Thursday, May 25, 2017

Exile in Chuy and Respite in Ilha Grande

Shortly after arriving in Rio Grande, Brazil, an industrial port 750 miles south of our intended landfall, we found out that I would have to leave the country to get a visa. I won't forget how I skipped into the Customs office that morning, after seventeen challenging days at sea, without a care in the world. I was planning my afternoon on land, appreciating the stucco pastels of the buildings, thinking of my new passport stamp. Then I got kicked out. After much googling and conversation beneath furrowed brows, it was determined that the easiest way to do this would be to take a five hour bus to the border where Uruguay and Brazil share a mysterious city named Chuy. I would spend a night in a hotel in order to be at the Brazilian Consulate on the Uruguayan side first thing on Monday. That same Monday Max would have to be in Rio Grande completing the paperwork necessary to check our boat into Brazil.

Living the dream...

By Tuesday the wind would shift and we would have to move 750 more miles north. It was Saturday. Even if I had been able to stay with Max and complete all the boat work necessary for another voyage, it still would have been a challenge. On our walk back from immigration, as the reality of the coming days set in, we decided that I would travel alone to Chuy and Max would have to do all the boat work himself. This would include washing all the clothing, rinsing the salt from our foulies, schlepping jerry cans of diesel and water, both of which required an entirely new supply, re-stocking food, and cleaning and organizing the chaos of a boat tossed about by the sea for three weeks. I would have to travel alone to a distant city, carrying a good deal of cash and important papers, and complete all the forms and applications, and then wait. If everything went well, I would return Monday evening and we would set sail Tuesday morning at 4 a.m. Needless to say, we were fairly crestfallen by the time we returned to the marina.

At the marina we were invited to a BBQ by a group of Brazilians celebrating the end of their internships. We should have gotten to work, but in the mood of the completely overwhelmed, we sat with them for three hours. They were thrilled to demonstrate the superiority of Brazilian BBQ to any other in the world. They roasted pork, beef, and chicken on long swords over a smoking fire. A plate of sliced meat was being continually passed around and each person took a slice of meat, rolled it in some sort of tasty bread crumbs, ate, and having made an exclamation of deliciousness, passed it on. A mug of mate followed. We told them all about our trip and they asked endless questions in English. Their reactions were a chorus of wonder in Portuguese and then another question in English was posed. The hours passed and we ate a lot more meat, salad, and then Maracuja Pudding and Chocolate pancakes rolled in condensed, sweetened milk. Then I announced that in the morning I was traveling alone to Chuy. They gasped. They chatted among themselves. They had me repeat this strange fact.

They told me I absolutely couldn't go to Chuy alone. That I would definitely be robbed. The bus takes forever. It stops to pick up all the goats and chickens. I really didn't know if that was a joke. Brazil is very dangerous, they assured me, women cannot travel alone here, especially foreigners who don't speak Portuguese. My heart was sinking as they confirmed all the things we had read and been told about Brazil. I wondered if it was tremendously stupid for me to travel alone. I knew Max would go with me if I even hinted at it, but I also knew it would be a  waste of valuable time and we would miss our friends who had bought expensive tickets to meet us in our next port, Ilha Grande. The truth was that I didn't want to give into the idea that I couldn't do something because of my gender, that I needed a male escort (though Max is my favorite male escort). He approaches things like this with a deep seated confidence that seems to grow with everything he pulls off and be undiminished by those things that don't work out. He can also adopt the cadence and slang of a region so well that in Colombia he sounds like a Colombian, in Chile he sounds Chilean, and in Brazil he can get by quite well in Portuguese. But I knew he couldn't go, that we had too much to pull off to not split up, that we had to make it to Ilha Grande on time.

And so I went to Chuy alone and it was totally easy, safe, and I was helped in all scenarios by all people I met. I did take many precautions. I created a fake wallet out of expired credit cards, a license, and enough cash to satisfy an offender. I kept my real credit card, a ton of cash in different currencies, my passport, and the paperwork describing my unique situation in a home made pouch I tied around my waist and tucked into my jeans. I put my fake wallet in a fake purse and left for Chuy almost wanting some punk to grab it and spend hours in futile attempts at credit card fraud. I only traveled early in the morning and got a hotel right away. I was embarrassed when the bus driver asked for my passport and I had no choice but to remove it from what appeared to be my underwear.

