The butcher’s boat: Cycling and boating from Sao Raimundo to Xique Xique
I thought Paddy might have an embolism. We had just cycled 11km to Passagem, the fifth time we’d covered the route in the past three days, and the boat he’d finally found to take us across the reservoir had disappeared. Stood on a shore of rocky sand, with pigs and dogs sniffing through the rubbish, it seemed like it might be time to throw the towel in, turn around and start pedalling like crazy to make up the time we’d spent waiting around for a boat.
Our plan had been genius, we thought. Brazil, unlike other countries in South America, has an expansive road network and we had a choice of routes to get to Salvador on the coast. After the town of Sao Raimundo we had 100km to Remanso on the shores of Lago Sobrahinho, a huge reservoir created 40 years ago from the damming of two rivers.
From here there were two options, head east around the lake via Petrolina or find a boat to take us across to the town of Xique Xique. Although the road to Petrolina would be in good condition, it would have heavier traffic. The alternative, taking a boat across the lake, was more appealing. Locals insisted there was a daily boat from Remanso and we knew that the more direct road from Xique Xique to Salvador would be quieter as it went through the middle of nowhere.
Settled on this plan, we left Sao Raimundo, in high spirits enjoying the smooth road and absorbing scenery. 25km along things changed, as we hit a stretch of road the map termed ‘precarious’. There was little choice but to push on and endure a 75km stretch along stones and sand. It made for uncomfortable cycling and our progress wasn’t helped by goats and cattle wandering out in front of us. It was one of those days where the phrase ‘this is never going to end’ was muttered more than once. Of course, it finally did finish and we made it to Remanso in the dark having covered the last 10km with our lights on full and wearing our head torches.
Our hotel manager was confident that there were boats leaving every day to Xique Xique from the pier down by the lake. The next morning though, the fishermen had a different view. It wasn’t easy to understand their colloquial Portuguese, but we got the gist that boats to Xique Xique went from Passagem, 70km west along the lake. It was too late to start cycling that day, so we consoled ourselves with ice cold beers on the shores of the water.
We’ve happily declared several times since returning to Brazil that we’ve cycled our last dirt road of the trip, however, we always seem able to find another one. Fortunately this was only 16km of sand, where the road is being relayed. Any further and I think we may have just given up. When road markings disappear so does any sense that drivers have and we were constantly pulling off the road to avoid land cruisers zooming straight towards us.
Everywhere the workers were busy on the road was dusty and sandy. Desperate for a pee, I managed to find a hidden pit that I clambered down into. Set to leave I stood up, only for the ground to give underneath me and for a hot, trickle to run through the holes of my cycle sandals. I emerged from the hole stony faced, squirting my shoes and feet with my water bottles. I’d like to say Paddy was supportive, but he simply hopped about like a little child, squealing ‘you just weed on yourself!’
Back on the bikes, the tarmac returned and we arrived at lunchtime into the town of Pilao Arcado, brightly decorated for a festival. As we nibbled on cheese and crackers we questioned a local moto taxi driver about boats. He said they went on the 2nd, 4th and 6th of the week (Brazil mark their day with numbers rather than words), whilst a shop owner said there was only a boat on Sunday. Unable to confirm details, we decided to cycle 11km to the port of Passagem, a journey we would undertake several times over the next few days and in the process pass through our 19,000km mark.
We hadn’t expected to find a slick, passenger service but the simplicity of the port surprised us. Passagem was in fact a small, fishing village where the catch was thrown onshore to be packed in ice, made in the two huge cooling towers on the banks of the river. The boats were wooden barges of various sizes, the largest wide enough to carry cattle.
There was no passenger office so we asked the fisherman for information. Quickly, we drew a crowd and tried to decipher the conversation as people argued about when the next boat would be. In the end, they agreed that there would be none today, but that there would be one leaving at 8am the next morning.
