The world's favourite traveller talks to Lyn Hughes about his Brazilian fantasies
Michael Palin’s latest TV series, his first for five years, sees him exploring Brazil. Over the course of the journey he investigates the vibrant and diverse culture of the largest country in South America (and fifth biggest country in the world), exploring four vastly different areas.
He talks to Wanderlust editor-in-chief, Lyn Hughes, about the challenges and highlights of his most surprising series yet.
How did the idea for the TV series come about?
I've always felt I had to see Brazil. We skirted around it on Full Circle, visiting the confluence of rivers on the border of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. But I think it was because, suddenly, everyone seemed to be talking about Brazil. It has a resurgent economy and people are talking about it as a more serious player, both politically and economically.
The actual timing is ideal too. After the London Olympics, people are suddenly looking at where the Olympics will be held next, which is Rio in 2016. (And, indeed, the football World Cup is being held in Brazil in 2014.) So there is an appetite for Brazil, not just from me, but from an audience that want to know more about the country. So I put it into motion and it sort of formed rather neatly into place.
Did you have any preconceptions about the country?
Oh yeah, sure! But I was never quite sure if it was a fantasy or a reality. On one hand, I imagined this very easy going place with lots of sun and beaches and people who don't really do any work and have a lovely time and a lovely country. But on the other hand, I imagined this vast mysterious area of huge rivers and rainforests which people disappeared into frequently and never came back again. So it was really a mixture in my mind, a dream of a happy-go-lucky sun, sea and samba society, but really, it was the brooding, dark mass behind it that I wanted to see.
So what surprised you the most about Brazil?
I had to get used to the fact that this was not a fantasy, this was really the way Brazil is. We started filming in the North East, at Sao Luis, and around there the beaches are just absolutely extraordinary – expansive and beautifully looked after. There was music all the time, there always seemed to be a festival on, and it did seem to be very much like what I dreamed it to be.
The more I travelled, though, I discovered things about Brazil that I had not known, particularly the extent of the slave trade there. There were something like seven million slaves brought over to work the plantations, more slaves than many other countries, including the United States. I'd never really taken that in.
I was also quite surprised by the extent and importance of religion in Brazil. It seems such a happy-go-lucky country where people take each day as it comes and enjoy themselves. But there are churches everywhere, mostly Catholic churches but also, on the north-east coast particularly, there's a strong influence from Africa, in religion and in the ceremonies and all that. This mix of Catholicism and animism really totally took me by surprise.
Thankfully, the journeys I do are a continuous surprise to me. I never know what I'm going to find.
You had an interesting experience with an Amazonian tribe in the Xingu River area.
Yes! After a few days we realised that they had cameras and were filming us! These guys had so many film crews going through that they learned about cameras. They didn't know much else about the western world, but they knew how to operate a camera!
It turns out they didn't want guns or clothes from people who came to the village. They wanted the latest computers and editing kit. They still dressed and painted like they had been for probably 2,000 years, but they wanted the state-of-the-art equipment and that was an eye-opener. It was just extraordinary.
It was also an eye-opener about how patronising our view of the rest of the world is. These people are just as interested in their own history as we are. And they realised that we knew more about their history because we documented it with cameras and photographs, which they've never had. Now they've got them, they're jolly well going to spend some time documenting all their dances, their rituals, their way of life. So there we were, a big camera crew from the BBC, being filmed.
One of the tribes that you stayed with were back in Western clothes the day you were leaving. Do you think they were wearing traditional clothes because you were filming them, or was it a matter of pride, something they would do anyway?
I think it's a matter of pride and something they would do anyway. Over the last few years, the pride of the people of the jungle has been restored. They are not quite the way they were before, but the ways of the indigenous people has been seriously documented and the first protected land reserve has been set up.
So, a lot has changed in my life time. I think something like 20% of the forest is back in Indian hands and, theoretically, they own that land. They perform these dances with great pride. I don’t think they do it because they're paid to. But they have made contact with the outside world and they're going to change, and it's up to them to choose what they want from that change.
I don’t feel that they've been dragged helplessly into the modern world. The people I met feel very strongly about keeping the culture of their tribe, keeping the language, that’s why they’re recording all these dances. Whether the next generation will be different, I don't know. I have a feeling that the next generation will appreciate where they live, love the forest and just wanted to live that way of life, but cherry picking the best things and the most useful things of western life such as communications, to enable them to communicate in a very isolated area with various other indigenous groups in that area. I don’t think that the communities are going to be destroyed in the way we fear.
There are so many conflicting interests in Brazil when it comes to things like logging and dam building, and the effect these things are having on the environment. Did you come away feeling optimistic or pessimistic about that?
