Week 1. Sit, soak, sip.
I hope you’ve enjoyed watching the video of Natal’s most popular beach, Ponta Negra. The glassy look of the sand is due to the retiring tide. When the tide is high, that vast expanse of sand becomes the domain of the Atlantic ocean. Because of this, it is best to consult a tidal calendar before setting off to the beach. And yes, the sand stretches as far as the eye can see, simply kilometre after kilometre of it.
The sandy slope towards the end of the video is known as Morro do Careca, probably the most photographed nature spot of the city. What captures the photographers’ clicks is the striking nakedness of a sand slope cutting through the Atlantic forest and sliding down to the beach. The literal translation of Morro do Careca is “sand dune of baldness” – rather appropriate, wouldn’t you say? That day we didn’t go there to swim but simply to sit down, soak in the atmosphere, sip fresh coconut juice straight out of its fibrous packaging and recover from the 36 hours it took to bridge the ocean separating Xemxija Bay from Natal. At only 75 cents per coconut (3 Reais in Brazilian currency), that’s very good value for money bearing in mind the location where the content of that juicy nut is being imbibed. Incidentally, this was also the first beach we came to the first time I visited Natal.
Week 2. Revisiting Baia Formosa.
Our first few days away from Natal could only be spent in one place – Baia Formosa. It’s a very special place for the magrelinha and myself because this is where, in January of 2014, we put into words the thoughts that had been percolating through our minds. Standing on a belvedere, gazing at the melding line of the vastness of the Atlantic ocean and the immensity of a Brazilian sky, we acknowledged the desire to merge our separate single lives into a single married one.
Baia Formosa is a very unassuming place, merely a small fishing town perched on the cliffs about 30kms away from the BR 101 highway, the road we took to get here from Natal. Because of its secluded location, the mobile network we’re on – Oi – doesn’t reach here. Once again we’re staying at the Pousada Sonho Meu, a guest house with rooms surrounding a small, but verdant, central courtyard. With this being the low season, and a weekday to boot, the magrelinha was able to haggle an acceptable rate for the room of our choice. We are on a bed and breakfast basis but in spite of Baia’s smallness, eateries aren’t lacking. We end up becoming regulars at a restaurant serving home-cooked meals at a very reasonable price. For example, a meal for the both of us with fresh fish, meat, rice, beans and salad comes up to the grand total of €6! I repeat, that’s not per person but for two. As for breakfast at the pousada (guest house), that’s a wholesome affair with fresh juices and fruits (pineapple, guava, mango, … ) besides the usual stuff.
After Baia Formosa, we went for 2 days to Pipa, another smallish place. It’s much more popular though, with tourists drifting here for the beaches by day and the drinking spots by night. We live the alternative lifestyle, spending most of our time walking along trails in an eco-park and watching turtles in their watery world, surfacing and submerging. This latter activity must have influenced us subliminally because after having already spent a fortnight on Brazilian soil, we finally find the inclination to immerse ourselves in salty water.
Back in Natal – the city is named after Christmas since that was the day it was founded – decorations are already being put up in the shopping malls. It feels counterintuitive that though the calendar says Christmas is approaching, nature makes it clear that it is the summer which is, in fact, on the way.
Part 3. A musical full stop.
Just as the blossom count on fruit trees increases with each passing day of the new season, so holds true for the Christmas decorations that are blooming outside the shopping malls and along the avenues in ever greater quantities the more the Christmas season progresses. Parallel to the commercial activity that it invariably brings is the omnipresent beach life. Even here though, the entrepreneurial spirit is prevalent. Lying down on the sunbeds, our view of the seascape is continuously interrupted by beach vendors. They pull or push carts, they carry coolers strapped across their chest or slung over a shoulder, they hold wooden frames with lines strung from one side to another, huge abacuses but holding row upon row of sunglasses instead of beads; mobile kitchens offering traditional Brazilian food wend their way among the islands of beach tables and chairs, offering anything from fish and meat to corn, freshly cooked once you’ve been enticed into placing an order; others offer boat trips and beach buggy tours, nightlife excursions and on-the-spot massages; sellers of CDs and selfie-sticks, sushi and fruits, cocktails and beachwear; kids too can choose from kites and soapy bubble guns. They are all part of the beachscape just as the whitecaps and waves are part of the seascape. In spite of all this hustle and bustle, it was our environment of choice for a laid back week.
But even a quiet paragraph in our Brazilian diary needs a full stop to bring it to an end. This Sunday we opted for an afternoon at the Parque das Dunas (sand dunes park) to amble along paths shaded in by verdant canopies and read on benches in the leafy embrace of surrounding trees. It’s easy to gauge the size of this park because there is a measured running path around its circumference which crosses the line at 900 metres. Going by that distance, “garden” seems a more appropriate appellation except that, beyond the fencing and only accessible on certain days and accompanied by qualified guides, lies a vast tract of Atlantic dunes and forest. Today, we prefer the sedate option. Just before 4pm, we relocate to the amphitheatre for the weekly free concert. The genre of music might not always be our cup of tea but it still brings the day and week to a satisfying conclusion, with dusk settling on the final notes floating up from the instruments.