We couldn’t stay in Passagem as there was no accommodation or place to camp, so returned to Pilao Arcado for the night. We reached the port the next day by 7am, but the boat had left during the night and there would be nothing for the rest of the day. Unsure what to believe we sat around for a few hours, but gave up on the advice of Genilson , a local builder, who took us under his wing.
He sent us back to the pousada on the promise that he would find out more and drop by the place later to fill us in. True to his word he turned up that evening and offered to take Paddy back to the port at 7am on his motorbike so that we didn’t have another wasted cycle.
Their recce found a fisherman willing to take us, who was leaving for the town of Pedras on the south side of the lake, about 70km away from Xique Xique. It would mean a day cycling to the town, but we didn’t care by that point; we just wanted to cross. We loaded up the bikes, said goodbye to the pousada owner and pedalled furiously to the port.
And that’s when I thought our patience may finally snap.
We were looking at each other with complete disbelief. Paddy had spoken to the captain only an hour earlier and arranged our passage. Fortunately we were saved by the arrival of Genilson who waved us over to another boat leaving immediately to the town of Marracao. We had no idea where this was, our map only showed Xique Xique on the southern side of the lake, but we didn’t care. He seemed confident it would be ok for us and we were keen to get moving.
Paddy climbed on to see me grinning hysterically and returned my smile, happy to finally be on the move. I then had to point out that wasn’t what I was smiling at, but at the pile of cow heads and stomachs at the back of the boat. We seemed to have stepped from one mad situation to another.
The boat was empty aside from the crew and three locals who were taking a lift home. We couldn’t work out the cargo, but presumed the cattle heads had previously had bodies and that they had been carried out to Passagem alive. They were definitely dead now though, the blood running around the bottom of the boat proved that.
Throughout the journey the heads and innards were butchered. It’s one of those things you really don’t want to watch, but can’t help being drawn to. As a vegetarian, I think if you’re going to kill an animal then it’s only right that you use every single bit of it, and in this case you couldn’t accuse them of wasting anything. They took the tongue, brain and other meaty bits out before taking hold of the ears and tossing the head overboard into the river. Next, they squeezed the contents of the intestines out before washing them. Finally, it was all stored in a large cool box full of ice, my seat for the length of the journey.
We were distracted briefly from the process by the sight of our missing boat, the driver merrily chugging along and waving at us as we passed. There wasn’t much that we could do other than laugh and be slightly smug that our new boat was much faster than his.
The four-man crew was lovely. After the massacre was complete and the boat scrubbed spotless they brewed up coffee and offered around soft drinks. It looked like hard work and I don’t imagine it was the most lucrative either. Yet, the captain wouldn’t take payment from us and when we landed they stayed until they were confident we had somewhere safe to stay for the night.
Overall, the journey took seven hours. It was dark by the time we arrived in the small, fishing community of Marracao and we pushed our bikes up to the street to work out what to do next. The captain tried to find a car to drive us to Xique Xique that night, but there was a festival in the town so nobody would drive in. Locals suggested that we pitch the tent on the beach, insisting it was safe, but we weren’t keen as it was full of rubbish and animals rustling around.
We were saved from having to cycle off into the dark to find a campsite by a local called Dinani who invited us to stay with his family. He, his wife and three sons were some of the nicest people we have met on the trip. They plied us with hot milk and biscuits before cooking our pasta and tomato sauce for us. After dinner the eldest son, Danilson, took us for a walk around the village, mainly I think to draw away the large crowd peering in through every window and door of the house eager to get a view of the strangers in town.
The hospitality continued in the morning, when after breakfast Dinani and Daniel accompanied us on their motorbike the 30km to Xique Xique as they didn’t want us to get lost on the sandy road. Having a Portuguese-speaking escort allowed us to concentrate on the task of pedalling, leaving Dinani to answer the questions of people we passed along the route.
At last, we arrived in Xique Xique.
It had taken much longer than we ever expected, but the experience was unforgettable. The people who went out of their way to help us lived simple lives and were not well off. Their generosity and kindness was humbling and that will be the lasting memory of our trip on the butcher’s boat in the middle of nowhere in Brazil.