Tribe on the edge – The beautiful beaches of Bahia have pulling power but there’s also a history and a soul here that’s every bit as alluring. After the local Tupiniquin were displaced by the Portuguese, the Ge tribe moved in and attacked the colonisers. They proved formidable opponents, but gradually declined due to disease; however, their descendents – the Pataxo – are still here, and still embattled. The largest of the state’s seven indigenous groups, the Pataxo were handed land around Caraiva in 1926, which was designated a protected Indian reserve. It came under almost instant attack from cattle ranchers and farmers, with a nod from the government. Now, though, a different challenge faces them. Arriving at the village of Aldeia – more Mediterranean villas than native tipis and mudhouses – I was granted an audience with the local chief, a friendly chap called Awrau.
“It’s a stressful job but an important one. I’m proud to represent my people,” he said. Awrau invited us into his modern home. Hanging on the wall were framed photos of departed relatives wearing giant beads made from coconut shells and extravagant feathered headdresses. “The past is painful,” said Awrau, speaking of the centuries gone by since the Portuguese arrived. “We feel sad about that period but that’s over now. We must live with and learn from each other.” The group suffered more bloodshed in 1951 when a wealthy farmer from Corumbau was kidnapped. Police forces from the north and south sprang into action sparking a bloody gun battle, with the Indian reservation caught in the crossfire. “Many died and many more fled. Most didn’t return for 20 years. Slowly they came back and we began rebuilding the village.” The mood in the room was sombre but outside children played, music blaring from their mobile phones.
“We have modern homes, with TV and internet, but our traditions are intact,” insisted Awrau. “Our community spirit is still alive. We continue to use medicinal plants to heal the sick. We still fish for our food and we still build our own furniture.” But like indigenous communities the world over, such traditions are increasingly under strain as younger generations seek a different path in the wider world. As you’d expect from a wise Indian chief, Awrau had the answer. “It’s a big worry but we cannot pretend the modern world doesn’t exist. We allow our young to leave and go to university in the big cities under the promise that they return with their newfound knowledge and skills to make the village better.”
The secret beach – On my final afternoon I pondered the future of the Pataxo while attempting to stand-up paddle-surf on the Rio Caraiva, a popular pastime in these parts, and – in theory – a much more relaxed way to take in the scenery. Fabio taught me the basics as we zig-zagged our way across the water, which was lined on both sides by impenetrable mangroves. The silence and solitude intensified with every bend of the river, the sounds of the village growing fainter with each stroke. I proved to be a natural, falling in only four times… My feet sank into the riverbed’s thick mud and knocked against large boulders, unseen in the murky depths. “Don’t worry,” laughed Fabio as I thrashed around, trying to get back on my board. “There’s no danger here – no crocodiles or snakes.”
The wind picked up, propelling us forwards and creating ripples that danced across the sepia surface. I stopped to gaze up at the green mountaintops; a row of palm trees stood on the highest ridge, like swaying scarecrows. Fabio paddled close to the mangroves and paused beside a gap so small I hadn’t even spotted it. He vanished into the darkness, leaving me alone on the river. I quickly followed him, crouching down to squeeze through the narrow channel. On the other side was Caraiva’s parting gift: the smallest beach I have ever seen, barely ten paces long, backed by a steep slope. Fabio and I raced to the top, reaching the sandy summit just as the setting sun gently kissed the peaks, basking the river and mangroves below in the warmest of amber glows – a farewell glimpse of Bahia’s special little secret.