February 18, 2015
Ash Wednesday, the churches are open and workers are taking down the bleachers and stages from Carnival and sweeping up the streamers and confetti. The Prinsendam seems to be doing a little penance itself. The shore crew told us that the port was walking distance from downtown. The ship docked a little after 9, a little before 9:30 we got an announcement saying that the port was further than town than their port agents had led them to believe and starting at 10 there would be shuttle busses to take us into town. Before that they had secured a minivan. We got off Prinsendam and the shore department head was working hard trying to organize people. The “Location guide” told us there was a backlog on the minibus and we should consider a cab. The walk is about 3km, a little less than 2 miles, which is a reasonable walking distance for many people but not for a lot on this ship. We went to the staging area that Holland America set up and watched as they recruited school buses to ferry us into town.
Ilheus is not on the normal tourist route but the town is repositioning itself to become a tourist town after blight in the 1990s killed most of the Cacao trees that provided the base of the economy here, chocolate. They are not geared up for a lot of tourists and another ship, a huge one from the Mediterranean Shipping Company is in town. MSC is a bit container line what has recently invested in big ships to serve the European and Latin America markets. It looks like MSC sucked up the entire infrastructure. They have big, air conditioned busses, tents to shade people from the sun while they wait, and MSC flags flying at their different greeting points. Holland America had people waving signs printed on a computer telling us to meet here or there.
By afternoon Holland America had recruited people from the Cooperative School of Tourism. The students wore shirts with the international co-op symbol of two pine trees in a circle, and the name of their school. They were greeting us in town, helping load us on the school buses and had even set up a shade tent at the bus stop in town. It was a good recovery but in this is a lesson for Sitka. Passengers are used to a degree of comfort. School busses do not provide that comfort. The seats are small, there is no leg room and, in this case where we had high temperature and humidity, no AC. Personally I felt Holland America may have fumbled but they made a fantastic recovery.
Ilheus in an old Portuguese city that only started booming at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It has a few old buildings but it is mostly an art deco town with several classic revival and some art nouveau buildings. The deco buildings reminded me very much of Juneau’s downtown, which at its heart is art deco with faux frontier fronts to make it look like a gold rush town. Personally I wish they would take advantage of their deco core but that’s another letter.
Ilheus is recently run down. Until the 1990s it was prosperous. The grand hotels are a shambles, the art deco homes and shops shabby and flaking and that gives it some charm. It is a real town trying to become a tourist town and that is an advantage.
In one of the two the main squares, this one by the cathedral, we heard drumming and strumming on the one stringed Brazilian instrument, the berimbau, and watched men Capoeira dancing. (I have a separate post on this dance.)
We walked around the town. The Brazilian author Jorge Amado (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon) was raised here and did much of his writing here. Some of his novels were set here. His house, which his father built after winning the lottery, has imported Portuguese tile, stained glass and three types of wood making up the floor. It opened to the public after his death in 2001. It was a good opportunity to look inside one of the upper middle class homes in this town. Amado wrote about the violent nature of the town (The Violent Land) in the heyday of the chocolate barons (locally called Chocolate Colonels) whose mansions are a few blocks over.
The town still has some chocolate industry, but it seems to be boutique, with specialty shops selling chocolates, chocolate liquors, and, improbably, on this hot day, hot chocolate. I gave in and had two cups of the best hot chocolate this side of Slovakia (some of you will understand this reference.) Suzi stuck with cold mineral water.
The cathedral seemed very uncatholic. It looked more like a Georgian style church with cornices and columns you would see in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York or in Boston. However the stained glass and paintings gave it an unmistakably Catholic look.
The guide books I have and the people on the ship tell us that the city is worth a little time and then we should head to the beach. That had been our plan but the city proved more interesting than the book authors think it is. The guide books all say that the close in beaches are not really clean and we need to get a few kilometers out of town to, say, Millionaires Beach, named for all those rich Chocolate Colonels. We spent so much time in town that we decided to go to one of the walkable beaches. One beach has a small amusement park named “American Park,” the sign in red white and blue stars, stripes and spaceships. There seemed to be a lot of local people swimming beyond the park at the beach. But as we approached we caught a whiff of raw sewage and decided to go back to the ship where I could swim laps in the salt water pool.
This city is not the same as it was two decades ago. In two decades it will change again. It has some sprucing up, and more importantly, cleaning up, especially of the beaches, if it is going to be a tourist town. It also needs more tourist infrastructure. For instance I went to the tourist information kiosk in the park. It was closed up but I could see a woman in the window, so I thought she had the windows and doors closed for the air conditioning. She was a mannequin (why?). The office was closed on a weekday with two cruise ships in town. But it has the raw material and not just chocolate. I am thinking of the enthusiastic young people from the co-op school of tourism.