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Prohibition Town Blues

Prohibition Town Blues

As we roll towards the coast it seems that Natal
has been built solely from the outskirts of other towns,
it is the ultimate suburban nightmare…. The walk to the fort
takes us through deserted streets devoid of all signs of life.
We are getting used to the isolation now.
By Philip Blazdell

We meet the Rio Grande do Norte’s woman’s volleyball team at Fortaleza bus station.
They are quite rude about my book and my bright yellow rucksack until they realize that I
speak Portuguese. Then they are full of questions about us—where are we going, where
have we been, what do we think of Brazil. We sit under the harsh glare of the bus station
lights, tired and a little drunk clutching a bag of cake. The volleyball team is all high
spirits and tans after winning some tournament.

We have the back seat on the bus. It is hot and claustrophobic. The guy in front of me
pushes his seat right back pinning me in my seat—I stick my knee in his back and he
begins to snore soundly. I eat some cake and try to move my legs a little whilst Saskia
goes to sleep with the water bottle hidden somewhere on her person. The volleyball team is
sitting at the front of the bus sipping cold cokes.

I shove my knee harder into the seat in front of me and the guy begins to snore louder.
I begin to sweat, it seems that there is no air conditioning. The sweat pours off me. I
take my shirt off, the material of the seat covers makes my skin itch. I feel
claustrophobic.

Sometime before sunrise, when the sky is still inky black the guy in front of me gets
off the bus, I put his seat into the upright position, wiggle my legs to restore the
circulation and try to get some sleep. The guy in the seat opposite me begins to eat
potato chips with a loud sucking sound like a baby chewing on a teat. I find a bottle of
warm water and pour some over myself, it brings no release. We arrive at Natal. The sky is
pink with the first rays of the day.

I stagger into the early morning light muttering profanities. The volleyball team, all
tanned legs and crease-free faces, are jabbering away to Saskia about hotels and
restaurants. I hate them for their good looks and chirpiness—especially so early in
the day. They put us on a bus going downtown. People are just going to work; slowly the
town is waking up. I close my eyes and wish that I were anywhere else. Saskia somehow
navigates us to our hotel, it is 7.30 am on a Friday morning. The sun, when I have my eyes
open, is clear and bright—I hate that too. The streets are empty and there isn’t even
an empty beer can to kick around. Nothing, except us moves on the street; even the busses
seem to creep by.

The owner of our hotel is all smiles and pleasantries. I dig deep inside myself and
rummage around my subconscious for some Portuguese, surprisingly it comes. Saskia looks at
me astonished. The owner, who is all pre-Raphaelite curls and smiles, tells us that, smile
smile, our room, smile smile, is not ready yet, but, smile smile, if we are tired we can
crash in another room for a few hours, smile smile. I want to kiss her but she insists we
have breakfast first.

Strong coffee, fruit juice, cake and some sweaty cheese on freshly baked bread—I
begin to feel a little human again. I crawl to our room, and pour myself into the shower,
which is a simple tap with some frightening looking wiring attached. I try to ignore the
fact I am probably about to be electrocuted and scrub the dirt from my skin. I fall, quite
literarily into bed. Two kids outside are singing loudly, it’s a horrible racket—far
too animated for 8 am on a Friday morning.

By noon we are awake and heading back to the streets, I still have a stale taste in my
mouth and a headache. The owner of the hotel, smile smile, gives us a new room, smile
smile, and a list of things to do in Natal. She tells us that Praia do Forte is dangerous
and we should avoid it. We thank her and head to Lojas Americanas to buy some film for the
camera. It is several years out of date. It is the most modern thing in the shop. We take
a bus and after a few minutes find ourselves at Praia do Forte. This always happens to us.

The favelas slope down to the sea. Nothing moves except us. The wind blows the
sand into drifts on the pavement, the bus driver stands next to his bus perspiring
heavily, even the sea seems sedated as it makes a half-hearted attempt at some white
horses. We walk with our faces in the sun, deserted beach to our left, favelas to
our right. We walk. We stop to take some pictures, an old man sits in a tiled beach front
bar nursing a beer. The bar is all cracked white tiles and greasy angular surfaces—it
looks like it belongs in a Victorian hospital. The old man’s eyes follow us as we stride
along the beach front, not a soul apart from us is moving.

