Vale do Capao…who would have imagined a place exists where there are no police, but almost no crime (not even petty theft); where you would need 1000 eyes to see all the restaurant waterfalls, hummingbirds, trees and flowers; where almost every person is an artist, musician acrobat or combination of those things and where there are people from every possible country and nationality creating an ecclectic mix of cultures from an Italian vegetarian restaurant where they sell Australian diggeridoos, to the traditional wonders of local art and craft, from crystals of every shape and size to clothing?
But to start from the beginning; first, Andre and I packed our 2 rucksacks and camping gear and left Vitoria da Conquista to get a bus to Lencois, one of the biggest towns in Chapada Diamantina.
Classic Bahia style, we phoned the EMTRAM the bus company a week in advance to be told “Oh, the bus comes between 7am and 11am in the mornings.” So we got there all prepared and ready for 7am. No bus. Of course, we had hardly expected it to be there for 7am, and only arrived at that time to be 100% sure of making it. We asked when it was due. “Oh, about 10, 10.30,” they said, depending when it arrives from Sao Paulo. And it might not go to Lencois, unless other passengers have booked in advance to go there. Thankfully, it did come, around 11am, and slowly sat and boarded until about 12 when it left and we were assured it WAS going via Lencois. The journey was magical in itself because of the scenery – I think I spent most of the journey staring out the window in awe when we started to enter Chapada Diamantina and see the mountains with thier plateaux like giant table-tops. In fact ´Table Mountain´sprang to mind! The trees give the mountainsides green covers, with only the steepest slopes and moutaintops showing their naked kaleidoscope of red, yellow, purple and brown.
On arrival in Lencois around 7 or 7.30pm, we were ready to get the next bus from Lencois to Palmeiras (from which point it was a 4×4 or taxi ride to Vale do Capao itself). Since the bus was due for 9.30pm, we wandered around the town, which is almost as historic as Salvador! Andre saw the central square and said it has many of the same features and the same vibe, like deja vu since he lived in Salvador for 4 months. It was (I think if I am not wrong) based on the diamond minig industry and mostly colonised by the French. There was a big slave trade there too, since African slaves were used to work the mines. Nowadays, since diamonds were discovered in Africa and the industry from Brazil went bankrupt, the town of Lencois (and all of Chapada Diamantina itself) is mainly based on the tourist industry so is very clean.
What made me feel right at home in the region too is the pride people take in keeping it clean (though the cynic in me says that´s just for the benefit of tourists).
But the place is full of people just like me – people of the tree-hugging, eco-hippie variety). The trees surround everything, giving the place a mix of smells very similar to those of Ibicoara where we travelled before: mainly fruit, dust, plants and sweet smelling leaves, flowers and summer. The calls of a whole band of different birds are everywhere too – though while we paused in Lencois they weren´t so audible because the local drum orchestra was rehearsing in the street, so Andre and I took the chance to record them playing.
The bus finally came, and for a while, we panicked, because Andre thought he had loast his wallet which had all the money plus his identification cards and documents in it!
Thankfully the bus driver allowed us to board anyway, and we got to Palmeiras ready to dissect all the luggage and find the roaming wallet. We thought we had looked everywhere and were sure it must have been stolen; but we had underestimated the place; there are no police there and with good reason – because there is almost no crime and theft. Sure enought, the wallet was in an obscure pocket of the rucksack where we had put it for safety and we could continue on our way.
We met another camper on the way to Vale to Capao who shared the 4×4 ride with us to get there, and arrived at the campsite to pitch our tent. The driver not only took us to the central square in town, but then on hearing we needed the campsite, took us there too, which saved us trying to navigate. Not that it´s hard to find; within a day we knew the town like the back of our hands.
The next day in Vale do Capao we went to find the circus – a wonderful group of acrobats and performers who give shows in the evenings in a giant circus tent next to the campsite. We went there in the early afternoon so they were just rehearsing which was wonderful to watch, and at the same time hummingbirds buzzed through the flowers right beside us. I was beginning to realise that not only was almost every person from Vale do Capao an acrobat, performer, musician or artist but they were all from different countries and backgrounds too!
I had fun practising my Portuguese since it was the one language we had in common! When we spoke to a tourist from France to ask directions, and I wanted to reply to him in French, to my shame my words kept coming out in Portuguese instead; my brain was starting to go in to Portuguese mode (which I suppose is a good thing really!)
We explored various trails to see the waterfalls too, carrying fruit, water and recording equipment to hand.
The whole region is paradise; you woul need 1000 eyes to see all the birds, animals, trees, flowers, waterfalls and mountains there! There are certain rules about following the trails, including ´no domestic animals because they disturb the ecosystem´(though one of the first things I saw was horse or donkey poo and doggy footprints all over the path); no camping (though there was a small peaceful tent pitched almost directly beside the first waterfall we came to, not causing any harm, as unobtrusive as the vegetation around it). The rules seem more like a set of guidelines than orders, but nobody leaves litter or mess and I saw no big crowds of people all trampling their way through the paths as is the case in so many places.
