IN THE HOUSE OF THE PIRANHAS
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 -
with the current, firing up a cranky
to putter upstream, cutting the engine
drift back down through a blue cloud
own exhaust. My eyes run, and I'm struck
intermittently by fits of coughing.
horks out noisy goobers. Ours is not
Boredom begins to make life dangerous.'
is the point of this?' a very bored
pipes up. 'Waldemar saw the jaguars.
say there are jaguars in the area.
word for it.'
'Hearsay isn't good enough,' counters
more conscientious bit of Shawn-brain.
viewing is a type of bearing witness.
testifying to the continued existence
wild things and wild places.'
The brain fragments and I are pleased
that. Real David Suzuki material. On
next pass I tell Waldemar to grab onto
overhanging branch. Secured at the
boat pivots round, then edges slowly
the gunnel bumps gently against the
Boredom now segues seamlessly into
My right foot steps onto the sand bank,
weight shifts, and I am up on the same
of dirt as a large, lethally fanged,
young mother. The boredom-dulled brain
the situation thusly, "No self-respecting
bear would hang out this long, near
much noise. Big cat - top predator;
- top predator; pretty much the same,
The throaty snarl that rips out of
pretty much puts paid to that logic.
like an electrocuted Loony Toon - my
springs on end and my arms and legs
spasmodically, which sends me falling
into the canoe. The momentum - and
paddle work by Waldemar -pushes the
back out into the river. Flat on my
in the bilge I have one last epiphany:
the gods reward the stupid.
A hint of movement draws my eye to
between the shoreline thicket and the
brush inland. Framed for an instant
gap I see the outline of haunches,
and shoulders, all covered in a slinking
pelt of spotted gold. Its head -frightenly
massive - turns back, its eyes regard
for an instant, then it's gone, vanished
Here, indeed, there be jaguars.
And where is here, exactly? Arriving
height of the summer rains, the first
conquistadors thought that here was
inland sea. Brazilian explorers, arriving
when the water level was lower, said
that here was a swamp - pantanal in
- vast enough to rate a capital 'P'.
for the next four centuries the Pantanal
remained a backwater, exploitable for
more than fishing and low-intensity
ranching. The turnaround came in the
when the world began to reconsider
Teeming with fish and caiman and birdlife,
the Pantanal won designation as World
Site. The Brazilian government began
the area as an Ecological Paradise.
Tales of lands where man and nature
co-exist hold an irresistible fascination
for me; I am, truth be told, a bit
earth cookie. It's this Eden angle
lured me to here to the Brazilian far
to an 'ecoresort' - actually a palisade
red-tiled cabanas surrounding a shimmering
outdoor pool - which I privately dub
First thing after check-in I head to
palm-frond bar for a cerveja. Two beers
I'm becoming good friends with some
from Goias, when a wiry brown guide
up and asks if I want to go piranha
The salesmen grab at their crotches
"Oi , Gringo, watch out for the
I'm not especially keen, so Waldemar
jaguar. Which is how I end up on my
in the bottom of a canoe, savouring
image of a full-grown jaguar female.
Time passes. The canoe drifts downstream.
Waldemar asks if I want to have a look
his village. Why not?
We put-put south, stopping to gawk
man-size caiman and the flocks of great
Birding in the Pantanal is not the
stalking of flit-flitting grey finches
always seemed in Canada. In 15 minutes
seen dozens of 5 foot tall white and
jabiru storks, flocks of American wood
egrets by the bushel basket, roseate
caracaras, snail kites, cormorants.
these birds are beautiful, some are
every one is bigger than your head.
We swing round another loop of river
there's the village: neat and small
primitive. A single arc of houses along
river's edge, every one set on stilts.
down there's a one-room general store,
tiny school, a trinity of churches,
and a bar.
"How many people here?" I
About 200, says Waldemar. They work
as guides, either for ecotourists or
commonly - for the sports fishermen
in droves from Sao Paulo. When the
come there's no work at all for three
so everyone stays home. Words of empty
are on my lips when Waldemar flashes
mouthful of gold bridgework. ' Nice
eh?'. Paradise depends on how you see
He goes to crank up the engine; I have
last look around at Eden. I note a
white house off by itself at the upstream
edge of the village. "What's that?"
Waldemar looks uncomfortable and fiddles
with choke. "Over there?"
pointing. "Uma casa de piranha,"
he mutters. A fish house? What the
The guide makes a fucky-fucky gesture
says something about Paulista fishermen.
I remember the salesmen clutching themselves
back at Fort Pool. In the local slang,
learn, piranha also means puta. Over
is a whorehouse.
