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On the Dunes Waiting for 2000

On the Dunes Waiting for 2000

The pick-up truck I traveled in was held together with the requisite
number of pictures of saints, bits of wire and a lot of luck. As we bounced through the
night, the dunes remained as enigmatic as the name Jericoacoara.
By Philip Blazdell

Is it or isn’t it? No place has generated so much interest from so many people. It
seems that everyone has an opinion. Some people love it, go there for a few days and never
leave, whilst others simply hate it and can’t wait to leave. Some have heard of it and
plan to go there one day whilst others are convinced that it is a myth dreamed up by the
world’s media moguls. I am one of the few people who still sit on the fence—sometimes
it moves me to tears and sometimes I just can’t find peace there.

I am, of course talking about Jericoacoara, or as us old South America hands know it
Jeri. Less a beach than an urban legend, which if it did not exist I would probably have
to invent anyway to keep my friends back home jealous. It is a place that sprung into
public awareness when a number of magazines and even the New York Post rated it as
the world’s best beach. I am not especially a beach lover much preferring the countryside
of my youth, but the opportunity to spend the dying days of the millennium on the world’s
best beach was something I could not resist. The romance of a chilled bottle of vintage
champagne, the sun bleached sea and my girlfriend sharing a rare moment of tranquility was
inspiration enough to shake off my inertia, dig out my camera and head north.

Jeri was, till about 15 years ago, an isolated fisherman village, without any contact
with modern civilization. There were no roads, no electricity, no phones, no TVs, no
newspapers, and money was something almost useless, since deals were based on trading fish
for goods. I was there a few weeks ago, and things have changed a little bit—it is no
longer possible to barter a haddock or even a kipper for an icy cold beer and some may say
that civilization has arrived with a vengeance.

In 1984 the place was declared an "Environment Protection Area" by a federal
law which has presumably limited the towns development—I think it is only the third
place in the world where I couldn’t buy a McDonald’s. Although to some extent tourism has
reached the place, it still keeps the unhurried and peaceful way of life. Because of the
EPA law, it is forbidden to hunt, pollute, construct roads, and buildings are limited to
the village area (the EPA has 200 sq km, and the village is 1 sq km) which, for me, looks
like the type of place war-torn foreign correspondents either go for a vacation or to
learn their trade.

Building of more accommodation was forbidden in 1992, in order to limit the quantity of
tourists (but not, I am sad to say, the quality) in the place. The streets of the main
square are covered in blown sand; it would be a futile task to keep them otherwise. Each
day there is more sand than the night before. One day perhaps the sand will reclaim what
it’s rightfully its own and peace will once again return. It is unlikely that I will
return to see this, for aside from my restless nature the sand is much more patient that I
am. But eventually it will happen.

At 3 AM on a humid December evening we left the relative comforts of our normal tourist
bus in the small town of Jijoca de Jericoacoara, a small village which exists it seems to
sell tourists beers and hammocks—which no South American traveler should ever be
without. From here on no roads exist and only the skill of the local drivers can get you
to Jeri relatively unscathed. I mingled with the tourists and locals.

I was tired, disorientated and overwhelmed by the hawkers—small children peddling
cases of beer, the smells of twenty different food stalls, shouts of departing bus drivers
and the flicker of hurricane lamps. Once again my mind wandered to England so many miles
away and so foreign to me now. The movement, the people and the language warmed me and
gave me hope—it was good to be back on the road again.

From this point the trip became more interesting as we transferred to an ancient
pick-up truck, which my fantastic guide book to the area had warned me `will probably be
falling apart anyway’. The one I traveled in certainly was and was held together with the
requisite number of pictures of saints, bits of wire and a lot of luck. As we bounced
through the night, the dunes remained as enigmatic as the name Jericoacoara.

Although there are several versions for the origin of the name
"Jericoacoara", the most probable is that it is indigenous, from the
Tupi-Guarani language: yuruco (hole) cuara (turtle), meaning "hole of the
turtles", in a reference to the fact that Jericoacoara is a beach where sea turtles
come to make holes to lay their eggs. But some old fishermen do not agree with this
version taken out of history books. They say that the name has its origin in the small
hill beside the village (where the lighthouse is situated). The hill, when seen from high
seas, has the shape of a laying alligator, which in a local expression would be
"Jacarequara", and with time the name ended up changing to Jericoacoara.

It had been sometime since I was last clinging on to the back of a pick-up truck for
dear life (thankfully, like riding a bike, it is a skill you don’t easily forget), and by
the time our driver dropped us off outside our rented house, I was bruised, shaken and
totally exhilarated. The sun was just beginning to color the sky as we slung our hammocks
and went off along deserted sandy streets in search of a calming beer.

