22 January 2009

In Country: Paranagua

On Tuesday morning David, Hope, Fernando and I caught a local bus headed for Paranagua. Founded by the Portuguese in 1585, this seaport community is a city in decline. At present the population stands at about 138,000 people, although that number reflects a drop of about 10,000 people from a decade ago. This out-migration is likely due to the city's sagging economy and degraded water front. All of this is a travesty since the city is the oldest in Parana state and the downtown is its historic center. the Lonely Planet guide book describes Paranagua as being in a state of "tropical decadence"; from the looks of things, this is an accurate assessment.

Many of the historic buildings are vacant and hallowed out. Pigeons roost on elegant balconies. One can only imagine this lovely city in its 18th century heyday, when colonial women wore silks imported from Europe or Asia and powerful men smoked Cuban cigars.

While walking around Paranagua, we discovered a restaurant market where locals go to eat. Fernando and Hope ordered a big platter of shrimp and fish. As vegetarians, David and I ordered fresh squeezed lemonade and mixed salad with vinegar and oil, along with the standard Brasilian rice and beans. However in a moment of inspiration (although David would say it was weakness), I decided to try the shrimp. And . . . it was divine! So with my husband's chin on the ground in dismay, I tried the fish. And . . . it was divine too! So, let the record stand: on the day that Obama became President of the United States, I broke my four year vegetarian fast at Paraiso da Comida Restuarante in Paranagua, Brasil.

After lunch we headed for the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia only to find it was closed for repairs with no known date for re-opening. This too is a sign of Paranagua's decline. Most likely the city cannot afford to pay for the repairs. We did however discover another cultural site: the Instituto Historico e Geografico de Paranagua. Inside, the display consisted of an odd assortment of old military weapons, typewriters, urinals and portraits of Paranaguans of past greatness. To my dismay the cabinet that housed the porcelin from which colonial royalty ate in the 18th century also contained the droppings left by 21st century rats. Another sign of tropical decadence in a city that once was great.

Having encountered evidence of rodents, I decided I could not stomach much more decay. As I turned the corner to leave I found, to my delight, a small section of items with Arabic writing and Islamic influence. These objects were certainly the best part of the entire exhibition and included musical instruments, artwork and a bible (not the Qu'ran) in Portuguese and Arabic. Signage near some objects claim that these items were donated by Sheik Fayed Mohsin BM Moussa AL Hasani and Ali Hajar.
As this sign suggests, these items most likely came from the Iberian peninsula which has a long and illustrous relationship with Islam.

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