16 November 2011

CYCLING BRAZIL (3) - Ilheus to Recife

With the help of friends back in South Africa, there was at last some news about Amanda’s bank card. We decided to stay on in Ilhéus until the card arrived, as having it sent forward again to an address where we were not yet staying would be way too problematic.

Ilhéus is a pretty coastal town, with a fair amount of historic buildings dating back to its cocoa heyday. Whether we were going to be able to keep ourselves occupied for 7 days though, I was not sure… When we enquired about a “disconto” in anticipation of our long stay, the receptionist laughingly pointed out that although we don’t speak any Portuguese, we sure knew the word “disconto”!!

Ilhéus is also the hometown of Jorge Amado, a well-known and popular writer in Brazil. His novels, like Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, portray the life and customs of the north-eastern region of Brazil. I was looking forward to reading one of his books, but could find no English books in Ilhéus. In the meantime, we inspected all the old buildings in town and walked up the hill to The Church of Nossa Senhora da Piedade. Situated high up on a hill overlooking Ilhéus, it looked more like a fairy castle than a church.

There is only so much sightseeing one can do, so we spent the rest of our days on the beach eating ice cream, grilled cheese and quail eggs (not considered a delicacy here). At night we walked out to the beachfront stalls for cheap nibbles and thick milkshakes. Although Ilhéus is a fairly small town, it’s quite lively and at night the cobblestone alleys are alive with food vendors, bars and street theatres.

The history of Ilhéus:

Ilhéus is the main city along what is known as Brazil’s “Cocoa Coast.” The town dates back to the early 1500s when it thrived due to the sugarcane trade. However, its true boom came in the late 19th-century with the introduction of cacau (cocoa). Plummeting world sugar prices and the abolition of slavery caused the sugar plantations to go into decline.

Cocoa—which earned the nickname ouro branco (white gold)—drew freed slaves and entrepreneurs to the lush hills surrounding Ilhéus, all of them seized by the desire to strike it rich (or at least earn a decent living). A handful of “cocoa barons” (known as coronéis or “colonels”), with vast plantations, did indeed become immensely wealthy and powerful.

They basically ruled over their workers, and the region as a whole, until the 1980s, when a disease known as vassoura de bruxa (“witch’s broom”) decimated the cocoa trees and left the region’s economy in ruins, from which it has only recently begun to recuperate.

Today, traces of the legacy of the “colonels” can be seen by wandering among the grandiose mansions and civic buildings of Ilhéus’s historical center. One can read about their exploits in the novels (particularly The Violent Land) of famous Brazilian author Jorge Amado. Many of his books are set in his hometown of Ilhéus. (Source: Moon Travel Guides)

13/14 October -Ilheus
By far the cheapest meal is to be found in self-service restaurants. These normally offer a large variety of food and even desserts, and the food is delicious! You just dish up and weigh your plate. These restaurants are however normally only open between 12h00 and 14h00. Brazilians tend to have a big lunch and then a snack in the evening.

At night we went out (like true South Africans) looking for the espetinhos vendors. One can find these vendors just about everywhere: standing at mobile charcoal grills, selling their espetinhos (small kebabs). The smell of the grilled meat normally tells you exactly where they are! Espetinhos can be skewers of beef, sausage, chicken, or even cheese. These skewers are normally served with a hot sauce and a sandy flour-like concoction (which we normally skipped).

In the unlikely event that you can’t find an espetinhos vendor, there is always the acarajé stall. Acarajé is a dish made from peeled black-eyed peas which are formed into a ball and then deep-fried in palm oil (or so I’m told). It’s by far the most popular street food around here. It’s served split in half and stuffed with a tomato and onion salad, a very hot sauce and pasta made from corn (I think). Often there are shrimps somewhere in the dish as well.

Both these dishes are considered to be snacks and are very popular as they are really cheap. Personally I preferred buying from the lady who ran the stall on the square because she did not deep-fry her acarajé but rather cooked the ball (of whatever) in a banana leaf. Her acarajé also had no shrimp in it and a more distinct coconut flavour.

And just to top it all off: there’s normally chocolate cake to be found somewhere!

15 October - Ilheus – Itacare - 74 km
After waiting 8 full days for Amanda’s bank card to arrive, there was still no post for us. We decided to continue down the coast and take a bus back to Ilheus, if and when the bank card arrived. Whether that was going to work out or not, we would have to wait and see. Shortly after leaving Ilheus, we spotted a chocolate factory so we just had to go inside! This is, after all, Brazil’s “Cacao Coast” and one is bound to find some chocolatey things around.

