Brazilian Road Trip. Day Five

We are deep in the desert. We left our car some way back and now we are toiling forwards on foot. We have no water left. It’s about 40˚C and the air roils and shimmers with oily heat. Menna raises a shaking finger to point out some mirage on the horizon, but it is already too late for Matilda. She lets out a long gasping moan, drops to her knees, then collapses dead to the floor.

“I think your death rattle should be louder.” Says Arthur, “Like gargling and choking at the same time. Let me try.”

After we have practiced our desert deaths, we climb pyramids and race down their faces, bounding, falling, rolling, sliding, filling our pockets and pants and ears with sand. We take perspective shots of Matilda holding tiny people. We carefully dig up the bones of a dead snake like paleontologists unearthing a ichthyosaur. We climb the highest dunes and stare philosophically out at swirling sand vistas.

There’s something primeval as we look out on the dunescape, no evidence of civilisation in any direction. We talk about nomadic people – Bedouins, Aborigines, Touaregs, Berbers, Tusken Raiders – and imagine their harsh existence. A slight frisson of fear grips us all. We are deep in the desert and we have no water left. Something could easily go wrong: the car might not start; Arthur might break a leg; I might have to stagger back to civilisation with the snake-bitten corpses of my family draped over my shoulders.

It is films that have shaped our perception of the desert. We have all cried at that bit in English Patient when he leaves her in the cave and treks off for help across the sands. Those nightmares I got after watching Frank Herbert’s Dune are still buried somewhere deep in my cerebellum. Arthur remembers droids wandering in that endless desert of Tattoine, carrying Leia’s hologram onwards to Luke.
“How did we get into this mess” C3PO whines, “We seem to be made to suffer”.

The car does start. It’s like a furnace inside though and we nearly pass out before the air-con kicks in. We still have no water left but it’s ok, we’ll top up in the next town. It’s only ten klicks away. First we must navigate this worn sandy B-road though that winds around the edge of the desert. It’s tough driving – the sort I was born for: slaloming the pot holes, swerving drifts, hitting the sand bank with my back wheels to skid the car pleasingly around that tight corner; off-roading round ridges of sun-buckled asphalt. I judge my limits by the colour of Menna’s knuckles as she grips her roof handle. Faster! Find the apex! BRAKE!

A dune has swallowed the road. It is of a size that will not be summited by our fake SUV that shamefully doesn’t actually have true 4×4. Can we go around? I watched Laurence of Arabia when I was a kid, I found it long and boring but what stuck with me is the immensity of that desert landscape. Once you were in it, it went on forever.

We leave the car and scout on foot. We test the firmness of the terrain. All around us are ridges, folds and valleys of soft fine sand that sink underfoot and probably hide the rusted skeletons of a whole junkyard of sunken vehicles. A small patch of tarmac re-emerges on the far side of the dune but it leads only to the foot of another sand mountain, and after that all traces of road disappear. The highway has been entirely reclaimed by the desert.

It appears we have no option but to retrace our steps for a good 30km and then take the long road northwards around the desert. It will add three hours onto our journey, which was already due to take up most of the day. Our mouths are dry and it’s annoying that we have no water.

But what is this? A saloon car in the distance, pulling off the highway, taking a direct line into the heart of the desert. Madness lies ahead! We roar forwards, flashing headlines, waving, honking. The desert traveller stops and slowly reverses. A creased hardboiled type emerges from the driver’s door, all burnt skin and wild hair. Shadowy faces peer out of the darkened rear windows. We talk.

‘We are lost. The road disappears. We cannot go on! Is there another way to Natal?’ I say in Spanish.

The response comes in fast, elliptic, take-no-prisoners Portuguese. It is entirely incomprehensible. His hands move with his words though and I try to read their story instead: ‘There is a path,’ they seem to say, ‘It is long and dangerous. Listen carefully. You must go somewhere over there, then curve at this point here. Make sure not to take the wrong fork when you see this. Go on for a long way until you come to that. And then you will be safe my friend. God speed.’

Then he climbs back in his car and zooms off into the desert.

‘Obrigado!’ we shout. We wave, then we turn to each other and have a hurried conference. A decision is made. We leap back into the car and set off at full speed on the tail of our newfound friend. We have no idea where he is going, but we know that we don’t want to lose him. He is a local Bedouin, a man of the desert, and he alone can navigate these shifting sands. We, on the other hand, have no water and if we get lost here we will certainly die.

