Peter’s Report from Brazil

It’s a long overnight flight from Toronto to Sao Paolo, about eleven hours, and that wasn’t the end of my journey. After clearing customs and immigration I had to take an internal flight to Porto Alegre, which meant a two hour wait and another hour and a half in the air. Needless to say, I was in dire need of sleep when I finally arrived in Brazil’s tenth largest city (around 1.5 million) for the 54th Feira do Livro. But the festival people take very good care of their authors, and that doesn’t always result in much time for sleep!

The view from the hotel in Porto Alegre.

In the hotel lobby I was introduced to my “Angel” Vanessa, who was to take care of me during my stay. Luckily for me, she had spent a year in London and her English was near perfect, as I don’t speak Portuguese, and it’s not always as easy as people assume to get by in Brazil on a little Spanish. And Carol Zappa, from my publishers, Record Editions, was also around to help. Between them, they got me to events, interviews, lunches and dinners on time–or at least as late as is reasonable in Brazil.

Peter with his “angel” Vanessa.

Of course, there was a big dinner that first evening, and in Brazil dinner is something that starts with people gathering at a restaurant around 9 or 9.30pm, chatting and drinking for a while, and finally getting around to ordering at about 11pm. A schedule like that can play havoc with your stomach if you’re not used to it–and especially if you eat gnocchi with Gorgonzola–but the company is usually so lively and stimulating you are hardly in a hurry to leave. And the food is great. (Don’t try to order a glass of wine, though; the Brazilians don’t do that. If you try, you’re likely to be told they may have one kind of wine they serve by the glass, but nobody would want to drink it! The smallest measure is a half bottle.) At dinner I met William Gordon, who was another companion for the next few days, and as William is an American, and an Obama supporter, we were able to celebrate the U.S. election results in fine style. Our event was a little tricky because of microphones and headphones for translations, but we managed well enough, and our moderator Carlos Andre Moreira made sure things ran smoothly. There’s a great deal of serious interest in crime fiction in Brazil, and you tend to get more questions about themes and social relevance than about where you get your ideas or what you eat for breakfast before you start writing. The actual book fair is spread over a fairly large area in the central square, with lots of booths and stalls. It wasn’t much use me browsing, though, as all the books were in Portuguese.

William Gordon, Carlos Andre Moreira and Peter on stage.

The morning after our event, William and I headed for the airport again for a three hour flight to Belo Horizonte, the sixth largest city. The sheer immensity of Brazil comes as quite a surprise, even if you already have some idea what a big country it is. We flew over cities I’d never heard of that stretched for miles and miles in solid blocks of skyscrapers. The plane made one stop in Curitiba, which has a population of about two million. We also flew over lush agricultural land and mountainous regions, where cloud and mist hovered around distant peaks.

Our final destination was Ouro Preto, about two hours drive from Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais. The view from the hotel courtyard was stunning, with the streets straggling up distant mountain sides, and there was an open craft market across the street selling mostly local soapstone carvings. Ouro Preto is a small university town whose colonial history is bound up in gold mining and semi-precious stones, and there is plenty of beautiful jewelry on sale in the shops that line the main hill. In style and atmosphere, it is as far from Porto Alegre as one could imagine. It’s just as hot and humid, though, and there’s usually at least one good storm a day.

Our event at the Forum das Letras, along with German writer Martin Brock and moderator Cora Ronai, is on the first night, and I’m thankful for the fans (the electric kind!) that line the hall. There doesn’t seem to be any air-conditioning in Ouro Preto, perhaps because the mountain air cools at night. There are other fans, too, and though I think we might have done better in a less formal setting (we were all sitting in a row on the stage) things went well enough. There were more people from Record here, my editor Felipe, along with Gabriella, and the two Adrianas who did so much to make us feel welcome, in addition to fixing up press and TV interviews.

Martin Brock, Felipe, William Gordon and Peter.

There was a bit more time for sightseeing in Ouro Preto, and though William left early the next morning, Martin and his wife stayed around for a few more days and let me tag along with them from time time, though I did quite a lot of exploring alone, on foot. On our last day, we had a memorable steam train ride along the valley to Mariana, another small colonial town with many squares and churches. We ate lunch there at a local restaurant, where the waiter tried to stiff us by sneakily doubling the bill, and on the way back, we took a local bus and visited a gold mine. The next day was another long travel day. I had to get a ride to Belo Horizonte again, and fly from there to Sao Paolo. In a way I was relieved when I got to Sao Paolo international airport in good time for a nice meal before my flight back to Toronto. If Id missed that plane, I would have been in real trouble. But it was also sad to leave the people, the sights and the sunshine behind and head back to a grey and cold November in Toronto.

The view from the hotel in Ouro Preto.