Eric was born in Puerto Rico but, because he had spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, he spoke with an American accent. He was fluent in three languages – English, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. I met him on the beach promenade at Fortaleza. He worked for a company that wanted to tempt the tourists into their privately owned beaches. Eric was accomplished at describing the perils of Brazil and he told terrible tales about armed children on bikes killing innocent pedestrians for money to buy crack.
‘The Rough Guide To Brazil’ describes Fortaleza as a city that can be walked in safety. Eric disagreed and he gave me a map to support his argument. He marked the map with circles and crosses. The safe places were marked with circles and the danger spots he soon highlighted with an emphatic cross.
Eric had a commercial agenda. Paranoid tourists were more likely to want to retreat to the exclusive beaches. He was certainly convincing. He hated Brazil and longed to return to the superior calm of the States. Eric was trapped, unable to save the money for the fare home. He spoke about his Brazilian wife with real bitterness and bent his hands into grasping claws so I could understand her exact nature. When he soon realized that I would not be tempted by private beaches he gave me impartial advice on how to see the best of Fortaleza and stay safe. He outlined a route to an Arts Centre that sidestepped the favelas. When I told him where I had been walking that day he was shocked by my casual attitude to the risks within the city.
‘This is Brazil, man, be careful and stay safe,’ he said.
I spent the rest of that weekend doing what Eric had advised although I did visit the beach again on the Sunday. Eric had warned me off which was why he recommended the Arts Centre. I visited the Centre but it was closed although it still required a police presence. Despite the warning from Eric, I returned to the beach. He had said that the beach on Sunday would be full of young criminals from the favelas.
‘Why?’ I had asked.
‘I don’t know. Maybe it’s their day off.’
It may have been but the criminals behaved quite well and indeed the beach was pleasanter with the increased number of favela residents. They deterred the normal vendors and hustlers.
Now, some time later, I wonder if I took Eric too seriously. He may have been a man tempted to overestimate his own drama and that of others. He caught me, though, at a moment when I was susceptible. Half an hour earlier, I had refused to buy what I assumed was a tattoo. The young man looked at me with superior contempt and threatened to shoot me. His friend giggled. The young man told me that he would go back to his favela, pick up his pistol and put a bullet inside me. This is not the pleasantest of memories to have as you walk around Brazil and view the sights. The significance of these incidents, though, can be exaggerated. It is possible that it was no more than arrogant humour from a student raising extra cash. If it was, I am slightly ashamed of my paranoia. If not, I think I did rather well in the circumstances.
Fortaleza is now a tourist town. The promenade is lined with tall hotels stacked close to each other and the beaches have restaurants that have tables that stretch out towards the sea. Nightlife occurs in the buildings that face the beach but at night the revellers are not interested in sand and sea. In the dark, the road that skirts the beach provides a lonely and satisfying walk.
The most difficult moments that I experienced in Brazil only occurred whenever tourists had gathered in numbers. Elsewhere, people were either friendly or ignored me. I had two arguments in Brazil. Both were in tourist towns. I spent a month in Brazil and usually wandered innocently and quite safely, often witnessing extreme poverty. Tourists, though, attract the hustlers. The students are anything but tough but clever enough to pretend they are. When I visited Brazil there was enough violence to qualify with the United Nations as low-grade civil war. It is easy for posers to take advantage with strangers.
I stopped at Fortaleza for two reasons. First, there was a direct twenty-three hour bus ride there from Salvador. The bus ride actually took twenty-five hours. Second, Fortaleza was a decent stopping post on the north coast before my left turn to the Amazon. I also wanted to see the city that had produced the famous fisherman, Jacaré. With three others he had sailed from Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro on a traditional fishing boat that the rest of us would call a raft. In Rio, the four sailors met the Brazilian President, Getulio Vargas, to demand trade union rights and pensions for the fishermen of northern Brazil. Supposedly, the men were still wet from their epic journey when they arrived at the Presidential Palace. The man was recognized as a hero. Later, Orson Welles visited Brazil to make the film, ‘It’s All True’. The film was never properly realised. Brazil did not inspire industry in Orson Welles. He did, though, throw good parties. They may have all been having fun when Jacaré died. The exact details are disputed. It may have happened during filming or it may have been a drunken celebration afterwards. Some even claim that it was not Jacaré who died but another member of the crew. But if it is myth, Jacaré conveniently disappeared to help nurture our fancies. I am inclined to believe that Jacaré did fall off the boat in the middle of a boozy session. The man was too damned heroic to survive and although Welles was heroic in his own way his flaws are undeniable. It is all too easy to imagine a great strong man being laid low by the over indulged.
I saw little of the Jacaré spirit in Fortaleza. It is now a tourist town with organized scavenging supported and encouraged by overseas investment. Who can blame them? We all need to eat and survive. The fishermen still exist but in ever reducing numbers although you do see on the beaches the occasional battered remnants of their boats. Usually, though, the fishermen inhabit their own separate world. They are early risers and they head for the horizon well before the tourists appear.
I failed to discover the city centre of Fortaleza. I was a solitary traveller who found it easier to avoid the beaches of Brazil. But I needed a memory of some sand and Fortaleza was my taste of a Brazilian beach holiday. The weather was warm and the views out to sea were pleasant. And there was a lot of beach. The polluted water looked tempting. Fortaleza was an experience unlike my others in Brazil where I usually passed the time walking around cities. It is easily remembered, as is Jacaré. His exploits are beyond European softies like me but I did say no to the gun-threatening tattooist. I also refused a beautiful prostitute that was offered to me gratis by a drunken Dutchman that looked like Klaus Kinski. I have a tattoo free body and a medical record that is free of sexually transmitted diseases. It is inadequate honour and respect for an heroic fisherman that in his own life deserved so much. But it was the best that this inconsequential traveller could manage.
Howard Jackson is the author of Innocent Mosquitoes: from Liverpool to the backlands of Brazil. Innocent Mosquitoes is available to buy on Amazon and other online bookstores.
Category: Destination: Fortaleza&Jeri