Chuy is a dusty border town celebrating the dizzying freedom of a tax free zone. Booze, cigarettes, and all the cheap plastic crap imaginable. For miles the dusty streets, a layer of garbage flattened into the uneven surface, advertise signs for things "duty free" or "neutral." Vendors, whose accents and clothing suggest long running struggles with immigration, hawk the fleeting plastic treasures that arrive by the container ships I nervously search the horizon for while on passages. This bright cornucopia of crap gets turned around for pennies on the street and within weeks trucked off to a landfill where they remain forever, looking as garish as the day they arrived. I spent two afternoons wandering this town waiting on the visa. Beneath the material facade, behind the vendors whose minds deftly calculated the exchanges between dollars, reais, and pesos, Chuy was harboring a sizable population in limbo. I heard Arabic more than Spanish, graffiti demanded Palestinian liberation, and inside the shops, behind the cash registers, were artifacts from the old countries- a small flag from Egypt, a tapestry embroidered with a Koranic prayer. In many shops, behind the bedazzled t-shirts, or mountains of knock off Crocs, there was another store selling what appeared to be heirloom items. Plates and swords engraved in Arabic, framed pictures of Middle Eastern scenes. I wasn't the only person in Chuy in a unique type of transit, waiting for paperwork to filter back from the bureaucratic abyss, but I may have been the one with the shortest wait.

Concerning the visa, I had to spend one day racing around Chuy accumulating paperwork. They needed passport photos, bank statements, the boat registration, an online form submitted, electronic photos of my signature, passport, in addition to 5,600 Uruguayan Pesos, proof of the payment of a fine for illegal entry. Each of these was a challenge to accomplish in the streets of Chuy, in Spanish, during a storm that darkened the city at several points during the day and flooded the streets. The Brazilian consulate gave me the list of necessary docs at nine in the morning, and by 3 p.m., I returned with everything, moments before they closed. I donned my fake purse and acted like it was perfectly normal to keep removing papers and cash from my underwear. Then I had to wait. Two nights and three days after leaving Rio Grande, I walked back down the dock to Tortuga, a legal visitor to Brazil in a new pair of knock off Crocs that broke the next day. The sun was setting, the current was running out, and the wind was coming from the south. Max and I exchanged the sagas of our separate adventures rapidly over a beer before getting to work. We set out for the 750nm passage to get to Ilha Grande, meet up with Tony and Alex. We had not failed yet.

Ilha Grande

The excitement of returning to Tortuga quickly turned serious as we encountered the current pushing the sea up Rio Grande at three knots. We would not be lucky in riding it out as we had not been lucky in riding it in. The sun set, hours passed, we dressed in our foulies and pushed our way out to sea. As we encountered the end of the breakwater the confused chop and strange current where river and ocean interact tossed us about and I began to realize that I wasn't quite in the mood for a long night of watches and a week at sea after a stressful break of only a couple days. But sailing is work, setting out again can feel lonely just as often as it can be exhilarating and nobody said that a circumnavigation of South America would be super fun all the time. So I entered again the metaphoric cold pool and adjusted my body to the temperature.

We left Rio Grande as soon as we could to catch the south wind of a depression for every hour it would last. We had become familiar with the weather patterns along the southern coast of Brazil. During this time of year, the winds are often light and from the north, a scenario that does not allow our boat to excel, to say the least. The good thing is that the depressions come every several days with amazing reliability. They bring clouds, rain, and colder air. They bring squalls with disagreeable wind shifts and then frustrating calms, but they also bring the only south winds available and one must push north with haste before the wind continues backing in its endless circle. The first few days of our passage were characterized by this south wind and thoughtful watches where we would tweak the sails to make as many miles as possible.

Then the wind backed to the northeast and we were thrown into the frustrations of our seventeen days from The Falklands to Brazil, making hardly any headway with our expected date of arrival in Ilha Grande getting closer. I lost all my civility, certainly my grit, and passed the days starring out to sea and thinking of home. It is not to the benefit of sailors to lack patience, to rush, or to find fault in a changing wind or sea state. The lessen of the sea is of patience, time, and the observation of, not the frustration with, changes in weather. And yet, I was slumped in the misty rain, feeling uninspired to change sails or heed the dark clouds at the horizon. I felt pained by the textured surfaces of wind blown waves and ached for a flat water anchorage and a mindless stroll on solid ground. In Joseph Conrad's short story, Youth, he writes....

