February 24, 2007

Maceió, Brazil

I groggily exited the bus from Salvador to Maceió with stiff legs—another sleepless overnight bus journey. The rain was coming down steadily, the sky grey, the beaches pushing up against the blue waters of the ocean, undoubtedly empty. I wondered how long the rain could keep up for, it had been days now.

Describing my destination to others in our shared Carnival apartment several days prior, I was not surprised to see the pair from Holland on board my bus. They too had cravings for sun, surf, and sand, but I had a feeling their evenings would seek out a vibrant nightlife that would be inadequate for their standards. I, on the other hand, simply wanted a quiet to place to tan and catch up on over a week's worth of writing.

The girl from Holland is one of these princesses trying to be a backpacker types, and I let her comments about the slum we had just passed through go by without much debate. The city, I asked, clarifying. I'd seen the favelas of Rio, but this was the first time I've ever seen something so… so horrible, she continued. I did not reply further on the subject—I never expected her to grasp that a large piece of world's population live in "slums."

I did not see such things on the way in. I saw communities, homes, electricity, and happy children playing in the rain. My eyes have not traveled long, but they have traveled long enough to remove the haze of shock and judgment that wash over many. This is why I could never take a favela tour in Rio—absurd tourism.

I had done some Internet research on accommodations before arriving, only turning up a list of guesthouse and a vague reference to the only hostel in town with a population of over 800,000. I arrived at the Algamar Hostel and discovered the first of many disappointments this establishment would deliver—bunk beds in shared rooms were going for the outrageous price of BR$32/night! A pen had crossed out the nightly rate figure listed on a piece of paper at the counter several times over—$22, $24, $28, $30, $32…

It's pretty standard for me to drop my pack at a guidebook suggestion for the first day/night while I searched the area for better/cheaper options. Considering how it was pouring down rain and I didn't sleep the previous night, I was inclined to do just that.

In the rain I trudged around the city, knowing full well that I couldn't stay and relax in a town with a nightly price tag like that looming over my head. I walked over a half a dozen kilometers that day, and after making telephone calls, talking with locals, and popping into every pousada and hotel I could find, my efforts were rewarded with nothing cheaper than what I was currently staying in.

I found plenty of great pousadas that were exponentially better than the hostel, but I needed someone to help absorb half the price of the room to make it work—I considered pulling a solo traveler out of the hostel (if I could find one) to share a room with.

Morning broke, and with it came a brilliant day of sunshine. My dances to the Sun God were answered. Although my reward was also a punishment, as I saw how absolutely wonderful the waters of Maceió truly were, and knew my time here was fleeting.

Protected by an offshore coral reef, Maceió's turquoise and emerald ocean water is a pleasure to sit and stare at—not to mention swim in. The water is the warmest and most pleasant I've experienced in South America, the salt content so high it makes floating in the calm surf effortless. Although the quality of sand near the city isn't any special, the word on the street is that it only gets better and better the further away from the city you travel, on the beaches 9–17km to the north.

When the tide rolls out in the afternoon you can wade out into the sea in some places for several hundred meters, if not a kilometer or so. I found myself doing just this, making my way out to an offshore lighthouse. Wearing my sandals for this was a must as the sharp coral and spiky sea urchins would have sent me home in tears otherwise.

Forced into staying at my hostel for second night, I've made up my mind that it will be my absolute last. The water in the shower is colder than the sea, the rooms stuffy, a cockroach found in my bed covers, no lockers to secure my belongings, or even free Internet access to help rationalize the price of BR$32/night in a bunk bed—I'm done.

Maceió, I would have loved to have spent more time with you, but it just wasn't in the tea leaves.

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