We followed the road through a thick and lush coastal forest and soon saw an artist’s house hidden in the woods. We explored and found some rather wacky art. The road was quite hilly and Amanda did not feel well. We waved down a bus and she bussed herself to Itacare, while I continued down the road. The hills also created opportunity for some stunning views. Miles of snow white, half-deserted beaches stretched as far as the eye could see. I soon reached Itacare and found Amanda already booked into a hostel. Fortunately she came walking down the road just as I cycled into town. I would have never found the hostel otherwise, as it was hidden away in one of the side streets.

We spent the following day in Itacare - a surfing/hippie coastal village. There was a rather large amount of tattooed, pierced and dreadlocked people around. Everyone seemed laidback and without a care in the world. They must be smoking the good stuff. A good place to hang out for the day.

17 October - Itacare – Camamu - 58 km
As we are now moving more into central Brazil, it’s becoming increasingly hazy, hot, humid and watery. Villages are also becoming more remote, rural and traditional. It’s also becoming a lot more hilly. Amanda completely threw her toys out of the cot today. After 15km we came across a bus stop and there she stayed. We arranged to meet in the next village and I left her in the good care of some school children. I set off down the road over countless hills. About 5km before Camamu I stopped at a view point and saw Amanda going past in the bus. I felt better knowing that she was all right.

Camamu is a small fishing village surrounded by mangrove swamps, and it was easy to find both the centre and Amanda. We cycled around the small village looking for a place to stay, and in the end opted for a cheap (windowless) room in the centre of town.

18 October - Camamu – Valenca - 71 km

Amanda decided to take the bus again and we arranged to meet in Valenca, the next biggest town. I had a fantastic day’s riding. The road ran through some dense forests with tiny villages hidden behind palm trees and banana plants. The day offered all the images one conjures up when thinking of central Brazil. Jungle-clad hillsides, mangrove swamps, remote villages, where women did washing in the streams and carried their wares in baskets on their heads.

As I cycled past small villages, people instantly stopped what they were doing. They spun around to watch me, staring, motionless with mouths open, at this crazy women on a bike. Dogs barked nervously and small kids ran for the safety of their homes. I reached Valenca around midday. There was plenty of time for us to wander around this small, but busy, fishing village. It had a lively riverfront lined with food-stalls and juice stands.

Walking back to our room after a bite to eat, we got absolutely soaked in a sudden downpour. It rains almost every night but at least it’s never cold.

19/24 October - Valenca

After breakfast we were ready to leave when Amanda discovered that the card delivery company was looking for her. It appeared that they had not delivered it to the hotel in Ilheus (as arranged) as we were not physically there. So much for all our careful planning! At least the fraudulent transactions seem to have been refunded.

We immediately contacted the relevant people with our new address and all the telephone numbers we could lay our hands on! At least we then had a telephone number for a person in Brazil. It appeared that the card was somewhere in Brazil and would take 72 hours to arrive - but they don’t deliver over weekends! Which made the expected delivery date the following Monday. We settled in for another long and boring wait.

Although there were beautiful islands close by, we could not afford to leave the hotel just in case the card arrived before the weekend. In the meantime, we watched in amazement as boatloads of islanders arrived in Valence to do their shopping at the local market. The market was packed with all kinds of exotic fruit and vegetables, some of which I’ve never seen before. After a short walk along the river, we also found the local boat builders, which Valence is famous for. Under palm trees and amidst sawdust and large pieces of wood, they were hammering and sawing away at half-constructed boats. Apparently they still maintain 15th Century techniques.

Over the weekend we ran head on into the “The Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help” festival. Thousands of people, all dressed in white, headed up the hill towards the church. The festival came with all the trimmings: an amusement park, toffee apples, food stalls and music. Afterwards there was a kind of mini-carnival with a multitude of beer stalls, music blaring from car boots and people dancing in the street - all very festive! A huge open-top truck carrying a band moved slowly through the streets, with people following behind, swaying to the beat and generally just having a good time.

No one in their right minds would believe me if I told them that the saga with Amanda’s bank card has been going on since 7 September. The incompetence of some people boggles the mind! We waited and we waited!! Every day we were told that it would arrive the following day. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when we were told that a special delivery could be made. Wait for this…at a cost of US$500 and that the card will be delivered the following morning! To cut a long story short, the deal was accepted and guess what?? No card arrived the next morning!!! What is a person to do??

