I need to break a 100 reais note in order to pay off the ragged guy on the roadside who has ‘offered’ to watch our car. I wander up and down the beach bars but no one is keen to sell me a drink if it means dealing with such a high denomination note (it’s worth about $17!). Eventually I am helped out by a good-looking Argentinian guy who runs a beach massage service. He finds the necessary change from a consortium of local traders and doesn’t even ask for a tip. He’s chatty though and does take the opportunity to offer me fake covid test results – only $20 each (“A proper PCR certificate! Accepted on all the flights…”) He gives me his business card.
It’s good to talk to someone who is not in my immediate family and moreover who speaks my language (barely anyone in Brazil speaks Spanish, no-one speaks English). It turns out Martín has a degree in international relations and knows a lot about the area. We chat.
“But you are wondering why an educated guy like me is wasting his life doing massage on the beach!”
“Not at all. You’re doing the same as me. Escaping!”
“Yes!” He waves a hand expansively around, “The beach, the jungle, waves, the girls, the food. You don’t get this in Buenos Aires.”
“Really? I heard that Argentina was an epic country! We’d go there if they would just let us in. Mountains, wine, steaks, pampas, friendly people, ice caps… Don’t they say Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America?”
“Ok. This is true. The city is cool to visit and everyone knows that Argentinian steaks are the best. But to live there is too much, how to say it, too much expectations. There is pressure man! Here in Brazil I can be free. No-one cares.”
“Cheers to that!”
”You are traveling with your wife and children no?”
”There are different versions of freedom my friend.”
Inevitably we end up chatting about Covid and crime here.
“But of course. There’s no rule of law here,” Martín says surprised when I ask about masks and restrictions, “You are sometimes seeing police on the streets around ten in the evening, when it’s curfew time, but they’re just collecting fines for their own pockets. Really everything here is run by the indigenous community. That’s why they don’t do curfew on weekends when city tourists are here. No good for the local bars and selling the drugs.”
“Indigenous community? You mean like tribal people?”
“You know, like the old guys from the region. They own lots of things here. They run things. If you do anything wrong then they will send young guys around and you can get…un paliza… a beating! I’ve seen it happen.”
“Wow. Do you have to pay them off?”
“No, I am small and don’t earn enough money, they leave me alone. You have to be careful pero. I’ve seen things. Two times now we are finding dead bodies down here on the beach. Not even in the sea. Just lying here on the sand. One of them was a guy who had you know, uh, molested someone.”
“What the hell?”
“Yes. And the other one hadn’t paid his drug debts.”
“Ok. That’s crazy. So the local head guys are handing out justice but they are also running the drug trade here. That sounds pretty scary.“
“Yes. Of course. But it’s better than the police running it no?”
“I suppose so.”
I am strangely electrified after our conversation. We really are deep in the Latin American badlands. Rough mafia justice from the village elders, clandestine drug trafficking, bodies dumped on the beach as a warning. I look around at this postcard setting. It doesn’t seem like that kind of place, but then we’ve just been floating on the surface. No drug taking, no molesting, no frequenting bars even. Just a reclusive British family keeping themselves to themselves, surfing a little, worried about Covid and kidnapping. How would we know what really goes on here?
“It is still good here though. Mainly quite normal,” says Martín, “you should see some of the places further up North. There are some totally crazy communities there. Very very poor areas. Everyone knows about the favelas, but some of the rural places are much worse. Real mafia towns.”
“And the state doesn’t take on the local mafia?”
“It is not like an organization you can fight. It is like an another set of rules that just exists in these communities. Anyway, you haven’t heard of the president here? He is mafia.”
As it happens, I did my degree dissertation on mafia power structures in prewar Sicily, I tell Martín, starting to summarise my key arguments with some animation, but I have lost his attention. A group of ladies has just arrived on the beach and he has massages to sell.
A few days later we have the car loaded up and pointed northwards. We are setting out on a road trip to really see what this country is all about. Somewhere, more or less a thousand kilometers along the coast, is the legendary kitesurfing capital of Jericoucoura. Between us and there lie some of the poorest rural communities in Brazil, fishing villages, cashew farmers, coconut plantations, shanty towns, lawless mafia outposts. I feel the ghost of an idea animating me, insubstantial but enticing. This could be some kind of research trip, I daydream to myself. Perhaps I’ll write the sequel to my dissertation, a book on the Brazilian mafia!
We have come down here to see a different side of Latin America, to poke and scratch our way under the surface. We have a duty to show our children the ways of the world, open their little eyes to poverty, alternative justice and the ways of rural indigenous communities. It is time to get away from nice apartments and find the path less taken. I haven’t quite filled Menna in on the specifics of my conversation with Martín but I feel pretty excited – and I’m sure she will be too.
There are stories waiting for us out there