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Paradise Regained

Paradise
Regained

"Don’t go to Brazil," my parents had warned me. "Don’t
do anything," warned another cautious friend, ‘especially don’t go to the favelas.’
But I felt safer here than I often did on the mean streets of London, something I was
still chewing over a few weeks later when I lost my pager and wallet to a quick-fingered
pickpocket on the London underground.
By Philip Blazdell

I had always wanted to travel, to find that mythical sun-drenched land, far from the
mean streets of London, where exotic fruits hung from trees, where I would rub shoulders
with exotic people speaking exotic languages and where life moved to the beat of a
different rhythm. My romantically inclined, and almost always solitary wanderings, had
taken me on great circles around the globe. I had lived in Asia for some time, I had
wandered extensively in Africa and Europe, but these countries, however pleasing and
rewarding, were still far from my own images of Shangri-la. I stayed for some time, drank
beer in the sun and then moved on. It seemed that I was indeed searching for something
beyond reach.

I discovered my own personal Shangri-la purely by chance a few years ago. In a half
hearted attempt to get me to focus on the academic career which was threatening, my
professor—who had come to see me as an infrequent suntanned visitor to the
lab—arranged a short lecture tour of the northeast of Brazil for me. I think I knew
on my first night, as I strolled down the coastal road numb with jet lag, that I had found
somewhere I could be happy. It took me almost two years of what seemed like a lifetime in
Asia to get back, and somehow it feels like I never left.

My re-immersion in Brazilian culture began one bright autumn morning in Tokyo when I
took the early morning shuttle to Nagoya. A misunderstanding with my ticket had sent me on
the least direct route. From Nagoya I would take the red eye to São Paulo and then on to
Fortaleza—my final destination. Over the years I had flown many times out of Tokyo
and the flights were always the same, rows of conservatively dressed business men sat
silently whilst the odd harassed-looking women fretted over the latest fashion magazine.

Today however was different. There was almost a party atmosphere, people were laughing
and joking, stories were being swapped and the stewardesses were being flirted with. The
plane, much to the shock of the few tired looking businessmen, was almost entirely full of
Brazilians. The woman next to me seeing that I was busily studying Portuguese spoke slowly
to me asking my final destination. ‘Ahh,’ she replied wistfully when I told her Fortaleza,
‘very very beautiful.’

Arriving at São Paulo after a long flight is never the best introduction to Brazil,
and on this particular morning immigration and customs was packed. A harassed-looking
custom official took my passport and asked me my final destination. I told him. He let out
a long sigh and told me how luck I was. He made a tired gesture at the long queue snaking
behind me as if to say ‘life isn’t fair.’

Fortaleza is the capital of Ceará. Tucked away on the northeast coast of Brazil, it is
home to some two million inhabitants and outside of Brazil, virtually unknown. For the
majority of residents from Rio and São Paulo that I spoke with it is far enough away from
the big smokes of Rio and São Paulo to be exotic and exciting. This is to say nothing of
the large number of imported cars (30,000 BMWs alone—the highest number in Brazil ),
which cruise the sun-drenched streets and give the city an almost European feel.

My guide book painted a more romantic picture, one which perhaps I have nurtured in my
own mind over the last few years, of a long coastline of white sand beaches, of bars
nestling between wind sculptured dunes where you could buy anything from beer to lobster.
It warned me that the bars were ‘little more then rustic beach huts with jangada
sails as roof, but that the lack of electricity was not a problem as the beers were kept
cold in Styrofoam boxes.’ That didn’t seem too bad to me. Paradise indeed…

Today, like almost every other city in the world, after my last visit things have
changed. There are still rustic bars on deserted sandy beaches, places where you can kick
back and pretend that the bar man is actually ‘Man Friday’ and where you can throw your
hammock between two trees and watch the sun set over the peaceful Atlantic ocean whilst
sipping a cocktail, but there are also more modern bars. The old and the new, modern and
traditional coexist easily. Alongside the vibrant nightspots it is still possible to see
the beauty, which attracted Orson Welles to film scenes of his movie It’s all true on
the coast’s sun-drenched shores.

According to some local historians, Vicente Yáñez was supposed to have landed on
Praia Mucuripe on the 2nd February 1500, two months before Pedro Álvares Cabral—the
Portuguese explorer who is credited with the discovery of Brazil—arrived in Bahia.
Whoever landed first is a contentious issue, one which historians still debate. I imagine
them holding scholarly meetings on beachfront bars, sipping beers (nice work if you can
get it), but it wasn’t till about 1612 that the first colonists arrived.

It was for some time part of the Dutch empire that lost it in a bloody battle to the
local Indians, who in turn lost it to another marauding Dutchman, Matias Beck, in 1639. He
built the fort, Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, which was to give the town its
name (the original Dutch name was Schoonernborch—literally beautiful citadel). In
1654 the Portuguese arrived and captured the fort, colonization began in earnest. The
Portuguese left behind a legacy of crumbling colonial buildings many of which can be seen
about the city today.

