Fortaleza, Ceara (1 of 2)

I had always wanted to travel. To find that mythical sun drenched land, far from the mean streets of London, where exotic fruits hung from trees, where I would rub shoulders with exotic people speaking exotic languages and where life moved to the beat of a different rhythm.

My romantically inclined, and almost always solitary wanderings, had taken me on great circles around the globe. I had lived in Asia for some time, I had wandered extensively in Africa and Europe but these countries, however pleasing and rewarding were still far from my own images of Shangri-la. I stayed for some time, drank beer in the sun and then moved on. It seemed that I was indeed searching for something beyond reach.

I discovered my own personal Shangri-la purely by chance a few years ago. In a half-hearted attempt to get me to focus on the academic career which was threatening, my professor – who had come to see me as an infrequent suntanned visitor to the lab – arranged a short lecture tour of the northeast of Brazil for me. I think I knew on my first night, as I strolled down the coastal road numb with jet lag, that I had found somewhere I could be happy. It took me almost two years of what seemed like a lifetime in Asia to get back, and somehow it feels like I never left.

My re-immersion in Brazilian culture began one bright autumn morning in Tokyo when I took the early morning shuttle to Nagoya. A misunderstanding with my ticket had sent me on the least direct route. From Nagoya I would take the red eye to Sao Paulo and then on to Fortaleza – my final destination. Over the years I had flown many times out of Tokyo and the flights were always the same, rows of conservatively dressed businessmen sat silently whilst the odd harassed looking women fretted over the latest fashion magazine.

Today however was different. There was almost a party atmosphere, people were laughing and joking, stories were being swapped and the stewardesses were being flirted with. The plane, much to the shock of the few tired looking businessmen, was almost entirely full of Brazilians. The woman
next to me seeing that I was busily studying Portuguese spoke slowly to me asking my final destination. ‘Ahh’, she replied wistfully when I told
her Fortaleza, ‘very very beautiful’.

Arriving at Sao Paulo after a long flight is never the best introduction to Brazil, and on this particular morning immigration and customs was packed. A harassed looking custom official took my passport and asked me my final destination. I told him. He let out a long sigh and told me how lucky I was. He made a tired gesture at the long queue snaking behind me as if to say ‘life isn’t fair’.

Fortaleza is the capital of Ceara. Tucked away on the north-east coast of Brazil it is home to some 2 million inhabitants and outside of Brazil, virtually unknown. For the majority of residents from Rio and Sao Paulo that I spoke with it is far enough away from the big smokes of Rio and Sao Paulo to be exotic and exciting. This is to say nothing of the large number of imported cars (30,000 BMWs alone – the highest number in Brazil) which cruise the sun drenched streets and give the city and almost European feel.

My guide book painted a more romantic picture, one which perhaps I have nurtured in my own mind over the last few years, of a long coastline of white sand beaches, of bars nestling between wind sculptured dunes where you could buy anything from beer to lobster. It warned me that the bars were “little more than rustic beach huts with jangada sails as roof but that the lack of electricity was not a problem as the beers were kept cold in Styrofoam boxes”. That didn’t seem too bad to me. Paradise indeed…

Today, like almost every other city in the world, after my last visit things have changed. There are still rustic bars on deserted sandy beaches, places where you can kick back and pretend that the bar man is actually ‘Man Friday’ and where you can throw your hammock between two trees and watch the sun set over the peaceful Atlantic ocean whilst sipping a cocktail, but there are also more modern bars. The old and the new, modern and traditional coexist easily. Alongside the vibrant nightspots it is still possible to see the beauty which attracted Orson Wells to film scenes of his movie “It’s All True” on the coast’s sundrenched shores.

If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.

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