After 4 km we are at Praia dos Artistas. The guidebook describes it as an interesting
place. There is nothing there, everything is boarded up and faded. It is like a Bank
Holiday in the UK. A mournful waiter tries to tempt us to some overpriced lobster, he
doesn’t sound very convincing and knows it. Once we stride past he turns his stare to the
sea, which seems faultlessly welded to the sky.

We walk more in the blazing sun. There is nothing moving on the coast road except us.
The endless white sand deserted beaches begin to burn my eyes whilst the sun burns my
face. We walk another 5 km, my thighs chap. They begin to bleed. The sky is liquid mercury
and the blacktop of the highway stretches beyond the horizon. We could be on a road to
anywhere. Tranquility lays like a blanket over us.

We reach a gas station that sells cold drinks. We buy three bottles of fruit cocktail
and the round-faced cashier follows us to the door. She stands blinking in the sunlight
stretching her limbs like she has just woken from a long coma—I expect to see cobwebs
in her hair—she looks as surprised as us to find herself in a gas station miles from
anywhere.

We walk, mile after mile of deserted beaches. We talk about how clean Natal is compared
to Fortaleza. We discuss the lack of graffiti and how few churches there are in Natal.
More kilometers pass. We decide that logically speaking it must therefore be the religious
people of Fortaleza who are responsible for all the graffiti. This makes sense to us on
the deserted road. I try to sing some Evita—the notes hang dead in the air.

We talk about Bruce Chatwin, who once said that if man walks far enough he doesn’t need
a God. We wonder if this was a typo and what he actually said was that if man walks far
enough he doesn’t need a dog. This seems more logical as we bake under the
afternoon’s sun.

I start to fantasize about a brewery. A few kilometers later one appears. I am, at
first, skeptical, I kick it, I prod it and walk round it examining every brick. I convince
myself that it is indeed real. Typically, it’s closed.

We stand on the side of the road gently burning, a taxi cruises us three or four times.
We pretend to be interested in the wire fence behind us. Another taxi pulls up, it’s
battered and dented and looks like it might fall apart at any second.

‘Were are you going?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘Let me take you there, only 2 reais (one dollar) per person.’

How could we refuse such charm?

Cláudio is a man of passion and integrity. He wants compulsory English lessons for all
taxi drivers though he himself speaks not a word, he wants all tourist taxis to be
registered and the quality of service to be monitored; his car is held together by bits of
string and chewing gum.

He drops us at a bar in Porto Negre. It’s a sad little beach town, no more than a strip
of sunshades on the beach, some places to eat and some pousadas. A 50-meter high
sand dune, fenced off less anyone should try to have some fun and climb it, looms over the
far end of town. It feels like a border town. Claudio arranges to pick us up in ninety
minutes, which is about the time we think we can have fun here.

We sit in a bar, cold beer, crunchy prawn soup. The androgynous owner holds court with
an accordion in the far corner. Beer never tasted so good. Claudio arrives early for us,
but tells us to take our time, like everyone we meet here he is good natured, friendly and
in no hurry.

We arrive back at the brewery. It looks like the Lass In Manchester, all gleaming
copper pipes and stainless steel vats. At 5 pm on a Friday night it’s empty and we are the
only customers. The staff fights to serve us, turns on some music and brings us a menu.
They look happy to have something to do and bring us two special beers. After several
hours a red-faced man with a cellular phone glued to his ear wanders in. He sits and plays
with his beer. It is obvious that he hasn’t got anywhere better to be.

We hitch back to the center of Natal. It is totally deserted, nothing is open. A group
of skate boarders rush out of the night and shoot down a side alley. When they are gone
the city breathes a sigh of relief. It reminds me of all the reasons I left small town
England behind and why I can never go back.

Our hotel has a restaurant, the room is dark with heavy stained wood, badly hung prints
of French scenes and some atrocious tapestries. In a side room is a noisy card school
where a group of purple-rinsed pensioners are sitting over a poker game and flicking ash
over the green baize.