That evening, walking home, Andre and I passed another unique sight: one of the first vegetarian restaurants I have seen in Brazil!! We were astonished, and on going in we soon discovered that it´s run by a wonderful Italian couple, 2 men who must have lived in Brazil a long time judging by their Portuguese. The food they cooked was not Italian food, but Italian food using local Brazilian ingredients. SO instead of pasta pesto, we had pasta with pesto made from spices and herbs grown locally, and the salad was not a tomato, basil, olive and pesto salad but a rainbow of carrot, lettuce, tomato and beetroot with a betroot dressing. Then there was fresh passion-fruit juice and water which they said was filtered through crytals (I can well believe it since that´s what the region is famous for – it´s full of underground caves and it seems every shop also sells little crystals and local stones on the side). There are also little tourist tokens of every kind of pretty figures made from crytals, and in the same restuarant they sell diggeridoos made from giant bamboo or sugar cane rods. There was even a diggeridoo player from Spain there who we spoke to and his girlfriend from Finland (she spoke English but he only spoke Portuguese mixed with Spanish) and after teaching us to play the instruments (he makes them by hand hiself and has been playing for around 10 years according to his girlfriend), the 2 of them went quietly to a corner, put on some ambient music and started some joint yoga/acrobatics together.
Walking through town and back to the campsite, I realised almost every wall and surface has ´paz´(peace) and ´amor´carved or written on it in pen or paint, alongside famous quotations about peace, love, music art and reggae. There are giant murals painted on almost every wall too, and the houses are like Irish cottages, the only difference being that they have terracotta tiles on the rooves. A camper from Germany (but who works as a trail guide for horse-riding holidays in Spain in a region with very similar landscapes) told Andre and me that it was possible to rent rooms cheaply, since he knew a person from
Indonesia currently staying in one. Luckily he spoke great English and Great Portuguese, And that´s before mentioning Spanish and German which must be fluent! Anyway we went to explore again and find out.
In the meantime, we passed a lady selling wonderful loaves that looked like Irish soda-bread, and not having brought any supplies with us for the trail, Andre and I were very tempted when she offered us one. But we hadn´t brought the wallet so we appologised and said we couldn´t. But instead of leaving it, she assured us that it was no problem, because we could pay tomorrow, or the next day, and she gave us one before showing us where to find her house and also her husband´s shop selling honey and crystals among other things. So we thanked her profusely, gave our names and the campsite where we were staying, and went on our way.
Little did we know that this lady was like some magical spirit from a fairytale in disguise who was to reward us later for being honest. We of course came back that same evening to her husband´s shop and brough money for him but he had no change for our $RS10 note. But again he assured us we could bring it tomorrow with a big smile. In the meantime we continued to look for rooms with little sucess…the prices were nightly, since the place is designed for tourists on holiday and not people wanting to be there longer and integrate. The prices were huge, and they didn´t like the idea of renting to us with Sabby the dog.
Finally, the day before we left to return to Conquista, we were worried that we would never be able to pay for that bread we were given because we couldn´t find anyone in the house or the shop! But in the nick of time we bumped in to the same fairy godmother in the town centre and explained that we had been looking for her. We paid and chatted and mentionned that we would like to rent a room there, and – as in a fairytale, she said, oh yes she knew a house along one of the trails to the waterfall called´cashoeira do fumaca, the tallest waterfall in the whole region at about 350m and so tall that the water is a fine spray by the time it reaches the bottom (hence the name fumaca). Our ears stood up like Sabby´s do when she sees her tennis ball and our eyes gleamed.
It sounded ideal! And a rent of just about RS$200 per month, which is less than the rent Andre receives from the offices below his flat here in Conquista. The lady sent the 2 men to find us at the campsite and they took us to see the cottage by taxi (which in Vale do Capao really means on the back seat of a motorbike). And there, while we stood in the garden, was the most beautiful cottage I have ever seen, and with so many hummingbirds buzzing around the garden that I lost count and my head began to spin like the humming of their wings!
It was filled with bushes and flowers of every variety too, and a hammock just outside the front door.
So, having discussed it, Andre and I plan to go back there in May for a few months recording the local culture and music, and continuing to learn to play the diggeridoo. There are a lot of excellent conservation groups I can work with and I´ll find it much easier to learn Portuguese among people who are used to speaking in layman´s terms for tourists or non-native speakers like me.
Coming back from Vale do Capao was equally adventurous; since when we got a ´taxi´ back for the 45 minute ride to Palmeiras, it was, yet again, motorbikes. So we had to cram everything in to the rucksacks, and anything too large to fit in had to be attached to the outsides to leave our hands free to hold on to the bike for dear life while the drivers navigated the dusty, bumpy roads and a good speed. At every bump I wondered how long our makeshift packing could hold out before bursting, but thanks to some good luck or good knots it held out all the way to Palmeiras from which point we were inside the bus and no loger in danger of losing it.
So we got back safely to the flat, and before we go back to Vale do Capao there are a few rehearsals with the band Ramanaia, and the performance (which was postponed before) that Andre should take part in. And I´ll practise Portuguese and paint tea-towels which we can sell in Vale do Capao…both during the week to tourists walking the trail to the waterfall in need of a refreshment stop, and on sundays in the town market where they set up stalls for local produce. Below are the first tea-towel designs so far; though the finished ones will be bordered to prevent the material from fraying by a lady who knows how to do needlework.