Bar Do Parque


The prostitutes flit from table to table, exchanging jokes with each other, saying hi to the regulars, and introducing themselves to the new foreigners.  A pleasant breeze is blowing and the moonlight is filtering down through the leaves of the trees.  The condensation from the chilled bottles of beer is collecting in ever growing pools on the metal tables.  Under my folding metal chair is a pile of pink paper peanut wrappers.  It is almost midnight but it is crowded, because it is always crowded at midnight in the Bar Do Parque.

The Bar Do Parque is located on the edge of the park, across the street from the Hilton, in downtown Belem.  On the other side of the bar is the lavishly ornate Municipal Theater.  At the entrance of the bar is a gazebo styled kiosk where waiters in white jackets sell drinks.  Up half a dozen steps is a stone floor platform, which is surrounded by a waist high iron railing. On this platform about 25 tightly packed metal tables make up the bar.

The year is 1987 and I am sitting with the expats at the moment, or expatriots from the U.S. and Australia.  David says he’s no longer American, he’s international.  The four men I’m sitting with have been working abroad from 10 to 25 years each.  Most of them haven’t been back to their home countries in years and may never return again.

Walter now lives in Santarém, at the mouth of the Tapajós River, about half the way up the Amazon to Manaus. He works as a port navigator for a company based in San Diego, California.  He says he never even entered the company office for the first two years of his employment.  His entire professional relationship with his employer is conducted via telex.  He was in Belém now on his way to his next assignment in Venice, Italy.  To him Brazil is now his home.  He has an adopted son in Santarém, who has just made him a grandfather, and he has already arranged that he will be buried here when he dies.

Walter has been here in the Amazon almost 25 years and is sort of a guru to the other expats in the region.  David, who also now lives in Santarém, told me that he had heard about Walter for over a year before he actually met him.  Everyone, expat or native knew Walter and everybody treated him with respect.  So did I.  He was a wealth of knowledge and wisdom about the Amazon, and most of it seemed to be true.

Walter spoke Portuguese with an American accent but he spoke it well.  He busted balls with the waiters and the shoeshine boys who hung around him when business was slow.  Some of the girls who were working the bar had been his friends for years and he chatted and exchanged cordialities with them also.

I pumped him for as much information as I could.  First came the standard question that everyone asked when coming to the Bar Do Parque.  “How many of these woman are pros?”  I received the standard answer in chorus.  “All of them.”  I inquired further.  The woman with the sexy body and no teeth, who was always sitting down at some gringo’s table, had been seen throwing rocks at a man who had not been sufficiently generous.  The really beautiful mulata, that David and I said we were going to fight a duel over, was schizophrenic.  Maybe she would break a bottle and stab you or maybe she wouldn’t.

“What about the polio victims?” I asked Walter.  Among the particularly shocking sights in North East Brazil were the twisted bodies of polio victims who begged in bus stations and plazas.  The ones with shriveled legs had leather pads strapped on their hands like sandals and walked crab style at an astonishing speed, even negotiating stairs as fast as I could.

“You have to remember where you are.” he replied.  “This isn’t São Paulo.  You’re in the Amazon now.  Belem is the beginning of Amazonia.  They didn’t get polio vaccinations here until about 10 years ago.”

I wanted to find out about the other medical oddities I had seen here.  It would have been more scientific to go ask the state health authorities but Walter seemed to be well informed and after all, I was out drinking a few beers more than anything else.  My academic training tells me that I should therefore take his word with a grain of salt, but my intuition of human character told me that he probably knew what he was talking about.

“What about all the beggars on Avenida Presidente Vargas?” I asked.

“Oh the guy that was amputated at the waist and sits there like a stump?”

“Yeah, like a human bowling pin.”  I answered.  I passed this man several times a day on the bustling Avenida Presidente Vargas.  My first day in town I was being swept along by the pedestrian flow when suddenly the crowd parted and I nearly tripped over him.  He balanced upright on the pavement at waist level and held his arms out stoically for alms.  He was well dressed and shaved and his hair was combed.  His arms however, had been amputated at the elbows.  When I recovered from the shock I handed him a coin of 50 centavos.  He raised his stumps to receive it and I realized with a shudder that I was going to have to touch the shriveled ends of his arms.  I held the edge of the coin with my fingertips and he skillfully snared it without touching me and dropped it into his shirt pocket.

