In Paraty

Zakia Uddin

Paraty, midway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, was a place of periodic trade booms in the colonial era, variously dominating Brazil's gold-mining industry, cachaça distilling and (briefly) coffee exports. Since 2002, it has hosted Flip, the Paraty International Literary Festival, modelled on Hay-on-Wye. Once reliant on exports, the city now depends on the import of culture.

The festival’s aims include making Brazilian literature better known to foreign readers, as well as encouraging Brazilians to read more. Last year the government introduced a ‘culture voucher’ worth 50 reais (about £13) a month, available to citizens who earn up to five times the minimum wage. But most of the 20,000 or so visitors to Flip – Paraty has a resident population of around 36,000 – looked more well-heeled than that.

The day before the opening last week there were Flip workers everywhere in the Old Town, with their branded T-shirts and lanyards. Police appeared on every corner, outnumbering the brigadeiro sellers. The streets, with their large, treacherous cobbles that make them look like dried-up riverbeds, were lined with sellers laying out the tchotchkes: tasselled keyrings, flashing lights, whistles. The newer street signs are permanently adorned with the MasterCard symbol.

Flip has given rise to many other smaller festivals – celebrating everything from music to cachaça – so Paraty no longer has an off-season. The livelihoods of many workers during the Brazilian winter are tied up with the festival.

Away from the Old Town, at night, locals fished from the bridges or the tow path along the river. The high street in the new town, with the internet cafe and the makeshift churrascarias, was quieter than before, with almost no overflow from the festival, except a few stray well-dressed visitors moving uncertainly from one deserted restaurant to another. Locals had dispersed into the Old Town. There, people unable to get tickets, which sell out months in advance, gathered around huge outdoor screens broadcasting events from inside the closed off tents.