27/28 October - Valenca – Nazare - 47km

We very optimistically waited until 13h00 but no delivery was made. We finally came to a decision to continue on. Of the nearly two months that Amanda has been in Brazil, we have only managed to cycle for one month. We left a note at the hotel for the staff to phone us when the parcel arrived. It was another hot and humid day and Amanda took a lot of strain along the way. She felt faint and shaky so decided to take a bus. We waited twice for a bus to pick her up but none wanted to take the bicycle so we slowly continued on to Nazare.

On reaching Nazare we were surprised to find such an interesting town in the middle of nowhere. It has a central square with a lovely old church and loads of narrow cobblestone alleys. Colourful houses, packed tightly together, lined the hillside. We found a pousada in one of the back alleys with a large balcony overlooking the town.

The next morning we had a pleasant surprise when we learned that the parcel had actually arrived in Valence. We hopped on a mini-bus taxi back to Valence and could hardly believe it that the bank card was actually inside! On arrival back in Nazare it was already too late to continue so we explored the town with all its old colonial buildings and interesting alleys.

29 October - Nazare – Mar Grande - 61 km

With the new bank card safely in Amanda’s panniers, we set off in the direction of Salvador. Again it was hot and humid but Amanda was strong and cycled well. I still, however, had to convince her of the fact that perspiration is very normal under these circumstances! And that she was not coming down with a deadly virus!

We reached Mar Grande around midday and, going by the expression on Amanda’s face, we decided to stay there for the night instead of crossing the bay straight away. Crossing the bay by public ferry was, of course, another concern for her and we had to first take a walk down to the port to check it out. The fact that the sea was rough did not ease her fear at all. We found a rather unusual pousada for the night. Although it was extremely basic it was an interesting place with a huge garden, plenty of arty things and a swimming pool. We were in that pool straight away, both to cool off and to get away from the mosquitoes!

30 October - Mar Grande – Praia Stella Maris - 31 km

First thing in the morning we boarded the ferry across the bay to Salvador. Salvador (once again) turned out to be quite a nice place. We cycled along the coast with its endless beaches until we reached Praia Stella Maris. We stopped at a petrol station to use their toilets and we were approached by a local pousada owner. We decided to check out his pousada and it turned out to be quite nice accommodation, so we stayed for the night.

31 October - Praia Stella Maris – Praia do Forte - 64 km

At breakfast we met some interesting people from Poland. They were in Brazil for the “Brazil ride” and it turned out that they had been to South Africa earlier this year for the “Cape Epic”. Being cyclists themselves, they were intrigued by our adventure and we chatted for quite some time.

The road was kind to Amanda and we reached Praia do Forte without any incidents. We were however quite surprised to find such a touristy village. Praia do Forte is a tiny village but well known for its turtle conservation farm. The streets were lined with curio stalls. Guesthouses jacked their prices up to nearly unaffordable (for us). After riding around for a while, we settled for the least expensive one, which was still quite pricey.

1 November Praia do Forte – Baixio - 78 km

Soon after breakfast we left and, although the road was fairly easy, it was too hot for Amanda. She soon started feeling faint and shaky again. We stopped quite often so she could lie down in the shade to recover.

The people along the way were incredibly friendly. At a petrol station, where we filled up with water, we chatted to a guy who presented us with a lovely pair of earrings just before he boarded the bus again. How cool is that! He also gave us his card and it turned out that he was a jeweler.

We had very little option but to carry on, and eventually we saw a turnoff for Baixio. Not knowing what to expect, we set off down the road and 8km further we found the tiny fishing village of Baixio. It was obviously also a beach place in season as there was more than one guesthouse. We settled for a ground floor room down a sandy path from where we could access both hammocks and a pizzeria. We ordered a pizza and it was surprisingly good. Thin-based with loads of toppings, my very favourite!

Amanda literally passed out under the (not so effective) fan and stayed there for the rest of the night.

2/3 November - Baixio – Sitio do Conde - 51 km

In the morning Amanda still did not feel well and decided to take the bus to Conde (the next village). She soon got a bus and I continued by bike to Conde. The road was fairly hilly and it was maybe a good thing that Amanda took the bus as it bucketed down, nearly all the way. I found Amanda at the bus stop in Conde, which turned out to be not as big as we thought.

We decided to cycle the 6 km down the road to Sitio do Conde, which was a nice laidback beach village. There was hardly anyone around and we were spoilt for choice when it came to picking a guesthouse. We found a reasonably priced one with hammocks on the beach, from where we could watch the pounding waves, just a few metres away.

