Our family holidays invariably involve waves, but this year’s trip was about much more than surfing. We decided to take our two daughters (23 and 17 years old respectively) on a journey through Northeast Brazil. It was to be a pilgrimage to my late father-in-law, who was born there and a region that had influenced their very own culture, identity and roots.
Buarque: uma familia Brasileira
If you’re Brazilian, then you’ll know that Buarque is a household name. The most famous is singer/songwriter Chico Buarque de Holanda, as well as his father Sergio, who was one of Brazil’s leading literary critics and historians. Equally as well-known was Aurelio Buarque, who wrote the country’s most popular Brazilian Portuguese dictionary.
My marriage to a Buarque means that I’m also included in an intriguing genealogical study that has been encapsulated in the novel Buarque: Uma Familia Brasileira. This, together with an extensive family tree, was written by Bartolomeu Buarque de Holanda after more than 20 years of meticulous research.
History and roots
The family beginnings date back to the time of the conquests in Northeast Brazil in the early 17th century. They were originally landowners with sugar cane plantations, which were kept in the family for generations through suitable marriages. During the 18th century, they were deceived by a large corporation and the plantations fell into the wrong hands.
My father-in-law (Walfredo or “Vavá”), grew up in the region but moved to Porto Alegre, in the most southern part of the country, as a lawyer in his early twenties. It was there he met his wife, my late mother-in-law, Therezinha, and there he stayed. My husband, Walter, grew up in this city that I also called home for around ten years when our two daughters were small.
Vavá invested over forty years of his life on legal action to recover the family honour after having been swindled out of the plantations in the past. The judge ruled in his favour a couple of years before his death at 93 years’ old. His life’s work was duly rewarded.
But the saga doesn’t end there. The case is still not closed and is being continued today in the hands of his youngest son Paulo, also a lawyer.
Fast forward to 2019
Now that you know the story, you can understand why we decided to take our daughters on a trip to discover their grandfather’s homeland, family and culture. The contrasts are enormous in this huge country.
For them, it would be the last piece of their multi-cultural puzzle. For me, it was déjá vu. I had visited Maceió once in 1995, on my first trip to Brazil. However, I barely spoke Portuguese back then and I was basically a tourist. This time, I returned having formed part of this family for 24 years, and it almost felt like going home.
Welcome to Brazil
We flew to Natal for a stopover before carrying on our long journey the following day. It’s a small airport and ours was the only plane. It still took two hours to get through immigration. Welcome back to Brazil.
I drew back the curtains of our hotel room at around 06:30 the next morning to see the city in full swing. The traffic was crazy, people were jogging, running for the bus and taking their kids to school (they start at 07:00 there). The region’s proximity to the equator mean that the sun rises just after 05:00, every day of the year, so the starts and finishes early. You just have to get used to it!
Beautiful Baia Formosa, Rio Grande do Norte
Back in the 80s, my husband had spent several seasons surfing in Baia Formosa (in the state of Rio Grande do Norte). He desperately wanted to take us there and hoped it hadn’t changed too much. Thankfully, it hasn’t.
This unspoilt fishing town was home to the loveliest people, some of whom even remembered Walter as soon as they saw him! Beautiful beaches lined with coconut palm forests, fisherman’s houses literally on the beach and a lifestyle so laid back it made me want to stay forever.
A couple of friends joined us on our trip to Brazil, and this place was unanimously voted as the best place on earth and we will be going back.
It was low season and we were pretty much the only tourists. Most of the locals depend on fishing or working in sugar cane plantations. One of them (Italo Ferreira), has broken the mould and become one of the world’s best professional surfers, providing inspiration for the dreams of many local kids.
One for Instagram
Ironically…on the first day, my youngest had the fortune/misfortune of literally running into the said professional surfer in the water. The encounter left her with a swollen foot and Italo took her for some first aid. He was a true gent and couldn’t do enough to ensure that she was looked after. She even got a selfie for her Instagram story. And while we were at it, we got a photo of our entire group with him in his Mum’s restaurant!
We had a pretty simple routine for the week, dictated by the natural hours of daylight, the tides, food and coconut water. I was glad I’d warned my clients that I’d “have limited access to emails,” because this was the real deal. Three days without Wi-Fi and two days without water and electricity. It depends which way you look at it, but for me this was the definition of bliss.
