Brazil – unchartered territory

Amanhã Attitude – Heading northwest into unchartered territory

30 October 2008

Brazil – there’s a Terry Gilliam movie by that name. A surreal allegory of bureaucracy gone rabid. It is not set in Brazil, but rather in a futuristic cityscape which has regressed into the past, creating a cantankerous milieu where paperwork, and the bureaucratic cabal who enforce it, crush the very soul of all who live here.

The movie unfolds in a dreamlike surreality, with imagined truth crossing over into the gritty territory of the real. And that is sort of how I feel today. There was a girl called Jane last night. A first-time meeting of mind and spirit, soul and body. But somehow it was not like the first time at all. Shared understanding, synchronicity, a deeper knowing, all of this simmered between us, synching back to a communal source of serendipity. Instinctual, visceral, wise, fuckable, independent, straight-shooting, inquiring, hold-you-in-my-arms-forever Jane. I don’t know you, but I do so know you.

And so, after 48 hours of not sleeping, I’m brain-dead in Brazil, with Jane in my head. I’ve reset my watch to the new time zone, but my body clock beats in slow-mo as if I am hibernating within a different dimension here upon the edge of Sao Paulo’s airport chaos. So far away from Beth. So far from Robs. And yet so near, because their photo beams at me from my mobile phone and I have just SMSed them. My world is weird. My world is beautiful.

Reality does not bite but rather gnaws gently within the morass of my subconscious. I need to connect to Fortaleza on Brazil’s north-western coast still. And then find a pension or a few square metres of unoccupied airport floor space to crash on before continuing this continental journey. From Fortaleza, a 7 hour bus journey to Jijoca awaits and then a final push to Jericoacoara.

Jeri is the venue from which the EcoMotion Pro expedition race will unfold. More than 570 km of adventure awaits the 70-plus teams from all round the world and I will follow them along their wilderness route, capturing their progress through some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the South American continent. Fuck, it’s gonna be such a blast.

My mission will be to stick to Team McCain Adventure Addicts, the only South African entry into the AR World Champs here in Brazil. I know Graham, André, Hano and Tatum well, and have spent time with them at too many adventure races to even count, so it should be good catching up. The racing itself should be straightforward enough, but negotiating the maverick party mood of any event in Brazil always makes it a bit difficult to judge a tactical withdrawal to ensure your dignity remains intact.

31 October 2008

Had no option but to go off in search of a dodgy pousada last night, as the option of 8 hours camped out in Fortaleza Airport so did not entice me. However, the less said about Itaupa Albuagu, the better, but it equated to a few hours of solid sleep, and it’s good to have that in the bank.

And here I am, a few espressos later in Lugar 23 on the Redemption bus, cruising west through the Terra das Palmeiras. This land of the Palm Trees, mostly low scrub dotted with tens of thousands of coconut palms, blankets much of the Ceara Province, and right now it flickers past the bus window in hypnotic monotony.

Rural villages pop and fizzle on the radar, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with Portuguese subtitles amuses my fellow passengers. Extremely pretty dark haired girl next to me, but communication with my hundred words of Portuguese is just too exhausting.

When the inane smiles eventually convert into conversation she is funnily enough on her way to EcoMotion as well. Her name is Barbara and she hails from Manau in the south of the country. Good news is that she speaks better English than my dodgy Pork-and-cheese which will undoubtedly be most helpful.

At Jijoca, we disembark from the Redemption bus and switch to a Jardinier, or ‘Gardener’ contraption. Or at least I think that is what it was called. Whichever way, we rock and roll onto a windswept and desolate coastline as we face the last leg of our journey to Jericoacoara. The “bus” is basically an open-sided Mercedes 4×4 truck, and we shudder our way through the dunes for another hour or so.

It’s by now well on 40 hours since I started my journey, and I’m damn ready to get to Jeri. I’m not expecting much from the featureless plain, but when the village eventually pops up on the horizon it is an absolute gem. Swaying palms, sugar-sand beaches, high dunes, colourful boats and a leisurely throng of tourists – exactly, in fact, what one would expect of a beach destination rated by the locals and tourists alike as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Graham from the Adventure Addicts is on hand to sort me. For the first night I’ll just share with them, crashing in one of their rooms. First priority is to loosen up, so I dump my bags and hit the beach for a long sunset swim. It is so different to the Cape; 26 degree water, gentle waves and relatively good views. Sharks feed at sunset, but I’m not sure whether any sea Rottweilers hang out here in this part of the Atlantic, so I do not think about it much as I strike out away from land.

