NORTHEAST POTPOURRI - PART I

Trip Start Feb 20, 2001
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Trip End Jul 30, 2001


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Flag of Brazil  ,
Thursday, July 12, 2001

The state, Bahia, is like a Bahian "Bahiga" (stomach). They're both crammed full of lots of weird junk.

A Bahian stomach is full acarajes (shrimp sandwiches using deep-fried bread buns), curupi (like eating seaweed), and cocoa juice.

Bahia state, meanwhile, is a west-blowing flag-shaped place half-Brazilian Northeast, one-third Africa, one-tenth Portugal, and one-fifteenth American West. If there's a fraction left over, let that be the part I either forgot, couldn't understand, or just felt would be more interesting if I made it up.

A bed is made up of sheets.

Hence, I went to Lençois, Bahia, a town whose name means "sheets".

It got this name after a battle the early settlers had with indians. The whole of the town, greatly outnumbered by their vicious adversaries, expected to be captured that evening and aten. However, led by the cunning and determination of Col. Mudgiflump, they covered the town in bed-sheets and hid beneath. When the indians came, they didn't recognize the town and were confused. Soon, the indians got tired and went to sleep. At midnight, the settlers sprung up and surrounded the indians from within the very beds they rested on. Naturally, the indians thought this was all just a nightmare. But, in the time it took them to say "Wake up!" in their descriptive tongue ("Pupapurapu-gigi-guka-makh-vakimi-uppi-pupapurapu-pupu!"), they all perished. The town's joyous victory was immortalized by the song, "The Mudgiflump Bamboozledom."

(This story was the part of Bahia that's more interesting if I make it up. The name's real origin came because the town's roofs look like bed sheets from above.)

450 miles inland, Lençois lies in the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina. This beautiful area is made up of hard, red soil, dry trees, cacti that look like a bunch of cucumbers had been carelessly blotted together with crazy glue, and the straw-colored grass with branching ends which is perfect for sticking between your teeth as you walk. The sky ended distantly at rocks and ridges resembling anvils or turtles. Vitality-giving air breathed like the American West.

I was up for some hiking and camping.

Campers like to say they do what they do "to get in touch with nature." But, even if for some insane reason a civilized person actually enjoys laying his back on a sharp rock with nothing to do for twelve hours but feel the bugs crawling up his nose, each of us campers is really just cheap and trying to save a couple bucks on accomodation.

There are even more joys of camping, and I got to experience them: the joy of eating nothing but chocolate milk and smushed fruit; marvelling at how every time you take something out of your backpack it becomes more and more impossible to close; discovering that kilometers, like shadows, get longer as the day of walking goes on; trying to make a fire with thorny, flame-proof sticks; successfully hanging your hammock after having thudded three times to the ground on previous sleep attempts; getting a full-body kiss good-night by cold, misty rain; hearing nocturnal wilderness (such as a hawk-sized bat that flew at my hammock and caused me, in a strange defense tactic, to slam my forearm straight into my nose); and treating yourself to an expensive hotel the next day, sometimes checking in so early you have to pay for the night before too - but you no longer care at this point because you're freezing and hungry and tired and sore and smelly and there are leaves in your socks and you just want to forget you ever had this stupid "saving a couple bucks on accomodation" idea!

Above all, you do "get in touch with nature." For a few moments, the trail I walked was enchanted by a huge rainbow whose colors went from red to purple once and then from red to purple again. Its end, to the right, was a low valley that floated on like Scrooge McDuck's money bin. Instead of gold, it was full of grass, lakes, a round bush forest, and scattered trees.

Passing beneath the colorful gate, I soon reached my trek's destiny. In a hole at the bottom of a huge rock, called Gruta Azul (Blue Cave), there were small fish who seemed to be flying in air. It was here that I enjoyed a much-needed, relaxing snorkel. There ain't much like paddling about in drinkable water as clear as your living room and sinking thirty feet down with a flashlight to make friends with a solitary shrimp beneath his blue rock. Aaaah, relief.

If only I could become a fish and never have to hike and hike and hike and hike again. After pulling myself thirty-plus kilometers in two days, I splurged on a Lençois hotel.

Lençois has more to offer than just the story of Col. Mudgiflump. Its refreshing river flows from secluding brown mountains, its colorful houses line stony streets, its people know one another, and its breakfasts come with a dozen bread and potato concoctions that even most Brazilians wouldn't recognize. If only the locals picked up hitchhikers (who have already walked THIRTY-TWO DARN KILOMETERS!), it would be a perfect place to live.

I went long-distance rock-jumping the next day, climbing the Lençois River. At a place I call "The Giant's Steps", huge rocks had fallen in a climbing path upriver to the tall, green ridges behind. Later on, I visited a place where water careened swiftly over a wide, hundred-foot slope. You can let the water flush you all-the-way down, where you're out of control journey will launch you into a rock-surrounded swimming hole.

But the prettiest surprise of the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina were the birds. I saw:

a maple-colored bird with a head shaped like New York State

a brown bird with white zags on its wings and tails. The tips of its wings and tail were black. When it extended its arms and flew, the colored zags lined up like an incomplete pentagon.

baltimore orioles. Their orange was so bright it was unreal. They had black on their wings and faces and stood proud like soldiers.

a bird whose yellow was as bright as the orioles' orange. It had a dark green line across its eyes.

A tiny, quick, glistening aqua hummingbird who gathered nectar from a red, spider-balled, purple-petalled flower.

Seeing that hummingbird's wings fluttering at hundreds of beats a minute sure made me tired. Luckily, a friend of mine from college had a place for me to visit in Salvadore, the capital of Bahia.

My friend, Christina, is a Bahianinha, which means she's also crammed full with lots of stuff. Christina is one-eighth long brown hair, one-eighth milky white skin, one-quarter her dimply smile of an angel, and one-half pure sweetness.

Actually, Christina couldn't be "pure" sweetness, because she's only half sweetness. Pure sweetness would be five-sixteenths cocoa juice, fourteen-thirty seconds innocent thoughts, and one-quarter honey, which is three-quarters the flower and one-fourth work of the bee. Work of the bee, in turn, is two-sevenths making the hive, six-nineteenths pollinizing flowers, and, let's see, what does that leave over, two-hundred and three-three hundred and sixty-firsts? ... Boy, this one's tought to figure out.

As if having a wife who is one-thirty second "work of the bee" wouldn't be reward enough, Christina and I have decided that if we get married it'll be in Salvadore's wealthiest church, Igreja do São Francisco. The length of this church is contrasting alternation between dull, white plaster and thick, shiny gold. It felt like I was in a time machine, watching the Golden Ages fly by. The church came courtesy of the Portuguese.

Bahia's African culture comes from a large black population that resulted from slavery in old times. The best part of this culture, I think, is the music. Grupo Olodum is a nine-member Salvadopian band where nobody plays na instrument other than a green-red-yellow-and-black drum. With all the drum beats going at once and a singer howling like he's on the plains of the Congo, it's tough to stop your feet from bouncing around to the percussion.

And this brings us to Bahia's largest part: the Brazilian Northeast ...
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