Belem has always been the hardest place for me to explain.
If you were to ask me about Rio, I could go on and on about the fast pace, yet carefree city life. It is a one of a kind place where in the heart of the city, sky scrapers hover over the Cariocas (people of Rio), whose feet walk to the beat of samba and every streets opens up to miles and miles of beautiful beach coast line, set behind a mountain backdrop.
Or Gurupa, the small yet growing town in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest that takes a 30 hour boat ride down the Amazon River to even get to. When you are inside the town, you feel as if you are in an exclusive member into the Gurupa family, with people who greet you with arms wide open for making the difficult journey to see them. While walking around the dirt (and now few paved) roads it’s easy to forget that just a couple of blocks away is the heart of the Amazon Jungle, and your neighbors are the Macaws that fly in the sky above you and Howler monkeys whose calls can be heard from deep in the jungle.
But Belem is very unique. Years and years ago, it began as a small town not so different from Gurupa – with dirt roads and small wooden shacks on stilts to avoid being washed away during rainy season. But then this town began to grow. Street became paved, bicycles became motorcycles, motorcycles became cars, cars became buses. Then even more people began to move here and stores began to be built, the stores became shopping malls, shopping malls became sky scrapers and before you knew it, this little town developed into a booming city. The only booming city in the Brazilian Amazon.
Even as I was flying into Belem, what I saw looking out of my plane window seemed so out of place. For miles and miles all I could see was a vast blackness and we were flying over the rainforest, but then a sudden burst of light filled my tiny window as a huge city appeared out of nowhere. Where I had just been looking at darkness, presuming I was looking down into miles rainforest trees and wildlife, was now thousands of sparkling lights and staggering skyscrapers along the Amazon River coast line.
But the brilliance of the city was still overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands of miles of darkness. And you could feel this odd sense that the city is out of place when walking around in the city streets. There is a definite city feel, as you walk down the crowded streets you are conscious of where your purse or wallet is at all times. The fresh rainforest air is laced with pollution and odd whiffs of sewage and trash. But at the same time hints of the rainforests mystical beauty are everywhere.
Today we visited the Museum where my dad does his research and my mother teaches English classes. We ate lunch in the cafeteria outside. The cafeteria is a wide open space with tables, chairs, and a buffet covered with a palm thatch roof. I sat down with a filled plate and enjoyed the cool breeze flowing through the cafeteria, which felt more like a breezy getaway under the palm thatch roof. As I started tasting my varied selection of tropical fruits, I could hear parrots chatting away in the trees nearby. With every sense, I could tell I was in the Amazon – but that feeling was skewed when just to the right of us in the distance were the outlines of skyscrapers.
Belem is a living contradiction. I have yet to understand this city fully, but I am extremely intrigued to begin learning… and eventually, understanding.