Later that evening, Hano, André and myself wander along the beachfront which is absolutely buzzing with activity. Tiny barrow-stores, brightly lit and with welcoming fires lit, do a brisk trade in everything from bootleg CDs and mix-while-you-wait caipirhinas to flame-grilled camarhaos. These tasty kebabs come as prawns, chicken or cheese on a stick and are done on the open coals while you wait.

The Gala Opening of the EcoMotion event for 2008 eventually kicks in at around 21h30. In typical Brazilian style, it is brash, flash and very loud. As a nation, they so remind me of boisterous but very friendly puppies, out of control, but always eager to please. It is a vibey affair, with music pumping a kick-ass AV- and Light Show and enough testosterone to fuel a fleet of Vernon Koekemoers.

McCain is in good company, with 60 of the world’s top AR teams in attendance. This easily rates as the strongest multi-sport field I have ever seen at an event, and to finish here in the Top 10 would be a massive achievement.

That night André. Tatum and I chat about the race and I can hear the jitters are about to start. Even though this is my work, it is so much about having fun, but for them the next week looms like a multi-day gauntlet.

1 November 2008

Another swim at prime shark-feeding time. I do 1.5 km just after 05h00 while the team packs their 4×5 and then we wolf down a quick brekkie. I love meals at tropical beach destinations, all fruits of the earth and fruits of the sea. From here onwards, my plan is to hook up with the media contingent for a while, so I hoik up my packs and slog off in search of Pousada Recanto de Baraõ.

More than 50 journalists from around the world have gathered to come and cover EcoMotion, and they’re a friendly bunch. I hook up with Rob Howard of SleepMonsters and a Polish girl and we band together on the 4×4 bus trip back to Jijoca. The locals are in fine spirits and I find it a pity that I do not speak more Portuguese so as to share in the jokes. It is a long and hot trip, probably another 6 hours or so from Jijoca, wending our way along bumpy gravel roads, through stands of Brazil nut trees, arid plains, thorny scrub and palm plantations.

We eventually reach our destination – a large town by the name of Parnaiba – by mid afternoon, but around now the race organizers seem to lose their focus a bit. We faff around at lunch, miss the map session, then don’t have shuttles back to the hotel, and the final race briefing bangs on for more than 4 frigging, boring hours.

We eventually make it back to the hotel around 01h00. Not good as we need to be up again at 05h00. What the hell, I’m sure we’ll survive in the end.

2 November 2008

What the fuck is it with this hurry-up-and-wait shit? Up at 05h00 and ready for 06h00 departure, but as usual, there are a couple of shitheads who hold up the whole convoy and it is past 07h00 when we eventually get going. On our way to Largada from where we will take a boat to the start line, or so I hope anyway.

The teams will kick off with a 28 km coasteering leg, and estimates vary on how long this will take them. My gut feeling is around 3 hours, which will see them reaching the first transition after dark. Only option to shoot them therefore will be either to trek with them (probably to fast) or organise a motorcycle taxi to take you into the ‘dunas’. WTF – we will wait and see.

The 2 hour journey turns into a 5 hour mission along sandy roads and through tiny rural villages. It is a bit like a badly organised school trip where you can’t do anything without asking the teacher’s permission: don’t stray; don’t get off the vehicle; don’t ask any questions. The long and short of it is that we do get to our destination in the end, albeit a bit grumpy.

The scenery we pass through is very unlike the tropical jungles one generally expects here in Brazil. There’s a lot of coastal sand forest, where low contorted bush is interspersed with coconut palms. Streams flow past poor, rural villages, where the flash of nut-brown bodies and peals of laughter give you a glimpse into lives made up of equal parts of carefree and cruel. Most houses seem to have their own gardens, and fruit grows in wild abundance. The homes themselves are painted in bright colours, from canary yellow and lime green to tropical blue. And in every home, someone stares in brazen amazement as the EcoMotion circus passes them by. Old grandmothers smile toothless smiles, an octogenarian Ghandi look-alike waves a bony hand; agile children swing upside down from the emerald branches of mango trees, flashing white-toothed smiles; and dusty young girls, poised upon the very edge of womanhood, flash shy smiles and supple limbs.

