I had a plan for my Sunday in Aracaju, the same plan most Brazilians on the coast have every weekend—the beach.
But first, I had to find it. Usually, there’s a tiny strip of sand and half of Brazil sitting on it. Praia de Atalaia was the opposite—there was so much sand I couldn’t see the water.
I crossed Avenida Santos Dumont, then I crossed what would turn into a busy street-food park at nighttime (“the great food of Sergipe!” “Taste the Nordeste!”), then I walked on burning hot sand for ten minutes, then I took off my sandals and…
Phew, the ocean.
The beach was lovely, actually, stretching for kilometres and amazingly wide.
Incidentally, February 2 was Dia de Iemanjá, a Brazilian celebration I’m now familiar with. Iemanjá is a goddess from the African Candomble religion brought to Brazil by West African slaves—on Dia de Iemanjá, many Brazilians dressed in white and toss flowers into the sea.
There were already hundreds of white flowers washed upon the shore.
I spotted a couple doing the tossing—or rather, she was handing the flowers to her husband in charge of actually going into the water, a task her long, flowing dress wouldn’t be practical for.
“Excuse me,” I asked. “Where did you buy the flowers?”
“Oh, yesterday, in Centro… they are hard to find in this bairro. Here, take these.”
This is Brazil for you—people are incredibly generous with their time, with tips and well, with flowers.
She handed out three flowers.
I made a wish for each of us, left my stuff on the sand—the beach was empty enough for that—and went far into the ocean to make sure Iemanjá would get them.
It was a hot and sunny Sunday, perfect for the beach and perfect to wander around the waterfront. For the first time, I actually realized Aracaju was a nice tourist destination. I mean, as long as you stayed on the beach (or presumably as long as you have a partner to enjoy the sex shops).
Yet, I still didn’t get Aracaju. It was just weird. For instance, the closest supermarket was at the mall, a 40-minute walk from Praia de Atalaia. Locals apparently shop at the mini-market by the gas station, but it’s unusually expensive for Brazil, even considering it’s basically a big convenience store.
Similarly puzzling was the enthusiasm of Brazilian tourists for local food. Savoury or sweet tapioca crêpes, carne de sol, seafood, mungunzá, espetinhos (meat and seafood skewers), cuscus (semolina cake with a savoury filling), escondidinhos (a casserole with layers of meat or seafood, mashed cassava and cheese) and more. There were dozens of street food stalls feeding people at night and there were all packed. I mean, it’s quite normal to try local delicacies when you travel, but it almost felt like Brazilians tourists were satisfying a major craving!
On Sunday night, I sent Feng an email with the subject line “Empty spaces…” “This is just so weird,” I wrote. “I’ve just realized that apparently, I’m the only guest on the 80-room hotel. Everybody left earlier today, all the doors are open and rooms are empty.”
Definitely a party place for rural and inland Brazil.
Over the weekend, I interacted with many locals who actually said things like “wow, never seen a foreigner before!” and invariably asked why I stopped in Aracaju. “I was curious about it” was my standard answer—and the truth.
And I left with more questions about it than I had when I first spotted it on the map.