I drove one morning shortly after I arrived, North to Cumbuco. I had vivid memories of
Cumbuco, ones that I was sure had been romanticized in my mind since I was last there. My
guidebook describes Cumbuco as ‘a long flat beach with summer houses, hotels bars and
restaurants.’ It adds almost apologetically that ‘it is not one of the most beautiful
beaches in Ceará.’ I remembered differently.

I had arrived, after a night of dancing and drinking, just before dawn. The town was
still sleeping and as the sun slowly began to crawl into the sky we climbed high into the
lonely dunes. The colors slowly began to change from dark velvet black of night to the
pinky yellow of dawn. The only sound was the click click of my camera and the distant sigh
of the sea. Stretching for what seemed like miles away below us was our solitary
footprints. Watching the sunrise in such a place was almost a spiritual
experience—one which I have carried with me ever since. For months afterwards I kept
a photo of the sun’s first rays glittering on the azure water of the Lagoa de Parnamirim
on my desk. No one ever quite believed that this was Brazil.

We walked down in the early light to the surf to watch the local fishermen pulling in
their exquisitely handmade wooden boats. We chatted for a while, about the day’s catch and
about the beach, but they were keen to return to the sea. I felt I had taken up too much
of their time anyway and helped push the boat into the surf. As the boat slipped away they
waved and laughed that it was a little strange to meet an English man so early in the day.
I crept back to my hotel; the churches were already filling up for the day’s first
service. Breakfast was being served, but before my head hit my pillow I was asleep,
dreaming of white sand beaches.

Two years later, Cumbuco was still as beautiful, the beach still made me hold my
breath—as if breathing would shatter the illusion of blue surf and white sand. But
progress was obvious. On the dunes the locals were practicing the national Cearense
pastime of ‘esquidunda.’ They assured me it was easy, simply climb to the top of the dunes
with a plank of wood and than slide down to the bottom—which should preferably end in
a lagoon. I believed them, but the lure of an ice-cold beer was too much and I retired to
a shady bar for a beer.

I would be wrong to paint a picture of idyllic beauty in Ceará and my Brazilian
friends, who have taken on the role of my mentors with unparallel zeal, would not be happy
for me to do this. They were from the beginning keen for me to see all aspects of the
city. It is with a mixture of sadness, frustration and desperation that they will tell you
that the Northeast has massive social problems (this is painfully apparent to anyone who
strolls round the city and is continually accosted by painfully poor children), poverty,
unemployment and housing shortages are rife.

The education system is decaying, some say beyond repair, and a significant percentage
of the population lack what most of us would consider basic sanitation. Health care is
woefully inadequate and begging, or child prostitution, is sometimes the only alternative.
And yet, the people remain spirited. These are not the dispassionately poor and broken
people I have seen in my travels to other countries. They may be poor, but the spirit that
is uniquely Brazil still throbs in their veins.

One afternoon we drove through the outskirts of town towards the favelas, which
cling to the hills surrounding the town. Our trip, on a beautiful afternoon, took us along
the main coastal road, past sun burnt tourists, past the busy craft market where you can
buy delicate lace articles for a good price and out of the city. We climbed into the hills
and the 5-star hotels, where we couldn’t even afford a beer, vanished and gave way to
poorer, more modest dwellings. The opulence of the high-rise developments gave way to a
more understandable, almost rural community.

We stopped at a small bar. Just a few tables on a dusty street corner. Soon we were
sipping cold beers. "Don’t go to Brazil," my parents had warned me. "Don’t
leave your hotel," warned another old South American hand. "Don’t do
anything," warned another cautious friend, "especially don’t go to the favelas."
But I felt safer here then I often did on the mean streets of London—something I was
still chewing over a few weeks later when I lost my pager and wallet to a quick-fingered
pickpocket on the London underground.

The local people had stopped their football game and were huddled round a book. They
were studying the latest textbook from the Universidade Aberta (Open University). Since
1972 the government has been trying to address the problem of poor educational standards
by using TV and radio. The programs, which are universally popular, concentrate on primary
and secondary levels of education. One especially successful course consists of 235 radio
and TV programs, which aim to qualify schoolteachers. The statistics are horrific, 40% of
adults have insufficient language skills to read a newspaper, only 2 out of every 10
children make it through elementary school whilst educational funding is continually cut,
but on this particular balmy night, in the poorer part of town I saw nothing but hope for
these children.

Of course, coming to Brazil for a short time and coming here to work for an extended
period is a totally different proposition. It is easy to romanticize and view a country’s
faults through rose-colored spectacles when you are only passing through; to live with
them on a day to day basis is more of a challenge. I am pleased to say that my memories of
Brazil have stood the test of time well, and aside from the odd ugly skyscraper, which has
appeared were I remembered a beautiful rustic bar, things are very much as I had left
them. I am very much looking forward to exploring further this fantastic country, to learn
the language and try to understand the life of people here on the edge of paradise.

Philip Blazdell grew up in West London and left initially for a position
in Japan. He is currently employed at the Federal University of Ceará where he is a
professor of environmental and ecological materials processing. He is a regular
contributor to several travel magazines. He plans to spend the next three years in Brazil.
He still travels extensively whenever possible and loves to receive feedback from other
travelers or readers. You can email him at philip@dem.ufc.br
 

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