Marinated prawns, a bottle of beer with ice stuck to it, and surf whispering on dusk-blushed shore: It's what I call the Holy Trinity. Having hiked a fair bit of beach to get here...
NATAL, Brazil Marinated prawns, a bottle of beer with ice stuck to it, and surf whispering on dusk-blushed shore: It’s what I call the Holy Trinity.
Having hiked a fair bit of beach to get here, I’m lying in a hand-woven, cotton hammock with my salty, sun-reddened toes turning the sand and my thumb and forefinger holding a page in a Jorge Amado novel.
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OK, so it wasn’t a torturous hike with the ladies in skimpy bikinis, the seagulls and a stumpy, barefoot coconut vendor named Itamar to keep me company. But it still was a mile or so. That can get a guy pooped. And hungry.
Besides, the fishermen had just come in, their reed baskets heavy with lobsters and prawns. They had gone out before dawn. I saw them from the terrace of my pousada. They gathered on the beach below in their wind-torn shirts and shorts, shivering themselves warm and unfurling the white sails of their jangadas, log rafts which were lined up in a row of 14 under the great dune and the low, sharp moon.
A boy placed three logs a foot apart on the sand before the raft. He shouted, “Vai! Vai!” and the others pushed. The jangada rolled on the logs, and as it rolled, the thin, dark-haired boy kept running back, grabbing the last log and placing it in front of the advancing raft, over and over, until the jangada was pitching in the breakers.
Within minutes the sea was flecked with the silhouettes of jangadas, fathers and sons pushing the crafts out over the shallows with long poles, the triangular sails filling with wind and the light of the stars.
Now it’s twilight and I’m munching on their catch. I had these prawns boiled, salted, garlicked, buttered. I squeeze a few drops of lime juice on them, too, which makes the prawns tangy, which makes me take a long swallow of the beer.
A buddy of mine, Mike, who flew 14 hours from London to Sao Paulo and then another 3-1/2 hours to Natal to lie in a hammock and eat these prawns, says: “Todd, you worthless character, what are you doing to those prawns with that lime juice?”
“It makes them nicely bitter,” I say, “kind of like first love.”
“You’ve been holding out on me. I didn’t know you had a first love.”
“Still do,” I say, popping a prawn. “It’s this place.”
Beauty in simplicity
It even has the loveliest of names Natal, Portuguese for Christmas Day, which is when it was founded in 1599.
I fell in love with Natal the first time I came to visit, several years ago. It was something I felt without pride or prejudice, formula or reason, and I felt it within three hours of arriving in the place something limpid, restful, soothing.
One thing I liked was the skyline downtown, or rather, the lack thereof. The northeastern sky was wide and a vigorous deep blue. The wind would run up the dunes along the shore, stirring the sand, rustling the vinelike bushes. Over the sea there always sailed a fleet of billowy white clouds, painting shadows on the green and turquoise Atlantic.
I liked that most of its 650,000 inhabitants lived in houses that were simple, squat, red-roofed. I liked that filling-station attendants always smiled, and even chatted if you so wished. I liked that waiters, shopkeepers, passersby and fishermen would always stop to ask me who I was, where I came from. Once I spent a half-hour strolling along a beach and shooting the breeze with a cop who looked more like a beach volleyball star. He was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sunglasses, a navy blue cap, and a holster his shore patrol uniform, he said.
When I told him I’d lived in New York, he asked if the cops there really had to wear those dark uniforms and all that stuff around their belt. I told him they really did.
“Really?” he asked. “Even in the summer?”
Natal is no Rio, of course. You’re not struck with the feeling of grandeur that Rio de Janeiro impresses on the visitor, with its sheer mountains and wide lakes and colossal Christ. You don’t have pages and pages of traveler-guide listings of bars, nightclubs and restaurants to choose from, as you would in Rio.
