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Paradise Regained

Paradise Regained

A local from Lagoinha once described it to me as one of those places where you notice God is in every detail. I am not normally one for such high praise, but I do love this beach and feel half inclined to agree with him.

I think that I am the world’s greatest expert on meetings. Put me in a meeting in a strange country and nine times out of ten I can tell you where I am. For example, the Dutch will turn up as casually dressed as possible and then spend most of the time discussing the coffee; the Japanese will sit silently with their eyes closed and say nothing; the Chinese will spend most of their time clearing their throats, or if you are lucky enough to be in China, spitting into the ashtray, their pockets or the bin; the English will turn up punctually, nod meaningfully occasionally and then disappear off to the pub where the real work is done. The Danes, well to be honest the last time I went to a meeting in Denmark it was sponsored by a brewery and I remember little about the trip—except that perhaps it would not be a good idea for me to go back so soon.

The Brazilians have a totally different view of meetings. From my limited experience of dragging myself round a few dozen companies and trying to sort my own research group out it seems to involve everyone shouting at once, everyone making as many complex hand gestures as possible and no one really listening to what anyone else is saying. Of course in any other country this would drive me to distraction but for some reason I just find it amusing here. One minute you are discussing a complex purchasing agreement then the next all hell breaks loose as someone suggests that the latest twist in one of the many soaps is not quite what it seems. It can be both amusing and very tiring.

Well, at least this was my experience one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago. I knew things weren’t going well when my friend who had agreed to translate for me (regular readers will not be surprised by the necessity of this) began to argue with one of the students. When I asked him what they were shouting about, my translator told me they were arguing about a certain chemical reaction we had been thinking about. I reminded him that he was in fact an economist and knew nothing about chemistry. `Ah well, chemistry, economics it’s all much the same thing—I think he is wrong anyway’.

I gave up and made my excuses and left. The meeting had reached critical mass anyway, and would keep going for a good few more hours yet. I was still chuckling away to myself when I bumped into a colleague in the corridor. He laughed and told me to go home and pack —`life is more than work’ was his parting words. Early the next morning we were rolling out of Fortaleza on a nearly deserted road laughing still about the difficulty of working here.

I don’t think I will ever tire of this city however much it frustrates and antagonises me. Just a few kilometres outside of Fortaleza and we were already rolling through dense thick countryside. The sun was just beginning to burn of the night’s rain and a thin mist was rising over the flooded fields. For someone who has wasted far too much time watching films, it was, and will always be to me, pure Jurassic park country. I half expected a rouge tyrannosaurus or velociraptor to spring out and devour us, but we rolled on uninterrupted.

The quite morning and the gentle throb of the tires on the perfect road gave me time for reflection. I made a mental list of what I love most about Brazil. Top of my list was the way the people, in particular my harassed travel agent, stretch `pode’ (meaning `yes, you may’) into infinity. I just love the way that after every impossible request: `Dona Luciana, I just have to go to Malawi next week via Amsterdam. Can I get a cheap deal on the Tuesday flight’, the person concerned will give you a long warm look like you have just asked something really obvious (will the sun shine today?) and say `pode’ making the last syllables stretch sometime into next week.

It sounds so warm and inviting—like most of the things the Brazilians do and say. If you listen carefully you will notice the Brazilians slipping the odd extra syllables into any number of words. Its like the way Brazilians pronounce my name with a couple of extra “e” sounds on the end, turning plain boring Philip into Philipeee, which I am convinced makes me sound a lot more dashing, VASP (Brazilian airlines) becomes Vaspeee and TAP (Portuguese Airlines) becomes Tapeee.

I now find myself flying only on these airlines, not because they are the cheapest, but because I love to hear the stewardess announce “Welcome to tapeeee”. I also love the way any strange or exotic words (such as foreign names) are instantly Brazilianised. For example, the way the guards on my building ask me each day if I have had any news from Dona Sasha (my girlfriend). Her name isn’t actually Sasha, its nothing like it, but she feels deeply honoured to be given a name of a revered local saint.

Next on my list was the Brazilian hand signals which can run from the simple snapping of fingers to emphasise a point, express concern, suggest a coffee break, etc, to the complex motion of snapping your index and second finger together whilst flicking your wrist onto your forearm. I challenge any non-native to master this! Some days when I am feeling particularly bored I wonder round my department and see how many times I can get a Brazilian to do this. “Did you see the second goal last night”. Snap, snap. “Shall we go to the beach now”. Snap, snap and so on. For me it’s sheer poetry.

We stopped at a small roadside stand to buy some sirequelias. A small orange fruit whose taste is quite difficult to pin down but to which I am truly addicted. It is always a constant source of amusement for me that every time I buy a fruit, the nearest Brazilian pipes up that all the best fruit is instantly exported to Europe, and that if I want to eat the best fruit I should go there. Of course, like many things, there is a grain of truth in this, but for sheer variety nowhere can hold a candle to Brazil.

