Itacaré: A Return to Civilization

I arrived in the sprawling metropolis of Itacaré. Okay, so Itacaré is actually a small beach town famous for its surf but after spending two weeks on a farm, it was a big change. For example, there was electricity. Several people on the farm had been to Itacaré before; from what I had heard, it was the kind of place where you plan on going for a few days and stay for a few weeks. But I wasn’t going to do that. I had read a travel guide on Brazil at the farm and had already planned my next two months; I had places to go and things to see! It’s funny how life doesn’t always go as planned…

I arrived at my hostel when they were still serving breakfast. I was invited to join. Wow. There was jam. Eggs. Ham. Cheese. Juice. Everything we couldn’t have at the farm because we had no refrigeration. It was like I had rediscovered food. I had a huge second breakfast and then took a shower to wash off the farm smell. My hostel consisted of two buildings; one where I was sleeping and one which had water. I had to shower in the other building. Apparently, the entire town of Itacaré occasionally experiences a water shortage, but it was something I experienced almost daily at my hostel. It became a fact of life; something easily navigated around if I could access the other building. But I did find it amusing that I was on a farm for two weeks with constant running (and drinkable!) water, yet civilization didn’t have either of those things.

Given the heat in Itacaré, most people spend their day at the beach or doing something equally sluggish. The evenings are when the town comes alive. One of the popular evening events is watching the sunset; here the river meets the ocean, making it a unique and exciting spot to watch. That night, I watched as the fishermen finished their day of work and one by one returned to shore. It was beautiful to watch the sun bid farewell to the town as it sunk behind the tiny, colorful homes while these fishing boats dotted the sea.

Later, I had my first taste of Itacaré nightlife. The owner of my hostel, Sandy, is a singer and very involved in the Bahian music scene. I had already gotten a small taste of Brazilian music through Carnaval, but my time in Itacaré gave me greater exposure to the various types of Brazilian music. That night the hostel had a live band and cooked moqueca – a famous Bahian dish similar to fish stew. It was a nice introduction to the nightlife, but I was still exhausted from the farm.

After spending two days in Itacaré, I decided to take surf lessons. I have never had any interest in surfing or taking surfing lessons. But I was in Itacaré – a place that hosts a national surf competition – and had decided why not. I have always wanted to make my travels about experiencing and learning new things. And this seemed like the best place to try something new – surfing.

I signed up for three lessons and had a plan – first day the white water, second day green water, and third day the waves. The white water is closest to the shore – it’s bubbly white and the easiest. There are no waves; instead one learns how to ride the momentum of the water (like boogie boarding, but standing up). Green water is further from the shore and is also after the waves crash. Then there are the actual waves – furthest from the shore and the hardest.

On March 2nd, I had my first surf lesson. We walked through the jungle carrying our gear and arrived at Engenhoca, one of the most beautiful beaches in Itacaré. Visible in the jungle are the remains of an abandoned and unfinished resort that was going to be built here before the developer went bankrupt.  It was supposed to be a luxury resort with private access to the beach, but it was stopped when they ran out of money. The locals are thrilled it went bankrupt as it would have restricted their access to the beach. Every beach here, including Engenhoca, is framed by coconut trees and has a river on the beach, allowing you to swim in the river or in the ocean.

I learned the basics and then practiced how to stand up in the sand. After practicing for awhile, I moved into the ocean to try it. My instructor would hold my board, tell me when to get on, and then push my board to give me speed. I would try to stand up and then return with the board to my instructor. I had no idea that surfing was such a workout. Wow! The ocean here is very strong. Normally, beaches have a wave every now and then. Itacaré beaches have constant waves. One is constantly being hit by a strong force of water – and pushing against it attempting to get far enough into the ocean to practice surfing. I was incessantly knocked down, wiping my eyes, and trying to push farther into the ocean. On top of that, standing up on a surf board requires good arm strength to push yourself up. Imagine doing a mix of a burpee and a push up on a floating, moving object. While balancing. In the heat. Over and over again. That’s what it is like to stand up on a surf board – completely exhausting! I am certainly my biggest critic, but I left my first lesson feeling accomplished and knowing what I had to work on. I did not stand up during my first lesson, but I did realize that I shouldn’t be afraid to wipe-out. The ocean floor was soft, so falling was not too painful. Which is good, because I wiped out a lot. In fact, it was like a free nasal rinse – I don’t think my sinuses have ever been so clean.

My least favorite thing was the surf board itself. Smaller boards are used by better surfers because they can balance properly. As a beginner, we used big surf boards – which I’m grateful for from a balance standpoint, but it was literally the size of two of me. After every attempt, I returned into the ocean to try again. The waves kept hitting me and the board as I walked into the ocean. The giant board was tossed around by the waves and yet I had to manipulate it carefully to prevent it from being damaged while protecting myself from being knocked down. It was a strange and difficult balancing act.