You also don’t get afternoon shadows on the beach cast by rows of apartment high-rises that line the shore. (City officials concerned with beach blight banned any buildings more than three stories along the waterfront.) You don’t get the mall-to-mall traffic, the polluted seawater, the pickpockets or the tourists-only con, either. I never got a hard sell in Natal, only a soft handshake.
Not that there’s nothing cultural to see or do in Natal. Ao contrario.
For starters, there’s the Forte dos Reis Magos, a star-shaped, white-walled fortress rising from the reefs, surrounded by water, just off the tip of the city’s northern beak.
The Portuguese built the fortress to fight off foreign invaders, mainly the Dutch and French, throughout the 17th century. Today, Brazil more than welcomes outsiders.
The fortress remains in remarkable shape, thanks to a federal program and the donations of private businesses. The half-hour, guided tour is free of charge, and you’ll be helping put a needy teenager through school; the government trains local youths to be guides, pays their school tuition and gives them a stipend as long as they maintain a certain grade average.
At the Casa Zas Tras, there are nightly performances of the most engaging and traditional dances of Brazil, from capoeira, samba and lambada, to the local and quite sensual forro (roughly pronounced faw-HAW).
The Tourism Center is also worthy of a visit. Complete with an art gallery and 36 artisan shops, the colonial-style complex offers a top-notch restaurant that serves only typically northeastern Brazilian cuisine and an outdoor courtyard where forro dancing is on display Thursday nights.
In Natal, though, outdoors is where you really want to be.
Along the Via Costeira Coastal Freeway separating the old downtown area from the city’s popular southern beaches, the 9-mile-long Parque das Dunas, or Park of Dunes, spreads out. It’s a hiker’s challenge that requires an extra water bottle, perhaps two. Between its cactus and shrub-covered dunes are several miles of winding trails to get lost in.
For buffs of nature’s genetic rarities, a stop at the Cajueiro de Pirangi, the Pirangi Cashew Tree, is a must. About 10 miles south of town, a bumpy, dusty road leads to what looks like a forest. It’s actually a single tree with a circumference of 500 yards.
Not much farther down the coast lies a series of large, freshwater ponds, known to locals as dune pools. In town after town Pitangui, Jacuma, Guaraira, Arituba the visitor is greeted with hills of silvery sand, and between them, flat, dolphin-blue water with not so much as a pebble to stub a toe on.
Lure of the beaches
And then there are the praias, the beaches.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite. They all possess a different character, a different magic.
I have known people from Argentina who have sat in airports and on connecting planes for 7-½ hours in order to spend three days at Pirangi beach, watching soft breaths of wind comb the palms and sculpt chalk-white furrows in the sand. I’ve met poor families from the interior of Rio Grande do Norte state who have ridden in rickety buses and in the back of trucks for the better part of a night to feel the diamond-like spray on their skin in Ponta dos Aneis, Portuguese for Point of Rings.
I have a good friend from Norwich, England, who slugs it out in the investment banking business so he can fly to Natal once a year, sit on ribbons of sand with names like Ponta Negra, Buzios and Camurupim, and eat prawns the freshest, most succulent prawns this side of heaven.
It’s early evening, and the only sounds are the breeze in the coqueiro trees, the soft slapping of boys’ bare feet on the newly wet sand as they chase a soccer ball, and the tumbling of one wave, then another, then another.
And the prawns are here.
This batch is steamed, dappled with olive oil. On the side is sautéed potatoes, barbecued pineapple with cinnamon and rice with broccoli.
I’ll pick at the rice, maybe even take a sliver of pineapple. But I’ve ordered the all-you-can-eat prawn rodizio. And these are from Camaroes Shrimps, the prawn-palace of the city, to my taste. They get their stuff straight from the fishermen.
For one price, the waiters are going to bring me prawns until I drop.
“Go easy, go easy,” Mike says. “What do you want to do, get yourself sick?”
Perhaps he’s right. No need to overdo it. We’ve still got three days left in Natal.
On our last night I’ll eat shrimp till I’m stuffed.