Brazil is famous for its beaches and we’d heard that those in the north-east were well worth a visit so we decided to spend our last week or so exploring the coast near Salvador.
Our first stop took us up to Arembepe, fifty kilometres north of the city. The suburbs slowly dropped away as the motorway ran parallel to the coast, dropping us off on the roadside, a two kilometre walk to the town. I love that sight of palm trees lined up, and that feeling when you know the bright haze ahead is the ocean.
The main town beach where we went on our first afternoon was full of families, umbrellas, folding chairs, kids running and tumbling in the sea. A shelf of rock about twenty metres out to sea had blocked the strong waves and formed a natural swimming pool where a fishing boat was calmly anchored. Little boys climbed up onto it to do extravagant leaps and dives into the water, each one showing off just a little bit more.
We wash the sand off and find a little restaurant, sit outside at one of the plastic tables and eat big garlicy prawns and chips, licking juice from our fingers. There’s a guy playing guitar at the table next door and we sit a while.
Arembepe’s claim to fame is that it was the hide-out for the stars of the 60s and 70s. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful rented houses and spent their time here, giving the long beach a short walk from the town the nickname of “Hippie Beach”. We follow in their footsteps and go there each day, returning to the same quiet spot each day, lying our towels down in the sand beneath the tall palms, spending all day there until the sun starts to set and turns the air into a golden haze.
One morning I manage to take myself out for a run, just a little one, ignoring the people who look at me and trying not to be bothered by my tomato red face. I’ve missed running; it’s hard to do it here when it’s hot and you feel like a bit of a spectacle, but it’s good to move again.
The food here is delicious. We buy a coconut gelado from the back of a truck one morning and suck out the sweet, cold water. On our last day we eat lunch on the beach at a little restaurant, choosing the local speciality: vermelho de moqueca, a fish and prawn stew which is served with rice, pirão and fradinho (coconut porridge and beans). It’s so full of flavour and one of the best things we’ve eaten.
We can’t manage to finish it all and a guy comes up with a polystyrene tray asking for the leftovers. He asks where we’re from and when we say England he hops into a military salute, “Churchill!” he smiles, patting his chest proudly, then adding with an anxious expression as if he got something wrong, “…or Hitler?”
After three nights in Arembepe we return to Salvador for the night then head south to Itacaré. A passenger ferry takes us from the city’s peninsula to the mainland and we play cards on the hot metal deck of the ferry, then find a bus that will take us the seven hours south. I press my head to the window and watch the small towns roll by, the red earth, a rectangular football pitch amongst a forest of palm trees. Each town has a grey concrete rodovaria where everyone gets off to get snacks whilst we stay put at the back of the bus under the aircon.
We’re staying in a hostel called Casarão Verde, a converted colonial mansion once the home of an influential cocoa farmer and painted emerald green. It’s huge with rickety floorboards, thin steep stairs and a bargain private room filled with antique furniture that rattles as we walk around. Through the open window I can hear the bark of a dog, a child’s voice, distant singing from the church; it’s a Sunday.
On our first night we go out to explore up the long main street lined with restaurants and shops. There are circus performers out entertaining the crowds of Brazilian tourists and surfboards propped up outside buildings. We go for pizza, the melted cheese tastes delicious after the long bus ride.
The hostel has a lovely garden with hammocks and dotted with tables and chairs. I’m reading outside on the first morning and an American man is on the phone, to his son maybe; they’re talking about uni applications and I hear the guy say “just enjoy the time and the tempo – enjoy. You’re so blessed right now”. Normally I’d roll my eyes at that kind of talk, but here in the hammock with my mind jittery on thoughts of leaving and making our money last I find it relaxing.
