A Song of Sand (by guest trekker Alice Salles)

Jul 22, 2009 | Guest Bloggers, South America

“Sing, Jandaia!” Every time I speak the name of this sand-drenched place, I’m giving a command to its parakeets. The name of this state in Northeastern Brazil is Ceará, which means, “Sing, bird!” The native bird of Ceará is the Jandaia, a parakeet whose shrill call sounds much like its own name: Jan-dah-ya. The little bird’s yellow, red, green and blue feathers mimic the sun, as it sets over endless desert sands leading to beautiful sandy beaches.

“Sing, Jandaia!” (photo from www.flickr.co)

More bright colors line the shore of Jangada: red and green wooden handmade fishing boats, which the local fishermen use to make their modest living. As the sun finds its way down the sky, the fishermen get ready to make their way home. I can barely hear anything above the sounds of dragging fish nets.

Handmade fishing boats line the shore of Jangada (photo by Alice Salles)

Young boys and girls run towards their fathers, uncles and brothers, to help make the journey home less wearisome. But although the children scurry, no one seems to be in a rush. The very second I step on the sand, my own breathing slows and deepens, as if my body wants to savor the air around me.

The children scurry, but no one rushes. (photo by Fernanda Freire)

“Over here time runs slower,” murmurs Maria. Her accent is almost unrecognizable, and I have to lean closer to understand the rest of her words. “The sun likes to linger on these beaches.” She smiles.

We hop into Maria’s old jeep and drive to her home a few miles away, in Gericoacoara, the desert side of Ceará. Maria is the wife of a local hero, whose name I’ve already heard thrown back and forth by several people: Pedro, also known as Preto, which literally means “black” in Portuguese. My brother Plácido and I met Preto years ago in São Paulo, when we were children. When we decided we wanted a getaway, he and his wife invited us to stay with them.

Maria drives us to the desert side of Ceará. (photo by Plácido Salles)

We’re spending the night in their simple pau-a-pique house. Pau-a-pique is an ancient, cheap technique of ramming wood sticks and clay together to make a structure. This house, like its neighbors, has almost constantly open doorways. The small kitchen also serves as a living room, and there’s only one bedroom. The bathroom is the only room cursed with a shut door. I say cursed, because the house itself appears to be part of the desert environment, and the door seems to break the stream of things.

Later, I find out that the lack of doors is a necessity in the eternally hot, dry weather that people must put up with to live in this place. Living by the cooler beach is almost impossible because of the strong winds that constantly move the sand, and in the big city the cost of living is high. So these humble people take their chances in the arid desert, and open their doors and windows for the sake of their sanity.

Most people leave their doors open in this desert. (photo by Alice Salles)

Maria and Preto show us Ceará’s famous hospitality by preparing a few favorite local dishes for our dinner. When I explain that I don’t eat meat, the couple’s loud and melodic laughter overwhelms me. “But almost everything we eat is… meat!” says Preto. I blush, looking for someplace to hide my “big city” ways. “But don’t worry,” he says. “The baião de dois is meat-free!” Baião de dois is a delicious mix of green beans, white rice, onions, tomatoes and spices, served with milk and cheese. I can’t hide my relief.

As we sit and eat on a fragile table, under the failing light bulb hanging from the ceiling, I ask why Preto is such a famous hero in this small desert town. Maria smiles and says we’ll find out in the morning what sport made Cearenses so proud of him.

In the early morning, as the sun begins to find its way back up the sky, and the pretty Jandaias start to sing, Preto and Maria take us to the sand dunes, where we glimpse the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen – so far. To my surprise, the sport Preto is known for is a new type of surfing, called sandboarding. It’s similar to snowboarding, but it takes place on sand dunes in places like Ceará, rather than on snow covered hills.

A sandboarder catches air on the dunes (photo by Alice Salles)

As I watch the amazing maneuvers of Preto and his friends, I remember how much one can enjoy the outdoor life when one is away from the Internet, television and other types of external communication systems. It makes me appreciate how humans can be creative and active, and how we can be flexible and fit into our environment, instead of trying to mold it to fit us. Or at least some of us can be flexible: I try to slide down the dunes, but the moment the ride starts going faster than I expect, I jump off the wooden board, right into the sand.

After that radical start to our early morning, Maria and Preto take us for a stroll around the Gericoacoara area, so we can find out more about how the people live. I’m amazed to learn that, even though this whole area of Brazil is known to be tropical, a huge desert lives right within its core. Sand is not only their main asset, but their sole legacy. From time to time, we see pools where water has built a little oasis far from the sea, and scarce trees gamble their luck on a nearly useless search for fertile soil.

From time to time, we see an oasis. (photo by Plácido Salles)

These people have built a living just far enough away from the big city, so that the ultra-civilized world doesn’t bring an end to their simple ways and strong religious beliefs. Here in the north, while Native Brazilians and African slaves converted to Catholicism beginning in the 16th century, they never completely gave up their ancient beliefs. Although they believe Jesus is their savior, Candomblé belief teaches them that each individual is also the son or daughter of a different god or goddess. Everyone wears a patuá, a little bag of herbs and flowers, to represent his or her personal deity, and to receive protection. Men wear the amulets around their necks, while women carry them inside their bras.

Later, we drive to the beach to eat dinner in a local restaurant, where I again have a hard time finding vegetarian options. It’s not that locals don’t ever eat veggies, but it’s so much easier for them to live off the fish and lobsters they catch. Nevertheless, I manage to eat a great meal, based on the heavily spiced beans they eat with everything, and farofa. Farofa is a starchy dish made with manioca, also known as cassava flour. It can be prepared with meat or diced boiled eggs, but in Brazil you’ll usually find it mixed only with butter and salt, so you can add whatever flavors you like. Maria suggests that farofa is an “easy way to fill up the tummy.”

Bits of sand still cling to me. (photo by Alice Salles)

After another night in Preto’s and Maria’s house, we leave for Fortaleza, the State’s capital, so we can go on with our holiday. But bits of sand still cling to me, reminding me of the people who wake to the song of the Jandaia and the call of the dunes.


Guest blogger Alice Salles was born in São Paulo in 1984. She’s been traveling between Brazil and the U.S. since when she was 14. Alice likes to take photos, drink coffee and journal. She sees things in a bright shade of red. Check out her blog at:


About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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