? I inquire of the local city government. Prostitution? No, there are no programs. Poverty is problem enough. I go to the police. Yes, prostitution is illegal. No, they do not have statistics. No, they don't know where to look for brothels. That leaves Paulo. Again, I call and leave a message. Again he doesn't respond

I take a trip to a cattle ranch, right in the middle of the swamp. The Pantanal, the rancher tells me, is exactly the same as it was 200 years ago. Pantaneiros like him love it and care for it. What about jaguars, I ask. Do they prey on cattle? Is it a problem?

No problem, he says, clapping hands. A worker disappears into a store room and emerges carrying a jaguar skin, dried and flattened like a sheet of plywood.

"That's a big one!" I say.

"No! You want to see a big one?"

Again he claps his hands. The worker ducks back into storeroom, emerging this time with a skin the size of a sheet of gyprock.

This is living in harmony with the Pantanal? He only shoots the ones that prey on cattle, he says, the ones too old to catch any other game. I try to take a picture but he says no. Later, I take one when his back is turned, after the skins have been returned to storeroom.

The ranch is accessible only by water. On the way back in the boat we put in at the river town where Paulo claimed to have a hotel flanked by whorehouses. The rancher - born-again, Christian, and good with a gun - is probably not the man to ask for information. Fortunately, he disappears to fetch his truck and trailer, leaving the crew and I on shore with the boat. I fetch a few beers from a cantina, spread them among the hired hands, then casually ask a friendly question.

"Excuse me, but where are the piranha houses in this town."

"Senhor?"

"The piranha houses. Piranhas!"

"In the river, Senhor."

"No. no, no. Piranhas! Putas! -- Sluts! Whores! -- Where is the house of the sluts and whores!?"

The men feign confusion. Here is the new friend of the Jesus-jumping dono, clutching a beer and asking to be taken to a whorehouse. Perhaps their confusion isn't feigned.

I'm about to desist when a pair of legs go by. The feet are clad in clear lucite heels, 6 inches high if they're a centimetre. Thighs and hips are wrapped in a clingy red sequiny thing, much like a skirt but in 1/10 scale model. Lips are painted a satiny wet red. Conversation ceases, and all eyes follow as she ambles along the shoreline towards a fiery red sunset.

The rancher pulls up in his pickup. Looks at where we've been looking, at the now-vanishing sequined skirt. "Puta." he says.

Next day at the bank, who should I meet but Paulo. 'Hey, man. I meant to call,' he says. 'Yeah, sure we can go visit the whorehouses. Tonight? Sure thing.' He promises to meet me at 7 in the ice cream parlour by the park. He doesn't show.

Fortunately, I do have a clue, a snippet from an on-line article. The only thing tourism brings to Corumba, wrote the grouchy middle-aged columnist, is an infestation of piranhas. "Just walk by the corner of Rua America and Rua Frei Caneca and see." So I do.

A woman reaches out grabs my hand. "Hey, where you from?"

'Canada,' I reply.

She looks confused. An unctuous, leather-jacketed man standing by the doorway of a dodgy-looking bar chimes in, "It's part of the United States."

I want to kick him, but I figure being a pimp means never having to learn geography. Nearby I see a busload of fishermen - rods in plastic protective cases - unloading in front of the big Hotel Intenacional. A few of them stare in our direction. Then my guide leads me inside. For a drink, she says.

We pass by Mr. Geography, and a blonde woman - Auschwitz-skinny, eyes eager for a fix- before settling into a booth near the back.

"What's your name," I ask.

"Leticia."

A bartender brings us a couple of extra-large beers.

"How come you Norte Americanos like Brazilian women? I thought you gringos like a big 'busto'." She squeezes breasts together to create some cleavage, thrusts the result under my nose. 'Brazilian girls, what we have is bum bum,' she continues, turning around to thrust her butt up in my direction. I retreat to a far corner of the booth. Leticia sits, regards me, decides on another tactic.

"What do you do?" she asks

"I'm a journalist."

"Que chique."

I tell her I'm interested in ecotourism.

"I hate the Pantanal. Never go there. "

And in prostitution.

Leticia's guard goes up. She knows nothing of prostitution, she says. She's a chef in the restaurant round the corner, just here having fun on her break. In fumbling Portuguese I explain I don't want to fuck, I just want to talk - to find out why she's in the business; if she likes it; if she has any alternatives.

This is not Leticia's idea of a good time. "Come on now, gringo. I want to party. Let's party." She gets up and starts wiggling in time to the jukebox.

I'll pay for her time, I say. Sure, says Leticia. But we have to party.

I persevere; the harder I press, the harder Leticia parties. Try as I might, to her I'm just a john in journalist's clothing. I get up to go. The bill for the beer comes to 15 Reis, about five times the going rate. On the way out I pass the Auschwitz blonde, legs straddled across one of the fishermen from the bus, tongue firmly lodged in the back of his throat.

Getting inside the head of a piranha appears to be impossible. And perhaps, considering things in the cold light of biodiversity, not actually that important. Rather more critical is the effect that prostitutes have on the environment. Here the news is better. Strictly in terms of ecological footprint, prostitution is remarkably low impact. The only capital requirement is a body and perhaps a bed. The value-added is fairly high. Waste products consist of little more than beer cans and used condoms. Environmental damage is thus next to nil. In ecological terms, whores and paradise can co-exist.

On the day before I leave Corumba, I take a walk along the cliff-top road overlooking the river. To the west, the Pantanal stretches out like the Serengeti, bulbous tops of Cambara trees poking out above the matted plain. I come upon a hotel - the Beija Flor - the name, I remember, of Paulo's hotel. Over the check-in desk hangs a lithograph of Jesus, wet eyes shining with the piety of a freshly clubbed fish, chest cut open to reveal the Sacred Heart. A hint of movement draws my eye to the gap between front desk and corridor. Framed there for an instant I get a flash of chubby cheeks and Noriega pockmarks. It's Paulo - supposed owner of two hotels - clad strangely in the uniform of a bell hop. His head turns back, his eyes regard me for an instant, then he's gone, vanished under cover.

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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