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From Minas Gerais to Pernambuco, along the banks of the “Old Chico”

From Minas Gerais to Pernambuco, along the banks of the “Old Chico”

Saturday, 19 de November de 2016

A journalist and a photographer followed the curves of the Rio São Francisco, nicknamed Old Chico, facing an eight-day and a three thousand kilometer trip in search of the heart of a colorful and enthralling Brazil

In the winter of 2012, at the invitation of “Mundo Fiat” magazine, the automotive journalist Ricardo Panessa and photographer Murilo Garcia got in their Palio Adventure and set off on an unforgettable journey snaking along the Sao Francisco River, from its source in Serra da Canastra, to Pernambuco.

Four years later, the river is back in the national headlines because of the final chapters of the acclaimed television soap “Old Chico”, from Rede Globo television. It’s a great opportunity to relive the adventures of Panessa and Góes. Below is a condensed version. To read the full text (in Portuguese), follow the link to the digital version in our magazine “Mundo Fiat” 118. Below, read excerpts from original article:

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Majestic and green, the Sao Francisco river, the longest in Brazil, springs from the earth and flows into the sea of the tupiniquim territory –Indifferent to the will of man, it flows as it did ten thousand years ago. Regarded as the river of national unity, it rises in the Serra da Canastra, in MinasGerais, in a small pool of dense dark green water, as if stagnated, making it hard to believe that, right over there, a few meters ahead, life sprouts bountifully.

Its discovery is attributed to the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed on its mouth in 1501, and gave its name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, celebrated on that same date. The river also runs through the state of Bahia, bordering to the north with Pernambuco, naturally separating the states of Sergipe and Alagoas, and finally emptying into the Atlantic Ocean in Piaçabuçu (AL), draining an area of approximately 641,000 km². Baptized as “Opará” by the indigenous people of the past andnow affectionately called “Old Chico” by the Northeasterners, the river extends 2863 km. It was there on the banks of the Sao Francisco-Opará that we zigzagged with our Palio Weekend Adventure for eight days, getting to know up close some of the things that take place there today.

How could we not begin our journey in the Serra da Canastra in Sao Roque de Minas, right next to the source of the river? It’s curious and surprising to see that only a few meters ahead – yes, just a few meters – its serene and clear waters harbor a considerable (and visible) amount of fish. It follows majestically and powerfully into Minas Gerais, bathing directly or indirectly cities like Bambuí, Córrego Danta, Luz, Dores do Indaiá, Abaete, Paineras, Biquinhas, Morada Nova de Minas, Tres Marias,  Luislândia do Oeste, Pirapora, Ibiaí Ponto Chique and Januaria, to name a few, all the way into the Bahian territory and splashes Bom Jesus da Lapa.

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The great contrasts were soon noted: from the gray of the Caatinga to the almost indigo blue in the Sobradinho dams, Itaparica and Xingó, to an intense green in the newly irrigated areas, dominated by grape crops, melon and mango, catching our attention.

Even in dry and dusty weather, the predominance of gray is interspaced with more resistant green species of plants, such as the mandacaru, the xique-xique cacti, the imburana and algaroba, and even the imbu that Euclides da Cunha called “the sacred tree of the backlands” with rich nutritional value, coveted by men and cattle alike. From Bom Jesus da Lapa to Petrolina, through the historical Paratinga, Ibotirama, Morpará, Barra, Xique-Xique, Sento Sé, Sobradinho and Juazeiro, almost a thousand kilometers of contrasts can be seen.

The crystalline green waters of the Sao Francisco that ran up those stops stars to show the first signs of man’s proximity, becoming darker as it meets the Grande river, one of its main tributaries in the city of Barra. The loss of riparian forests, the erosion of the banks and the consequent siltation are, not only visible but also the reason of its poor navigability.

The old steamboats, known as “gaiolas” [“cages”, literally], similar to those immortalized in films set in the Mississippi River, for years were the main means of transportation in that region. Now instead, lie three of its sons on its banks: the composer João Gilberto, born in Juazeiro, Bahia, who preferred to strum his guitar instead of playing with the other boys in the river, or Alceu Amoroso Lima, the Tristan of Athayde, who was neither from Minas nor the northeast, andGuimarães Rosa, whose eyes were focused on the wilderness in general and, in particular, on the Sao Francisco. They are all part of the history of this important river.

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From the distant past of ten thousand years ago, evidence of human presence lies on its banks – poets from a recent past, musicians and historians all the way to the unknown group of fishermen, herdsmen, artisans and craftsmen, who, in one way or another live from the waters of the Grande river – where history flows and the heart of the country beats.

With this intense tune, where each kilometer reveals a history of life, we arrived in Petrolina: a city with the second largest population and the largest GDP in the interior of Pernambuco, from where you can see, Juazeiro, Bahia on the other side of the river bank. Bordering the Sao Francisco, the two municipalities together make up the largest urban center of the semi-arid northeast, the second largest winegrower in Brazil, and largest exporter of fruits in the country.

And it was there, in Petrolina, that we met one of the most striking figures of our trip: mister Roque Rocha, 52, better known as “Roque Santeiro”, a handy craftsman, specialized in carving religious images. With the vision and resourcefulness that only travel can provide, mister Roque talks easily about his work and of the virtues and evils of the Sao Francisco River. About his work he says: “I only use dead umburana [a type of tree], what remains of the burnings; I don’t cut living wood to carve” he says, and finishes by saying that the most difficult image to make is that of St. George fighting the dragon warrior.

And as we paryted, as a nice framework for the end of our trip, Rock Santeiro offed us proudly a little booklet of Cordel folk stories written in his honor by José Francisco Borges, where the first verse of a total of 38 says:

I was in Fenearte

I met RoqueSanteiro

He’s a lot of fun

A good fellow and friend

with fits of madness

A true master in the end

And continues to lavish poetry, as the Opará-Sao Francisco when it flows docile into the sea of Alagoas.

 

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