Friday, August 10, 2012

Lencois Maranhenses Brazil – Canvas of Emerald White

The endless white sand dunes

Out of the three best things that befell my fortune in Belem; two happened on the same evening, within a span of few minutes with the same person and I am myself shocked that this person hails from the male species and I really took an intense liking to him. How and what got me to Alexandre is a long tale not suitable for current consumption, but suffice to say that he picked me up one bland Belem evening to offer my hungry soul some delightful delicacies. We finally ended up in a roadside joint and had just dipped our fingers in a large cauldron (caldrao) of fish swimming unceremoniously in thick clear yellow soup when suddenly Alexandre froze, one twisted shrimp poised tantalizingly from his lips. He could as well be a fish about to take the bait but at the last moment arrested by his element of surprise. I wondered how could he take the delectable shrimp that close to his mouth and not put it in! Some display of self-control, if I had seen any.

‘You aren’t going to Lencois Maranhenses?’ he spat out as if I was about to commit the gravest of human mistakes. I fumbled a meek ‘no’ since I had no idea where it existed and how to reach there even. Over the next fifteen minutes, while I crunched and gulped shrimps like an otter, Alexandre laid out a vision with such aplomb that I suspected he had a family connection to Lencois Maranhenses Governor or tourism some way. Nevertheless, by the end of the cauldron I was hooked line and sinker for this place that my host described as the ultimate Brazil destination where very few outsiders ever went to. To reach there was rather roundabout and he had little idea how I could achieve it by using public transport; and that is the challenge that totally captivated me; if the going is tough then I must get going. And in the next three and half days I had perhaps the best possible experience of being a Brazilian in Brazil.

Next day morning, reaching Belem rodoviaria (bus terminus) I had to use my complete lack of communication skills at Boa Esperensa bus counter to purchase an evening ticket to Sao Luis, the capital of the state of Maranhao. The bus left around 7 pm depositing me at Sao Luis terminus dot at 7 am. Got the next Cisne Branco bus to Barreirinhas at 8.45 am. More than half the road ran through desolate land as flat as I had ever seen endless plains of bushes or trees, with intermittent habitations. Everything appeared dry and in state of decay. When the bus entered Barreirinhas main road around half past one, I felt as if I had arrived at one of those ghost towns where everyone had evacuated or died and was now peopled only with ghosts and shadows of the past. Little did I know then what festivity the place would have later.
My twin brother Jadson the English speaking guide

Everything was shut, it was hot and humid. The tourism map claims this to be a town, it even has a tiny airport somewhere but from the size of it, it was smaller than the colony I lived back in India. From the last stop, which is outside the town church, I walked back into the town center (what else could I call the square with few loiterers and taxi bikes around!) trying to strike up conversation and find a place to stay that wouldn’t rob my sleep along with pocket. Finally a good old (really good and really old) lady pointed at a half shut door in a lane and said, ‘English guide’ through her empty dentures. May god bless her soul in person, I muttered, as it wouldn’t be long she would meet the creator and hurried in the harried heat to meet the only English speaking guide in the area. Cassia was her name and boy was I delighted to learn that my savior would once again be a woman.

I entered the office of Sao Paulo Tourism. They offer all sorts of guided tours in the area and seemed like the place I could use. There were two cute girls behind the counters, working feverishly on something, or pretending to be and they must be used to seeing swearing tourists of indeterminate origin sweating to the point of swooning. I hoped the one without glasses was Cassia. And she was. I uttered ‘English’ to which she replied, ‘of course.’ And thus began my adventure in this mystic land. Cassia quickly got me a glass of cold water and maps and their itineraries and I realized that I still had half a day left and could do the Lencois Maranhenses trip that would begin at 2pm and it was already 2.05. Do you have water, Cassia asked, even as she started punching her mobile phone. Can you walk for few hours on sand, hope you aren’t exhausted, she asked next… I simply blew her questions to the wind. Soon enough a big 4X4 retro fitted ‘I-have-no-idea’ sort of vehicle screeched right on me. Cassia bundled me goodnaturedly, pushing a cold water bottle in my hand and shove to my bum to get to the top; she had absolutely no idea what I did for a living.
Cassia my Guardian Angel

Our guide Jadson was so wiry that if he was any wirier I could put him as a wire in a trad-rock crack. He had a big smile that leapt out of his face on both sides and I took an instant liking to his demeanor and his way of speaking three languages within the same sentence. He affirmed that he was the only ‘living’ English speaking guide in this region, a claim that proved true later and that he was most delighted to have my company and that he has never met an Indian from India before, dead or alive. My company included a middle aged couple with baggage around their middle and an old but pretty woman with two very pretty girls, one of whom must be her daughter. From everyone’s attire I could make out that they were ready for a swim. The girls were in the first row, the couple was in the second and I in the last (as always) along with Jadson. I inserted my bananas in the cold box with my bottle and started chatting with Jadson, fearing every second that the opposing wind would blow him into oblivion. Our driver must either be blind or short sighted or Brazilian or all the three since he drove with complete disregard to any norms of driving. He drove at least close to 1 mach, taking the curves at 4 G, making my stomach roll and jump as if I had an internal trampoline. Everyone held on to the seats or to each other. We crossed a small river upon a ferry, the only sane moment of the drive, and then raced through swamp, sand and midget forest land to finally reach the outlay of massive white sand dunes.
The 'I-have-no-idea' vehicle

We got out and immediately everyone undressed to their bathing costumes, much to my surprise, for I couldn’t see any water anywhere and then my surprise took a double turn when an oriental guy hopped out too. Where had he been hiding till now I wondered; and Jadson whispered that the Jap had been riding along the driver inside. I know Japs very well but this one looked paler than usual; could be the proximity to our angel of death.

