Expedition mode

Like lost children we live our unfinished adventures.
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Much to my dismay, we had to leave Kyle, veteran of 5 months and thus current holder of the long-termist title, behind in Ceará; he wasn't quite done with Brazil. There was also talk of an expedition to Machu Picchu with Arne the cyclist. We can't all be playboys, as my friend James G would say. Leaving the promised land proved very hard for other reasons, too. For it's not just the Brazilian joie de vivre, their pleasant tropical hedonist culture, or this country's delightful locals' open and friendly manner.

Foreigners of the fair-skinned variety also benefit from a most peculiar type of what I like to call aesthetic racism. Even though I usually take great pleasure in reporting I've not watched any teleprompter apart from Pipi Longstockings under the careful supervision of my parentals, who would only permit this red-haired anarchist on screen, followed by my secret enjoyment of the late-night repeats of Baywatch during the pubescent years, I am at times inadvertently exposed to this primeval one-to-many medium. In Brazil, the average soap features a bizarre vision of aryans doing their rounds in s classes, inhabiting huge mansions, while the country's predominantly black population features in the form of the occasional humble servant, the invariably female empregada. This has the straightforward effect of instilling self-hatred in the locals, convenient for the burgeoning beauty industry, as well as resulting in a perverse attraction to whitey. Good for us, the gringos and gringas. Because we all like a bit of attention don't we.

Either way, 5 weeks in this 5 star resort were exposing even our most modest champagne socialist ambitions to ridicule, and the time for a bit of expedition mode had come. I was joined by Dutchie Leentje, who comes from a bit of a boat gypsy background herself, and, shortly thereafter, by surfers Federico il professore and Leandro, both acquaintances of my friend Clélia's. Leandro left to help single-handed Josean, we did some shopping and goodbyeing, and we were good to go.

Unusually strong winds drove us straight up to the equator, and we celebrated our crossing with a quick cachaça com limão, para matar a saudade. I told my follow sailors all I knew about our next obstacle, the mostly windless intertropical convergence zone, aka the doldrums, and its main hazard: the dreaded tropical squall. This is basically where paradise, with your only enemies usually being sunburn and - oh horror! - shortage of cold beer, turns into a warm version of an autumn north sea cruise.

Neither Leentje nor Fede had heard the term or seen one before, something Neptune soon rectified: First, big squalls, later, lines of squalls, and then, after I had answered Fede's question 'is that a front?' dismissively 'this is the equator, there are no fronts', entire fronts of squalls akin to a low pressure system appeared. With gale force gusts and torrential rain. Now I know what cruising guru Cornell meant when he wrote 'the Itcz can be a surprisingly unpleasant place'. In the midst of one such weather phenomenon, I spotted some whales. Sadly only the standard breathing hole spume. Don't be fooled: these surprisingly vain creatures only do breaching and tail fluke slaps during mating season, and only when a bbc camera is pointed at them.

I next informed Leentje the worst thing for sailing is wind from the front, closely followed by wind right on the stern. She innocently asked 'what about no wind?', which turned out to be somewhat prophetic: We promptly ran out of wind. I do sometimes wonder what travellers on this ancient mode of global transportation did before one Rudolf Diesel came to our aid. In this case, instead of motoring or sitting around with slapping sails, I elected to just take the night off. I turned off all equipment and closed the hatches, setting boaty adrift in the equatorial current, 2 knots north-by-north-west. We spent most of our little break in the middle of nowhere talking shit about our craziest and loveliest former partners (you know who you are!), the stupidity of the human race, and our weird offshore dreams.

Yes, strange dreams of acquaintances from past lives seem standard when living in social isolation, and one morning brought a particularly strong memory back to life. I had spent weeks of a summer gone by exchanging glances with a particularly delightful creature. Her family was spending the summer on one of the sprawling campsites of the Dutch coast. Her name escapes me; for some reason they were all called Steffi or Chantal so it was probably either one of those. Yet when I finally found myself sitting next to her at the pool, which I used to gatecrash regularly, I found I had nothing to say to her, for our lives were too different. Her doll-like face haunted me for years.

There were big shoals of young tuna around, jumping to impressive heights. We couldn't quite decide if they were hunting or being hunted; either way, they certainly didn't feel like biting on any of our trawling setup. We also spotted quite a few Portuguese man-of-wars, a fellow, albeit ultra-toxic downwind sailor of the ocean winds and currents. One night a big ship without nav lights passed with something that looked like an illuminated runway on top. The navy never turn on their running lights, I thought, it must be an aircraft carrier, probably from the US, most likely off on some brave mission massacring civilians from a safe height. The trip took place on a receding moon, which was also rising very late, around dawn. The resulting moonless nights offered spectacular stargazing and endless shooting stars. Fede professed to having run out of wishes. I also had two, which I sent silently on a just in case basis, much like I used to pray for a bicycle as a child just in case my atheist instincts were wrong.

