Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “South of Bahia”

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/03 – In Brazil’s Holy of Holies

Trancoso

Trancoso’s beach

The early morning sun breaking through the cracks in the window’s shutters woke me up. I could still hear the wind but now it was gentler, enabling me to also hear the sound of bird songs and the soothing rhythm of waves breaking in the distance. Daylight revealed pristine nature preparing for the new day. At that moment, the world consisted of just my hut, the surrounding forest, a deserted beach and me. The temperature was agreeable and that unique moment of peace in that special place, transported me to the beginning of time.

I was not very far from where history books say that the Portuguese had first set foot on that uncharted land. This was the spot where those western lost souls had officially planted the seeds of a new country. I walked to the sea and had a long swim. In the deep I floated in the calm, crystal-clear, water. At that moment, at that place, it was easy to imagine the first flotilla appearing from beyond the horizon. Was anyone on those ships considering anything other than plundering what lay beyond the beach? Was the exotic jungle a soul devourer, or a place waiting to be tamed? Could the intruders possibly have imagined that there was anything worthy of their respect or to learn from in this beautiful place and from its original inhabitants?

 *

Before the arrival of hippies, Trancoso had been a Christian mission for the conversion of the indigenous Pataxó people. All that remained of that time was the simple parish church that faced inland and a group of westernized descendants of that tribe who lived in a reserve a few kilometres away. Its back faced the ocean and it was there where we gathered every night when the church’s whitewashed wall reflected the strong moonlight like a screen in a movie theatre. Long before the arrival of the first white men, the local tribe assembled at this very spot for festivals. The sacred ground still held its power with Trancoso remaining a place apart. The only trace of civilization anywhere around was Porto Seguro twenty to thirty kilometres away, its lights faintly visible on the far corner of the horizon.

We waited for the full moon and, after an hour or so, a huge silver ball started rising up at the end of the ocean. We were around ten people, gazing at that apparition in awe and in silence. The reflection grew stronger and created a bright streak across the water. The moon rose above the low clouds making them look like white, puffy, backlit mountains, casting heavy shadows from only a few meters above the sea. Their bases were flat, as if a meticulous artist had sliced them.
While I contemplated that marvellous scene, the universe sent a vision showing me that love, life, health, the water we drank, the air we breathed, were all for free. We were not on a different planet, nor was this a dream: all that magic could be here and now, forever, if only we would learn how to value the things that were given to us. I wished Trancoso would always be my home and that the feeling of completeness never ended.

*

Those last three weeks passed in the blink of an eye and all too soon it was time to return to the reality of city life. I bummed a lift to Rio with some guys who were returning home to São Paulo. Unbelievably, they had managed to reach Trancoso driving their beetle along a dirt track through the forest. I had never heard about the trail and, after a few minutes in it, they remembered that this was not a route intended for cars. Thick vegetation must have sprung up since they had first driven along that track because we kept on having to get out of the old Volkswagen and push it through mud and over the tangle of plants. It took a couple of hours until the trail developed into something more resembling a dirt road. Eventually this got wider, and soon cattle, donkeys and small huts started to appear and eventually, people sitting by stands selling local fruit. Finally, we came across cars and after we passed by Ajuda and arrived at the barge that crossed over to Porto Seguro there was a small queue of cars waiting to board. On the other side there was already asphalt and the highway that took us on the long journey home.

I arrived back in Rio under the spell of Bahia. It was difficult to face the fact that a crucial battle of university entry exams lay ahead. There was another zone of contention ready to erupt at any moment; with every joint I rolled, with every jam session I participated in, with every new friend I made, I was immersing myself further into a world that my parents could not even begin to understand. A process of becoming completely estranged from my family was on its way. Mum and Dad were at a loss, not having a clue as to what was going on inside my mind and my soul. I had taken their quest for the New World many steps beyond their imagination. I was entering a no man’s land where, on the one hand, I was distancing myself from my roots and, on the other hand, those very roots made me structurally different to the people, and to the culture, I was relating to.

My parents expected Sarah and I to accept without question the terms of their happy adventure in the idyllic land that they had chosen. Now that we had grown up, the cultural baggage they had brought over from the Old Continent paralysed their reactions towards our experiences. The British way was to brush everything under the carpet, not to discuss problems in the hope that things would sort themselves out in one way or another. The central European approach was more pragmatic, but disregarded the poetry of life: searching one’s truth was pointless and bad for business – the solution was simply a matter of getting my head down and doing the right thing: studying. From my side, the process of making sense of the situation that I was born into would require a rupture, and, by the looks of it, this process would be solitary and painful.