I felt lazy the following day and we stayed on. We walked along the beach and just hung around in the hammocks for the rest of the day.

4 November - Sitio do Conde – Estancia - 89 km

A prober tropical storm came up in the night and by morning we had serious doubts as to whether to continue on. Amanda (very cleverly) decided to take the bus and we arranged to meet in Estancia. I set off down the ever-so hilly road but encountered a nice tailwind along the way. Taking the bus seems to be quite a lengthy affair. If it was not for me having a flat tyre along the road, I most likely would have arrived in Estancia at about the same time as Amanda.

After crossing the border into the tiny state of Sergipe and with 25km to go, I had a flat tyre. While fixing it, Amanda’s bus came past and I just saw a little white hand waving out of the bus window. By the time I arrived in Estancia she had already found us a room (as well as some cold beers). I could get used to this, and was getting ideas about putting her back on the bus again the following morning!

5 November - Estancia – Aracaju - 78 km

The weather was somewhat better but we still had a good tailwind. Just outside Estancia we turned off the BR101 again and headed for the smaller road along the coast. My back tyre must have been wearing a bit thin as I had not one, but two, flat tyres along the way. At least there is always a whole bunch of helpers when it happens. Must say though, I was getting pretty good at fixing them! Fixing a flat is always a lengthy and interesting process. First one needs to explain where you are from and where you are going and just what the heck you are doing in that neck of the woods, and all that on a bicycle!

When we reached the outskirts of Aracaju we found a pousada for the night instead of heading into the city centre.

We settled in and cycled off to the supermarket to get our usual quota of beer and snacks. The cooler weather is much more agreeable for Amanda as she cycled well and did not even mind cycling to the supermarket.

6 November Aracaju – Pirambu - 53 km
First thing in the morning I fixed all the punctured tubes, just in case I got more flat tyres along the way. The weather was not much better than the previous day. We cycled through the city of Aracaju, which was fairly quiet on a Sunday morning. We followed the coastal road for some time until we reached the tiny fishing village of Pirambu.

It was only midday but it was raining and we found such a good place (a cottage with 2 bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen) at a reasonable price that we off loaded our bags and stayed put for the rest of the day. Good thing too, as it soon came bucketing down and we were fairly pleased with ourselves for deciding to stay. The rainy weather also brought out the biggest frogs I have ever seen. At least the wind kept the mosquitos at bay for a wee while, but as soon as the wind dropped they were back with a vengeance!

7 November - Pirambu – Brejo Grande - 70 km

It continued to rain throughout the night but in the morning it cleared somewhat. A decision was made to take the shortcut along the coast instead of the paved road to the main road and back to the coast again. I did not expect the day to be quite as difficult as it turned out. The rain of the previous two days made the road muddy and slippery. We pushed our bikes up muddy and rutted hills and struggled through wet and soft sand. We slowly bumped along a corrugated road past tiny villages where people on bikes were obviously not seen very often.

It felt like the road had no end. All covered in mud, we finally reached the River Sao Francisco at tiny Brejo Grande.

8 November - Brejo Grande – Portal do Coruripe - 55 km

While having a breakfast of mashed cassava with milk, and a good cup of Brazilian coffee, I watched the world go by in this tiny village. Rickety busses and horse carts came clattering past. Ladies came walking back from the river with their freshly laundered washing, mothers walked their kids to school and farmers were helping each other getting tractors started. Two youngsters were trying to herd a calf but the calf wanted nothing of it. The pushed and they shoved but the calf had other ideas.

On leaving, the owner of the pousada wanted no money from us, neither for the room nor the breakfast! How nice of him. We thanked him profusely and headed down to the river to find a boat to take us to the other side. Amanda was shocked to find that once again she had to board a tiny wooden water taxi in order to reach the other side. The River Sao Francisco is quite a large river and one of many myths. We however never saw the legendary water beast, which is half human and half animal and walks on the bottom of the river and snores!

Safely on the opposite side (and in the state of Algoas) we continued down the road, thankfully on a paved road. The road ran close to the coast, past vast palm tree plantations and one could just catch glimpses of the ocean as we cycled past.

We were well off the beaten track again. The villages were small and the horse and cart still seemed to be in every day use.

In the village of Coruripe we stopped and had our bikes washed at a local car wash. They seemed to take special care as they washed and scrubbed and eventually they came out sparkling clean. We followed the road for a further 5-7 km until we reached the sleepy fishing village of Pontal do Coruripe. With its narrow cobblestone lanes and small central square, it’s a quaint little place. Ladies sat outside their homes weaving baskets or just chatting to neighbours.

