Tumbling and tumbling and tumbling in the darkness, lost in lips, grip of fingernails, scent of hair and that giggle as we tumble down a sand dune that flattens under the champagne waves. I reach out to make sure. Am I dreaming?
"INCREDIBLE, NO?" SAYS THE MAN SITTING NEXT TO me. "We always want what we don't have. All the world longs to vacation in my city, Rio de Janeiro. Ciadade Maravilhosa. The nightclubs. The beaches. The women in dental-floss bikinis. And here I am on my vacation enduring an all-night bus ride in the hinterlands to reach a beach where electricity and hotels have not yet arrived."
"Do they have beds in Jericoacoara?" asks the woman behind him.
"I hear everyone sleeps in hammocks," the man says. "But consider yourself fortunate. At least we can get there by bus and four-wheel drive. Years ago, you needed a boat or a mule. My friends think I'm crazy to come to Jericoacoara. But," his hand sweeps the length of the bus, "I see that many share my sickness."
Every seat is occupied and there are people standing. Sitting in the aisle, cushioned by a blanket against the seat in front of me, is a young woman trying to sleep. I tap her shoulder and offer her my seat.
She smiles, shakes her head, says, "No thanks," and turns back to sleep. It is difficult to see in the darkness, but her expression, a curious blend of vulnerability and independence, remains with me long after she turns away. I am struck by a simple notion: This is the woman with whom I want to spend the rest of my life.
I lie back, shut my eyes and listen to the debate between two voices in my head.
"Error of Eros!" cries the Counselor for Rational Behavior. "So you've just fallen in love with someone without knowing whether she is pleasant or tiresome, lazy or industrious, a Rhodes scholar or a helium-head."
"Trust me," counters the Courier of the Dream. "Keep your eyes closed and she will be anything you want her to be."
"When are you going to realize that we are in the 1980s?" the Rational asks. "Choices and decisions are based on certainty as opposed to impulse. People live together for years before they commit because you never know what a person is like until you both live under the same roof. Sound judgment is the order of the day. You'd better ask some serious questions. Find out about her career: Is she a climber or a treader? How much money does she make? Do you share interests?"
"And while you're at it," Courier of the Dream interrupts, "you might as well solicit a dating service that will have a computer match your characteristics and preferences with those of a suitable partner. Yes, we are in the 1980s, when researchers are unmasking the complex chemical reactions that cause attractions and psychologists are analyzing behavior to improve relationships. Science is doing its best to reduce love to logarithms, but I tell you that nobody will ever discover what transpires between two people when they walk hand-in-hand on the beach, and that is just where you two are headed."
"Ah," I sigh. "The beach . . . coconut trees . . . balmy breezes . . . virgin sand."
The man from Rio de Janeiro taps my shoulder. "Why did you decide to come to Jericoacoara?" he asks.
"I'm looking for the most beautiful beach in Brazil."
"There are 8,000 kilometers of beach in Brazil," he says. "Jericoacoara may be the best. But, you are not Brazilian?"
"And you speak Portuguese?"
"More or less. I spent four months here last year."
A wave of voices ripples to the back of the bus. There is no better place in the world to be an American than in Brazil. Soon, people are inviting me to their homes and everyone is leaning over his seat to practice his English.
"Why did you come to Brazil?" a man asks.
"Then it is time to sing!" He starts, a woman joins and soon everyone is singing and drumming on the backs of seats, a 60-year-old woman is moving her hips in the aisle and for an hour the bus is fueled by samba. Then, at the first pause, the inevitable: "Americano! It's your turn. Sing!"
"American songs! Michael Jackson!"
"Simon and Garfunkel!"
What to do? My voice could be used by secret police as an instrument of torture, but to refuse would be to show a lack of heart. I throw back my head and shut my eyes.
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind . . . In the strength of the rhythmic clapping, I find the courage to continue. "Cecilia." "Hit the Road, Jack." "Yesterday." As I start "Singin' in the Rain," with every passenger applauding and cheering and the woman smiling at me, a strange thing happens -- my voice begins to sound beautiful.
