Swimming with Piranhas
Entremontes and Piranhas - Rio São Francisco
State of Alagoas in Northeast Brasil
View down the São Francisco
I was enjoying the visit to my brother-in-law's farm in the Sertão and mildly objected to his generous plans to move on to another place. It seemed a lot of trouble for him and the farm was really pleasant. We had just had a misting that settled the dust of a long dry season and even bringing sudden waves of green. The morning was almost chilly. The food was great. It seemed almost a shame to get in the car and head out on the dirt roads again.
We got on the road and it quickly vanished. At one point the vague track we were on became nothing more than bare rock until we hit the road into the little river town of Entremontes. The site and name had been explained as "between mountains," though the mountains were hills along the gorge of the great Rio São Francisco of Northeast Brasil. We were headed for the retreat of a doctor friend.
The Road to Entremontes
At Entremontes there is an unusual break in the rim and a small town lies along the river
Rio São Francisco had been tamed by a huge dam that provided the entire Northeast with 220 volt household current. Down in the South they have 110 volts, but Paulo Alfonso provided the zapping 220 that had shocked several members of my wife's family badly. It could sometimes be felt in the shower water that was heated by 220 volt wire coils in the showerhead, giving a new meaning to "tingly" clean. It also made gift shopping a bit difficult. No electric items sold in the U.S. worked without a transformer.
The Sertão is a high, dry inland area covering much of the Northeast. At the São Francisco below the falls at Paulo Alfonso it drops to a range of hills and bluffs that then descend steeply, at places a real gorge, to the river itself. The river was once an important commercial path into the interior. Behind the dam there are still steamers that go far inland. On the lower river the characteristic craft is a long canoe like vessel. The bow of one is seen in the background image to this page and the top photo is from one.
The town itself was not impressive. The streets were sandy. The buildings' bright paint was peeling. Almost nobody was in sight. I was already hearing complaints from my sister-in-law that the bread in town wasn't even baked daily and might be a day or more old. That was a terrible fate. Brasilian bread was great, in huge variety (it is now getting less varied and the hard crust I loved is hard to find) and something I looked forward to in the morning. Two day old bread was a disaster. It turned out to be only slightly off the usual hours fresh quality.
Once through town, a whole minute or so, we came to big gates and entered a different world. The house was surrounded by trees that I later found were irrigated by pumps down on the river. The drive was lined with mangos and just beyond was the drop to the river.
There appeared to be an older original front house with a large new addition in back with four bedrooms off a huge sitting room. In that room a central post provided attachment from which a dozen or so hammocks could be hung to the walls for more guests. Huge planters provided homes for ornamental plants and the huge toads that intrigued the kids throughout the stay.
After a short look at the place I was asked to help pick dinner. In a large chest freezer were monster fish. They were headless so I can only describe the body. It was about eighteen to twenty inches from spine to belly, longer than my arm from beheading cut to tail and probably seven inches thick. There were large scales of jet black with gold trimming on the tailing edges. They looked like huge bass and the color scheme was very impressive. They were caught on the river at the house. The proposed dish was to be thick slices from a large roast sized chunk of the same type fish. They were excellent eating whatever they were.
There was no television reception, though there was a tall mast. I tested my little radio with little success. We were too far back and down to get clear reception from the coast so got nothing except static and broken bits and pieces. The isolation from the world of the Cold War (at a particularly nasty stage) seemed near total. I had a feeling the world could explode and we might not know. Despite having been on some pretty remote Pacific islands I thought of this place as the closest to a Shangri La I was likely to come. There was something about being deep down in that valley with even the stars just a piece of the sky. For several years, when the Cold War showed signs of heating, I'd think of sending the family to this place. Many years later I'd still think of it whenever I thought "refuge."
The large room was fronted by a long porch with hammocks and a few chairs. We lay in hammocks or sat visiting with the caretakers as we watched the sun set and the last fishing boats come ashore. In the deepening dusk lights begin to appear on the top across the river in the state of Sergipe. We watched the lights move down for nearly an hour. There were several streams of them and several groupings of three to five in each stream. Apparently there was a huge ranch directly across the river. The lights were lanterns carried by people from a ranch settlement on the opposite shore who came down to fish along the banks at night.
The next morning we took a closer look at the river itself. The house sat well above with stairs leading down to the sand that was covered at high water. Now that beach held gasoline powered pumps to bring water up to the trees and other plants on the opposite side of the house.
We later found, among those trees, a stable with two horses that looked like thoroughbreds -- not the usual ponies of the local ranches. The pumps provided irrigation several times a week for some of the best fruit trees I've ever seen. Certainly some of the largest papaya I'd seen were back there as seen in the photo below. These things were larger than a person's head and still not ripe. The ones that were had flavor to match the size. As much as I like them for breakfast, half was too much.
Papaya - full size but not yet ripe
Boats, the big canoes, pulled up on the shore below the house.
The smaller are fishermen. The larger are commercial boats carrying cargo and passengers.
One was waiting to take us up river to a town named Piranhas, a rail head for a line built by the British during the Imperial days. A spired monument, overlooking the town, commemorated a visit by the Emperor, Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Portugal and Brasil.
Piranhas and Monument
The town was considerably larger than Entremontes, but there seemed to be little life. It was almost deserted as we toured the historic buildings including the terminal for the line built by the British rail company.
Later we went a bit down river from the house where a stream exited a steep canyon and entered the river. The kids spent an hour or so sort of swimming from the little beach. My brother-in-law, Jayme, had used the threat of piranhas to keep them in close sight as there really were some tricky currents. I'm not sure they believed him about the piranhas, but there wasn't a lot of roaming.
During that evening, watching those little twinkling lights come down, the caretaker had joined us on the verandah to tell stories of Lampião the bandit that had terrorized the Northeast in the period of 1922-1938. He and his gang had committed many atrocities, been caught and the gang's heads had made the grand tour of the cities. This is an event remembered by many in the Northeast who were alive when his gang was active or who saw the heads that were displayed for some 30 years after his death. They were among the favorite stories of the aged aunt back at the family home and among her favorites to tell the children. (Click here for a nicely done site entirely in Portuguese. Note the rather scholarly and kindly face of this actually very vicious individual.)
One of the stories of this character, now a firm part of folklore as a sort of Jesse James, Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde and even Attila the Hun, involved an escape across the river not far from where we were staying. The story went that he had slashed one of his horses to attract piranhas so that the pursuit ran into the feeding frenzy and was eaten to a man and horse. The caretaker told this story out on the verandah as the lights began reaching the river and the stars were blazing above.
I think it was my son that put the story, the name of the town up river and Jayme's swim warning together and asked if there really were piranhas in the river. "Yes, there are." There was a dead silence and you could almost see the little chills. We had to explain that people swim with them all the time and that the dangerous species tend to be so only in certain situations. At least for the kids, I think swimming with the piranhas was perhaps the memorable item for a really mystical place.
The person who arranged this and so many other enjoyable ventures was known to my kids then and now as a sort of magician. He was also probably the best doctor any of us ever had. At some point all of us went on visits with lingering illnesses our U.S. Doctors were still not curing. He was an excellent diagnostician and usually had the solution in days. In June 2001 he was killed in a collision while on his way to a rural clinic far away from his home in Maceio. We all miss him in many ways. Hundreds of the rural poor that he helped will miss him in more material ways.
Kids, watched over by Jayme, "swimming with piranhas"
See Sertão for my page on this region.