About this blog
Thrill of Brazil is a travel blog all about Brazil written by Moon Brazil author Michael Sommers. Michael blogs about Brazil travel, culture, and more. He welcomes questions, comments, and story ideas.
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Road Trip to Chapada: The Way Home
Although I’ve never had a car – or a driver’s license for that matter – I love road trips.
That’s why I was psyched when (as I wrote about last week) it was decided that my friends Myra and Edi, their daughter Alice, their friend Barbosa, and I would be Salvador from to the Chapada Diamantina by car (driven exclusively by the valiant Myra – like me, neither Edi nor Barbosa have driver’s licenses. Alice’s excuse is that she’s only 7-years-old).
There are countless reasons I love being on the road: The endlessly changing landscapes streaming by. The scratchy blare of songs from the radio. The easy conversations (and silences), strands of which are whipped away by the wind rushing in through the rolled down windows. The delicious sense of Going Somewhere.
I also love road trips because you get to stop. And eat.
In last week’s post, I talked about stopping and eating as Myra, Edi, Alice, Barbosa and me headed west from Salvador into the interior of Bahia, a trip that last around 7 hours and racked up 480 km. All good things come to an end, however, and after 8 wonderful days in the Chapada, it was time to head back to the big city and our lives. Fittingly, as we climbed into the car and set off toward home, the limpid, sun-shot skies we had grown accustomed to were clumped with low clouds, and the easy conversation that had flowed for much of the past week evaporated, replaced by silence as we all stewed wistfully in our own thoughts.
An hour into our journey, we were driving along the BR-242 and, after sweeping past the turn-off to the Chapada’s main town of Lençois, we saw a road sign announcing an upcoming culinary outpost that made our collective mouths water: “Bode na Brasa 1 km”. It was hard to resist the allure of “Goat on Burning Coals”, but considering we’d only just set out, and it was only 11 am (not to mention the fact that we’d recently eaten breakfast), we resisted the temptation to stop even though we’d been informed in Capão that this roadside eatery was famous throughout the region for its roasted goat. As we sped by the parked cars of those who didn’t have our willpower, we consoled ourselves with the fact that, in the parched Sertão, goats were as rampant as water was scarce.
Continuing along the highway, we made good time due to the fact the drive was downhill (much of the Chapada lies at an altitude of 800 to 1,300 meters above sea level). We didn’t stop for our first break until we were on the outskirts of the town of Itaberaba. Not only was it high noon (actually 1pm), but Itaberaba was where we were to turn off the main BR-242 highway and follow the BA-52 – nicknamed the Estrada do Feijão (Bean Route) – which offered a less truck-heavy and more scenic route east to Feira de Santana.
Unsure of whether to blindly stop at one of several trucker pit stops or venture into town itself, and with the memory of the bode na brasa still smoldering away in our collective consciousness, Myra pulled into a gas station and Edi hopped out to sound out the attendants and stray truckers for an insider’s tip.
The tip turned out to be Posto Santa Helena, an impressive complex of a service station, featuring a gas station, tire repair and body shops, a convenience store, and a fabulously modern and surprisingly sophisticated per kilo restaurant whose buffet offerings are developed by a licensed nutritionist! Aside from an alluring array of some three dozen salads – all featuring locally cultivated organic fruits and vegetables – there were also plenty of hot dishes. However, since we were still afflicted with bode on the brain, we made a beeline for the churrasco (barbecue) station where an immaculate crew of aproned barbecuers were pulling long skewers of meat from blazing coals and deftly slicing them onto diners’ plates. Sadly, goat was missing from the offerings instead we had to comfort ourselves with the likes of grilled chicken hearts, spare ribs, lamb, sun-dried beef, etc.
Itaberaba’s claim to fame is the fact that it produces 50 percent of all the abacaxis grown in Bahia (an abacaxi is a type of pineapple whose flesh is firm and white). Its nickname, “Terra dos Abacaxis” is fitting; much of the surrounding flatlands are given over to abacaxi plantations. As we made our way along the Estrada do Feijão after lunch, dozens of rickety fruit stands with abacaxis, piled into pyramids or dangling from cords, caught our attention. Although they were being sold for a mere 50 centavos (around 30 cents), the impossibility of skinning and eating an abacaxi in the car made us opt for a large transparent R$2 bag filled with glistening green umbus instead.
A signature fruit of the Sertão, umbus don’t grow anywhere else in Brazil – or in the world. Their ubiquity in this otherwise dry region is explained by the fact that the vast root system of the umbuzeiro (umbu tree) consists of a network of potato-like tubers that can store up to 3,000 liters of water during the Sertão’s long dry season (tellingly, umbu is a Tupi term that means “tree that gives drink”). Visually, these thick, green, lustrous orbs really pop when set against the rest of the washed out, harshly overexposed Sertanejo landscape. When dust covered boys hold bags of them up to the car window, it’s as if they’re shoving emeralds in your face.
I’ve had the pleasure of savoring umbu ice cream and jam as well as umbrososkas (a variation of a caiprinha in which vodka substitutes cachaça and umbus take the place of limes) and umbuzada, a thick frothy drink made of boiled umbus, milk and sugar, which even though it’s served cold, is also known as “sopa de umbu”(umbu soup).
However, for an immediate quenching of one’s thirst, nothing beats chupando (sucking) um umbu; a pleasure that involves piercing the thick outer skin with your teeth, biting into the tart, lush, Vitamin-C-infused flesh, and then popping the entire small plum-sized fruit into your mouth in order to suck off every last shred of fruit before tossing the pit out the window. At intervals over the next couple of hours, we all engaged in umbu sucking as we made our way toward Bahia’s second largest city of Feira de Santana.
During the final leg of our trip, between Feira and Salvador, we ran into a major bottleneck on the BR-324. The traffic undercut Edi’s promises to Alice that we were “almost home” and to make up for her growing frustration at too many “almost”s and too little signs of home, he promised her that we’d make a final pit stop at the Rei da Pamonha.
A favorite snack throughout the Brazilian Northeast and Central-West (as well as the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais) pamonhas are soft creamy patties made of fresh grated corn and milk (or coconut milk), which are cooked and then wrapped in corn husks. Aside from serving up sweet and savory versions of pamonha, the palatial roadside Rei (King) specializes in a host of other corn-inspired delicacies ranging from bolos (cakes) to suco (juice), picolés (popsicles) and sorvete (ice cream) – which was the clincher for Alice, who returned to the parking lot brandishing a large cup filled with creamy corn ice cream and looking quite a bit less bothered by the slow progress we were making as we covered the final kilometers towards home.