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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Blogging in Brazil: Day five
Click here to see a map showing Paulo's progress so far

BBC reporter Paulo Cabral is travelling along Brazil's Sao Francisco river, following in the footsteps of Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton. Each week day Paulo will be posting a diary entry on the web, and responding to a selection of your e-mails.

27 June: Itacarambi to Bom Jesus da Lapa
The arms, legs, heads and faces still fill the shrine of Bom Jesus da Lapa, brought by pilgrims that visit this Holy place from even further afield.

The rector of the shrine, Father Casemiro Malolepszy, told me that unlike all other cities on the Sao Francisco, this town owes less to the river than to a sanctuary founded here in 1691 by the Portuguese painter and religious man Fernando Mendonca.

Shrine, Bom Jesus da Lapa
The shrine completely fills the interior of the cave

Burton wrote that he "left the place little impressed, "except by the damp heat".

I felt differently. The rock formations inside the cave are astonishing and some of them seem almost to be alive and likely to start moving at any moment.

Awesome stalactites and stalagmites give the place a spiritual energy rarely achieved in man-made temples.

Burton also saw in one of the caves "a stalagmite resembling an Hindoo 'lingam' (phallic symbol)" I think I spotted the rock he meant, suggesting that the great explorer had a very fertile imagination. But I think I also noticed the "odor of death" he attributed to something called "stinkstone" in some of the caves' deepest recesses.

Hundreds of wax and wooden reproductions of body parts are still mounted on the walls of the Cave of Miracles - one of several caves forming this natural cathedral. These are the so-called "ex votos", offered up by pilgrims seeking a blessing or, perhaps, to thank God for blessings already received.

Cave of Miracles
Wax body parts line the walls of the Cave of Miracles

Actually, "ex votos" don't have to be body parts, but can be any relevant object requiring a blessing - a model of a house would qualify, for instance, and are found in many catholic shrines around the world.

But arms, legs and heads, etc, are a very Brazilian touch.

"These tend to be brought by simple people with a very down to earth relation to their religion. What could be more straight forward than offering God an arm if that's what He healed," said Father Casemiro.

You can buy these wax models from street sellers in front of the shrine for about US$4 dollars apiece.

"This is a just a symbol. It's worth nothing. What really matters is their faith", said one of the vendors showing little sense of marketing but great honesty and spirituality.

Harsh reality

The serenity I felt inside the church vanished, though, when I left the cave and went back into town.

Slum in Bom Jesus da Lapa
Despite the tourist trade, many people live in poverty

Bom Jesus da Lapa is in the Brazilian sertao - a semi-desert with only a few months of rain per year and sometimes it doesn't rain for years in a row.

Only big farms use the waters of the Sao Francisco River for irrigation and small farms have to rely on the climate alone, which rarely produces more than sufficient for their most basic needs.

Poverty is everywhere and the number of pilgrims and tourists that visit the place have attracted beggars and street workers unseen in other parts of the sertao - shoe shine boys for instance.

Leaving the church with me, Father Casemiro, a Polish missionary who's been living in Brazil for the last 20 years, looked at the town and said: "The soil is fertile and God is in this place. We only need a little help from men to give these people a much better life."

Send your questions or comments to Paulo using the form below. He will answer a selection in his daily blog.

Your E-mail address

Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.

Sounds of the Sao Francisco river
Pilgrims singing at the shrine of Bom Jesus da Lapa

Sounds of the Sao Francisco river
An evening game of beach football on the banks of the river

Sounds of the Sao Francisco river
Hear a car crossing the rickety bridge over the Pirapora rapids

Sounds of the Sao Francisco river
Listen to the mating call of the Brazilian frog fish


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