Part 4. Meia Maratona do Sol.
Unlike last week, this one was somewhat more physically demanding. Seeing that the beach is an integral part of Natal’s social and leisure fabric, I’ve decided to try bodyboarding. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this sport (like I was until very recently), the simplest description I can give is that one lies stomach down on a foam board and tries to catch a good wave which will carry him/her towards, or onto, the sandy shore. The thrill is occasionally akin to that of riding on a roller coaster. The magrelinha and her brother are of course familiar with this sport but it’s a completely new experience for me. I find I’m spending much more time in the water than if I was merely swimming. For more detailed info about bodyboarding, click on this link: bodyboarding.
The highlight of the past 7 days, however, was Saturday. The city was hosting 3 road running races: 5K, 10K and a half-marathon (21K) – Meia Maratona do Sol. Since I’ve been going out training at 5am most mornings for many months and I hadn’t raced a half-marathon in about 3 years, I decided to don my running shoes for the 21-kilometre event. It was very well organised, the route challenging but not excessively hard and the start/finish area was conveniently a short drive from our home here. It had an awkward 4pm commencement, which meant I had to be careful what, and when, to eat and drink throughout the day. We set off in full sun but when I crossed the line 101 minutes later it was already dusk. Certainly a satisfying way to spend a Saturday though I kept all thoughts of the suffering I’d have to go through from muscle soreness firmly out of my mind.
Part 5. Measuring the country.
Imagine someone from the Americas (North or South) who travels to Malta for a fortnight’s holiday and then flies straight back home. The first thing she/he does upon returning is to update their Facebook status with, “Spent a lovely 2 weeks visiting Europe”. How accurate a statement is it? True, Malta is a European country but by no stretch of the imagination can a person say they’ve visited the European continent. By analogy, someone who’s been to Rio de Janeiro can boast that they’ve been to Brazil but the sheer size of the country means that they’ve seen next to nothing of the territory. I discovered for myself the vastness of this land when we flew to a city called Foz de Iguaçu, in the southern part of the country. To get there we spent a full five hours in the air and, to emphasize what a far away place Natal had become, until the day before we were having regular sunsets at 5pm while our first evening in Foz, sunset was a good 3 hours later.
Foz, a city of some 300,000 people receives around one million tourists. In this respect it’s very similar to Malta except that in our smallness we are a country. The magnet that draws the tourists here is one of the wonders of the natural world, the Cataratas do Iguaçu, a spectacular series of waterfalls the beauty and power of which are beyond what can be conveyed in words, photos or videos. In spite of the inadequacy of the medium but in an endeavour to share a smidgen of the waterfalls’ force, I’m posting a video clip courtesy of the magrelinha.
From a natural wonder to an engineering one – the Itaipu dam. Located on the other side of the city and linked to a different river than the one which feeds the falls is one of the world’s largest hydro-electric power plants. The wall at its highest point is equivalent to 3 Portomaso towers stacked one on top of the other while the width, at 8 kilometres, makes it as wide as Gozo. We took a guided tour of this marvel and discovered that there is much more to the place than the dam. For example, we went on a 2-hour trail walk in the forest which lies within the precincts of the complex. This area serves as a refuge for wild animals which are either ill or injured. They are treated until healthy enough to be released back into their natural habitat or, if too old or disabled (as in the case of a blind fox), looked after until they trot off to animal heaven.
In the few days we spent at Foz de Iguaçu, we crossed over into 2 other countries. Argentina was only a 40-minute bus ride from our hotel, the (patriotically named) Foz Brazilian. The first town across the bridge which separates the two countries is Puerto Iguaçu. Cosy, verdant and tranquil, there was nothing much to do except stroll along the mostly traffic-free streets and then make the obligatory stop for a cappuccino, bagging another sugar sachet for our collection. Another item I was happy to collect was the Argentinian border crossing stamp in my passport. While I’m all for the border-free Europe, I do find the paucity of ink-stained pages in the passport strangely saddening. Another morning we caught yet another bus across yet another bridge, this time going in the opposite direction, to Paraguay. It was a much shorter ride because our accommodation was just 3 kilometres distant. Immediately across the formality-less border (sad moment time – no stamp to decorate the passport) lies Cidade del Este. Unlike its Argentinean counterpart, this was a chaos of commerce: salespeople spilling out of the cracks in the pavements and crevices in walls; everywhere stalls, shops, malls, street vendors; strangers sidling up to us to offer anything from socks to smartphones. This is a shoppers paradise for Brazilians because of the bargains that can be made. The reality for us though is that the branded products cost as much – often much more – than in Malta. As for the temptingly priced items, these are of the “Made in China” variety and scream out BUYER BEWARE! And so it was that we walked back to Brasil across the frontier bridge vibrating with vehicular and foot traffic, hand-in-hand but otherwise empty-handed.
