February 26, 2007

Sanctuary
Porto de Pedras, Brazil

I've escaped to a place where there are no tourists, no English, and no buildings taller two levels—in this tiny fishing village you can currently find a blond boy, happily sauntering around, smiling, waving, and saying hello to most everyone he sees.

How did I come to be in this coastal village in the first place? Honestly, I pretty much just picked it out of hat—a name on the map north of Maceió and south of the next known tourist destination. I wanted to get out of the city—I'm sick of city—someplace remote, someplace skipped over and rarely visited. That some placed happened to be Porto de Pedras.

Leaving Maceió was a frustrating and trying experience. I awoke yesterday and spent the morning at an Internet café, trying to get another round of Carnival updates accomplished over slow connections. With a mass of photos still waiting to be uploaded I noted it was already noon—checkout time at my overpriced and under-delivered hostel.

As much as I liked Maceió (with its warm blue water and inexpensive coconut drinks), I was certainly not going to spend BR$32/night to stay in that lackluster living environment another day (with no cheaper alternatives found). Besides, I'd gotten kissed by the sun a little too hard the previous afternoon, and probably needed a travel day to keep me off the beach.

I've never had such a hard time with city buses as I have here in Brazil. It's a combination of my ignorance, the lack of proper signage on the buses, and the incompetence of the population—I'm mostly looking at you, Brazilian city bus drivers.

Shall we count the hops I had to make to get to the city's bus central (and only) bus terminal, as I carried around my 17-kilo pack in the hot, mid-day sun?

  1. I got the woman working at the hostel to write down on a piece of paper the name of the bus I need, and clarify what direction on the street it was going. I kept stopping buses, showing drivers the slip of paper, and receiving a no in return
  2. One bus driver picks me up and says I'm at the wrong spot for this bus, on the wrong side of the street—he'll drive me to the correct stop
  3. Waiting for another bus, now on the opposite side of the street several hundred meters away, I keep getting shut down by the drivers. Eventually one says yes, but when I clarify with the money-taking attendant he looks at me and says no. As the bus drives me further away from my boarding point, a passenger chimes in to help clarify where I want to go—look at me, big backpack, wanting to go to the bus terminal… figure it out guys. It would seem the woman at the hostel wrote the information on the paper wrong
  4. The bus drops me off at another stop that the driver says is on the pick-up path needed, asking the folks waiting at the stop to put me on the correct bus. I wait, and wait… sweating. Finally another passing bus driver chimes in to the questioning patrons waiting with me and says no, that bus doesn't go past here, go back to that main avenue over there (the one I was waiting on originally)
  5. I walk back to the main avenue, flagging down every bus I get until one that actually tells me he's going to the terminal—checking several times, just to make sure he wasn't trying to get me out of the doorway

Never have I consistently had such problems with buses. If the taxi's weren't three times the amount of a typical Latin country, I'd be taking them instead of giving myself an ulcer.

Finally at the bus terminal, I query the information counter as to what bus is going to this city—just one company, Tropical. She points me in the direction of the ticketing window, but when I get to it (a couple dozen meters later) it's closed. The window for another company points me in the direction of the buses, where I find my chariot awaiting, passengers and driver idling on benches outside.

Probably 1:40 at this point, I ask the man in charge what time his bus leaves and how much it costs. BR$11, he tells me, leaving at 3:50. Nothing earlier, I query—no.

So I'm clarifying with him and his sidekick several times—while trying to tune out a drunk waiting for the same bus that keeps trying to talk to me and thinks I'm from Spain (the Spain part more and more common these days)—what time, how long until we leave. Around 4:00, in about two hours, I asked them—yep.

I'm in an elevated passenger waiting area, buying some juice and taking a moment to sit, drink, and relax, when out of the corner of my eye I see the bus moving away from the platform. Good God!

I run to the ledge and the driver sees me, his bus filled with those once waiting outside, motioning exaggeratedly with his arm/hand to get on the bus. In my mad dash I lost a gift from my scuba diving buddy Shoel, a hat ("combat cap") that was sent down from Canada to be couriered to Argentina. I'm not happy about that.

I don't even bother trying to clarify with the driver—wasted energy. I was on the bus and leaving when I wanted it to (now 2:15 in the afternoon). I later got to thinking that maybe they were saying 13:50 and not 3:50 for the departure time—who knows…

The actual bus ride up to this town turned out to be one of the best I've had in South America. Gone was the extravagant busing behemoth, sporting sealed windows, televisions, and reclining seats—replaced instead with a simple inner-city bus. I sat with most of the vehicle to myself, wind blowing in my hair, smelling the constantly changing and visually stimulating landscape.

The sense of smell and the feel wind on your face—that's what's missing from all this bus travel in South America. I felt like I was back in Central America for the first time in ages, and smiled wildly as my senses tingled.

The turquoise sea faded away, a turn slightly inland replacing it with farmland and dense jungles of palm trees. The bus passed through small villages; home construction turning from concrete to blocks of stick and mud. People sat in front of their homes, chatting and passing the afternoon away (a common sight for casual Latin living).

Three hours had passed and the sun was dipping low, when the attendant on the bus called out to me—we had arrived—Porto de Pedras, last stop, end of the line. Wow, I thought, tiny place.

