On jararacuçus

I’m a city boy, without any doubt. I was brought up in Bristol and then Plymouth and, as an adult, have largely lived in medium-sized cities: Oxford, York, Bath. The inability to drive coupled with a cripplingly infrangible requirement for americanos means I cannot spend too long more than a short bike ride from an espresso machine.

This is not to say I disapprove of nature, quite the opposite. However, as I think is clear from a previous post, I generally meh English nature. I am not a subtle man: I like my scenary spectacular, my climate hot (without the benefit of carbon emissions), and my rain to be proper rain—tempestuous downpours are far more enjoyable than months of endless drizzle working its way up, in poor excuse for a climax, to windscreen-smothering blatter. I like my flora weird and odourful, and my fauna to look like it lives off something other than cream teas and whimsy. Buttercups and shrews entertain me not: I want a dama da noite and an ariranha that would eat its English cousin for breakfast. Brazil provides me with nature of the kind I enjoy and, when there, I often stay in the village of Picinguaba, which is surrounded by the stuff. But it is also there that, a few years ago, I came up against the limits of my fauna appreciation, on a nature trail nearby.

I went with a couple of English friends (one resident in Picinguaba, the other visiting her) and a Brazilian chap to a waterfall near the next village, Ubatumirim. Visiting waterfalls is a popular alternative to a beach: there is considerably more shade, and usually a pleasant stroll through the forest to get to the falls. A pleasant stroll indeed was had, and then a few hours lolling around and sunbathing and reading and generally being indolent. We started back, and the Brazilian guy was in the front, which was fortunate as but a couple of meters down the path he stopped, held us back, and warned us to be careful, as there was, he said, a snake on the path. Coming up next, I looked at where he was pointing a saw, well, nothing. It took me a quite a few moments before I could make it out, and there is no way I would have spotted it just walking past, but there was, indeed, a smallish brown/yellow snake curled up on the path. Camouflage works really rather well actually out there in the wild, it would appear.

Anyway, our Brazilian friend told us to be very careful. This was a jararaca or a jararacuçu (pronounced ja-ra-ra-ka and ja-ra-ra-ku-su). Whichever it was, he warned us, the snake was very venemous. Can I admit to you that a little voice in my head pshawed him? I mean, it was clearly a biter rather than a squeezer, but it wasn’t that big, and more importantly we know—don’t we, fellow city-dwellers?—from David Attenborough documentaries that nature warns of venom. Poisonous or venemous creatures are brightly coloured or otherwise flouncy and exhibitionist: I cite you the coral snake, the lion fish, and the magnificently-named Pfeffer’s flamboyant cuttlefish, a cephalopod which clearly spends far too much time in the dressing room. So it was clear to me that this well-camouflaged brownish-yellowish thing couldn’t really be properly venomous. Nevertheless, it could at the least leave two unwelcome punctures in my shin, and might sting a bit, so I gave it, as did everyone else, a wide berth.

When we arrived back at Picinguaba I was chatting with my friend Peter, and I mentioned this snake to him. He seemed impressed, and reiterated the line that they were very dangerous. Pshaw, the doubting voice in my head went, but slightly less confidently so than it had previously. On the pretext of establishing whether it was a jararaca or a jararacuçu I got out my laptop and started to look it up online …

… and found that it’s a pit viper. That’s a genuinely rather venemous snake, and aggressive to boot. (Can snakes be anything to boot?) Indeed, of the jararacuçu—which, from the colouring and geographical distribution, I now think it was—the first scholarly article I found said that it is “one of the most dreaded snakes of Brazil.” I appealed to reason. According to most online sources they grow over 2m in length, and this one couldn’t have been more than 50cm. So it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Peter demurred. The small ones, he claimed, are more aggressive and more likely to inject their entire venom reservoir.

The pshaw-voice in my head was oddly muted by now. Perhaps, after all, local knowledge should be respected. And maybe shrews aren’t so bad, either.

The short but eventful life of a white tee-shirt

The white tee-shirt was a simple, cheap garment: fairly loose-fitting, V-necked, and probably made of a cotton/polyester mix. It came into my life because I am an idiot, and left it because I am anal. It was almost entirely blameless, and I repaid it with sweat, splashed alcohol, and a watery death.

