Learning about Life in an Oasis in Lençois Maranhenses National Park, Brazil

Preparations for a lunch of rice and beans and “chicken caipira” – free-range chicken (©Coen Wubbels)

Farinha in your coffee?!”
“Oh yes, that’s the best breakfast. Much more nutritious than biscuits or white bread, like kids want to eat today. Drink coffee with some grains of manioc in it and you don’t need to eat for hours,” my host Maria answers.

Marinaldo, my guide, joins the conversation, “Apart from coffee with farinha, I also grew up with a dish that we called ‘farinha with farinha‘. My mother would make oatmeal of farinha and coconut milk. When it was served we would add more farinha. So: farinha with farinha,” Marinaldo says, and laughs.

Sharing stories with Maria (©Coen Wubbels)

We sit around the wooden table in the kitchen. Maria has prepared coffee (without farinha, mind you) that we sip from small ceramic cups. We are talking about their customs and ways of life.

From Dunes to an Oasis

This morning, after a couple of hours of traversing soft yellow dunes and the sand slowly making way for green vegetation, we entered the oasis of Quemado dos Britos, located just inland from  Brazil northeast coast. Britos was the name of the first family who settled here a couple of generations ago. They made a living by herding cattle and sheep and in order to stimulate the growth of fresh grass, they annually burned it – quemado means ‘burned’ in Portuguese. Over the years, locals started referring to this place as Quemado dos Britos and the name stuck.

Entering the oasis (©Coen Wubbels)

Today, three extended families live in the oasis. Outsiders can’t settle here because it is part of the protected Lençois Maranhenses National Park. The inhabitants are no longer allowed to burn the vegetation so cattle raising stopped and they have lived on fishing ever since, and increasingly on tourism. Marinaldo is good friends with the locals Billoquinho and Maria, and we are staying a large part of the day in and around their house.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You’d like to see what life in an oasis is like.
  • The dunes of Lençois Maranhenses are among Brazil’s, if not South America’s, most spectacular landscapes.
  • Good for those interested in different cultures or the adventurous who like hiking in the dunes.

Facilities in the Oasis of Quemada dos Britos

One of the vegetable patches on stilts (©Coen Wubbels)

The premises are surrounded by a fence of branches to keep out the goats. The walls of Billoquinho’s and Maria’s house are made of branches too and it has a thatched roof; they have their own environmentally-friendly aircon as there is always a breeze, or strong wind, coming from the Atlantic Ocean over the dunes. Unfortunately, with the wind also come the dust devils that penetrate everywhere and in order to minimize the problem Maria has put palm leaves on the sandy ground around her house.

Some houses in the community are made of cement. The contrast between traditional ways of life and modernity penetrating this society is visible in other aspects as well: Electricity hasn’t been connected to Maria’s and Billoquinho’s home yet: they make their own lanterns by filling tins with kerosene that feeds a wick. The average toilet is still a hole in the ground with a bucket of water to rinse (or to shower). But I also notice a couple of solar panels and televisions, and the community has cell phone connection.

Food and Self-Sufficiency

Maria cooks on coal, not on wood. “Keeps the pans cleaner,” she comments. In her garden is a water pump for drinking water, thatched-roof huts to keep tools and vegetables patches on stilts, which prevents the black soil from getting mixed with the white sand. Maria grows tomatoes, onions, some type of calabash and cucumbers. She is trying to grow a papaya tree, well protected behind a fence against the fierce wind. I hope it will make it. They have mangoes, manioc and cashew. Amid the dryness of the 1500 square kilometers of dunes I had not expected such nutritious wealth.

“Come, come, have some tasty termites!” (©Coen Wubbels)

Before lunch, we had visited Maria’s parents’ place. Over the years they have created a pleasant and inviting home for themselves and others, with a fenced-off area full of fruit trees. Biñu brought a plate with freshly roasted cashew nuts. No salt, just toasted. Perfect. There were more than a dozen young chickens running around, but what was that termite nest doing on the ground?

Maçu broke off a part and started hitting the two pieces together above a plastic lid: all termites fell out. The young chickens went wild: they ran and screamed and ate as fast as they could. “A natural antibiotic or penicillin,” Maçu said. “My chickens never get sick and only die because we are ready to eat one.

The Influence of Tourism

Biñu and Maçu were the first to have a Bed & Breakfast in Quemada dos Britos. “Before we only had fish and life was incredibly tough. Now tourism brings in some cash. It makes life a bit easier,” Maçu explained.

Farinha is made from manioc. The tubers are peeled, grated and roasted into grains (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s the same story Marinaldo told me. “Tourism has been a blessing for many of us,” he had commented earlier that morning. Tourism was only introduced to the region some ten years ago. Before that, these places were so cut off from the world that money was hardly used. It’s hard to imagine, but Marinaldo is my age (40s) and grew up without money. He told a bit more about it when Biñu showed how she was making a hat of fibers of carnauba palm leaves. “We had to do that too when we were young,” Marinaldo said. “We fished for days on end and when we didn’t fish, we made hats. Every once in a while a vendor would come from São Luís by boat (12 hours; there were no roads) to swap the hats for necessities like coffee, sugar and kerosene.

Back to Farinha

When Marinaldo grew up, in a nearby fishing village, there was no money for luxuries. They basically lived on fish and farinha (grains of manioc). Nowadays, meat (pork and chicken) is an important part of the people’s diet. The Brazilian custom of eating rice and beans every day has penetrated the oasis as well and when we returned to Maria and Billoquinho’s house we were served lunch with exactly those ingredients. After which coffee followed.

“Take some farinha,” Maria offered me as I was tasting the fresh shrimp a neighbor had just brought over to share. I asked why. “I don’t know,”  she answered. “We just do. We eat it with our rice, our beans, and put it in our coffee.”

And that’s how we started talking about farinha and all the dishes it can be used for. Including coffee.

Lençois Maranhenses National Park consists of 1500 square kilometers of dunes (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical Information

  • Barreirinhas is the official gateway to Lençois Maranhenses National Park and lies on the west side of the park. If you like tourist towns with all facilities but also with nagging salesmen trying to sell their tours, this is the place to go. If you like peace and quiet with all facilities, albeit fewer, stay at Santo Amaro, a village on the west side.
  • I stayed at Santo Amaro. It has several basic Bed & Breakfasts – a great way to support otherwise generally poor fishing families – as well as comfortable guesthouses.
  • Marinaldo has a basic guesthouse and organizes various tours, among which hiking trips into the dunes. I heartily recommend him because of his pleasant companionship and thorough knowledge of the region (he grew up here). He is learning English. Pousada Lulayna Dunas; Email: bjosemarinaldo@hotmail.com, Phone: (98) 8879-9438
  • Small-scale tour operators offer different kinds of trips into the dunes and activities such as tubing down the river and horseback riding.

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