12 May 2014

That End-of-World Feeling

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the mini-metropolis of Cabo Frio, immediately next door to the much smaller and much more cosmopolitan resort town of Búzios that my husband and I have been living in for 12 years. But suppose you pass through downtown Cabo Frio, you hang a left at the traffic rotary where the VW dealership is, you pass the campus of the Estácio de Sá University (with its main entrance looking kind of like a Las Vegas convention hotel), and then you continue on, cleaving as close as you can to the coast, through the increasingly high sand dunes on either side of the increasingly sand-swept road. What do you come to next?

What you come to next is the town of Arraial do Cabo, most of which — same as Búzios — is situated on a peninsula extending out into the South Atlantic. A map will show the way these towns line up in relation to each other in a nanosecond. But you could also just think of Búzios and Arraial as the two front claws of a crab, with Cabo Frio as the crab’s useful, but slightly ugly, snub nose.

I really love Arraial do Cabo. Or maybe I don’t . . . I’m never sure. I wish I could resolve this in my head. We started driving down to Arraial back in the early months of our sojourn here when we were still in that hey-what-do-you-think-is-over-that-hill? mode. On one of the principal beaches we found and embraced a funky restaurant called the Narcose Dive Bar, where we were once gifted with a Narcose Dive Bar plate that has served us ever since as a soap dish. Next door was a surprisingly good Arab restaurant, with great hummus and great baba ganoush and tabouli, and every time we went in the owner would pump us as to whether we thought there was a market for a similar place in Búzios as well. That was always entertaining.

The main thing about Arraial, though, is this one very special spot at the top of the great mountainous formation called the Atalaia, which means watchtower or lookout, way out at the very end of the peninsula. Stand there and look down at the ocean churning underneath you and you get that incredible feeling of being at the very edge of the known universe. Beyond it . . . nothing . . . except, somewhere far off to the east, Namibia. This is a feeling I know from only three other places in our world, the Pointe Ste.-Barbe out at the westernmost tip of France (in the department of . . . well, they don’t call it Finistère for nothing), Sagres in the southwest corner of Portugal’s Algarve and Ushuaia at the bottom tip of Argentina. But people who have been in South Africa tell me that there are places where you get a similar chill there. And I’m sure that there are dozens if not hundreds of other such places around the world. But this one is ours.

On the dizzying approach . . .

Once on my birthday we checked into a pousada in Arraial, even though it’s not more than an hour from where we live. The idea wasn’t just to give me a treat, the ostensible idea was that we’d be able to go out and have dinner at one of the more serious Arraial restaurants, wash it down with a drink or two, and not have to risk a breathalyzer on the way back. But the birthday was really just an excuse. Arraial keeps pulling me back, and I think it’s that end-of-world feeling up on the Atalaia that’s most responsible, that feeling of standing right at the edge of the abyss, which is frightening and exhilarating, depressing and seductive; it’s 45 minutes away and on occasion, it’s just too chilling for speech.

For those who are interested, the remoteness of Arraial do Cabo is vividly caught in this short men-against-the-sea film from 1959. No titles, but you don't need them.

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