We’ve made friends with a lovely couple, Kate from Cambridge and her boyfriend Cyril from France – and we walk with them to find Prainha beach. There are four little coves of beaches strung along the coast, little fingernails of sand and surf that are all beautiful, but we’ve heard that Prainha is worth the hour walk through the jungle. It’s a hot but beautiful walk, following a forest trail through the lush greenery until suddenly we come out on an open bit of land and see the bright sea crashing on rocks below the cliff. A little further on and round a corner and we come upon paradise: a perfect curve of sand, bending palm trees and the endless roll of water. The waves are large further out but it’s fun to jump around in the shallow parts and we spend the day reading and sunbathing, then head back to cook together sat around the table outside talking and drinking wine. We teach Kate and Cyril to play Yahtzee and gin rummy and they teach us Fours and Kwixx. When they leave a few days later we find they’ve left us a wee note and coloured dice for us to play with.
And now a part of this post that I find hard to say, let alone write. This blog, for the time we’ve been away, has become a travel blog of sorts – not somewhere where I talk much about the emotions of being here of the times that have been tough or when my mind has felt shaken. Travel blogs are about moving from place to place, not mental health. But, I keep thinking, what is travel if it’s not about seeing – or trying to see – everything: not just the incredible places or people, but the way you change or makes you realise things about yourself. For a while I’ve known that anxiety affects me, and this week has felt a bit tough: a stone in my stomach, the rising up of hot tears behind my eyelids. I’m frustrated at myself: in this incredible place where I should feel calm and relaxed and at peace my mind has at times been skittering everywhere, feeling worried without being able to articulate why. I’m very aware that lying on a beach hardly constitutes as a stressful life but perhaps that sense of not doing much has allowed the thoughts to creep in. In the heat of the beach and the busy-ness of the bars and the sociable hostel where I felt the need to be ‘on’, I found myself thinking back to Patagonia and the mountains and our tent, walking in the wild and being alone.
I’ve been worrying about money and making it last for our travels, stressing about managing to pay for things when we’re back, letting my mind wander to the undercurrent of worry about the future and what we’ll do come May. I then berate myself for not “living in the moment” and twist myself into circles by trying to banish those thoughts from my mind. My friends feel a long way away. And all along I’m surrounded by beautiful beaches and the waves crash on and I think that I’ll probably never be here again and I’m wasting my time by worrying.
There’s a saying I like that goes something like “sweat, tears, the sea: salt water cures everything”. I walk to the water and let the ocean soak up the tears that have been sitting behind my burning eyelids. I come back and Moz puts his arms around me, holds me tight. As I sit on the towel on one of those little beach coves scribbling this into my battered notebook, I worry that if I write and publish this how it’ll be perceived at home, by those expecting just a usual chatty blog about what we’ve seen and done. But I can’t not write it.
I woman from somewhere behind calls out a high-pitched “woo-ooo”, the sound my mum makes to attract someone’s attention, and so alike her is the noise that I turn my head to check it isn’t her on this beach in Brazil. I’m looking forward to seeing my mum.
After these thoughts, I get up early in the mornings before people are up to do yoga in the garden. The hostel cat comes and curls up on my mat while I’m stretching. As I walk upstairs later, I pad through a patch of warm sunlight on the wooden floorboards. Little things make me smile: a man shaving in the wing mirror of his motorbike, a small cupboard which turns out to be a book exchange of sunworn faded novels, a guy unloading a pile of coconuts from the belly of a bus.
The next day we’re back at Prainha and this time is just Moz and I. It’s funny how even when you know what is coming is beautiful and that it might be diminished somehow it’s still just as gorgeous. The sun is high and hot by mid morning and we find a spot in the shade, watch the palm trees moving in the breeze, the gentle clicking of the fronds. There are guys playing keepy-uppy on the hard sand, someone doing yoga in the distance and surfers out on the big waves, dropping behind and down into the water. It’s nice to bob around in the shallows, dipping my head under and feeling the water move through my scalp and hair, coming up eyes full of sand and sunlight. There are tiny monkeys in the trees as we walk back together and reggae music coming from the open windows of a bar.