Although the beach is said to be one of the world’s best, many travelers first
impressions have been somewhat disappointing. Generally, there is a hard wind blowing and
you feel sandblasted with gray sand after only few minutes. To find a place in the sea
deep enough for swimming you could possibly walk miles, I gave up when I reached the
customs post in Gabon. So this is definitely not the place for hanging on the
beach—most people go there to soak up the hedonistic party atmosphere not admire the
stunning dunes. But after all, isn’t that what beach life is all about?

I asked a local fisherman what makes the place so special. He explained that
Jericoacoara has more than one reason to be considered a paradise. The place is a set of
several different sceneries, altogether in a very beautiful and harmonic combination. And
not only to be seen, but to be felt. The intense contact with nature, and the sensation of
freedom that the place transmits, where every place is so wide, and no kind of behavior is
restricted, will mark Jericoacoara forever in your memories. Another, more pragmatic
traveler told me that Jericoacoara is a resort where all the hardcore travelers come
through on one station of their trip. You come here to hang around in the bars, enjoying
the romantically lit night life (lack of electricity forces use of lanterns, candles),
listen to stories and contemplate what might have been…

However, as we climbed onto the roof of a beachfront bar to sip our early morning beer
and watch the fisherman pursue their age-old craft none of this mattered. I was with
friends. A year of traveling, work and regrets drifted away. As is normally the case talk
was inconsequential, just the fact of the sunrise, the beach and the sea breeze—that
was what really mattered—my friend even offered to pay for the beer—which was an
unexpected bonus. Just before we headed off for some sleep we climbed the 40m high dune
that stands impassively looking out to sea: "Duna do Pôr do Sol" (Sunset Dune).

In his seminal paper on sand formation, which I had unearthed by chance a few winters
ago in a cold London library the British explorer Ralph A. Bagnold wrote that standing on
such dunes `’instead of finding chaos, the observer never fails to be amazed at a
simplicity of form, an exactitude of repetition and geometric order unknown in nature on a
scale larger than that of crystalline structure. In places, vast accumulations of sand
weighing millions of tons move inexorably, in regular formations, over the surface of the
country, growing, retaining their shape, even breeding, in a manner which, by its
grotesque imitation of life, is vaguely disturbing to the imaginative mind". Bathed
in the early morning sun, and with heavy eyelids I simply wished for the oblivion of my
hammock. A pristine day was dawning and I was very tired.

On the eve of the last night of the millennium, a night where anything was possible, we
dug deep in our travel-tattered bags for our new white clothes, which we had bought
especially for the evening celebrations. I tried to get to the bottom of the symbolism of
wearing white, but even the most verbose of my friends just shrugged their shoulders,
passed me a beer and said, "This is Brazil—this is life".

On mass the entire population of town climbed to the top of the dune for midnight. We
aw6kxtled for a good position. I am not normally a great lover of crowds, but perhaps
because this was a special night, or more likely because this was Brazil I found the
atmosphere invigorating and charged with unpromised potential and passions.

Of course, no one had thought to bring a watch, so the coming of the millennium drifted
slowly over the dune. Champagne bottles popped everywhere, most of which seemed to end up
being sprayed over me (the local supermarkets had been selling a special bottle of
millennium wine especially for this purpose), the world’s largest private collection of
military ammunition was let off and the local town fired off a few dozen fireworks. We had
entered the new millennium. The guy standing next to me stripped off his T-shirt to reveal
a white vest. The message printed in crude characters was clear—Bad Luck,
Nostradamus!

I was just getting into the hand shaking and kissing routine, which greats every new
year (I especially enjoy the kissing bit), when I was grabbed by the hand and lead off to
the sea. With timing synchronized swimmers would be proud off the entire population jumped
backwards seven times into the luminescent surf. Along the length of the beach was a line
of slightly inebriated Brazilians, all dressed in white bouncing backwards into the sea.
Again the ritual mystery was lost on a confusion of thunder flashes, kisses, sprayed
champagne and drunkenness. I am not sure if I will live forever, never leave Brazil, have
seven children or have good health—no one seemed sure. Rather like England’s
performance in the World Cup, taking part seemed more important than understanding the
significance.

And then, just as the partying was heating up the lights went out. The whole village
was suddenly plunged into darkness. The only light came from the pale phosphorescence of
the sea and the twinkling stars. An eerie silence drifted over the place. For a precious
few moments we were left standing knee deep in the surf bathed in the light from the first
stars of the millennium. At last Jeri had fulfilled all its expectations.

The author is currently living in Fortaleza where he divides his time
between an academic career and traveling extensively. He has recently returned from an
18-month spell in Asia, which he described as `interesting’. He is indebted to GFMF for
continual friendship and trip planning skills above and beyond the call of duty. SdeB was,
as ever, instrumental in a successful trip. The author may be contacted via philip@dem.ufc.br and will personally reply to every
message.

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