“What you think there in Rio de Janeiro about us isn’t true. Acre is not just insects, Indians and crocodiles. Brazil isn’t Rio de Janeiro and the south, we deserve media coverage…” I feel for my Carioca buddy Fernando as a tirade of injustices are thrown at him from an indignant journalism student at the Federal University of Acre, where we’ve been invited to speak about our two-week reporting trip. Forced into a corner for a concession of arrogance on behalf of the Brazil’s Rio and São Paulo-based media, Fernando’s earache reminds me of the internal prejudices that can beset a country, particular one as large as Brazil.
(Acre was annexed from Bolivia in 1903 and remains a mystery to most Brazilians.)
A stab in a university drinking chant was the extent to my knowledge of Acre – “O maior do norte tem que respeitar, Federal do Amapá….Chupa Acre!” – ‘The giant of the north you must respect, Federal District of Amapá…suck it Acre!’. I asked friends but they added little beyond speculation of what lies in Brazil’s most underreported region. Some jokingly doubted the state’s very existence. I’d never been to Salvador, Brasilia or Manaus, but could give a vague description of each city from what I’d gathered in the Brazilian media. About Acre, I couldn’t say one thing. A state 20,000 km² bigger than England and I knew nothing about it.
(The hymns were stuck in my head for days.)
We don’t leave the city borders of Rio Branco – capital of Acre and home to half the state population – before we arrive to the House of Jesus Source of Light, a Santo Daime church. Santo Daime integrates Christian rituals with the drinking of ayahuasca or ‘Daime’, a liquid drug of hallucinogenic effect made from the fermentation of selected Amazon plants.
The clothing strikes me first: somewhere between sailor and Italian chef, with Christian symbolism crayoned on. A man with pungent breath leaves the congression to welcome us and with slow-spoken introduction. We ask permission, but are requested not to film, record audio or take pictures – Globo had filmed a Daime community covertly in recent years and left church leaders cautious of outside interpretation.
We slide into the back of the congreastion, unnoticed by our discretion or the deep concentration of the laity eyes closed singing the hymns de Mattos wrote through years of isolation, drinking Daime in the Acre Amazon forest. Several members are in tears, the sound of vomiting outside interrupts occasionally and nobody makes eye contact. Yet, among the calming tone of the music I begin to relax and eventually forget the people I’m sat among are wired. The strangest element becomes the several small children wandering into the hall from the courtyard to tell their parents they’re bored and want to go home.
The evening ends with an interpretive dance around the ‘mast’ of the replica ship constructed in the courtyard and we’re suddenly taken notice of standing aside. The staring, though not purposefully unwelcoming, makes me a little uncomfortable and we head home.
We wake up at 5 am to make the scenic three-hour drive to Brasileia, a town on the border with Bolivia and the recipient of 20,000 Haitian migrants since the earthquake of 2010. I’m struck by the stories of compassionate residents opening their homes to the new arrivals while they await work documentation, but disappointed at the apathetic rhetoric on social media towards the cost of maintaining the undignifying shelter in which the migrants squat 1000 over capacity.
Land access to the rest of the country is blocked by the flooding of the one motorway in and out of the state. The numbers in the shelter are at crisis level and I’m swamped with requests for medical aid and explanations for why a boat can’t be mustered to carry them cross the overflowing river – the shelter community has assumed I’m from an NGO; there hasn’t been one visiting for a while.
(Rio Branco’s Gameleira – scene of the salty crime.)
At the Gameleira, Rio Branco’s riverfront promenade of colonial-style architecture (actually built in the 1960s), we’re introduced to the Copo Sujo – the Dirty Cup: a half-glass of squeezed lemon topped with lager, then salt wiped generously around the rim. The sensation is that of taking a gulp of sea water, though I struggle through the experience determined not to offend the curious looks from adjacent tables. The following Sunday at a Samba party, I catch a woman eating a pile of pure salt from the palm of her hand.
Downtown Rio Branco is cleaner and safer than most of urban Brazil and much more developed than you would expect of a state with the third lowest GDP in the country (one place above Amapá – suck that!). Shaded market stalls line the clean and maintained Placido de Castro and Cathedral squares selling the tangy Tacacá soup, which is enjoyed under the shade of Amazonian leaves.
(Four documentary makers from Sao Paulo visited Acre to film ‘Acre Exists’.)
For many years, Acre had few mediums of communication with the outside world, or each other. With no comprehensive postal service, Acre’s small riverside and isolated indigenous communities contacted each other by submitting messages to be read on state radio, a practice still in place today. Television didn’t arrive to Acre until the World Cup of 1974 – they’d already missed their country win three world titles.
Perhaps the time lost in staking a claim in the Brazilian national media picture left the state a shadowy unknown in the wider Brazilian conscience. I think Brazil is missing out on something very special in its own back garden.
Three weeks earlier and I’m in my first taxi since arriving to my hotel in Lapa, “…the centre of Rio de Janeiro is full of faggots, transvestites and prostitutes” screams the self-righteous taxi driver down our ears while taking us the long way round to our destination. When I tell him of my plan to visit Acre, he roars out a horrendously harsh cackle, “What the fuck are you going to do there? Pah!”. Luckily, we arrive to our destination shortly after.