TOURISTS STARTED COMING TO JERIcoacoara only six years ago. One of the first to arrive told me that the village existed in a former time, that in Jericoacoara paper money had little value and, if you wanted to stay, you bartered with clothes or a bag of rice. With tourists now more than willing to ride eight hours in a bus over paved roads and another 45 minutes in the back of pickup trucks over sand dunes just to get there, money has taken on a new importance. For a dollar or two a day, a fisherman will hang a hammock for you in his living room or on his front porch.
Though many people have come from foreign places, the village has resisted changes in character and appearance. It's said that if a thief is caught in Jericoacoara, he is given a public spanking and forced to leave town. Old fishermen who can't read sit on porches in the afternoon and amuse themselves by turning the pages of a magazine and inventing wild stories about the contraptions pictured in the advertisements.
Jericoacoara is an ecological preserve, and it is prohibited to construct even a shed, or to swing an ax into a coconut tree, without government permission. The small stone-and-brick houses fronted by caju' trees do not have bathrooms. Bathing is still done by lowering a bucket into a well, which is kept pure of insects by a turtle that resides at the bottom, and at night the pale light of the moon is augmented by gas lanterns and candles.
In the instant that I reach the beach, every inconvenience seems insignificant. Huge beige sand dunes and coconut trees seem to stretch as far as the horizon while waves lick brown sand so smooth and clean the sun glints off it as brightly as if it were ice. A boy gallops bareback into the breeze on a powerful horse and I feel as if I've stepped into a fantasy. But as I walk closer toward the men with brown leather skin and straw hats who grunt as they push ashore their jangadas -- crude sailing canoes -- I see the reality of life in Jericoacoara: thick
veins on the back of hands, straining muscles, deep crevices plowed into faces. Dreamers do not live here. To survive one must sweat and work the mathematics of the moon and the sun and the wind.
The entire village, it seems, is out to greet the men who entered the ocean in darkness, who catch with nets the silver fish with rainbow scales. Old women are loading straw baskets on the back of mules, children are scrambling toward each incoming jangada, and a herd of sheep glimpses the scene before crossing toward a primitive shelf of rock.
A fisherman reaches into his boat and tosses out a stingray, which belly-flops in the sand. I move closer and the fisherman smiles at my curiosity.
"Feel," he says.
As my fingers skid along the smooth surface of the purple-fringed wing, it strikes me that the beach is a place of the senses, a place to touch and taste and smell and hear, a place to feel, not to think.
"Arreia'," the fisherman says and points to the stingray and then to his mouth. As he slices the wings from the spine, he explains that the meat is cooked with coconut milk, peppers, tomatoes and onions. "Do not leave," he says, "without tasting it."
The jangadas are neatly arranged in a row, sails inhaling the breeze, as the fishermen head for town with their nets.
I want to walk with the woman from the bus toward a huge stone that has been sculpted by wind and water into the shape of an arch. I turn to look for her. She must still be in the village, changing into her swimsuit.
"Do you know what is a jacare'?" an old man asks. He looks like a sun-baked leprechaun.
"Yes," I reply. "Alligator."
"That is how this place was named. When you are fishing way out in the ocean, the land seems to be perfectly shaped in the form of an alligator. It started as Jacarequara, and then, over the years, changed."
"Do you still fish?" I ask.
"No, no," he laughs, extending his hand. "I have 79 years. I am Joaquim Canuto Pedro, the histo'riado'r of Jericoacoara. I compose stories in verse. You would like to hear one?"
Before I can answer, he is standing with one hand over his heart and another sweeping the wide expanse of sea, singing a paean to the raw beauty of his home. I like the idea of a man spouting his poetry into the wind. But how long can one listen to poetry? His seems to be lasting for hours and I am ashamed to find myself turning from him toward the village to look for the woman. He recites and recites and I see the woman walk off in the direction of the arched stone, at the side of another man.
