By David Straker
From the fishing community of Piranhas where Lampião (bandit or Robin Hood) was betrayed, to the river mouth; from the land of the Carrancas (Gargoyle) to the last passenger boats. The following recounts details of the author’s four day trip down
the San Francisco river in Sergipe (from Caninde to the Foz).
This short journey down the last section of the San Francisco River in the Northeast of Brazil, where it forms the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas, lasted 4 days beginning at the last dam – the Xingo and finishing on the Atlantic coast.
The new town of Caninde de San Francisco, was built back from the banks of the river that overlooked its original location due to the construction of the Xingó hydroelectric dam in 1997. Caninde is the name of a blue and yellow Macaw found in Brazil. Originally only 150 houses, when it was a sleepy fishing outpost, but since the construction of the Dam it has grown tremendously and seems incredibly modern sitting in the middle of the Sertão – the name given to the arid interior of Northeastern Brazil. Other residential districts grew up with the dam along the top of the high cliffs of the river to accommodate all the construction workers, although more so on the Alagoas side looking down on the small fishing village of Piranhas, so named because of the piranha fish in the tributary where the village was founded.
The Xingó Park Hotel that is situated just one km from the center of Caninde de San Francisco commands a wonderful view of the San Francisco River from just below the Xingó dam where six of the turbines installed are operating and supply power to around 25% of the Northeast region. There are housings for four more turbines but as yet have not been installed as they are waiting for an increase in demand and more importantly for São Pedro (popularly considered the patron Saint of the weather) to provide more water, something the dam may never see. Also the hotel overlooks the tiny beach where the old Caninde de San Francisco lay before being moved up the banks of the river and away from the construction site; remains of the canteen, that used to feed some of the 10,000 dam workers, are still visible just after the little beach that now houses a bar and sunshades awaiting the population of the new town to come down at the weekends.
Half a lgua (1 lgua = 5.5 kilometers) down river and on the opposite bank in the state of Alagoas is the village of Piranhas, our starting point.
Piranhas is a small fishing town on the banks of the San Francisco river. It houses the museum that is dominated by the story of the infamous bandits Lampião & Maria Bonita and their gang. The village itself is very picturesque and has two small homely inns with a third one being built. The museum is housed in the old railway station built by the British in front of which is the tower that used to house the clock that could be seen from all parts of the village but with the ending of the railways the clock went too. Along with the museum comes one of the last members of the village, Sr. Josias, who was involved in the capture and death of Lampião, his men and Maria Bonita his wife. We met Sr. Josias on the date of his 83rd birthday with a telegram from the mayor congratulating him to prove it. He had been a member of the police unit that captured and killed Lampião and his gang. He describes carrying the heads of the gang by the hair. The whole gang had been beheaded at the hideout where they were ambushed in the middle of the Sertão. Arriving in Piranhas the heads were laid out and photographed on the steps of the town hall as proof of the capture and death of this bandit that had been terrorizing the Northeast for many years. Sr. Josias said that the heads were exhibited in all the small towns of the region until they came to rest in a museum in Bahia where they remained for four decades before they were finally buried.
Lampião came from a farming family but changed to banditry after members of his family were assassinated by the large landowners of the region.
His band of Cangaceiros (Outlaws), as they were called, attacked towns and farms to rob them. They also raped, mutilated and killed those that reacted or helped the police. Lampião lived like this for 20 years hiding in the caatinga” (brushwood forest) until his betrayal and death in 1938. Since his death he became a popular hero and many tales have been told of him including a book written by his granddaughter. There are museums with special sections relating to him and his band.
The story of the cactus
There are basically four types of cactus in the area of Sergipe’s sertão. The ‘palma forrageira’ is the only one used as a crop for fodder for cattle and other domestic farm animals such as sheep or goat as a complement to their diet especially in times of drought.
