Fear & Loathing in Fortaleza, Part 2

This article was inadvertently omitted when we changed website templates a few years ago. It belongs in the archived 2005 blog folder and should come after Fear & Loathing in Forgaleza Part 1. Until I sort out how to put it in its proper place, enjoy.


“A desert wind moans sadly. From somewhere within the wind comes the tinkly sound of tinsel.”
– Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Recap:
In last month’s issue of Escape Artist, I’d just joined four strangers in Fortaleza on a weekend expedition to explore the beaches of northeastern Brazil. Our ultimate destination was Jericoacoara. (a destination written about coincidentally in this month’s issue of Travel and Leisure Magazine 1/06). picture http://www.gonzo.org/books/fl/fl.asp?ID=1

Journey to NE Brazil’s Outback

“They had a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers….Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either, and two dozen amyls.” – Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Alas, all we had were 3 cartons of Marlboros, a dozen bottles of water, and a six pack of beer. Including me, there were 2 Americans, a Frenchman, a Brasilera, a Brit and a Russian.

While it is true that Fortaleza has one of the sunniest climates in the world with year-round temperatures in the low to mid 80’s, it was the relentless wind and the sight of so many aging white men wearing bermuda shorts, on the arms of young brown women in tight short skirts and stacked heels, that gave me an intuitive ‘thumbs down’ for Fortaleza.

But I wanted to see what were rumored to be miles of milk white dunes piled up against the shallow ceruleon waters of Northeast Brazil.

Fortaleza’s modern high rise buildings were quickly replaced, as we drove out of the city into Brazil’s rural northeast, by dusty 3-block towns, which we sped through, slowing down to circumvent the occasional mule in the road. Things got progressively drier and the wind blew over the sertao with a vengeance bending everything in its path. Objects manmade and natural stayed low to the ground as if to hang on to the soil for dear life. Wind blew leaves and trash through mostly empty streets, making them feel like an Old Western, its residents in hiding in expectation of a shoot-out.

There was sustenance farming all around with residents of Indian and Portuguese ancestry. Slavery didn’t make it this far north.

With Lisbon only a 6-hour plane ride from the eastern-most tip of Northern Brazil, it figures that the immigrant population is largely Portuguese. Portuguese have returned in recent years in droves to buy up the land and property in Northeast Brazil – so much so that the Brazilian legislature is considering whether or not to limit the amount of property foreigners can own.

Are We There Yet?

Half a dozen times our French navigator, Jean, pulled up to the side of the road to ask a boy kicking a ball or pulling a mule with a rope, “Aonde Jericoacoara?” Each time, said boy would point and off we’d go, frequently finding ourselves back at the exact same spot again. Ted would wave his arm out the window from where they followed, signaling to Jean to pull over to the side of the road. They’d get of the cars and hold a heated private conference and off we’d go again.

I switched cars at some point and sat in the back of Lana and Don’s rented pickup. We followed the red jeep off the road and began scaling the side of a white powder sand dune. We floated down its surface as if downhill skiing atop fresh powder. In the valley below lay a large lagoon.

Suddenly the jeep stopped, its front wheels sinking into the sand. It rocked back and forth spraying sand into the air from its rear tires, and settled deeper and deeper into the muck.

“Keep going! I’m scared Bob!” Tania screeched. Suddenly we too were buried up to our rims.

“I told you so!” Tania, the Russian in our group yelled. “Why didn’t you listen to me!”

Bob looked at her deadpan and said “Shut up.” Tania crossed her arms over her ample chest and slid down into the front seat glaring out the window.

We scampered out to survey our predicament. The wind roared in our ears and sent sand stinging into our skin.

“The tide is rising!” Ted shouted. “We have to get out of here!” So with no Triple AAA around, Ted, Yvonne, and Jean lit cigarettes and then took turns pushing and revving the engine. Me? I did what any self-respecting photographer would do. I took pictures.

They clawed at the sand beneath the tires with bare hands. They wedged palm fronds and sticks under the tires and whatever else they could find, which wasn’t much on this lunar landscape. The jeep sunk deeper.

The water was rising half a foot every few minutes.

Huck Finn to the Rescue

I looked up to see a log raft gliding towards us from the other shore with a gaggle of young boys aboard. They came onshore dragging two long wooden planks through the sand, and then wedged them under the tires. You could tell they’d done this before.

Everyone pushed from the front and then the back, getting splattered in the process with black wet sand. The boys repositioned the planks under the tires and everyone pushed again. This went on for some time and the water crept closer.

We were beginning to think about calling the rental company with the bad news that our rental cars were under water, when the jeep kicked up onto the boards and backed onto the surface of the sand. Everyone jumped up and down cheering. Then we began on the white pickup truck. More pushing and mud splattering and hollering and loud revving and sand spitting, until finally the white truck was free as well.

The boys took their boards and clambered aboard their raft, drifting swiftly to the opposite shore.

Back on solid ground, a pickup truck appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and out stepped a man who looked like a pirate. His gray-streaked black hair was gathered in a ponytail, his facial features carved into angles as if carved by the wind and sand, a hoop in one earlobe, and he wore billowy pants, no shirt, and no shoes.

