In the past two blog posts, I’ve focused on trips to Brazilian pousadas owned by people who abandoned conventional lives for the lure of setting up shop in a secluded patch of paradise. This third (and final) post in this “series” centers on a woman who has not only transformed her life, but is also transforming those of the Alagoas community in which she and her husband have set down roots.
The melancholy that my mother and I experienced at leaving Pousada do Toque – see Escape to Toque (Alagoas) – was quickly dispelled by our arrival at Pousada Côté Sud, located 3km north of Praia do Toque, on the edge of a little fishing village called Porto da Rua.
Côté Sud’s dozen rustic bungalows are scattered around a sizable beachfront chunk of land that combines an abandoned coconut plantation with a native mangrove swamp. It was purchased by Corinne and Roger, a couple of Belgian shoemakers with three children (currently young adults). Ten years ago, they decided to radically change their lives (and stop making shoes) and move to Brazil. Arriving in Bahia, they were transfixed by the Northeast.
They purchased a car and spent two months driving up the coast, investigating every piece of potential beachfront property between Salvador and Fortaleza (a distance of 1,400km!) until they hit upon this little bit of paradise in São Miguel dos Milagres.Corinne literally helped put São Miguel dos Milagres on the map by forcing the government of Alagoas to recognize (and market) the area under the designation Rota Ecológica. Instead of flaking out on the beach, my mother and I spent the entire afternoon chatting away in French with the very charismatic Corinne. She offered us espresso and home-made miniature pastéis (turnovers) stuffed with beef and raisins, shrimp, and buffalo cheese (more about that later), and served with a spicy tamarind dipping sauce. For hours, she recounted fascinating tales about her life and times in São Miguel dos Milagres.
Corinne and Nilo (of Pousada do Toque) were pioneering pousada owners in the region and are partners in preserving/developing its nature and communities in a sustainable fashion. Corinne literally helped put São Miguel dos Milagres on the map by forcing the government of Alagoas to recognize (and market) the area under the designation Rota Ecológica.
She was also involved in the fight to get federal government protection of the offshore reefs. Sadly, there is not enough staff to monitor the fishermen who pour Javex bleach onto the coral in order to coax (and kill) octopuses out of their homes or to crack down on the offshore ships that illegally scoop up lobsters of all sizes (including inedible toddlers and adolescents), making crustaceans into a rarity and disrupting the livelihoods of local fisherman.
Corinne has had better luck in getting municipal authorities to protect the beach from predators such as wealthy megalomaniacs from Maceió who love to drag race their super-duper, bullet-proof SUVs up and down the otherwise tranquil beaches. In doing so, they have helped to decimate the coast’s once important population of sea tortoises (who lay their eggs on the beach).
A major challenge is getting São Miguel dos Milagres’ police force of 1 to track down bigwig perps and serve them with fines. Originally, Corinne, Nilo, and other pousada owners took turns picking up the lone cop at his station, carpooling him to the beach on weekends, and subsidizing his lunch of fish, beans, rice, and a bottle of fizzy Guaraná (national soft drink made from an energy-giving Amazonian berry). Later, they chipped in to buy him his very own police car – but were mystified when he showed up late (or not at all) at the beach. When it was later discovered the lone cop was using his new wheels to visit the local bordello, they chipped in to buy him a cell phone so he could be tracked down more easily.
One of the nicest things about Côté Sud is that the property boasts all sorts of little corners and patches where you can wander off and relax in utter privacy – such as terraces with hammocks and chairs made from local fibers, a bar set amidst the mangrove swamp, a swimming pool overlooking the beach, and the beach itself. In the evening, there’s the charming dining room decorated by Corinne – as are all of the bungalows – with the help of one of her sons, an interior decorator.
Among Corinne’s many talents (and passions) is cooking. She reads about the latest molecular innovations of El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià (the Catalonian chef who brought the world gastronomic foams and froths) and applies some of the principles to local ingredients. She once deconstructed a caipirinha and reconstructed it as a 3-layer vertical dessert featuring shaved cachaça ice and frozen lime mousse.
Our dinner was only slightly more pedestrian: rolls of red fish marinated in suco de cajú (cashew fruit juice), served with black rice and a sauce of crushed cashews (for me) and shrimp in a delicate layer of manioc flour served with gratineed potatoes (for my mother). Dessert was a profiterole whose homemade pastry was filled with ice cream made from rapadura (a type of fudge made from boiled sugar cane syrup).
All Corinne’s ingredients are local. She buys fish from the pescadores on the beach and fruit from a local co-op. All her fresh flowers are delivered daily from a farm that supplies all the region’s pousadas with heliconias and birds-of-paradise. The herbs and vegetables that she doesn’t get from Nilo’s organic garden are raised on site by her husband Roger who has a fondness for Euro-shrubs such as eggplants, cherry tomatoes, fennel, and leeks, all of which grow to elephantine proportions.
Her most eccentric supplier is Buffalo Bill, a fifth-generation water buffalo farmer whose cows (all of which sport human names such as Margarida) are milked under very particular circumstances; while having their heads massaged with cool water and their souls soothed by blaring classical music. Bill’s buffalo milk is used to make everything from mozzarella and coalho (a tangy local cheese, served in grilled slabs drizzled with olive oil) to the fresh cashew yogurt that appeared at breakfast.
I could go on and on about Corinne; the stories she told would fill up a book (in fact, I proposed to write one). One of her defining traits that struck me most was her courage at having never returned to Europe once she made her decision to move to Brazil – not even to visit her kids. “I never wanted to be like one of those expats who live in Brazil, but who keep one foot in their country of origin. They end up miserable because they are always comparing,” she said.
“I decided if we were going to live in Brazil, we were going to jump in with both feet and live like Brazilians.”