High pitched chirps punctured by deep-timbered coos tickle my eardrums. Whispering palm fronds dance atop the distant sound of engines racing while sticky tires whine across pavement.
A cool breeze gently runs across the tip of my nose as I lounge in the hammock perched high on a hill-side overlooking the bay.
My eyes gently settle upon the sun lighting up the mainland while the boat harbor rests in the shadow of the mountain. As the sun creeps higher, boat hulls rock in the wake flashing in the sunlight as they rock. A pair of birds flies by, cawing as they madly flutter their wings to keep their large bodies afloat.
These were my experiences during my first morning on the Brazilian island of Ilhabela. I sat there pondering the series of events that had led me to this moment…
Last fall I met a Brazilian colleague while she worked on a short term assignment in our team in Germany. We quickly discovered that we had a lot in common. She also is a curious traveler and we enjoyed some coffees while chatting about travel and life. After a few months, it was time for she and her husband to leave their lovely apartment in Köln to head back to São Paulo. On one of the last evenings, they hosted a farewell dinner and her husband cooked some amazing Brazilian food and a small group of us enjoyed chatting and talking about life in Germany and our childhoods.
One time when we were chatting over a coffee she told me about a house that she and her husband own on an island near São Paulo called Ilhabela. She said that I was welcome to visit for the weekend, and I thought to myself “sounds lovely but I don’t know when it will ever happen…”. As it happened, I wound up in Brazil for an extended business trip and my friend offered to host me. There it was, it was actually happening! I was heading to Ilhabela.
On the appointed Friday, we hopped into her car for the long drive across São Paulo from the office to her apartment in a neighborhood called Pãolista. The distance is about 20 kilometers and traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it can be, but it still took about 40 minutes and it was amazing to see the size of this city! It is huge! About 12 million people live in São Paulo and my friend told me they have a new mayor who is really working to revive the city and renovate the downtown. I saw more of the city as we sat in Friday night traffic at the beginning of our 4 hour drive to the beach.
Just in case you’ve never sat in traffic in a Brazilian city, I will explain it to you. I must say, it’s an interesting experience! Motorcycles and scooters zip between the lanes of stopped cars at fast speeds, sometimes stopping to push in a car mirror so they can squeeze through. Along the concrete median between lanes you’ll find painted piggy banks perched up for sale. A few men will be roaming between the cars holding high a stack of white towels for cleaning the house – advertising a negotiable price of 10 for 10 reals. Another man strolls by holding aloft a wooden pole with a variety of car chargers and selfie sticks made in china. Just in case you’re hungry or thirsty, that’s no trouble, you’ll also find men carrying snacks of all types and also people stationed with coolers of water and juice and even beer! So, you can do your shopping on the run.
As we neared the famous São Paulo city train station we saw an interesting sight indeed – a man dressed up in a Brazilian/American costume waving the flags of both countries! My friend’s husband Franz told me they’d arranged this specially for me! 🙂
After about an hour we left the city and entered the countryside. As we passed through the favelas I was delighted to see boys flying kites and participating in a famous Brazilian tradition of kite fights! This is dangerous sport where the goal is to cut down your competitor’s kite using razor sharp wires. I had heard about it on a video during the Olympic Games in Rio. It was exciting to see the cultural phenomenon in person!
As the sun began to set we decided it was time for a break and pulled into a rest stop that was a combo petting farm and country restaurant. Such a lovely place! My friend introduced me to a local delicacy – a cake made from creamed corn. Perfect snack with a strong coffee! We still had a couple of hours to go in our drive. On the way in I stopped to say hi to a pony and a brand new baby goat and on the way out couldn’t resist snapping photos of a turkey roosting near an ostrich.
We continued our journey – chatting nonstop. Franz commented that he was used to the nonstop conversations! Our next stop was to board the ferry that would take us from the mainland to our island destination. There was a long line and fortunately my friends had a fast pass so we drove right onto the boat.
