Infidelity in Trancoso

The Mack was incredulous when I told him that I was leaving Salvador and travelling a further 15 hours down coast.  “But you’ve just flown a really long way to get there.  Why are you going even further?”.  I spoke to him patiently, like you would to a small, rather stupid, child.  “Brazil is a very big country”, I said, “4th largest if you don’t count Alaska and Hawaii as part of the US.  Everywhere here is far away.”

My longest bus ride.  12 hours overnight.  I consoled myself with the fact that I was saving myself a night’s accommodation.  Even for a skinflint like me, that wasn’t quite consolation enough.  I’d optimistically thought that the bus would be like the one The Mack and I took from Sao Paulo to Rio, where we had little TVs in the seatback, neck support pillows and snack boxes and I had room enough to curl up in my seat.

Not exactly.  The seats did recline pretty far back, but any comfort there was off-set by the fact that the guy next to me had no concept of personal space and spent the entire journey unapologetically sprawled over me.  There was a movie on a screen in the aisle – some terrible rom-com with Uma Thurman.  Did wonders for my Portuguese.  Less so for my neck tendons as I craned to view the subtitles.

The bus dumped me in Porto Seguro at 8am.  Then a taxi ride across town which, for a 4km journey, cost almost as much as the bus and made me very cross.  Then a little ferry across to Arraial.  Then another hour on a local bus to my actual destination, Trancoso.

beach chic

I’d found Trancoso in my new fave online guidebooks, Moon.  I picked it at random, but then it was endorsed by our hosts from Rio, so I took that as a good sign.  I wanted to go on further to Caraiva, which is supposed to be an idyllic paradise lost, but the access is difficult in rainy season and I didn’t fancy getting stranded, what with my travel track record.

Just before I left Salvador, I happened to read in another guidebook that Trancoso is very popular with the fash pack.  Mario Testino and La Moss holiday there regularly, apparently.  That was nearly enough to make me cancel my bus.  One way ticket to poseurville?  No thanks.

my little ponies

my little ponies

But, predictably, I loved it there.  The main hub of the town is the Quadrado, basically a village green, with a pretty church overlooking the sea and little shops, pousadas and restaurants all around the perimeter.  The bastards tapped into everything I like.  Ponies grazing on the grass.  Coloured lanterns in the trees.  Nice restaurants.  Shops filled with beautiful, pointless things.

a sucker for twinkly lights

a sucker for twinkly lights

It’s difficult to describe the vibe.  It’s chi chi but in an understated way (it reminds me of Primrose Hill many, many years ago before it went beyond bleurgh and disappeared up its own arse).  It doesn’t feel wholly Brazilian – probably because so many of the restaurant/shop/pousada owners are Europeans, but it’s still really laid back and, in off season, pretty quiet and sleepy.

natural pools on praia dos nativos

natural pools on praia dos nativos

The beaches are nice, although not as spectacular as some I’ve seen (picky, picky), and it’s tricky to walk the length of the beach because the sand slopes really steeply into the sea, so you look like you have one gammy leg.  However, if you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll find the still-gasping severed head of a barracuda on the beach.  Thrilling!

all washed up

all washed up

If you were to ask me where to come on a coupley beach holiday in Brazil for a couple of weeks, I’d say Trancoso hands down.  It’s sophisticated enough, but not showy.  It’s not too expensive (and downright cheap in off-season – I paid £25/night for a lovely 2-storey bungalow in a pousada with pool and gardens) and you feel at ease there immediately.  Plus, you can fly into Porto Seguro from all the Brazilian international airports, so you don’t need to brave the bus.

even the walkway to the beach is romantic...

even the walkway to the beach is romantic…

It’s very romantic.  Which is great when you’re travelling alone.  There’s nothing quite like going out for dinner à une only to see happy couples and families drinking and laughing together.  Put me right off my food.

