The aguaviva have stolen another day of surfing. Onshore winds from the northeast have brought small purple and white jellyfish with a particularly painful and dangerous sting to Praia do Engenocha and so we are left sand-bound. Defeated by diminutive creatures that look like popped balloons, we retreat up the hill lugging our boards to the truck and drive back to Itacare. The day is not lost however, the afternoon hours are spent bodysurfing in epic conditions at Praia do Rezende, where a protected cove prevents the arrival of the jellyfish. We play for hours in the surf, catching waves, wiping out and getting sunburned until collapsing on the sand exhausted, welcoming the incoming clouds, and warm rain on our faces.
It is my third day at Easy Drop Surf Camp, located in the small Bahia town of Itacare in central coastal Brasil. Itacare is a forty minute drive from Ilheus, a large town forty minutes by plane from Salvador, the capital of Bahia. I am enrolled in the 8-day session, terminating on Christmas Eve. High season for the town of 7000 begins in early January and the bustle of anticipation and preparation is in the air. Old colonial style houses are being repainted in vibrant pinks, greens and yellows. I see families decorating Christmas "trees" made of aluminum foil and tinsel. The only thing missing is Christmas music—in its place are season-neutral, Brasilian sounds.
I first learned about Easy Drop from reading an article in an adventure travel magazine in September. The idea of surf camp in the tropics, especially since it would be winter at home, had an immense appeal and an invitation to spend Christmas with my Brasilian friend and her family in Sao Paulo sealed my decision to go. The camp is about seven years old and was founded by Benjamin Kromayer, from Germany. He came to Itacare several years ago, married a local woman and created his dream. Benjamin is a licensed surf instructor, but now focuses on running the business side of things for the camp. He is rarely out on the beach or in the water with students, but is quite an accomplished longboarder.
Easy Drop caters to surfers of all skill levels. The people in my session, myself included, all constitute the beginner category, with some basic knowledge and experience, but essentially unskilled. The maximum group size is twelve persons, however there are only five people in this session due to some last minute cancellations. We make a diverse bunch—I am from San Francisco, Matt is a New Yorker, George hails from Zurich, and Eloudie and David are from a small village near Marseilles. David is the most advanced of the group, working on turns and cutbacks while the rest of us focus on standing up with some kind of grace.
Many of the instructors are professional surfers, spending most of their time out on the water, living the surf fantasy. We have morning to early afternoon sessions on the water and nightly video reviews from footage taped during the day, to give feedback on how to improving our technique. It is rather exciting seeing yourself surfing onscreen, although you do not look half as cool or talented as you would like to. Everyone speaks enough English to get by when teaching surfing or performing the reviews. "This one!" "Paddle, paddle!" "Stand up, stand up!" and "Faster, you cow!" have all been mastered. Some of the instructors are quite proficient in English, having lived or surfed in the United States, and all speak Spanish, which is very helpful for me.
Engenocha is the most commonly used beach for Easy Drop campers. It is a wide gorgeous thing, with predictable and quality waves, perfect for beginners. There is a stream that empties out to the sea on the south end of the beach that is also the best place for cooling off as the water temperature in the ocean is at least five degrees warmer, and almost matches the steamy air temperature. The daytime heat soars to about 40 degrees. The humidity sits heavy in the air and the best place suited to comfort in these hours is under the generous shade of a mango tree, preferably in a hammock.
The 25-minute downhill hike to Engenocha is lovely, the wide and sparkling Atlantic in sight the whole way down. The last bit of the trail traverses through a palm forest, wholly serene save for the errant bird call and the music of water passing along the forest floor. Coming out of the trees to the beach, the crash of waves guiding the way, the green shade gives way to soft sand and dazzling blue sky. To be woefully inadequate in description, the walk is nice. After four or five hours of surfing however, shoulders feeling more jelly than solid and the afternoon heat in full force, carrying your eight or nine-foot board back up the hill borders on treacherous. Coming back into town around 3 in the afternoon, we tend to stumble toward the local bakery, grab a few sweet carmelized banana rolls, inhale them and then pass out at our respective pousadas.
