My host Jac and Moab, her boyfriend, were active hosts who did their best to make sure I got to see the most of Natal in the couple of days I was there. This included visiting the Fort of the Wise Men, named because it was founded on the 6th of January, a huge number of different beaches, the historical downtown area, a toy museum, a space museum and the world’s largest cashew tree. They were also certain I had to try a variety of local foods, which meant going out to eat lots. It ranged from street food like tapioca pancakes with various fillings, to fancy restaurants for pizza (a Portugesa which featured chopped up boiled eggs and peas!) or some delicious barbecue.
Talking with Jac and Moab about living in Natal I was surprised to hear just how dangerous it can be. It’s the 4th most dangerous city in Brazil (I think based on murder rate weighted to population), the other 3 also being in the north-east region that I’m currently in. They said that 6-8 people were murdered per night, given the population of about 1 million that seemed ridiculously high. The crime is nearly always drug related, and those who are killed are primarily addicts that couldn’t pay their debt. A bakery a block from where Moab lives (and I was staying) had a fatal shooting take place during my stay there.
As well as that, they were talking about the deception felt by the population about the World Cup. There were huge numbers of promises made to host cities, like Natal, about the investment that would be made in infrastructure. This ranged from renovating an old train line connecting an area south of the city to the centre to bicycle lanes. None of this has happened and the infrastructure is the same as when the population was 200,000 so you can imagine just how awful the traffic jams are. The fun thing about Brazil, and especially the north-east is that there are 3 rush hours a day. Lunch, which is generally somewhere between 12 and 2 because of how ridiculously hot it is up here, joins the regular morning and afternoon rush hours to make the situation even worse.
The other thing I learnt about Natal is that it was known as the Trampoline to Victory during the second World War when there was a US base in the city to help Allied operations in Northern Africa as it’s under 3000km to continental Africa. This helped Natal grow a lot, and apparently was thought of favourably at the time. The city of Natal had received a statue as a present from Mussolini which had to be hidden to make sure no-one thought they were anti-US.
Day 1 – Natal to Lagoa Redonda
Moab’s parents have been running a small neighbourhood grocery store in the same place for over 40 years. They work every day of the year, with the idea that it makes people more likely to think of them when they want something. Thankfully, he and Jac had some free time on the Saturday morning. They took me down the coast to see more beaches, including one where we could see dolphins swimming around in the bay below, and eat more tapioca pancakes.
The goal was to arrive at the house of Neide (a local cyclist), her husband Cuca and his mum Marice – which backs on to a beautiful lagoon – where I was allowed to stay the night, weekend or week. Shortly after I arrived, and went for a dip, Cuca was serving mouthwateringly tender barbecued beef and pork. Jac & Moab had to go back to Natal, Moab to work and Jac to write more of her Masters thesis. We said our goodbyes, and then I had my hammock strung up by the lagoon where I fell asleep reading my book. I woke up before the sun went down, just in time for a dip with Neide and Maurice who at 75 has travelled extensively in Europe and was happy to tell me all about them.
Day 2 – Lagoa to Mamanguape
I had my own room with huge bed, but had chosen to spend the night in my hammock by the lagoon so got to watch first light covering it in the morning. I was packed up before 7, but the others got up a bit later. Then I wasn’t really allowed to leave without breakfast, especially as there had been the expectation I’d be staying for lunch (even having mentioned my plan to leave the night before). We had a full breakfast, and I got a packed lunch made for me, before they signed my flag and gave me a baseball cap as a souvenir. Maurice signed the flag in Spanish as Abuela Maurice – Granny Maurice – I think my English granny might have words to say about that!
To get back to the main road I had to ride through a fair bit of sand, which while soft was more ridable when I listened to Neide’s advice of letting most of the air out of my tyres. I rode slowly, nervous that the low pressure would lead to a puncture, following Neide as she led me to the BR-101, the main highway that goes from here all the way down to the border with Uruguay.
The ride saw me go past countless fields of sugar cane, and not too many populations. I passed signs to famous beaches like Pipa, but they were 30km away. Short of riding on the beach and taking a number of boats, BR-101 is the closest to a coastal road there is. I broke up the day with a 45 minute nap at a petrol station – I’ll definitely miss them when I leave Brazil.
