Saturday, July 6, 2013

Alcântara: Living in Fiction (Part 1)

View from the sailboat in which we traveled 
We departed early one morning on a sailboat ferrying people from the island of São Luís to small island-like mainland town called Alcântara. The ferry's schedule changes everyday, depending entirely on the rising and falling of the tide. When the tide is too high, the boat doesn't brave the water. When the tide is too low, there is no water upon which to sail. When the water is at an acceptable level, you better be on the dock with a ticket in your hand, because it is likely to be the only boat leaving that day.

With the sails stretched out above the boat, the wind picked up. The motor was running to give us an extra push. The sea was calm and the water at the desired level... Tania and I were sailing towards the tiny town that would place us, in typical Brazilian fashion, at once in the 17th and the 21st centuries.

As the boat began to get closer to Alcântara, small deserted islands started to come into view. They were little dots of land keeping Alcântara's shores company, causing the boat's course to sway and curve towards our destination.

As we passed by these islands, brilliantly pink-- almost neon pink-- birds took flight. Tania and I thought they were flamingos at first but we later were told they were guará. The pink of their feathers in front of the emerald green tropical forest offered the same shock to the senses as the cold water spraying our faces from the side of the boat.

After about an hour on the sea, we reached Alcântara's shore, wide awake and taking in the cheerful sounds of a coastal morning: water lapping against the wooden sides of boats, birds calling in the distance, dishes clinking together. We hadn't eaten yet that day, so we immediately sought out a small place near the shore that sold pão de queijo (a bread baked with Minas cheese). This golden little taste of heaven has just the right amount of crisp on the outside, giving way to a tender, savory center. After finishing one, we both went back for seconds right away. In fact, Tania woke up early and walked to this shop so that she could be there by 7AM and get the first batch of pão de queijo every morning.
Pão de queijo and a cup of coffee within earshot of ocean waves
Things were off to a great start. After we finished eating, we decided to head towards to house we would be staying in (the professors that put us up in São Luís had graciously offered us the use of their Alcântara residence, as well). Even with the coastal breezes, sweat poured down my back and both Tania and I wanted to take our shower-on-arrival before exploring the town further.

On the walk to the house, I noticed that the streets were paved with beautiful old grey stones that had been ground in to the red dirt of the roads. Rain water fed the bright green tufts of grass that outlined the stones. As we approached the house, we passed laundry lines strung between houses, several goats grazing in a yard, and a man leading a white cow down the road. We arrived at the green house with a blue door and used the giant skeleton key (this key must've weighed about 5 pounds) to go inside.

The green house with a blue door - can you spot the goat reclining nearby?

First nap of the day?
From inside the house, looking out the window, into the courtyard

Streets of Alcântara 
Steep hills allowed for ocean vistas (although, the sun was so bright my camera couldn't really handle it)
After a shower and a costume change, we braved the mid-morning sun to do some exploring. Closer to the center of the town, the streets were paved with black and white stones that zig-zagged to form a diamond pattern up and down the streets and sidewalks. Walking along these chessboard-like streets, we visited a small chapel, a beautiful white church (in which I attended Sunday Mass-- more on that in a bit), and finally we came to the central plaza of the town.
Diamond-pattern streets
Chapel, and a napping dog
View from the chapel
Upon the instructions of a local, we each rang these bells three times and made a wish (my wish ended up coming true!)
The main plaza was surrounded by beautiful colonial Portuguese buildings with the original porcelain tile still adorning the façades and large, arched windows and doors opening to the street. The ruins of an old church stretched up towards the sky, a reminder of how old and how much wear this plaza has seen over the centuries. And yet, the beauty of this place was harshly interrupted by the abrupt, stark vision of a white marble pillar in the center of the plaza.

This tall, ornate pillar is called a pelourinho and was the site in which the Portuguese settlers sold and publicly castigated African slaves. It is one of the only remaining pelourinhos preserved in Brazil and the top of the pillar retains its detailed original decoration. Towards the bottom of the pillar, there are marks of use, imaginably where chains rubbed against the marble. It is a grim monument to the horror of slavery, stuck directly between what was once a church (symbol of morality) and the ocean (symbol of freedom). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about seeing the pelourinho, however, was the fact that I witnessed both Brazilian and American tourists having their picture taken in front of it, as if it were any other architectural feature: leaning against it, smiling, thumbs-upping, even kissing.

Detail of Portuguese tile

Tile - Marble - Wood
Ruins of church in central plaza
The pelourinho
The ornate design on the pelourinho
Marks of wear on the pelourinho, the ocean in the background
The days I spent in Alcântara were like that-- filled with great beauty, novelesque encounters, and reminders (both bright and dark) of history. It was as if I were living inside a strange and wonderful fiction that became more and more fantastical the longer I stayed there... more on that in tomorrow's post!

Here are some more photos from our initial explorations of the town...
Junina lantern

Window detail on a house

Window-doors open to balconies overlooking the main plaza

These houses were constructed to last - the have been continuously occupied since the 18th century

Flag commemorating the town's celebration of the feast of the Holy Spirit

Ruins of a never-completed house, intended for King Pedro (18th century)

Purchasing fruit

The hammock where I spent some quality moments with my eyes closed...

Goats, clean laundry, breeze

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of my adventure in Alcântara... 


  1. Taiko, Bellas fotos, bello pueblo. Me he dejado llevar por las maravillas que cuentas. Quiero ir!

    1. ¡Qué bueno, Eva! Estoy segura de que te enamoraría este pueblito... ¡es realmente encantador! xoxo