Go northeast, young traveller
You’ll love it up there, my friends told me when I announced I would be visiting Brazil’s fabled nordeste region for ten days. It’s the focal point of Afro-Brazilian culture, they said. The locals are so friendly. The colours, the food, the music—you’ll love every minute.
When people set the bar so high, it always makes me nervous. I’ve gone to enough disappointing concerts and movies and theatre performances to know that “you’ll love it” doesn’t mean that I’ll love it.
And so it was with Salvador, the “jewel of the northeast.” It was everything my friends had promised. And more. And less. The people were indeed friendly, but it was hard to roll with the chumminess of the cab driver who kept calling me bonita while casting me sidelong glances. The city was indeed colourful, but the colour seemed interwoven with its poverty: the candy-hued façades in need of a good scrubbing, the print dresses of the sweaty women serving aracajé in miniature kiosks, the bangles and tote bags of the street vendors who began their pitch with various versions of “I live in a favela and have eight children…”
And another thing: a paper map of Salvador looks like a bad hair day, with nothing but knots and tangles. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the buses took the shortest route from A to B. But for reasons unknown to anyone but the city planners, buses take detours in every neighbourhood along the way. Thanks to these excursions, travelling from the home of the friend who was hosting me to the famous Pelourinho district took close to two hours and left me slick with sweat. No biggie for a visitor, but for the people who count on the bus every day of the tropical year, it can’t be a fun time.
After the confusion of Salvador, the tidy coastal village of Praia do Forte came as a welcome pit stop. I stayed in a bright-orange hostel with hammocks outside every room, felt the scrape of chicla fish against my shins as I snorkeled in coral reefs, and kept running into a sparsely toothed guitarist with a National Geographic face. He finally invited me for a beer and told me that his cell phone had recently stopped working. “I could have gotten angry, which would have meant I had two problems: no cell phone and a bad mood,” he said. “Instead I chose to stay happy, so I only have one problem.” Note to self: remember this convo the next time I’m on the phone with Bell Canada.
My final stop was João Pessoa, a small state capital that boasts the easternmost point in the country: closer to continental Africa than to the far west of Brazil. My host friend and I walked along the city’s placid beaches and ate caranjuego while watching the sun set along the Paraíba river, a forró singer-guitarist completing the postcard moment.
But where were my mountains? My rocks, my trails, my crashing waves and lagoons? What made Florianópolis so special to me—the wild mix of mountains and water wherever the eye chose to roam—didn’t exist here in the nordeste.
When I took a cab back from the Floripa airport to my hill-flanked street, it felt like coming home.
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