That evening, the denizens of Fort
upstairs to dine. I am seated with
and Janet, a prim and happy mid-50s
from the academic end of middle America;
Walter teaches at a smallish university.
Janet's in administration. With them
an English-speaking guide hired by
US travel agent. He has the chubby
and pockmarked skin of Manoel Noriega,
the accent of a Ozark hillbilly - the
of a decade of illegal domicile in
Janet and Walter begin dinner bent
They pity the villagers their homes.
pity them their schools. They pity
lack of roads and supermarkets and
They pity everyone and everything that
white and suburban and American.
I have to make it stop. I consider
up a small aluminium coffee spoon and
scraping off their retinas. But that
be messy, and quite socially unacceptable.
So for pity's slake, I bring up whores.
"Seems to me the villagers have
the necessities of life," I said.
School, church, cemetery, bar.... whorehouse."
Walter chortles politely. Janet pinches
face up tight. Paulo, to my astonishment,
picks up the conversational ball and
"There's lotsa whores round here.
got two whorehouses next to my hotel,
down the river. Up in Corumba, they've
5 or 6. Big, fancy whorehouses."
He goes on. He tells of the whorehouses
to his other hotel. He tells of the
men who come to fish, and how as a
he has to take them over to the bordellos.
He tells of the big fancy whorehouses
Corumba, the ones where you have to
girl 2 or 3 glasses of overpriced champagne
before you can even so much as nod
direction of the bedroom.
Eventually, Janet enters the conversation.
"These women, they're from here?"
"No, most are from Sao Paulo."
"No, they like it here. No one
them . And they make a lot more money
in Sao Paulo. That big whorehouse in
No way you can get out of that one
dropping at least 500 bucks."
There's a tension in the air that troubles
Paulo. He decides to tell a funny story.
A funny and somewhat confusing story
a row of whorehouses in Baltimore and
whores there who somehow ripped him
He gets some way in before Janet finally
lets fly her righteous middle-American
I can't say I feel sorry for you. Those
are so exploited. They have no sense
Paulo mouths 'self-worth' silently.
"…most have been sexually exploited
since before they were 14 - that's
Martin jumps to join the winning team.
yes, I think the studies have shown
"...and it's not women that abused
continues Janet. "They have scars,
so deep no one can see them. And those
were put there by men."
She glares around at us, the gender-guilty.
Walter continues to examine his toes.
my cafezinho. Paulo, discovering at
that it's a fool who talks whores with
boss, zips his Noriega lips shut.
Later, before bed, Paulo catches up
outside my cabana.
"I think I made a mistake, talking
that about whores."
"Hmm, Paulo. You think?"
"You believe all that bullshit,
women are forced. That's bullshit,
"One thing it's good maybe I didn't
mention is what the fishermen pay money
It's not just sex. Not normal sex.
along vibrators and that kind of thing,
they like to see the girls play with
Especially, you know (he motions) up
"Yeah, Paulo. I'd say it's a good
you didn't mention that."
Next morning dawns hot and bright.
notes over cafe com leite, it hits
I may have let a story slip by. Paradise/Whores.
Ecotourism/Prostitution. I hop it up
front desk to ask after Paulo. He and
and Janet have already left for Corumbá.
I get the number of his hotel. Next
I decide, I will go back to Corumba.
call Paulo. I will search for whores.
There's pure crass commercialism in
decision: cheesecake flies out the
much faster than earth cookie. But
also a genuine issue at stake. Ecotourism,
according to government and environmentalists
alike, is crucial to the survival of
Eden. Ecotourism brings money into
economies while preserving natural
they insist. That it comes packaged
prostitution is something they appear
have glossed over. Does this matter,
Or is there room for whores in Paradise?
Back in Corumba, I call Paulo's hotel
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
tropicalis. Quiet, regular streets.
central park with a bandstand and a
of a general. Stone tables where old
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
local city government. Prostitution?
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
That leaves Paulo. Again, I call and
a message. Again he doesn't respond
I take a trip to a cattle ranch, right
the middle of the swamp. The Pantanal,
rancher tells me, is exactly the same
it was 200 years ago. Pantaneiros like
love it and care for it. What about
I ask. Do they prey on cattle? Is it
No problem, he says, clapping hands.
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
back into storeroom, emerging this
a skin the size of a sheet of gyprock.
