‘What have we done to de­serve this life?’

The Buffalo News - - TRAVEL -

gree seas, is a big part of the ap­peal here: While kitesurf­ing has ex­ploded in north­east Brazil, the ac­tion is cen­tered in once-sleepy fish­ing vil­lages be­tween For­taleza and Jeri­coa­coara and few vis­i­tors make it to the re­mote delta, where the 1,056-mile Par­naiba dis­solves in a jig­saw of jun­gle islets, shift­ing sand­bars and wind-scal­loped dunes.

Our out­fit­ter, Surfin Sem Fin (Por­tuguese for surf­ing with­out end), runs nu­mer­ous trips through­out the re­gion dur­ing its July-to-De­cem­ber windy sea­son.

I was drawn here after be­com­ing en­am­ored of kit­ing down­wind in waves – a dis­ci­pline that en­tails steer­ing the kite to main­tain power while surf­ing. When ev­ery­thing aligns, this is an in­cred­i­ble rush like hav­ing a mo­tor on a surf­board to out­run white wa­ter, crank through turns and trans­form mushy, dis­or­ga­nized surf into an aquatic play­ground.

I also saw this as an achiev­able chal­lenge and a chance to im­prove my skills un­der the tute­lage of our guides, for­mer world wave-kit­ing cham­pion Guilly Bran­dao and An­dreas Lagopou­los, a Cana­dian ex­pat who runs kitesurf­ing camps from his home in Cabarete, Do­mini­can Repub­lic.

Now it’s Day 1 and “achiev­able” is in doubt. The morn­ing had started in­nocu­ously, with a pool­side break­fast at the charm­ing Ho­tel San An­to­nio in Par­naiba, a colo­nial city about 10 miles from the coast.

We had amassed there the prior night, an eclec­tic pod of white-col­lar adrenaline seek­ers: my buddy An­drew, an anes­the­si­ol­o­gist from Ok­la­homa City, Oka.; Lula, who owns a sail­ing school in Rio de Janeiro; his child­hood friend An­dre, a food pro­cess­ing ex­ec­u­tive and, at 59, the old­est among us; Ri­cardo, who runs Coca-Cola’s bot­tling op­er­a­tions in north­east Brazil and bears an un­canny re­sem­blance to the Dos Equis “most in­ter­est­ing man in the world”; his friend Chris, the youngest mem­ber of the group at 45, re­tired after sell­ing his steel com­pany to the coun­try’s gov­ern­ment; and Emily, a San Fran­cisco lawyer and the only one among us who had done this trip be­fore.

“Now we go to a very re­mote part of Brazil, even for us,” Chris tells me as we load kites, boards and lug­gage into two late-model Toy­ota pick­ups in the warm morn­ing sun. He’s a kind of Zen Tony Stark, a for­mer Porsche racer and paraglider who heli-skis in Alaska, med­i­tates daily and wears a near-per­ma­nent smile.

We drive a half-hour past tile-roofed houses and patchy for­est to Pe­dra do Sal, a beach at the eastern edge of the 1,211-square-mile Delta do Par­naiba En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Area. As we un­load next to a small thatch bar – the last ocean­front busi­ness we’ll see for five days – a 25-knot wind whips up a con­cus­sive shore break, along with my anx­i­ety: After an in­jury, I’ve kited only four days over the past six months and all in far friend­lier con­di­tions. The plan is to ride for an hour here and then spend the next three to four hours surf­ing 15 miles down­wind, across the river and to our next lodge.

As we pump up kites on the hot sand, I re­al­ize how pe­cu­liar we must look to any­one who’s never wit­nessed this spec­ta­cle be­fore – nine peo­ple in surf shorts, sun shirts, brimmed hats and strap-on shades, wear­ing child-size hy­dra­tion back­packs while in­flat­ing huge arcs of brightly hued ny­lon.

I have trou­ble from the out­set, fight­ing the wind and waves, crash­ing and rip­ping a $1,000 (!) loaner kite. And, once we start down­wind, I find my­self trapped in­side the break and re­lent­lessly beaten into shore. An­dreas, the des­ig­nated last man back, pa­tiently coaxes me along and, even­tu­ally, ad­justs my kite lines to quicken the steer­ing, al­low­ing me to – fi­nally – zip down­wind.

When we reach the river, though, he hangs back to help Ri­cardo, who is also strug­gling, and di­rects me to hus­tle.

As I do, it’s hard not to dwell on sto­ries like the one about the guy who spent the night at sea off Jeri­coa­coara in 2017 after a kite mal­func­tion and re­counted cling­ing to his kite canopy through the lonely, dark hours while roach­like sea bugs skit­tered all over him.

I emerge from the whiteknuckle cross­ing hap­pier than a hob­bit es­cap­ing Mor­dor. The waves, although still big, are march­ing uni­formly to­ward the beach. In the dim­ming light, I see tiny fig­ures around a fish­er­man’s hut.