We made a quick stop for beverages and then headed to the house. A walk up a steep stairway led us to our paradise! The house stunned me – dark wood, walls of windows, cool white exterior decorated throughout with a palette of blue and white – this was an oasis! We collapsed after making a plan to not have a plan for the morning. Not a bad way to end the week!
Saturday morning, I woke with the sun, sleepily searched around for all the supplies to make coffee and hit start on the Cuisinart. Then I made my way out to the deck to watch the show. It did not disappoint. Go back to the first paragraphs to learn my auditory and visual experience. As I lounged in a perfectly placed hammock – here is what I saw:
After a few hours Franz emerged and proposed that we take off on a bicycle tour of the island. I was game. I love how my sporty reputation precedes me and everywhere I go I can find someone willing to take me on an adventure! First Franz whipped up my favorite of all favorites Brazilian breakfast – tapioca pancakes!
As we headed back south we paused for a refreshing agua de coco. I absolutely love this drink!
We continued along a beautiful bike path – I was really pleased with the pedestrian infrastructure – and saw a tractor rig pulling a boat out of the water. It was basically a high-boy like you’ll see in tall crops such a sugarcane which is a huge crop in Brazil. We paused for a while to watch a complex operational to pull a big pleasure boat out of the water.
Mariana was rested and ready to go and I soon realized that my bikini, while being purchased in Brazil, was not Brazilian… if you know what I mean… so, I asked Mariana if she would help me find a proper Brazilian bikini. She was definitely ready for the challenge, so off we went to town!
By the second store we had found the perfect suit and a beach outfit to match. Mariana declared that I looked very Brazilian – and I could pass for someone from Rio! Oh boy, I better not let this go to my head! We made one last stop to buy a pair of Havianna flip flops and I customized them with a coconut charm.
The sun was high, temperatures were climbing accordingly, and I was properly outfitted, it was time to get to the beach! Along the way we got a bit hungry and thirsty and stopped at a tiny bar for a snack.
When we walked up to the beach I met Franz’s family. And they asked if I’d like to try wake boarding behind a jet ski. Why not, I thought, I’ve done this before on a boat in a lake… actually I just said “Yes” and then I thought, geez I hope I can get up. Let’s just fast forward and say it was awesome! Very different then being on a lake – the wakes coming from many directions.
I made a few passes then headed in to get some rays and refresh myself with a bier while I chatted with the family. We chatted until sunset and then headed home to clean up before reuniting for dinner.
The family gathered for a meal of fresh fish and it was fabulous! We exchanged about American and Brazilian culture and the nephews shyly practiced their English with me while I struggled to recall the Portuguese I had learned about 8 years ago.
As we enjoyed our meal one of the relatives asked if I was disappointed they were not fluent in English which made me really sad. Why does the entire world feel a need to become American? I feel very conflicted about this emotion, but I believe there are many ways to live and communicate in many languages and many countries. I just hope that Americans reading this understand the significant influence we hold in the world.
Before we headed home, we gathered for a fun photo with the nephews and I felt honored that the family took me in as one of their own.
The next morning we were sleepy! But when Franz suggested that we run to the beach I couldn’t resist the chance to start the day with another tour by foot. All I can say is it was one hilly route and a totally different exerience than going by bike. Soon after we arrived the family joined and we relaxed in the early afternoon sun.
I decided if would be fun to rent a stand-up paddle board to try it out. It is a lot harder than it looks! At first I stood up and fell off a few times, I’m sure providing loads of entertainment to everyone on shore. Then, one of the nephews came out to help, but that was a little tough because I couldn’t understand his instruction since i t was alles Portuguese! Awe, but we still had fun! I went back in to shore to rest and this is when Franz’s mother explained that I should approach it like dancing. So, I went back out for one more run and it worked! It really felt like a lesson in life: roll with waves, accept the changes and find your balance. Suddenly I was paddle boarding!
Sadly, it was soon time to head out for a delicious lunch before we packed up and headed home to the city. We enjoyed one final sunset before our departure.
It was such an amazing weekend and all I can say is Muitos Obrigada to Mariana and Franz and the family that accepted me like their own. I can’t wait to return with my husband for a week exploring this paradise!