Part 6. Contrasts cobbled together.
Sandra’s parents’ house is typical of those you can find in residential areas around Natal. What strikes me most is the complete absence of glass apertures. Doors and louvred windows are made of wood and, for added safety, metal grille gates and doors, all securely padlocked. Unlike many other homes, there aren’t any security cameras or walls crowned with razor wire and/or electric fences.
Interestingly for a city that lives in a perpetual summer (at least by our seasonal experiences), this one-storey house has a sloping roof. Just as there is no upstairs, neither is there a cellar. Also missing is hot water in the faucets but with a steady outside temperature of 25-30°C, this is an item which needn’t be factored in when planning and building.
While the main avenues are tarmacked, many secondary roads or residential streets are paved with a type of rectangular cobblestone. Charming they may seem but it’s certainly no delight driving over them for any length of time. Back in Malta we complain that our roads make a good testing ground for a car’s suspension. Here I cannot but admire how a car can survive this daily onslaught on its mechanical and electronic parts without even bursting a tyre. This short video clip will give some idea of what I mean.
I have yet to see someone lay a towel on the sand and lie down on it. That’s something that isn’t done here; you’ll be looked down upon also if you brought your own food and drinks. Instead, you fork out between 10 and 20 Reais (€2.50-€5) and in exchange you get a table, 4 chairs, 2 sunbeds plus a sturdy and ample umbrella, all of which you can use for the day. Quite frankly, I have never found reading on the beach to be a comfortable affair for back or buttocks so I’m quite happy with the table and chair arrangement.
Part 7. (Un)Splendid isolation – Monte das Gameleiras
We spent the first half of the previous week in what the magrelinha charmingly refers to as “the interior” – Monte das Gameleiras. This is a region of low-level mountains speckled with hamlets and the occasional town, all clinging to a 2-lane road winding through the area. The bus company serving the route claims it’s a 3-hour drive away from Natal but it was closer to four. We had the lunchtime traffic to contend with as we left the city and then, as the journey progressed, our bus developed a radiator problem, leaving the driver with no option but to keep stopping in order to top it up with water.
Our accommodation was the Pousada Pedra Grande, a small complex of chalet-like rooms surrounding a swimming pool and landscaped areas but also with uninterrupted views stretching as far as the eye can see. The splendid isolation of the place was evident at night, when the ears could enjoy the unpolluted sounds of nature – only the wind soughing along the graded contours of the slopes and the occasional call of a night-bird. Nothing else. No car horn, no TV, no revving engine, no air-conditioning compressor, not even distant voices. The absolute absence of acoustic aberrations made for three nights of balm for noise-weary ears.
That we were truly isolated was further confirmed during the daylight hours by the briefest of bus schedules – 5am and 6am to go one way, 3pm and 4pm if we wanted to venture the other way. Yep, this was a road rarely traveled. Walking also came tagged with an unofficial timetable. Any physical activity between 10am and 3pm was swelteringly impracticable; I say this from sweat-soaked experience. Thankfully we had the foresight to book half-board. So, between the buffet breakfast and the delicious dinner, we surrendered to relaxation and matched our activities to the tranquil ambience – reading, writing, contemplating the scenery, cooling off in the pool. As lovely as the pousada was, without personal transport there wasn’t really anywhere to go to. This seclusion I could handle. The downer, though, was the book which was supposed to provide the literary delights. Instead, it happened to be one of the most boring I had ever had the misfortune of reading – Last Evenings on Earth. Mr Roberto Bolaño, I’ll never forgive you for prefixing the splendid part of our mini-break with those offensive two letters – un.
Part 8. Bridging Nora to São Paulo.
On a small island very far away from where we were, new life was born and was given the name of Nora. I can emphasize the divide by saying that this bundle of jaunty genes is the daughter of the daughter of my wife’s sister-in-law. If you find it difficult to work your mind around that tangle of family tree branches, I will reduce the familial distance to one defining noun – grandniece. In spite of Nora’s insignificant size in the great span of the planet, she still managed to etch a specific memory in the album of our Brazilian voyage. The reason is that I found Charmaine’s WhatsApp breaking news message on the first full day of our one week stay in São Paulo. Her birth also coincided with the most walking Sandra and I had ever done together – 24 kilometres. We were absolutely knackered with all the sightseeing we had done but thankfully we had a comfortable room to return to on the seventh floor of H3 Hotel Paulista.
