Gabriela & Graciela: Two Lovers in Paraty, Brasil

by David Adair

If you’ve ever felt the peculiar desire to be slowly tortured by excruciating and seductive beauty, then take the four-hour Costa Verde bus ride from Rio de Janeiro, along the lush, curvilinear, mountainside road; observe the unending parade of proud, shimmering, aquamarine bays, the countless, corpulent jungle-topped islands, and the ceaselessly plunging tropical coastlines; then check and calculate, through the interminable hours, just how much more of this you will have to take until you finally reach Paraty, the pearl of Brazilian colonial port towns, where you will meet a lover.

As buses go, Brazilian ones are unusually spacious, comfortable and well-appointed….more akin to flying first class than any preconception of what third world overland transport might be. Of course the Costa Verde line is no exception, and the stunning trip from Rio southward is well worth the R$40/US$20 alone. But Paraty complements this journey in ways which one could not have imagined nor dreamed up better in storybooks, legends or fables. Portuguese colonialism, tropical climes, and the fever-pitched plundering of gold have seen fit to that since the 16th century nascence of this town. Bound by warm, Atlantic Coast waters, hemmed in by the marbled greenery of rain forest mountains, home to an array of immaculate, remote, white-sand beaches: out of this landscape the Portuguese carved a gem which both sparkles and amazes at every turn.

My determination to visit Paraty had been cemented long before I ever set foot in Brazil. I had first recognized it as the setting for the film adaption of Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Cinnamon and Clove) from the living room of my US home, many thousands of miles away. I was watching the film for perhaps the 3rd or 4th time, and had by that time studied Brazil’s photographic landscape enough to know, upon the opening scenes, that this was not Ilhaus, the Northeastern port town where the novel is actually set, but rather Paraty, located many distant geographical and cultural miles to the south. Set in the mid 1920s, Jorge Amado’s classic novel of Brazilian literature (and a personal favorite) deals with the coming-of-age of the Bahian town of Ilhaus, at a time when the ramifications of both history and progress are foisted irrevocably upon the scene. The quaint, often brutal clash of 19th century, planter class feudalism, and the more 20th century provisions of mercantilism, egalitarianism, and the rule of law lay the groundwork for the peripheral drama. Numerous side-plots abound, but the central tale is that of a tender, often tormented love affair between the comely mulatta house woman, Gabriela, and her genial, civic-minded, though somewhat prurient employer, Mr. Nacib. (However it is she who seduces him, and not the reverse).

Upon my deliverance a devout looking driver, bearing a placard with my name on it, awaited me in the dusty bus station parking lot at Paraty. As bus terminals go it was no paradise, but I practically embraced him nevertheless. Packing us into a nondescript economy car, he conveyed me dutifully to my final destination. Graciela greeted me in the lobby of the Brazish Pousada, with the kind of warm, complete embrace only a Brazilian could muster. Perched accommodatingly on the outskirts of town, the pousada billed itself as an eclectic blend of all things Brazilian and Irish, though to me it seemed completely Brazilian. It sat amongst thick, rank, countryside vegetation, expansive, palm-dotted pasture lands, and in the fortifying shade of cool mountainsides. With terracotta tiled rooftops, hearty Brazilian wood framing, and the ever iconic rede (Brazilian hammock), the native allure was laid bare. Graciela toured me around the grounds amicably, and despite our somewhat remote orientation, I found that we were not completely alone. Much new development was underway in Paraty’s outlying “New Town.” A notable real estate boom was taking hold of the countryside, and as I told myself later, were I only to have the money….

Further discoveries led me to FLIP, or, Festa Literia Internacional de Parati, an international literary festival held annually in Paraty. Still technically young, in its sixth year, FLIP manages to assemble an A-list of notable writers from around the globe each year. Authors Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Anthony Bourdain and Nadine Gordimer, amongst others, have been honored attendees. Brazilian authors Ariano Suassuna, Ruy Castro and Lygia Fagundes Telles have been celebrated as well. In addition, each FLIP festival pays homage to a legendary Brazilian writer from the past, such as Vinicius de Moraes (1917-1980) and Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), while 2008 saw the centennial celebration of Machado de Assis (1839-1908). Lyrical greats Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso have also been recognized. Salmon Rushdie, the 2008 guest of honor, premiered the first international publication of his latest book, Shalimar the Clown, at FLIP. A seminal year by any measure, 2008 also saw the inception of the first Paraty International Film Festival, soon to be a hit on the international film scene as well.