I need not tell you what it is to be knocking around in an open boat. I remember nights and days of calm, when we pulled, we pulled, and the boat seemed to stand still, as if bewitched within the circle of the sea horizon. I remember the heat, the deluge of rain squalls that kept us baling for dear life, and I remember sixteen hours on end with a mouth dry as a cinder and a steering-oar over the stern to keep my first command head on to a breaking sea. I did not know what a good man I was until then.

When I am at sea and things become difficult, the hours drag on under some stress or another, I remember this passage and think, that for me, it's more like I never knew what a little shit I was until then, and I have never had to take to the dingy and battle the seas with only an oar. This is just as valuable of a lesson, to reach the end of one's ethic, to feel the limits of your perseverance and be reminded that you have not shed the tantrums of childhood completely. Luckily, there is still time to work on that.

The conditions favored us in our remaining days to Ilha Grande and we saw the jungle clad rising of the scattered islands just seven days after leaving Rio Grande. We made it and were not too late to spend three days with Tony and Alex exploring the beaches of Ilha Grande. As the land came into view all the stresses of the last month faded. The air was warm and balmy, the islands were surprisingly undeveloped and covered in dense natural beauty. I saw distant beaches with bronze sand and quiet green water and felt the childlike excitement of another unveiled coast. We dropped anchor in Abroaa, a town accessible by ferry where Tony and Alex could meet us that evening.

Abraao is the quintessential beach town beckoning tourists with tables on the beach under carefully lit canopies. We were not impervious to such temptations and waited gleefully at one of those tables for Tony and Alex to step off a ferry, which they did that evening, with heavy packs ready for a sailing tour of Ilha Grande.

We stopped at many anchorages in Ilha Grande and enjoyed the featureless water of snug anchorages. We swam off the boat throughout the day encountering turtles, fish, and the cool waters we had been waiting so long for. The island is densely forested and remains unspoiled by tourism though it is close to Rio and visited by a lot of people everyday. The colors of the place stick- the green water that finishes in perfect clarity on cinnamon beaches. The dark forests with flowering trees that grow darker and denser as the afternoon clouds come to cool off the day. The energy of the island and the small towns here and there is peaceful and rejuvenating. After our time with Tony and Alex we went back for three more days of the Ilha Grande feeling. This is unusual for us but we had a sense that the island was restoring something we had run out of and would need again.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Brazilian Coast: Buzios to Abrolhos

Part I: Buzios

Our trip consists of passages and landfalls. When we tire of one, we find relief in the other. The short passages take you away from civilization and reduce the world to sea, sky, and the thoughts in your mind. Long passages cut to the quick, find the bottom of your patience, and if you look out at the sea and sky long enough, what once seemed so obvious reveals itself as complex beyond your ability to understand. After a long passage, sighting land, and the details of man and nature that come into view as you draw nearer, allow you to re-enter the world as if seeing it for the first time. Imagine that for many days you are alone on the ocean reacting only to changes in wind, rain, and light, and then you are suddenly standing in the food court of a Brazilian mall watching four men drink nearly frozen beer out of a comically large mug with mini taps mounted on the bottom. Or you are riding in a taxi through a busy market place at a rate of speed ten times faster than a sailboat can move, doing nothing to make it go. This is how we live, you think. How it is at home too. This is the goal of civilization. Our travels in Brazil have brought us to these experiences, but also to the opposite. The experience of approaching a coast that has not been touched by man, an undredged channel, an uninterrupted erosion, a coastline instead of a sea wall, or amber-lit Malecon. Landfall as it must have been in all the great stories of the sea. These are the places that entice me to endure the hardship of long passages.

Buzios juts out from the Brazilian coast like an upturned thumb. This peninsula is pocked with bays on the southern and northern shores. Regardless of the wind direction, which changes throughout the year, there are always calm waters to be found in Buzios. The islands off the peninsula, and the shallow waters, are home to fish, whales, and rays. On our approach the wind and current were coming from the north as is said to be the pattern after May. As we rounded the peninsula the windward shore was awash with spray creating mist that rose up from the indentations in the coast. The ocean was bright cobalt against the granite of the cliffs and the dark sea caves like mouths agape. It was breathtaking. We saw a Whaleshark surface and Rays were doing back flips. In the distant I saw whale spouts. I was sure that my decision to stop here would be commended by Max. And then we turned the corner. The protected waters of the bay, and the small, curved beaches were choked with boats and people. There wasn't room to spread a towel on the sand, and high speed water taxis flew across the water. Terrible music sounded from dozens of motorboats and we could here the loudspeakers coming from the tourist sailboats that never raise a sail. Crap, I thought. Max is not going to like this. We anchored by the yacht club and decided to go ashore and give the place a fair shake. A fishing boat came over to talk to us and took us into town.

