Bikes in Belem
One of the oddities of my visit to Belem was first encountering predictably chaotic streets with little room for pedestrians or bikes, but then hearing that Belem was considered one of the more bike-friendly places in Brazil. Turns out both are true. There is a huge population of daily cyclists, often two to a bike, who are using it as their main means of transportation. My friend Thiago was commuting to the World Social Forum every morning around 7 a.m. and told me I should get there to see the streets full of bikes “like China!”
There are also dedicated bikeways in the center median of many major boulevards and they are heavily used for commuting and daily errands. The bikeways are one way in each direction, separated by a grassy and tree-filled median, and usually enclosed by orange metal barriers for the full distance between intersections, making it impossible to enter or exit in mid-block (seems sensible in light of the heavy traffic on the six-lane roads that surround the bikeways).
I had the pleasure of getting to know Raoni, Marcelo, Fabio, and Sergio, all local cycle activists–it was thanks to them the inspiring “bicycle museum” was installed at the World Social Forum. They have a local club and go on regular treks into the countryside. Marcelo was indefatigable at the WSF; when he picked me up (in a happy coincidence) with his bike taxi at the UFRA gate and rode me across the whole campus, he told me he’d been going nonstop for 25 hours! He was very patient explaining things to me in Portuguese, and I hung in there trying to understand, probably getting about 30% or so. As another local bike stalwart who had no English got across to me, the bike itself is a universal language (well… sort of!).
Raoni threw himself into organized bikes and cyclists and made some excellent edits/improvements to the text I whipped up. Playing on the World Social Forum slogan “Another World Is Possible,” I called it “Another Traffic Jam is Possible,” and we had the “pleasure” of waiting on stage for 2.5 hours, enduring 20-odd speeches (mostly of the barking left variety, usually going WAY beyond the 5 minute limit) before finally Joao Paolo and Raoni delivered the 1.5 minute speech in Portuguese while I was the potted plant at their side, holding Ze’s reflective sign saying “Respect: One Less Car.” Here is the final version after some last-minute on-stage additions from Raoni:
Another Traffic Jam is Possible!
Did you hear the frogs along the roads in Belem as you were waiting for traffic to clear (so you could reach UFPA or UFRA)? Could you turn arouund and talk to the people behind you? It’s a shame that a gathering of 100,000 people seeking to create another world continues to depend on the same transit technology that is destroying the planet. Some of us have experienced a different kind of “traffic jam” and we want you to know it is a great improvement! We hear the frogs and talk to strangers, and experience the city and traffic in an entirely new way.
There were some glimmers of hope at the Belem World Social Forum. At the UFRA campus a system of bicycle taxis was introduced, hinting at much greater possibilities. Those possibilities, in turn, were asserted in a defiant celebration on Friday, January 30 in the Amazon’s first-ever Critical Mass (or Bicicletada). One hundred cyclists seized the streets, shrugging off a steady rain, and rode all over Belem, invading a gas station, crashing a ban on bikes at a restricted public park, exchanging cheers and waves with Belem’s citizens everywhere, and with WSF delegates at luxury hotels. “Mais adrenalina, menos gasolina!” and “Mais Bicicletas, menos carros” echoed through the streets, altering forever the imaginations of countless people, who now have at least a small taste of that other transit world that is not only possible, but already here.
We invite you to fight for the human right to breathe clean air, to come and go safely and comfortably, and above all, to leave a healthy planet for future generations. We are making a quiet statement against oil wars when we ride our bikes and to further this statement we demand that the World Social Forum ban cars from its future sites and instead, provide a fleet of “library bicycles” for the use of delegates (plus a fast and frequent system of electric shuttles for those who can’t or won’t bicycle). Other worlds ARE possible, but they are ALREADY HERE if we only have the vision and the will to start changing now. Isn’t it time to break with private cars and the gasoline-powered engine NOW, not after some unknown future revolution? The planet depends on it, and bicyclists demand it!
Look for cycle activism in your city, and if there isn’t any, start it!
Critical Mass cyclists from San Francisco, Sao Paolo, Brasilia and beyond…
Belem, Para, February 1, 2009
The text was given to the big WSF final process as a resolution from our “assembly of cyclist activists” so we’ll see if it moves the process forward or not.
The spirited Critical Mass last Friday was seen by a lot of people I talked to (including, in a taxi rideÂ in Rio two nights ago, David Stang, brother of Sister Dorothy Stang, murdered by “The Consortium” of right-wing ranchers who want to stop her sustainable agriculture experiments and decades-long fight on behalf of the landless poor in Brazil’s north), but was not much integrated with the thousands of daily cyclists in Belem and surroundings. On my last day I went with new friends to a beautiful river beach with big waves on the island of Cotijuba. To get there we bused from the center to the end of the line at the northern edge of the metropolitan area in a town called Icoaraci. It was even more bike-centric than Belem, so I took this gallery of shots:
Here’s JP with Carina and Gabriella, with whom I spent a lovely day going to the beach:
Ruins as usual were quite picturesque. The first is in Icoaraci facing the waterfront, the second is on Cotijuba in front of the dock area:
As we travelled to the island, some river dwellers disembarked to homes like this. Fantastic mangroves and other air-root trees along the shore too.
Once on Cotijuba, we took this tractor-drawn “bus” to the nothern shore to Praia do Vai-Quem-Quer (” ‘Go Who Wants To’ Beach”):
After romping in the weird freshwater surf for 30-40 minutes (SO refreshing!) we all fell asleep on the beach and I foolishly got very sunburned. When we returned to the mainland, we stopped for a special dinner “Fish on a Tile” (Peixe Na Telha), which came with rice and farofa, plus a local fare pirao, a thick gooey dish made from manioc roots and fish sauce. It was the best dinner I had in Belem but I have to admit I am not very impressed by Brazilian cuisine. This fish was excellent, but the thick creamy sauce was too heavy, especially when combined with pirao and farofa (a Swede I met in Brazil 20 years ago called farofa “sawdust”–it apparently has no nutritional value, but is great to make your meal more filling, and when well toasted can taste great).
On my way out of town I had fun shopping at the famous riverside market Ver-o-Peso (“See the Weight”), especially enjoying a quick loop through the fish market, which I remembered being amazing from when I was here 20 years ago. Didn’t have my camera, but saw a lot of fish like this guy’s in Icoaraci:
The last memorable cuisine story in Belem is ice cream! I ate a lot of exotic fruit ice creams–Acai, Mangaba, Teperiba, Araca, Castanha do Para, and my old favorite Marajuca (passion fruit). They really have great flavors, great ice creams. JP helped me sample raw acai beans (eh) and fresh unsweetened cupuacu (like sour bubble gum around a pit) too.
At dinner we had a lovely sunset to stimulate our appetites…
Leaving turned out to be a mess–TAM Airlines was unprepared in the small airport to handle such a crush of people. So I was a half day delayed getting back, spent the night in a fancy hotel in Rio unexpectedly, but made it home late last night and am writing now in the Santa Monica public library after an enjoyable lunchtime book presentation at Google a block away. The cool thing was going through Sao Paolo in super clear morning air and getting these mindboggling shots from my airplane window:
I’ll be posting a longer article on the World Social Forum in a few days. Lots of scattered thoughts and notes, and still digesting a lot of reading and thinking, but hope to have a reasonably interesting overview/summary, and analysis/reportage, by the end of my stay here in Los Angeles. I’ll be at FarmLab at noon Friday, LA Ecovillage Friday evening, Booksoup in West Hollywood Saturday night, and CalArts in Valencia Monday morning. Come say hello!