We negotiate the sweep of a broad and windswept river to get to the dunas, perched like multi-sport mercenaries atop a fleet of raggedy wooden fishing boats. The plan is to spell out ECOMOTION at the startline, with the teams standing abreast to form the letters, but first we have to wait for the chopper to come and shoot the shot. By now, some of the athletes are getting gatvol of standing in the hot sun and a wolf whistle begins to pierce the afternoon.

And then, just before mutiny kicks in, the flag goes down and the race is on. The athletes are out of their starting blocks like sprinters, so typical of adventure racers. They all say they are going to take the slow and measured approach, but it is pedal to the metal as soon as the gun goes. Fortunately the top guys soon find their own pace, slowing things down in order to keep racing for 4 or 5 days.

Tats, who should be keeping the boys in check, is out of control at the front of the foursome right from the start. It’s like the charge of the Mongol hordes as the racers leg it across the sandy plains and then into the dunes. I leg it down to my scrambler and then hare it up the coast to where they will exit onto the tidal strip.

There is no quarter given or taken, with Nike, Quasar Lontra, Helly Hansen and the other big dogs trying to enforce their advantage right from the word go. McCain seems to have gone to hard though, and Tweet is looking haggard with that far-away moer-toe set to his jaw, but the rest of the team is looking good.

I lose them in the dark and decide to head to the transition and they eventually arrive well after dark at around 19h00. Tweet is buggered, but keeps it together as they prepare the boats to launch into the savage chop; it’s gonna be a tough one, probably at least 12 – 15 hours with the heavy barges they are paddling and I watch them till their tiny, flashing strobes disappear into the dark of the night. Respect – that’s all I can say.

My lightweight adventure, however, is far from over. I was hoping against all hopes to get back to some kind of civilization to get pics and media releases out, but this was not to be. The Media Bus is missing, the organizers are missing and the few guys who I can communicate with suggest I go and have a beer.

So, life is not too kak, I suppose. Monika, the Polish journo, myself and a handful of Brazileiros settle into a pousada and order a round of Brahma Chopps. The bar is actually part of the family home, so we are looking onto the kitchen-cum-living room-cum-TV room while we comfortably get numb waiting for whatever it is that may happen next.

3 November 2008

I make a strategic call to miss the morning boat trip, as I’m not sure whether we’ll be back in time to meet McCain at the transition. It also gives me the chance to clean my seriously dusty cameras, recharge batteries, send out images and get press releases out to the media. This is a good move, as from here things are going to get a lot more confusing as the field spreads out.

I’m also planning on joining the team seconds for the next few legs of the journey, but in adventure racing, things always have a way of not working out the way you want them to. And this turns out to be one of those days ….

Nike steams in at around 14h00 and I know McCain has made up stacks of ground, so have moved up a dozen or so places to 10th position. But I’m expecting them to be tired, and not move further up the field. So I take in my position on the river, shooting into the sun for a lovely silhouette shot, and wait. By 15h00 the first ten teams are in and I know that the guys must be so close. By 16h00 I’m worried, and by 17h00 I have decided the team must have made a call to sleep at one of the stop-and-go points.

By nightfall I’m flummoxed and walk up to chat to the McCain seconds. And they’re gone! They have slipped completely through my radar in the position and even though I got great shots of them, I did not recognize them in the glare of the sun. An hour and a half of trying to organise a vehicle ensures, but eventually the amount of amanha attitude gets too much for me and I go off to work on photos.

4 November 2008

Patience in short supply now. We were going to leave around 06h00 and by 09h00 we are still pissing about Parnaiba, looking for ice cream for some ditsy girl. So eventually, when we do get going, I’m expecting us to head straight to PC15 to meet the teams. But no, for some reason we go to our hotel in Vicosa, only to hang around for another hour.