After three hours in the strong Bahian summer sun, the lesson was over. I celebrated with a coconut. After drinking the water from the coconut, I asked the woman to open it so I could eat the inside. She held it in one hand and used a machete with the other – all I could think about was what if the machete goes through the coconut and into her hand! Oh, Bahia!

I was sore the next day from surfing – but it felt so good to finally feel like I had worked out. My second day of lessons was very successful! I stood up! I surfed! I was in the green water, but it still counts. It was such a cool feeling to be standing up on a board floating on moving water.

Returning to my hostel, I discovered that my building had water! I celebrated by taking a shower. Of course, the water didn’t last. Soon I found myself covered in soap with conditioner in my hair, but with no water. I wrapped my towel around me and ventured out to find a water source. I found the man who works at the hostel and ten minutes later could finally finish my shower. Some adventures are unexpected.

I explored the town of Itacaré. The town is divided into two sections – the tourist road and the rest of the town. With both the sea and a river, it is a quaint fishing town. I walked along the bay to the fish markets and knew I had arrived when every store advertised fish. It was, however, clearly a fishermen area – emphasis on the men – so after a quick look, I wandered back to the main part of town.

That evening the hostel was throwing a party on an island nearby with a well-known German DJ. Johannes and Tierney, both of whom I met at the farm, were going too. At 1AM we took a boat across to the island. On the island, there was a large bonfire surrounded by people. This was when I started to realize that Itacaré is a hippie town. For the first three hours a local DJ played songs that were putting us to sleep. Finally, at 4AM, the German DJ appeared and the dancing begun! Well, sort of – dancing in sand is difficult! But dancing under the stars felt amazing; it was probably amusing for the other partygoers to see someone dancing with their head to the sky, but the view was worth it. When sunrise was near, we moved to the other side of the island so we could watch it. It was a beautiful sunrise over the ocean – watching the sun’s glow slowly warm and wake up the town. Johannes and I went for a celebratory morning swim! We took a boat back to town and returned to the hostel at 6:30AM.

Praianha is the best beach in Itacaré and is reachable only by a one hour jungle hike. Itacaré is generally a safe place, however, its proximity to Salvador, considered Brazil’s most dangerous city, leads to the occasional crime wave. Thugs from Salvador come to Itacaré for a few days for some easy money. They hide in the jungle and rob tourists at gunpoint along the trail to Praianha. Usually, it is easy to prevent because after it happens once everyone avoids the trail for the next few days. It’s a game of chance – it’s almost always safe, but not always. A few days beforehand, I had been chatting with two women at the hostel about how I wanted to go to this beach, but feared being robbed at gunpoint. A German woman asked how could that be – I am American, aren’t I used to guns? I know the world sees us as a gun-crazy country, but I was taken aback! No, I am not used to guns!

Tierney joined me on the hike to Praianha. We brought as little with us as possible – if we were robbed, we wanted to have nothing of value on us. We had also heard that sometimes people watch who enters the trail and then call their friends inside the jungle with a head’s up – so on the way there I wanted no one to know where we were going. When we arrived at the start, there were people posing as guides. No one had mentioned this! Some of them had official shirts, but I was suspicious of everything. Tierney and I stopped to think – did we want a guide or not? Would we be safer with a guide? (From the stories I would hear later, having a guide does not prevent robbery.) We saw a Brazilian female go with a guide and ended up joining them.

Walking through the jungle, the guide pointed out acai trees, pineapple plants, cutting grass, and more. Tierney and I were well versed in acai trees and pineapple plants at this point. At one point, we came across a snack stand that was full of little monkeys! Called micos in Portuguese, these tiny monkeys were jumping from tree to tree and getting close to us looking for food. They bite, so we stayed far away squealing quietly with joy.

Then we arrived at the beach – an almost empty, long stretch of sand with coconut trees all around. The current here is again strong, making swimming difficult. We spent the day there. Our guide waited for us and we all walked back together – safe and sound. Phew!

On March 8th, I woke up feverish. My roommate and the hostel owner started to take care of me. It was a blessing that if I was going to get sick, it happened at this hostel. I had been at the hostel for over a week, so I knew many people both through the hostel and the farm. Sandy offered to take me to a hospital, but recommended that I wait until the next day. Not to let my sickness run its course, but because the private doctors had closed by this time and the hospital was a waste of time. After hearing about Tade’s experience on the farm when he sliced open his thumb, I agreed.

The next day I felt better, but I continued to nurse myself back to health. I think I had heat exhaustion; I hadn’t drunk enough water at my surf lessons. I was struggling with the fact that I had to buy water if I wanted to drink water – and therefore never had enough water around.

Four days later, I was back to normal. I ended up discovering a cute chocolate shop and had a long conversation with the woman working there. She told me that the beaches are normally cleaner, but people up river have been throwing waste into them. That is a shame. The more time I spent in Brazil, the more I realized how difficult it must be to convince an entire nation to change their habits towards recycling and sustainability.

Meanwhile, I had signed up for two more surfing lessons after being disappointed by my performance in my last class. I resumed my surfing lessons – this time with Tade’s cousin. Small world! I had to learn to surf independently – going out on my own, learning which waves were good, and surfing by myself. No one would be holding my board for me or pushing me to give me speed.