For an hour or more we wind our way deeper and deeper into the desert. We follow a winding path between sand drifts, just firm enough to support our vehicle but with no room for error. Our wheels spin at times when we stray too wide on a curve and sink into soft sand. We have to stop and rev in order to make it over ridges. Conversation dries up inside the car. We are all fixed on the guide vehicle, floating somewhere ahead, a ghost in the shimmering heat.

In the Good the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood is a prisoner dying of thirst, dragged deep into the scorching sands by an outlaw with a pink parasol. His cracked face is like a desert landscape in itself as he slowly dries out with every step. And here we are, hitched to a white sedan, lines of thirst starting to etch themselves on our faces too, as we are driven deeper, deeper into the desert.

We see skulls half buried in the sand. We have no water. We neither know the way forwards nor nor the way back. Onwards we go, following strangers down invisible roads, our destination unknown, our time running out. Small players in some grand sweeping epic.

Where do we go, we who wonder this Wasteland in search of our better selves?

Mad Max

Brazilian Road Trip: Day Four.

It is Mother’s Day. It has crept up on us out of nowhere. We had hoped to buy Menna exotic gifts, overwhelm her with massages and beauty treatments, plan activities and sentimental demonstrations of our love. Everything is shut for hundreds of miles around though, and we’re on a roadtrip. So we haven’t actually got any presents and the main activity today will be driving.

Matilda gets very stressed about these events. All festivities are important to her but no reality can ever match up to the rarified aesthetics in her head. Consequently event planning for her is always a bitter exercise in disappointment mitigation. Today we fall particularly short.

I watch sleepily as Matilda creeps out of bed at six, clears her bedside table, places it at the foot of our bed, then carefully arranges a selection of cards and a fortune teller together with flowers that she has picked from bushes in the garden. She has not anticipated the rotating fan though and every time it swings around the cards flutter down to the floor and petals float away in the breeze so our room soon has the dreamy aspect of snowfall. I watch her silently rearranging her composition several times, getting crosser and crosser before she thinks to switch off the fan. Good problem-solving, I think to myself and drift back to sleep. Whenever I open an eye, Matilda is pacing around anxiously in the gloom waiting for her mother to stir. It takes a long while.

The kids were up late last night frantically sketching cards and in lieu of actual gifts they have crafted a paper fortune teller. When the fortunes are revealed – surprise! – they turn out to be Mother’s Day treats. I helped with the origami, but have not overseen the fortune writing and consequently the little rats seem to have put me on the hook for most of them:

#1: “Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!”
#2: “Daddy will buy you a bottle of champagne when the bars open!”
#3: “Arthur will try his best at school all week!”
#4: “Daddy will do all the driving!”
And so on…

Mother’s Day breakfast is the same as all of our breakfasts. Eggs declined, lots of fruit, a straw-like cassava pancake the Brazilians call tapioca and speak of with disproportionate pride, guava jam, weapons grade coffee. We fill ourselves up and plan the day.

We have now learned that Jericoucoura is effectively shut to us. Yes, we can drive there, but their lockdown is the strictest in this region – that is to say no shops, restaurants, no bars. No beds for the inbound traveller. Beach restricted. Roadblocks and identity checks. A hostile environment.

This was to be the zenith of our arc and now a thousand kilometers into our trip we are trying not to feel deflated and directionless. We turn southwards instead towards Pernambuco where there is a point break we want to surf. I book accommodation for the night at a random town that doesn’t even make it into our Lonely Planet.

It is unusually hot today, even for Brazil, and Pernambuco is as boarded up as a borehole, boarded up as an abandoned boardwalk, boarded up as all the other boring boarded towns we have been to recently. The surf is great though, a nice little pealing right hander that breaks on a coral reef. They can’t board that up.

The girls wallow in a rock pool while Art catches waves and I chat to a French guy in the surf who wants to air his grievances about the referee in that morning’s rugby match between our two countries. The Six Nations tournament is a hemisphere away and a mental shift too far for me right now and I am only able to nod stupidly and agree that the ref probably had been bribed by the English. Deprived of a decent argument with the Rosbif that God has delivered him on this of all days, the Frenchman drops in on me and steals my wave with Gallic insouciance, then surfs all the way into the beach and disappears.