As Rob Howard from SleepMonsters says, “If there is a choice between doing something or nothing, it is inevitable the Brazilians will do nothing.” I’ve been rooming with him so far, and he’s a helluva nice guy. Very English, not in a pompous way, but rather unflappable and with a delightfully dry sense of humour. And so we wait on the veranda of the Vicosa hotel, drinking Jesus Guaranã (I kid you not) while watching the mangoes ripen on the trees below.

And then we find out that the rappel point is less than an hour’s hike from town, and decide to pull off a daring escape from our minder Manoela, who is by now seriously beginning to resemble Uncle Fester from the Addams Family. The trek in to the abseil is a long steep gully, slippery with a trickle of water, but the guides are extremely cautious and not at all interested in letting me do the rappel down.

This does not leave many visual options, so I decide to hike along the route past a rock formation known to the locals as Castello do Pedras, or Rock Castle. Monika and Rob tag along and we find the rock towers, but they resemble giant erections rather than a rock castle, rather like Cappadocchia. There’s nothing much to do but climb the pillars and make puerile penis jokes, but this does keep us occupied for a while.

But the need to see the teams wins out over the safe option of waiting at a check-point and I go in search of them. But that is the difficult thing in adventure racing – you never know whether the teams will opt for the obvious route; but what the hell. So I lose myself for a while within the emerald swoon of towering palms and tall stands of swishing bamboo. Cicadas, birds and a host of jungle creatures pump out a deep-forest soundtrack, layering the solitude in a multitude of clicks and whirrs and whoops and whistles.

I listen for sounds of teams coming through, but there is nothing. Along the trail, I find a hut built from mud and sticks. In the dusty yard a wiry man is grinding an axe with a single-minded intent, while a few bristly pigs snuffle around in the dirt. A young boy, about 8 or so, leans against the mud lattice structure, his dark eyes watching, and with a rusted machete hanging from his hand.

I establish in my dodgy Portuguese that they have not seen any athletes, so Monika and I decide to wander back to Castello do Pedras. Around 14h00 Team Nike hustles through with Orion hot on their heels. Sole follows a while later but there is no sign of McCain. The sun dips down at 18h00 and just when I begin to worry that they may have taken a different route, I hear Tatum’s voice coming along the path.

They’re a bit despondent and clearly very tired. The had managed to move up the field into 3rd place the previous night, but a few navigational errors now see them back t 10th, and the disappointment shows. I jog behind them on the footpath down to the abseil, getting information and some photos and also read them some of the SMS messages from their family and friends back home. And then they disappear over the edge, into the tangle of sertao below.

I hike back to Vicosa in the light of a mist-diffused moon, listening to the weird sounds of this unfamiliar continent. Once out of the woods, I try to figure out my way through the maze of streets criss-crossing the low-lying favelas of Vicosa and soon have a raggedy band of boys cadging for hand-outs or shouting out directions. But Vicosa is small enough for me to find my own way to the transition and I’m soon back with the support crew.

Later, Rob and I head to a street pizzeria for a bite and a couple of beers. It’s been a better day, but I am still finding it ridiculously difficult to get any cooperation from the EcoMotion media crew. The local journos are really friendly and helpful, but my best option will be to split off on my own tomorrow.

5 November 2008

Early morning wake-up and hike down to the jumar cliff but miss the team as they snuck into Vicosa along a different route. So there I am again, waiting for the media corps to get their act together, but that’s a bit like waiting for the second coming. The Brazilian contingent had a bit of a skop and there are serious cases of babelaas kicking about so things are even slower than normal.

Oh well, it at least gives me time to charge up batteries and get out press updates, so it’s not a complete waste of time. I also get a chance to go for a wander around downtown Vicosa, probably one of the more attractive villages we’ve seen here in the north-west. The town is situated on the very edge of the escarpment, with the world seemingly dropping away hundreds of metres onto the sertão plains below. Low-pitched, orange-tiled roofs ruck up from the surrounding emerald vegetation, with the narrow cobble streets climbing steeply amidst the multi-hued houses and church steeples.

I buy Robert and Beth a few little trinkets at the shops bordering the town square and watch as the Brazileiros go about their business. It’s payday and an extended queue snakes from the still locked doors of the Banco do Brazil, with everyone from mothers breastfeeding babies to decrepit compesinos in battered fedora hats. Children scamper about on the periphery of the EcoMotion transition site, while teenagers look self-consciously cool in that typical way they have all around the world.

