from Sandy Needham

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Brazil Dispatch 38: Road Trip

Soon after we returned home from our US "wedding trip," Newton had an electronic design trade show four states to the south with a booth to man, single-handedly. Our destination was the city of Aracaju, the capital of Sergipe - the state just before Bahia. We decided to drive.

After covering the short coastline of the state of Paraíba rather uneventfully, we soon hit quite an alarming patch of traffic as we approached the city of Recife in the state of Pernambuco. "Apocalypse," "Mad Max," "Science Fiction," "Grapes of Wrath," were words that came to mind at the time. The road was just horrible, full of holes; the passing scene's lack of beauty was complete: a combination of rusted scrap metal collections, dingy little businesses, slum homes in disrepair, pedestrians and street venders everywhere, and more gigantic trucks, pick-up trucks moving household goods, regular-size cars, motor cycles, bicycles, and mule carts than could be feasibly packed into the available space. The gleaming high rises along the beaches of Recife were further off in the background. We followed other vehicles inching into the adjacent service road where traffic was creeping at a pace palpably less stand-still than the main road. Eventually, we were forced into the inevitable, unlikely confluence of the two rivers of machinery and humanity, quite stuck near a huge stainless steel gasoline truck which seemed required to bend in a cartoonish way to cut into the seemingly impenetrable fray.

We were not visiting Recife, but simply traveling south on the famous BR101 federal highway that runs north and south near the coast of Brazil. In its defense, there are also newly paved, smooth, well-marked four-lane segments, as well as scary two-lane curving segments with incredible natural beauty...and everything in-between. Once the road improved and the traffic thinned and speeded up, we saw our first highway motor cycle passing between two cars at high speed....something that occurs in city traffic typically. Not easy to watch. There is a theory that road improvement funds get partly pocketed by local politicians or by contractors doing sub-standard work; who knows? I must doubt that the allotted money makes it entirely into roadwork, though we certainly do appreciate the civic-mindedness of officials in the well-functioning stretches.

Newton had booked the beautiful, tranquil Pousada Tabapitanga in Porto de Galinhas (Port of Hens), a beach town further south in Pernambuco. After a brief visit to the little town where we admired these decorated coconut trees and had a coffee at this café, we discovered that this pousada offers everything needed for a relaxing weekend. We just stayed put!

The eco-friendly establishment included an absolutely garbage-free, pristine beach. The service under the white umbrellas was ideal for two over-traveled lazies!

I liked the graphics and messages on these signs:

The food was decent here, though the service was the slowest we'd seen in awhile. For impatient gringos, there is no better therapy than aligning with the rhythm of the Nordestinos and practicing their incredible patience. It is crazy to champion efficiency - that precept which requires a certain stress - in the face of so much beauty to absorb. The rhythm can sometimes be, nevertheless, completely aggravating!

The local population already showed a wider range of 'café au lait' skin color gradations than we see in Natal, and this continually included darker shades as we neared Bahia - the state where the African slaves disembarked. I am constantly on the trail of DNA after becoming a fan of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s wonderful Public Broadcasting genealogy series. Many of the service staff do not smile, though this is due to the region's culture and not surly attitudes. They do not associate smiling at the clientele with some economic/
competitive advantage, as we're so inured to doing in the USA. While slightly disconcerting, it has a refreshing guileless quality to it, as well.

I just want to remind you at this point that this was winter in Brazil. Being somewhat near the equator in the Northeast, the temperatures drop from the January summer just a few comfortable degrees. The water can be a bit cooler, which means that you can just perceive a difference when you enter. 

As we continued south in Pernambuco, we visited the Praia dos Carneiros (Beach of the Sheep, though we saw no sheep). A crowded bar/restaurant called Bora Bora was a bit of a touristy turn-off (with that same tempo of "service,"), but the beach off to the right was quite beautiful.

Global warming has caused the shore to rise at high tide and erode the soil around the coconut trees:

Here's Newton 'tree-surfing:'

I was touched by this concerted effort of two little girls to fetch their father's bike for him over the rough beach terrain. He was minding a surfboard rental tent. It took them quite some time, but they prevailed!

The highway out of the state of Pernambuco and into the state of Alagoas was one of the most beautiful stretches of all. It ran near the shore with deep forests of coconut trees. 

We drove through the Alagoas capital city of Maceió to a well-known beach called Praia do Francês (which was frequented by French wood smugglers in colonial times). It was lovely to wake up in the Hotel Ponta Verde and see in daylight what lay beyond the sliding glass door of our room:

This beach day was a little scrappier, with constant vendors, beggars, palm readers and the cacophony of multiple roving, high volume CD carts. I bought this bathing suit cover from the vendor. It is cleverly cut for versatility, so he was demonstrating the possibilities:

For dinner we walked around the corner to a delicious little restaurant run by an Italian woman. She assured me I was not the first person to tell her she looks just like Isabella Rossellini! Octopus, oh so good.

The drive to our destination the next day in the state of Sergipe required crossing the São Francisco River on this large raft:

We caught the late afternoon sun over the water: 

The city of Aracaju is modern and developed, a surprise to the foreign attendees who were unfamiliar with its existence prior to the trade show. It has a population of about 600,000. 

We mysteriously could not detect any sign of trade show preparations downstairs in our hotel that evening, and were beginning to wonder. The staff knew nothing about such a conference. Newton investigated and realized he had booked us next door to the exhibit hotel! We spent some time that evening setting up the CAST booth - my first time to be involved. You can see that my role as the straight-picture-police served CAST well!