The waiter, who looks terribly ill, brings us over a menu. We order soup and salad, not
because we are hungry, just because it is too early to sleep. There is no soup; there is
not salad, the waiter thinks that perhaps he might be able to find us some bread left over
from breakfast. We leave him to his illness and return once more to the streets. The
streets are as the grave and we return defeated to our room.

The beds are hard and the sheets remind me of an institution. I am kept awake all night
by a slow tapping sound. I wonder if the guy next door is indulging in a little late night
self crucifixion to pass the time amongst the religious tapestries.

The next day I wake up covered in mosquito bites, Saskia is looking radiant and ready
to hit the streets again. She has memorized the guidebook and we are soon on the winding
coast road to Porto Negre. This time we take a bus instead of inflicting further damage on
our feet. As we roll towards the coast it seems that Natal has been built solely from the
outskirts of other towns, it is the ultimate suburban nightmare. A fat woman falls onto my
lap as we take a corner at speed, we pass some shopping centers, some dusty football
pitches—urban sprawl under an unforgiving sky. The guidebooks tout Natal as one of
the beach capitals of the Northeast.

After an hour we arrive at a small square in the middle of nowhere. The bus terminates
here. There is a long low white building, which may or may not be a church, and some
crinkle faced toothless women are milling around purposefully. We ask the conductor how to
get to Pirangi and he speaks in a low whisper. It is like he is imparting terrible
religious truths to us or perhaps he is ashamed to admit that this scrub of land actually
has a name. He organizes us a free ride (something which happened time and time again in
Natal) for us with a passing bus, which twists and turns down narrow cobbled streets. I
tell Saskia it reminds me of Sicily and she reminds me that I wasn’t there with her. The
bus drops us, mysteriously; at a furniture stall set out on the side of the road and
within a few minutes a little white bus.

The ride to Pirangi is sheer poetry. Off the main highway we bump along dusty roads,
mud and red brick houses cuddle close to the road and we continually stop to let weary
donkeys, loaded with sacks of corn, pass. In one town there is a market and as the bus
arrives it blows up clouds of dust. The stallholders must spend hours each day wiping the
dust from their fruit. Each stall has bananas, pineapples and some graviolas. Hung
on hooks as they are they look like a sculpture in fruit of the Brazilian flag.

When we arrive at Pirangi we walk around the world’s largest caju tree. It has a
circumference of some 500 m and is still growing. I ask the bored looking guide, who has
attached himself to us, if he thinks that the tree is just trying to go somewhere a little
more lively. He is most definitely not impressed.

Once our pilgrimage is over we sit in a bar and watch a tourist boat bob along the
coast. The waiter tries to sell us a trip but when we ask him if it is a worthwhile trip
he looks hesitant and tells us that the special of the day is lobster, and that is
definitely very good.

Later that night we are back in our hotel. I am enthusing about caju trees and
the bus trip; Saskia is reading the guidebook. She is reading aloud about Praia dos
Artistas and its ‘vibrant nightlife’. She tells me that, according to the guidebook, it
can get a little sleazy at night. She doesn’t know this word and after I explain it she
declares that we are going to go downtown and watch the action unfold.

The strip is coming alive a little and a small market is beginning to set itself up, a
few restaurants have waiters out on the street trying to entice customers in. They all
look like they have just found out that their wife’s have just left them and taken
the fridge full of beer as well. One in particular looks like someone has just shot his
dog. Business, they assure me, is not good, and they spend the night making lewd comments
to any girls unfortunate to fall into their sphere of existence.

The craft market is a little better and is a jumble of 70 stalls and shops selling
touristy things—like hammocks, ceramic caju (of which I buy a significant
number), roasted caju nuts and cheap T-shirts. Again business is not good and the
owner of one cashew nut stall chases us around with a kilo bag of nuts pleading with us to
try them. People seem both genuinely surprised and happy when we buy things. They don’t,
however, bargain.

We stop at a juice stand whose sign proclaims 50 different juices. I am keen to try fig
juice as I am a new convert to the fruit and want now to experience it in all forms.
Saskia orders some exotic fruit neither of us has heard of. Unfortunately, none of these
are available and the owner looks surprised we even imagined they would be. What he does
eventually serve us with are sublime and we sit happily on the seat front waiting for some
sleaze to happen. Saskia is happy that she has learnt a new word.

