Bleary eyed, I stumbled out of the bedroom and into the courtyard, only to be met by an eruption of fervent laughter. I turned around, momentarily blinded by the sunlight, but managed to catch a glimpse of the entire family, smiling up at me.
When I speak of the entire family, I am by no means exaggerating. It’s Sunday, a family day in Brazil, and I am surrounded by every relation you can imagine: mother, father, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
“Bom día,” I offer nervously, slightly bemused. I hadn’t been expecting such an audience. Everyone cheers however, and just like that, I too am part of the family.
A few hours later we are in the car, and it’s exactly the kind of easy-living I’d always imagined. The windows are rolled down and the stereo is blaring Jack Johnson, the perfect accompaniment to 28 degrees Celsius en route to the beach. After all, there is no better Carioca Sunday than an afternoon spent drenched in salt water and crusted in sand.
But this beach is different. It’s not Copacabana or Ipanema, the notorious crown jewels of Rio de Janeiro. Instead, this beach lies beyond Barra, a winding 20 minute ride that curls around a hill. Giant leaves engulf the landscape, 50 shades of green and overgrown.
Eventually we reach the top of the cliff, and the sign reads, “Praia da Joatinga.” It is the type of beach occasionally featured in film or minimalist print, but it is by no means pristine. This is not the Caribbean or Mediterranean.
This beach is a little wild, or, in Portuguese, “selvagem,” which I feel captures the essence somewhat better. Like all good things in life (or so I am told), access to Joatinga is not easy. From the clifftop where we park and then perch, it beckons, teasing with its teal and turquoise waters.
We make our way down the cliff, through the tropical growth that lines our path and I steal glances of “leite waves,” — milk waves as I like to call them. Sugary white, they froth over the sand, breaking with visceral energy. We continue our trek down, descending step by step. The jungle tickles our elbows and knees as it begins to envelop us, lush and unrestrained. Eventually we make it to the foot of the cliff and pause, having reached the rocks.
Slowly, we begin to climb, and we crawl with baited breath. Flip flops slip, nails grasp at the moss-covered expanse. We lend each other hands and guidance: “Over here!” “No, not that part!” “Don’t fall, because we’re close.” An arm’s length, a steady foothold. Limbs stretched, slinking across the crevices. Don’t fall, because we’re close.
And so we make it over. Over the rocks and into the cove, a secluded private beach. It is not perfect at all, but it is breathtaking. ‘Selvagem.’ Wild. And Joatinga is all the better for it.
I suppose this is a story about exploration, though, quite frankly, it stopped being a story. Instead, it became my life. Some 52 hours before, I had been in London, sitting in an airport, wondering what the hell I had just done. But as I sat down in that cove on Joatinga, I pondered a little about what it means to explore. On this day, it was taking the road never taken and climbing the rocks. It was finding that cove ensconced and realizing that I might actually like it.
As the air began to cool and the afternoon wound down around us, I took a moment to look out at the horizon, soaking in the foam of the leite waves. The water isn’t clear, exactly, but it is spectacular. The currents ripple a deep majestic blue, enchanting.
So for now, I’ll dive in, despite the murkiness. It begins with Joatinga, but this exploration trickles and trickles until it seeps into the fissures of life, a kind of selvagem of its own.