We left at dawn. Well, before that actually. Me and five other members of our program decided to take advantage of the recent three day weekend by heading off to Ilha Grande, a beautiful island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state. We got up at 4:30 a.m. and clambered into two taxis, bound for the “rodoviária” (the bus station). Sitting in the small back seat of the cab, I came to my first revelation of the trip – I was a terrible packer. While my friends had efficiently packed their weekend necessities into reasonably sized backpacks, I had thrown the better half of everything I brought with me to Rio into a bulky, red duffle. What’s more, even with all of that extra weight and impaired mobility, I still managed to forget toothpaste and a towel, which proved to be interesting.
We arrived at the bus station with plenty of time to spare and were impressed by the clean, bustling building and the spacious, comfortable bus. The trip to Angra dos Reis, our launching point, was a little less than three hours, and if I hadn’t been completely passed out in the reclining chair, I would have enjoyed the scenery of Rio’s urban outskirts and the forested mountains that we drove through on the way home as well. In Angra, we bought tickets for the “barco” and after about an hour of start and stop water passage, we landed on Ilha Grande.
As we stepped onto the dock and as my eyes further adjusted to the bright coastal sunlight, a petite Brazilian woman walked up to us and introduced herself as Priscilla, the woman whose property we had rented for the weekend. Priscilla lead us across the sandy beachfront of Abraão, the only town on the island, and through the narrow streets between the colorful restaurants, houses, and hostels that made up the “centro” (or center) of the village. There were dogs runny around everywhere, all very cute and friendly.
Our “casinha” (little house) was perfect! Adorable, close to the beach, and complete with an enclosed patio and stocked kitchen – it was easy to consider it our home during our time on the island.
Priscilla left us with three sets of keys and a suggestion to head to the nearby “paderia” for some brunch, which we did as soon as we dropped off our bags. I like to think that we became temporary locals at that paderia, where we ate breakfast all three days of our trip. It offered a reasonably priced, extensive menu of breads, cakes, sandwiches, and juices and plenty of outside seating for our group. I got an egg-cheeseburger, iced cappuccino, and bottled water for only $R12 (about $6 USD).
After eating, we headed down a “trilha” (hiking trail) to one of the closer beaches and spent the afternoon swimming in the clear blue water, laying out in the sand, and sipping “cerveja” (beer) and guaraná (a popular Brazilian soft drink). It was a bit of a hike to get there and we were all a little sweaty when we got back to town, but it was the perfect transition from the busyness of Rio to the less developed peacefulness of Ilha Grande.
July fourth was the day Brazil beat Costa Rica in their World Cup match and we started the hunt for a spot to watch the game about an hour before it began. After a few laps of the nearby eateries and some extensive menu price screening, we settled on a small restaurant with fancy wooden tables and a big TV. After our meal, we stayed to watch the second half of the match, and then went back to our little house to make plans for the rest of the evening. We talked and hung out on the patio for a few hours and around eleven, half of the group elected to stay home and get some sleep while two of the others and I decided to check out what the island’s nightlife had in store. In the main “praça,” we found a live band playing forró on a raised stage and a mass of Brazilians and “gringos” alike pairing up for the traditional dance. There were food stalls set up all around the perimeter and the three of us shared an amazing beef skewer covered in “farofa” (toasted manioc flour). Yep, we had another one the next night too.
By far the most memorable part of that evening was when we went looking for a bathroom and stumbled across what we thought was an open samba hall. It was definitely not a samba hall. We accidently walked into a private family gathering which was exactly as awkward as it sounds. We explained our mistake and tried to make a quick getaway but the damage was done. The hostess handed me a beer and proceed to try to teach me “funk.” Funk is the equivalent of American freak-dancing/grinding. This woman was easily fifty years old. It was quite the experience. On our third attempted exit, we were finally able to bow out gracefully with a desperate “obrigada, boa noite.” After all that action, we decided to head to the dock to look at the stars and then headed home for the night.
The next day we got up, donned our hiking clothes and headed off to find praia Lopes Mendes, a beach on the island that is consistently ranked among the top ten most beautiful beaches in the world. The hike from Abraão to Lopes Mendes took about two hours and wound through the mountain jungle and the flat sands of other beaches we passed along the way. We were all tired and sweaty when we arrived but the prize at the end of the road was well worth the trek – no boats, no development, just white, flour-like sand and clear aqua waves. I wish we could have spent all day there but after a few dips in the water and a group nap in the sun, we had to hed back to the boat stop for a quicker way home to the village before dark.
It was our last night on Ilha Grande so we decided to splurge on dinner at a restaurant on the beach that was known for its “moqueca,” a thick fish stew served steaming hot, poured over rice. The initial price shock was rough but as soon as we started splitting dishes and mentally converting the bill from reais to USD, it really wasn’t that bad. Our table was literally on the beach and eating the delicious traditional Brazilian food to the sound of waves breaking just a few yards away was the perfect way to end our day.
That dinner is also when I realized that I can now flirt in Portuguese. Our waiter was excited to learn that we all spoke the language and when we explained to him that we were studying in Rio and just on the island for the weekend, he told us about a club (the ONLY club on Ilha Grande) that would be fun to go to later and that he was heading to after he finished his shift. Remembering the complete forró failure that was my attempt at dancing the previous night, I laughed and said that I couldn’t dance. He responded that dancing in Brazil was the same as dancing in America, just with music in a different language. “Mas, eu não posso dançar em qualquer idioma.” (“But, I can’t dance in any language.”), I explained. Everybody laughed (which I assumed was because of my terrible Portuguese and which I was super excited to learn was because what I said in my head actually came out of my mouth as well). To this claim, the waiter coyly asked if I’d ever had a caipirinha (super strong, delicious national cocktail of Brazil). “Sim, claro.” (“Yes, of course.”) “Mas, as caipirinhas aqui são diferentes.”(“But the caipirinhas are different here.”) Yep. I got me a free caipirinha, which at this place was quite the affair. And, it really was the best one I’ve had yet.
As I left, I said “Até logo” to the nice waiter and he called back “Até logo, dançarinha. Esta noite, você aprenderé dançar em meu idioma!” (See you soon, little dancer. Tonight, you’ll learn how to dance in my language!”). We never did end up going to the club (long story) and I still can’t dance.
We spent the rest of the evening hanging out and playing games on our patio and when it got later we returned to the praça to show the rest of our group the quaint island night life. We met and chatted with people from Brasil, France, Chile, and the U.S. before heading home late to get some sleep. On Sunday morning we packed up, hit the paderia one last time and then headed for shore. As the boat sped away and Abraão faded from view, one of my favorite quotes popped into my head. “You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place…like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” I’ll miss Ilha Grande but I was also glad to be headed home to Rio. At this time and this place, I still have a lot left to see!