“I never give him any money.” Walter took a puff on his cigarette and a sip of his scotch.  I waited patiently.  There was no doubting the pecking order.  I was a greenhorn here.  Walter turned his burly body and leaned towards me.  “I don’t know what happened to him, but he owns three apartments now.  On the other hand, the guy with elephantitis, I give him 10 cruzados every time I see him.  And the same thing with the guy that goes crawling around on all fours.”

I knew who he was talking about.  I had just seen him for the first time today crawling around near the Hilton.  All four of his limbs were disfigured and he was dirty, unshaven and truly wretched.  After this I always gave him some money which he took with his lobster claw right hand.  His left hand was fitted out with a kind of leather padding that he used for hauling himself along the pavement.

The first time I met Walter, I had been drinking beer with Frederico, from Bilbao, Spain, and Gary, the Australian, in a German restaurant that Walter was a partial owner of.  It only takes a few syllables of any language that isn’t Portuguese to warrant an introduction from a neighboring stranger in Brazil.  Walter introduced himself.  Frederico, who studied at a university in Germany, replied in German.  “Eh?  Only English and Portuguese here.” was Walter’s reply from his barstool.  We invited him to join us at our table and he proceeded to pay for everything for the rest of the night.  I was embarrassed but personality strength was on his side.

Gary was planning a trip into the interior of the jungle to see what you couldn’t see just cruising by boat up the Amazon from Belém to Manaus.  His idea was to board a supply boat going up one of the rivers, perhaps the Rio Negro.  Walter was telling us about the gold mining areas up the Tapajós, where 50,000 miners were going from rags to riches, or rags to rags, or rags to riches to rags again, depending on their luck and how much cachaça they drank.  “You guys wouldn’t last a week up there.  If malaria didn’t kill you, the other miners would.”

The Tapajós gold mining areas are notorious for their lawlessness and their homicide rates.  According to Walter if one of the miners wanted your shirt and was drunk enough on cachaça, he might shoot you for it.

The area was also full of malaria, and this touched off another major discussion.  The only people that seemed to take the malaria pills were the foreign tourists like Gary and me.  The expats and the natives seemed to scoff at them, because the pills themselves cause damage if taken for a prolonged period of time.  Besides, as long as you were on the Amazon, there was little risk of malaria.  It was when you went into the interior that malaria outbreaks became more common.  However, all the expats seemed to have contracted the disease at some point.  David swore that when he drank too much beer without eating that he started getting chills again.  Walter had survived it once himself and still had fevers from time to time.

At the end of the night in the German restaurant, Walter brought Frederico and I a couple of huge shots of straight cachaça.  Neither Walter nor his son Raimundo, both capable of consuming enormous amounts of alcohol, would touch the stuff.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” said Walter, as if he had seen it a thousand times before.  Twenty minutes later, Frederico announced that he was leaving, left some money on the table, and departed, ignoring my demands to join me for another cachaça.  Half an hour after that I was violently retching my guts out in the street outside the bar.

Two days later when I met David in the Bar Do Parque, he introduced himself to me with: “So you’re the Yank who got sick on cachaça the other night.”  I was already famous in Belém with the expats.

David had been in the Amazon for two years and ran an excursion tour with his boat from Santarém.  Before that, he had worked for international oil companies for a dozen years in Southeast Asia and Africa.  “Oil and gas trash,” he said often, “the best people in the world.”

I sat with the expats and drank beer for several nights.  They traded stories about their work and their lives in various places around the world: Indonesia, Thailand, New Guinea, Nigeria.  Wherever their jobs took them.  They were well paid in American dollars and after work there was beer and local women.

David had a sixteen year old mistress in Santarém.  Her parents didn’t mind.  An American was a good catch.  Even a poor American has a lot more earning power than the average Brazilian. When I announced that I had a Brazilian girlfriend, I was answered with skepticism and laughter.

“What bar did you meet her in?” asked David.

I protested.  “No, she doesn’t go to bars.  She’s not like these girls here.”

Even more laughter.  “We’ve all heard that one before.  An American is a one‑way ticket out of the favelas.  They like your gringo dollars.”  I had just enough self doubts of my own to laugh with them.

Walter leaned in for emphasis.  “Whatever you do, don’t marry her.  You’re down here now for a few months having a good time.  So you fuck around with these girls as much as you want, but don’t marry one of them.  You’ll be miserable.  If you take her back to the States, what are you going to have to talk to her about?  Maybe you like the sex now but what are you going to have when that wears off?  Nothing!  You listen to your old dad because I know what I’m talking about.”