“You are a war­rior!” Guilly shouts as I stag­ger onto land in the near dark­ness. Some­one spots An­dreas and Ri­cardo, and we load gear onto two wait­ing all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles that spirit us over a quar­ter mile of Sa­hara-like dunes and up a hill to our base for the next three nights.

Sun­day morn­ing re­veals fra­grant trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion that tum­bles to rain-fed lagoons dot­ted with shore­birds and egrets. To the north, the white hy­phen of the dune line, and the ocean be­yond.

After break­fast, An­dreas, Ri­cardo and I take an ATV down to the beach where a play­ful breeze rip­ples over a sea of trop­i­cal green as it laps harm­lessly at the sand, which is im­mensely wide at low tide. “Where was this yes­ter­day?” Ri­cardo mut­ters.

We spend the next hour on shore, kites aloft and not an­other per­son in sight, with An­dreas di­rect­ing ad­just­ments in our tech­nique that, he prays, will help us keep pace for the rest of the week.

After lunch, we load into a 10-by-18-foot trailer, pulled by an or­ange Massey Fer­gu­son trac­tor, for a short ride down a sand path to a dock, where we trans­fer our col­or­ful cir­cus to a pair of small power­boats and fol­low a snaking trib­u­tary to the Par­naiba. We emerge from shel­ter of the man­groves into the force­ful cur­rent, smack­ing over swells to­ward the ocean.

After beach­ing on a cane­shaped sand­bar sep­a­rat­ing river from sea, we in­flate our kites and fol­low Guilly up the wide, milky blue river, com­ing ashore on a muddy bank next to Pou­sada Casa de Cabo­clo, one of a hand­ful of river­side bars and lodges pop­u­lar with eco­tourists and, in­creas­ingly, kiters seek­ing af­ford­able ac­cess to the delta.

In the pur­pled dusk our boat driver, Bao, a stocky delta lifer who looks hewed from the mud, steers us across the Par­naiba and into the labyrinthine chan­nels of the man­grove, where he uses a hand­held spot­light to scan for wildlife.

After some false alarms he cuts the en­gine, clutches a buck knife be­tween his teeth (for de­fense only) and slides off the boat, creep­ing through chest-deep wa­ter to­ward the flooded for­est. There’s a splash as his hands hit the wa­ter and he re­turns cradling a small be­wil­dered caiman.

I’m not a fan of wildlife ha­rass­ment, but if tours like this help lo­cals see the value in show­ing off live – vs. dead – an­i­mals, well, maybe that’s okay. A few pho­tos later the rep­tile is re­leased, seem­ingly un­harmed.

Mon­day is stolen from a dream. After seven miles of surf­ing we gather on the beach and, keep­ing our kites high in the sky, walk 500 yards through a gap in the dunes to the Rio Fei­jao Bravo, which cour­ses be­tween a for­est and the de­sert­like dunescape. For the first time this week I ride with un­bri­dled con­fi­dence, lay­ing down but­tery s-turns like a skier on an end­less pow­der run. Six miles later, where a caramel moun­tain of sand marks the con­flu­ence of river and sea, we haul out and de­flate our kites for load­ing into two wait­ing boats. Chris opens his arms to the sky, laugh­ing: “What have we done to de­serve this life?”

In­deed. Maybe it’s my age (a spry 52) but I find this guided jour­ney lib­er­at­ing. Sure, we’re sched­ule-bound and catch only fleet­ing glimpses of lo­cal cul­ture, but ev­ery de­tail is seen to, from meals, ho­tels and boat rides to the sand­wiches, Ga­torade and bot­tom­less bags of lo­cal cashews await­ing us at ev­ery pickup.

The rest of the week washes by – a night in the town of Tu­toia and, after an­other 35-mile down­wind run, two nights in the lux­u­ri­ous woodand-thatch bun­ga­lows of Villa Guara, where the sand streets of Atins yield to the ocean. We kite through coves dot­ted with wooden boats and, more than once, beach on parcels straight out of the Star Wars movies – pan­cake ex­panses, glazed with blow­ing sand and sun-bleached huts, miss­ing only the stormtroop­ers.

Our fi­nal day ends at the big­gest dunes we’ve seen. As two safari trucks rally us over the silken acreage I re­al­ize where we are – Len­cois Maran­henses Na­tional Park, at 598 square miles the largest dune field in South Amer­ica. Many of the rain-fed lagoons here have dried up but a few re­main, and the land­scape re­sem­bles a Dali ren­der­ing of a gi­ant waf­fle.

In the warm balm of late af­ter­noon we race about child­like, rolling down slopes into a la­goon, howl­ing and laugh­ing. I leave the group to run down one dune then up an­other, just a speck on a rip­ple of golden sand, grasp­ing a mo­ment be­fore it blows away in the wind.

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