The Paraty of today is best known for its architecture, and unparalleled setting. One of the best collections of Portuguese colonial architecture in the Americas, it draws a constant stream of travelers out of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, being advantageously situated about halfway between the two, on one of the most incomparable coastlines in the country. What I had first mistaken for a woebegone “sinking city,” in the same vein as say, Venice, is in fact the result of Portuguese ingenuity. Built intentionally just below sea level, the town is protected from flooding by a low sea wall. Once a month, during the simultaneous occasion of a full moon and high tides, the excessively high seawaters pour through ports in the seawall, thereby inundating the streets and transforming them into placid, mirror-smooth, curbside canals. Then as the tides recede, the streets and alleyways are subsequently drained, washing clean the town’s arteries of dirt and debris. I was lucky enough to be present for such a fortuitous solstice, or perhaps it was simply from the recent tropical rainstorms; but it was with delicate and calculated precision that I negotiated the crude, narrow, plank board footbridges which arched haphazardly over the flooded thruways. The weariest of these would bow and dip into the water as I traversed them, and it was with no small amount of effort that I was able to keep up behind the more adroit and intuitive footsteps of the native Graciela.

Paraty is like a dream: a fantasy place which is hard to believe exists, but is easy to wish it could. Baroque Portuguese edifices, punctuated by towering royal palm sentinels form the conspicuous frontispiece to the lavish and languorous setting. Contiguous exterior walls are maintained in a kind of folkloric, chalky white, while door frames, shudders and window frames are trimmed in various rich, pastel colors. Curved, crowning gables break the horizon of uniform storefronts, residences and churches. Unbroken terracotta tiled rooftops paint an unrelentingly Latin and earthly headdress, while the dominating and undulating Bocaina mountain range, undergirding the intense, tropical blue sky, lends a humanizing proportion to the starched, white-washed piety of the diminutive structures below.

Graciela guided me through this hushed and opulant antiquity, into the warm, neighborly climes of Che Bar: a tasteful little watering hole dedicated to all things Cuban, revolutionary and mojito-oriented. We sat down and quickly ordered two glasses of the sugary, minty rum drink, each of us sharing a love for this delectable national drink of Cuba. Slurping them down with abandon, we assumed the tenuous but satisfying process of getting to know each other again. Uptempo, percussionistic Latin music, and the chatter of eccentric locals set the backdrop to a swiftly resumed familiarity. With an ingratiating nervousness, we practiced the doctrinaire belief in humor and alcohol: how did the world ever turn without them?

Before long hunger made its inevitable calling, and we sought relief in an eclectic, alley side bistro, where the settings magnified and encouraged a renewed sense of comfort between us. We dined on broiled fish and rice, sauteed shrimp, pasta, and vegetables, then washed it all down with good Argentine wine. (…Thank goodness, as Brazilian wine is not noted for its high quality. My experience confirms this…) After dinner we retired to a diminutive cafe table outside, where Graciela smoked a number of after-dinner cigarettes, and our conversations broadened and deepened into the late evening. Imbued with further helpings of red wine and a heady, palpable closeness, I felt a kind of accomplished satisfaction. Providentially, it seemed, we were situated directly across from a landmark of sorts. It was immediately recognizable to me, and Graciela confirmed the accuracy of my recollections. It stood seemingly unchanged since the movie: the roughhewn, rock garden wall that Gabriela had climbed over to reunite with her lover, Mr. Nacib, when they had been separated, for a time.

After dinner we trailed through Paraty’s shadowy and untrafficked streets, or rather I trailed increasingly far behind Graciela, as the ballast stone thruways, when not inundated by water, are like dry, unnavigable riverbeds. Chunky, irregular pavers present a formidable obstacle course to even the most surefooted of nonnative pedestrians. Graciela suggested a night spot in a far corner of town, where we could meet up with friends. I offered no resistance. For my part I was dizzily disoriented by the dark, quiet sameness of Paraty’s uniformly criss-crossing and slightly tapered streets – an intentional effect, via the art of Portuguese engineers, meant to confound the ambitions of foreign invaders.

In the novel we are taught, perhaps, that possession is anathema to passion. And in Brazil, like no other country, one learns that presumption paves a swift road to ruin, or at least, to consternation. Novels require conclusion and hence happy or often tragic endings. Gabriela and Mr. Nacib found their truce, and the town of Ilhaus steamed prodigiously into the 20th century. On the night of our anticipated reunion, however, and for many nights to come, the relation of fact to fiction belied an ever widening disparity.

Late in the evening, just at the point when I was enjoying myself the most, Graciela disappeared suddenly, and without notice. I had been chatting it up at a bar top with new friends, sampling an incredible homemade fish stew, and draining one glass of red wine after another – all compliments of an ingratiating proprietor. It took some time for me to notice her absence, and when I entered into the broad avenue, it was as quiet and motionless as a town long abandoned. Taxis were barred from these antiquated thruways, and Graciela was most obviously nowhere close by. I bid my hosts a benumbed good evening, and set out on the long, quiet, contemplative walk home.

When I arrived at the Brazish Pousada it was well into the wee hours of the morning. A light was on under Graciela’s door (she had arranged for separate quarters), and unsure exactly of the right thing to do, I opted for the most presently apparent. To my discredit, I let loose with a rather fated, albeit frustrated misnomer; I knocked on the door, somewhat persistently. I called out, “GABRIELA….”

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