It has been over a month since my three-week trip around Brazil began, but the cool ocean breezes are ever present in my mind. The journey began in Olinda, a small colonial coastal town in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. Once a stronghold of the sugarcane industry and the state’s capital, Olinda has seen its glory days come and go, but the charm remains in brightly colored buildings and churches reborn after a ruthless looting by the Dutch.
As perhaps is to be expected in a Roman Catholic country, there are churches around just about even bend in Olinda, including 20 Baroque styles chapels mostly dating from the 18th century. The historic center of this quaint hilly town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, one of just 13 cultural sites across the entire country. I loved wandering into a few of these houses of worship with their beautiful, delicately painted blue tiles. The chapels were scattered among the broken cobblestone streets where I caught glimpses of the ocean shimmering just beyond the palm trees.
Perhaps even better than these picturesque views was an accidental encounter with several dance troupes of caboclinhos who perform the traditional indigenous dance that portrays three key aspects of that culture: hunts, harvests and battles. Caboclinho means “little caboclo” which is entirely unhelpful unless you understand the origin of caboclo. This was the Portuguese term given to the offspring of natives and blacks in Brazil. It is worth nothing that the Portuguese and Brazilians historically had a different view of racial intermixing than the United States. The intermixing was in some ways encouraged here in Brazil centuries ago, and though I can’t pretend to understand all of the nuances on the subject, I can say that this term caboclinho is not meant to be a racial slur. These days it refers to the dancers themselves who perform this traditional display, which includes the characters of a chief and the tribal mother (or female chief), shamans and their warriors. The instruments are nothing like what you would find in a high school band. Instead of clarinets and french horns, these kids learn to play bamboo pipes and maracas shaped like war clubs to decidedly un-Western tunes. And then they dance. I don’t mean awkward prom school dances or even the ballet numbers I tried to do as a kid. I mean whole body movement faster than you can blink. Feet shuffle and arms wave in a maniacally beautiful fashion. Add to this the sparkles and feathers and headdresses the size of a mattress and you have a festival. In fact, you have the northeast's answer to Rio's Carnaval. Needless to say, Brazil continues to surprise and delight.