On a year abroad, you have the opportunity, and are in fact required, to go somewhere exotic, with a name that conjures up visions of beauty and mystery in the heads of those enduring an English winter. The very word ‘Brazil’ for me has always been associated with colours, samba, sun and people that really know how to enjoy themselves. Then I heard the name ‘Bonito’ (meaning ‘beautiful’) and was sold even before I googled the place and was greeted with image upon image of waterfalls, crystal clear rivers, springs and caves. It hasn’t been a walk in the park at times and I wish I could have shared this paradise with more of the people I love, but there have been moments when I’ve been completely at peace and I wanted to try and communicate that feeling with you all. Here goes nothing.
The other week, my day off was heavenly. Although slightly disgruntled at the idea of a 8am start when I get up at 7am every day, I was never going to turn down the opportunity to go back to a spot I’d been lucky enough to visit once before, called the Hotel Fazenda Rio Formoso (it’s up for sale, got a spare million dollars anyone?!). Cramming ten of us into two taxis in true Brazilian style, we got there safe and sound. Picture the scene. Two wooden posts flank the wooden stairs down to a large platform floating on the River Formoso (meaning Beautiful River). Here, the river is far wider and slower moving than it is 20km upstream at the park. It is also flanked by vegetation that has clearly never been touched, trees in every shade of green imaginable stretching up towards the blue sky, that are tangled together by vines and creepers that trail down to the surface of the river. A slightly questionable looking zipline crosses the river and a huge inflatable boat nestles under a tree by the platform, waiting to be taken discovering. With hardly any current rowing upriver is extremely leisurely, and you soon round a corner and see the most stunning waterfall through the supports of a picturesque wooden bridge. Rowing harder, you can get the boat to the other side of the waterfall where a trickle of water falls between the rocks and a very conveniently placed tree trunk for clambering up and jumping into the deep water below.
On this visit, we were accompanied by our very own action man, a good friend of mine who is a professional scuba diver and afraid of nothing. He was soon climbing up the side of the main waterfall, whilst we watched perched on the rocks below enjoying a massage. Deciding there were no rocks, he jumped and emerged unscathed from the churning white water below remarking that the water did pull you down, but it was absolutely fine to jump, ‘tranquilo’ as they say in Brazil.
Never being one to say no to a challenge, I was the first up there after him, but decided a life jacket was probably a safe bet. Unfortunately I jumped a little too close and was sent straight down by the water. I came up with my arms flailing but my life jacket was no match for the force of the water and down I went again. Looking around and only seeing a turquoise-green, I had no idea which way was up, forwards or backwards. Despite having worked with waterfalls for 7 months and knowing perfectly well that you just have to let the water take you down and spit you out, my mind went completely blank and I completely disregarded the information I stress to the tourists doing boia cross on a daily basis, that there is no need to ‘entrar em panico’. Luckily next time I came up I was only a metre from the boat and was able to struggle my way out, white as a sheet. Of course my near-drowning didn’t put the guys off and they proceeded to throw themselves in multiple times, one of them being well and truly caught by the waterfall and reappearing a good four times only to disappear again, before finally getting out of there. We’ve definitely all got a screw loose, but hey, what’s life without a few encounters with death?
We manoeuvred the boat around to the other side of the waterfall and our explorer discovered there was a tiny cave under the waterfall, about 3m long, 1m wide and 1 ½ m tall. We all clambered out of the boat and into the cave, squeezing all 10 of us in. Drops of water fell on you from the roof and the sound of the waterfall was so powerful you could just about hear what the person next to you said, but your only communication with the person 2m away was a huge smile, communicating just how awesome the whole thing was. The way out was deemed to be directly through the wall of water, which from the inside looked practically impenetrable, but one by one we dived through the curtain and all emerged unscathed with only a few scraped knees. I abdicated my position as rower for the journey back, feeling rather shaky after my brush with Mother Nature and needing a bit of restorative sun.
After sandwiches on the deck, we all piled back in the boat and headed downstream. Before long we came to a much smaller waterfall, and decided it was feasible to go down it in the boat, so leaving anything loose on the bank we took it head on. It wasn’t exactly an adrenaline rush, with a metre high waterfall and a huge and extremely stable blow up boat, but it was brilliant fun. So what did we do? Clambered out, hauled the boat back up on land and did it all again, this time being joined by Estefania who, very sensibly after the events of the last waterfall, had let us be the guinea pigs and, seeing we hadn’t all drowned, decided she could safely join us in the boat.
We went on a little way down the river with our ears cocked for the sound of another waterfall, but were only answered by the cries of the birds and so went back for a clamber around on the waterfall, not being satisfied until we had climbed up, jumped, scraped or fallen down every inch of it. Being a bit nervous still, I confined myself to clambering around rather than jumping, and floating in the current chatting to my lovely companions, AIESEC exchangers and friends (representing Brasil, Colombia, Uruguay, Spain and Holland) about how despite the issues we have all had with our internships, Bonito really isn’t too bad. Now a die-hard tubing professional, I was extremely frustrated not to have a ‘boia’ to hand to play around on some of the natural slides that were just crying out to be descended.
The sun was hiding for most of the day, but somehow the shade of the clouds here never resembles the slate grey, that makes some English days oh so depressing. It was more of a bright white and just made you feel all the more like that taste of paradise was just for us. The river looked jade green rather than having its usual crystal clarity under the blue Brazilian sky. The air was filled with shouts, laughs and screams, with everyone enjoying one another’s company and appreciating the luxury of being in such a place, just us.
Finally making our way back to the deck, we spread ourselves out in the sun, which had finally deigned to emerge but was quickly abandoning the deck in favour of the far side of the river. Two of the guys, both Spaniards, struck up a few tunes on their guitar and it didn’t take me long to get over there and ask what they had in their repertoire in the English language, not being willing to take on anything more exotic given the quantity of both Spanish and Portuguese native speakers I was surrounded with. Time slipped through my hands whilst I sung my heart out to ‘Hotel California’, and before long our slightly sulky taxi driver had turned up to tear us away from the tranquillity.
I would like to point out the hilarity of my tan lines in the photo above before anyone else does!
I had planned to spend this day doing my Year Abroad Research Project (YARP), the deadlines for which are looming at an alarming pace, but it would have been a crime to say no. Perhaps my professors will read this and highly disapprove, but I completely and utterly believe that in later life I will regret not having swum in every waterfall I possibly could have more than not doing amazingly on my YARP. It will get done and it will be half decent because it has to be, but it is never going to be incredible because, really, as much as this year is meant to have an academic element, the social and cultural elements are infinitely more important. I am never going to say no to a night out or a day trip because of my YARP, because as far as I am concerned I am here to learn Portuguese and to grow as a person, and I can do both of those things far more effectively in a bar with the aid of a caipirinha or under a waterfall than in front of my laptop. I refuse to regret a single moment.