Fortaleza, Ceara (2 of 2)

According to some local historians, Vicente Yanez was supposed to have landed on Pria Mucuripe on the 2nd February 1500, two months before Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived in Bahia. Whoever landed first is a contentious issue, one which historians still debate – I imagine them holding scholarly meetings on beach front bars sipping beers (nice work if you can get it) but it wasn’t till about 1612 that the first colonists arrived.

It was for some time part of the Dutch empire who lost it in a bloody battle to the local Indians, who in turn lost it to another marauding Dutchman Matias Beck in 1639. He built the fort, Fortaleza de Nossos Senorha da Assuncao, which was to give the town its name (the original Dutch name was Schoonernborch – literally ‘beautiful citadel). In 1654, the Portuguese arrived, captured the fort and colonisation began in earnest. The Portuguese left behind a legacy of crumbling colonial buildings many of which can be seen about the city today.

I drove one morning shortly after I arrived North to Cumbuco. I had vivid memories of Cumbuco, ones that I was sure had been romanticized in my mind since I was last there. My guide book describes Cumbuco as “a long flat beach with summer houses, hotels bars and restaurants”. It adds almost apologetically that “it is not one of the most beautiful beaches in Ceara”. I remembered differently.

I had arrived, after a night of dancing and drinking, just before dawn. The town was still sleeping and as the sun slowly began to crawl into the sky we climbed high into the lonely dunes. The colours slowly began to change from dark velvet black of night to the pinky yellow of dawn. The only sound was the click click of my camera and the distant sigh of the sea. Stretching for what seemed like miles away below us were our solitary foot prints. Watching the sun rise in such a place was almost a spiritual experience – one which I have carried with me ever since. For months afterwards I kept a photo of the sun’s first rays glittering on the azure water of the Lagoa de
Parnamirim on my desk. No one ever quite believed that this was Brazil.

We walked down in the early light to the surf to watch the local fisherman pulling in their exquisitely hand made wooden boats. We chatted for a while, about the day’s catch and about the beach, but they were keen to return to the sea. I felt I had taken up too much of their time anyway and helped push the boat into the surf. As the boat slipped away they waved and laughed that it was a little strange to meet an English man so early in the day. I crept back to my hotel, the churches were already filling up for the days first service. Breakfast was being served, but before my head hit my pillow I was asleep, dreaming of white sand beaches.

Two years later Cumbuco was still as beautiful, the beach still made me hold my breath – as if breathing would shatter the illusion of blue surf and white sand. But progress was obvious. On the dunes the locals were practising the national Cearan pastime of ‘esquidunda’. They assured me it was easy, simply climb to the top of the dunes with a plank of wood and
than slide down to the bottom – which should preferably end in a lagoon. I believed them, but the lure of an ice cold beer was too much and I retired to a shady bar for a beer.

I would be wrong to paint a picture of idyllic beauty in Ceara and my Brazilian friends, who have taken on the role of my mentor with unparalleled zeal, would not be happy for me to do this. They were from the beginning keen for me to see all aspects of the city. It is with a mixture of sadness, frustration and desperation that they will tell you that the north-east has massive social problems (this is painfully apparent to anyone who strolls round the city and is continually accosted by painfully poor children).

Poverty, unemployment and housing shortages are rife. The education system is decaying, some say beyond repair, and a significant percentage of the population lack what most of us would consider basic sanitation. Health care is woefully inadequate and begging, or child prostitution, is sometimes the only alternative. And yet, the people remain spirited, these are not the dispassionately poor and broken people I have seen in my travels to other countries. They may be poor, but the spirit that is uniquely Brazil still throbs in their veins.

One afternoon we drove through the outskirts of town towards the favellas which cling to the hills surrounding the town. Our trip, on a beautiful afternoon, took us along the main coastal road, past sunburnt tourists, past the busy craft market where you can buy delicate lace articles for a good price and out of the city. We climbed into the hills and the 5 star hotels, where we couldn’t even afford a beer, vanished and gave way to poorer, more modest dwellings. The opulence of the high rise developments gave way to a more understandable, almost rural community.

We stopped at a small bar. Just a few tables on a dusty street corner. Soon we were sipping cold beers. “Don’t go to Brazil” my parents had warned me, “Don’t leave your hotel” warned another old South American hand, “don’t do anything” warned another cautious friend, “especially don’t go to the favellas”. But I felt safer here then I often did on the mean streets of London – something I was still chewing over a few weeks later when I lost my pager and wallet to a quick fingered pick pocket on the London Underground.

The local people had stopped their football game and were huddled round a book. They were studying the latest text book from the Universidade Aberta (Open University). Since 1972 the government has been trying to address the problem of poor educational standards by using TV and radio. The programmes, which are universally popular, concentrate on primary and secondary levels of education. One especially successful course consists of 235 radio and TV
programs which aim to qualify school teachers. The statistics are horrific, 40% of adults have insufficient language skills to read a newspaper, only 2 out of every 10 children make it through elementary school whilst educational funding is continually cut. But on this particular balmy night, in the poorer part of town, I saw nothing but hope for these children.

Of course, coming to Brazil for a short time and coming here to work for an extended period is a totally different proposition. It is easy to romanticize and view a country’s faults through rose coloured spectacles when you are only passing through, to live with them on a day to day basis is more of a challenge. I am pleased to say that my memories of Brazil have stood the test of time well, and aside from the odd ugly skyscraper which has appeared were I remembered a beautiful rustic bar, things are very
much as I had left them. I am very much looking forward to exploring further this fantastic country, to learn the language and try to understand the life of people here on the edge of paradise.

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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