Mother’s Day lunch is a bit of a flop. The only food in town seems to be spit-roast chickens which are being illegally sold in plastic bags out of a garage. Menna is in one of her vegetarian phases and will not compromise.
“You go ahead, I’m not hungry anyway,” she says in her martyr voice. I am painfully aware of Fortune #6 (“Daddy will buy you a lovely lunch”) and feeling my shortcomings I make us tour around for ages, hot and hungry, looking for vegetarian options for Menna, ignoring her protestations (“It’s Okay! I’ll just eat the crackers”), and eventually letting the heat get to us. Suddenly everyone is hungry and tired and sweaty and shouting at each other. Angry words float around the car together with the greasy aromas of roast chicken, hot tarmac and sweat.

In the end I find a filling station supermarket and send Menna in with my credit card to buy herself pitta and tomatoes while I simmer away outside. With Fortune #6 technically completed, we find a beautiful beach and sit in the shade under a mango tree. The kids and I tear into the roast chicken with our fingers, covering ourselves in grease and sand. Menna daintily nibbles at a pitta a few feet away. We are all happy again.

As we get back into the car we receive an email from the hotel cancelling our booking for tonight “por causa do COVID!”. I always like it when they capitalize the Covid, it makes it feel like a military acronym: “Collapse Of Vast Irradiated Deathfarm!”. Shit, we better not stay there then!

We now have nowhere to sleep tonight. As I am driving for the next five hours (as per Fortune #4), then I will need to default on Fortune #1 (“Daddy will book the next three places we stay in!”). It is another Mother’s Day fail. Menna starts wearily tapping on her phone. I try not to catch Matilda’s eye in the rear view mirror.

That night we take Mother out for pizza in the bar near our new hostel. At some point we have crossed a state line and no-one here cares about Coronavirus. The town square is full of kids engaged in complicated courtship rituals. We watch emissaries scurrying backwards and forwards, carrying messages between gangs of teenage girls and boys on opposite benches. Couples kiss in the shadows of doorways and emerge from behind curtains of bougainvillea, the air is full of romance. It is an ideal place for Mother’s Day dinner. There are three flavors of frozen pizza on offer in our restaurant and one of them is vegetarian – this is going well! I enquire gallantly about champagne, mindful of Fortune #2, but the guy just laughs. We get two Mother’s Day beers instead.

Brazilian Road Trip. Day Three

We spend the morning trying to solve the key conundrum. The sullen guy at our car rental company is approximately nine hours away and it is a Saturday. We agree that he is unlikely to be our knight in shining armour. We go and talk to a smiling lady who seems to be part of our hostel and ask her to find us a local locksmith instead. Maybe something got lost in translation because the guys who show up a couple of hours later are carrying a hammer and chisel.

We watch with some consternation as the lads set about levering open the top of the driver’s door with a screwdriver and then force in a wooden stake. Lots of slips, lots of grunts, a fair amount of sweat, this is not the refined lock pick I was expecting. A long wire (coat hanger?) goes in and then an hour of fumbling around, poking it down into the car, trying to hit the unlock button on the driver armrest. The alarm goes off long time before they hit jackpot and this is the soundtrack to the morning. It brings various onlookers and advisors from the road, so there is soon quite a crowd.

The lads force their way in eventually, but leave some wicked dents and scratches on the roof. It is a brand new rental car and these seem very conspicuous. I pay them $20 and they lounge around the hotel drinking coffee for many hours, hooting with laughter, telling stories of hapless tourists.

We are long past checkout at this point so we agree to stay on another night in Icari.

Menna has heard of some huge sand dunes nearby which hide exotic water holes. These will be deep and clear, she tells us, like an oasis in the Sahara. They will be surrounded by shady vegetation where we may string up hammocks and relax after swimming with the frogs in the agua dulce.

So off we head, in search of this desert mirage. The rural hinterlands of Brazil’s Nordeste region is not where Google Maps excels but we don’t have any alternative. Iguanas and ibis meet red herrings and wild geese as we blunder our way down back roads that are really no more than muddy tractor tracks. We drive through wind farms and cattle farms, down white grit paths, into little shanty towns. We inch past wobbling bicycles loaded with family members, we stop for goats on the road and we end up totally lost.

Eventually after squeezing several kilometers down a narrow flint track we find ourselves at a little house made entirely from flotsam, sitting among a mess of fishing nets. Various astonished dark-eyed children peer at us from hiding places in the shadows but no adult appears to offer help or directions. I am faced with a long winding reverse back up the track. Ahead through a plastic-strewn yard is an open gateway then a blue ribbon of sea.

