Oiapoque to Macapá, Brazil

You know that picture in your head when you imagine Brazil, if you’re not a Brazilian? It’s all probably Rio. Crowded beaches, scantily clad people, caipirinhas, parties, soccer fanatics, samba, all that. Rio isn’t just that, and Brazil is not just Rio. But anyways, we’re not there yet.

So here’s my first impression of Brazil, before I’ve gotten to where I’m going.

I’ve just entered on a boat (ignoring the bridge, finished in 2011 yet still not fully open in 2019 since Brazil hasn’t bothered to add a border post on it) from one scruffy-looking small town in French Guiana (St-Georges) to another scruffy-looking small town (Oiapoque). Swap the French language for Portuguese. I’m now in the Brazilian state of Amapá, the former Portuguese Guiana.

I spend hours at the immigration post in town, waiting for it to open from lunch, listening to the young urbanite agent from Brasilia trash Oiapoque and wax nostalgic about Vancouver (that’s a surprise), then eventually help poorly translate between French and Portuguese for a Haitian refugee crossing with French papers and a Brazilian work permit, refusing to be stamped in as a visitor by border staff just wanting to speed him through. This is apparently not an infrequent occurrence.

I spend another two hours waiting for a ride to the nearest city, Macapá, the state capital of Amapá. A Brazilian man who shared transport with me from Cayenne to St-Georges shows up having arrived on a boat several hours after me, revealing to me that he was scammed of the 800€ he was carrying by our Brazilian driver, after he was detained by French authorities at a roadblock for not carrying his ID. He goes off and disappears somewhere with no money.

Finally, I spend another eight hours stuck in a 4×4 on a mud “road” in the pouring rain with three other passengers, enduring a litany of misogynistic banter and casually racist “jokes”, the latter directed at me, the Chinese person confused for every East Asian stereotype imaginable. Oh, meanwhile, the car radio blares out cheesy music with a DJ yelling out “saudades” every 10 seconds. “Are you missing Brazil yet?” it seems to imply.

From St-Georges to Oiapoque and onwards

It has to get better. I’m happy to say it does. (Well, minus the casual racism, which was always more ignorance than malice.) But clearly, there’s more to Brazil than cosmopolitan Rio or out-of-the-way, wild-borderland Oiapoque.

Macapá sits on the mouth of the Amazon, where its fresh muddy waters meets the Atlantic. Isolated from the rest of Brazil with the only major road out leading to Oiapoque and the French border, and much of the rest of the state being uncharted forest, getting anywhere else in Brazil is by boat or plane. State capital it may be, but this place is small! Together with Rio residents Semaj and Robson, two travellers I met in Jaw Jaw and again in Kourou, we spent just one morning in town, trying to see what we could before our respective flights south.

In terms of sights to see in town, there isn’t too much; Macapá isn’t exactly a tourist destination. Fortaleza de São José de Macapá dominates the waterfront — it’s a giant fort completed in 1782. That’s sadly all the information I got: neither all that well-preserved nor informative (even in Portuguese), it did at least provide a lovely view of the Atlantic, the Amazon, and the city that the locals also enjoy. And a few kilometres south of centre, there’s Marco Zero — a tower marking the Equator, which runs straight through town.

More intriguing was the Museu Sacaca do Desenvolvimento Sustentável (Museum of Sustainable Development), dedicated to Sacaca, a local indigenous bush doctor who specialised in medicinal plants, but showcasing afro/indigenous lifestyle in general. With a free, lengthy guided tour throughout the complex, we were introduced to various trees and fruits of the region, the old riverboat markets that stopped at villages all along the Amazon, and traditional food prep including the cassava bread we saw in Suriname. (Cassava bread is a precursor to beiju, a typical Brazilian street snack consisting of a tapioca “pancake” sandwiching savoury or sweet fillings.) There’s also a rather hilarious midwife’s shack now with a… children’s slide in the middle, in a rather literal “explanation” of what midwifery is.

With it being my second full day of speaking Portuguese out loud ever, I was happy to let Semaj and Robson ask all the questions as I attempted to understand as much as I could: to them, this was a Brazil completely different than the one they knew, yet for me, this was my introduction to the country. Starting with a simple example, the food’s completely different: açaí, typically something served iced, sweetened, and mixed with fruits like a dessert, is served either completely plain as fresh juice here (tasting like tea with the texture of a milkshake), or salty with shrimp mixed in, as one of the more well-known dishes of the region. We sadly didn’t have the time to try the latter, but were offered some of the former by their hotel’s owner.

Amongst conversations with him, other hotel guests, and various Uber drivers as we shuttled around town, I got the sense of a region happy to be away from all the action. Several people mentioned moving up here from other larger cities in Brazil, one citing the lack of “bangy-bangy” (gunfire), others citing a general feeling of safety and tranquility, lacking the hustle and bustle. There’s also a tax-free thing going on, in hopes to entice investment complementing its mining, rubber, forestry, and shipping industries among others, but one that’s also made it a relatively cheap place to live.

Unlike the other Guianas, Amapá seems to have a different ethnic diversity, at least in terms of immigrants. Brazil in general has a large Japanese population, but even that isn’t apparent here. There’s no visible Chinese presence, which probably explains the tiresome stereotypes I received. In terms of indigenous and African roots, as far as I could see in less than a day, they form the largest presence here, though in a more mixed-race fashion than the other Guianas. History seems to have taken a very different turn here in contrast to the region, as Amapá was established as a mere part of the colonial state of Brazil, rather than a colony of its own.

I do wish I could have learned more — whether with more time, or stronger Portuguese, as information in English is sparse, even online. But alas, this marks the end of both the Guianas and the overlanding portion of my trip. It’s been fascinating to learn how one small geographical region can contain so many completely different cultures, a result of Spanish, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese colonisation. Now? On to learn how one country — Brazil, giant as it may be, still one country — can contain so many completely different cultures of its own!

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