Life on the not (entirely) mythical island of Florianópolis, Brazil
If Florianópolis sounds to you like the name of a magical island where powder blue tides seep in great musical arcs across creamy shores, and the lush-leafed hills ascend gently into mountains layered like ruffles against the thighs of the sky (sage, emerald, pear, indigo, cornflower, jade), then you are onto something, my friend.
If you can already hear the gentle trill of the tangerine-throated, lime-and-teal-backed little birds dancing among the hibiscus and heliconias growing around my hammock, then you’re halfway here. And if you too are mesmerized (wholly, bodily so) by the rhythmic cadence and teasing inflection of the Portuguese tongue—meu deus! That certainly makes two of us.
But Florianópolis is not a legend on the far side of Atlantis—it is a metro area that covers Santa Catarina island, the largest (at 54 x 18 km) of an archipelago of more than 30 islands just off the southern Atlantic coast of Brasil. It is relatively safe, for Brasil (third highest HDI score in all of the country and a relatively low homicide rate as well). In comparison to, say, Rio, where you might not want to hike up to Cristo Redentor without an armed guard.
If that doesn’t sound particularly reassuring, I should quote Tom Robbins:
“Somewhere in the archives of crudest instinct
is recorded the truth that it is better to be endangered and free
than captive and comfortable.”
(With love, from your favourite vagabond. Actually, do you know another one? Another real, verifiably homeless one? I’d love to meet them.)
But back to the matter at hand: Florianópolis. Affectionately called Floripa by its remarkably friendly residents. If the murder rate is only comparatively low, who exactly in this barrio would want to murder me? I am still trying to figure it out. The answer, most probably, is no one. I’ve been told that crime here is quite organised, that the Primeiro Grupo Catarinense (PGC), which runs the state and prisons in Santa Catarina, has a well-structured hierarchy and a written constitution (cartilha da facção) that forbids extortion, rape, and crimes against children.
I’d happily interview them if I could identify them. But so far, I’ve only met an exuberant English teacher with punk rock pink hair called Larissa, a bearded tattoo artist named Lukas, and an absurdly talented chef, owner of il Macellaio Hamburgueria Artesanal, who made me a choice burger dressed up in blue cheese, almonds, and pear confit, and who regaled me with tales of studying in Holland and Italy, before telling me with the most adorably regretful grimace that he was married. His rosemary potatoes alone deserved a Michelin star.
It isn’t unusual for one’s Uber driver to be a gorgeous Brazilian goddess (yes, there is Uber, and it’s 3x faster than London’s version to come and scoop you up, whilst costing as much as their public transportation). The driver who collected me from the airport was a woman. The driver who took me from my pousada to the Café Cultura in Rio Tavernes, where I spent the better part of my workday today, was also a woman. She was all sly grin and Junoesque eyebrows and half-braided, half loose waves the colour of dark roast coffee, and she was bumping “No Woman No Cry.”
No one knows much English, but that doesn’t stop them from having a delightful conversation with you. One just uses lots of sign language and laughs after every broken sentence, resulting in a buoyant and lengthy game of charades and coordinated facial gymnastics. I’ve had no choice but to learn a few bits of Portuguese—água com gás (sparkling water), being the first of these (as I do not drink cold things that don’t sparkle), café com leite (coffee with milk), onde fica o banheiro (where is the bathroom), um para o jantar, por favor (one for dinner, please), and obrigado (thank you) being not far behind. Should all else fail me, I can just speak Spanish and they will get the gist of it. I can remember more Español at a pinch than I tend to give myself credit for.
So you stay among the friendly, and watch your ATM card, and you don’t walk home alone in the power outage, and you’re fine. I even made the somewhat dubious decision to eat fresh fruits (that I didn’t peel myself) and raw vegetables, and I haven’t even gotten close to violently ill. (I could smell the low risk in the air and the water supply—I always can and I’m never wrong.)
I’ve not had one meal that wasn’t lovely, and the weather is the most objectively perfect spring fare that one can rightly imagine (warm sunny days and slightly chilly nights that beg for long walks in a sweater and sandals). It does get cold here, in the deep of winter, and because of the humidity, you very much feel it. Lukas the tattoo artist told me that he has heard Russians complain about the cold here.
But September is the gentlest of early spring, and the breezes are like butterfly kisses from the shade, stirring solace into the already powerful sunlight, and I am content to while away five weeks here, and watch the warmth grow into something golden. Places like this remind me how lucky I am to be a wanderer.