Making Friends

“Just in time to push!” Mamede greeted me as I approached his jangada (named João). Half an hour before he had knocked on the door of my room to tell me my breakfast was ready.

“Ze went to get the roladores and João will be here soon. Did you sleep well?” he asked in a booming voice, much louder than necessary for that time of the day. Like all fishermen, Mamede was a morning person.
“I slept fine, Mamede, thanks. Are you ready to go?”
“Almost. We still have to load the ice. We do that down at the water,” he nodded toward the surf. “The jangada is easier to push with no ice.”
“How much ice do you take?”
“Nine bars—150 kilos.”
“And that’s enough for four days?”
“Five,” he said, raising a hand and spreading out his fingers.

It seemed impossible that ice would last so long in the equatorial heat. The bars were fabricated in the town of Beberibe, about twenty miles away, and brought to the village every Monday morning for the fishermen. Even if the jangadeiros wanted to make their own ice, they couldn’t. Despite the promises made by the candidates at each election cycle, Prainha was a village without electricity.

“Where should I put this?” I asked, holding up my backpack.
“In front,” he said, pointing at the hatch.

In the pack I had a change of clothes (T-shirt and shorts), a toothbrush, paste and floss (don’t leave home without it), my camera (double wrapped in plastic), a roll of toilet paper (wishful thinking), and three tubes of sticky sunblock (SPF 30). With skin like mine, high SPF is my BFF.

I stepped onto the deck and knelt beside the escotilha, a square hole in the planking, framed with an elevated coaming to keep out water. Lowering the pack through the hatch, I followed it down with my head and shoulders. This was my first time inside a jangada’s hold and it was even smaller than I’d imagined. It was also dark and humid, and reeked of brine, rotting seaweed, dead fish, and more than one strain of tropical mold. Struggling to see while gulping for air, it struck me that this would be my “bedroom” for the next few nights. Not wanting to linger any longer than necessary, which didn’t bode well for the future, I dropped my pack and quickly backed out.

Relieved to be standing in the open air again, I asked Mamede, “Does it get wet inside?” Jangadas are notorious for leaking.
“Not now. I patched the joints last month.”

The seams of a jangada’s planking are driven with cotton and payed with a homemade putty made from flax-seed oil and lime powder. 3M has yet to crack the artisanal marine market.

“Hey sleepy.  What took you so long?” Mamede shouted over my shoulder.
I turned around and saw what looked like a sunburned gnome walking in our direction. He was a small man, dressed like everyone else on the beach in a worn T-shirt and shorts. What set him apart, though, and my eyes went right to it, was the construction hardhat pitched on his head like an overturned salad bowl. Not only did the shiny white hardhat contrast the dusty figure below, it was unique in a village where most of the men wore baseball style caps. Straw hats were also worn but mostly at sea. This man had probably worked as a laborer on a construction site in the city. Why he was wearing his hardhat on the beach was anybody’s guess. Maybe to protect against falling coconuts.

The man shot me a pinched glance as he passed in front of me, then walked up to Mamede with his hands raised. “I would have been here sooner but the woman didn’t wake me.”
Frowning, Mamede blinked a couple of times and then pointed toward the jangada’s bow. “Tie down the anchors, João. Ze will be here soon.”
João dropped his hands and walked slowly forward, to where the two stone anchors sat on the foredeck.

Few things are more ancient looking than a jangada’s anchor. Called a fateixa, it is simply a large stone, or chunk of concrete, bound by a birdcage of branches. The anchors (a jangada do alto normally carries two of them) are secured to each side of the tabernacle frame when sailing so they don’t bang about.  João ignored me while he made them fast. I didn’t feel snubbed. After a week in the village I was getting used to being either gawked at or ignored completely. It allowed me to take a closer look at him.

He was Portuguese Brazilian, with a touch of Indian, and appeared to be about fifty years old, plus or minus a handful of years. Making him look older was a short beard, more gray than black, and his leathery skin broiled by the sun. Shaving off time was the energy he had for his task, his hands quickly tugging on the line as he made his knots. He was shorter than Mamede by a couple of inches but had extra long arms that were covered with dark hair. The image on his T-shirt was faded but still legible: a blond surfer screaming down the face of a monster wave. “ON THE LINE,” the caption read in English. For a fleeting moment I saw myself riding that same wave, though I was screaming something altogether different.

While he worked he muttered to himself as if reciting from a manual. He must have realized I was watching him because he stopped suddenly and raised his head. Locking his eyes to mine he switched on a grin and called over the deck, “You are coming with us.”
I didn’t understand him at first. He spoke quickly, with a strong north-eastern accent I was not yet familiar with.
“O que?” I asked. What?
“YOU ARE COMING WITH US,” he repeated slowly, as if talking to an idiot.
“Oh, yes—yes,” I nodded back and grinned — like an idiot.
We continued staring at each other, our respective grins frozen on our kissers.
“IT’S VERY FAR,” he exclaimed, flicking his head toward the horizon.
“É MUITO LONGE,” he said again, just to make sure I got it.
“Yes it is,” I shot back, feeling more than a little unsettled.

I like to think I’m an easy going guy. I try to get along with others and am a firm believer in the golden rule. Some people are harder to reach, and some, though not many in my experience, would rather be left alone. I had no idea where João fell on this spectrum but I knew one thing for certain: for the next few days we would be stuck with each other. He was frowning now, his small, intelligent eyes sizing me up. Reaching their conclusion rather quickly, the eyes dropped down to focus on the task at hand. Our brief conversation was over and I stood there awkwardly, not really knowing what to do. It’s always good, I’ve found, to get off on the right foot with someone you’ll be sharing a raft with at sea.

Next chapter: VAI! VAI! VAI!