“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 is a morning person.
“I slept fine, Mamede, thanks. Are you ready to go?”
“We still have to load the ice, but we do this down by the water,” he nodded toward the surf. “The jangada is easier to push with no ice.”
“How much ice do you take?”
“Nine bars—180 kilos.”
“And that’s enough for four days?”
“Five,” he said, raising a hand and spreading out his fingers.
It seemed impossible that ice could last so long in the heat. The bars were fabricated in the town of Beberibe, about fifteen miles away, and brought to the village every Monday morning for the fishermen. Even if the jangadeiros wanted to make ice in Prainha, they couldn’t. Despite the promises made by all the candidates at election time, Prainha was a village with no electricity.
“Where should I put this?” I asked, holding up my backpack.
“In front,” he said, pointing toward 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 gooey 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 through the planking framed with a coaming to keep out water. Lowering the pack through the hatch, I followed it down with my head and shoulders. This was the first time I had seen a jangada’s hold and it was even smaller than I’d imagined. It was also very dark and humid in there, and reeked with a salty bouquet of seaweed, rotting 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, which didn’t bode well for the future, I dropped the pack and quickly backed out.
“Does it get wet inside?” I asked when standing on the sand again.
Jangadas are notorious leakers.
“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 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 over-turned salad bowl. Not only did the white hardhat contrast the dusty figure below it, it was unique in a village where most of the men wore baseball type caps. Straw hats were also worn but only at sea. This man had probably worked as a laborer on a construction project in the city and had kept the hat. Why he was wearing it 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. Walking up to Mamede he raised his palms and exclaimed, “The woman didn’t wake me.”
Mamede frowned at the man and then pointed toward the bow. “Secure the anchors, João. Ze will be back soon.”
Mildly castigated, 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 made from a stone, or chunk of concrete, held in a birdcage of branches. The anchors (a large jangada normally carries two of them) are secured to each side of the tabernacle frame when sailing. João ignored me while he made them fast. I didn’t feel snubbed. After a week on the beach I was getting used to being either gawked at or ignored by the villagers. And 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 the years was the energy he had for his task, his quick hands tugging decisively 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 thick dark hair. The image on his T-shirt was faded but still legible: a blond surfer riding the face of a huge wave. “ON THE LINE,” the caption shouted out in English. For a fleeting moment I saw myself on that same wave, but I was shouting something altogether different.
While he worked João 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. “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 even more unsettled.
Middle child that I am, I have this unfortunate tendency of wanting to please people. I could see it wasn’t working with João. He was frowning now, his small, intelligent eyes sizing me up. Reaching their conclusion rather quickly, the eyes dropped down to focus on the work at hand. Our brief conversation was over and I stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do. It is always important, I believe, to get off on the right foot with someone you will be sharing a raft with at sea.
Next chapter: VAI! VAI! VAI!