‘Mister Davij, welcome! I loove you!’
The first time I landed at Porto Seguro’s tile-topped airport, I expected to be met by my mother’s Brazilian cousins. The invitation to join them at their home on the coast had promised much-needed respite from the intensity of my weeks in Rio and Sao Paulo.
However, upon stepping out into arrivals, I found myself tightly embraced and repeatedly kissed by a total stranger: a young woman of astonishing beauty dressed in sequinned crop top, hot pants and heels.
Only when airport staff paused to applaud and take photographs did I discover that my relations had ensured a lasting first impression by dispatching none other than the reigning Miss Bahia to collect me.
There followed a high-speed drive through pineapple, cocoa and coffee plantations. We billowed dust over gaúcho cowboys in wide-brimmed hats; women washing clothes in blue marshwater the colour of a hyacinth macaw; children at roadside stalls selling bottled fruit, miniature rigged sailing ships and entire orchestras of musical instruments.
Then suddenly, a siren.
The sight of a police car waving us down prompted panicked visions of the sorts of violence, extortion and hell-hole prisons that dominate Brazil’s nightly news. Instead, the men approached sporting broad smiles — and red plastic noses. They complimented my companion on the colour of her eyes and expressed delight at meeting a real live Englishman. They then presented us with a road-safety leaflet — and a handful of boiled sweets — in recompense for the delay.
“Muito obrigada — thanks very much!” Miss Bahia called out as they waved us off. “We loove you!”
The remaining hours of our journey sped us through flowering forests and mountains alight with ‘fire trees’, until tarmac finally dissolved to sand and we reached our destination: Prado.
It was obvious on first sight that this little seaside town needed neither the gilding of a beauty queen nor comedy policemen to win me over. Its friendly, free-spirited population are a delicious mix of African, Portuguese and native Pataxó, living in veranda-fronted houses set in tropical gardens, or colourful cottages lining streets that converge on cobbled squares. And all this scattered between the mangroves of the Jurucuçu River, lush Atlantic forest and
84 glorious kilometres, no less, of unspoilt beaches.
As though anything more could possibly be needed to enhance the locals’ already sunny dispositions, they like to laugh that theirs is ‘happy sand’. “Monazitic!” they declare. “Mildly radioactive — and medically proven to lift the mood!”
I personally require no dose of gamma rays to cheer my spirits, when every morning I open my eyes to white-washed rooms of dark Portuguese carpentry, and throw wide my shutters to the metallic flash of hummingbirds and the chatter of iridescent parrots in the palms. Or when beyond the jungle garden, scarlet-limbed crabs wander a beach the colour of Demerara sugar, as fishermen run boats into the surf, while Candomblé priestesses make offerings of flowers, perfume and lipstick to Iemanjá, goddess of the sea.
But then the food alone is enough to keep me smiling.
Breakfasts of scrambled eggs with butter-fried bananas, warm coconut brioche and courgette marmalade. Lunches of rice, beans, fried fish and pickled aubergine; burnt-sugar pudding and preserved papaya. Dinners of moqueca (Bahian seafood stew) and creamy mandioca (cassava) mash; plaits of local buffalo cheese with cinnamon biscuits and pumpkin compote.
And yet for me, it is at dusk, when the sun sinks towards Peru and turns the sky flamingo-pink, that Prado truly casts its spell. It’s not just that couples assemble on the beach to samba beneath the moon, but throughout the town berimbaus (bow-like instruments set on hollow gourds) thrum as young men compete in their dance-like martial art of capoeira. And then the drums begin, gathering the faithful to a high-priestess in a crinoline who spins herself into trances of divine frenzy that she might commune on their behalf with capricious gods.
Back home, Miss Bahia drops in for cashew caipirinhas and night-long sessions of Verdi and Jobim. In the kitchen, the Pataxó cook feeds her father visiting from the forest, his hair full of feathers, his mouth with coconut blancmange. In the bedroom, the maid lays out my laundry, taking care to tuck her daily messages of devotion into my underpants.
“Te amo com todo meu curaçao,” she writes again, in hope of reciprocal affection. “I love you with all my heart.”
But she’s too late. For as I listen to Miss Bahia singing Nabucco with my cousins; the garden’s throb of night birds, frogs and cicadas; the syncopating rhythms of the dancers, I know my heart is already full — and belongs entirely to Prado.
David Charles Manners’ latest book, Limitless Sky, describes his years of training with a Nepalese shaman in the Himalayan foothills of North Bengal. davidcharlesmanners.com
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)