On a more serious note: this ‘disconnection’ was just what we needed: to switch off from our day-to-day lives at work and on social media. But this situation represents the everyday reality of millions of people all over Brazil: lack of reliable basic services like water, electricity and rubbish collection. Meagre salaries that leave little room for opportunity and improvement; rubbish strewn around the streets and floating in the rivers; puddles of pollution after the rains and sewage flowing out to sea. The government has so much to do and answer for.
Olinda and Recife, Pernambuco
After unwinding for six days our trip took us south. We passed through the state of Paraiba until we reached Olinda in the state of Pernambuco, where we would spend the night.
Olinda is one of the best-preserved and oldest cities in Brazil, founded in 1537 by the Portuguese. The historic town is located just next to the huge city of Recife – known as the “Brazilian Venice” due to its many rivers, bridges and small islands.
Olinda is also one of the country’s most important cultural centres. Its streets are draped in art and it’s hosts to one of the world’s most authentic and historic street carnivals. In fact, you’re surrounded by the colours of Carnival everywhere you look.
Masks, feathers, music and flamboyant costumes. The Mercado de Artesanato de Se and the Museu dos Bonecos Gigantes (Giant Doll Museum) are not to be missed.
Our hotel (Hotel Sete Colinas) was perfectly located, right in the middle of this historic quarter and with lush green tropical gardens all around. Brightly coloured houses line the steep cobbled streets. Art and music seduce you at every corner. By far, this is the perfect base to spend an amazing twenty-four hours in Olinda.
Final destination: Maceió
Maceió, the capital of the state of Alagoas, is where Vavá called home and where most of our North-eastern Brazilian family live today. There are too many to catch up with in such a short space of time. But the most important people on our list were his remaining four sisters from the original total of eleven siblings. The oldest is Maria Luiza (96) and Zorilda (79), one of the youngest but who still does Pilates regularly and sings beautifully in Spanish!
Aside from the sumptuous tropical beauty of Northeast Brazil, the longevity and wonderful character of its people are second to none. They are calm, joyful, kind and welcoming; this could well be the secret to a long life (a 117-year old woman from Alagoas is currently being considered by the Guinness Book as the oldest in the world).
We spent a few wonderful days staying at cousin Carlos Henrique’s beach house (another Buarque) in Barra de São Miguel, on the outskirts of the city. This was particularly special as they had arranged a boat trip to take us across the reef where Vavá’s ashes had been scattered the year before. We were so happy to see the spectacular paradise where he’d been laid to rest.
The boat then dropped us off at the beautiful Praia do Gunga where we’d spend the next few hours. We had been abandoned on one of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches, with only white sands, crystal-clear waters, Caipirinha, music, fresh fish and water sports to entertain ourselves. It was an arduous afternoon.
Praia do Francês
Playa do Francês is a gorgeous beach town lies around 20km outside Maceió. Its name hails from the French ships, often pirates, that landed there during the 15th century. It was home to indigenous Indians at the time and many conflicts ensued, both with the Indians and other foreign invaders, such as the Dutch and the Portuguese. Some locals took us to see the old ruins of an old leper’s colony, where sailors with the disease were taken upon landing.
Today, this small, laid-back town has a variety of restaurants, shops and bars. It’s still relaxing, relatively unspoilt, and transmits contagious good vibes. Our pousada was a stone’s throw from the beach and this is where we’d spend the last three days of our trip. Monkeys played in the trees outside our window as hummingbirds hovered from flower to flower.
The routine was simple: fresh fruit, bread, cakes and coffee for breakfast; surfing, swimming and long walks along the coconut-lined beaches; lunch followed by more beach. Darkness at 5pm meant beer o´clock, followed by an early dinner and bed by 9.30pm. Repeat.
And the time came to embark on our long journey home. It had been a fantastic trip retracing to our roots with friends and family along the way. As always, we bring a piece of Brazil in our hearts, back home to the Canary Islands.
If you’re thinking of visiting the Northeast of Brazil and you’d like some tips or advice, feel free to ask.