Next on my list has to be the food. Of course you can eat excellent meat here, wonderful lobster and crab and if I don’t get my daily fix of rice and beans there is trouble, but increasingly I find myself skipping the main course and heading straight for the deserts. Ice creams, yes, please, I will have two, pudim (a typical desert)— oh, a small one perhaps, more cakes with cream—well o.k. Everything seems to be much, much sweeter than in Europe, and in all honesty, I love it. But of course, as everyone knows it’s not terribly good for your health to eat so many sweet things, so what do the Brazilians do (and this you must agree is simply brilliant), they take the sweetest possible food and eat it with cheese. Brilliant! Pudim and cheese, dolce and cheese, even ice cream and cheese. Fantastic!!.

Lagoinha

Thinking about food had made me hungry and I was pleased to see a sign telling me we were only a few miles from Lagoinha. Oblivious to the quiet streets and the beautiful, if decaying, churches which were dotted about the village through which were passing, I was thinking only about my stomach now.

Praia da Lagoinha is 124 km from Fortaleza, which is about 2 hours drive, or 2-3 hours by bus. It is a truly fantastic beach. A local once described to me as one of those places where you notice God is in every detail. I am not normally one for such high praise (unless it’s for deserts, which is entirely different in my book), but I do love this beach and feel half inclined to agree with him. The last time when I was there the place was almost deserted, the 15-km-long beach, which isn’t always the white sand of my innocent childhood dreams, was totally free from the hordes of tourists, which had descended on the beaches in the centre of Fortaleza.

I can still remember my first view of the beach a long time ago. We had driven in and parked high on the single approach road. The beach was spread below me bathed in the early morning light. It’s one of those occasions when the sheer beauty of a place makes you almost cry. My first view on that calm morning was of the half moon shaped beach tucked snugly between two coconut covered sand dunes and a few local boats slowly working their way through the surf bringing home the day’s catch of lobster. Tranquillity personified.

As we drove down to the pousada I carried on with my list. This time I turned my attention to things I don’t like about Brazil. For example, why is it that all Brazilian coins look the same? I can’t easily distinguish between 1 R$, 10 centavos or 50 centavos. The notes are easy, but I am told they will be changed to plastic soon, which I am sure will lead to complete and utter confusion. I wish I had a real for each time I have counted my money out carefully in the supermarket only to reach the checkout and find that I have in fact 50 centavos, and not the 5 R$ I thought I had. I imagine for blind or partially sited people the situation must be even more difficult.

Choosing a good place for breakfast wasn’t easy, each of the small beach sidebars looked idyllic. Simple rustic furniture, sunshades made from palm leaves and the smell of freshly cooking fish. We chose Martha’s Bar mainly because Martha dragged me in by my arm and also because a wizened fisherman was busy sorting the day’s catch out and the lobsters looked fantastic (I added lobsters onto my ever increasing list of things I loved about Brazil). Our breakfast of 6 fresh lobsters, 2 icy cold bottles of beer and a grilled fish came to the princely sum of about 6 dollars! The beautiful views, the sound of the sea and the early morning sun glinting on the reef were all free—though I am sure it is only a matter of time before Martha works out a way of charging me for them.

After a long moment of contemplation I slowly drifted back to reality. `So, what do you want to do’, asked my genial host. My girlfriend and I exchanged worried looks; she perhaps phrased best what we were both thinking `you mean we have to do something?’ I went for a swim—it seemed like a good concession.

During the 1970s only a few locals knew the place and the only tourists that went there were either lost or on their way to somewhere else. Local legend says that in the late 1980s a French man reached the place searching for a place to spend his vacation. Milton, a local fisherman, did not understand this wild Frenchman’s intention, but decided to rent him one room anyway. The next year the French man returned with a friend and over the next few years the group got bigger and bigger until Milton was forced to give up fishing and move into the hotel business instead.

However, the development was limited and today there is really only one hotel on the beachfront. The hotel is beautiful, lovely cool rooms, a fine swimming pool and it is cheap (about $20 for a room per night). I threw my hammock out on the veranda and stretched out. After the last of the day-trippers had retreated for the more cosmopolitan and larger cities which dot the coast, I was left alone with the sound of the surf.

I laid in my hammock for a while listening to the sound of the sea, the incessant pounding of the waves lulled me into a deep sleep and I awoke much later—deeply content. I bought a postcard from the pretty girl in the small gift shop and went and sat in the bar in contemplation. I wrote a friend’s address, that was easy, but no other words would come. I looked at the view, the card and my cold beer. It seemed to scribble a few words on a card would never capture this place or the feelings it inspired in me. How could I ever capture the feel of the sea breeze on my sun burnt skin, the way the colours drained out the sky as the sun set, or the shanties that the fishermen sung today, tomorrow and fifty years ago, as they pulled in the days catch of lobster. In the end I mailed the card blank. I am sure my friend will understand.

The author is currently living in the northeast of Brazil. He is a regular contributor to Brazzil and several travel magazines. Apart from a dying urge to visit, and write a serious article on Angola, his other greatest ambition is to feature in a book by Paul Theroux and a song by Alannis Morisette—or is it the other way around? He looks forward to the many e-mails from readers of Brazzil (philip@dem.ufc.br) and will reply to each one he receives.

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