The other three cactuses are Mandacaru, Xique-xique and Facheiro. The latter of which is used to hunt rolinhas (a small dove) at night. The ‘facheiro’ has a combustible substance in its ‘fingers’ and this is lighted giving it the appearance of a chandelier of many candles. The Sertanejos (the inhabitants of this arid interior region) used this to hypnotize the birds with the light at night and they were then easily caught by hand; a practice that has now been made illegal by Ibama (Brazil’s environmental agency). The rolinhas were sold as a nourishing appetizer but are now becoming extinct.
While visiting the Lampião museum in Piranhas we were introduced to Osman, a fisherman of four generations in the village and now with nine grandchildren. He agreed to be our pilot for this first stretch down the San Francisco River in one of his two aluminium boats. The name of this boat is Morena – Brunette.
His other boat had been rented to the company preparing a new dam further down river and they had asked for this one too but he kindly delayed the rental until he had taken us to Pão de Acar – the next reasonably sized village down river (a rental such as ours didn’t come every day). It was a two-hour trip zigzagging between the rocks and the eddy currents and small whirlpools in the river. Osman complained about the lack of fish since the building of the hydroelectric dams up the river (Paulo Afonso in Bahia and Xingo, just above Piranhas. Now, with the control of the flow of water, the sediments are not brought in with the rain in the rainy season and with the sediments came the nourishment for the fish and so today the fish neither grow nor breed due to the lack of muddy waters in which to spawn their eggs. Consequently the population of fish has dropped drastically. As a small compensation, the waters are much clearer and in many places one can clearly see the bottom of the river as one zooms along skirting the rocks, which lie in wait just below the surface for the inexperienced boatman.
Our first stop was in the small hamlet of Entre Montes to see the handicrafts and specifically the embroidery. Apart from the little shop it was a very sleepy place without much character.
Half an hour on we came to the tiny fishing village of Barra do Ferro or Ilha do Ferro (Island of Iron) so-called as there is an island in the middle of the river facing the village. Many years ago in the days of Osman’s grandparents this island was a scene of one of the worst disasters on the river when over 200 people were drowned. Iron parts of the vessel may still be seen when there is a drop in the water level. As the story goes: the vessel was caught in a storm and the captain tied up at the island for protection but as the storm got worse the vessel overturned and sank causing the great loss of life, which would have been avoided if instead of tying up at the island, he had beached his vessel on the shores of the village itself. One ‘boy’ who was of a rich family was reported to have cried out that his father (the mayor of a town downstream) wouldn’t let him die as they were wealthy but the river Gods didn’t want his money and he drowned along with the commoners.
Barra do Ferro has some unique embroidery, which is sold in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and was set up by an NGO. The special type of embroidery has been named “good night”, the same name of the flowers that grow abundantly around this small fishing community.
Another half hour brought us to the sight of the new dam and hydroelectric plant that is to be built, and where our boat would be in a day or two, only half a lgua before Pão de Acar, which is where Osman was to leave us. The dam will bring calmer and deeper waters from this point back to Piranhas, Osman’s hometown, but without causing flooding to any of the fishing villages along the way since the barrage itself will not be so high.
Arriving in Pão de Acar we were nearly immediately accosted by a boatman, who was more than willing to offer his services to take us further down river, for a handsome fee. So having contracted him, he directed us to a surprisingly modern and very clean family inn where we spent the short night, having agreed to be up and ready to go at four in the morning.
The winds up the Velho Chico have helped many a sail upriver but they can be a damper on an old fishing boat trying to get downriver, as we were soon to find out. The winds tend to pickup in the afternoon, the reason for our early departure, and get stronger as one gets closer to the sea and the constant winds of the northeastern coast of Brazil. The roof of the ‘Yacht Club’, a rather generous name, at Pão de Acar was once removed by the winds.
