Looking for Brazil’s Moon Under Water

Moon sur and sous merIn 1946 George Orwell wrote an article in which he described his favorite pub which was called The Moon Under Water. After outlining all the features that made it perfect (including, believe it or not, that it sold loose tobacco as well as cigarettes) he ended by revealing that it did not actually exist as it was too perfect.

Well, smoky English pubs are not my scene but finding an idyllic hidey hole by the sea has been a dream since I first visited Brazil more than 20 years ago. About two years ago I finally found a place which matches a lot of my desires and I have just booked my fourth stay there for the upcoming holidays.

The place is not in some distant, isolated spot but only about 100 miles from São Paulo and is fairly well known. It is next to a small town which is barely touched by commercialism. My fear is that this will change and it will become more popular, condominiums will start being built, fancy restaurants and nightclubs will spring up, and the whole relaxed atmosphere will disappear. It will become like Ubatuba or Boiçucanga, admittedly great places but too much like São Paulo sur mer for my liking.

Like these two places, “my” beach is also on the northern coast somewhere between Santos and Rio de Janeiro. The main road bypasses it, thanks to some mangrove swamps, and the beach itself is basically a crescent-shaped cove about a half a mile long bordered on one side by the mouth of a small river backed by a steep hill and on the other side by a rocky crag.

Looking inland you see the dense Atlantic rainforest rising up into the Serra do Mar mountains which are often shrouded in an ethereal mist as if to remind you that you are in the middle of the steamy tropics. Some scattered islands a mile or so offshore complete the idyllic location and view.

It is a typical Brazilian beach in miniature, marked by the habits and schedules which define beach life here. The kids paddle on one stretch while the surfers have their favorite spot where they can flirt with the girls, the footballers appear at the same time every afternoon to play on “their” stretch and people are always strolling along the water, the joggers early in the morning and the young lovers in the evening.

There are a couple of stalls you can get a caipirinha and plate of shrimps. It is spoiled to an extent by hustlers trying to sell you things you don’t want and by the noise of water skiers and motorboats but overall these are a minor inconvenience. Another big plus is that the place is safe. Outside the tourist season, it is empty and even when it gets busy there is usually enough space to stretch out far from others or hop over to one of the islands.

The mangrove swamps restrict building and there are only a couple of houses with direct access to the beach. There are some older buildings on the hills, one of which is a bar which provides a pleasant resting spot after climbing the crag and scrambling around on the huge basalt rocks marking the natural frontier with the neighboring beach.

This geographical location gives you the feeling that you are completely cut off even though the main road is only a few hundred yards away. In fact, the beaches on either side run alongside the road for miles and miles. This means that if you feel like a change you just need to cross over and will find yourself back in “civilization”.

The town consists of older houses where the local people, known as caiçaras, live in and more recently built weekend getaways belonging to Paulistanos. The locals are the descendants of the mixture of Indians, Africans and Portuguese who lived here for hundreds of years before the racial mixture of São Paulo was transformed by the arrival of millions of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Japan about a century ago.

You occasionally even see full-blooded Indians, a very rare sight indeed in the city of São Paulo.  The locals are small subsistence farmers, fishermen, laborers and many now make their living from the tourist trade. Some of their homes are little more than shacks and, despite the holiday atmosphere, there is still quite a lot of poverty.

There are a couple of good pousadas and houses with rooms to let but no hotels. There is no supermarket or bank, not even an ATM, and only a few shops and restaurants. The eating places serve up simple fish dishes, rice, potatoes, beans and salads. There is also a pizzeria and ice cream parlor and a couple of small bars used by the locals.

Oddly enough, there is no Catholic church but there is a small evangelical church which highlights how these Protestant groups are making inroads into the Catholic Church’s traditional strongholds.

That’s about it in a nutshell. If you live in São Paulo and are familiar with the area you may even know the place. I have tried not to exaggerate the attraction of the place and realize that this is not everyone’s idea of a beach retreat. For some, it would still be too built-up and touristy while for others it would be too quiet.

However, it is perfect for someone who needs to be close to the city and it is less than 30 minutes from the more sophisticated resorts. For this reason, the price of houses and land are high. I was told that a modest house in a prime location was sold recently for about 3 million Brazilian reais (US$ 1.3 million). At first I was skeptical but later when I started checking out prices for myself I changed my mind.

I have visited beaches all over Brazil in these two decades and have had mixed experiences. However, in closing, I would like to share two special memories from opposite perspectives.

Once I visited a place where an acquaintance was building a house. It was in an isolated spot on the border of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states near Angra dos Reis which could only be accessed by boat and we had to wade out to sea, balancing supplies on our heads. A local woman cooked the main meal for a group of us one hot night between Christmas and New Year – rice and fish, washed down by bottles of beer.

We slept – or tried to sleep – on the ground listening to the surf and covering our heads with blankets to keep the mosquitoes out. I hated every minute at the time but in retrospect, it has become a favorite memory.

Another time I stayed in a small resort about 20 miles north of Salvador in Bahia in the home of a kindly Brazilian doctor who loaned me his place for a week. One beautiful night I walked through the palms to the strand and there I really did see the moon under water as the sea reflected a great silver orb high in the heavens shining out of a cloudless sky down on Brazil, bestowing God’s blessing on this wonderful land.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.You can read more by him at his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2008

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