Happily, on my last day there, I made a friend.  Romina, who lives in Buenos Aires, but who grew up carioca in Rio, loathes Argentina, and is fiendishly plotting her path back to Brazil for good.  She confessed that she’d been so put off by being the only single person in Trancoso that she’d just stayed in her pousada every night.  It also transpired that her pousada was a bit out of town, down some unsavoury-looking dark lane.  When I made the journey to pick her up that evening, with my flashlight on full beam and twitching at everything that moved, I didn’t blame her one bit for staying put.  I almost suggested calling for a pizza.

holiday fling

We crossed paths with an American/Czech guy who’d been given a trip as a bonus for completing an M&A deal.  Ivan, too, was solo, but didn’t seem as bothered about it.  At least not now that he’d seen Romina…

It’s been a while since I’ve played gooseberry and I probably should have engineered an excuse to leave the two of them together.  But I was damned if I was going to give up English-speaking company.

Especially when Ivan described where he was staying, saying it was like nowhere else he’d ever stayed.  And that with the money his company had paid for it, he could have bought a car in Cleveland, OH, where he lives.  This I had to see for myself, gooseberry or no gooseberry.

falling in love is so easy to do

Um.  I don’t have words to describe Uxua*.  I only have an overwhelming sense in my heart that it is The One.

Through an unassuming stable door into the hallway, where the night guard courteously overlooks the fact that their newest guest has brought back a couple of girls who appear to be salivating.  And straight into wonderland.

Everything was exactly right.  The teal colours used throughout combined with the wood and concrete.  The cracked enamel basins in the public bathroom.  The aquamarine swimming pool.  The magnificently planted and expertly lit garden, which gave each casita space and privacy.

meu amor

meu amor

Uxua’s made up of different residences, some are little houses dotted around the Quadrado, others are built within the gardens of the main pousada.

Ivan was in the Casa da Avore (the treehouse).  It was spectacular.  Swings and loveseats below in the garden.  Wooden stairs up to the living area, with a huge muslin-draped bed, rustic bathroom and terrace with a sofa, hammock and bar.  The full-height veranda doors opened with little wheels travelling along tracks above.  Never have I been somewhere where I felt that everything was exactly as it should be.  I fell head over heels.  And that was before I found out about the private hot tub.



I felt privileged to spend time there.  It’s rare for me to find nothing to criticise.  Romina had to catch a bus at 6am to make her flight at 9.  We left sometime around 3.30am, because we couldn’t drag ourselves away (although perhaps for different reasons…).  Ivan took photos of us lounging at his place and emailed them to his friends.  We let him – the man had the ultimate pimp palace – I just felt bad I hadn’t dressed for the occasion.

I, with my deep-rooted Catholic guilt, of course immediately confessed to The Mack that I’d transferred my affections to another.  I explained that it was as if someone had climbed inside my head and created my dream house, where all of my possessions would fit perfectly.

“That’s great, babe”, he said, “speak to the owners.  Tell them that you’ve got a load of stuff in storage that you think would be just perfect for them.  We save on storage costs, and your stuff gets to live in its ideal environment…”

No soul, that man.


*Of course, it turns out that the man behind Uxua, Wilbert Das, was the former creative director of Diesel for 15 years.  So maybe that fash pack connection isn’t all bad.

If I had kids, I’d name them Olinda and Salvador…

I have a theory about travel.  Like all of my theories, this one has been thoroughly researched and is backed up by peer-reviewed watertight statistical analysis.  Or else I just made it up.

My theory says that you will be comfortable in a place within 24 hours of arriving or not at all.  So, if you’re not happy in a place at the end of that 24 hour period (and I’m talking about you, Punta del Este and you, Sao Paulo) then it’s time to get a wriggle on.

24 hours is a good length of time, because no matter what time you arrive, day or night, you have enough time to see some of your surroundings and get your bearings.  Of course, it falls a little short if you’re travelling in one of those terribly dark countries in Scandinavia.  And it probably wouldn’t apply to an Arctic expedition.  But for everything else it definitely works.

Some places though, it only takes twenty-four minutes and you feel you’ve known them forever.