Buzios is Nantucket Gone Wild. The streets are a non-stop commercial assault. Each stretch of sidewalk is the territory of a restaurant where waiters must impede your progress with a menu in the face and promises of seafood and cheap Chacaca. Max thought he could find a fishing store, but all you can buy in Buzios is a high enb bikini, very large sunglasses, or one thousand dinners out on the town. Many storefronts are filled with mannequins donning the haute-couture version of the already flamboyant Brazilian bikini. Taken to the next level you may purchase one that has a front but not a back, a back with a minimal front, one that shows only the bottom of your breasts, or just the sides somehow. Real women, well almost entirely real, walk the streets modeling these bikinis, veins like arthritic fingers bulge from their gravity defying assets. If you aren't in the market for this, a pair of sunglasses, or a picture with a bronze statue of Bridget Bardot, Buzios has nothing to offer. We struggled to find a supermarket. We indulged in expensive coffees, checked our emails, and left early the next morning. More than ever I was convinced that our next landfall should be the Abrolhos Archipelago, a place known for its remoteness, healthy reefs, and drastic restrictions on human behavior.

We sailed 250 miles north to Abrolhos dodging the traffic of the oil fields offshore. At this part of the Brazilian coast the weather becomes so much more favorable. It almost snuck up on me that we were in such calm waters, with a light breeze and no squalls on the horizon. Sailing on the southern coast had been characterized by riding depressions northward and accepting that that plan came with capricious weather, intermittent rain, and dark patches on the horizon that could completely reverse the wind direction. We had grown used to that and hoped the sailors who advised us that this would change were right. They were. North of Buzios we found ourselves in what might as well have been the trades, though a weaker wind seemed to prevail. We spent all day outside again, able to use all deck space. No rain, no spray, just ease and comfort for a change.

Part II: Abrolhos

Abrolhos is for the birds. On one island the Brown Booby nests. Another the White Booby defends. The tallest island, and most striking with steep, feces-stained cliffs seen from afar, belongs to the Magnificent Frigate Bird that soars higher than the others, making its living off stealing the freshly caught fish of the Booby. The birds that had gone to sea for food greeted us five miles out, and as we got closer to landfall, we saw black clouds of activity above each island.

The approach to Abrolhos

The reefs of Abrolhos come into view ten miles away as a camouflage pattern of turquoise. These reefs create shallows stretching from the mainland to the archipelago which lies thirty-five miles offshore. These reefs had unpleasantly surprised many navigators giving the islands their name, an evolution of Abra los oyos, open your eyes. Navigating in from the south is preferable because there is a clear path of adequate depth straight to the mooring in front of the largest island, Santa Barbara. We arrived in the morning and called the Abrolhos Lighthouse on 16. They were welcoming and encouraged us to take a mooring in front of the main island. The bright colors of the green water hitting the black, porous coasts of the volcanic islands make the approach to Abrolhos alone worth the trip. Where the islands curved in to create beaches, I saw the now familiar cinnamon colored sands of the Brazilian Coast. The islands were almost free of human influence and I was thrilled to look at them and know that they looked as they always had. It is rare to make landfall and see what a sailor a hundred years ago may have seen.

As soon as we were secured to the mooring, we were surprised to see two people swim out to meet us. They climbed aboard, introduced themselves as volunteers for the Marine Conservancy, and offered us a brief history of Abrolhos, running us through the rules. We were only permitted on two islands and had to be accompanied by a guide at all times. We could move to any of the dozen moorings as we pleased, attaining protection from all winds and easy access to the reefs. In guidebooks these rules are described as Draconian, but I understand them to be necessary to maintain such a pristine environment, especially when Humpback season comes around and the tourists show up in drogues. I enjoyed having the guides with us. One, Guillermo in case he is reading, was thrilled to sail with us around the islands and took us snorkeling to see the different species of turtles. He was able to answer all of my bird questions and tell us about life as a student in Rio where there are frequent student strikes. Maybe we were just excited to hang out with some one other than each other for once. We even tried to take him with us to the next port.

