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…
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 anddoesn’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.
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.
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.