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TrancosoD

Trancoso

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/02 – Adventures in South of Bahia’s paradise

Part25

The experience did not touch Edu as much as it did me. He was more sensible and I felt he was restricting himself by choosing to mix only with a boring university crowd. They were an important part of the conversations, but only marginally participant in the “secret society”. By not having a relationship with “the herb”, they missed out on an essential element, not because of the act of showing off that they were smoking weed, but because of the perceptual dimensions it seemed to open in conversations and in observations.

Edu was into conventional psychology, which was too intellectual for that time and place. Gabeira summed up the difference of perspectives with a catchphrase, “Without a hard-on [by which he meant desire], there is no solution.” This is what the people in the forefront of that quixotic revolution thought. It was about walking the walk, and not about talking the talk. We were seeking a world in which people lived according to their connection to the positive energy of the cosmos, and not a world ruled by patronizing dogmas. In this utopian summer interlude, who needed to rationalize things? Who needed the weight of history, of schools, of tradition and of science over their heads? Should that dictate what was right and what was wrong?

The drifting apart of my friendship with Edu reached a climax because of our house-sharers, three girls from Brasília he’d found by asking around. When I met the girls, I immediately found them unattractive and square, and therefore completely off my radar. Their feelings towards me were mutual: my exaggerated carioca attitude of being laid back and not giving a shit when it came to anything remotely practical contrasted with the girls’ efforts to be sociable and with their requests to share household chores. Perhaps they were correct in seeing me as a lazy, rich guy used to having a mum and a servant indulging my needs, but I was too immature to take this on board and simply dismissed them as being annoying and ugly bitches. After all I was only seventeen years old.

The girls ended up getting fed up with my laziness and one day after the beach, they demanded that I cook a meal. I warned them I didn’t know how, but they refused to listen and forced me to embark on my first-ever culinary adventure. The stove, such as it was, was a grill lying over some bricks in the field behind the house, and I had to search for some dry wood and paper to light a fire. The wind made this a hard task and when the flames started to go down I placed on the grill a battered pot, into which I threw some water, oil, salt and the spaghetti.

While waiting for the mixture to boil, I lit the roach in my pocket on the fire. Everything was going fine until I added the eggs: as I watched them drop into the boiling water, I noticed that the rest of the contents had become thick and gluey. Even to me it was obvious that pasta should not have that kind of consistency but the harder I tried; the more I struggled to stir my creation. What was going to be a pasta meal degenerated into an unedifying block of dough. To make matters worse, I noticed that the eggs had vanished from sight. I started digging into the “thing” in an attempt to save them, but then the fork got stuck, before vanishing into that amorphous blob.

When I got back to the house and tried to explain what had happened, I found that no one else saw the comic value. In addition to wasting their meagre groceries, I was forcing them to spend their precious money on a meal in the canteen next door. The mood turned sour, but for me there were better things to do than listen to those three girls yelling at me, especially because I had warned them about my culinary inability. That night came the final straw. After getting drunk, I walked the youngest, quietest, most receptive and prettiest one of the three back home. We kissed, and after we got into the house and I was close to finalizing things, the other two girls stormed in, coming close to physically attacking me. The following day they threw me out. Edu wasn’t happy either and sided with them.

Perhaps because of this event, Edu decided to return to Rio earlier than planned and I left for Trancoso, the next village down the coast, where I stayed for three more weeks. Despite carrying with me feelings of dejection, as soon as I set foot in Trancoso, I knew that I was onto something special. That tiny place was somehow even more magical and unspoiled than Ajuda, so isolated that the only way to get there was by boat or by trekking along the beach at low tide.

*

As Ajuda, Trancoso was also situated on a cliff top overlooking the ocean. It was tiny and consisted of an angular formation of huts bordering a sizeable green in the middle of the tropical forest. At the end of the field there was a simple-looking whitewashed colonial-era church, which closed the rectangle. I arrived there at the end of the afternoon and it was love at first site. The beauty of the place was mesmerizing; the long shadows of the golden sun created by the tiny houses were almost covering the field, The smell of the fresh grass in the shade was unbelievably refreshing in that hot and dry weather.

The purity of the air made the ocean in the background assume a marvellous dark turquoise tint as it reflected the deep blue of the sky. The combination of all of this made that small commune possess an scenic sophistication that hardly combined with its remoteness. Trancoso had the look and feel of some kind of special university campus for people in search of living life in the correct way. Here, the divide between locals and visitors was not so huge, as many of the outsiders had decided to drop out of city life and had chosen to make that place their home.