Guillermo points out the nesting Bermuda Longtail
With Guillermo we swam to the lowest island and toured the nesting grounds of the White Booby. There is only a small path along the water where visitors are allowed to walk. We were told that if a bird is in the path, we must always defer to the the ocean side, so as not to threaten the breeding grounds. On the path we saw many adolescent Boobies, seemingly confused by the cowlicks of an advanced state of molting, their masked faces like that of an aged clown, freshly powdered. They stared up at us with yellow, curious eyes, but did not move. Higher up on the island the mothers were looking out to sea, ambivalent to the open and upturned beaks of their hungry and demanding young, awkward puffs of bright white filling the nest. Around the corner of the island we found a pair of the Bermuda Longtail, who prefer the protection of an overhanging cliff to the openness of the Boobies' nests. The Bermuda Longtail mate for life and, all around Abrolhos, the couples swoop trying to out sing one another. You would think that they are all white but closer they are iridescent as pearls with red beaks and dramatic black markings on their cheeks. Unlike the silly looking Booby, they have intelligent eyes that suggest an understanding of the effect their elegant flight and the calligraphic detail of their tail feathers have on admirers.

Bermuda Lontail

A female Magnificent Frigate Bird
The reefs in Abrolhos were the healthiest we have seen, and the diversity and size of the fish the greatest. As each of the islands belongs to a type of bird, each of the reefs is home to a type of turtle, the Hawkbill, the Green, and the Loggerhead turtles being present in great numbers. In the mornings we could see them surfacing all around our boat for a few gulps of oxygen before returning to their rich feeding grounds. We snorkeled as much as we could entertaining ourselves by chasing around fat, blue Parrot Fish or just staring at the neon of Angelfish as big as Thanksgiving platters. Max was lucky enough to see a cloud of Cuddle fish and a Great Barracuda.

In the evenings we sat on the deck and watched the birds, the slipping away of the sun and were the only two voices. We waited to see the lighthouse keeper remove the curtains that protect the lantern from its own ability to magnify light. We turned the lighthouse on one night and were able to look into the rings of glass to see just a regular light bulb turned into one of the brightest lighthouses in the world by the precise alignment of the thick glass gills. We had seen the glow of the lighthouse from 20nm away as it bent around the curvature of the earth. From the deck of our moored boat it looked like a diamond just catching the light of a chandelier, except that it was the only light.

Abrolhos reminded me of the grandeur of nature and the superior parts of man. A place dedicated to a celebration of the ocean beyond that of day drinking and eating treats hawked by sun weary beach vendors from plastic cups that moments later are rolling towards the surf or spilling from garbage cans. A place where the birds fight over struggling silver Needlefish taken to astounding heights, dropped, and caught again, instead of french fries from ketchup stained baskets. Instead of the thonged, tattooed, and silicone enhanced bottoms showcased by flabby beach goers, and preceded at all times by selfie sticks and beers gripped by acrylic talons, there were just the seven inhabitants of Abrolhos, each with a specific duty, treading lightly in flip flops and t-shirts reminiscent of conservancies and projects to which they had dedicated their time. It is the expectation of Abrolhos that visitors will arrive with everything they need. They will not even go ashore unaccompanied, let alone end up sipping Caiprihinas and dancing the Samba with a girl who looks like Gisele. It is a different kind of Brazilian vacation. You may only take away an appreciation for the vibrant life below and above the surface, not even a postcard, which you can even get on Cape Horn.

On approach to Abrolhos we were flanked by a pod of breaching Humpbacks arriving to warmer waters to mate. To think that we had been following them around South America for a year felt surreal. We had seen them in Panama teaching their calves to breach. We had seen them in the Arctic waters of the Beagle Channel getting fat on clouds of Krill. And then they were swimming north at about our speed, launching themselves into the sun and displacing buildings of white spray. They were on their way to Abrolhos where the males would sing to the females and start the process again. We had never intended the migrations of the whales to factor into our trip, in fact I had considered it hazardous, but now that I have seen them I would do this trip again just for that reason.

We left Abrolhos on another bright blue day just as the reef was coming to life. Escorted out by a pod of dolphin, I scanned the surface for the last curry-colored patches of surfacing turtles. We were 300 miles from our next stop in the city of Salvador and the weather looked favorable for days.