"OY, AMERICANO, COME WITH US,"
calls one of the men from the bus. "We're going to see the arched stone."
"No, thanks," I say. "I'll see you at lunch."
I want to be alone. I walk by huge boulders that have teetered here for centuries and raw cliffs savaged by the ocean until I come upon a naked clearing of orange sand. It is here that I spread my towel.
"Hate to say I told you so," says Counselor for the Rational, "but it's all a ruse, the beach is. Sand, coconut trees, balmy breezes, the ideal mate -- romantic claptrap created by Hollywood and Hawaiian public relations experts.
"Everyone, at some point, goes to the beach with romantic expectations, but are they ever fulfilled? For every couple united by a beach, there are thousands of individuals who leave disillusioned and insecure. Why? Because the beach is not an individual dream. It's a concept imposed upon the collective subconscious. Not only are we supposed to meet the ideal partner there, but the ideal partner is supposed to look a certain way. And so everyone tries to turn the false dream into reality by acting out a role, creaming the body to appear dark and sensual, wearing reflector shades to appear aloof
and powerful, arriving by jeep, beer can in hand, with the tape deck blaring the Eagles' 'Take It Easy.'
"In no other place in the world is a man more likely to suck in his stomach, or a woman more likely to constantly inspect her body parts and measure them against those of others.
"The beach has transformed the simple act of throwing a Frisbee into a fierce battle among attention seekers adept at winging the disk between their legs and behind their backs, topped only by the guy who, to attract a buxom blond, has spent the entire winter training his dog to snare a Frisbee in its jaws.
"And that's just the point. The dream will accommodate any buxom blond. So you move from one to the next, trying to make it come true. And where did all your posturing get you?"
"Have you forgotten your own sordid history? What happened that night in Fort Lauderdale when you tried to arouse the redhead by relating wild escapades from your past? She snorted and turned with the drink you bought her toward a guy who immediately began to fascinate her with his SAT scores. And so you moved on to the next dream girl and opened a serious discussion about career prospects, only to find out she had dropped out of high school. She turned and went off with some greased hunk who'd come in on a motorcycle. So you moved on to the brunette . . ."
"Enough, enough," I say. "How was I supposed to know?"
"Don't take it personally. It's not just you. It's everybody. The bars are meat markets that make those who exit without a partner feel like chuck steak on a counter of filet mignon.
"And even those who believe they've met that special person are doomed to disillusionment. How can you be sure you've come across the person who'll fulfill your needs when your meeting has the foundation of sand? Everything that transpires on the beach is illusory."
I stare out toward the ocean, a spectrum of colors from royal blue to soft green, then at the orange sand, which looks as if it has never been walked on, then at the sun heating my body. Suddenly I feel foolish wearing the least bit of clothing. Out of my bathing suit, I head for the ocean. I dive in, shudder at the momentary chill, and then extend myself in its warmth. I swim until I am exhausted and then return to shore. The water level is at my knees when I see the woman, the color of caramel, coming down a sand dune directly toward me.
What do I do?
"Be natural," Courier of the Dream says.
I look at my side, where the white skin announces the start of my buttocks. Well, I can't get any more natural than I am now.
STRIPS OF ORANGE PEEL USED TO MAKE
tea are hanging from wooden roof beams over what serves as the dining room. Barechested men and bronzed women are licking the spicy grease from their fingers around tables filled with garlic-fried shrimp, stingray cooked in coconut milk, pineapple and banana cakes, beer bottles and shot glasses containing a thick mixture of honey and cachaca, a potent alcohol derived from sugar cane.
An old man stops on his way from the kitchen, announces that he is 85, and asks every woman in the room if she will dance with him tonight at the town festival. "I will teach you our native dance," he says to those from far away. "The forro." As he shuffles the steps out the door, the caramel woman smiles.