Although the small town had a very pleasant main street with large trees giving a heavy shade so cool compared to the blazing sun of the Northeast sertão, the place to have a cool beer was on the San Francisco river banks which in fact are separated from the water by a large expanse of sandy beach – ideal for football. The town radio had speakers hanging strategically from lampposts and street corners blaring out the local music and calling one to Dona Maria’s “stall restaurant” for homemade food. The best in the town. And it was. On inquiring what was on the menu for that day Maria started with the accompaniments:- Cuscus, rice, farofa (and when you look at her waiting for the main dish she would pause and)….chicken. It was delicious and at the same time entertaining to watch Maria and her semi deaf husband alternately reducing or increasing the TV volume with the remote control.
Sailing vessels with two or even three sails so common in the past and now almost extinct (we saw two of the three along the whole stretch of river we traveled) would ply their way up and down the river. They would bring salt from the windy coastlines up into the semi arid regions of the North East hinterland and take back cotton, charcoal (now forbidden by Brazil’s environmental agency) and other products scraped out of the drought ridden northeastern sertão.
Sr Pedro, who was to accompany us down river from Pão de Aucar to Propri, was the ripe old age of 78 and the grandfather of our captain for this section of the trip. Sr Pedro had spent his life on the river and now was retired and lived in Penedo, four lguas beyond Propri. He had come to Pão de Aucar to visit his relatives only the day before but jumped at the chance to get back on his river, on which he had not been for 2 years, and overcome his homesickness for his Velho Chico (The nickname for the river – literally Old Frisco). At the small fishing villages he was known by all and some were even surprise to see that he was still alive, not having seen him for many years. He still had one tooth. He had navigated the San Francisco River for more years than he could remember and had spent 8 years on one vessel alone. Sailing up river they would bring rice, salt and other market goods bringing back charcoal and products from the arid sertão. From Pão de Aucar to Penedo (downstream) would take two days and one night and the return trip would be four days. At the height of activity on the river they would be over 200 of these two sailed sailing vessels plying the waters.
Today with little river trade and not much visible farming along the banks in this inhospitable arid ‘sertão’ region of the Northeast we were very surprised to encounter several MST camps – Movement of landless agricultural workers, who protest throughout Brazil by camping on and invading unproductive farms. The sertão is very arid and unproductive unless much investment and irrigation are applied. Further south towards the coast we saw kilometers and kilometers of fruit farming (lemons, coconuts and passion fruits among others), but this was a well-financed agribusiness, so MST seemed a bit out of place here.
Today the river is easier to navigate since the dams have raised the water level, which remains fairly constant unlike the past when the rains or the droughts in the interior would drastically alter the navigability of the river, especially up river from Pão de Aucar where there are many rocks and sand bars and navigation can be extremely difficult. Not infrequently would one of these sailing boats hit a sandbank but would usually be able to get off without too much difficulty.
We stopped at Ilha do Ouro (Island of Gold), which is a place a lot of people go at the weekends to visit the San Francisco River, to swim, to drink its waters and eat fish. The guidebooks say Ilha do Ouro is a tourist place for eco-tourism but the tourism is still very much in its infancy here and along most of the San Francisco River. Most of Velho Chico’s visitors are locals that also include people from Aracaju (2 hours away or less) and Maceio; and the festive season’s visitors come from slightly further afield such as Salvador but the hordes from Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais states haven’t arrived yet. The most important festival of the region on the river is “Bom Jesus dos Navegantes” (Navigators’ Good Jesus) which goes on for a week and takes place in the summer month of January in the towns along the river with each town having its own week so really it lasts the whole month. Today there are fireworks, boat races with one, two or three sailed ‘canoes’ and of course a Boat Procession carrying the patron Saint “Bom Jesus dos Navegantes” of the river at the head.
