Jenni Avins

Point of No Return: Itacaré, Brazil, Foam Magazine



 

New streets had been opened, automobiles brought in, mansions built, roads constructed, newspapers published, clubs organized…But the ways men think and feel evolve more slowly. Thus it has always been, in every society.

Jorge Amado, foreword, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1958

Big tropical raindrops blur the waves on my first morning in Itacaré. So instead of an early morning surf lesson, I roll right back into bed with my interpreter and traveling companion. One of the most important lessons I had learned in Brazil, especially in the northeastern state of Bahia, was to deixa-le rolar, let it roll.

So, I turn back to my bedfellow—the novel Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, by Jorge Amado, the beloved chronicler of Bahian characters, culture, landscape and love-affairs. The only part of paradise he missed was the surfing, which for some, is Itacaré’s main attraction.

Although Itacaré’s surf breaks are impressive enough to bring the Billabong Women’s World Tour, the waves remain un-crowded, as does the cobblestoned road running through the village. Pastel-painted colonial cafes, bars and shops line the street, along with pousadas, or bed-and-breakfasts. The food from Amado’s “land of pepper and sea breeze, of shellfish and coconut water” seems designed for hungry surfers, and they don’t have to pay much for a heaping plate.

Not today, anyway. But a new road is about to shorten the drive from the nearest international airport from six hours to two, and construction of a 40-pavilion luxury resort looms on one of the jungle bluffs overlooking the waves. However, it’s not happening overnight—this is Brazil, after all. There’s still time for travelers to pick up a copy of Gabriela and book a beach-front room at Pousada Macaia, where the manager Magna looks after her guests like a laid-back mom.

When I finally roll out of bed, she is setting a table on the deck with granola and grated coconut, passionfruit yogurt, fried bananas, slices of ham and French bread.

“How do you want your eggs?” She asks, as I plop onto a cushion at the low-lying table.

“No eggs,” I say, stirring granola into the creamy yellow yogurt as Magna pours hot milk into my coffee. “This is perfect.”

She raises her eyebrows, telling me I will need energy to surf.

“I’ll call Marcelo?” She asks. “The sun’s about to come out.”

Marcelo, a surf instructor from the coast of Sao Paulo, came to Itacaré several years ago, after judging surf competitions all over Brazil and restoring naval ships in Bahia’s capital. Now he runs his surf school and board repair shop with the help of his wife. His son, Kauai, is already surfing at the ripe age of three years.

Magna dials the phone, assuring me Marcelo knows the best waves, and will take good care of me.

Só preciso de marolinhas,” I whisper, meekly reminding Magna that I only need little waves. She gives me the thumbs up, and leaves with the phone to negotiate my day’s details.

An hour later, the equatorial sun has blasted between the clouds, making dappled shadows on the jungle trail that wraps around the side of a steep mountain. Birds battle to be heard over the sea, which roars below at Engenhoca, a point break known to be beginner-friendly.

I keep an eye on the root-ridden path as a troop of ants carrying tiny green leaves marches across it, like a miniature version of our surfboard-bearing crew, single-file behind Marcelo. There is Paula, a nervous novice from the landlocked state of Minas Gerais, stepping carefully behind Marcelo, then Teresa, a sure-footed local who hitched a ride from the village, then me.

I had heard about Itacaré’s well-formed waves in rocky coves, but I was not prepared for the lush Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Rainforest). The tropical jungle holds the world’s greatest diversity of trees and in places like Engenhoca they practically spill over cliffs and straight into the Atlantic Ocean.

After 25 minutes the trail disappears into the forest behind us and we step onto a crescent-shaped beach about the length of a football field, with an emerald-green arm reaching into the sea at either edge.

Marcelo crouches on the sand to wax the yellow longboard he’s brought for Paula, who admits she’s not so much nervous as she is hung-over. She had stayed out all night dancing to forro, a jaunty folk music popular in the Northeast of Brazil. It’s tough for Americans to imagine dancing away their spring break with a proper partner and accordion accompaniment, but forro parties are a big draw for Brazilians who vacation in Bahia.