"You know the story of my father," says Dona Isabel, nodding in the old man's direction as she rests another plate of shrimp in the center of our table. "More than 50 years ago, when he was young and single, he went to a festival in a village called Parazim. It is inland, in a farm region, about 100 kilometers away. He rode the distance on a white horse, dressed in a suit, with a guitar strapped to his back. As soon as he arrived his eyes met those of a girl named Francisca and immediately they were in love. My father wanted to impress her, so instead of admitting that he was a poor fisherman from Jeriocoacoara, he told her that he was a traveling businessman from a large city. They barely knew each other when they decided to marry. And what a wedding it was! A procession wound its way through the streets of Parazim to the church, led by a town crier making toasts and drinking from a large glass of cachaca. After the wedding my father put Francisca on his horse and took her to Jericoacoara. When they got here, Francisca started to cry. 'You lied to me,' she said. You see, she hated the sea and wanted to live in either a city or on a farm."
We are all listening curiously, especially the caramel woman.
"What happened?" I ask.
"For 40 years they lived here together," Dona Isabel says. "They had nine children, of which I am one, and the world has never seen a stronger love."
"How beautiful!" coos a woman at the adjacent table.
"But," Dona Isabel adds, "my mother cried every night until the day she died. And, in 40 years of marriage, she never once ate a piece of fish."
Dona Isabel turns to the kitchen carrying empty plates, and I start to ask the caramel woman what she does for a living. Something inside me cringes -- I have the sensation that if I try to examine the dream it will flutter away in a fingersnap -- and I stop in mid-sentence.
"Why must you insist on facts?" Courier of the Dream asks. "What difference does it make if she's a lawyer or a maid? She has already expressed, in gestures as simple as this village, all you need to know about her. Did you not see compassion in the way she lifted the crying child who'd fallen in the street, competence in the meticulous way she folded her clothes by the well, adaptability in the ease with which she spoke to both simple fishermen and vacationing doctors and architects
from Saåo Paulo, a sense of correctness in the way she amends your Portuguese? Trust your senses. Do you like the way she pronounces your name?"
"Yes," I reply.
"Now, that is important. If a person is going to be calling you for the rest of your life, you ought to like the way your name sounds on her lips."
The story of Dona Isabel's father has turned the conversation at the adjacent table to marriage. "I'd do it," a man from Saåo Paulo slams his shot glass on the table. "If an 80-year-old woman with a lot of money asked me to marry her, I'd accept. And I'd give her a good time. I'd dance her to her grave and then I'd have all the money I needed to live the rest of my life as I pleased. Most people marry for reasons of security anyway."
There are rolling eyes and thumbs-up signs, clickings of tongues and chuckles of approval. The question is passed around. It comes to the caramel women.
She taps on her heart.
The man from Saåo Paulo points to me. "Are you married?"
"And you?" he asks the caramel woman.
"Yes," she says.
I look for the nearest wall to put my fist through.
THE JANGADA FLIES PAST DUNES,
waves clapping against wood, and I wonder where all my rage has gone.
It has been absorbed by the calm of the water, by the soft peach tone of the sunset, by the caress of the breeze. In this era of land development and constant change, I wonder how many places are left where you can see the world exactly as it was a million years ago. To look out into the ocean in a solitary moment is to be reminded of all that has passed before you, of all that has come and gone without leaving a trace. What is there to ball your fist about? In the end, the waves will wash over you, too, and nobody will ever know you were here.
"Let's knock off the five-and-dime philosophy, okay, Mahatma?" the Counselor for Rational Behavior says. "So you lost the woman. It was inevitable. You feel lousy. That's understood. But enough of this melancholy gibberish about acceptance. Keep it up and you'll be sitting cross-legged and hungry in the streets of India watching the cows pass. Come back to reality. You make your own breaks in this world."
Even now, the dream refuses to abandon me. I look at the caramel woman, but I cannot see her clearly. I see her the way Renoir would have painted her if he had been Brazilian.