I spent Christmas in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro with an American friend who lives there, before coming back to Picinguaba for the New Year revelries. It is traditional to wear white for the New Year celebrations in Brazil, and I generally bring only pale-coloured shirts anyway, because the sun here in summer is so intense that I need maximum reflection, and minimum sweat-patch visibility; in order to ensure I was well-prepared for the night I washed all my white clothes at Andrew’s house in Niterói. Arriving at Picinguaba, 325km from Niterói, a couple of days before New Year I opened my luggage to find, in the place of all my white shirts, nothing but a sudden, crystal-clear, and uselessly late mental image of them drying on a clothes-line in Andrew’s yard.

The wearing of white is to placate the sea goddess and, therefore, in order to avoid the risk of an Odyssean return journey to the UK in February—not to mention looking like a foreign dick—there was nothing for it but to buy a new shirt. So the day before New Year’s Eve, I got on a horrendously packed bus for an almost two-hour trip along a packed highway (everyone goes to the beach for New Year) to Ubatuba, where I bought the shirt, along with a couple of its cousins. A friend from Picinguaba was making the same trip—to buy her daughter a bicycle—and so I gratefully took the opportunity to generously offer to get us a taxi back to save Jumara the horror of trying to take a large box on the heaving, stifling bus.

New Year’s Eve itself passed off magnificently, as it always does here. Dancing on a beach until four in the morning is incalculably preferable to standing shivering round braziers, however cosy-looking, in a pub garden. At midnight, many bottles of bubbly were shaken up and popped open to spray the surrounding dancers. Usually I would object to this wanton waste of alcohol, but this is Brazil, where—though the home of many pleasant beers and uncountable fine cachaças—they have yet to master the art of making even barely palatable wine; whereas a cool drenching on a hot summer’s night was wholly welcome. But my poor new shirt’s first visit to the world was in order to be soaked first with dancy sweat and then with cheap Lambrusco.

To relate its second, fatal visit to the world, I need to rewind a little to the daytime of the 31st. After many years of visiting Picinguaba, which lies on a large, calm natural harbour and where one can thus do a variety of watersport type activities, I decided the time had come for me to attempt one. I’ve been fairly cautious about this, because I’m not a strong swimmer, and there is, of course, the risk of a sudden event causing a cataplectic collapse. But I decided to pay the R$80 to have a hour’s lesson in stand-up boarding—a more sedate, gentler cousin of surfing performed standing up (duh) on an oversized surfboard, guiding yourself with a long paddle.

Let me stress that I was not optimistic. There are naturally sporty people in the world, who can pick up any new physical skill with ease, and I am not one of them. True, I played rugby for most of my secondary school, but my involvement in that largely started because, due to the precocious maturation previously mentioned, I was so much larger than my compatriots in the early years that it was simply a matter of picking up the ball and wandering over to the other side of the pitch. I must have developed some ability, because I remained in the squad as my peers caught up with (and, annoyingly, largely overtook) me in size. But other than that, I have no sporting trophies to exhibit. I played squash for a number of years with a pleasure and an enthusiasm in almost exactly inverse proportion to my ability to actually hit the ball, and I suppose I can hold my own fairly well on a pool table.

Astonishingly, then, I turned out to be really surprisingly good at stand-up. So much so that, after only about ten minutes of tuition, Fausto said to me that I had it sorted, there was nothing more to learn, he’d only charge me for the rent of the board not the lesson, and off I was to go. I was to keep fairly close to the shore, and he’d keep an eye on me from there. I came in, after a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s boarding, with not a wet hair on my head. “Nem caiu?”—you didn’t fall off? Nenhuma vez, my friends, nenhuma vez. Jumara subsequently told me that she’d talked to Fausto and he admitted to her that I’d been so obviously in control he forgot to keep an eye out for me, and was very relieved when he saw me coming back in from praia da fazenda. Quite the natural, it would seem. My laughably underlong legs have cropped up regularly on this blog, and this time I think they have done me a favour, as a lot of the technique lies in being able to stabilize the board with your legs whilst separating out the paddling movement from the shoulders and arms.

So the day after New Year’s Day, when the pain had abated, I decided to have another go, and the white tee-shirt came with me. There was a good reason for this—Brazil is currently in a severe drought, and Picinguaba’s water supply is entirely from a system of water towers in the surrounding hills, which are almost empty. Serious economy of water is required, and washing clothes is at a premium (indeed, this is why the original washing was done in Niterói, rather than here). As the shirt was only taken to put on if I was out longer than my sun-block would handle, it made sense to use the New Year’s shirt—now stinking of dried sweat and booze, and so unwearable at any other time. Out I went for stand-up session the second, my white tee-shirt tucked into the waistband of my shorts. And passed me by, not ten minutes into my boarding, a motorboat going far too fast for the harbour, a rippling wake expanding out in nested V-shapes behind it.