I headed straight to the only bar in the place, an open air one, where I stayed chatting and playing guitar until it got dark. As it grew late, someone asked me if I had anywhere to sleep. I said no and, after a lot of talking, it turned out that the only hut available was one that stood alone down by the beach. I could stay there for free, but the downside would be having to get there alone. Although moonless nights, like that particular one, were excellent for watching shooting stars, they were terrible for seeing even one meter ahead, and even worse for walking in the bush. My new friends explained how to find the hut, but the idea of having to wade through a river to get there didn’t sound good.

trancoso

The Trancoso Church

As the night advanced, the bar’s owner turned off his kerosene lamp but the music continued, breaking the silence of the rest of the village. Soon people started to wander off. Once everyone had gone his or her separate ways, I left my guitar in the bar and set off for my hut, guided by my sharp night vision and relying on my good hearing. When I reached the river and realised that the far bank was at least six meters distant, I considered giving up. Instead, I bit the bullet. The water was warm and the riverbed was muddy. As the river got deeper, croaking noises made my mind turn to snakes, strange animals and flesh-eating fish. At one point, the water came almost up to my chest and the current made it hard to balance the gear that I was carrying on my head. When I reached the other side of the river and spotted my new home, everything became easier as from then on I only needed to follow the sand-track until the hut’s door.

It was unlocked, and as I came in I saw a candle someone had left there and took out the box of matches I’d managed to keep dry. The flickering flame revealed a basic wooden shack stuck together with clay with a sand floor and a roughly thatched-roof, the only furniture was a rustic table and a chair. The wind blowing ashore was howling loudly, rattling the door and the windows in an eerie choreography. However, the candlelight made the hut feel surprisingly cosy. Still soaked, I opened my sleeping bag, stretched it on the floor and fell right asleep.

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noite

Night in Trancoso

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/01 – Bliss in the South of Bahia

Part24As the year ended, my situation had improved as compared to just a year earlier. I was a full member of the doidão gang, completely integrated in the Carioca lifestyle and I had acquired some respect through my guitar playing. The summer ahead was full of promise. I had passed with ease all my exams and as an award, my parents were sponsoring a new summer adventure. I was again going with Edu, but this time we would be away for longer and would go somewhere even more exciting than Recife. The plan was to spend a month and a half in the south of Bahia, the crème de la crème of the alternative destinations. In the early 1970s, the bucolic region around Porto Seguro became famous as one of the great hippy refuges, a place where Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Bahian native sons and daughters had eulogized in song. The area’s natural ecosystem was still largely intact – or, at least, it hadn’t yet been plundered as much as in more southern parts of Brazil. There were still native Amerindian tribes living in reservations which enhanced the tropical-paradisical aura of the region. In addition, Jorge Amado’s hometown – Ilhéus – was near to the place we were going to stay, promising, in my mind, an immersion into the Afro-Brazilian culture.

The bus trip took thirty hours and our companions were mainly Bahianos returning home for Christmas. As one would expect for the destination, the passengers also included a group of hippy-like girls from Ipanema. As I nervously chatted to one of them, she told me that Fernando Gabeira – “the King of the Nove” – was heading to the same place as us, Arraial d’Ajuda, a small and rather remote fishing village to the south of Porto Seguro. As we neared Ajuda, as everyone called the place, our conversations invariably led to Gabeira. We found out that his presence there was a topic as hot as the region’s sun, and had drawn the attention of the country at large. The Brazilian press had long developed a tradition of naming summers and that of 1980 would belong to Gabeira, the former urban guerilla. The girls were thrilled to be spending their holidays as his neighbors.

This lovely corner of the Earth was perched on a hilltop looking out across endless stretches of wild golden beaches. There was no electricity, no cars, no pavements nor any shop worth speaking of. While the village houses were old and minimal, the locals chose to paint the front of their homes in vibrant colours which made the place resemble a cubist painting. It was obvious that the locals struggled to make a living, but in contrast to the poverty found in the slums of the big cities, Ajuda’s people seemed healthy, harmonized with their surroundings and in peace with life. “Progress” was arriving, and the few bars on the village’s square were owned by outsiders, people from nearby towns who were beginning to sense the potential for tourism. At the time, however, the tourist infrastructure was still basic and food and lodging were ridiculously cheap.

The visitors stayed in a new area built around a field behind the original constructions. The newer huts, where the likes of Edu and I stayed, had been knocked together quickly, their owners, mostly outsiders, seeing them as an easy way to bring in a bit of money during the tourist season. Donkeys, skinny cows and stray dogs seemed to like the desolation of this part of the village, perhaps because the summer visitors left them unbothered. In contrast, Gabeira was renting one of the expensive lodgings alongside the beach and, although he didn’t mix with us mortals, he was often seen in his thong, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by devoted followers. We soon ignored his presence. Both the locals and the other visitors were welcoming and, in a couple of days, we were friends with everyone.

