Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Emerald of the Atlantic


A quick update before we enter Ferndando de Noronha: this is what I look like now

Yup, my hair is gone. We participated in the time-honored maritime tradition known as "Neptune Day", where those polywoks (sp) who have never sailed across the equator before must pay respect to King Neptune in to ensure calm waters in the future.

As Romo will attest, the hazing is much more intense when it involves real sailors or crew members. The attitude aboard SAS is much more laid back and quite fun. The morning starts with the crew members (who REALLY get into it), dressed up in togas beating drums and waking everybody up from their cabins. Everybody congregates outside on the 7th deck, where King Neptune (the captain completely painted in green) awaits us. A delicious mixture of fish guts, sour milk, vinegar, and oatmeal is poured on top of you before you kiss a large fish of some sort. Then you pay respects to the King himself and shave your head (optional) before you are considered a shellback.

It was a lot of fun. I was surprised by how many/which of the girls shaved their heads. Given that I almost need to shave twice a day, I expect to have my hair back by Kenya. I don't care how it looks because it feels phenomenal. I've become a shameless head rub junkie and everyone knows it by now - if I sit still long enough, there will be a hand. I'll make sure of it.

Alright, enough about my (lack of) hair. Where were we? Ah yes, Brazil. The archipelago of Fernando de Noronha is an ecological reserve and national park and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Because of its rich marine life and its unusual geologic features, the islands are given special protection by the Brazilian government, which limits the number of people that can travel to the island to a few hundred a week. This means that it is possible to enjoy some of the best beaches in the world for hours without seeing another person.

I woke up on my own after only a couple of hours of sleep and rushed to hail a taxi straight to the airport. Well, kind of straight. In typical SAS fashion, the taxi had a flat. My eagerness to help not miss my flight made matters worse. In my mind, multitasking was clearly the fastest way to get the job done - as the driver placed the new tire, I would store the flat in the trunk. That's when the car slowly started creeping forward , followed by a loud bang and a scream from the driver. I had pushed the car off its precarious balance on the jack, sending the breakpads straight to the asphalt and jamming the drivers fingers in the process. Whoops.

We straightened things as much as possible, I gave the man a nice tip and made my flight on time. Two hours later, we had our first glance of the island.

There was an audible gasp in the airplane when the plane took a sharp right to begin circling the island, giving the passengers our first look at Noronha. The topological features that most of us grew familiar from the thousands of pictures we'd seen over the years are now directly in front of us, in full-resolution 3-D, and it is better than expected. This phenomenon of experience is something that I think about over and over. I did my research for at least nine months for this trip, but nothing can ever prepare you for having a vast ocean filling your line of sight anywhere you look, the feeling of the soft sand at a beautiful beach, or the smell of smoke of a Pemon bush fire. You think you know, but you really have no idea until you are there.

With that, we land on the island. I head to my pousada and rent a buggy. to maximize the exploration in the limited amount of time. So much for ecological tourism.

My first stop is the Praia do Cachorro, followed by Praia da Conceicao, where I immediately put on my snorkeling gear for an hour or so. Then I head over to the huge Cacimba do Padre, a placid beach that turns into surfer's paradise during the rainy months, where I find only one other person on the opposite side of the beach. I decide to sit down and proceed to have the first of several zen moments of the weekends.

Actually, it was more like zen hours. I didn't move until several hours after dark. As most people are well aware, there's nothing I love more than being around other people, but in doing so, you forget to appreciate the value of the occasional solitude. Aside from the two dogs that randomly decided to join me that night, there was no one there, and for the first time since I left Brazil, I enjoyed being by myself.

I staggered back to the pousada in the dark, and woke up early the next morning for some scuba diving. That's were I met Tom Piozet, a Los Altos native who was doing documentary work on Noronha for the Discovery Channel. I struck a conversation with him as soon as I saw this obvious American was carrying a very expensive HDCAM video camera, and he soon tells me that my boss, Ray Clark, gave him his first freelance job back in the Bay Area many years ago. He seemed intrigued by the fact that I spoke english so well as a Brazilian that he asks to interview me about the island and why Brazilians are attracted to it. So dear Ranchmates - please TiVo the word "Noronha". He says the documentary shouldn't air until March of next year, but he didn't know for sure, so why take a chance of missing it?

We soon parted ways as I continued my exploration of the island. I packed all of my snorkeling gear in the hiking back Romo lent me and set afoot or by buggy to see as much of the island as I could see. Most of my hike ended up being me finding a beautiful vista, sitting in a spot for a few hours, then getting in the water for more snorkeling.