We walk back to the pizza restaurant and browse the menu. I order a beer, being English
it is a cultural reflex and I can no more sit in a bar on the beach eating pizza without
beer than I can fly, the waitress chews her lip and looks at me with dark eyes. I repeat
my order thinking that she hasn’t understood.

I take one long swallow of beer and suddenly police surrounds us. Two police beach
buggies skid to a halt and two fresh faced recruits come running over. They have their
hands on their hip holsters. The waitress rushes over to intercept them before they reach
our table and a frantic conversation takes places. The older officer is pointing a short
stubby finger at us and the two young recruits look ready for trouble. Saskia leans across
the table and asks me accusingly if I have been here before. She knows that I am no
stranger to this kind of thing. After some tense moments the police leave, but not before
throwing us a few more hard looks.

The waitress rushes over and whips my beer from the table. She is all blushes and
apologies. She tells us that tomorrow the state elections will take place and that Brazil,
from 6 pm onwards, must be dry. She looks at her watch, it is 6.01 pm. She is sorry but
there is nothing she can do and so instead she serves us with a prince amongst pizzas. As
we wander back to the hotel we see the bars full of men looking wistfully at coconuts and
bottles of coke. They seem strangely lost without beer. We walked home whistling the
prohibition town blues.

The next day we walk to the Dutch fort. Saskia is insistent that no matter where we are
in the world we track down her heritage. Even for a Sunday the beaches are deserted and
hardly anyone moves. The walk to the fort takes us through deserted streets devoid of all
signs of life. We are getting used to the isolation now.

The fort, which juts impressively into the bay, is closed. I amuse myself climbing the
walls whilst Saskia sits in the sun and looks on impassively. We decide to take a bus to
the far end of the coast—just to see what’s there. We take a bus to the edge of town
and sit down by the side of the road to wait for the coastal bus. There is a small bar
there, which is not serving beer. The owner watches the Olympics on a flickering TV and
looks lost.

We wait under a sky that is the color of cobalt. An old man, with rheumy eyes joins us.
He sits calmly under the baking sky. Time passes. I swap places with Saskia to tan my
other leg. The old man sighs. Nothing moves on the road. The bar owner makes himself a
sandwich and squeezes thick yellow mustard over it. He returns to the shade to watch the
sport. Time passes. The old man closes his eyes, I wonder in all honesty if he has come
here to die. The sun has moved a few more degrees across the sky. My feet are beginning to
look tanned. Time passes. The old man speaks to us in a slow resigned voice. He seems to
have no destination and is in no hurry to get there. Like us he is content to sit under a
scorching sky and chew the fat. We talk politics, sport and religion and still nothing
moves on the road. The northeast beach capital is shyer then I imagined. Saskia scans the
heat haze for any signs of sleaze occurring on this blistering election day. After we have
been under the cruel sun for three hours we resign ourselves to the fact that the bus is
never going to arrive and head off in search of a restaurant.

At the beach all the restaurants are closed and at the only one open we wait a lifetime
for some mineral water. It tastes like vintage champagne when it arrives. The pizza is
also stunning. Back at the hotel, which is now closed and boarded up, we wake the owner up
to claim our bags. She insists on us having a shower and unlocks one of the many empty
rooms. Time seems to have stopped for her and the courtyard is littered with breakfast
trays, newspapers and children’s toys. When we come to leave she seems sad and presses
presents into out hands. ‘Come back one day,’ she tells us, ‘come back when there are more
people here and the place is more alive’. As we walk out onto the street we think perhaps
we will, but realistically we know that there are many more places we want to see more.

A bus trails us along the dark empty streets. The driver offers us a free ride to the
bus station and puts us down outside the concrete terminal. It is this last unsolicited
act of kindness that may one day bring me back to Natal, the Northeast’s beach capital.

The author is a regular contributor to numerous travel magazines. He has
traveled widely in Brazil and can often be found trying to go from A to B in the most
difficult manner imaginable whilst using someone else’s money. His only regret is that the
coach companies don’t offer frequent flyer miles. Articles by the author ranging from
Tibet to China to Africa can be found at www.bootsnall.com. He can be contacted at philip@dem.ufc.br, and promises, if he is not
away falling of the edge of the map somewhere, to write back.

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