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Simple Rusticity in Coastal Trancoso, Brazil

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

Rhapsodies about hippie-dropout meccas make me skeptical; one dude’s far-out fantasy is another’s dysfunctional cesspool. Still, imagine Trancoso in the early 1970’s, when the first nonnatives—hippies and other urban refugees from Brazil and elsewhere—stumbled upon this remote Pataxó Indian village, where money was fish and fish were plentiful. The newcomers were called biribandos, a Pataxó term for “outsiders.” By most accounts, they fit in well with the villagers—even helping to restore the town church, which had languished in disrepair.

Many original biribandos remain here, and are known mainly by their first names: Lia, Calé, Leila, Calá. (That several of the ragtag escapees came from São Paulo families with prominent surnames is perhaps not unrelated.) A new generation of hippies manqué has followed in their footsteps: guys in untrimmed beards pushing strollers around the square, sun-drenched women with middle parts and beaded bikinis, teenage longhairs noodling on the berimbau or grooving on the cuíca, the Bahian percussion instrument that emits a squeak like a puppy whose tail was just stepped on. One can always make out the tang of ganja smoke in the breezes wafting across the Quadrado. This may explain why one biribando is presently collecting insect wings in the hope of building a spaceship.

After the hippies came other free spirits: painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians. The actress Sonia Braga visited frequently in the 1980’s, as did the tropicália singer Gal Costa. Her former summer house on Praia dos Nativos is now a Relais & Châteaux resort, Pousada Estrela d’Água (with the best bar on the beach). Elba Ramalho, the high priestess of forró music, owned a local club called Bar Bossa, where she often took the stage.

Since the turn of the millennium, another breed of biribando has arrived, landing private jets at the Terravista airstrip and flying choppers into town. The new wave uses not fish or dentures but actual money—a lot of it—to scoop up beachfront villas and rustic pieds-à-terre. Naomi, Eddie Vedder, and Gisele have joined the Quadrado promenade. Sig Bergamin, a Brazilian interior designer with an international clientele, and Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane, both own property nearby. With them came outposts of fabulous Brazilian boutiques like Lenny and Richards.

Like Goa and Ibiza before it, Trancoso would seem to be at the tipping point between high freak and high fashion, hippies and hipsters. Yet despite recent incursions, Trancoso is curiously glamour-resistant—high-end shops are usually dead-empty, and besides, nobody wears heels on the Quadrado. Here the dominant pretension is the lack thereof. “Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the rich from the nonrich,” notes André, a Paulista who moved here in 2006. “Back home they shop at Daslu [the swank São Paulo department store], but when they come to Trancoso they all dress like fishermen.” Ostentation just won’t cut it here. Two years ago a nightclub opened near the Quadrado, complete with a velvet rope and goons holding clipboards. Suffice it to say this didn’t go over well. “Everyone in line is wearing sandals, and here’s this huge guy in a tie saying, ‘Not on the list!’ ” André recalls with a laugh. The club closed within months.

From the first morning of that first visit, our crew fell into an easy routine taking us back and forth between the beach and the Quadrado. Trancoso’s languorous rhythms nudge travelers to adjust their goals accordingly. Our daily activities roster: (1) count bindi marks; (2) count plastic surgery marks; (3) frolic in the surf at Estrela d’Água and work up an appetite for ceviche and grilled octopus; (4) walk up the hill and buy another coconut from Raimundo; (5) see how off-tempo the hippie drumming combo on the Quadrado gets the more the players smoke; (6) marvel at Professor Diney’s hyperathletic capoeira troupe and wish we had abs; (7) forget about abs and order more passion-fruit caipirinhas; (8) look at that moon; (9) look at those stars; (10) look for more Havaianas.

The Havaianas became something of an obsession. We had 14 orders for Brazil’s beloved flip-flops from friends back home. We realized that the farther we strayed from the Quadrado, the more the prices dropped, until we found the Supermercado Nogueira, in Trancoso’s dusty commercial ghetto on the edge of town. Here was the mother lode: among the diapers and canned hearts of palm we found dozens of Havaianas at only $6 a pair (a fourth of the cost on the Quadrado). We schemed to start up our own sandal-importing business, with a sideline in hearts of palm.

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