This is living in harmony with the
He only shoots the ones that prey on
he says, the ones too old to catch
game. I try to take a picture but he
no. Later, I take one when his back
after the skins have been returned
The ranch is accessible only by water.
the way back in the boat we put in
river town where Paulo claimed to have
hotel flanked by whorehouses. The rancher
- born-again, Christian, and good with
gun - is probably not the man to ask
information. Fortunately, he disappears
fetch his truck and trailer, leaving
crew and I on shore with the boat.
a few beers from a cantina, spread
the hired hands, then casually ask
"Excuse me, but where are the
houses in this town."
"The piranha houses. Piranhas!"
"In the river, Senhor."
"No. no, no. Piranhas! Putas!
Whores! -- Where is the house of the
The men feign confusion. Here is the
friend of the Jesus-jumping dono, clutching
a beer and asking to be taken to a
Perhaps their confusion isn't feigned.
I'm about to desist when a pair of
by. The feet are clad in clear lucite
6 inches high if they're a centimetre.
and hips are wrapped in a clingy red
thing, much like a skirt but in 1/10
model. Lips are painted a satiny wet
Conversation ceases, and all eyes follow
as she ambles along the shoreline towards
a fiery red sunset.
The rancher pulls up in his pickup.
at where we've been looking, at the
sequined skirt. "Puta." he
Next day at the bank, who should I
Paulo. 'Hey, man. I meant to call,'
'Yeah, sure we can go visit the whorehouses.
Tonight? Sure thing.' He promises to
me at 7 in the ice cream parlour by
He doesn't show.
Fortunately, I do have a clue, a snippet
from an on-line article. The only thing
brings to Corumba, wrote the grouchy
columnist, is an infestation of piranhas.
"Just walk by the corner of Rua
and Rua Frei Caneca and see."
So I do.
A woman reaches out grabs my hand.
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
I want to kick him, but I figure being
pimp means never having to learn geography.
Nearby I see a busload of fishermen
in plastic protective cases - unloading
front of the big Hotel Intenacional.
of them stare in our direction. Then
leads me inside. For a drink, she says.
We pass by Mr. Geography, and a blonde
- Auschwitz-skinny, eyes eager for
before settling into a booth near the
"What's your name," I ask.
A bartender brings us a couple of extra-large
"How come you Norte Americanos
Brazilian women? I thought you gringos
a big 'busto'." She squeezes breasts
together to create some cleavage, thrusts
the result under my nose. 'Brazilian
what we have is bum bum,' she continues,
turning around to thrust her butt up
direction. I retreat to a far corner
booth. Leticia sits, regards me, decides
on another tactic.
"What do you do?" she asks
"I'm a journalist."
I tell her I'm interested in ecotourism.
"I hate the Pantanal. Never go
And in prostitution.
Leticia's guard goes up. She knows
of prostitution, she says. She's a
the restaurant round the corner, just
having fun on her break. In fumbling
I explain I don't want to fuck, I just
to talk - to find out why she's in
if she likes it; if she has any alternatives.
This is not Leticia's idea of a good
"Come on now, gringo. I want to
Let's party." She gets up and
wiggling in time to the jukebox.
I'll pay for her time, I say. Sure,
Leticia. But we have to party.
I persevere; the harder I press, the
Leticia parties. Try as I might, to
just a john in journalist's clothing.
up to go. The bill for the beer comes
15 Reis, about five times the going
On the way out I pass the Auschwitz
legs straddled across one of the fishermen
from the bus, tongue firmly lodged
back of his throat.
Getting inside the head of a piranha
to be impossible. And perhaps, considering
things in the cold light of biodiversity,
not actually that important. Rather
critical is the effect that prostitutes
on the environment. Here the news is
Strictly in terms of ecological footprint,
prostitution is remarkably low impact.
only capital requirement is a body
a bed. The value-added is fairly high.
products consist of little more than
cans and used condoms. Environmental
is thus next to nil. In ecological
whores and paradise can co-exist.
On the day before I leave Corumba,
a walk along the cliff-top road overlooking
the river. To the west, the Pantanal
out like the Serengeti, bulbous tops
trees poking out above the matted plain.
I come upon a hotel - the Beija Flor
name, I remember, of Paulo's hotel.
the check-in desk hangs a lithograph
wet eyes shining with the piety of
clubbed fish, chest cut open to reveal
Sacred Heart. A hint of movement draws
eye to the gap between front desk and
Framed there for an instant I get a
of chubby cheeks and Noriega pockmarks.
Paulo - supposed owner of two hotels
strangely in the uniform of a bell
head turns back, his eyes regard me
instant, then he's gone, vanished under
Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent
based in Rio de Janeiro