I remember Natal as a collection of picture postcards –
white sand beaches, aquamarine waves, coconuts plummeting from palm trees in
the breeze. The sun beating down like a giant fan heater, melting my skin into
ripples of sweat beads and the waves ploughing me down with their ferocity.
More than anything though, my memories of Natal are of people, not scenery.
Having given up on cramped hostels ill-equipped with
chugging slow-speed fans, my boyfriend Martin and I had opted for something a
little more comfortable and used Couchsurfing to connect with locals offering a
place to stay. Our choice, based mostly on finding someone who could speak both
of our native languages (Spanish and English), led us to email Edgar, a 27-year
old Brazilian who worked as an English teacher and lived with his family on the
So my memories are of Edgar and his nervous excitement at
having acquired his first ever couchsurfing guests. Of arriving at the bus stop
to meet him, his sister and mother in tow, and our few stuttering words of greeting.
Being invited to join the family for dinner and later, over enormous slabs of
carne do sol (sun-cured salted steak), arroz de leite (savory rice pudding) and
sliced pumpkin, forging an unlikely friendship linked together by three
different languages, a lot of cross-translating and a sense that whatever got
lost in translation couldn’t have been important anyway.
Our days in Natal quickly turned into a week, one filled
with blistering heat and beach after beach. There was the Ponta Negra Beach, with its enormous sand dune towering
above the shoreline; the Praia da Pipa shoreline where dolphins danced in clear waters below
the lookout points and the sunset from the famous Newton Navarro Bridge, where
the sun bled streaks of crimson across the horizon.
We visited the Barreira do Inferno Rocket Launch Center and took ridiculous tourist
photos posing with the model rockets at the gates, then took a tour of the
world’s largest cashew tree whose branches grew outwards, curling like spindly
fingers. We wandered around the markets where
I was quickly sucked up in the chaotic thrill of bargain hunting and watched
Edgar’s dog, an enormous Great Dane, gallop along the beach after a tossed
But for all the sights, it was the small things I remember
the most. The feeling of a home away from home. Of being adopted into a family
with whom I had so few means of communication. Of finding a pocket of people on
the other side of the world who embraced our differences and welcomed us into
their home as if they’d known us for years.
Edgar’s Mother and I bonded over home cooking and knowing
looks. We spoke through smiles and hand motions, stirring in the odd word of
Spanish or Portuguese that we both recognized. She would chuckle to herself as
her dogs dive-bombed into my hammock and showed me how to twist and tie the
front of my skirt when my dress billowed up in the wind. I would ignore her
silent protestations about helping with the washing up and licked my lips for
every plate of food she set before me.
In our final days, we attempted an impromptu cooking class,
cooking up my favorite indulgence, Brigadeiros – sickly-sweet chocolate
truffles rolled in chocolate sprinkles - an easy, if not exactly precise,
recipe including a can of condensed milk, a large spoonful of butter and a
generous mound of powdered chocolate. Stirred constantly on a low heat for 20
minutes, the mixture became thick and sticky, and later, cooled into thick
chewy truffle. We spent a good hour rolling the mixture into balls with our
hands, tossing them in sprinkles and decanting them into brightly colored
miniature cake cases.
Before I left, she bought me a present, a beautiful sarong
that she had carefully gift-wrapped in baby-pink tissue paper and waving us off
at the bus stop her eyes welled up with tears. She kissed my cheek and pulled
me in for a hug, whispering in my ear in rapid Portuguese. Like that inaudible
whisper at the end of Lost In Translation, I couldn’t make out a word of what
she said. I’ve made up so many versions in my mind of what she said to me that
day, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. Sometimes actions speak louder than
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About the Author
Zoë Smith is a British ESL
teacher and writer currently based in Australia, but constantly hovering
between South-east Asia and South America. Links to her published works can be
found on her website
or via her twitter account @zoe_c_smith. She is also the winner of the 2011 World Nomads/Rough
Guides Travel Writing Scholarship.
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