Sweet Anachronism


When the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, they found
the native Indians using these flimsy crafts for fishing and transport. They made some
little changes to jangadas, but they have not been improved in any way since then.
These lovely ancient rafts are with their days numbered.
By Habeeb Salloum

Recife, Brazil’s top north-eastern resort, has much to offer a visitor.
Among its many attributes are a lush green countryside, endless sunshine, historic sites,
rich folklore, fun-filled nightlife and splendid beaches. However, above all, these
numerous endowments are enhanced by a unique allurement—sailing on jangadas,
crude sailing rafts traditionally used for fishing in the region. After reading about
them, I came to believe that to sail on these crafts, struggling against the wind and
waves, was one of the most fascinating adventures on the north-eastern coast of Brazil.

Leaving the biting cold of North America, we came one January day to
this appealing sun destination, especially tempting for vacationers from the north. A
temperature of near 30º C (86º F) and half a dozen musicians with their accompanying
folkloric dancers greeted us as we stepped off the plane. It was a superb beginning to our
sojourn in an exciting resort.

After settling in our comfortable hotel a few feet away from Boa
Viagem, Recife’s tourist beach par-excellence, we set about doing what seaside dwellers do
best—enjoying the sands and ocean under the hot sun. In the ensuing days we found
excellent eating places and took a number of excursions both inland and by boat. At night,
from the samba to the voodoo, we revelled in the thrill and passion of Brazilian folklore.

Yet, I was not fully content. I yearned to sail on the historic jangada—employed
for hundreds of years by fishermen along the coastline on north-eastern Brazil. When the
Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century, they found the native Indians using these
flimsy crafts for fishing and transport. At first sight, they reminded the newcomers of
similar sailing crafts they had seen a few years before in India, called janga—a
name which later evolved to jangada.

The Portuguese fitted them with mast and sail but, since that time,
they have not been improved in any way. An anachronism from the bygone centuries,
jangadas have managed to survive until our times. Yet, even though they are one of the
last sailing crafts still used, their days are numbered. There is little doubt that in a
few years they will completely disappear.

Until recent times, the jangadeiros—men who sail the jangadas—lived
in their own settlements along the coast. However, in the last few decades, the drastic
decline of their main trade—fishing—and the urbanization of the
countryside—Boa Viagem, itself, was once a site of a jangadeiro
village—has forced many of them to move away and seek other work.

When I found out that one of the tours to Porto de Galinhas, a very
charming beach town near Recife, included sailing on a jangada, I was delighted.
The next morning I joined a group of ten and we set out on a mini bus, elated at the
prospect of sailing on these rugged-romantic rafts.

Passing an industrial area, we drove through rolling hills dotted with
sugar plantations, leading to an impressive palm forest through which we made our way
until we reached Porto de Galinhas (Port of the Chickens)—80 km (50 miles) from the
heart of Recife. This small beach town got its name from the days of the slave trade. To
protect the smugglers who secretly brought in their human cargo after slavery was banned,
the people would say, `the chickens are coming in’.

When I first beheld this tiny town with its palm shaded sands, it was
like seeing a picture postcard. On the wide beach, there were dozens of jangadas edged
by calm-sparkling bluish-green waters. Beyond, an encircling reef held the ocean waves in
check and created a placid lake. It was a huge naturally-made swimming pool where hundreds
of bathers were romping in its tranquil waters.

The jangadas were all for hire. A jangadeiro offered to
take our group for a four-hour excursion at $3 a person. We gladly accepted, but first we
had to wait until he found help to push his craft off the log rollers on which it was
resting—a tiring task which has to be performed every time the jangada is
docked or is to be sailed.

Our jangada, as were all the others, resembled a craft hastily
put together by a castaway. All it basically consisted of was a raft, a sail and an oar.
Its construction appeared to be crude and simple—a method of building which has not
changed for centuries.

Traditionally, to build a jangada, five to eight 20 foot logs of
the piúba tree, whose wood is, in its soft texture, the same as that of the balsa,
are pinned together with strong rods of hard wood. The stem is then trimmed to give an
upturn and a mast is attached. Today, the piúba is becoming scarce and
expensive and the jangadas, like a number we saw on the beach, are built with
whatever wood can be found.

Only one sail held out by a notched boom that can swivel on the mast is
utilised. The jangadeiro controlling the sail and the rudder-oar usually stands on
the stern where there is a seat on which he at times sits. Also, included are uprights on
which men or fish baskets can be attached. Not a bolt or nail is utilised in its
construction. Every item used is hand made.

The moment it puts out to sea the craft becomes somewhat waterlogged
and seems on the verge of sinking. Nevertheless, it cannot sink unless it becomes
completely waterlogged—a process which takes about a year after which a new raft has
to be built from scratch.

Before the age of tourism, jangadas were employed chiefly for
fishing. Two or three men would sail about 20 miles onto the high seas, usually for a day,
but the odd time for up to four days. During this period, the only way the men could rest
was by tying themselves to the uprights and having a short nap. Today, this harsh life has
almost disappeared. The jangadas cannot compete with modern fishing ships and the
ones that survive are employed, almost exclusively, in the tourist trade.

These antique crafts are not rented by themselves since they cannot be
sailed by an inexperienced tourist. Appearing simple to operate when one sees others
sailing them, they are very dangerous to sail by the unskilled traveller. They often turn
over and should only be taken out to sea by expert navigators who also must be excellent
swimmers. Hence, for ones like myself who always dreamed of sailing on these boat-rafts,
it was a joy to find them being rented with their jangadeiros.

Across placid waters our jangada gently sailed until we docked near a
small pool carved out by nature in the middle of a reef. Here we spent an hour soaking in
the warm water of what must be one of the most tranquil, warm, clear and comfortable
bathers’ ponds to be found on earth. None of the countless resorts where I have spent my
vacations, can compare with this serene spot, created by the waves, apparently for human

With reluctance we left the enticing pool and returned to our craft.
However, sailing back and forth inside the reef in the peaceful and transparent bay put us
in another relaxing world. The ancient jangada steered by a weather-beaten jangadeiro,
skimping over the sparkling blue waters within sight of the shoreline’s swaying palms,
cried for an artist’s brush. It was an interlude of which sailing buffs dream.

As the tide began to creep in over the reef, our jangada was
back on log rollers atop the sands, which were being slowly covered by the incoming sea.
For me, it had been a gratifying day. The heavenly pool and sailing in comfort on the
legendary and primitive jangada in a world wrought with modern oceanic technologies
is something I will always remember.

Habeeb Salloum, who resides in Toronto, is a Canadian
author and freelance writer specializing in travel and the culinary arts. Besides books
and chapters in books, Habeeb has had hundreds of articles about food and travel
published. Among his most important works are the books: Journeys Back to Arab Spain (1994);
with J. Peters, From the Lands of Figs and Olives (1995 HB; 1997 PB); with J.
Peters, Arabic Contributions to the English Vocabulary (1996); and Classic
Vegetarian Cooking From the Middle East and North Africa, (in press). You can contact
him at salloum@chass.utoronto.ca


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