I am by nature an optimist; I tend to look on the good side of life. And I was given hope by the immensity of Brazil's natural wealth. Although the forest, much of it has been reduced, it is still enormous. In Mata Atlantica, for example, the forest is something like 2% of what it was 100 years ago, but it is still dense and thick and magnificent.
I guess what I'm saying is that Brazil is enormous. There seems to be room for the extraction of minerals and the building of dams. You don’t immediately think that this is a country scarred and ruined. It still seems extraordinarily abundant.
Having said that, talking to people, there is a depressingly familiar element of corruption. I spoke with the President of Brazil and he is aware of it too. He changed the country and the economy, but he told me 'I'm afraid corruption is still a big problem here.'
When there’s so much money around, you do worry that the whole thing will get out of control. That's what the people in the forest fear about the big dams being built. The dams will completely change and alter the way the water is used and the way they farm and use that part of the forest. There is no benefit to them. The dams will benefit the big cities of the south, where the work is.
So, all is not right. But the government that is in at the moment seem to be aware of the problems, and are trying to balance the interests of the country itself, using money from its exports and general wealth to create infrastructure for the future. At the moment it seems to be coping.
How much input do you have into your journeys? Do you sit down with a map and make suggestions?
I came up with the original idea – that we should do a series in one country, which I've never done before. And because Brazil is one of the biggest countries in the world, I figured that it needed at least four episodes. Then I sat down with a map of Brazil with the two directors, Jamie and Frank Haneley, to see how on earth we could divide it into four programmes.
Quite early on we realised that Amazonia could be one, and that the north-east, what I call African Brazil, could be a second. Of course, we had to do the cities in the south, so we linked Rio with the mining area for the third episode and made Sao Paulo and the south the final one. Each area was very distinctive, both culturally and geographically, and then it fell into place quite easily.
Our researchers also went out to Brazil, talked to various people and sent back information about who they'd met and what we ought to do. There was a discussion and we settled on the best places to visit that illustrated what we were talking about and would give as wide a portrait of Brazil as possible. So, it was in conjunction with me and the directors, and importantly, the Brazilian fixers who helped us out there and steered us towards stories.
Was there anywhere that you didn't get to go to that you wish you had?
Well, we didn’t go to the very, very far west, the border with Peru, but we sort of touched on most of the main areas that I wanted to see.
And in the very south, we had some difficult decisions to make. We went to a dotty place called Blumenau, where they all dress up and do alpine dancing. I would have liked to see a little bit more of the very, very far south as well.
In the north, I would have liked to go to the Brazilian border with Venezuela, the big plateau that inspired Lost World. But, generally speaking, I think we touched all the major places I wanted to see.
Anywhere you would like to go back to?
Pantanal, which was very peaceful and quiet. And Sao Paulo. It's huge and vast and I’ve never really felt that I quite got to grips to it.
Most people say “Don't bother with Sao Paulo. Rio is more beautiful, the mining areas are more beautiful.” But Sao Paulo is such an important part of modern Brazil. I felt very much at home there. It was like a big American city, lots of book shops and things I like. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time there. To me it was just big; we got helicopters to fly around it because the traffic jams are so vast. I was a bit overawed and would like to know more about Sao Paulo.
Food seemed to crop up more in this series...
Certainly in the north-east. Food is very big thing there and there is so much diversity. You get fish and fish stews and all the marvellous things they make. I found that quite irresistible. Brazilians, certainly on the east coast, all love their food and take it very seriously. Chefs are national heroes, rather like in the UK.
We also visited a lot of markets. Whenever I go to a city I try to go to three places: one is a railway station, one is the botanical gardens and one is a market. That’s where you see lots and lots of people from every background, every type of person, rich poor or whoever, ends up at the station, wandering through the gardens or buying things at the market.
My favourite market was a wonderful one in Salvador, just absolutely extraordinary. The atmosphere and huge bustle and business. It's really good fun, like markets should be – people shouting to each other, banter going on, wonderful food.
The markets up in Bahia, are an eye-opener too. The Amazon delta is so rich in food. And not just in fish. Food from the jungle and fruit from the jungle which you wouldn’t hear of here.
The Brazilians take their food very seriously, so I take it seriously too.
Has your trip to Brazil sated your travel itch for a while?
No! You scratch it and it still itches!
I know that I will always enjoy travelling. I still think it's one of the great things in life and there is so much to see. I think physically and mentally it recharges the batteries, and as I get older I can’t imagine wanting a life without travel. I love the unfamiliar; I love the differences that the world is full off. I’m very fortunate that in 24 years of making travel programmes I’ve seen all sorts of parts of the world and made good contacts. Again, all it does is fill up many more opportunities and places to see in the future. I don’t think I’ll be sitting at home any time soon, somehow.
Brazil with Michael Palin is broadcast on Wednesdays at 9pm until November 14.