The race transition area, set up within the leafy village square, is watched over by a number of saints, including a miniature Christo Redentor in silent repose upon the adjacent hill. And the racers will damn well need someone watching over them, as the temperatures yesterday peaked at a blistering 49˚C in the “Caldeirao” or “Boiling Pot” down in the desert yesterday. Bikes, paddles, tents, packs, race food, gear boxes, shoes, dirty clothing, kit and comatose bodies lie scattered in the organic chaos that mushrooms around any expedition race as it unfolds, and I’m sure that the locals can only but look on and shake their heads.

We finally hit the road to Granja, a dustbowl of a town with one redeeming feature, the Rio Coreau. We reach the river at midday, with the temperature well into the forties, and there are more people camping out in the river than on its banks. The water is green and slimycool but it doesn’t keep you freshed for longer than 5 minutes when you’re out. So I drink ice cold Coke from the local café, write my journal under a massive tree, and wait for McCain (and not Obama in this case) to make their appearance.

So the night eventually gets a bit weird. I go for a km swim up-river and realize halfway through that I am not at all sure whether there are alligators or crocs or anacondas lurking about. Or whether there are some of those tiny barbed fish which swim up your urinary tract, requiring a doctor to split your penis in half length-wise in order to remove the little sucker.

Bit late to worry, so I continue to stroke up-river, keeping a wary eye out for potential beasties. I get back (unscathed as far as I can tell) just after sunset, in time for a sizeable cerveja with Monika who has joined forces with her Polish support crew. So we sit on cheap deckchairs sipping on cold Skols while staring at an old iron bridge across the Rio Coreau. In turn, we have a crowd of super-inquisitive kids a few metres away, intently staring at us. Surreal, to say the least.

Eventually, I decamp to Bibi, our support-crew driver’s hammock, but the kids follow me and continue to stare at me with big liquid eyes, sort of like the cat in the Shrek movie. Bibi then starts rubbing up a young girl and soon disappears off into the darkness, and all I can do is shake my head, write in my journal and sway in a hammock you can buy locally for only $3. (Strange, but true, it is only 21h00)

By 03h00 I am still waiting for my team to come in. I’ve decamped to a big rock jutting into the river and am surrounded by frogs the size of saucers. They glare unblinkingly at me watching them, and I get locked into a bit of a staring competition with one of the big boys, but he wins quite easily. Then, when I take a photograph of him, he hops off indignantly and plops into the water.

6 November 2008

McCain eventually limps in a just before 04h00 and we hustle them through the transition to leave as much of a wind window as possible. They are finished after 15 hours of paddle and drag, but just as keen to get to the finish before the wind dies. So it’s a rather rushed transition before they crank off on the bike with us hot-footing it ahead to Camocim.

We arrive just as dawn breaks in the east, with the leaders, Orion Health, sauntering down to the colourful little traditional sailboat. They tack off as the amber sun orbs up above the skyline, with Nike in hot pursuit a few minutes later. I’m about to go check with the marshals on McCain’s whereabouts when they come powering into the transition, a good hour earlier than expected. A good thing too, because the sailing marshals were just about to close the leg due to a wind direction change.

Confusion reigns for a while as the race officials vacillate as to whether McCain can make the sail under the prevailing wind conditions but we eventually get the green light and they’re off. The support crew and I scramble to get the transition cleared and go off to Jeri, where EcoMotion 2008 is due to end after more than four hectic days in the north-west desert.

But even now this extraordinary expedition race comes up with an unexpected sting in the tail. The wind changes and, instead of the projected 4 hours, McCain ends up spending more than 8 hours on their tiny wooden skiff. Andre pukes up the kilograms of race fuel he’s been stuffing down his throat and, by their own account, the four of them look rather grim by the time they hit the beach for their home straight run.

I hike in through the dunes to meet them, but head back after a few kms as I don’t want to take the chance of missing them somehow. About a km from Jeri I finally spot them from the top of the sunset dune. They’re going slow, with Tweet on a tow rope, but nothing bar an act of God will stop them from finishing this race. I run down the dune with them to grab some final photographs, but let the four of them finish as a foursome.

