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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

Not All Jungle

A far cry from its perception as a jungle outpost, Belém is a modern port city on the Amazon River. On this day in Belém, I was instructed, "Stand in front of me. Let me look at you."

These were the directions of my friend Rick, a Sansei from Pasadena, California and a ten-year veteran of work in the Amazon. We were about to embark on a trip through the famous Ver-O-Peso open air market in Belém. He wanted to make sure that I didn't look like a tourist.

Me, look like a tourist? I remember feeling mildly offended as I had similarly trained teams working in southern Brazil about not being a bandit magnet. I encouraged our workers to avoid the neon-colored polo shirts, the USC or Cal jerseys, the Nikon slung over the shoulder and the new shiny white Reeboks.

Back in the Amazon, the tourist visiting the Ver-O-Peso market could easily become victimized by pickpockets or petty thievery. But here, my friend Rick was the expert. Rick's inspection of my appearance would ensure that apart from our being Asian in a region where there were very few Asians in general, that we would not be otherwise marked as potential targets.

The light morning rain left the streets with a thin film of mud. It was 9am and the tropical heat was already causing steam to rise from the ground. Walking through the crowds before entering the market, I noticed that an even larger crowd seemed to create a wide berth for some attraction.

Many times in Brazil you will find crowds gathered to watch performers, street preachers, capoeira martial arts exhibitions. This particular morning, the crowd had slowed to watch a woman walking stark naked down the middle of the street! Drunk or mentally unbalanced, the woman was chanting and singing, carrying her shoes in her hand as she half-strutted, half-staggered down the street. She was in the kind of state where no one felt compelled to approach or assist her. It was a surreal moment.

We would continue our trip into the Ver-O-Peso market.

The place had a swap meet feel to it. There were barracas or vendors' stands in every possible open space. Looking at the items being sold, I was enthralled, but not enticed.

The products included some bizarre stuff including dried fish scales of the pirarucu (log fish), which were used as fingernail files; exotic fruit juices; jarred snakes, pickled intestinal worms and bottled dolphin genitalia (for what purpose I didn't really ask or care to know); as well as a wide range of fish taken that morning from the Amazon.

What's that smell?

I'm a strong proponent of the idea that fragrance powers remote places in our memories. Let me try to contextualize this for you. It was still only about 9:30 in the morning at the market. We were geographically next to the Amazon River, but we were also on the equator. At 9:30am, it was close to 90 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. The reason this is important was because the next series of stalls we would visit was the meat market.

At that time, the Ver-O-Peso meat market had no refrigeration of any kind (remember the key words are "open air market"). Entire halves and quarters of cattle were hanging on hooks in the meat market. Blood ran down the sides of carcasses draining onto the lightly cemented ground. The heavy and distinct odor of blood and raw meat hung in the air, as tangible as the tropical humidity.

Underfoot we were stepping into shallow streams of blood. Urgh. Unrefrigerated meat, exposed to the 90 degree heat and the legion of swarming flies. The beef was side by side with the chickens, pigs and various other unidentifiable animal carcasses for sale. It's amazing that I didn't become a vegetarian on the spot!!

This would be a scene repeated throughout my travels in South America. In the Liberdade section of São Paulo, I would daily pass by a small storefront market that sold live chickens. The chickens may have been used in some type of Afro-Brazilian sacrificial ceremony. Or they could have been sold for food. In the latter case, the market would kill the chicken for the customer. They had a large steel funnel on the premises for just that purpose.

Some explanation is required on how that funnel was used. The chicken being sold for food would be placed live and inverted into the funnel. Its head would protrude from the opening at the narrow end. With a quick movement of the knife, the chicken's head would come off. The funnel then acted as a holder to the chicken's body as it fluttered through its last moments of life. What an interesting little performance to witness! And yet I still eat chicken.

São Paulo and Belém. These were two different worlds. Most people in the two cities, separated by a five-hour plane ride, had never been to the other city. As a visitor and cultural student there, I was able to immerse myself in the extreme diversity of both worlds. And it is with the perspective of time and distance, I am now able to appreciate what that experience meant to me.

© 2009 John Katagi

adventures amazon Belém Brazil sansei sao paulo south america travel

About this series

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.