We arrived in Rio de Janeiro at four o’clock in the morning. It was dark. We took the shuttle to the rental car agency, so we could start our four-hour drive to Itamambuca Beach as soon as possible. “Wait until it gets light,” the Budget agent recommended. In the twenty-seven years since I last visited Brazil, the country has become significantly more violent, so we decided to heed his advice. Fortunately, the puzzle of fitting five suitcases in an economy car took a while, and by the time we were ready to go, dawn was upon us.
The three kids tumbled asleep on top of each other in the back of the car, while my husband navigated through the outskirts of Rio. It was a depressing sight. It looked nothing like the world metropolis about to host the first Olympics in South America. All was gray and black, with smoke and smog in between. Men in training pants and dirty shirts walked along the highway on their way to a bus station. Buildings were a jumble of blackened, cement bricks and electricity wires and we weren’t even passing the favelas. Within an hour though the gray was replaced by the green of the coastal road from Rio to the coastal city of Ubatuba. The rain forest reached until the sea. Waze kept us awake with regular warnings for speed traps. My Brazilian cousin later shared that private citizens can put up a radar and share the profits from speeding tickets with the local authorities. No wonder there were so many traps.
My uncle, who has lived in Brazil for forty-two years and is now retired on a coffee farm near Braganca Paulista, recommended that we spend a week on the coast, perhaps in Ilha Belha or Paraty. I thought perhaps our kids, who already loved boogie boarding, could learn to surf. For waves you need to be in Itamambuca Beach, half-way between Ilha Belha and Paraty. The last mile to the beach house we rented was unpaved. We bounced our way there on the red dirt, evading puddles and holes. At least the enclave appeared safe with a guard station at the only access road and a patrol car making rounds at night. The house itself was large and clean, although a bit forlorn, and boasted an outdoor grill area, which is essential in Brazil. The electric shower made an ominous humming sound, but spat out lukewarm water. I felt like we had just landed on a different planet, a random dot on the map in giant Brazil, but my offspring darted around the house as if they had always lived there.
Itamambuca Beach is twenty minutes from the small city of Ubatuba. There was nothing in Ubatuba that reminded us of Europe and we were clearly the only foreigners in town. With Zika and violence, Brazil is no longer a popular vacation destination and even at the best of times, Ubatuba is about as far from the beaten path as you can get. In one version of our sabbatical, I had suggested that we live in just four cities, like Ubatuba, around the world. The idea was to spend three months in each of the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China, and really get to know each. Later in the planning process, we adopted our mantra “People, Not Places” and instead spent half our sabbatical in our respective home countries, close to our parents and siblings. Still, our week in Ubatuba gave us a glimpse of how life in BRIC could have been.
We made friends quickly. The homeowners, with the help of Google Translate, had recommended a surf school for the kids. The beach was just fifty meters from the house. We were traveling out of season, in the beginning of the Brazilian winter, and when we arrived to inquire about lessons, three teachers were immediately available to take our kids out in the waves for a reasonable price. They could not have been more friendly, and within an hour our kids were actually surfing.
Video: WorldTripKids surfing at Itamambuca Beach
In Ubatuba, we found a supermarket, and the municipal fish market, to stock up on food. We bought beef to grill our first Picanha, a cut of meat that is typical for Brazil, and consulted a store clerk how to make a Caipirinha. Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça (sugarcane hard liquor), sugar and lime, and one of my fondest memories from twenty-seven years ago. When we returned to the supermarket a day later, the friendly clerk asked us how the drinks had turned out. In the store, we also met a Canadian woman, who seemed the only other English speaker in town. She told us about surf championships on Plaia Grande over the next few days. Aside from an aquarium, there wasn’t much else to do in Ubatuba, so we decided to go.
At the surf competition, we looked for the Canadian and her son but found an instructor from the Zecau surf school instead. He immediately waved us over to watch the afternoon heats together. Nobody spoke English but all were welcoming us, from the jovial man selling corn to the older lady promoting a local school with a trampoline attraction. The small downtown had only one cafe serving espresso drinks, so this became our local favorite. The coffee tasted more like hot chocolate, covered with whipped cream, betraying the fondness most Brazilians have for sweets. Sweets were also found in the local kilo restaurant. Kilo restaurants are all the rage in Brazil. They serve a hot and cold buffet, with plenty of meat and sushi options, where you pay by weight. For the five of us, a typical “all-you-can-eat” meal cost about R$100 or US$20.
Three days into our Brazilian adventure, we hosted a dear friend into our new ‘home’. In the dark of night, Eilam picked up Bart from one of the Ubatuba bus stations. It turns out there are three bus stations in town, but eventually they found each other. We had invited Bart to join us in Brazil, to thank him for all the work he has done taking care of our finances and mail in our absence. The epic battle he fought with the Mountain View post office to get our mail forwarding to work alone was worth a grand prize.
Bart’s arrival was accompanied by the start of rains, which wouldn’t let up for the rest of our time on the coast. My uncle later disclosed that Ubatuba is known by locals as “Ubaschuva”, because it apparently always rains in summer. We visited in the ‘dry season’ but mother nature didn’t get the memo. Fortunately, we had plenty to catch up on, and Seven’s BBQ skills were put to good use. Never mind that Bart normally doesn’t eat meat. Between the kilo restaurants and the BBQ, I think we all gained five kilos while in Brazil.
I really enjoyed our short time in Ubatuba and Itamambuca. By going so far off the beaten path, we never felt like tourists and got a glimpse into everyday life in a Brazilian town. Still, I don’t know that we could have entertained ourselves for three months. I think it would have required putting the kids in school, like we did in Israel, or perhaps all of us would have become surf pros. We might try this formula during future travels so we will see.