Our routine was heavenly. We woke up sometime in the mid-morning and wandered over to the natural food place for a breakfast of banana mashed with syrup and oats. Then we followed the sand-covered trail to the beach to spend the rest of the day lounging by the sea, playing football barefoot on the sand, going for walks on the deserted coast, meeting new people, and playing beach tennis. We were interrupted only by the occasional villager passing by and selling fried bananas, water and beer. It was hot and the sun was strong so the occasional cloud that approached from the ocean was always a welcome relief. Rain showers never lasted for more than fifteen minutes but when the clouds opened-up, everyone on the beach ran into the salty water to feel the sweetness of the raindrops on their faces while the rest of their bodies remained protected by the warm, calm and shallow sea water.

At the end of the afternoon, the beach gradually emptied and we all went back to the village to gather on the patio behind the old church overlooking the beautiful valley covered in dense foliage. As the sun slowly descended, it transformed into a giant orange ball, its colours merging with the ocean and the dark blue sky. After an entire day under the sun, in and out of the sea, the body welcomed the late afternoon breeze. Sometimes there would be a roda de capoeira, where guys would display their skills in this half-fight, half-dance while we in the audience sung and clapped in time with the berimbau, the African imported single-string, musical bow, that sets the pace.

The only place with running water was a cave with a natural spring where everyone had to queue while holding their towels and their shower gear. The villagers attributed its existence to a miracle and there was a statue of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda at the entrance of the cave. As for the toilet, it was the biggest one in the world: the bush.

After washing off the sticky sea salt and throwing on a shirt and flip-flops, we were ready for the improvised parties in the canteens. Inside them, kerosene lamps placed on the tables cast thick shadows giving them an ancient aura. I, like other people, had brought my guitar and our jamming would liven up those nights. One just needed to start strumming something for people to turn up with instruments of various sorts, and our sessions typically lead to dancing to songs that we created together on the spot.

The moon was so bright that we could wander back down to the beach as if we were having a daytime stroll. The clean, bright sand, the white foam from the ocean surf, the sound of the waves and the wind created a magical bond between us and nature. The clear skies, coupled with the lack of electric lights for kilometres around, made the constellations above stand out as I’d never seen before, with shooting stars darting about. We would sit on the beach for hours, talking and playing guitar. When we returned to the village, it was like being re-enveloped into the warmth emanating from soulmates.

The villagers were untouched by “New Brazil”, living instead from what they fished using their simple boats and by renting out rooms. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sometimes they invited us to sit with them and would tell us stories about their community, their legends, the sea and the surrounding nature, while exchanging views about life.

The visitors were a mix of university students, professors, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, professionals and political activists. Our conversations reflected the explosion of freedom of speech following the long period of repression. Everyone expressed opinions, with endless discussions taking place about everything from football to ecology, from politics to sex.

We all agreed that these were the closing days of a world in which nature was more powerful than man. In one of our conversations, someone argued that we were both the virus and the potential cure for the world. We were living an ecological turning point and for better or worse, our generation would be responsible for the outcome. Discussions apart, there was something special in the air; none of us had ever experienced this kind of collective connection before. It was as if we were living in a bubble distilled by centuries of utopian ideals and by the recent secrecy and the camaraderie of the resistance to the regime. This closeness permeated our parties, jam sessions, laughter, relationships and friendships, giving them a quality and sincerity very different from what was normally accepted as reality.

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Trancoso Church

Trancoso Church

If Brazil had a center to its soul perhaps this place would be it.

Trancoso is not very far from where the first Portuguese officially stepped on Brazilian soil and if one believes in destiny, this was for a reason…

The region remained remote until the late nineteen seventies and in the meanwhile the church above was built as a mission to convert the natives of the Region, the Pataxos (pronounced Patashohs). Usually churches were built over sacred sites to, in a way, respect the old rituals while telling the natives that the universal white European God was stronger, more widespread and better than theirs.

The church “closes” a square of houses around a huge green that used to constitute the village. The people who live there call it the “rectangle” and behind it lay the tropical forest, the almost extinct Mata Atlantica. The view from behind it is fantastic, one sees the entire coast of the Porto Seguro area from the top of a cliff .

There is no doubt that the Pataxos celebrated their beautiful world at this very spot in their festivals long before the arrival of the white people.

I had the privilege to discover Trancoso when it was just a fishing village with no electricity, populated by locals and by hippies some 25 years ago. Now it has become an international attraction and is visited by tourists from all around the world.

It still preserves its magic though.

Lost Samba, the book, will give you a better description of how it was back in the day, the link to is just besides the article.

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