b o i p e b a

[ 00:05 friday 6 january – ilhã da boipeba ]

lying on the sand watching the star-filled sky with the incessant atlantic surf for company. tonight there are a lot of meteorites. on the north-eastern horizon it’s possible to see the glow from salvador 120 kilometres away. to the northwest there’s a smaller glow from the bars and clubs of morro saõ paolo 15 kilometres hence. from this island, boipeba, no light is visible.

we arrived here on new year’s day. first a two-hour boat trip from salvador to morro saõ paolo. then a protracted negotiation to obtain a four-wheel-drive vehicle and an expert driver for the forty-five minute journey over loose sand and scrub to reach the southernmost tip of the island. when we reached the water’s edge the driver stopped and flashed his headlamps for ten minutes, which is how long it took for one of boipeba’s boatmen to notice and putter over to collect us.

it was worth the effort. the island’s about seven kilometres by four kilometres, covered alternately with palm forest and scrub. there are 1,200 inhabitants split between three settlements and a similar number of tourists in high season, which is now. there are no cars or metalled roads. horses and mules are the main forms of transport, supplemented by wide-beamed wooden boats and a couple of tractors. to its west and north boipeba is separated from neighbouring islands and the mainland by tidal rivers and sand-banks. the east and south coasts face the atlantic ocean.

boipeba is at a tantalising stage of development. the environment and the structure of the community are largely intact, but tourism is growing steadily and has probably already passed the point where it is the island’s dominant economic force. several ambitious traders on the island already exhibit the polished impersonality that comes with a fully-developed tourist economy, but they’re still rare. the place i’m experiencing now is unlikely to exist five years from now. being here has a slightly bittersweet edge to it, a sense that i am witnessing something beautiful that will soon disappear.

new year in salvador was a hoot. it’s probably the largest crowd i’ve ever been in. the newspapers reported there were a million people but i think it might have been half that. a huge stage and sound system had been set up in front of the lighthouse at barra with revellers massed on the surrounding dunes. i didn’t see more than three or four tourists. vendors pushed their way through the crowd with polystyrene boxes of barely-chilled beer. one glazed-eyed smiling rastafarian passed by with a petrol canister on his head offering some kind of deadly home-brewed hooch. i wasn’t inclined to try it.

the music was stupendously bad considering bahia is among the world’s richest music cultures. apparently the succession of plasticky electro-calypso bands with their pudgy dancers were all very famous, but to me they seemed entirely talentless. in any case the crowd around us was noticeably more excited by the scuffles which broke out every few minutes. in each case a pocket opened instantly around the combatants, pushing people back in a fast-moving wave. a contingent of truncheon-wielding riot police would then shove their way through the crowd and drag the protagonists off. it felt like we were having an authentic experience of the city.

at midnight fireworks erupted from two barges in the sea and the air was filled with the spray of what people described as champagne but actually turned out to be cheap cider, leaving a correspondingly sticky residue on everything. the next ten minutes was a rampage of embracing random people and shouting “feliz ano!”. i suspect a large number of wallets and mobile phones went mysteriously astray around this time.

: c :

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