I make a silent decision and gun the car through the gate before Menna can tell me not to. Down a small step we bump and then we are on the beach, dodging rocks, slaloming our way down the wide hard-packed sand, wheels spinning a little. Menna is freaking, thinking we’ll get the car stuck, the kids are screaming: Go faster! Hit the dunes! Drive into the waves! I turn up the Brazilian House Grooves album which I am seriously digging at the moment. And along we fly.

Eventually the sand gets softer and deeper and I feel there is a real danger we’ll sink our wheels so I bring the car to a stop. We spill out and run around, eat a late lunch up on a dune, vaguely worried the tide will come in and cut off our escape route. We find a giant bleached turtle shell and some skeletal flipper remains. In front of us the sea stretches away to Africa and behind is a never-ending landscape of undulating sand dunes and towering white windmills. We are ants lost between endless horizons.

We finish lunch and turn the car around then drive three kilometers at full speed along the flat sand, over rivulets, waving at fishermen and kids in the dunes. Some wave back, most ignore us.

As we rejoin the tracery of cross-country trails that lead homewards (we hope), we can’t help trying a few other blind alleys in search of these mystical pools. We take service roads that lead us to rows of silent monolithic windmills. We go and lie at the base of one, looking upwards, watching huge blades whirling silently against the hard blue. With no peripheral reference points this creates an optical effect, it feels like we are rotating too, lying on shifting ground, moving through immense orbits. Gravity ripples and slips. Stretched out in the dust we gently swing like Focault’s pendulum, proving the earth’s motion.

“The lakes in the dunes?” asks the smiling lady when we get back to the hotel, “Oh, but they are only there in the wet months. Perhaps in December you will see them – if you come back!”

Over a takeaway dinner that evening we teach the kids the meaning of the word quixotic: Committing yourself whole-heartedly to wild escapades, we say. Being idealistic but naïve. Chasing impossible dreams. Tilting at windmills.

Brazilian Road Trip. Day Two.

The hotel breakfast is egg-intense (they always are) but we are saved by a fruit backup, dry rolls and some decent coffee. The kids are corralled and restrained for schooling which takes place in some strange stairwell turrets by the pool. I have a Zoom interview for a job that I am not very keen on. I embellish my achievements for a couple of hours then run outside and jump in the pool. When the glow of self-promotion fades, I am left with a vague resentment. A portal to a forgotten world briefly opened up in our bedroom – a bloody wormhole! I didn’t like what I saw.

We go for a walk around Canoa Quebrada. It is a hard-baked town, shimmering with trapped heat. There is a busy tree-lined central street and not much else. It has a melancholy feeling – not of faded grandeur, but of motion stilled: an empty bandstand full of litter, cavernous municipal buildings with dark windows, beachside hotels all boarded-up, masonry gently crumbling in the sun’s glare. We see a moon and star motif repeated on stonework and mosaic pavings throughout the town – strangely Moorish. We perch up on the cliffs and watch a lone Kitesurfer far out at sea, a yoga class, dogwalkers on the beach. The kids carve red face sculptures into the crumbling rock face (‘Mount Sandmore” they call it). We eat leftover pizza for lunch, then we drive on.

Another six hours in the car gets us 350km further north. We pass through small hostile towns and skirt by the city of Fortaleza where we know that Covid is bad and the lockdown is severe. We keep the windows up, the air-con set to max, and listen to His Dark Materials on audiobook. We turn off the central highway and head back towards the coast, the vegetation changes outside, shrubs and dust are replaced with palms and grassy marshlands, cattle egrets hide in the reeds. We get the car fully airborne over a hidden speed hump as we enter Icari.

We have booked a basic cabin for the night. There are a couple of table fans but no air-conditioning. The garden is lush and green with flowering almond trees, there is also a small lagoon with an ominous cloud of mosquitos flickering like static fuzz above the water.

We dump our bags and then head out to town for an evening beach walk and dinner. Except all the restaurants and cafes and kiosks and bars are shut. Again. We are learning that Covid restrictions are decided at municipality level in Brazil and it’s impossible to know what they are until you arrive somewhere. What we do know is that they are getting more severe as we head North. This does not bode well for our road trip.

We knock at doors, we ask advice, we wheedle and beg at the only proper hotel in town (we can see guests laughing and clinking glasses on the beachside veranda, lounging under fairy lights and flowered trellises) but we are too late, or too shabby or there is some covid regulation that means we are not welcome.