Seeing that we did not pay for our accommodation the previous night we splashed out and got a nice room with a sea view.

9/10 November - Pontal Coruripe – Sao Migual - 60 km

It was a fairly hot and hilly day of riding into the wind. Although the going was slow into the wind, Amanda cycled like a pro! The best part of the day was reaching Sao Migual and finding a bungalow which came with a swimming pool, loads of palm trees and a hammock! Amanda wasted no time in cooling off in the pool.

That evening I left my shoes outside on the veranda and woke to find that my only pair of footwear had been eaten by the local dogs. I had to borrow a pair of shoes from Amanda to walk down to the local store to buy a new pair of sandals! We spent the rest of the day doing laundry and trying to get Amanda’s bank card activated.

11 November 2011 (11/11/11) - Sao Migual – Barra de Santo Antonio - 85 km

We left in the spitting rain, and every now and again we had to hide, waiting for the worst of it to pass over. We reached Maceio, the capital of the state of Alagoas, fairly early in the day. We stopped only for cold drinks and then continued on again. Soon after we left the city, we were stopped by a friendly Brazilian who wanted to make conversation. I could clearly see the disappointment on his face when we told him that we could not speak Portugese. We did, however, somehow manage to tell him where we were from and what we were up to. He must have been very impressed as he put his hand into his pocket and presented us with some very-much-needed cash! Just how fantastic is that? Not much further along the way another guy pulled us off and wanted to chat with us. He spoke a bit of English and we established that he also likes to travel by bike. After a few photos were taken, we were on our way again. The Brazilians are just amazing!

At Barra de Santo Antonio we found no accommodation, just one very expensive eco-resort. They must have felt sorry for us as they reduced the price of the accommodation by half, making it just about affordable for us. Needless to say, we stayed in a top-of-the-range chalet with crisp white linen, T.V., air-con and excellent showers. The eco thing is big in Brazil, but I did not see any difference, except that they supplied no toilet paper - just an “ass-gun”, maybe that’s all part of the eco-friendly thing!

12 November - Barra de Santo Antonio – Maragogi - 60 km

After a hearty breakfast at our top-of-the-range digs we saddled up, but Amanda had a flat tyre before we even reached the gate. We followed the dirt road along the coast, not always knowing whether we were on the right road or not. The road was rather muddy and rutted in places but we continued on until we saw a kind of a security booth. The guys assured us that we were on the right road and that we could follow the path over, what appeared to be, private land. We did so and soon ran out of road altogether. We pushed our bikes along a sandy path through palm trees until we reached a river where we, once again, had to cross by a small ferry. Once on the other side of the river we found a paved road and some fantastic beaches and small villages.

Once we reached the small village of Porto de Pedras we had to cross by ferry again. At least this was a proper barge, which made Amanda feel a bit more secure. We followed the cobblestoned road along the coast past numerous small villages.

It was weekend, and with the following Tuesday being a public holiday, many people seemed to have made it a long weekend. The well-off city slickers were out with their big toys and fancy cars, in stark contrast with the villagers on horseback.

13 November - Maragogi – Ipojuca - 90 km

We must have found one of the cheapest (and best) pousadas as most of the truck drivers were overnighting there as well, always a sign that it’s a good deal! We had a local breakfast of cassava and what appeared to be “krummel pap”. Good carbos for the road! It was an interesting road past loads of sugarcane fields. Amanda’s gear cable broke and she struggled on in her “granny” gear until we found a local bike shop where they kind-of fixed it for the time being. The friendly owners wanted no money for their effort. We picked up a nice little tailwind and made good time.

The road, however, deteriorated somewhat and the shoulder became rather rutted and full of potholes. At one stage a bus came careening down on Amanda and, in the process of avoiding it, she hit a pothole and went flying. She was ever-so brave and with blood dripping from her arms and legs she wiped the dust off her and got back on the bike. We still had about 10 km to go before finding a pousada where she could wash herself off and clean her wounds. We had a good laugh as all I could find to bandage her arm was the headscarf that I had in my bag. At least it was colourful with little frills!

14/15 November - Ipojuca – Recife - 46 km

We finally arrived in Recife. It was a bit of a shock after such a long time in the countryside. Recife is a rather large town and very touristy. It was Republic Day in Brazil and therefore a public holiday. All accommodation was fully booked so we had to settle for a rather expensive hotel. It was very hot and humid and the beaches were packed with holidaymakers.

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