It was midwinter 1996 and it seemed as if the cold that was gripping Miami would never end. Imagine how elated I became when I learned that two of my horticultural friends planned to rendezvous in Rio de Janeiro. Could I join them? In Brazil, it was mid-summer with Rio's midday temperatures in the 90s F. Besides, I had never visited this exciting Latin American country.
Our plans were for Hawaiian nurseryman and RFCI member Frank Sekiya to fly from Honolulu to Miami, arriving on January 15. After residing with me in Bal Harbour for several days, we would depart together aboard Varig Airlines bound nonstop for arrival in Rio on January 20. Upon disembarking at our destination, we were to be met by Antonio Morschbacker, a Brazilian of German descent, Antonio, a chemical engineer employed in Rio's suburbs, had obtained a week's leave of absence from his company. He planned to use this interval by taking us on a pomological safari, covering Brazil from south to north near its Atlantic seaboard, as well as the hinterland where we would visit Brazil's capital, Brasilia.
After an uneventful flight that seemed like forever, the big Boeing 747 finally put down at the International Airport of Rio de Janeiro located on the outskirts of the city. After baggage claim and Customs, we passed through a door and out onto a street. I was somewhat apprehensive about locating our Brazilian friend, but his 6-foot 4-inch frame made him conspicuous in the crowd.
Following the usual salutations, the three of us set off for the Jardin Botanico de Rio de Janeiro (Rio Botanical Garden) under Morschbacker's guidance. This plant sanctuary, established during the first half of the 19th century, is located near the city's center, surrounded by a high-security wall. After paying a nominated entrance fee, we entered through the gates and found ourselves within a forest of magnificent, huge trees appearing as if they have been there since the onset of time.
I was reminded of my visit to the Bogor Botanical Garden on Java where the lowest branches of many of the specimen trees commence over fifty feet up the trunk. I couldn't help but think how exciting it would be if there were elevated suspension bridges running through the jungle-like tree tops, affording the public close-up inspection. After walking awhile, we came across a huge mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) that must have been over 100 years old. Its branches were exactly like those Peter Kring so ably described in his article about Costa Rica in the March 1996 issue of TFNews.
With noon approaching, we took a break and headed for an ice cream parlor that Morschbacker recommended. Upon arrival, we were offered twelve flavors, each with a different fruit ingredient. I went for cupuassu (Theobroma grandiflorum) which I found to exceed my highest expectations. Another excellent ice cream with dark purple color came from a palm whose identity is a mystery to me. From here, we drove in the direction of our hotel, passing in front of the Copacabana district which faces the beach of the same name. Here hundred of bathers enjoyed the South Atlantic's three-to-four-foot ground swells as they played in the surf.
Our $80-per-day lodging was adequate but unpretentious. Antonio got a 50% rate reduction through his company, making it a bargain to my way of thinking. That night our Brazilian friend directed us to what he referred to as a barbeque. I had assumed this to be similar to ours back home, with sawdust-covered floor and rough-hewn wood tables and benches. We parked our $100-a-day Hertz rental car and entered the restaurant Antonio had recommended. The entrance was most elegant and waiters in tuxes were to be seen everywhere. The diners appeared to be equally well-dressed.
Our bill-of-fare included everything from quail eggs to a fruit-eating Amazon fish for a fixed price of $25, drinks and dessert being extra.
We had previously heard about this most unusual inhabitant of the greatest river on earth, the "tambaqui", which resembles its relative the piranha, reaching a length of four feet. Our food attendant later brought us one to sample. Imagine something with ribs like a small cow, but which is reported to be Brazil's most delicious freshwater fish. With trepidation, I cautiously removed a piece of the baked fish loosely attached to one of the bovine-like ribs. It turned out to be the highlight of our gastronomical evening with an indescribably superb flavour.
In Brazil, the price of an overnight lodging includes your breakfast. These delicious morning meals are so good you can skip lunch with no discomfort or craving for your usual midday food. Our hotel buffet-type breakfast offered the usual eggs, bacon, cheese, pastries, and a wonderful selection of variously-coloured beverages flavoured with local Brazilian fruit. After satisfying our appetites, we checked out of our hotel and headed north in Antonio's rental car.
Our destination, in a place called Quissaman, lay 120 miles to the north where his farm is located. Some distance out of Rio we came across a number of roadside fruit stalls, all carrying much the same produce. Here I found the best figs I had ever encountered, a dull green with a touch of red and ripened to perfection. Finally, we continued on, and as night approached saw a huge roadside sign in Portuguese, which according to Antonio translated into "New Hotel". After lodging here overnight, we drove north again, headed for our companion's farm. By early afternoon, we reached our destination in the heartland of the sugar cane growers.
The plantation house in which Antonio's in-laws resided was built in 1842, with the old slave quarters nearby. As we entered this 154-year-old historic edifice, life-size oil portraits of the former occupants stared down on us as if in judgement from their lofty positions on the walls. To realise that we would be spending the night here in this vulnerable setting reminded us how grateful we were toward our Brazilian hosts.
Antonio's fruit collection was adjacent to the house and he wasted no time before showing us around. Many of his trees, obtained while immature from Florida and Hawaii, were growing well. The planting sites were formerly old sugar cane fields whose acid-pH soil had been robbed of fertility by generation after generation of cane harvests. The terrain was slightly hilly. Knowing our comrade's high degree of self-motivation, we have no doubts about the ultimate success of his botanical venture. That afternoon we drove out into the cane fields to the end of a narrow dirt road, seeking samples of the cambuca (Marliera edulis). Antonio considers this one of Brazil's better indigenous fruits.
