Some pockets of water at the beach in Salinas, about a half-hour drive from Pirabas, were not just warm, but actually hot. The waves were a gentle size along the nearly flat ocean floor, and our volunteer group ran down the beach and into the clear, undulating waters, splashing each other and screaming, all of us momentarily transformed into six-year olds. After awhile, though, we disbanded and each fell into our own world.
I walked and walked and walked along the water’s crystal edge and truly felt like I would walk off the end of the earth. The white-sand beach stretched on for miles, and I was completely alone on its surface. I began to wonder if I had been born again near the beginning of time — a solitary creature born from the ocean, its great salty womb still forming the rest of life — and the sun was all mine, and the sand and the sky. I ran and skipped, and laughed out loud. (original photos are film, by the way, I've put pictures of my pictures in these Pirabas posts, so not the greatest quality)
I thought for some time of never turning back, of abandoning the world. Never before had I felt it would be so easy. I could just walk away on powder-soft sand. But I never follow through with such grandly romantic ideas. I walked back to the group, collecting handfuls of perfect sand dollars along the way. George had found a dead fish in the water and brought it to the van for us all to see. It was long and silver, about as thin as the width of a thumb. It had horrifically sharp teeth protruding from its mouth, and it made us all shiver in the hot sun.
We sat audience to a marvelous sunset. I wandered off again in the dusk and gazed out at the ocean. I had come to Brazil to see the people, but the only things then in my field of vision, in my whole perceptual arena, were pure white sand, water, and sky. I felt like the heavens could just pour down on me all the secrets of the universe, as if the condition for this gift was this particular solitude. Something about standing there with the land stretching on and on the length of a continent, the water stretching on and on the width of an ocean, and the sky stretching on and on to cap the planet. It felt weird to be standing inside of my time-constrained body amidst the timeless elements that persist before and beyond comprehension. I thought then of the quote I think of most often in nature, one that speaks deeply to me — Emerson's: “I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing; I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me. I am part or particle of God.”
In the darkness the sun left behind, I moved my limbs to remember I was human — not necessarily because I wanted to remember, but more through a feeling of obligation to all that I had been for several decades. I moved through the slow, graceful movements of Tai Chi, parting the air like water. My arms and hands traced out circles with supple shoulders, elbows and knuckles, while my feet calculated a square box with measured steps anchored at the heel. I put my hand to my ear in the Monkey Listens pose and tried to hear the sound of humanity in the footprints that meandered through its grains like the sound of sea in a shell.
Then one morning we took a fishing boat to a haven of uncommon peace: Ilhe du Buraco, a small sand island. On our way there, we stopped at the island, Fortaleza. It’s a long and narrow island, and we landed far down from where Kelly and I had been on our first day. Our two teenage boatmen led us around the island; they were going to take us to see the boy-shaped rock that the old woman had seen in her dreams, although the rock had collapsed in the last year and no longer looked like a boy. Legend says that a boy was killed there by the waves of the sea, drowned, and the rock formed in his image. The formation was deemed to be the work of God, of miracle. It has become a shrine where people make offerings. Once a boy from Pirabas ate a chicken that had been left there as an offering and, we were told, he went insane. When the Donas heard we were taking a boat there, they gave us adamant warnings that we not mess with any offerings.
As we walked along the beach, the boatmen suddenly squealed and ran towards some bushes inland. They came back, quite excited, with handfuls of a small, oval-shaped fruit with a thin, bright red skin and a pit in the middle. They bit into one with obvious delight and bid us do the same. The flesh tasted to me about like what I imagine paste to taste like, and I remembered then a kid in elementary school whom I would spy eating Elmer’s glue. When the teenage boys weren’t looking, I dropped my fruit on the sand behind me.
I thought of the folktale describing the origins of guaraná, which has recently become recognized in America as an ingredient in energy drinks. The highest god gave a baby boy to an infertile couple who grew to be handsome and generous, kind and peaceful. The god of darkness became envious and turned himself into a snake, whereby he bit the boy with poisonous fangs while the boy was alone in the jungle gathering fruits, and the boy died instantly. The mother came to understand that she was to plant her dead son’s eyeballs in the ground. She did this, and from these eyes the guaraná plant grew. The pits of the fruit are black and they are surrounded by white flesh. I wondered briefly if eyeballs would taste much different from this mushy ball of paste I threw away.
Our guides then took us down the beach further to see two rocks that were in the shape of a heart.
They found a large crab in a tide pool there and managed between the two of them to grab it with sticks and put it up on the sand for us to see, where it chased us around with its snapping claws. From here the boys pointed out where, further down the beach, it is said that an incarnation of a Portuguese hero lived for awhile. The hero lived in the 1300s. He was so valiant and courageous that even after his death, his name was used to rally troops by saying he was coming to help them. People in Pirabas truly believe he has been incarnated several times throughout history. One of our boatmen, Cleumo, said his grandfather met this incarnate here on Fortaleza. The locals have many religious or mythological stories that we would catch only fragments of, and as far as I could tell, they carry a quite literal belief in legend and lore.
Then we chugged on for another hour or more in our rented fishing boat to Ilhe du Buraco, which we came to refer to as Gilligan’s Island for its isolation and lack of “luxuries.”
Once we hit sand and couldn’t go any further, we were stranded there for about 6 hours until the tide came back in. As we walked through the shallow water against the receding tide, it pulled very strongly at our legs, pulling us backwards, as if trying to keep us from discovering the magic of the island. Above the water line along the white sand beach was a small cluster of one-room palm-leaf houses on tall stilts. Several men were repairing a roof, passing enormous palm tree leaves up a ladder to be strapped down to the roof.
