Even in the heat the Italians have greased back hair. There were four on the boat here, half of them with Roma waves licked like Danny in Grease, despite the sweltering temperature. An impenetrable hirsute structure, like the coliseum of hair.
Together we enter the island of Morro do São Paulo through a tall archway and immediately queue to pay a tourist tax of R$12. It adds to the sense of entering a tropical amusement park when I walk up and see the pretty square of pousadas with taxi men pushing colourful wheelbarrows of suitcases or crates of coca cola, filtered water bottles or strawberries.
"Ciao Lucia, la sirena!" chorus the Italians. "We see you tonight at the party." I soon come to realise that the tourist tax is more like a beach nightclub entrance price for some.
We are the lone Europeans. This island has been colonised by Argentines. From shop workers, to pousada clerks, bar girls, holiday makers, handicraft sellers. They’ve made this their place in Brazil.
They’ve chosen well. Morro do São Paulo is a small island, two hours by catamaran from Salvador. A half day to walk its circumference of yellow sands and clean, clear, waveless waters with mangroves at the edges and an interior of palms.
People are friendly. As once again the whitest person for miles around they all want to know what I’m doing, pass the time and swap stories. Pulpo, an over excited Argentine, a brilliant afro-ed Colombian and his German girlfriend, he googling places in the world he wants to see with an accent like a baddie out of a Western movie, a very serious Chilean lawyer who knows all about his country’s international trade and copper mining, Marcio the Rolling Stones loving university lecturer from La Plata and proud of it.
The island is separated by numbered beaches and Segundo Praia is where the party’s at. At night exotic fruit stalls collect in a square around a Brasilian pop blaring sound system. The array is tremendous of varieties which would give Carmen Miranda fits. Tiny red acerola, aubergine coloured shells on a giant cashew fruit, long root looking melons, limes the size of oranges, cocoa pods. They’re all made into delicious cocktails. I order one from Eduardo who let’s me sit behind his stall, like an apprentice, when it suddenly starts to pour with rain and we sing Parabens do voce, to one of the stall sellers whose birthday it is.
Then the local kids come out. They’re a joy to watch. Amazing dance moves grinding their bodies down low in the sand with sunglasses on in the dark and arms swinging at their sides, shirts off and huge smiles. Big show offs. The perfect white lighthouse winks it’s light across the praia to the merry makers.
Its an Argentinian beauty parade. Tall girls with long flat stomachs and hair down their backs and chiseled ken doll hunks in board shorts. You’d think all Argentines can trace lineage back to Native Americans for the number of Red Indian tribute tattoos of dream catchers, Indian chiefs and feathered arrays covering backs, chests and legs. Yet their body beautiful they lack the lusty swagger of Brazilians, their joy of flesh and the attitude that goes with it.
The morning is hazy in Morro. Mist clouds and hazy minds from the night before.
The moon has pulled the tide in close and all that’s left is soft sand and shallow clear paddling water and a rocky plunge pool to watch shoals of silver and yellow fish. Far away are the big waves, a white foam only dentists dream of. The tide has left patterns on the sand which look like mountain ranges seen from the sky or the pattern of flesh on an orange.
You can catch a horse drawn cart up to the north western side of the island for plains of bleach white sand. Or take a jungle stroll on the port side of Morro for palm fringed coves and a natural clay spa from pink rocks that are rich with minerals that look like streaky bacon and turn to skin smoothing mud when mixed with sea water.
I meet Mercedes, a statuesque woman from Uruguay with dark skin and big soulful eyes, at my pousada. She tells me Morro do São Paulo is tough on the body. Long hot days and long late nights ‘when am I supposed to sleep?!’ She jokes.
She’s come to Morro for sanctuary. Mercedes’ life started to roll out of control a year ago. A holiday to Rio showed her a love for Brasil but her lack of love for her abusive husband. They divorced angrily and messily eight months ago, soon after she was made redundant from an important engineering job and she felt like fate had served her up a passport to the country she’d soothed herself with the music and images of in her gloomiest days. She is two months into a stay she thinks may last a year and she’s just started a romance with a local who lavishes her with loving words. ‘I dreamt of an island and trees and the sea and it’s as though the world listened and brought me here to recover.’ On New Years Eve, it’s island custom to throw a flower in the ocean and make a wish for the year to come. Mercedes threw in a yellow rose and thanked whoever is listening for serving her bad fortune so she could find a new happiness.
I joined Mercedes and her friends at a party in an open air ampitheatre at a clearing up high in the forest, to listen to bands playing live samba and forro music. And then, somewhere close to dawn the island’s capoeira dancers came out, their bodies like licked caramels. And as they high kicked and spun turns both the moon and the sun shared the sky, like Morro do São Paulo, a constant and beautiful battle between day and night.