There tends to be one female for every hundred males at these techy shows. Come on, smart girls!

This was the trade show cocktail party:

Tapioca - very typical in the Northeast - was offered for most breakfasts on this trip. A heaping tablespoon of the tapioca flour is placed in an oiled skillet and carefully spiral-spread into a circle with the back of the spoon. A thin white pancake emerges! I could not resist combining the delicately sweet tapioca with scrambled eggs and cheese rolled up inside!

We were thrilled to find a really delicious Japanese tempura lunch near the conference. I also had the finest, freshest 'isca de peixe' ever - small pieces of fresh fish lightly breaded and fried. This is a typical dish at simple beach set-ups. I had to walk more than a mile from our hotel to reach a part of the beach that was not built-up. There were only two other plastic, umbrella'd tables occupied, but the service was a new low for me in Brazil. The waiter finally came by my table, then finally brought the caipirinha, though I believe he didn't understand about making it with the little envelope of stevia I gave him instead of caipirinha was suspiciously sweet! Then I finally got him to bring me a menu. Then he went and sat down at a table and drank a beer. I waved, yelled, and pleaded for him to come over so I could order food. It was getting late and I was starving. He finally ambled over in slow motion. The fish was perfect, but I was too full to eat the elaborate churrasco dinner provided by the trade show organizers that evening (except dessert!).

On our return trip we spent a night in Maceió, the capital of Alagoas. Its population is almost one million. We had little time and saw little of the city. Our Hotel Merediano looked quite modern and chic, though I could not help but be amazed by some glaring design flaws. Looks like some contractor has an ambitious-but-poorly-trained relative! First, I noticed that the space between the lobby and the elevators narrows so that two people can barely pass, much less the dozens that are frequenting that high-traffic space. Naturally, people were backed up on both ends. The first rule of interior design had already been broken. When we returned from dinner and walked up the wide stairs from the street to the hotel front, they led only into the impenetrable glass window/wall of the dining room. To actually enter, you had to squeeze past a narrow space with a plant and walk along the driveway to the door on the side. Strange. 

The last straw was when we opened up the curtains in our room the following morning. The window was placed in the wall askew to the axis of the room, which meant that a good portion of the window to the left is actually behind an added panel, and a section of wall on the right is exposed beyond the panel. So glad I didn't know about this before falling off to sleep!

This hotel handles food sculpture much better!

On our way out of town we snapped this lovely shot of the beach and a beach soccer game:


If anyone needs an adrenaline rush, just ride with Newton on a two-lane curvy road with humongous trucks…passing every one of them on our side! I almost fainted from hyper-ventilation at one point (well, there were three trucks in a row and it looked like he was going for all of them). He is an excellent driver, but I cannot get used to seeing a truck barreling towards me in the same lane.

We headed to a small, historic colonial town for our last stop, Olinda, in Pernambuco. It was founded by the Portuguese in 1537! We drove through the city of Recife this time, having seen only the airport long ago. Olinda, just north of Recife, is famous for its Carnaval. This particular weekend it was hosting a music festival.

We stayed at the Pousada dos Quatro Cantos, my favorite of the trip: a gorgeous old colonial structure with Mediterranean floor tiles and a charming courtyard.

I always love these tall colonial doors that open out to a veranda:

The hilly terrain of Olinda keeps one walking uphill and down:

Up a very steep road is the highest point overlooking the town. Preparations were underway for a jazz performance that evening outside the church; food vendors were setting up, crowds gathering. Everything was caught in high winds. 

This view of Olinda shows the city of Recife in the background:

When we returned up the hill later for the performance, the unfortunate rain drove most everybody for cover. We were not even sure how the musicians protected their instruments properly. We headed for the bar/restaurant that had looked inviting earlier, the Olinda Art & Grill. It was filled to the gills and rollicking with good cheer. We had to squeeze into a corner between the waiters' food pick-up station and the soloist, with just enough elbow room to sip our tall kiwi caipifrutas until high stools became available, right as the band arrived. A table opened up soon after that. Everyone was cozy in from the rain, brimming with high spirits, enjoying the music/noise/conversation and good will. It was an infectiously fun evening.

Later, Newton decided to go the opposite way from the pousada down to Olinda's largest church, Nossa Senhora do Carmowhere the main music festival events were playing into the wee hours...also in the rain, but with a covered stage for the musicians.

The following day we bought Christmas gift souvenirs and explored some high-end artisan shops. We ate lunch at Art Café, one of many charming little restaurants:  

You can see here what model Nordestino tourists we really are:




  1. What a lovely trip! I so enjoyed both the story and the pictures. I do believe without doubt you are the best travel writer ever! I especially loved the pictures from your last stop.

  2. Sandy, your Dispatch has once again provided a look at Brazil that we never see. Who knew that cities outside of Rio and Sao Paulo even exist except for the rare World Cup? You have provided some personality to geography to which we have never been exposed and challenged me with the pronunciation of the names of those places. The pictures, from the local color to beautiful beaches to the modern cities provide a realization that Brazil is a country of many personalities. Thanks for describing to us the real view of Brazil.


    1. Sergipe: Sehr-JEE-pee
      Recife: Hay-SEE-fee
      Tabapitanga: Tah-bah-pee-TAHNG-ah
      isca de peixe: EE-ska gee PAY-she ...for example!

  3. Loved hearing about these remote places that I would never think of visiting ... until I saw your gorgeous photos! A+++ :)


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