Underneath the raised floors were small fire pits in the sand. Chickens pecked aimlessly and dogs drank out of small tin cans. Large woven baskets hung from the floor boards, swinging in the breeze above the sand. The houses were completely open on the ocean side and had half-height walls on the other three sides. I could just make out pots and pans hanging from the ceilings inside. A hundred yards behind their huts, the jungle began in an abrupt wall of foliage.
I silently applauded their antiquated existence. They lived primarily off the bounty of the ocean and the land, they lived isolated from any conveniences. You might think that this was merely through happenstance or misfortune. But it was through choice. Not far from their cluster of houses was a little “resort,” owned by a hotel in Salinas, that hosted sport-fishermen. It consisted of 6 tiny sleeping huts (just room for a bed), a small kitchen hut, and one larger communal hut with tables and benches and lounging chairs, all the huts on stilts and connected by a narrow wooden walkway on narrow stilts. The resort had a generator to run the kitchen. The islanders, however, did not. They didn’t work at the resort — the two workers were shipped out from Salinas. The islanders tolerated the tourists, but kept to themselves and their own way of life, not even lured into the comforts offered by electricity. They didn’t buy their own generators nor did they ever ask to use any of the conveniences of the little resort (which were rather minor, really). They had one well from which they could pump the rainwater that seeped down into the ground. It seemed we had landed on a page that had been ripped from a tome of the lives of our long-ago forefathers.
The inhabitants of Ilhe du Buraco had shunned what modernity had come to their corner of the world. I desperately wanted to walk up to their palm huts; they were the picture of the long-lost fairy tale "idyllic existence." But I felt almost like an extraterrestrial there—the gulf between me and them was huge. I felt somehow that they should be left alone. Yet I spied on them from a distance through the zoom lens of my camera. I felt guilty prying and spying on them with my camera, and I didn’t want to be caught looking at them, haha. But nor could I go over and talk or gesture to them. I was immobilized and I was fascinated. Our expedition leader went over and talked to them, though Portuguese was their second language so it wasn't a super fluent conversation. He said they were kind of standoff-ish and recommended we not wander over to their huts. I would guess that the islanders are not so happy about the "resort" intruding onto their beach, but I have no idea how the arrangement came to be. Who owns the island? Are the islanders compensated in any way for sharing their beach with the resort, do they even have any legal claim to the island? Unfortunately I have no idea. I wish our expedition leader had gathered a little more information.
So I sat down-beach from the islanders simultaneously happy and sad. Happy to be there and to witness this way of life which I had never seen in person — it was kind of a "National Geographic moment" for me [as this was my first experience of this kind, though many more would come along in my life]. Sad that I couldn't interact with the islanders and see their huts up closer.
There was no one staying at the resort that day, so the two workers there allowed us to hang out in the big communal hut. One of our boatmen had emptied one of his father’s fish traps right before we left Pirabas. There was a little barbeque pit at the resort, so the teenagers skinned and gutted the fish and grilled it for us. We didn’t have any silverware so we just ate the fish hot off the grill with our fingers — which seemed particularly appropriate there. My eyes rolled back in my head when I tasted it. We were all momentarily stunned by our first mouthful. We became so consumed in pulling the soft, white flesh from the bones and savoring each bite as it melted in our mouths, that we ate in complete silence. I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was mighty fine eating.
When the fish was all gone, we thanked the boatmen and retreated back into the silence. We each picked a chair inside the open-air hut and sat motionless, and it was as if there existed no sound at all on the whole earth except for the sound of the wind gently stirring the dead grass of the roof. I don’t know if I had ever felt such peace. One can find moments of relative peace at home, but there is always the hum of technology surrounding you, even in the mute threads of carpet, the digital panel on the oven. Here was absolute quiet. We lived on a sandy star at the edge of the universe, silently twinkling. We were nestled into an eddy of time, where the currents and noise of “civilization” passed us by. I found peace in the antiquity of the islanders’ existence, a comfort that the past has not been obliterated, that there is still some continuity. And peace in the wind, the sand, and the water, surrounding us with a hand so gentle we were nearly floating — bobbing and drifting on this notion of life
When somebody finally spoke, it was so jarring, it seemed utterly alien. The sound hurt, and we all jumped back. There was a moment where we were unsure how to proceed. But once the silence was broken, it didn’t seem easy to regain, so we pulled ourselves from our introspection, and let the beach tease out our youth. We built a large sand castle and ran the soft sand through our fingers and toes over and over.
When the tide finally came up and the boatmen said we had to go, we all felt as though we had been in a bubble all day that suddenly popped. We begged to stay longer, but they said we had to go. Reluctantly we gathered our things and trudged out to the boat with pouty mouths. At first there was a sad pall over the deck as the boat slowly chugged away. Somberly, we passed around bottles of guaraná and beer, which the boatmen had kept in a cooler on the boat. But as our hair whipped around our faces and the salt water sprayed up from the bow, lightly coating our bodies, we began to speak, in fits and starts, as if we had not spoken in years, and then the words began to flow and we talked about how amazing the island was.
I never even spoke with the islanders, but it was the Brazil I hoped still existed. The villagers in Pirabas were running away from a life like this as fast as they could. I wanted to jump from the boat right then and swim all the way back to America, swim with fish and whales, and not cross back over the land that heaves with inexorable change. I wanted to swim away with dreams, with only a pocket for reality.
But I stayed onboard. Of course, haha. I cried just a little on the way back, but no one knew it; they thought it was the salt of the ocean on my face. I cried because I was overwhelmed. It's far from the only time I've felt that way and shed a tear over it. But it might have been the first time. Just overwhelmed by the scope and breadth of human existences, the cultures, history, traditions, trajectories, coupled with the diversity of ecosystems on the planet.
Even after all the countries and cultures I've visited since this trip, the day on Ilhe du Buraco remains a memorable highlight.