You may have come to the conclusion from reading this blog that I am a somewhat chaotic individual, and this is a largely reasonable supposition. But somewhere in me, rarely disturbed, lies a secret core of anality. It’s why I’m a good editor, but its major manifestation lies not in lexical neatness, but in an obsessive worship of symmetry. I have to chew clementine pieces exactly the same number of times on each side of my mouth. Should my loyalty card in a Caffè Nero have a misplaced stamp on the first row of it, heaven help the barista who does not misplace the equivalent stamp in the other direction on the final row (rotational trumps reflective, of course). My HTML is always XHTML.

And so it was that, rather than turning the board so that its prow was perpendicular to the approaching wake, I turned it broadside, creating a pleasant symmetry between the oncoming parallel waves and the side of my board. And the price for this symmetry was to be pitched unceremoniously into the ocean. (By serendipity, my New Year’s reading was Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastically bleak Galápagos, the basic premise of which is that evolution gave us big, big brains, and yet the things those big, big brains cause us to do are precisely those that are likely to bring individuals and the species to an abrupt termination. This is exactly the kind of thing he was talking about.) I spluttered to the surface, suddenly reminded of quite how salty seawater is, and followed that part of the lesson that I had yet to implement: how to recover yourself when you fall off.

Paddle. Still in hand. Good, make sure it stays there. Board. Get to, and grab as quickly as possible. Done. Right, now hang off the board for five minutes spitting out brine and note to yourself that, if you’re going to take this up, you really need to take some swimming lessons to improve your feeble dogpaddle. Haul yourself back on, stand up again, and you’re there, back in control, pretending nothing had happened.

And then look down, and see a white billowing shape gently floating downwards as the poor, abused tee-shirt that you had tucked into your shorts, and which had disconnected itself in your unseemly splashing, descends to the deeps; there to lie until it unravels and rots, pondering upon what it has done to deserve such mistreatment: to be soaked with sweat, then alcohol, and then to be cast aside in a moment of panic to sleep with the fishes and dream of the days when it hung, unmolested, uncreased, and unstained, upon a hanger in a shop in Ubatuba.

  1. Almost entirely because, as a mix of fibres, it had already condemned me to eternal perdition.

Unleashing the Inner Neanderthal

I never entered a gym until I was in my late twenties. In my teenage years running around a pitch pretending to catch a ball, but actually just hitting people and being hit, sufficed to keep me in reasonable shape. At university for my undergrad I maintained my rugby-level boozing, supplemented it with poor diet, and omitted to find a replacement exercise regime, resulting in a physique which could most attractively be described as “Regency.” Starting in my final year and into my early twenties, it all fell off rapidly because of lack of money with which to booze, a job which required me to be on my feet all day, and those goddamn hormones that young people have. (You wait, oh my twenty-something readers. You just wait. You will hit thirty and that effortlessly firm and lean physique will suddenly require twice as much work just to stay the same.)

As my twenties progressed, the chub returned to a degree, due to working in publishing: an industrial machine whose human gears are oiled by the frequent and excessive application of alcohol. An attempt to address this by the enthusiastic though utterly incompetent playing of squash resulted, late in my twenties, in a herniated disc in my spine, three months off work, and the general pain that comes with this most unattractive of middle-age’s precursors.

Once I had slowly edged my way back to mobility, I resolved never to let this happen again, and to that end joined a gym. This, despite my firm conviction that gymnasia were horrendous sweat-pits of hypertrophied masculinity, and that picking up heavy things just to put them down again was an existential epic fail, and probably a grotesquely unnecessary messing with entropy to boot. To my immense surprise I found that gyms are really rather ordinary places, that entropy can look after itself, and I additionally realized that nothing else I do in my entire life will have any cosmic consequence at all, so my inevitably, ultimately wasted years might as well be spent inevitably, ultimately-wastedly buff. This was enhanced by the discovery, led on by an exceptionally awesome trainer in Oxford, that I particularly liked picking up really rather heavy things. I found my Inner Neanderthal, and I embraced him.

A few years of not unreasonable almost-buffness ensued, but of late the chub has returned again. The distance, it is true, from my house in Bath to the nearest gym was not conducive to fitting in a quick session. But I also have been worrying that I have lost the enthusiasm. I had of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my thirst, foregone all custom of exercises. Could it be that I am, horrifyingly, just past it?