"Why isn't your husband in Jericoacoara?" I hear myself ask.
She answers with a sad smile: "I'm married, but I'm not married."
"I don't understand."
"It's a long story."
I close my eyes.
"My husband is not Brazilian. He is European. I met him while he was traveling through Brazil. He came up to me one day from out of nowhere and said that as soon as he saw me he was in love. At first I didn't believe him -- you know how men are. But he found out where I lived and he kept coming to see me. When you are young there is something exciting about meeting a stranger, someone so different from everyone you know. Soon I was in love. I went with him when he returned to Europe. He introduced me to his family and everything moved so fast and suddenly we were married. Afterward, we discovered that we could not get along at all. It was terrible."
"How could you marry someone without knowing him?"
"The heart does not have eyes. We stayed together for only a short time and then, when it became unbearable, we separated. Soon, the divorce will be official. I used to cry a lot, but now it is better."
"It would be boring," I say, "if we didn't make mistakes."
"It would also be boring," she looks at
me from the corner of her eye, "if we kept making the same mistakes."
"Yes," I feel myself swallow hard. "The important thing is to learn from them."
"It will never happen again."
"How did you meet your husband, anyway?"
"On a bus."
"We were both on our way to the beach."
UNDER THE FOLIAGE DRIPPING FROM A
huge tree, animated brown elves make music from an accordion, a tambourine and drums. As I look at the old fishermen and their wives in their best clothes, the teen-agers and children whirling in pairs under the lanterns that flicker from branches, it occurs to me how I have come to pass 30 years without finding the right partner: I do not know how to dance.
Of course, I know how to dance as an individual. To dance solo is in the blood of every American born during or after the baby boom, to do your thing, as opposed to moving in complete concordance with a partner.
The forro, it seems to me, is the most acceptable way to know someone intimately in public. Hips are locked and stomachs press as the couple swirls through dizzying steps. I want to learn this dance.
A strong wind sweeps through the fronds of the coconut trees, the lantern light trembles, and the waves are cymbals crashing in the distance. The elves start to make their music. Faster and faster, the fishermen and their wives, the adolescents and children follow and suddenly the dance floor is a chaos of spraying hair, wild limbs and crashing bodies, and I am frightened to enter, feeling like a little boy standing on the edge of the ocean.
Once, long ago, when I had a body thin and fragile and missing front teeth, I wandered alone into a riptide. The instant
that I realized my mistake, of entering an area beyond my sense of control, I panicked and tried for shore. I was somersaulted, slammed on my back into rocks, air was squeezed from my lungs, out my mouth. I was open to the mad torrent of water bending my bones, my muscles, my will, at whim. Unable to breathe. The waves spit my body onto the sand, and
I lay heaving and gasping for the life that had been sucked out of me, sounding ironically like a donkey, laughing hysterically. In that moment I knew suffocation would be the most dreadful form of death for me, and an even more horrible way of life.
The caramel woman taps my shoulder and points to the dancers. "Can't you do it?" she asks.
"Not a chance."
"You can try."
She takes my hand and the group of tourists and natives on the perimeter of the dance floor begin to laugh.
"Dance, Americano. Dance!"
"How?" I ask her, studying the steps of a passing couple.
"You won't learn that way. Just put your arms around me and move with the rhythm of my body and the music."
I feel tense, crude and awkward, but she is patient. With time I surrender to the music, to her, to the dance. The moment I feared for years, of losing my independence, of losing my sense of control, passes with people outside the dance floor holding up cups of honey and cachaca and cheering: "Isso! Isso! Americano! That's it! That's it!"
We dance until sweat slides down our bodies, until the brown elves can play no more. Then, under a pale moon and a sky powdered lightly with stars, the caramel woman and I walk, hand-in-hand, toward the beach. ::
Cal Fussman travels the world looking for adventure and the meaning of life. His last piece for the magazine was on a region of Peru that few Americans have ever seen.