Just before entering my 8th state of Paraíba, a red car pulled over to speak with me and André, his wife, and their son popped out. André asked the normal questions, in English and Portuguese, before he revealed that he too is a cyclist. He, and his friend Edmilson, will be doing a 1000km charity ride across the state in a few months. He told me a little about it, and gave me a brochure that he had with him. I gave him my contact information and hope to meet him when I get to João Pessoa. His wife took some photos, and then we said our goodbyes. I went first, and a few minutes later André drove past with his wife holding a camera out of the window to take more pictures. Further down the road, I saw the same red car parked in the shoulder with both André and his wife out taking pictures, and possibly a video, of me as I rode towards them. They overtook me for one final time just after I crossed into Paraíba, as I think they wanted a picture of me entering the state. I felt like a movie star!
The area is not full of towns, and the first one in Paraíba is that of Mamanguape, about 40km after the border. Having not left until around 10am, it was dark by the time I arrived. The road was quite busy, but everyone seemed to respect the shoulder so there was no danger, other than the multitude of branches that had fallen off trucks that I got to run over on my way to town. On the outskirts of town I saw a Federal police checkpoint, and stopped to ask if they knew a good place to stay. They said that I was free to sleep in the garage that was next door, a good thing as there’d been some light rain and I was happy to have a roof over me in case it decided to rain again. As well as letting me fill my water bottle up, I was permitted to use the shower which was delightful after yet another hot day pedalling in the sun.
The next day I only had 60-70km to get to the house of Roney, my Couchsurfing host, depending on if I took the direct route, or a detour involving a boat, and lighter traffic. My choice hinged on two thing, the amount of wind and whether the road I’d need to take was 10km of dirt or paved. Two of my four GPS maps didn’t feature any road, one said it was dirt and the other said it was a small road. That was a problem for the next day.
Day 3 – Mamanguape to João Pessoa
The hammock setup meant that within 15 minutes of opening my eyes I was eating a breakfast of biscuits and cycling again. The headwind, which had been so annoying on the way to Natal, was so much nicer with it coming from the side. All that riding into the wind meant that the riding once again felt close to effortless – a much more relaxing way to ride.
In the light of the day I could see what all the branches had been the night before, sugar cane. I saw lots of large trucks flying past and sugar cane falling off every now and then, it’s just a wonder that there wasn’t more. The detour came and it ended up being unpaved, but having been up so early it meant I’d have gotten to João Pessoa by 9am without the detour, so I decided to take it anyway. The fun thing was that that unpaved path through cane fields actually seemed to have more traffic than the BR-101. I got splashed by traffic flying through the muddy puddles and my poor bike, that had been so clean in Fortaleza was dirty again.
It led to a small country road, with some short but impressively steep climbs and of course no shoulder meaning that when traffic came past they found it harder to pass me. I stopped for some delicious torta de frango as I’d got a bit sick of eating biscuits, and it powered me to the hourly ferry which of course left 10 minutes before I arrived. I just sat around reading my book until it came, and then crossed the bay to the port at the northern end of João Pessoa and the beginning of the BR-230, the Trans-Amazonica.
Even though there was a bike lane, I took the shoulder, as it was in much better condition. I like when people build bike lanes, but so often they then don’t have any maintenance and so get filled with sand and other debris. I went down an avenue that ran closer to the beach, and then tried riding down the beach. It started out well, but you have to ride right by the water to get the hardest sand which meant my bike – which definitely needs the paint job it’ll get in April – was getting covered in salt water. I rode for a while, but without letting my tyres down a lot the sand was too soft so I pushed and enjoyed the walk towards the city for a while, until I got back to the main road so I could get to my host’s, Roney & Dama, place for lunch!
After getting cleaned up, they had never met a touring cyclist and were nervous I might not want to shower – how wrong they were – we had lunch and then Roney showed me around town. I got to meet a friend who was in town for his birthday and we went to the most famous sightseeing spot in João Pessoa – watching a guy play Boléro by Ravel played on the saxaphone by a guy on his 4800andsomethingth consecutive night. It was too cloudy to see the sun go down, but the performance was delightfully different. I recorded a video of it which you can watch at the end of the post. After most of the other tourists had gone, and the sun had gone down, he came back out and went to a platform in the water to perform Ave Maria, which was good until a large cut out of Nossa Senhora as she’s known here popped up, so cheesy.
In the cashew tree