I was not looking for Olinda, Olinda found me…

So it was for me with Olinda.  I arrived in the main square, Praça do Carmo, via the usual three buses and a donkey, late in the afternoon.  I hauled my backpack up the hill – Olinda is steep – I feel they should have municipal stannah lifts installed.  My airbnb hosts weren’t in, so I sat outside their house on a step and said hello to their neighbours, one of whom insisted on beating on their closed shutters with her walking stick, just in case they hadn’t heard me knock.


pretty steep

Olinda is a colonial town, full of winding, cobbled streets and colourful houses.  It hosts what is said to be the best carnaval in Brazil, although my hosts said it has become a bit overrun with tourists in the past few years.

creepy carnival mascots

creepy carnival mascots

The house I stayed in was perched midway up the hill, on the way to the tourist hub around the Alto da Sé.  I was staying with a family, but my room was separate from the main house, up a wrought-iron staircase in the courtyard.  If you looked down from the main viewing platform by the church, you could see straight into my room.  That made me feel special.  Hanging out in my hammock enjoying the breeze, whilst the tourists bumbled about taking photos of my house.  It also meant I had to be careful when coming out of the shower…

my little house behind the blue door

my little house behind the blue door

During the day, I struggled to find another living soul.  If you do your English duty and mad-dog it in the midday sun around the town, you will have the place to yourself.  You will also dehydrate yourself to body-building competition standard and leave a torrent of sweat in your wake.  Fortunately this is a town full to bursting with churches (20+, I think), so sanctuary, spiritual or physical, is never too far away.

Igreja do Carmo

Igreja do Carmo

But come around 5pm, as the heat tampers down and dusk descends, the town starts to stir.  You don’t notice it at first, it’s just a background murmur.  But gradually, you realise that all around you there is a constant percussive beat.  Coming from different directions, sometimes with vocals, sometimes without.  But always the same rhythmic cadence, the sort that hooks onto your heartbeat, quickening it just a little, making it catch.

sun setting over Recife

sun setting over Recife

You don’t realise it, but the beat guides you to dinner.  A little restaurant in a shadier-looking part of town, where the houses are still candy-coloured, but the paint has peeled and laundry hangs ragged in the windows.  And there are young guys lounging in doorways, in a way that at first seems a little gangsta, until you realise they too are there for the music.  Your first encounter with the music makers in the town.  A 5-piece samba band, an advert for old age happiness that SAGA would kill to have in its travel brochures.  Jamming on the restaurant steps.  Purely for the pleasure of it.

I got talking to some guys sat behind me.  They were both musicians, one from Spain, the other Portuguese, both of whom came to Olinda some months ago, for the music, and who have stayed, for the music.  They tell me tonight’s my lucky night if I’m feeling adventurous. Music to my ears.

As standard in Brazil, nothing really gets going till after 11.  So we drink and chat (between us we speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese) and they tell me that what I’m about to experience will rock my world.  And that I’m to stick close by them.  And not be afraid…

On the way, I’m encouraged to try Axé, a white spirit infused with herbs and spices sold in little bottles from specialist bars.  You add honey to make it drinkable and crushed guarana berries to make you invincible. If only homeopathy had this effect.

Axé murderers

Axé murderers

I feel the music long before we reach it.  It’s like a quant has worked out the perfect formula of beats and sounds to evoke the primordial dance spirits (an algo-rhythm?!).  We edge our way past the bodies and I see a small soundsystem set up, a few drums and some unlikely-looking instruments, a couple of mics.  And people.  Lots and lots of people.  Crammed into a dead-end alley, with beer and axé sellers lining the sides.

This is a Coco night.  And it’s absolutely fucking awesome.

Coco is a style of music, African influenced, hugely percussive but with quite haunting, staccato vocals.  Through the crowd I can just make out that some of the singers are really elderly women.  And that various people step up from the throng to take their turn to sing, like it’s an open mic night.

Coco is also the style of dance.  It moves through the body from the feet, through the waist to the shoulders and head.  The movements are entirely alien to a western body.  You have to be able to feel the music rise from the earth to dance coco and we westerners just don’t have that soil/soul connection.

Combined, the two elements are intoxicating (nothing to do with the caiprinha/beer/axé combination I’ve imbued).  The dancers whirl furiously and the music gets deep inside your head.  It is a mix of African strength and gypsy fever. If I hadn’t been so tired from my travelling, I’d have stayed the distance till 7am.  As it was, I crawled into my new bed at 3am, exhausted, exhilarated and fell asleep to the beat of the drums in the distance.

where your beats at, Bahia?

Everyone that I met elsewhere in Brazil told me the same thing.  Be careful in Salvador de Bahia.  It’s a very dangerous place.  Don’t go out by yourself.  Don’t carry any valuables.

