Wheelbarrow Island

Where the Wheels Have No Name
by Bob Maysmor

Tripping on Brazil’s Bahia coast, and taking time out on the island haven of Morro de Sao Paulo.

My taxi speeds through the early-morning empty streets of Valencia, tyres screeching on the cobble stones as if in a thriller movie car chase. We arrive at the wharf and I am smuggled onto a boat where a stubble-chinned man collects a fee from each of the passengers before casting off and chugging out into the middle of the river. The slow throb of the engine is all that disturbs the otherwise sleeping town.

The boatman is a renegade, stealing passengers from the regular ferry that leaves an hour later. The boat glides over the tranquil inlet for nearly two hours, as the sky slowly turns pink. Flights of birds pass overhead as the sun rises through heavy cloud. Lights twinkle far across the water. Is it Morro I wonder? But no, the boatman says it is Gamboa.

The boat arrives at the deserted jetty of Morro de Sao Paulo at 6am. From under the seventeenth century stone archway, I puff and pant my way up the steep ramp that leads to the nearly deserted town. Passing across the golden crescent of the first beach, I attract two young touts eager to clinch my accommodation for their likely commission. In my fragmented Portuguese I tell them to go away. Inevitably my garbled suggestion is ignored. The rooms I look at are small and gloomy, then finally I find a cheerful hotel where the nearby beach is sandy and the sparkling water inviting.

On this idyllic island where the only vehicle is a battery powered golf buggy used by the police on the beaches, the mode of transportation is the humble wheelbarrow. Dark skinned boys in colourful t-shirts pushing wheelbarrows with bright plastic trays wander the island and meet incoming boats at the wharf. These local ‘taxis’, registered by the island authority, wheel their loads of guests’ bags and goods to the hotels and guesthouses, charging around NZ$10 for the trek to the most distant accommodation.They can be seen every day delivering loads of firewood to pizza ovens, salad food to restaurants, carrying crates of beer from boats to bars, plastic wrapped packs of aqua mineral to the stores or just giving joy rides to laughing dusky-coloured children.

One day at low tide I walk around the coast to Gamboa, past high colourful cliffs that are oozing with red mud. On the lower slopes of the cliffs people are caking their bodies with the glistening clay. I wander on along the sandy beach towards the village, past a boat laden with plastic crates of beer being unloaded by huge chocolate-coloured men onto a tractor towed trailer. In the village a delightful façade of a quaint blue-washed church is spoilt by a tangle of overhead power lines that droop across its face. Small cottages edge the deeply rutted sandy street that is shaded by a line of spreading trees. There is no sign of bustle, and certainly none of the tourist-generated wealth of nearby Morro.

Retracing my footsteps in the sand, most of which have been washed by the incoming tide, I return to Morro to climb to the farol, the lighthouse high on the bluff that towers over the first beach. From a crude platform a flying fox cable leaps down to the water below, providing an adrenalin rush for any thrill-seeker willing to take it on. In the evening I watch young people clad in loose white cotton garments demonstrate capoeira, a martial art developed by African slaves centuries before. Participants avoid touching their opponent, leading to some fancy high kicking and twirling manoeuvres, almost balletic in style with their lithe and graceful movements. Musicians pound African rhythms on small drums as they sing, while bystanders clap to the beat. The rhythms are reminiscent of the music of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, where many of the local people can trace their ancestors to.

As the sun sinks, the umbrellas, tables and chairs that have covered the beach during the day are cleared away for informal netball courts to take their place. Further up the beach, colourful and elaborate displays of tropical fruit are set up on the temporary cocktail bars. Along the boardwalk that leads across the head of the beach, restaurants and bars are getting ready for the onslaught of partygoers. The smell of charcoal embers wafts across from a barbeque stall. Bands are setting up their equipment as candles are lit and waiters accost passers-by with open menu cards. The exotic sound of drums pounding the night air ensures no chance for guests at the nearby pousadas to grab an early night.

Next morning the sun casts long shadows as I watch the taxis being loaded near the wharf. I see an overloaded barrow split in half, its goods falling to the ground much to the consternation of its young owner. I shrug and spread my hands. The boy raises his eyebrows and smiles back as if to say ‘It’s not my day’. Later, as the crowds of beautiful people sun their bodies on the beach, the boys use the hard tidal sand as a pathway, weaving their heavy barrows through the mass of bronzed flesh.

As I prepare to leave the island, wheelbarrow bandits, not licensed or registered, wait hopefully outside the hotel, eager to catch an unsuspecting visitor. Down at the water’s edge, the night fishermen are loading their catch into barrows on the tidal flats. Leaving the hotel, I am passed by a convoy of barrows loaded with crates of empty beer bottles being wheeled to the beer store, meanwhile down on the beach two young men are practising a wheelbarrow ballet as they bounce and spin their charges into the air keeping them airborne as they roll somersaults in the sand.

I am reluctant to depart this idyllic island, with its watchful lighthouse, supple capoeira dancers and lively bands that encapsulate the very soul of the Bahia culture. As I speed away on a fast boat that ploughs broadside through the surging swell across the bay to Salvador, my mind is saturated with glimpses of the rich experience the island has offered – the friendly people, the vibrant music and spicy culinary delights, wheelbarrows galore – everything that tells me one day I will return.

FACTS:

Getting there: catamarans and speed boats sail between Salvador and Morro (two hours) and from the south, hourly ferries travel upriver from Valencia. There are also three daily flights between Salvador and Morro: contact Aerostar Air Taxi www.aerostar.com.br

Accommodation: From small family pousadas (guest houses) to the classy Pousada Natureza, www.hotelnatureza.com, there is a wide range of accommodation available.

Currency: one Brazilian Real is about NZ$0.80. There are no banks on the island, but many hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards.

Language: Portuguese, with staff in some hotels, restaurants and shops speaking English.

Visa requirements: check with your travel agent.