Naturally there are women in São Paulo who are as modern, urbane and sophisticated as any you will meet in Soho or the Upper West Side of New York, but Walter’s warning was applicable to a sizable percentage of the population.  I had already received marriage proposals from several Brazilian women.  They were so charming that it was hard not to consider them seriously.

A blond man in his mid 20’s, who appeared to be either German or Swiss, sat down at the next table and was promptly joined by four of the local women.  “There going to cost him a fortune.” chuckled Walter.  “First it’s a cigarette, then it’s a drink, and then it’s something to eat.”

I spent several other evenings in the Bar Do Parque in the company of a young American couple from Wisconsin.  Mike and Mary had recently graduated from college and were traveling in Brazil for three months before continuing on to grad school.  I had heard them speaking English in my hotel and introduced myself.

We sat in the bar drinking beer, discussing Brazil’s external debt, and evaluating the hookers.  Several of them were sitting at a table nearby talking to a kid of about 18 who had polio and walked around on his hands.  He was one of the regulars, always spinning himself between the tables and begging for money from the patrons.

At one table was a group of blonde Dutch sailors, each one paired off with a dark skinned local girl.  Very few of the men spoke Portuguese so they mostly conversed and joked with each other while the women talked amongst themselves.  Occasionally a couple would exchange kisses and then return to their drinks.  They all seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves.

One of the sailors had been coming to Belém for years and his companion was apparently his steady girl when he came into port.  He spoke English and had turned around to our table to talk with Mike and Mary.  His girl turned around also and offered us a plate with sliced salami.  I filled up her glass with beer and we chatted pleasantly in Portuguese for twenty minutes.

There were several kids who wandered from table to table selling peanuts.  They were only about 8 or 9 years old but despite their age they stayed up and worked the bar until it closed. After being in Brazil for a while this kind of thing no longer seemed unusual since there were so many children living in the streets.  These kids truly looked like waifs with their little backpacks and their buckets of peanut packets that were kept warm by glowing coals in the bottom of the bucket.

A couple of handfuls of peanuts were wrapped in carefully folded pinkish‑brown paper, usually in the shape of a cone.  The price ranged from 3 cruzados each to 3 packets for 5 cruzados.   Haggling was definitely part of the game.  Mike especially enjoyed the harsh bargaining.  “Give me 3 for 5 cruzados.”  he demanded.

The little boy protested with righteous indignation.  “No.  They cost 2 for 5 cruzados.”

Mike was adamant.  “Give me 3 for 5.” he repeated.

The little boy shook his head and pouted.  He looked like a tired little child who only wanted to be tucked lovingly into bed.  I was ready to give him 10 cruzados for 1 packet.  Mike held firm.  “3 for 5.”  he said once more.

The little boy nodded assent and the deal was completed.  Then the boy smiled and went off to the next table.  We bought peanuts 5 or 6 times a night and frequently went through the negotiating process.  We never paid more than 3 packets for 5 cruzados.

The sailors and their girls left and we ordered another round.  After waiting patiently for 10 minutes or so it became obvious that our waiter had forgotten our beer.  Moreover all attempts to attract his attention had failed.  We had tried the usual Brazilian system of getting a waiter’s attention by whistling a loud “PSSST!” at him, but he hadn’t responded.

“What an idiot.” I grumbled in frustration.

“Yeah,” grimaced Mary, “a real shit for brains.”

A flash of drunken inspiration hit me.  “Hey shit for brains!”  I shouted out over the buzz of conversation in the bar.  The waiter, who was on the other side of the bar, turned to see what I wanted.  I gestured for another bottle of beer and he gave me the ubiquitous thumbs up sign.

Mary went into convulsions, howling with laughter while Mike sat expressionless, in a state of alarmed shocked.  I grabbed a handful of peanuts and tried to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but I had the adrenaline pumping through me.  Mary was still screaming with laughter and a lot of people at the neighboring tables were looking at us.

“If I don’t get the crap beat out of me, this is really funny.” I said wishing Mary would shut the hell up.  However a minute later our beer arrived with a smile and it was evident that nobody in the bar spoke enough English to understand my churlish overture.  A minute later Mary’s laughter subsided and our table receded peacefully once more into the general atmosphere of perennial hubbub in the Bar Do Parque.