Ilha Dos Lencois
Position 01:18.925S 044:52.886W Ilha Dos Lencois
Date: 13 December 2012
Ilha Dos Lencois
Ilha Dos Lencois (pronounced Eelya Daw-eese Lensaw-eese) is probably the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been to. Along the northeast coast of Brazil, leading towards the delta of the mighty Amazon, the coastline is shallow and heavily indented with low-lying islands of mangroves. But one small archipelago of islands is renowned for having enormous sand dunes of incredibly fine silica sand. The outermost of these islands is Dos Lencois about three miles long and ¾ mile wide. Alongside an enormous dune that stretches the full width of the island is a collection of houses strung out along the beach, nestling amongst the shade of tall palm trees, and overlooking the protected channel towards the mangroves of the island opposite. In this village lives 90 families. Their way of life is simple in the extreme but I have not, in all my time in Brazil, seen a community which seemed so much at peace with itself and others, nor more contented. They had everything they could possibly want. Their houses, built directly on the sandy beach, were made of wood or, more often, just walls and roofs made from palm fronds. No glazed windows, they were simply openings which had a frond screen that could be pulled down for privacy or bad weather. The living area in the houses is open – no rooms, no walls. Beds were simple hammocks strung between the rafters. Wrap yourself up in your hammock and you had all the privacy you needed.
Until recently they had no electricity on the island. They now have a couple of wind generators (the trade winds blow a steady wind strong enough to provide a reliable supply). There is now basic street lighting and lighting in the houses. Not that one should resent their ability to better themselves but a few houses already had the ubiquitous satellite dish and television. I just hope that having the materialistic outside world thrust upon them does not make them dissatisfied with their seemingly paradisical lifestyle.
They live off the sea and are a part of it. The tidal range (the height that the tide rises and falls) is unusually high at between 5 and 7 metres. Their fishing boats, both the small wooden canoes they use for netting in the channel and the larger fishing boats that go offshore, are anchored off the village and, as the fast flowing tide ebbs and the water recedes rapidly down the beach, the boats simply settle onto their sides awaiting the return of the flood tide.
In the channel the tide rips one way and then the other like a water-borne pendulum, the clock mechanism being the moon, and it is by this clock that the community spend their day. As the tide starts to flood, the men come out in their wooden canoes that have evolved to meet their specific tidal role. With one man rowing on one side only whilst another paddles and steers at the stern, the canoe skilfully stems the rapid tide as they work their way across the channel whilst a third, normally the youngster, pays out a long net. Many of these nets may be laid by different canoes. And as the water slackens a few hours on, they return to retrieve their nets and their day’s bounty. This will consist not just of fish, but also the biggest fattest juiciest prawns you’ve ever seen.
We negotiated the purchase of some of these prawns from the fishermen who had laid their net in front of our anchored boat. Sally marinaded them in olive oil and masses of chopped garlic and that evening grilled them. Always when you cook prawns (well, in my experience) the skins turn red. These didn’t – they remained white. Laid on a simple bed of rice, they were the most delicious prawns we had ever tasted.
One of the things we noticed about this community compared to others was how comparatively well dressed they are. We have visited many subsistence fishing villages up and down the coast of Brazil, and they look poor, wearing tattered and dirty looking clothes. Not these folk. Their clothes were kempt and clean (even those of the village drunk!). There was one family that was albino – completely white-skinned with white hair – a cruel genetic blow living under the incredibly harsh equatorial sun.
They see comparatively few strangers. There is one house that acts as a guest house – if there are any guests, and there is the occasional passing yacht. Whilst in no way unfriendly, they are very reserved and a wave from us would barely generate a response. But in their own company they were exuberant and joyous. In the late afternoon after the heat of the sun, all the kids would come out and play on the beach or splash around together in the water. It seemed just such a happy contented community.
The enormous dunes on their doorstep could have been taken directly from the set of “Lawrence of Arabia”. (Dos Lencois means Two Sheets, because it’s like two enormous sheets have been thrown over the island). Constantly changing rolling undulations contort the crests and hollows of ultra-fine sand into fantastic scalloped ribbons. The dunes do not play any part in the lives of the community – or they did not. We were mystified to see the odd local walk up the dunes, hang around a bit, then walk down again. We discovered that if you stand on exactly the right bit of dune you can sometimes, just, get a mobile telephone signal. Their lives are changing.
One of the great attractions for me was the bird life. Numerous birds waded, glided, swam and flew overhead and in the water – vultures, curlews, oystercatchers, pink flamingos and numerous others – they were all there. But without doubt the most spectacular was the Scarlet Ibis. With its long pointed beak, the Scarlet Ibis is not just scarlet from head to toe and from wingtip to wingtip, but it is positively fluorescent. To see one flying through the air is almost painful to the eye, so bright is it. We had heard of a tree where they all come to roost in the evening, the whole tree turning a flaming fluorescent red. Sadly, we were unable to find it - it must have been quite a sight.
We stayed three days in Dos Lencois – we needed all of this time to repair the many additional things that had fallen apart – and I badly needed rest after my debilitating heatstroke. I very much wish we had time to spend a lot longer here, and the means to communicate more effectively with the members of this community. We all felt truly privileged to have visited this most extraordinary and beautiful of places.