Porto de Pedras, like most of the towns I'd passed though on the bus ride, is built along the basic, meandering coastal road. The fishing village has a population of a couple thousand, but lacks any type of center—just a long alley of homes pushing back a forest of palm trees. This was the real deal: No tourists, no English, no stress.

I jumped off the bus and I could already tell by the reactions—gringos are a very unusual sight. Perfect.

Before leaving the bus terminal in Maceió I'd asked the little information counter therein if they had any accommodations listed for the city. Some serious paper shuffling later the girl produced a name and address with a wink, apologized there wasn't a phone number for the only listing, and wished me good travels.

Given my experience with accommodations Brazil, I expected to be paying about twice what I thought a room was worth. The number I had in my head was BR$20 (still very high), and the number the Pousada Quinta do Coqueirais had in theirs was BR$30—settling on BR$25 without breakfast. Stubborn, but as night fell my bargaining leverage diminished.

BR$25 is still a lot of money for me to be spending on a room, and I was unhappy that I was still being bled dry (in a rural fishing village). At this price I could only think about staying in such a basic place for a night or two—the same amount could get me more elsewhere.

I needed a cheap room to unwind in and be away from it all with a smile on my face—BR$15 was the magic number I was looking for.

So what do I do when I'm unhappy with my accommodations? I hunt. For me this means walking the streets, researching on the Internet (not possible here), or asking locals. Walking and locals are typically my top choices; my method of approach often involving a warm greeting, a purchase, a smile, and a question.

Porto de Pedras, case in point. It's after dark and I find a food stand/mini-restaurant a few hours after arriving. I pick something at random off the menu—a Passaporte, that turns out to be a massive hot dog with chili and toppings—eat it and make small talk with the other patrons. The owner lady sees I'm a good guy, and as I'm paying the bill (BR$2) ask her about a place to stay within the budget I'm looking for.

Well, it just so happens that one of the teenage girls at the little food stand works at a cheapie pousada down the road, and the lady tells the girl to walk me over to it. I meet the owner lady of the pousada, see a room, am told it's BR$15/night, and tell the woman I'll be back in the morning with my backpack. Sometimes it's that simple.

I woke up early today and explored. Have you ever seen one of those Wild West movies, where the hero or villain walks down the center of the main dirt road in town—casual hustle and bustle calms, and everyone turns to look at him as he saunters? Well, I'm living that movie scene on a daily basis here in Porto de Pedras.

The people are so amazingly friendly here, it's fantastic. I notice them noticing me and give a little wave, a smile, and say hello. They shoot me a smile or wave right back, greeting me as I pass. I'd saunter by a gathering of women of varying ages and listen to their conversation turn from ho-hum to me as I approached and passed, sometimes sending them into a little tizzy if I flirted back to their playful calls out to me.

I walked along the beach, cobbled street, and every dirt path I could find without fear—the town is safe, the people happy and curious. It's the kind of place that if I stuck around for a week or two I'd get to know, or at least be known by, a large part of the population.

I love the calm pace of life, how shirts for guys are completely optional; bicycles outnumber the cars (less than 10 by my last count); chickens and tiny ducklings run around the side-streets; that people would rather keep caged birds than dogs as pets, how the public telephone boxes are oddly shaped like giant bottom-feeders (a catfish, clam, etc.); and how I'm Sergio, the anonymous Americano—no last name, no passport number, no worries.

In my wandering and search for accommodations I've found just four places to stay (three examined):

  • Pousada Costa das Pedras—A world of luxury that I have not seen equaled in Brazil—think Honeymoon escape. BR$60/night gets you a television, mini-fridge, fancy private bathroom, and A/C, in a cozy walled complex with swimming pool and other amenities (like room-service and hammocks)
  • Pousada Quinta do Coqueirais—Warm, safe, family home turned guesthouse. Very clean, mosquito nets above beds, free bottled water, personal mini-fridge, and lukewarm showers (one temperature/handle only). BR$30/night (BR$25 w/o breakfast)
  • Pousada/Resturant São Geraldo—Basic, budget private rooms. Shared bathrooms without mirrors, toilet seats, or shower heads (let alone temperature control for the icy cold water). Expect a bed, bare light bulb, towel, and table fan for BR$15/night

Here at the São Geraldo I've got my choice of rooms, selecting one with a window facing the sea. There's a problem with mosquitoes here, so I'm hoping the breeze that kicks off the water and into my window, combined with fan, will be enough to keep me from having to string up a mosquito net.

Sadly, what Porto de Pedras is missing is a proper Internet café and beach. The town sits where the Rio Manguaba meets the sea, and the waters lapping against the shore are brown (although you can see the brilliant blue waters breaking on the reef about a kilometer or so out). I found a dial-up Internet connection in a local's house, who also uses the living room as a make-shift video gaming center (charging kids BR$1.50/hour to use his two PlayStations or an XBOX). On weekdays he wants BR$4/hour to use his PC, just about the highest rate I've seen in the country. He tells me the PlayStation 3 is retailing for BR$4,000—a good profit if you can get some into the country.

Overall, I'm the happiest I've been in a Brazilian city yet (excluding the Carnival experience). I can keep this room and do some hub-and-spoke day trips to other areas (such as the blue watered, tourist beaches further north) …or perhaps I'll just sit with my Robert Ludlum book and read under the shade of a palm tree…

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