It’s an incredibly emotional moment for the team, and I can see all four struggling to contain their emotions. After 4 days and 3 hours of pushing their minds, bodies and spirits beyond human limits, it is impossible for them to explain to an outsider what they have gone through. As Tatum says, “Right now I do not want it to end, I just want to keep on running. Because if I stop, I have to talk to people to try and explain what this was all about, and I have no idea where to begin.”

I’ve arranged ice-cold caiparhinas for the guys as promised, so we sit down at one of the beach bars; me and four very tired, very smelly, adventure racers. Tweet’s body is busy going into shut-down mode and he is shivering uncontrollably and at around 19h00 they head to bed, like soldiers victorious from some distant battle.

7 November 2008

Unlike the team, I had a rather inactive race, so am only too pleased to have a free day in Jeri before I start the long journey back home. I banked 14 hours of solid sleep after a succession of sketchy nights and feel as if somebody has rammed a few Duracells up my ass when I wake up. A barefoot run up the coast blunts my endorphin crave, and I follow this up with a 1.5 km swim along the shoreline past the dune. Then I pack in one of those awesome tropical destination breakfasts, brimful with everything from fresh fruit and Portuguese pancakes to a steaming cup of caffé con leite.

There’s a fair bit of work to do though, and much as I hate it, I have to get stuck into doing pix and releases for the media. Fortunately this is during the heat of the day and when I finally switch off the laptop, the temperatures outside are once again manageable.

So I trip down to the beach and hook up with Polska, as I’ve dubbed Monika, and Alfonso, one of the Brazil video cameramen. The whole beach-front here is an absolute hive of activity; windsurfers and kite-boarders tear up the ocean, sand-boarders carve down the spectacular face of the sunset dune; paddle-boarders and surfers do the stand-up thing, horse-back riders gallop up and down like marauding hordes; and, more than anything, women display hectares of tanned and smooth skin in absolute, sensual abandon. To be sure, the girls here are not as toned and body-conscious as on the Rio beaches, but they have that same comfortableness with their near-nakedness that is so attractive with all Brazileiros.

Once the sun has finally done its spectacular light show, we head off to the beach bars trolleys for a caiparhina before supper. It’s all hustle and bustle here, with the camarhao fires burning and baggy-shorted barmen shaking up their mix of diced lime, crushed ice sugar and cachaca spirits while preparing Brazil’s favourite cocktail. Supper is a relaxed affair at a street café, and then we all decamp to the Spot Party for a bit of going big in Brazil.

The party never really takes off though, probably because there are too many dog-tired gringos sipping beers. I talk shit to André, Polska and a few of her Polish team members; all nice, but very reserved and quite regimented in that typical Eastern European way. Monika is more fun and finds us South Africans a bit of a hoot.

The action peters out somewhere near 03h00, but not before I’ve chucked back at least 4 or 5 caiperhinas. I wander back to the pousada, barefoot, shirtless and with just the right amount of buzz to make me think of my honey.

8 November 2008

It’s all rather surreal here on Plant Hangover. Lost my Oakleys on last day of race in mad dash along sand dunes and bought some cheap and nasty Oakley knock-offs from the sunglass merch on Jeri beach. They’re big, black virtual wrap-around fuckem, just like the ones Schwarzenegger wears in the Robocop movie. I am also wearing my loudest island shirt as I wait for the Redemption Bus back to Fortaleza. So it’s all a bit low budget and cheap, like a very B-grade porn movie. Jacques Marais is …….. RoboCock!!

Anyway, I went for a long swim when I woke up and that took a bit of the edge off the hangover. Breakfast helped as well, and afterwards I did the customary air kisses, business card exchanges and promises to visit, knowing full well that there is rarely any follow-through on these. I do however know I will keep contact with Rob Howard of SleepMonsters and also with Polska, because we talked so much crap and she proved to be a really good sport.

Tonight I’ll flash a few Reals and crash in the VIP lounge, as it is too much of a mission to head out to a pousada for a few hours and then arrange a taxi back at some ungodly hour. So not much sleep before I take off for Sao Paulo and onwards to Cape Town via Jhb. And this time, it is not just my two lovely kids waiting for me. Life is good.