“This is Julio, owner of the infamous El Pirata (Pirate) nightclub in Fortaleza,” Ted said. Jean told him how the boys had rescued us. Julio said he knew the children and their families.

The others said they needed a drink and so they stepped into a tavern. Julio offered to take me on a tour of the land. The others said, yes, go, we will wait.

We whipped up and over the dunes alongside the ocean, leaving clouds of powdery fine sand in the air. Julio said that this land, all of it as far as we could see, was his. “In a manner of speaking,” he added. He explained that he has purchased as much of it as he can with the proceeds from his nightclub, El Pirata. “What will you do with the land?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “I bought it so that no one can develop it. It is the only way to save the turtles, the animals, the plants native to the area, and the way of life for these people.”

Julio took me back to where the others waiting, and he sailed away over the waves of dunes.

We drove through several more small towns, on mile after mile of desolate road, and were never entirely sure we were headed in the right direction. Ted talked and talked about how he had plans to dredge a harbor for the big yachts on one of these shores.

I asked him, “Have you checked into the legality of this?” He indicated, that no, he had not, but that it wouldn’t be a problem. “I have connections,” he said. “You know, guys like Julio.” We stopped for lunch at a lagoon to eat and drink caipirinhas. Windsurfers flew across the tops of the white caps outside while we ate feijada, rice, and picanha.

My B.S. detector was on red alert. I asked Ted, a stocky man with a strong Brooklyn accent, who seemed to be more working class than investment banker, how he and Don, who they both said was a designer of yachts from London (who asked to see the wine list at every meal in this beer-only drinking country) met. “It’s not important how we met,” Ted said. “Well, it is part of the story,” I countered. Don said, “We met at a convention in California.”

Uh huh. Don might have been a designer of yachts, but Ted was no investment banker, and this yacht harbor? Right.

Oz

I was starting to think that we were just going to keep on driving forever and ever when Jean announced, “We’re here!” We roller-coastered up and down sand dunes and then idled at the top of the tallest one. There it was. The white dunes met a sea of green so vast and smooth that we couldn’t see where it ended and the sky began.

Nestled between the white dunes and the sea below, the beach town of Jericoacoara glinted in the sun. Now this was the Northeast Brazil of the tourist brochures! The land of the dunes, where the pull of the tide sucks the sand out to sea, only to be blown back into piles upon the shore by gale force winds, sculpting the sand into an ever-shifting lunar sandscape.

Jericoacoara is reputed to be an oasis of kite surfing, fresh lobster, and snow boarders who slalom down steep faces of what look like God-sized piles of salt.

Also called “Jeri”, the town is an oasis of car-free alleys and lanes of packed sand. Of cute boutiques where you take off your shoes when you enter because the floors are piled several inches deep in sand. But most importantly, it’s where hundreds arrive daily to partake in the sunset ritual atop the 100 foot high Dune of the Sun.

Once we had arrived, I quickly lost the others, grabbed my camera and joined dozens of strangers to shuffle zombie-like through deep sand up the steep side of the dune. We stood at the top in a direct line of vision with the horizon. The dune under our feet turned from beige to rose, to a deep mediterranean terra cotta.
The sun grew fat like a ripe pumpkin and sat, wavering on the edge of the sea.

A girl stood in front of me holding her sarong out at her sides, the wind whipping it in the air. A horse galloped below on the shoreline. The fishermen on the jigandas dropped their nets and stood to face the sun. A kite surfer glided past the glowing globe framing it briefly in a transparent sail. The wind stopped. Then reversed. Waves stood up as if confused. Then the shimmering now squished pumpkin rolled off the edge of the sea and disappeared.

We descended the dune together in silence as the sky turned indigo. The twang of a one-stringed berimbau sent out waves of its own. Jericoacoara lit up and twinkled below. Soft strains of Bossa nova filled the night.

My Fear and Loathing of Northeastern Brazil had gone down with the sun.

I thought about Ted and about Don and about the yacht harbor they dreamed of building. And I thought about their visions of yachts pulling into a harbor, of passengers stepping onto a pier at the foot of a resort that they themselves had created. Who knows? I thought. If they build it, maybe people will come. I hoped not.

I looked for my fellow merry pranksters and found them doing what they had done for most of the past two days – smoking cigarettes and getting smashed. Jean had disappeared and the women were planning what to wear to dinner that evening.

I told them that I was going to remain in Jeri for another day, another sunset. And that I would take the bus home.

I’d found my Field of Dreams. And I hoped that they’d find theirs, preferably somewhere else.

Epilogue: Back in Fortaleza three mornings later, Fortaleza’s bright white sunlight was softer, and I discovered a different Fortaleza than the one with which I’d become acquainted. The seawall was alive with bicyclists, joggers, chatters, walkers, and they were all ages. Mothers stretched their hamstrings before setting off on a brisk walk pushing strollers. Old men, and I’m talking 90’s here, jogged, lifted weights on the beach, and people everywhere chatted socially in small groups.

Fortaleza felt all warm, and fuzzy and family-like, as opposed to the hunter prey-like ambience I’d sensed here under the cover of darkness. The wind machines had not yet started up and a gentle sea lapped at a long crescent shoreline.

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