The day after is no party for Paula, shivering in her rashguard despite tropical temperatures. She walks slowly into the water, as if she’s afraid of stepping on one of the sandcrabs scurrying sideways on the beach. She lies belly-first on the yellow board, gripping its sides as Marcelo pushes her into the little white waves that wash into the cove. Teresa, meanwhile, is just a tiny silhouette, having paddled to a point where the jungle and rocks taper into the sea and the real waves rise and curl.

The treacherous path to Engenhoca keeps the beach uncrowded, save for a handful of surfers. But construction of Warapuru, a luxury resort named one of The New York Times’ “Places To Go in 2008” hides just beyond the cliff over the beach. It’s not yet finished, but once it is, Engenhoca will be the resort’s main playground and surfers will have to share.

For the time being it is the weather, rather than Warapuru, that ends our session. The sky darkens, reminding us we are in a rainforest. As we make our way back to the path with our surfboards on our heads, drops began to fall.

Deixa-le rolar, it was happy hour back in town anyway.

After one caipifruita—sweet and fiery Brazilian cane liquor muddled with sugar and mango, I meander, a little lightheaded, between the village’s small sparkling storefronts. Candy-colored cotton hammocks weave a multi-colored web across one, and the turquoise walls of another are lined with shelves of handmade leather sandals. The sweetest souvenirs come from baskets piled high with saran-wrapped cocada de cacau. These fudgy spheres stuffed with shredded coconut are the delicious result of the Bahian climate, which nurtures coconut palms on the beach and cacao trees in the jungle.

It was the tropical fertility that first brought development to the rain-forested region of Bahia in the 1920’s. Men came from all over Brazil, all over the world (Gabriela’s lover is Syrian) and fought wars over the lush land where cacao trees flourished, making them rich exporters of raw material for chocolate. This end of this violent era serves as the background for Gabriela, when, as Amado said, “plantations were flourishing on the land fertilized with corpses and blood, when fortunes were being multiplied and when progress was changing the face of the town.”

Just as I unwrap one of sticky chocolate mounds I feel a hand on my shoulder.

Busted.

“Have you had dinner yet?” It’s Magna, just off from work at the Pousada. I shake my head, afraid I’ll be scolded for fortifying myself with caipifruitas and cocada. Instead she links her elbow in mine, telling me she’s on her way to a friend’s creperie for dinner.

For days I had been gorging myself on traditional Bahian food: langoustines, salted beef, fish stewed in coconut milk, all with seasoning, as Amado put it, “somewhere between the divine and the sublime.” I decide to take a night off from his recommended dishes with another local guide, and let Magna lead me into an open-air bar with swirling ceiling fans and surfboards hanging from the ceiling.

We drink fresh pineapple juice and eat crepes folded with melted white cheese, olives, salty ham and hearts of palm. I have a hankering for a frosty blended bowl of açai, an indigo Amazon berry espoused for its energizing power, but worry it will keep me from sleeping. Magna laughs out loud. “Look at you,” she says, as she waves over the waiter. “I don’t think anything is going to keep you up tonight.”

The next morning on my way out of town, I lean my head against the window, feeling well-slept, well-sunned and well-fed. I’m a little beat-up, but happily so, with jungle dirt under my fingernails and a smattering of surf-earned scrapes and bruises.

I turn to see a sign at the entry of the village: “Devegar, Area Urbana.” Go Slow. It seems ridiculous to think of Itacaré of an urban area, but as access improves, development is scrambling to keep up.

The road my bus is driving on is only twelve years old. It would take me two hours to get to the nearest airport, then two airplanes to get back to Rio.

Now a new highway from Salvador, Bahia’s capital, is just one bridge away from completion. When it shortens the driving distance to Itacaré by five hours, that sign will take on new meaning. I hope the Bahians continue to take their own advice: deixa-le rolar, and remember to Go Slow.