Before entering the river at Kouru, we anchored at Ile Royale for two days, one of the Iles du Salut, thus named by the monks who fled the pestilence on the mainland. Later on, the French had a penal facility here, setting of the famous (supposedly autobiographical) novel and film Papillon. Coming in from the oceanic desert, we were most pleased with the flora and fauna of the relatively untouched rainforest here. After ten days at sea, even a relatively plump French tourist looks like heaven incarnate. Or one's first lager. Even if it's a Heineken.

Equatorial weather at sea can be bad enough, as our 10 day, length-wise trip along the intertropical convergence zone showed. However, there are actually a couple of countries in this unenviable location. The one we had landed at, French Guyana, isn't a real country, it's a French overseas department, the modern and polite term for a colony. Not that there are any contenders for the crown here: this place is just what I imagine the Amazon (the southern half is actually part of Amazônia) or Pantanal, that most fabled of eco-tourist destinations, to be like: an insect-ridden swamp, with a year-round rainy season. Fantastic, if you're a plant or a fresh-water fish, that is. We quickly disbanded our l'Armée pour la Libération de la Guyane Française for lack of anything worth fighting for.

On the plus side, there were French food, lots of pristine flora and fauna, as well as a rare assortment of boat gypsies up the river at Kouru. One of them told me that the French moved an entire village of jungle inhabitants straight into social housing in this not particularly attractive town so as to make space for the European intergalactic project. Yes, this is where the Ariane rockets are launched. Whitey's on the moon comes to mind. Other than that, there's no real economy, a bit of illegal gold mining, and plenty of motherland Frenchies down for a légère, conveniently francophonic tropical adventure, without ever leaving la patrie or getting your passport soiled by foreign stamps, all under the watchful eyes of the all-white Gendarmerie of course.

Most of the locals look like Brazilians. In fact, some of them are. The remainder were brought here from Africa to perform a bit of pro bono labour on the sugar and rubber plantations back in the day; nowadays, their descendants appear to be sitting around on enormous social housing estates, enjoying the supposedly highest quality of life in South America. I hear the colonial overlords had to make some concessions following a case of let's burn down the local authorities office rioting last year. I also met B here again, an acquaintance from Fuerteventura, whose wife and child had left the boat to return to dirt-based living. He wasn't looking too clever, in fact I didn't recognise him until his approaching me. His manic eyes suggested crack, the drug of choice around here I am told. El cóctel perfecto, as il professore quite aptly put it.

As you can see, this place didn't exactly win our hearts and minds. Leandro went back down to Brazil, Leentje joined another boat to visit neighbouring Suriname, formerly Dutch version of FG, and I left for a quick 600 nm run to Tobago with Fede. Soon enough, the water returned to its glorious salty nivea blue, and the endless squalls ceased as we made some northing. The trip wasn't particularly eventful, bar for a mega-pod (dear urbanites: this is not an appletosh product) of tiny dolphins and a visit by worse-for-wear Polly the land bird. No idea what the poor bugger was doing hundreds of kilometres off the Venezuelan coast in the first place. He probably felt just the same about us.

Sleep deprivation can be a bit of a psychedelic experience. On day 5, with Tobago already in sight, I caught myself idly wondering whether flying fish come in flocks or shoals. Or perhaps swarms? It's like the age-old question of whether a fox is closer to a cat or a dog. Genetically and.. well.. spiritually? You get the idea anyway. A few hours later, we dropped anchor at the wonderfully named Pirate Bay at the easternmost tip of Tobago. We will spend a few weeks exploring the island's many bays in celebration of this year's tour (4,500 nautical miles), which had us drawing a giant V into the Atlantic, due to a little detour for the Brazilian Carnival. I will then go on the hard to prepare boaty for the next episode.

O bicho pegou

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

We persevered in lovely Natal for a fair few weeks, once again at anchor up a mangrove-lined river. Arne trundled in by bicycle and joined us for some of it. The fortunate occurrence of the launch party for a silly-looking TV series ("Flor do Caribe") in the marina on our very first night got us litres of free bubbly, as well as getting us in touch with a few pleasing locals, who were by all accounts also just gatecrashing this weird event.

There was a big Norwegian goodbye party; with 15 souls on board at anchor, I spent most of the night ferrying people back and forth. Niklas, who had proven an excellent party companion, departed around this time, and Texan Katie arrived. Time was just flying by at a speed I've only ever experienced in Brazil. The easy going, one day at a time attitude that pervades even the locals' grammar, simply doesn't leave any space for tédio. Richard, whom I shared last season's hedonist swan song down the trashy holiday resorts of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura with, showed up for another stint.

Eventually up anchor and set sail for Fortaleza we did. We buddy boated this 200-something mile stint with Harald, a crazy German on a wooden racing boat, dodging a range of oil platforms and fishing boats on the way around the shallow north-eastern end of South America, Cabo Calcanhar. Wind and current were on our tail; this and the fantastic tropical ocean blue once again made me feel grateful and pleased for having made it to the tropics.