Leaving the road which came to a dead end, we continued on a footpath adjacent to a small stream until we came upon a 35-foot tree with yellow-orange fruit. Frank Sekiya, being the most agile of us, climbed about ten feet up into the branches and with a long, long bamboo pole knocked a number of the golf-ball-sized fruit down, some of which rolled into the stream below. Our activities drew the attention of the local cane workers who informed us that they had nothing to do with the cambuca as they thought it was poisonous.
The following day we departed for the city of Brasilia. On the way we visited a nearby sugar refinery to photograph two ancient steam locomotives gradually rusting away in a grassy field adjacent to the three-storey processing plant. Antonio is a relative of the owners.
Continuing on our way, we arrived at the Brasilia airport on schedule, two hours ahead of departure. Morschbacker returned our Hertz rental, rejoining us in front of the Varig check-in counter one hour later. Then Frank Sekiya took several packages to mail at the airport post office. A half hour later, and no Frankie; so Antonio left to investigate. When both returned, it was now 25 minutes prior to departure, and the check-in flight clerk informed us we had missed our plane, suggesting we take tomorrow's 6 a.m. departure for Sao Paulo. A quick discussion followed, and we decided to overnight at the airport.
After rounding up seven vacant chairs, we retreated into a large grouping of ornamental palms to subdue the light. Here we spent a miserable night, each of us stretched out on two chairs, half awake and half asleep, with our luggage beside us stacked on the extra chair.
Following an uneventful flight from Brasilia to Sao Paulo, we caught the first cab and headed for Dierberger Nursery. Founded in 1893, it is the oldest and largest nursery in Brazil specialising in fruits and ornamental trees. At the office, we met Christian Dierberger, John Dierberger's son. His father John had visited me in 1956 at Bal Harbour, one year after the Rare Fruit Council was formed. From what I saw, many of the plants were ornamentals, although fruits were also available. The younger Dierberger drove us around through their mature groves, consisting mostly of specimen fruit trees with which I was already familiar.
He was very understandably upset by plans of the State of Sao Paulo to run a highway through the center of Dierberger's Nursery that would cut in two. He went on to say that any suggestion or help from RFCI membership in rerouting the freeway would be greatly appreciated.
After visiting several more nurseries we returned to the airport, and flew from Sao Paulo to Manaus, one thousand miles up the Amazon River. It was here that the rubber barons held a monopoly, using their great wealth to build an opera house taking up nearly a block. We took a cab to this historical building, referred to as "Opera de Manaus", arriving at 6:15 just as it was being closed for the night. At my suggestion, our taxi driver offered a generous gratuity to the guards if they would look the other way and let us slip in after hours. Much to my surprise, I was refused.
Our stay in Manaus was at the five-star Hotel Tropical Amazonia. The rate for a single room for three was $360 per night. Fortunately, Antonio was again able to reduce this rate by 50% through his employment credentials. Our primary destination in this river town was a visit with Dr. Charles Clement, who had been working with fruits of the Amazon Basin at the state-owned Embrapa Research Station. Unfortunately, funding has been cut off on his experiments with abiu (Pouteria caimito), cupuassu, bacuri (Platonia insignis), Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) and other promising fruits of this humid, high-rainfall area. It is hoped that our contact and association with this scientist will prove mutually beneficial.
From Manaus, we flew to Belem on the mouth of South America's greatest river. Upon arrival, we visited several nurseries, including one that was growing mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) on a commercial basis. Three native employees were busily occupied sorting out and packaging this exotic fruit as rain fell on the overhead corrugated tin roof, making conversation almost impossible. At one dollar per fruit, can the mangosteen eventually become a major crop in the Amazon Basin? With a climatically perfect environment so similar to the mangosteen's indigenous Asiatic home, this certainly is a possibility.
On our return toward the city the subject of Belem's famous central produce market, "Mercado Ver Opeso", came up. Our cab driver, overhearing our conversation, shook his head and strongly advised us to avoid this high crime area. He continued on to explain that half of the tourists who make this regrettable mistake lose their cameras, rings, wallets, and pocketbooks. Not to be put off, we inquired of our driver if he could recruit another, and the two of them act as our bodyguards for a few hours the next morning. Handing us a piece of paper with his name and phone number, he explained two of his friends were with the local police and they would be available for tomorrow.
The next day, unfortunately, calls to this number went unanswered and we decided to go ahead and take a chance. Antonio, at his 6'4", well over 200 pounds, is something to consider before our group is approached by anyone with malicious intent. We removed rings and jewelry, but the cameras were in plain view. Entering the native market, we found a beehive of activity with local shoppers packed so closely it was difficult to keep from being separated.
Adjacent to the marketplace on the riverbanks were dugout canoes loaded with native produce gathered from up and down this huge water highway. After photographing and closely examining the displayed fruit, it became time to leave. Yes, we still had our photographic equipment, and as we entered our standby taxi, suddenly the heavens opened up with rain falling in sheets.
Our agenda now took us from Belem back to Sao Paulo, where we would board a jetliner Miami-bound. Antonio's week of vacation had expired; he would leave Frank and me for Rio to report for work. Without our friend's assistance, this exciting horticultural experience would have been impossible. We are greatly indebted to this talented South American who so skillfully planned and guided our every move.
DATE: August 1997
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