So why am I relating this now? Well, after a couple of days in Picinguaba—a village in Brazil with no gym, but substantial quantities of beer—I realized today that the situation was hardly going to improve. So, as my friend Peter was driving into Paraty—the nearest decent-sized town—today, I hopped in the car to go to the gym there.

I used to live in Paraty, sporadically, some years ago, and was a member of a gym there, so I went back to Corpo em forma—where I was pleasantly surprised to discover they remembered me—paid the day-rate, and went in to try and ameliorate the belly situation. Let me describe this place to you. It is cheap. It is on the upper storey of an L-shaped shopping precinct, the front of which is open-air except for a lightweight awning to keep off the direct sun. The inside of the gym has fans, but they are never on. The mats on the floor are so elderly and abused that one suspects that what little cushioning they have is less retained from an earlier, more bouyant, phase of their existance than it is simply the accumulated absorbed sweat that has dripped down on them. The weights are shameless lumps of iron with occasionally visible numbers on them, and there are no clips with which to hold them in place on the bars: if you can’t maintain them stable, they will fall off and you will look a fool. The guys who work there are Brazilians, and therefore were born buff even before they started putting decidedly suspicious compounds in their bodies, and wouldn’t conjugate their verbs even if they knew how. It is a horrendous sweat-pit of hypertrophied masculinity and, secretly, shame-facedly, I love it. I rediscovered my Inner Neanderthal today, and tomorrow is really gonna hurt.

There is a coda to this story, and one which will justify and even form a kind of absolution for my confession of secret ferrophilia. I did no CV in the gym, because (a) it was 30 degrees in the shade, and (b) I just hate it so much. Instead, after I’d finished, I went to the rodoviária to get the bus back to Picinguaba.

I now need to supply you with a little geography. Picinguaba lies halfway between the towns of Paraty and Ubatuba; the former is in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the latter the state of São Paulo. Picinguaba is about five miles into the São Paulo side so, because local buses operate upon a state-level system, you have to get two buses to get back to Picinguaba: one from Paraty to the divisão, and one from the divisão to Picinguaba. Additionally, Picinguaba is not actually on the main road between Paraty and Ubatuba, but down a long, badly-kept, and extremely hilly road. There is a bus-stop at the junction. Some of the buses to Ubatuba from the divisão take a detour down into Picinguaba, others do not. It’s not an extremely long road, but it is about a twenty minute detour for the bus, because the road is only just wide enough, pot-holed, and so steep in places that it is not unknown for the bus to actually roll over as it attempts to make a particularly vertiginous turn.

There was a bus waiting at the divisão, and so I asked a guy also waiting whether this one went into Picinguaba. No, he replied, it did not. I thought about it, and decided to get it anyway, as I could always get out at the junction stop and either wait for a bus coming the other way, or start walking into Picinguaba and flag down a lift from anyone passing.

So we arrived at the junction, I rang the bell, and disembarked. The bus pulled away and immediately swung around, went back up the road for twenty metres, and took the turning into Picinguaba.

Do you know that feeling when you drop a freshly-poured gin and tonic, quite possibly due to it being far from the first freshly-poured gin and tonic that has passed your way already? How it descends in slow-motion to shatter upon the floor, and how unreasonable it seems that you can’t simply unwind time just a few seconds to undo what was obviously a minor, uncosmic error. That. Off it merrily, but slow-motionally went, down the road that led to Picinguaba, leaving me on a sun-struck, boiling highway with no-one else at the stop, and no indication of when the next bus would be.

Reader, I walked it. Someone would come. Someone would pass me. My face is known in Picinguaba, people are generous and friendly, and it is a given that if you are going down the road and they have space in their car they will pick you up.

No-one came.

No-one picked me up.

I walked all four fucking miles of it, in the afternoon heat, already exhausted from my over-enthusiastic gymming. Up steep hills, on an uneven road, passing en route the ditch with broken trees where, Peter had coincidentally pointed out to me on the way out, the latest bus-overturning had taken place. I did my CV after all.

Of course the bus was ahead of me, and had to return, and I passed the bus coming down the steepest stretch as I was coming up it. (Hoffnung, anyone?) The guy who had told me it did not enter Picinguaba was still on it, of course, and sat on the side facing me. The bus was moving slowly, for it had pot-holes and inclines to negotiate, so I had time to look him full in the face.

Brazilian men largely operate on a combination of testosterone, boundless optimism, and a total, utter, bloody-minded refusal to admit that they are ever wrong. I have been coming to this country for about ten years now, and I have finally seen an expression on someone’s face that I never thought I would.