For all the attractions and possibilities that the city offers, what stands out in particular is one little blessing. I had finally found a café which made a cappuccino the way we know it back home. I’d been avoiding the beverage since coming to Brasil because every barista had an urge to add cinnamon to the drink. One of the first Portuguese phrases I memorized, in fact, was “sem canela” (without cinnamon) but when I did get the correct pronunciation, they surreptitiously substituted it with a thick layer of chocolate coating the bottom of the cup. A chocoholic I might be but not in my cappuccino please (only on it, in powder form)! Consequently, my language skills had evolved to the complexity of, “Um cappuccino por favor, sem canela e sem chocolate”. Even then, I sometimes had intense discussions (with Sandra helping out as interpreter) with the waiting staff that my request was perfectly feasible while they kept on insisting otherwise.
Here are a few memories from our photo and video album:
Part 9. Tracing itineraries with thousands of footsteps.
Our week in São Paulo came to an end last Friday. Another city, another life style. Maybe the most obvious difference is that Natal’s main draw is its beaches. However, what it sorely lacks, and which São Paulo makes up for in abundance, is cultural attractions. Size, of course, has a lot to do with it. Eleven million people create a bigger demand for a greater variety of entertainment options than 800,000. And anyway, São Paulo is starved of beaches..
As I mentioned in last week’s email, we did a lot of walking, averaging about 20 kilometres per day. I have to admit that towards the end of our stay, I was putting on my walking shoes with a sense of disquiet and tying the laces with anticipated weariness, knowing full well that another few thousand footsteps were to trace our itinerary in the coming hours.
Along the way we met little acts of kindness – we asked a taxi driver for directions to our hotel on the first day and he just offered to take us there at no charge; the bus driver who gave us a free ride to a stop close to the metro station we needed. There was also the politeness of shop assistants, who always greet clients with a good morning /afternoon /evening. Actually this is also true for Natal and every other place we have visited in Brasil.
Another pleasant similarity is that so few people smoke. I hardly ever see anyone light up here. Whether it’s because they are a health conscious lot or it’s simply too hot to raise the temperature further with an extraneous heat source, I don’t know.
Part 10. Sun beckons, sea invites, sand accommodates.
This particular email is not only crossing the Atlantic ocean or bridging the South American and European continents but it’s also travelling across seasons since here summer officially starts today while there of course you woke up to the first day of winter. It’s very difficult to capture the wintry, Christmas atmosphere which is so often depicted on cards – snow, robins, the tree itself – when it’s 30° in the shade. The sun beckons, the sea invites and the sand accommodates. True, even in Natal I can see people’s windows with the forthcoming holiday’s decorations and streets and malls illuminated with fairy lights at night but somehow being in flip flops and shorts devalues the decorators’ work.
No doubt, back home in Malta preparations for Christmas lunch are in their final stages. Interestingly, the celebratory meal here is dinner on the 24th; the eve(ning) is for family to gather round the table although, in common with Malta, turkey is the bird of choice. The 25th is for lounging around at home while feeding off the leftovers from the previous night or going off to the beach to laze away the holiday there. Our plans for Christmas Eve are clear, it’s one of the reasons why we came to Natal at this time. As to the following day, we’ll see when it arrives.
Part 11. Brasilia, lately.
Do you know the term “snail mail”? It refers to correspondence which arrives in an envelope or as a postcard. This is to contrast it with the speediness of emails. Well, had I sent this missive the traditional way, you’d have noticed from the stamp on the envelope that it was from Brazil. Looking more closely at the postmark, you’d have also realized that this time it’s not from Natal, but from Brasilia, which is the capital city of Brazil. You might think I’m stating the obvious but there are still many who instinctively say Rio when asked for the country’s capital. Within hours of Christmas Day expiring, we embarked on a 2 hours 30 minutes flight to spend a week in this fascinating place which, until 1960, was just a set of coordinates marking a remote spot in the vastness that makes this country. Even though over half-a-century has gone by, the architecture of the time – a lot of it by the famed Oscar Niemeyer – is still considered modern by today’s standards. We spent a splendid Sunday visiting some of these iconic structures: parliament house, metropolitan cathedral, national library, museum of art. This is really Sandra’s cup of tea but I, too, was thrilled to be inside places I had only admired in books or on the internet.
Probably the timing of our break was, unintentionally, the ideal moment to be in Brasilia. With it being the holiday season, many of the locals migrate to the beach resorts, Natal being especially popular this year. This population drought results in barren expanses of tarmac that form the multi-lane avenues mirroring the four cardinal compass points. For a city of 2.5 million people, we have been left wondering where everyone who decided to remain is hiding. Come Monday we will discover whether blood cells still flow through the city’s veins if the cars return to populate their natural habitat.