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.