We turn away into the darkness.
“Daddy, what will we do if we can’t find any dinner?” Asks Matilda in a tremulous despairing little voice, as if we were desperate migrants on the edge of collapse.

Eventually we find a lady who illegally feeds us shrimp tacos and beer down a quiet alley. We sit around an upturned barrel and congratulate each other, agree that it is the best food we have ever had, point out how romantic the setting.

We head back to our hostel and as I tuck the kids up Menna bursts into the room, wide-eyed and gigging but sort of moaning, and she is twisting her hands together in that way she has when she’s done something bad.

She has somehow locked our only set of car keys in the boot.

Brazilian Road Trip. Day One

The trip starts with high spirits, as should all new adventures. We wave goodbye to a ten-day home in Pipa Beach, invent road trip names for each other (Ace! Greaseball!) and sing made-up songs in the car. The membrane of goodwill around us is porous though and the humour has mainly evaporated by the time we reach the fiftieth kilometer of our 450km drive. We inch our way across the map with excruciating slowness. Brazil is so big! Outside is a featureless flat dustbowl landscape where the only flickers of interest are in identifying the roadkill and guessing what strange items people will try to sell us at the traffic lights.

Menna has planned a lunch stop in the macabre-sounding Macaiba but as we approach this turns out to be a sprawling industrial metropolis squatting grimly across the horizon. Refinery vats, tangled pipe-work, chimneys leaking smoke. The roads darken with oil stains as we approach. We will not lunch here.

We take the ring road instead and don’t stop until Macaiba has receded to a spiky line across the rear view mirror. Then hunger forces us into a run-down peripheral town where we find some scrubland by a lake and picnic amid wind-blown plastic bags.

The mood in the car is sombre. This is nothing like the romantic road adventure that the kids had envisaged. We kill some time with a Spanish quiz then a podcast about Murphy’s Law, which turns out to be strangely relevant to most of our adventures. Then the kids sink into a digital torpor, Menna dozes and onwards I drive along this endless rutted highway while a chain of lorries attempt crazy overtaking manoeuveres all round us. I have daydreams about extravagant accidents involving hundreds of vehicles: a Stonehenge of cars, metal twisted like tin foil; viscous liquids running over bonnets – engine oil, blood, washer fluid – crystals of windscreen glass shining like scattered jewels on the tarmac. My nerves are shot by the time darkness falls.

We rattle into Canoa Quebrada late in the evening, but Menna’s phone has died, we have mislaid our hotel address and there is no mobile internet to rescue us. We tour the streets for a while, asking directions from old men but unable to understand their muttered answers. It feels dangerous here. Menna and I argue badly.

The kids are twitching with unspent energy after a full day in the car. They go nuts in the hotel once we finally find it, shrieking and tearing around, jumping on things, falling off them, squabbling, fighting, shouting at each other, crying – all in a bewilderingly quick succession. We have to tell them off in an angry mutter while still maintaining our listening faces for the receptionist who is midway through a long monologue in Portuguese, gesturing listlessly at dark doorways behind her. It is a history of the hotel she is giving us perhaps or a long list of rules.

Menna develops a headache and goes to bed. Arthur, Matilda and I head into town to find dinner. I am dreaming of a juicy steak, chimichurri, a full-bodied red perhaps, but it is not that kind of town. Anyway everything is shut down. The curfew is at 5pm we learn and unlike Pipa, here it is rigorously applied. So much for lawless border towns! We find a takeout pizza place instead and loaded with boxes we head home to dine with mosquitos in the darkness by the pool.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free…

Kris Kristofferson

Mafia

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

Pie-man… or mafioso?

Settling In

We are still in Brazil. We don’t have any means of escape. The mercury sits somewhere over 40˚c. The Covid statistics have not improved, if anything the crisis here is deepening. Somehow we have found our rhythm though and relaxed into our new home. Pragmatism has kicked in.

We know where to find iced coffee and where to pick up croissants or emergency icecream. The swimming pool keeps us cool. There is a gnarly surf break just beneath our house. It’s great for an early morning session but the paddle out is hard and the waves are a little too intense for Art, so most days, once school is done, we end up driving twenty minutes down the coast to a mellow point break that he loves. He catches wave after wave there and messes around with small Brazilian surf kids in the water, swapping boards with them, clowning around.

