Ze arrived with the roladores. He greeted me with a shy smile and a dip of his head. (Jangadeiros don’t have the custom of shaking hands.) Tall, quiet, and friendly, he was everything João wasn’t. I immediately felt his positive energy and it helped to ease my growing tension.

The two men with him could have been weightlifters. In the grand scheme they really were weightlifters, making their living by helping the fishermen roll the heavy jangadas up and down the beach. For this they were paid some fish from the catch, handed over when the jangadeiros returned from their trip.

A jangada is moved on land with a pair of rolos cut from the trunk of a coconut palm. The boats sit on these rolos when parked on the sand. Two long branches act as tracks, placed on the sand in the direction of travel. The operation could not be more archaic nor labor intensive.

João had finished his task and was now standing at the transom, waiting to push. We gathered beside him, except for one rolador who dragged the tracks up to the bow where he jammed them under the front rolo. Jumping on top to set them firmly in the sand, he grabbed the bow painter with both hands (to pull), and signaled Mamede we were ready to roll.

Like a quarterback at the line, Mamede stood at the center of the transom with his hands under the hull. He checked each side to see that we were ready, then braced his powerful legs and shouted, “VAI, VAI, VAI!”
GO, GO, GO!  and together we lifted, straining to raise the jangada’s stern off the back rolo and push the hull forward.
“VAI, VAI, VAI!” he barked even louder. It wasn’t the lifting that was hard but the pushing—the front rolo was stuck in the sand.
“VAI, VAI, VAI!” We grunted like beasts to gain the first inch.
“VAI, VAI, VAI!” The rolo mounted the tracks and we picked up speed.
“VAI, VAI, VAI!” The center of the hull passed over the front rolo and the jangada took off on its own, a loose cannon hurtling forward. The flat bow then smacked the sand with a squeaking crunch and ground to a halt.

“Medonha!” João jumped up and swatted the air with his fists. “The first one is always a son of a bitch.”

All that effort had advanced the jangada about fourteen feet. Like an unbalanced seesaw the hull now sat on one rolo, nose down and stern in the air. The free back rolo was kicked forward and we gathered at the bow to lift, “VAI!” and position it under. The tracks were also brought forward and set on the sand as they were before. And we returned to the transom to repeat the process. VAI, VAI, VAI! — in this cumbersome manner we worked the heavy jangada down the beach to the water’s edge.

We could now load the ice. With a wolf whistle from Ze, the ice monger slowly backed his truck down to our transom. Two skinny teenage boys stood in the bed with their ice hooks, ready to pass the bars to Ze and João, now standing on the jangada’s deck. Mamede had gone to the little market up the beach to get some fish, leaving his crew to perform this task.

The three foot bars of ice were packed in the truck bed like long sugar cubes. Peeling back a thick blanket that covered them, the boys jabbed their hooks into the nearest bar and hauled it over the tailgate, into the bare hands of the jangadeiros, who carefully swung it forward and placed it into the jangada’s Isopor. Nine bars were shifted like this in rapid succession, with much blowing on and rubbing and shaking of fists.

Mamede returned and paid the driver for the ice. As the jangada’s owner, it was his responsibility to cover the total costs for the trip (about $35). If the catch was good and the fishermen came back with a box full of fish, this could be sold at the market in Beberibe for about $300. Not all of the profit went to Mamede. As an owner who fished his jangada, he was entitled to everything he caught plus a third of what the others caught. That was the price they paid to fish from his jangada.

If the three jangadeiros caught equal amounts of fish, Mamede would net about $130 for a trip; not a lot of money for several days of backbreaking work in a risky environment. And he’d make that only if they returned with a full load of fish. More often than not the fishermen didn’t fill the box, and sometimes they didn’t catch enough to cover the costs. Still, Mamede was better off than most jangadeiros. Most jangadeiros don’t own their jangadas. At $3,000 a pop, a jangada was more expensive than building a small brick house on the beach.

Most of the jangadas in a fishing village are typically owned by a man, or a family, with access to capital — dinheiro. In Prainha that man was called O Capitão — the Captain. It was a fitting name for a beach boss, though he wasn’t really a captain and he didn’t even fish. But he lived off others who did.

As an owner who didn’t fish, the Captain was entitled to half of everything caught from his jangadas. This half-share system (called meiação) has been in place for generations, and it makes it almost impossible for a jangadeiro to improve his condition:  How can I earn enough money to buy a jangada when half what I catch goes to the Captain and the other half feeds my family? And if I’m lucky enough to have fish leftover, I can only sell them to the Captain, at a steep discount, because he has the only truck to get them to the market.

Like sharecropping, meiação creates a cycle of poverty that isn’t easily broken. But Prainha was breaking it. With some seed money from a donor, the fishermen had started a cooperative and had bought their own truck. They were now getting paid a fair price for their fish. This forced the Captain to pay more for his. A little competition can be a good thing — help level the playing field, which in this case was a beach.

The cooperative also provides micro-loans to the fishermen, enabling them to buy their own jangadas. Mamede purchased his João with a partner at first, who he eventually bought out. This made Mamede sole dono e mestre (owner and master). So why not kick back and let others fish his jangada? The numbers suggest he would earn about the same either way. But that only holds true if the jangadeiros on a boat all catch the same amount of fish. I would soon learn that Mamede usually caught more than the others. Mamede was not your average jangadeiro.

Next chapter: Vamos!