Arriving at Propri and escaping from the motorbike taxis, we made our way to a small inn, in a beautiful colonial house, just off the main dock street and opposite the house that the Emperor Pedro II had stayed at. It was here in this town, one of the more important on the river, since the main road BR 101 which runs all the way up the Brazilian coast passes through, that I discovered the British equivalent of all-day breakfasts. Here one can have ‘Caf Nordestino’ at breakfast or at dinner, not quite all-day but still excellent and here as in other places we were not disappointed. The Pan American restaurant provided an excellent but excellent ‘Caf’ for two for two dollars or R$6,00 with a choice of lamb, beef, chicken or pork. The lamb was good although not as good as a lamb I had in Aracaju, which was better than anything I had had in New Zealand!
The last passenger boat service on the Velho Chico: Propri to Penedo on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays run by two companies that take it in turns to run the service, which takes about three hours going down river and four hours on the return and costs just R$4. Of course we wanted to go on Friday. We hired the Princesa Rosa one of the two vessels on this last line that says it carries 55 passengers and two-crew. The bus is R$1,20 and takes less than an hour. Soon there will be no passenger service on the river but there remain many tourist opportunities for these boatmen and their otherwise dying trade.
The three-hour trip down river to Penedo was enlivened by the friendly and talkative crew of Captain Jos consisting of his son, Rodrigo and assistant, Z, who both surprised us with their level of education and general knowledge. The captain, however with many less teeth than his son, was more difficult to understand but knew his river and had managed to keep his business going in spite of the coming of tarmac and buses.
Shortly after leaving Propri we passed the fishing community of Sade (Health), so named as it is said no one ever gets sick and no one dies there. It is also a beach for the local population at the weekends and there are many stands side by side offering their cold beers and a variety of dishes with fish, plucked from the very river the eaters are swimming in. Including pitu – large river prawns. The prawns are captured in wicker traps, laid by the fishermen in the evenings with rice husks as bait and the traps are collected in the early hours. Usually, one can see where their traps are as there is a fisherman standing guard.
The bridge carries the BR 101 main road from the south of Brazil all the way up the coast to the north as well as a train line, which is the cause of may accidents especially when wet with cars loosing control in the tracks and ending up in the water.
The Indian Myth of the Gargoyle (Carranca)
In search of the famous gargoyles of the San Francisco River while in Penedo, we found ourselves in the atelier of Raimundo Vieira (a blue eyed Indian – half Indian and half white), who was one of the two artists in the town who sculptured San Franciscan Carrancas as they are called here. His atelier was of course on the outskirts of town up hill and we of course walked there in the midday sun traditional to Englishmen. On arrival we discovered that he had no Carrancas in stock but he was very keen to tell us of the origin of these artifacts. His family had originally come from Bahia state, which is further up river than where we had started from. Many moons ago an Indian tribe, in what is now the state of Bahia, found itself at war with an unknown enemy. The chief had sent out an expedition in a canoe to hunt for game with two fierce warriors as a lookout at the front of the canoe. The canoe never returned. The chief, not so easily beaten, decided to send out a second canoe but this time with four warriors as a lookout at the front and after some days the canoe returned, empty with no one in it. When the chief wanted to send out a third expedition the witch doctor, who was in those days losing his powers with the tribe, was skeptical and asked the chief who was this enemy and what did the enemy look like and how was he going to fight this unknown enemy. The chief couldn’t answer and so the witch doctor told him to place the ugliest man of the tribe at the head of the canoe, which he did. And this time the boat returned with plenty of game for the whole tribe. The witch doctor then explained that a terrible snake, the symbol of evil spirits that live along the river, on seeing that ugly Indian was afraid “He is even uglier than I”, said the snake and let the Indians fish and hunt in peace. From that time on a gargoyle – the Carrancas of the Velho Chico – was placed at the front of their boats to warden of evil spirits.
Our Indian Raimundo was keen to tell us how he came to be here so far from his origins back up river in the state of Bahia, and how his great-grandparents had been expelled from their tribe way in the interior of the sertão. As was the custom in those days his great-grandparents had been chosen for each other when they were still children and were to be married at the young age of 14 or 15. But they precipitated the ceremony and when it was discovered that his great-grand mother was pregnant, the pair were expelled from the tribe. After they had left, their tribe was attacked by white men and against his wife’s wishes Raimundo’s great grandfather returned to help fight them but was killed in the battle. And so his great-grandmother over the years made her way across the Sertão (semi arid desert of the region), where alone she gave birth to Raimundo’s grandmother and eventually came to the vicinity of Penedo. The new family became one of the first Indians to enter into white man’s society in this region.