I quickly learned that my paddling before was terrible – I needed to paddle like my life depended on it to get enough speed for the wave to push me forward. I would paddle like crazy and then try to stand up – but often without enough speed; without speed, the board stops and I fall off. Then I would turn around and do it all over again. It was challenging and repetitive. But, my paddling improved and I was surfing independently!

My last surfing class showed no further improvement. I was crushed. I was surfing independently, yes, but I was an independently terrible surfer. I knew what I was doing wrong but I didn’t know why I couldn’t fix it in the moment – especially when I had done it right before. I was upset with myself. Surfing was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I felt like the little progress I made was not equivalent to the amount of effort I put into it.

That evening, I joined others for live music at another hostel in town. It turns out Sandy from my hostel was playing that evening with her band! It was a neat and unique experience since I am used to going to a concert or bar for live music; instead we were in the backyard of a hostel. Live music is everywhere here.

And the live music continued the following day. Sandy and her band had an impromptu jazz session in the hostel and I was fortunate to be there for it. I walked into the hostel common area to her band sitting around playing instruments and singing. A few of us joined them and swayed to the music. Eventually, we headed to the bars. At one bar, people were dancing forro. Forro is a type of music – it was one of many new types of music I was exposed to while in Brazil. I wandered inside to watch. Someone invited me to dance with them – I learned to dance forro!

Three weeks after arriving in Itacaré, it was time to leave. I had learned a lot during my time in Itacaré – not only Portuguese and surfing, but also about Brazilian music and the way of life. I felt comfortable and was excited to continue my adventure.

Thoughts and Observations

Itacaré is an interesting town; cheap for tourists, it is extremely popular with the hippie, backpacker, and surfer crowd. At this point, I had been in Brazil for a month, but this was my first time living the Brazilian way. In Rio, I was distracted by Carnaval. In Salvador, I stayed close to my hostel after being pick-pocketed. Spending two weeks on a cacao farm had helped me adjust to the Brazilian lifestyle (some would argue that it is the Bahian lifestyle – this Brazilian state has its own strong history and culture), but Itacaré was my first time living in it. Not only was it my first time living the Brazilian way, it was also my first time talking the Brazilian way as I took Portuguese classes. When I left Itacaré, I was still struggling to make the foreign sounds required of Portuguese, but at least I had an introduction.

As I mentioned, Itacaré is split into two sections. The one touristy road (called Pituba) and the rest of the town. Strangely enough, tourists confine themselves to this one road and ignore the rest of town. This tourist street has restaurants, bars, hostels, and shops – and is inexpensive. Not long after arriving, I wandered off the main tourist street and into the real town. Just two streets over are tons of other restaurants, cafes, and shops that target the locals. It was authentic and much cheaper; it reminded me of Taboquinhas, the small town near the cacao farm, and I preferred it over the tourist street. Not only was there a clear divide in the visitors to different parts of town, but also there was a clear distinction in employees. On the tourist street, most of the employees were white Brazilians who moved here from Sao Paulo. In the local area, the employees were black Brazilians originally from Bahia – this state. This caused both an economic and racial divide that was obvious in the town.

The town has a cute, small town feel. Everyone I meet here feels like a new friend; it is the kind of place where a second visit to a restaurant makes you feel like a regular as they remember you. The longer I stayed in Itacaré, the more torn I felt about this town. I enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, the low cost of living, and I felt safe. I was part of a community in Itacaré – I knew people at the hostel, a local band, and others in town from the farm. However, I did not fit in with the typical tourist vibe. It seemed like the typical person in Itacaré was a mix of hippie, pothead, and too cool for me. The more I stayed, the less I belonged here. It was a nice place to pass through, but it wasn’t my lifestyle.

These three weeks also provided a learning experience in terms of sustainability and resources. Brazil is the first place I have ever been where I cannot drink the tap water. It wasn’t until I gave myself heat exhaustion that I realized I had been unnecessarily rationing water so I would not have to buy more. This was, of course, stupid. This experience was the beginning of an increased understanding on the importance and value of drinkable water.

In fact, I even learned to value undrinkable water in Itacaré. Half of my hostel rarely had water, meaning that I often went out of my way to do menial tasks like brushing my teeth and washing my hands.

Itacaré may not have been my favorite place, but its friendly people, beautiful beaches, and learning opportunities made it a great place to start living the Brazilian lifestyle.

Observations:

  1. Many Paulistas (i.e., people who are from Sao Paulo) who want to escape the city life move to Itacaré.
  2. Homes and buildings have a giant blue tub above or next to the building; this is the water source and it is not drinkable.
  3. Many people sell food from their home by putting a sign outside advertising what food they have – this is common throughout Brazil (except for in major cities).
  4. Brazil has created many different types of music and music is an integral part of their culture.
  5. Pot is popular with backpackers in Bahia.
  6. There is peanut butter in Brazil!
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