By Hal
Natal (Christmas in Portuguese), the capital and largest city of the state of Rio Grande no Norte (RN), was one of the first European settlements in the northeast. The village which grew to be our city, was established 25th December 1599. It is on the South Atlantic at the mouth of the Potengi river. On your map you will find it on the big hump on the northeast coast of Brazil closest to Africa. We are about 5 below the equator.

French pirates occupied” Natal in the 1590’s. They “traded” with the native Potiguares – a name which is still used to characterize folks born in Rio Grande do Norte: in the indian Tupi language it means “people who eat shrimp”.

The French were driven out by the Portuguese in 1597 leaving no traces. The still standing Forte dos Reis Magos (named after the biblical Three Wise Kings, and pictured above) was built in 1598-99 to guard the harbor and mouth of the river. I think it one of the most interesting historic sites in Natal.

Later the Dutch occupied the village and the fort for a few decades before they too were shoved out by the Portuguese. Many of the Dutch settlers fled inland and are said to be the reason some of today’s inland Potiguares have green eyes, fair skin and wonderful smiles.

The major economic activity in RN in the first three hundred years was cattle raising in large “fazendas” (ranches) in the interior desert country. From this ‘crop’ came ‘jerked beef’ called ‘carne de sol’. I think the cattle walk hundreds of kilometers to the slaughter house which gives the meat its tough, jerky consistency -good though!

In the 18th century salt became a major crop; large ponds were flooded with ocean water at high tide, then allowed to dry out in the hot sun; the residual salt was ‘harvested’.

Petroleum became a major “crop” in the 19th century. RN has Brazil’s largest inland reserves of ‘oleo’. Today, the coastal waters of the South Atlantic off Brasil are the major source of petroleum. Using a combination of petroleum, alcohol and stiff prices, Brazil has become self-sufficient in automobile fuel. Other important crops in RN are fishing and shrimp farming.

During World War II the US built an airport here which was manned by a few thousand American soldiers. It was used as a ferrying station: Florida <> Natal <> Africa <> Europe. There are pictures of President Roosevelt in Natal on his way to and from a World War II conference in Europe. Today it is Natal’s modern Augusto Severo Aeroporto.

The northeast coast welcomes some 2 million tourists to its shores each year. The delightful, year round climate and 250 kilometers of adjacent ocean beaches are the major attraction. Wind surfing is consistently good and it is the world center of dune buggy rides or, if you prefer, you can lurch around on a camel. Offshore, the island of Fernando de Noronha is one of the world’s finest locations for underwater diving.

Sorry, but the weather is near perfect. Ten minute rain showers come and go now and again but a hard day’s rain rarely falls; maybe three or four isolated days in the Winter (July, August, September). Reported research claims that the air quality here is the best of any major city in the world. My emphysema-blessed lungs think it is fun to breath.

The temperature ranges between 75F/24C and 95F/35C. Onshore breezes from the South Atlantic sharply reduce the humidity; no hurricanes. Inland the northeast of Brasil is desert but here on the litoral there are fine beaches in a people friendly city; not perfect, but aside from Soggytrees, NY what city is?

Part 2 next week…

Previous articles by Hal:

Brazil: A View from Rio Grande do Norte

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