Jadson put on his hat with neck guard. So we started off bare feet, everyone quite bare, except Jap, Jadson and I. Surprisingly the sand didn’t feel hot, or even warm. It was so fine that it passed through my fingers like fluid. I stayed back, enjoying the swaying backs of the ‘you know who’, clicking pictures. We first climbed atop a hill with a marker flag flying high on a high bamboo pole. If anyone gets lost, you must get back to this flag, Jadson instructed. Why would anyone get lost, the Jap asked, Jadson didn’t bother to answer this obvious query and then I asked from how far can this flag be seen for us to head back to it in case one got lost. Depends on how tall you are and if you are below or on top of a sand dune, Jadson’s reply that was so correct (height of eye phenomenon) that it prompted me to ask no further and plunge down through the beautiful sand, in hot pursuit of the hotties ahead.

As I raced down beside the girls, I got another surprise, they each spoke really good English and the mother daughter duo had even been to India and simply loved everything about India, including dark handsome not-so-tall Indian men. Don’t get me wrong, such a liking only got me a glass of fruit cocktail shake, promised but not delivered, so go figure. All three were from Sao Paulo, the old couple could be from Mars and the Jap must be from Japan but he was taking a boat down Amazon into Peru and I had no idea where I came from nor where I was headed.

Going up another dune I had to stop and suck in my breath for it was a moment of breathlessness; out of wonder not out of breath. I have seen deserts, sand and dunes before many times but never before had I seen a desert so cool in broad day sun, sand so white and dunes that had pockets of azure in between. Turquoise and emerald lakes, pools of water sparkled randomly beneath and around most of the dunes I could see, there were rivulets as well, winding and gurgling meandering through the sand hills. Dry drift woods, tuft of odd grass, low leafy bushes and hopping birds chasing invisible insects, all filled up the place with a magical splendor that I could not quite give words to. Breathless and speechless I gazed at the sheer beauty and starkness of the land. By the time I came back to my presence my companions were already mere specks far away on top of another dune. The tall gaunt Jadson stood out, waving at me. I jogged through the sand, working on my cardio, smiling and thanking Alexandre for being the reason I am here.

On the other side of the hill where Jadson stood, I found a large lake through which the girls waded. It was barely knee deep so I waded too and then went up on the other side to yet another sand hill. Several hills later we reached our turning point, the Lake Azul. Jadson announced that he is going to take a nap beneath a tree and also keep an eye on us, lest we get lost, while we had an hour to swim, sleep or whatever our inclinations dictated.
Lagoa Azul

The girls just took off down the hill and dived into the water while the Jap clicked and I followed Jadson gently as I had to first test the water depth. In great depths of water, outside my submarine or without a life jacket I normally find myself out of my depths. Depositing my camera with Jadson who took shelter beneath a tree, I stripped to my swimming costume and jumped in the cool pool. The girls were already near the other side. My first impulse was to follow them, since by then we were on laughing terms, but then my mind cautioned that it is never a good idea to follow a girl you have never seen without makeup. So I stayed at my side of the lake, splashing and swimming like I always do, which is with lot of elegance and some measure of trepidation.

Having had my fill of the water, I then walked along the lake to the other side where the girls were sunbathing and I walked beyond up another dune to find countless more spreading out in every direction possible. By the time I returned to retrieve my camera from Jadson, a large group of American girls and boys had filled up the silence with enough cacophony to rival Rio Carnival. We took a little detour for the return and then came upon the marker flag hill, where already other tourists were lined up, mostly sitting some lying, to wait for the day’s final wonder – sunset. This is where I lost sight of all my companions, including Jadson. I took my place along the edge of the hill, with a pool below and the sky turning crimson to the west. Slowly the sun sank towards the horizon and except for few giggly girls; everyone remained mute and full of wonder. Just then few clouds rushed in and the breeze caught up painting the sky with more colors of orange and red than possible to imagine. The sun finally disappeared amidst some cheer and applause from the spectators and I wondered where it would be rising at the moment.

I left with the crowd, though dragging my feet behind to catch one last shot of the sky and just then like magic, appeared one of the girls holding her glasses and added that bit of drama to the otherwise dark canvas. Happy and smiling I took my place beside Jadson but realized now he was with the driver up in the front and one of the girls had taken his place, while the Jap was besides the two other girls in the front. It was dark and it was damp as the vehicle rushed once more to certain doom and I missed enjoying the pretty countenance of my companion beside but once in a while I did catch the flash of her white teeth in the dark as she graced me with smiles of joy and fright as the occasion so demanded.

I hopped outside the office where Cassia still labored in front of her computer and proffering her cheeks to be kissed, she asked if I had enjoyed my trip, and I replied that now that I was still alive I surely have begun to enjoy the trip. Seeing my tattered appearance, Cassia directed me to Pousada Teral where I would stay the next two nights and that is another adventure to be revealed and relished in another life.


  1. smiling like a baboon! LOL... its a beautiful post, S and you have blended the pics and the text like a pro that you are! can i expect anything less from you :-)

    Once again thanks for taking me to a place i might not get to visit in this life... it sure is breathtaking and i for one can spend days here on the cool sands and pristine water bodies... if i knew u were going here i would asked u to carry some sand back for me. LOL

    xxoooxxx always

  2. This is such a unique blog, so interesting and alive.
    Thanks a lot for sharing about a place which I have never heard of.

    Wanderlust is exhilarating.