Kyle caught a small tuna somewhere near the cape. As tradition demands, I begged its pardon. We then sashimied our new-found friend right then and there. We arrived in Fortaleza in good spirits the next day. There was a bit of confusion about the location of the marina, since the pilot station's staff got confused and tried to send us to the wrong end of the harbour.

The docking maneuvre turned into a medium-sized nightmare; we had to place our anchor and dock stern-to, a technique German sailors call römisch-katholisch by reference to missionary (as in the sexual position). Kyle was on the anchor winch, while I was using the bow thruster extensively. Both failed simultaneously, prompting me to check what was going on. I ran into the nasty stench of burning plastic from a cable fire in the room. I went back up on deck to announce "fireeee on board!" loudly, just because I'd seen that in some film, and went back down to give it a quick, yet firm going-over with the engine room fire extinguisher.

All was forgotten after a few docking lagers by the pool later. I'd inadvertently parked boaty inside a 5 star hotel. Fortaleza proved good fun, and we celebrated our arrival by way of a naughty naughty week's worth of hedonism. Richard narrowly avoided getting mugged outside the hotel, only to be saved by hotel security, whom I was ironically at war with over their restrictive policy regarding visits.

Once again Arne showed, having biked up from Natal with the Norwegians. We were also reunited with some local charmers we met at the Carneval. Our Carioca neighbour Toto, captain on a fairly sizable catamaran, also proved to be excellent company. It was also a privilege to meet Ariadne Arantes here, participant in the 2011 Big Brother Brazil, and also the first transsexual to be queen of a samba school at this year's carnival, a bit of a historical moment for that particular movement.

It's week 3, and we are still persevering in this odd island of luxury, enjoying our last moments with the kind, mild-mannered natives that make this country so very special. Fresh crew has arrived in the form of Leentje, and I am ready to depart towards French Guyana shortly. But, to borrow the words of the late Terminator T-101 in the film of the same name: I'll be back.

Voltei pra defender nossa bandeira

Indem wir leidenschaftlich in etwas glauben, das noch nicht existiert, schaffen wir es. Das nicht vorhandene ist, was auch immer wir nicht genug gewünscht haben.
(By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.)
Franz Kafka

The Carnival was hard work, and we were all thoroughly hungover. However, there was plenty of cultural anthropology to be done. We befriended the local boat taxistas, who took us for rides around town. A seemingly endless round of barbecues ensued in the company of local couchsurfers Viny and Alice, we did beef and fish, round and round, while I was trying to find a mechanic who would touch my diesel injector pump.

Our stay at Pernambuco Iate Clube on the main breakwater was a pleasant affair. We sailed the harbour extensively, and gymmed it up in neighbouring Brasilia Teimosa, a former favela on sticks or Palafita, nowadays a lovely, down to earth community overshadowed by the nearby malls and high-rise predios. For some reason, rich locals love living vertically. Brazil is changing, and not necessarily entirely for the best.

We had to abort our attempt to collect oysters in Recife's filthy river due to health and safety concerns, perhaps a good thing; we ended up purchasing some on the beach. We got hold of the cheapest blender I could find, and started an enormous caipifruta orgy with all the tropical fruit we could muster at the municipal market. The blender expired following the introduction of carrot and onion, which we had added in an attempt to produce an Andalucian-styled Gazpacho. I got a warranty replacement in the scope of their generous 48-hour guarantee the next day.

All of these festivities were really a big series of goodbye parties for Transat and Cernival veterans Jo and Arne, who left to continue their crazy bicycle mission. Sad as it may have been, living conditions improved considerably, since Swedish Niklas had joined around this time, meaning we had a bit of a crowd on board at all times.

Eventually time to move on it was, and we set off on a swift overnighter to nearby Joao Pessoa. Conditions were superb and what I had become accustomed to for the tropics: Steady, mild winds and very little swell. We barbecued my Frenchie friend's filleted fish under way, and arrived in good form the next day.

I elected to anchor near Cabedelo behind Ilha Restinga in front of a village called Fort Velho, a village whose inhabitants received us with classical Marsian stares. I later learned that a yacht got robbed and boarded there just last year. I attribute our immunity to this to boaty's slightly less than shipshape looks and the presence of several males on board, as well as our friendly interaction with the locals.

Dingy #2, Wet Dream, was packed to the brim for our pleasing, lengthy expedition of the mangroves up Paraiba river's tributaries, drifting all the way up Rio Guia or Sarapo on a rising tide. I felt like Huckleberry Finn on this occasion, fantasising about my retirement cruising pretty rivers. We never saw any alligators or sea cows, and just about made it back to the ranch on the last fumes of petrol.

We spent another week anchored off Philippe the Frenchie's marina at Jacare, a suburb of Joao Pessoa, and are now getting ready to move on to Natal in Rio Grande do Norte for a crew change.