Some say Brazil’s a dangerous place. On my first days in the Bahian surf town Itacaré, where the mouth of the Rio de Contas meets the Atlantic Ocean, I was mugged, as it were, by the contrast between two things. The first was the shit-out-of-luck search for a newspaper; a situation which is foreign to anyone who’s lived a life in cities. And just as I was getting used - warming, even – to the idea of living in a more detached, straightforward part of the world, came the second. Over beers with locals, I was struck by the recurring turn, “É complicado aqui” (It’s complicated here).
As a region, Bahia is a vast northeastern chunk of Atlantic coast, pocked with coconut groves, cacao plantations, summer heat and clammy-hands humidity. Bays flutter with reggae and football; boats haul fresh catches into bustling markets, surfers carve their paths. Waterfalls and bastard mosquitoes abound. Kids have kites. Marijuana. To the uninitiated, so it goes: there is absolutely nothing complicated here.
There are more public holidays in Bahia than anywhere else in Brazil. By extension, with its status as a party destination, that makes Itacaré one of the most celebratory towns on the entire South American continent. In the space of seven weeks, I’ve found myself drunkenly complicit in the Day of the Children, Day of the Teachers, All Saints’ Day, Day of the Dead and the National Day of the Republic. In this odd isolated pocket, life is informed and sometimes entirely postponed by festivity.
As a town, Itacaré has been known to hold people captive. People come for a week and stay for a life. I have seen Danish, Japanese, Israeli, Belgian, German, Argentinian and Irish all cancel onward plans to pursue the language or surfing or capoeira or music or work or love. I came here to learn to surf, which is a monstrous task for anyone who’s not twelve, but the reason people stay is at once simple and mysterious, to do with both the tranquil and the complicated.
When, for example, the clocks changed in Brazil, it took three days for anyone to agree on the real time. What matters most - or more – here is the pull of the ocean, where the tide timetables and swell forecast take precedence over all. At dawn, the town’s cobbled main artery Pituba patters with bare, eager feet jogging to Tiririca beach for an early surf. Later, as cake and coffee vendors open their shutters to the sun, you can expect your first greeting of the day, “E aí, beleza?”, which in both feeling and genuine inquiry should be understood as, “Hey! You feeling fucking brilliant today?”
In a town where the joy of physical pursuit is matched by both its ease and encouragement, it’s hard for people to move on. You can yoga, surf, play football and do capoeria all on the same day. On the same beach. Many do. On the move, in transit between one exhaustive bodily high and another, big-smiling vendors will hawk you tubs of acai berries, honey, banana and granola, sweet fried pastries, chocolate bombs or cashews the size of thumbs. You are at once an adult remembering what it’s like to have and cherish a body, and a child swinging your vision between troughs at the pic ‘n’ mix.
The reason that it’s complicated, then, for people who have come to live and settle in Itacaré is not because it takes days to get anything done, that horses wander the streets or the apparent lack of a fire brigade. Rather it’s the knowledge of living somewhere that will change and improve you and with that, accepting that it may not be good for you to leave.
So for someone like me, who has spent years inhaling and occasionally escaping the toxicity of a big city, for anyone, perhaps like you, whose wrists touch a keypad more often than the wind or a lover, come to Itacaré. Come to know, as if for the first time, what matters most between our computer screens and the felt reality of human life.