Salvador beach with many people and colorful umbrellas

Photo © Michael Sommers.

One can get spoiled by living in Brazil. Several summers ago, I was visiting my sister in New York and, she enthusiastically suggested we beat the heat and humidity by heading to a beach – in the Bronx. Having never been to a beach in NYC, I was game – even though it took about an hour on various subways and buses to get there.

Upon our arrival, I have to admit that I wasn’t blown away by Orchard Beach, whose rather optimistic nickname is the “Bronx Riviera.” Having become accustomed to Brazilian beaches over the years, I was taken aback by the insipid color of the sea and horrified by its Arctic temperature. Although I later discovered that the sand was imported, instead of investing in grade A, fluffy, white stuff from down south, some unambitious urban planner had merely shipped over some sandpapery beige grains from Queens and New Jersey for us to spread our towels upon. That we were obliged to lay down towels at all struck me as dismal: in Brazil, the moment your flip flop hits the sand, you’re immediately offered collapsible beach chairs and parasols for rent – that is if you don’t want to take shelter at a shaded beach barraca serving all manners of food and drink. (A barraca generally refers to a rustic, wooden structure that can vary from a palm frond roofed lean-to a swank, multi-terraced, air-conditioned restaurant/bar).

The range of goods and services available on a Brazilian beach varies quite a bit depending on how urban your beach is and in what part of Brazil you happen to be.

Anyway, back to my Bronx flashback:

Once installed on our towels, I automatically found myself craving a drink 1. To refresh myself after the long journey and 2. to ease myself into a state of sun-baked mellowness. I looked around in every direction, but to avail.

“What do we do if we want to eat or drink something?” I forlornly asked my sister.

She pointed out that nourishment (and intoxication) was only possible by hauling ourselves up from the sand and going way, way, way across the boardwalk to a food stand where we could line-up, order, and then wait some 15 minutes for a greasy platter of shrimp and fries to emerge along with watered-down paper cups full of cola. Even if we wanted to transport all this grub back down to the beach, we could only drink icy beer surreptitiously, using straws, out of a brown paper bag, so as not to get arrested. And since nobody only drinks one illegal beer at the beach, if one wanted a second or third cold one, it meant trudging all the way back to the aforementioned food stand. Quite frankly, I was astonished by the shocking primitiveness of it all and, rather snottily, pitied the poor souls stuck in America’s great metropolis for the poverty of their beach experience.

In Brazil, going to the beach is a whole different frescoball game. Even on the most deserted, paradise-worthy stretches of sand, you’ll often encounter at least one outpost of civilization: a rustic barraca offering shade and serving fresh coconut water, icy beer, and freshly grilled fish and shrimp. Once you hit the more resorty and urban beaches, however, be prepared for VIP treatment. You have only to set foot on the sand, and your every whim will be catered to by a non-stop parade of one-man and one-woman enterprise,s either installed at strategic points along the sand or as “ ambulantes” who spend the days tracking up and down the sands.

If you choose to hang out in a barraca or rent chairs and parasols, you’ll suddenly find yourself the prized member of a private clubhouse. As your host or hostess leads you to a prime spot, he or she will already take your order for that icy welcome cerveja (beer), fresh fruit caipirinha, or água de coco (which, once you’ve slurped every last drop out of it, will be machete open so you can enjoy the tender coconut meat).

Barracas all have menus serving every kind of fish and seafood specialty imaginable both as tira gostos (appetizer portions) or pratos (meal-sized portions that generally feed at least three and come accompanied with rice, beans, and salad).

If you’re merely ensconced in a rented chair on an urban beach, chances are you’ll just get drinks (and the occasional sprinkling of your feet with a watering can); you can spend all day running up a tab – and then pay for your follies when you go wobbling home. However, even if you forego the chairs and go the canga route instead (canga is the local name for the sarongs that Brazilian use instead of beach towels – if you don’t have one, you can almost always purchase one on the beach), you can still partake in all the goodies proffered by passing vendors.

The range of goods and services available on a Brazilian beach varies quite a bit depending on how urban your beach is and in what part of Brazil you happen to be. To give you just a sense of the possibilities, I’ll use the example of my adopted hometown of Salvador (pictured above).

In terms of fluids, aside from cerveja, soft drinks, mineral water, and água de coco, there are such marvelous inventions as caipirinha bars on wheels where the national cocktail (and variations using other fruit) is concocted right in front of your eyes.

Also refreshing are picolés (or popsicles) sold out of decorated styrofoam coolers. Made from crushed fruit and milk, the vendors reel off the flavors as if they were beautiful songs: amendoim (peanut), coco queimado (burnt coconut), milho verde (corn), abacate (avocado), and graviola (a relative of jackfruit) are some of the more unusual flavors that I have adopted as favorites.

Grilled orangey-pink shrimp on wooden skewers make frequent appearances as do fresh oysters in the shell, which will be opened and spritzed with lime in front of your face (make sure you see other people eating these to ensure they are fresh).

A big favorite in the Northeast – which initially baffles, but then inevitably delights gringos – is grilled cheese on a stick. Sounds suspicious, but the cheese in question is queijo coalho, a tangy, vaguely rubbery, pasteurized white cheese that squeaks when you bite into it. Vendors trudge up and down the beach with skewers of the stuff and small portable barbecues. A mere signal is all it takes for them to approach and roast the cheese in the glowing embers before dusting it with oregano and dousing it with sugar cane molasses.

A number of vendors sell goods made fresh by a (usually gifted) home cook who is often a wife, mother, or even grandmother. Popular items include fresh fruit salad, cocadas, “sanduiches naturais” (healthy sandwiches – featuring whole grain bread and no meat), empadas (empanadas), and roasted peanuts wrapped in conical wands of paper.

Children inevitably clamor for the bags of algodão doce (“sweet cotton” i.e. cotton candy) brandished like bouquets of brightly colored clouds trapped in cellophane. However, there’s plenty of non-edible kiddie merchandise as well, ranging from sandcastle-building implements and animal-shaped water wings to miniature swimming pools (which can be purchased or rented).

Meanwhile, adults can splurge on everything from hats and suntan lotion (this is stuff for tanning, NOT for protection) to pirated DVDs and CDs and artisanal jewelry made of materials ranging from shells and fish scales to semi-precious stones. In terms of services, you can often get a foot massage or a reiki session and temporary tattoos are a dime a dozen. Rare, but not sometimes visible are cartomantes, who will read your cards and tell your future.

It’s amazing how you quickly you can get used to it all. And once you do, the Bronx just doesn’t compare.