The bay curves away off into the distance, tangled vegetation dark against a creamy cliff with pink layers like a slab of cake. It is known as Praia Madeira and so there is a kind of linguistic familiarity. We have already explored the Portuguese Island of Madeira, stayed in the Nicaraguan town of Maderas, climbed Volcan Madera, now we surf at Praia Madeiras. The Portuguese Madeira (or madera in Spanish) means wood, as in ‘you can’t see the wood for the trees’ or better, ‘we are not out of the woods yet’. The backdrop to this beach is a crazy forest that runs up the sheer face, palms clinging tenaciously to the rock.

Today the sea is glassy, the waves are clean and the bay is full of dolphins. They surface next to us as we sit waiting for the set. Menna and Matilda go for a long swim and find themselves in the middle of a pod. There are fins and rounded sleek backs, then once in a while a spray of frantic fish that skim like stones on the surface, then a dolphin surges right up behind them, effortless, predatory, grinning. That explosion from the deep is unnerving when it happens close by, but then we get used to it. Dolphins are great surfers.

We went for a hike in the nature reserve on the cliffs above Praia Madeira yesterday morning very early. We followed woodland trails looking for snakes and armadillos and then we came to a point where the woods fell away and we found ourselves out on a promontory, looking down on our point break all empty in the early morning. Between the break of the waves we could see shadowy shapes skimming around in the water that we at first took for rays, but then one came up for air and we realised they were turtles. Our surf break was also their hunting ground. There must have been ten of them at least, illuminated by the early morning sunlight, surprisingly agile under the water.

Now we are in on the secret. We know we share these waters with turtles too. They are underneath us somewhere, flitting around, leaving bubble trails like jet streams. There must be sting rays and lobsters as well, baracuda, eels, maybe sharks. A hidden world of muted sounds and vivid textures always beneath us as we float over the reef.

And so it is that we unbend a little more, integrate a little closer, worry a little less. We chat to people. We book a couple of quad bikes in the afternoon. It is one of those ultimately selfish activities (like jet-ski) which are super fun to do, but intensely annoying for anyone else around. I am normally averse but today we’re in a ‘whatever’ kind of mood. It’s a release. We scream around cliffs trails, the kids gripping on tight to our waists. I try to leave skid marks in the red sand, aim to get all four wheels off the ground. The wind stings my face. Matilda screams and whoops behind me. Our blood is up, we stop at a deserted safari lodge so we can ride horses and shoot things with air rifles and bows and arrows.

As we drive back home, we see this little stretch of coast from a different angle. The sun is stetting now and from our vantage point up high the landscape has a new geometry. Euclidean planes in red sandstone, surging cubic structures, recessed cliffs like scalloped teeth-marks, undulating lines of sea-sculpted sand.

If we’re going to be stuck anywhere in Brazil, it may as well be here.

The Eye of the Storm

It’s hot here and humidity is building. It feels like a storm is on its way, Despite the air conditioning in our apartment I am sweating as I sit in my boxers at the breakfast bar.

Menna and I exchange glances for a second, then we both look away, go silently back to our tasks. I’m jabbing away at my iPad, supposedly checking flight sites but secretly writing this, she’s scrolling on her phone looking at visas requirements. There’s a figurative thunder cloud in our apartment, mirroring the real ones that are amassing outside. The kids are laughing away down in the pool all oblivious, but things are pretty dark indoors.

Our arrival in Brazil went pretty well, all things considered. We completed three flights over a thirty hour period. None were delayed. We only got charged $200 for the excess surfboards. We didn’t take our masks off for the whole period except to swig water and cram airline sandwiches down our throats. The kids mainly behaved themselves. Menna ferociously sanitized our hands at half-hour intervals. We were all forbidden to touch surfaces, people, seats, our own faces. Our hire car was waiting with roof rails as specified, so we could tie on the surfboards. We didn’t get kidnapped or hijacked on drive from the airport. We made it our hotel and ate a celebratory dinner, tired and happy, congratulating ourselves on a new frontier.

The headlines that greeted us on our first morning gave us a shock. Brazil had set a new record for pandemic deaths on the previous day.

Experts warn Brazil facing darkest days of Covid crisis as deaths hit highest level” says the Guardian, March 3rd.