In Penedo, there is an excellent restaurant that clings to the walls of an old fort, built by the Portuguese and destroyed by the Dutch, who were later defeated. The fort commands a view upriver from the town to prepare for any attack coming down. Magnificent drawings and antique military items adorn the internal walls of the restaurant as the other side remains open to the upstream view, through the coconut palms.
From Penedo to the mouth of Velho Chico
Once a week, on Mondays, there is a boat from Penedo down to Piaabuu, which means a big palm tree, in Alagoas to take people to the market there and it was with this vessel that we went to the mouth of the river and back again to Neopolis across the river from Penedo to return to the middle of the Sertão and on to Aracaju ending our journey/holiday down the Velho Chico.
On the way to the mouth of the river we stopped at Piaabuu , the market town that our boat would go to on Mondays, to see some of the handicrafts and to arrange to have lunch on the way back. The river comes right up to the retaining walls of the dock street and compared with the other towns and fishing villages, here was packed with boats for fishing and taking the local inhabitants at weekends down to the Mouth of the River. It was perhaps the most touristy town that we had come across over the last four days. The food in the restaurant, shrimp, prawn and crab, which we ate at on our return was excellent but quite slow in the coming.
The captain of the vessel, Sr Anselmo told us how he acquired this service. In the past there had been two vessels which would go every Monday taking the farmers and their products to the market in Piaabuu but both had sunk, the last of which had sunk “twice”. One day whilst docking it made a hole in its hull with a tree branch that was just below the water’s surface and semi-sank. Then while trying to free itself of this branch it reversed into another holing the other end of the boat and then sank seriously; paving way for our captain to acquire this line. But in fact for some time there was no river service to the market and the farmers adapted to the situation and went by road. As many of the river services were slowly fading out our captain decided to reactivate the river service to the market and said that he would go even if there were only one passenger – on his first trip there was only one passenger – and he went. It took some time to gain the confidence of the farmers and buildup his clientele. And now between his father and his brother they have three boats plying the river with their service to the market on Mondays and ferry services across the river from Penedo to Neopolis and the occasional tourists who might rent his boat for a week or more to go all the way up river to where we had just come from, that is to say to the fisher village of Piranhas and the Xingó dam, the land of Lampião and his gang of bandits.
A sad story had preceded us by a week. Between Piaabuu and the river mouth, a fisherman went afishing in his small canoe one morning but never returned. He was one of three brothers who all went their own ways to fish for needle-fish every morning. It was their custom to return around 11 in the morning for lunch and escape the midday heat. This day one of them didn’t show up and although his two brothers were worried they didn’t send out a search party for him at first but as the afternoon drew on they went looking for him and found him just before he was swept out to sea. He was hanging over the edge of his boat holding the fishing net he had thrown at the moment he had had a fatal heart attack.
The Foz and the leaning lighthouse
Right in the mouth of the river is ‘the leaning lighthouse’ (not as famous as the leaning tower of Pisa but leaning just the same) left after a storm had undermined its foundations and washed away the fishing village behind it. The fishing village was rebuilt, and not for the first time, but the lighthouse was left as a symbol portending the power of the sea.
The sand dunes and the few coconut palm trees at the river-mouth are a wonderful gift from Mother Nature and her surprises, which is only spoilt by the hordes of local tourists spilling out of their music screaming boats that come to enjoy nature at its best at the weekends. According to Ibama (there is a large hideous notice board -a real eye-sore), visitors may only remain there for one hour, take nothing with them and not play loud music. An impossibility for the friendly, stress free “nordestino”.