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Brazil

Day 40: Cardeal Mota, Serra do Cipó National Park

Michael Palin - BrazilA fierce wind smacks at the shutters of my room and, for the first time in almost seven weeks of travelling in Brazil, I'm aware of having to add bedclothes rather than shed them. We're in the mountains for the first time, though probably at not much more than 750 metres. Difficult to find out exact details as the Brazilians aren't terribly good on maps. Ordnance Survey could clean up here. All I know is that despite being the fifth-largest country in the world, Brazil has no peaks higher than 3,000 metres and this corner of Minas is exceptional in having anything that looks like a real mountain range. It's a diverse and fragile ecosystem, with over two thousand species of plants, many of which are unique to the Minas Mountains. This is typical cerrado country, dry and high, and plants, and rare birds, need to be tough to survive. The Serra do Cipů National Park was created to protect a habitat over 30,000 square kilometres (11,600 square miles) in size.

By mid-morning we're about fifty-five kilometres (thirty-five miles) to the north-west, in Lapinha, taking a closer look at this fine highland scenery from a cabin overlooking a long strip of lake in a lonely stretch of the Park. A terrific wind screams around us but the man I'm talking to is quite unperturbed. Pedro Machado Sales is in his mid-fifties, lean and fit with close-cropped white hair. Unlike most Brazilians I've met, he's not one for the expressive, expansive gesture. He has a contained, defensive air and talks softly, barely moving his lips. As there's a force 8 gale blowing outside this is not a good combination. I have to lean close to hear his story. He was once a hippie. 'I had big hair,' he says, with a half-smile. Since those days, his hair has got smaller and he's become a very rich man, having invented a process for crushing rocks which is now widely used in the mining industry. This has allowed him to combine his love of the outdoors with his other passion, building houses. He points out at least half a dozen constructions of his which dot the slope running down to the lake. Pedro, a born innovator and a restless experimenter, simply cannot stop building houses, though his ambition seems confined to their design and construction. He seems less interested in what goes on inside them.

In the teeth of the gale, he takes us on a tour of his various properties, one for each of his five children, whether they like it or not. Pedro has elevated Do-It-Yourself to an art form. From the design to physically pouring the concrete, bolting the steel frame together, putting on a roof or laying down a deck, Pedro is the man. They're quite spartan houses, appropriate for this spare but beautiful environment. He loves the challenge of these lonely lakes and mountains but he's not sentimental about the country life. There is some fishing to be had, but the land isn't that fertile out here and what agricultural work there is, is done almost entirely by the women. When I ask what the men do, Pedro shrugs. 'They sit around getting drunk.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 40: Cardeal Mota, Serra do Cipó National Park
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Lapinha
  • Book page no: 169

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