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Brazil

Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara

 
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Low tide forces us to board the catamaran from the beach.
Michael Palin - BrazilIt's eight o'clock in the morning. I'm standing, a little sleep-deprived, on a spur of sand waiting for a boat to take me across St Mark's Bay, north and west of São Luís, to Alcântara, once upon a time the state capital and one of the most prosperous towns in Brazil. The fact that I have to take my shoes off, roll up my trousers and wade out to a small, run-down catamaran to get there says everything about how times change. There is a road to Alcântara, but it can take many hours to get around the bay, so the town now depends on two ferries a day. They would normally leave from a jetty in the centre of São Luís but it's low tide and there isn't enough draught, so the twenty-odd passengers for the nine o'clock boat wait in line on a strip of beach blasted equally by the sun and the roar of construction from a land reclamation site nearby.

By half past nine we are squeezed aboard, the sail is hoisted and the engine gurgles to life. One of the two-man crew picks up a stack of lifejackets, but instead of giving them out, he stows them under a seat to make more room for people to sit down. Very Brazilian.

As we bounce across the bay I find myself trying out my limited Portuguese on two middle-aged women travelling together. They are in São Luís for a weekend and a visit to historic old Alcântara is a must. They're from the neighbouring state of Ceará. 'É bonita?' I ask. They turn their noses up. 'Ceará cultura?' Both heads shake in unison 'Não'.

Ninety minutes later there's much gesticulating as our boat slides into a small bay fringed with mangroves. Some are pointing out the twin-towered, white-washed cathedral on the hill but most are looking the other way, at a number of bright red dots on the shoreline. These are scarlet ibis, a bird normally dull grey, but here their plumage has a vivid blush owing to their diet of crustaceans. The engine dies and we pull alongside a jetty. In the murky weed-strewn water beside it the wooden skeleton of an old sailing ship lies beached and slowly rotting. It seems such an apt symbol of Alcântara's fortunes that I wonder if it's been left there deliberately. But the place isn't dead yet. As we walk across a bridge and onto the shore, we're greeted by Brazil at full volume. A thumping blast of reggae shakes the air from the Lanchonete (snack-bar) Ponto Sagrado. It's very hot and humid, so before climbing up the hill into the heart of the town we seek out a nearby pousada where a big Afro-Brazilian lady prepares coffee and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. She's assisted by two daughters, the prettier of whom serves at table whilst the other, I notice, is confined to the kitchen. A dog lies stretched out blocking the doorway and across the street two men sit on a low wall in the shade of a mango tree. One of them rolls his sweatshirt up to air a large, round belly, which he rubs reflectively as he talks.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 23: São Luís to Alcântara
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 104

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