I am staying at the Pousada Ilha Verde, two blocks from the center of Itacare. The place is gorgeous and included in the price of the surf package. Each room is appointed with a private bath, refrigerator, mosquito net and hammock. There is a lovely pool that resists the unappealing milky appearance of so many pools in the tropics and also an outdoor freshwater shower. The pousada is run by a French couple who have lived in Itacare for more than twenty years. Breakfast is served daily in an open-air dining room. A sumptuous buffet of fresh tropical fruits, homemade cakes and rolls and refreshing blended sucos awaits. Sucos are made with fruit, sugar and ice and come in as many varieties as there are fruits. My favorite is the suco de cacao, which oddly is the pulp surrounding a certain type of the cocoa bean. The finished product is white, frothy and delicious and like nothing I've ever had.
Sharks in Bahia
Sharks are not a problem in Itacare and the surrounding beaches, but they are always in mind, especially since there are several rivers and creeks near surf areas. For those who do not know, freshwater flows into the sea are prime hunting areas for sharks. The instructors and Benjamin alike have assured us that there has never been an attack and that mostly sharks were further north, near Recife. To placate us further, they remind us that sharks are most likely to feed in the early morning and at dusk; we never surf before 9:30 am or after 4 pm. As a safeguard, we are advised not to go the bathroom in the water as the scent of urine may be traced by sharks, like blood.
Itacare has several lovely beaches—Praia da Concha, Praia do Rezende, Praia da Tiririca, Praia do Costa and Praia da Ribeira—in its vicinity. Praia da Concha is quite mellow and is most greatly affected by the Rio de Contas in terms of tides. The remaining four beaches are grouped further to the south. Praia do Rezende is widely viewed as the most beautiful, and is remarkable for its excellent bodysurfing conditions. Praia da Tiririca is the local surf beach, avoided by Easy Drop campers, except for watching the pros. It is always crowded outside, and the intensity level is high. Tiririca also features a pousada and two restaurants set back a bit from the beach. Praia do Costa is the smallest of the four and seems to be the most deserted. The last beach at the end of the road before the nature preserve is Praia da Ribeira. There are a few restaurants here as well. A nature trail begins behind one of the restaurants and leads through the forest, up and down a steep grade to a tiny pocket beach with no name.
For a small town, Itacare has an impressive number of comforts and amenities. The road from Ilheus was paved six years ago, allowing a certain amount of development. However Itacare does not feel touristy. There are no postcards for sale, there are no beggars and the typical daily life of the inhabitants seems fairly uninterrupted by the presence of a few wave-hungry travelers. The ubiquitous Internet café abounds, especially on the road to Tiririca, but only in limited number. I have encountered people from all over the globe in this small town. Between the five of us in the surf camp, we have eleven languages, and on the beach I meet people from Poland, Hungary, Argentina, Sweden and Israel, to name a few. Despite this diversity of foreign guests, the local culture seems to have remained vibrantly intact and dominant.
There is a wide variety of cuisine available in town ranging from typical Bahian fare, to French, sushi and Italian. Two main supermarkets supply the town; these are the best options for travelers on a tight budget. We stop there every morning on the way out of town to pick up provisions for our surf sessions. Conventional Bahian cuisine is characterized mainly by some combination of fish, oil and coconut, most commonly in the form of moqueca, a stew. This is accompanied by a veritable feast of rice, beans, salad, farfoa, and cooked manioc made into a thick, almost mashed potato-like substance. Combined with a few caipirihnas, the traditional cachaca, sugar and lime cocktails, a meal is easily made.
I am sitting on the balcony of the Casarao Amarelo restaurant, watching the fat orange sun drop out of sight behind the forested hills of Itacare. Caipirinha in hand, I see the green of the palm fronds slowly turn to black as the fading light creates silhouettes of the trees. My shoulders and neck ache from paddling outside; I have angry red bruises on my elbows and hips from laying on the board, and the back pf my legs burn from an irresponsible application of sunscreen. I am happier than I have ever been.
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