The puppet theatre in the rainforest - Paraty, Brazil
Paraty is a colonial town surrounded by Atlantic rainforest on the coast of Brazil. It is 125 miles from Rio de Janeiro and when you’re dealing with a country the size of a continent this is virtually next door. Once Paraty was a thriving port exporting gold from Minas Gerais in Brazil to Europe.
Today the harbour is filled with small wooden boats painted pink and turquoise blue attracting tourists to take day trips. But the cobbled streets of the historic town centre still ring with the sound of horse pulled carts because motor vehicles are banned.
Having already witnessed a gold boom, a coffee boom, and a sugar boom, Paraty is now enjoying a revival as a tourist destination and something of a gastronomic mecca. The highlight of our week there was undoubtedly a visit to the Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures. It is a cookery school with a twist, run by a husband and wife team from their beautiful home in the old town. Yara Castro Roberts is a TV chef and cookery writer who specialises in the many regional varieties of Brazilian food. After brief introductions she set us to work in the kitchen chopping and stirring the delicious food we would later enjoy. Brazil has an abundance of vegetables, fruit and herbs I had never encountered before and learning to use these in the kitchen is a culinary adventure. Our meal included palm hearts, coconut milk, tropical fruit and just out of the sea fish. Yara weaves into her recipes the history of Brazil. Her husband Richard Barclay Roberts is a photographer and his addition to the evening, as well as being an excellent host, is to explain to guests how to make and drink the ubiquitous Brazilian caipirihnia – crushed limes, sugar and cachaça. There are many different types of this potent liquor. Many brewed locally to Paraty – some designed for drinking neat as an after dinner digestif and others for mixing into cocktails. All of which are capable of making you very drunk. It was almost 2am before we left their home and wobbled along the cobbles back to our hostel.
Paraty is famous for its puppet theatre at the Teatro Espaço. The show we saw was a series of short scenes, some surprisingly adult in content, which including a puppet giving birth and another contemplating suicide. The hand-held puppets are manipulated by puppeteers clearly visible on stage and yet they begin to take on their own lives. There is no dialogue, so it is accessible for an international audience, and the show is incredibly absorbing. Stephen Holden of the New York Times watched the show and later wrote ‘by the end of the wordless piece one is left with the eerie sense that the miniature figures are more real than the humans’.
It is easy to fill days wandering around Paraty’s boutiques and jewellery stores catering for rich people from Rio down for the weekend. I also loved browsing in delis and cachaça stores. One day we took a boat trip to visit some of the uninhabited islands in the bay and spent the time diving among star fish and swimming around islands until exhausted, it was all we could do to lie back on cushions and sip cocktails. Paraty is a perfect place to be a tourist, there are plenty of restaurants serving both international and Brazilian food and hotels or pousadas for all price ranges.
But visit soon because Paraty is a town under threat. Regularly the streets flood with high tides. Apparently, the city was designed like this to help wash the streets clean. Today it doesn’t seem like such a good idea when dirty seawater comes up through the drains and pedestrians use stepping stones to hop between shops. If with climate change the sea level continues to rise this will become more of a problem threatening the fabric of the historic buildings and perhaps eventually the viability of the town itself.