So in my head, I decided it must be like Peckham.  I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to go to Peckham.  Except to Frank’s bar in the summer.  So as long as I stuck to multi-storey car park roof-tops in Salvador, I’d be A-ok.

got to the bottom. found nothing of interest. came back up

got to the bottom. found nothing of interest. came back up

I only stayed in Salvador a couple of nights.  I’d been debating whether to bus down from Olinda to some beautiful beach resorts around Alagoas, but the prices in Praia do Toque were more than I could justify.  So I booked a next day flight from Recife to Salvador.  How spontaneous!  Only when I got to the check-in desk, having queued for ages and with half an hour before my flight left, they didn’t have my reservation.  A problem with payment processing.  Sorry madam, you don’t have a ticket.

I took this news in my stride.  After all, I’ve dealt with far worse (one word: India).  I ran with the check-in guy to the sales desk to buy a replacement ticket, ran back to check-in my bags, ran through security (thank you small, domestic airports for your lack of vigilance) and onto the plane minutes before they shut the doors for take-off.  Standard stuff.

I stayed with a family again, but this time in a room in their house.  I’d forgotten how much I hate staying at other people’s houses, even close friends.  I can’t relax.  This family was so laid back about having guests that they basically left me to it, which made it even worse.  Was I supposed to stay in my room?  Mingle?  They told me to help myself to water and cooking stuff, but then I used up the last of the water without realising and, oh lord, the stress was just too much.  Fortunately, I made friends with their 8 year old son.  We made paper airplanes and I helped him with his homework.  Before I left, he insisted on taking out-of-focus photographs on my phone of every room in their house, so that I could show my friends where I’d stayed.  Cute.

our fleet. Lucas kindly put my fave plane at the front of the shot

our fleet. Lucas kindly put my fave plane at the front of the shot

I think Salvador is one of those places where you need to live to really get the hang of it.  I did the tourist thing, walked around Pelourinho.  It was pretty enough, but a bit sanitised for me.  It reminded me a bit of being in Camden after the refurb.  And conversely, having the armed police on every corner didn’t make me feel safer, just segregated.  I took a bus down to the beach at Barra.  Nice enough, but a bit anywheresville for my taste – I couldn’t get any sense of character.

bahian style in Pelourinho

bahian style in Pelourinho

I much preferred where I was living.  Dois de Julio.  A real neighbourhood.  The same cheek-by-jowl mix of workers, the work-shy, families, artists, hustlers and crazies that you find in any melting-pot city  Where old men blast out the same song on a loop all evening from a stereo rigged up to an amp in the little square and no-one minds.  I’ve been searching for that song ever since.

I ate in a neighbourhood restaurant, Caxixi, where the young waiters wore old-fashioned aprons and took pains to look after the strange gringo girl.  Wrapping up the other half of my food when I couldn’t manage it all and insisting I take it home with me (cue anxiety as asking my hosts if I could use their fridge to store it…!).

I’d like to come back to Salvador.  I want to find the music and dance it’s so famous for.  I want to stay longer and live it a little.  But as I said to The Mack, I’d need to take him along.  It’s not a city for a solo traveller.  You can’t just go get lost in it and take your chances.  Not because it’s so dangerous (I didn’t feel that at all), but because I think it needs two pairs of eyes to uncover its secrets.

Breaking Brazil: Natal to Baia da Traicao

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.

oh, hello rain. fancy meeting you here

oh, hello rain. fancy meeting you here

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.

the deserted beach. a Brazilian specialty.

the deserted beach. a Brazilian specialty.

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.

the view almost made me take my eye of the ball

the view almost made me take my eye of the ball

Baia da Traicao

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.

for 'sleepy' read 'empty'

for ‘sleepy’ read ’empty’

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.

where the peixe-bois (manatees) live.  they were out when I visited

where the peixe-bois (manatees) live. they were out when I visited, but the boat ride was nice. #fail

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.

the town square.  where the magic happens.

the town square. where the magic happens.

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.

I don't think I would have felt quite as sorry for the littlest hobo if he'd been wandering through places like this...

I don’t think I would have felt quite as sorry for the littlest hobo if he’d been wandering through places like this…