It’s no coincidence that we call people from other countries “aliens”. There’s always that funny feeling when you visit somewhere new and you realise there are all these millions of people living full, real lives there, and that this place is the centre of their universe, and then you multiply that for all the different places in the world where all of these parallel lives are being lived, and then you stop, because you can’t feel your limbs anymore and you’re doing that darting thing with your eyes like maybe you’ve just caught a glimpse of the meaning of life and your brain is collapsing in on itself with the enormity of it all.
I like being part of an alien race for a while. There’s something quite liberating about not understanding much of what’s being said around you (or about you). Probably that’s called ignorance. But it is blissful. Most of the time. Sometimes it’s downright awkward. More on that later.
basic travel errors
Regular readers of this blog will know that my travel style could best be described as woefully ill-prepared, chaotic and, as a result, costly. You’ll be pleased to know that not much has changed on this trip. Two fairly fundamental errors:
1. I didn’t appreciate quite how vast Brazil is (4th largest country in the world, if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii with the USA). Genuinely no idea. I mean, I thought it was quite big, but that is huge! So obviously (obviously) it takes ages to get from one place to another. So it helps if you plan your trip with the time you have. If you’re there for a few months, you can use the long distance buses, but if, like me, you have about 3.5 weeks, you’re going to need to fly between places and that costs money. Which brings me to…
2. The fact that most of the Brazilian airlines (TAM, GOL etc) sell an airpass which gives you a certain number of domestic flights for a reduced price. Little miss “no pre-planning” here got all excited when I found out about this, sitting in the rented apartment in Rio. And then crashed and burned when I saw that you have to buy it at the same time you buy your international flight – you can’t get it once you’re in Brazil… Fail.
Once I’d stopped snivelling at the injustice of it all and taken off my hair shirt, I looked at a map of Brazil (very big country, did you know?) and tried really hard to grasp the distances involved. And decided that, given that I was flying out of Rio de Janeiro, the furthest north I dared go was the state of Rio Grande do Norte in the North East.
That sorted, I sent The Mack back to dreary London and I flew the next day to Natal.
Praia de Pipa and Tibau do Sul
Praia de Pipa was recently featured as one of Brazil’s best beach resorts in The Guardian. Kilometres of sand backed by beautiful pink cliffs. A vibrant beach town with restaurants and bars. A mini-mecca for surfers and an area of great ecological importance.
You can imagine my utter delight then when it rained pretty solidly for the first two days I was there (out of 3). And I’m not talking a drizzle. Full tropical thundery showers, where the rain hurls down in sheets and the clouds look like water bombs. I made the mistake of looking at the 10 day forecast. Rain. Only rain. Forever more.
Fortunately, I’d just discovered Breaking Bad on (illegal?) download TV. Only 5 seasons late… So I watched the whole of season one from the sanctuary of my bungalow and waited for Noah to bring the ark around the front so I could explore.
I made a run for it when there was a gap in the storms (which isn’t easy in flip flops on wet cobbled streets). And was rewarded with seeing a dolphin swimming just 50 metres from shore. I was tempted to swim out to it, but then God sent the rains again, so I went home.
On the one sunny day I got, I walked for 8 km along the beach from Pipa to Tibau do Sul. You have to climb over rocks to get from Praia dos Golfinhos to Praia Madeiro, but after that it’s just endless sand and nobody around.
By the time I reached Tibau do Sul, I was scorched, parched and a bit delirious. So I did what anyone would do, I found a bar overlooking the incredible Guarairas lagoon, ordered a Guarana for a sugar hit and watched the first half of the Real Madrid v. Borussia Dortmund Champions League semi-final.
I have no idea where I heard of Baia da Traicao. I probably saw the words “sleepy fishing village” in some guidebook and that was it. Sold. With hindsight, probably not the most optimal destination at a time when my Portuguese was non-existent.
Getting there was hard enough. A combi van from Pipa to Goaininha. Then a chicken road crossing, climbing over the central reservation of the BR-101 to get to the bus stop. The alien ignorance came in handy here, with all the unlicensed taxis touting for my business. I’m pretty sure they were telling me that for just a bit more, I could travel in the style and comfort befitting a lady such as myself. But I was able to laugh it off and repeat the word “onibus” until they gave up.
I got dropped off by the bus at the side of the motorway in Mamanguape (great name). I felt a bit teary as I wandered into the little town, lost and all alone. I was just about to ask in a shop for directions to the bus stop when I spied a bus headed for Baia de Traicao and just made it. It was only as we passed through ever decreasing villages on the hour-long bus ride, that I realised I had very little cash and there was a good chance there was no bank at my destination… Fail.
Where things became a little awkward was pretty much the entire time I spent in BdT. It’s a time-warp town, surrounded by indigenous villages, so understandably no-one speaks any English. I smiled a lot. But I felt rude and self-conscious.
Luckily, a kind ex-Paulista took pity on me when she and her husband saw me lunching alone. She spoke a mixture of English and Portuguese with me, so I could practise pretending to understand the natives. She told me I should look up her friends, an Italian couple who did tours of the area. I promised her I would (lying through my teeth: I had no intention of doing anything of the sort, my plan was to find a quiet corner of the beach and wait out my time).
She clearly sensed my cowardice. ‘Cos she sent the Italians round to find me instead. Which was great, except that I didn’t understand what Rosa, the lovely owner of the pousada, was saying to me when she knocked on my door. So it took a good 5 minutes of absolute incomprehension on my part before I understood that there were people downstairs waiting to see me. Fail.
Still, once I’d got over that, everything turned out peachy. Marco picked me up each day in his combi van and we went on an adventure to beautiful lagoons, beaches, a manatee project, indian villages and river sources. He was an easy guide and I started to relax.
I got to understand the pace and quirks of BdT. The fact that the 2 restaurants only open for lunchtime trade. And if you are a solo traveller, your options are limited to soup and salad. All the other fish dishes are for two people. And no, they won’t let you pay for a two person meal, ‘cos you’re only one person. So you’re stuck with soup. Enjoy!
If you want to eat at night, you’re going to be doing so from a burger van. The first night, I was so traumatised I could only bring myself to order chips. It got (marginally) better from there – I braved a bar/resto one night and just about managed to converse with some locals over yet more soup. It helped when the bar dog ran at a passing woman on a bicycle and she was so terrified she rode straight into a lamppost. Laughter unites people.
If you’re a gringo, you stick out like a sore thumb. Everyone knows who you are within minutes of your arrival. When I was leaving, I had to make my card payment in the pharmacy (the only working card machine in town). An old guy was in there, chatting with the owner and anyone else who would listen, drinking a beer at 10am. He leaned across me and said to Rosa, “ah, she belongs to you, does she? I’ve seen her in the bars in the square. I’ve been wondering what she’s doing here. Is she sick? What’s wrong with her…?”
As I said, pretty awkward. I just smiled. And left.