We field a flood of messages from far-off well-wishers, politely wondering whether we had taken total leave of our senses. When we booked our Brazilian tickets things seemed to be in a better state, we say. We had met travelers returning from Brazil with inspiring tales. We had talked to locals here. The forums spoke of sustainable travel, wild landscapes, rural communities far from the lurid highways of commerce. We wanted to show our children a different culture. Our main concern was crime not coronavirus. The Covid stats were flat, we repeat.

We leave Natal and drive to Pipa Beach where we have booked an apartment. The sullen heat takes our breath away but the condo seems like a nice place to spend our first week. It is spacious, a little run-down, bougainvillea is entwined around the balcony. It seems safe.

Brazil’s Covid Crisis Is a Warning to the Whole World, Scientists Say” The New York Times tells us, March 3rd.

This theme is repeated across most of the international press. The eyes of the world seem to have turned upon Brazil. Judging from all the reports, we are in pretty much the worst place that one could be right now, the epicentre of the viral maelstrom, the birthplace of a deadly new variant. The hospitals are in crisis, the president is negligent, people are dying in their thousands – and we have chosen to travel here!

Menna is in tears. We have an argument:
“I told you we shouldn’t have come.”
“You didn’t tell me. We both made this decision!”
“Not really! It was you who wanted this. I feel totally unsafe. I want to leave!”
“We discussed this for days before we bought the tickets. We’re in this together! The road less travelled remember, that’s what we do. A life of adventure!”
“I want to leave.”

She has a point and I have to acknowledge it. It feels like we’ve (I’ve) led the family into unnecessary danger. As a state, I keep telling myself, the Covid rates per capita here in Rio Grande do Norte are way better than the UK and most of the world. Brazil is a federation that is two and a half times the size of the EU. You can’t treat it all as a single country – you need to assess the situation at a state level. But it doesn’t work.

“Brazil’s variant breeding ground is a threat to the entire world” Washington Post, March 4th.

Friends send us medical journals and papers. They point out statistics around mortality rates, hospital capacity and access to oxygen. They speak about government policy and vaccine hesitancy. There are no vaccines here anyway we say.

After our argument I know I need to make this right. I pledge absolute cooperation enforcing strict hygiene protocols with the kids and moreover that I would find some early exit options from this plagued nation. With admirable foresight I have bought us return flights here instead of the usual one-way ticket, so I know I have this get-out-of-jail card in my pocket. If things get too hot we will simply bring forward our return dates, flee back to Mexico, then find somewhere else to go where people won’t feel the need to send us concerned messages and call us crazy.

There is a tolerance for death’: Brazil battles fresh Covid storm” Financial Times, March 8th.

Outside our gates it doesn’t feel like the people are battling Covid storms. They are strolling around without masks, laughing. The streets are full, there is a roaring trade at the empanada kiosk, the surf is pumping and social distancing seem to mean a 20cm gap. Pipa Beach is a famous beauty spot and the weekend warriors keep rolling in from the city. Perhaps there is a tolerance of death here.

I am normally overly optimistic about danger while Menna is overly cautious, but now we both find ourselves nervous and hesitant. We can’t relax. We shrink back in the street as a laughing group of surfers approaches, we use contactless card to pay for our coffees, I entirely disinfect when I return from the supermarket, we don’t eat out. We go for long family walks along deserted cliffs and surf away from the pack. Arthur scampers around as always, picking things up, climbing on anything he can. We chase him around with alcohol spray.

“Brazil’s hospitals close to collapse as cases reach record high” British Medical Journal, March

When Biden reverses Trump border policy and bans all inbound travellers from Brazil, even for transfers, it renders our return tickets (via Dallas) completely invalid. My exit plan evaporates like smoke. The rest of the world quickly follows suit. No-one is keen to welcome travelers from Brazil with their tolerance for death and their exotic variants.

I comb the internet when our patchy wifi allows. There is a brief ray of light when I manage to find some alternative flights to Ethiopia and I get very excited about throwing a crazy twist into the adventure, but there appears to be some kind of armed uprising going on there. I reluctantly move on. Menna is keen on Tahiti, but then overnight the island goes into full lockdown.

Together under storm clouds of our own making, Menna and I sit silently, side by side, tapping on our screens, hoping for answers. Outside is a nation ravaged by infections. Mutations are bubbling away all around us. Thunder rumbles and the smell of tropical rot lies heavy on the air.

After five days of searching, we can find no realistic way to get out of this country at all.

Enough fussing and whining! How much longer will the crying go on?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, after two straight days of record COVID-19 deaths in Brazil. March 5th.

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