I love snorkeling. Those of us blessed with lungs out to our lats and the ability to equalize ear pressure in real time probably enjoy it more than others. Given the calmness of some of the areas I chose, I went deeper, 50ft or so, and saw more sealife than I did scuba diving. I like seeing how deep I can go, trying to spend about a minute or so exploring the nooks and cranies of the ocean floor. It is easy to go up and down for hours. Then put the gear in the bag and go explore the next beach or geological formation.

That's pretty much how the first full day went. As an ecological reserve, Noronha is a protected breeding ground for sea turtles, and the island has thousands of them, especially at the Praia do Sueste where they come to feed every day. Turtles are beautiful creatures underwater. They fly effortlessly and aren't terribly afraid of human beings, allowing for some pretty close contact. You are bound to follow any turtle you find underwater for however long you can keep up.

Saw yet another sunset from the Praia do Bode, then prepared for one of the most amazing things I've ever seen the following morning.

The Fernando de Noronha archipelago is an underground volcanic island in the middle of an otherwise deep equatiorial Atlantic - an oceanic island in every sense of the word. Over millenia, spinner dolphins have discovered the island to be an ideal place for feeding, resting, and breeding. especially in the Baia dos Golfinhos, which by some incredible coincidence, translates to Dolphin Bay.

Every morning around 5am, the dolphins start coming in groups of one hundred or so, marching in after feeding all night long. And they keep coming. And they keep coming. In a few hours, the bay is full of dolphins, doing things spinner dolphins do best - resting, mating, spinning, and attracting tourists. Spinner dolphins are a particularly interesting breed. They are about 50-75% of the size of the more famous bottle-nosed dolphin, and they are perfectly named because every time they leave the water (which is a lot), they spin several times in the air. The local dolphin researchers (who have the best office in the world) tell us the the jump is a form of communication because every time there is a jump, there is a response. But the dolphins are everywhere. If you go out on a boat, the dolphins are bound to follow you (which, by the way, I found out is not playful but rather extremely stressful behavior because they think boats are predators and are trying to deviate this threat away from the youngins when they are seen "playing" near the bow of a ship. Isn't that awesome?).

After enjoying the dolphins for several hours, I went to witness another phenomenon of the island. Because of its unual rock formations, the low tide creates natural pools which are breeding ground for fish. Essentially they become natural aquariums. These pools are protected by the Brazilian government, but they allow 100 people a day, in groups of 20 for twenty minutes, to visit Atalaia beach. I went in the nude.

Alright, just kidding. But I wanted to. Anyway, the point is that these pools really are teaming with life because of the protection from the open ocean (in the background). So much so that it is easy to find a lot of life in very shallow water.

A lot more happened the last two days, but I'll leave these stories to myself. After a lot of hiking and enjoying the beaches, I quickly made friends with tourists from the Bay Area, and more importantly,with the locals,. My favorite part was meeting these two artists who lived in their open studio in the middle of the island, sleeping in hammocks, and having an all-around good time. They showed me a lot, and I don't think I'll ever have to pay to visit Noronha again. I hope it happens again. I hope.

On the fifth day, I had to leave. I had been nervous about missing the ship, but the worries completely disappeared on the first day I got to the island. I made it back on time, and caught an early connection in Recife that required that I sprint dangerously through the airport (which to my surprise, is the nicest airport I've ever seen), but got me back to Salvador with five hours to spend. We got a small group together, went to Boi Preto, the best churracaria in Salvador, which ended up being one of the best meals I've ever had. If you know what a churrascaria is, and how much I love Brazilian food, you will understand that that statement is no exaggeration.

So when the ship pulled back into the atlantic ocean, it hurt, and people knew this. Brazil still feels like home. I gain 10 pounds buying all the food and candy from my childhood; I spend the night watching TV in hopes of catching a rerun of one of my old childhood shows; I walk into record shops looking Brazilian songs my mom used to play on the piano years ago. It was tough leaving 15 years ago, and it is still tough leaving now. I know I'll never live there again - I wouldn't trade my life, my home, or my friends for anything in the world - but it is still a big part of my identity, more so than I realize sometimes.

Sorry for the sappy stuff - I don't usually put much thought into stuff like this, but I have a lot of time at sea, and as I said before, this is stream-of-conciousness stuff, so you guys have to suffer through it. I'll try to change the tone and upload funny stories with the Archbishop in the next couple of days. Try this on for size... as excited as I was about going to Brazil, I'm much more excited about going to South Africa and the rest of the countries on the itinerary. That should tell you something.

Off to bed. These 23 hour days are killing me.

Bonus pics:
The King of Unibrows
Sunset with Friends
Sunset alone

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has been posting and emailing... expect something in the mail soon.


Mandy said... what stories do you leave for yourself??? ;-)
Oh and I wanna see pictures....BITTE...of YOU!!!
Take care...
And btw...I kinda like the sappy stuff...;-)

Jess said...

Nice picture of your bald head. You look like someone who lives in MN-Plymouth maybe. :)