Saturday, December 14, 2013

Meeting Xica, the 50-Year-Old Mermaid

She is too old to ensnare sailors under her spell. Nonetheless she has an impressive fan club, including me, who fondly celebrated her 50th birthday with her. Xica is the matriarch manatee at the Manatee Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center (Parque Mamiferos Aquaticos) in Itamaracà Island in the northern state of Pernambuco in Brazil. Seeing manatees which I had never seen before was on my bucket list.

Mermaids, the mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have been part of seafaring legends since the ancient Greeks. After many months at sea, sailors commonly mistook manatees for mermaids. Even a seasoned navigator like Christopher Columbus was fooled by these creatures. He reportedly saw three of them when sailing near Hispanolia Island in the Caribbean Sea. Their physical appearance strongly disappointed him; they were not the beauties he had dreamed of!

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Xica is no beauty either. She has an ugly bump on her back, the result of an accident when in the wild. Incapable of fending for herself, she was rescued and now lives peacefully with other manatees in a large sea water pool. During my visit the sanctuary was taking care of ten manatees, including two babies born in the premises. The young ones will eventually be released. In Brazil, manatees are on the endangered species list, victims of loss of habitat, accidental encounters with boats and poaching. Fortunately local fishermen no longer hunt manatees. I agree with Columbus, manatees are not sexy marine mammals. However, in spite of their size, one feels like hugging these meek and peaceful beasts whose bulbous eyes project gentleness.


In addition to manatees, injured dolphins are common wards of the Center, but we could not see them. If manatees are gentle, unassuming animals, the local iguanas don’t shy away from the visitors; they are even pushy. During my visit, a one-meter long creature followed me around. I was wary of so much attention. It lost interest after I took a close picture shot. I had met a vain iguana.

Itamaracà is a small island separated from the mainland by mangrove, the manatee habitat. The east coast faces the open sea. In the 1980s, its beaches made the island famous. These white sand beaches were the playground of the rich inhabitants of Recife, the capital of Pernambuco. Now they attract a more popular section of the population. If week-ends bring the crowds, on week days the beaches are quiet, even quaint. Un je ne sais quoi which makes them very charming.

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The first visitors to the island were not tourists but prisoners. World over, islands have been prized as secure locations for penitentiaries and Itamaracà Island has three of them. Current technology, whether used by jail wardens or inmates, no longer justifies building prisons on islands. As a matter of fact, a week before my visit in November, 22 prisoners escaped. About half were caught in the mangrove, the others are still on the run. Penitentiaries and jail breaks do not spruce up the image of Itamaracà. To burnish the island’s reputation the local decision makers bank on its historic landmarks, one being Fort Orange, an imposing 17th century Dutch fort.


The Portuguese settled in Pernambuco around 1537. Recife was built on an island among marsh and mangrove and Olinda close-by on a hillside. The settlers started a flourishing sugarcane business. This was not lost on the Dutch who coveted their trade. They invaded the coastal areas of northern Brazil around 1630. Their occupation lasted until 1654 when the last fort surrendered to the Portuguese. The Dutch erected sixteen forts to protect their conquest. One was built in Recife. Because the Dutch forts were destroyed during the sieges, the constructions which one visits now are Portuguese.

Under the short Dutch management Recife or Mauritsstad, its Dutch name thrived. Some 3000 settlers moved to the new colony seeking economic opportunities and religious freedom. Many were Jews; the first synagogue of Latin America was built in Recife. With the return of the Portuguese, the Inquisition was enforced and many Jews left for New Amsterdam, now Manhattan.

The Dutch colonization lasted only 24 years but its influence lasted much more at least if one believes the local tour guides. The Dutch occupation has become the bread and butter of the city tourism! This development will have delighted Count John Maurice of Nassau, the enlightened governor of the Dutch colony. In spite of what tour guides claim, Dutch Recife was probably not very impressive in terms of urbanization. I am no naysayer but it seems to me that this Dutch legacy is more fiction than fact. The synagogue is probably one of the few Dutch landmarks still standing, and it has been recently restored. Now the historic part of the city is a hodge-podge of buildings, many dilapidated from the 18th century churches and convents, 19th century government edifices to 20th century skyscrapers. What really strikes the first time visitor is the forest of skyscrapers probably three times the size of Manhattan. Recife metro counts some 3.8 million people, and most of them must be living in high rises. The beautiful Boa Viagem beach is now totally rimmed by a solid wall of skyscrapers.

Antidote to Recife’s skyscraper jumble is the colonial city of Olinda, a few kilometers north. Founded by the Portuguese and ransacked by the Dutch, Olinda is a UNESCO World heritage site. This town is for colonial churches fanatics, otherwise, skip it and go to the beach. The Dutch burnt most of them, but during the 18th century they were rebuilt by the Portuguese with an overload of golden adornment.


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Recife is a three hour flight from Rio de Janeiro. Itamaracà Island is a one hour drive north from Recife, but it took me three hours to get there, thanks to snail-speed public transport and a protest which blocked the traffic for hours. Public transport in Rio is poor but one can choose to pay more to travel in comfortable air conditioned buses. Pernambuco doesn’t offer such luxury, all buses belong to the popular category: rickety, dirty and over-crowded; the hardship is alleviated by the good nature of the passengers. During the trip I watched my fellow passengers. White and black folks are a minority, the mass of them are everything in between, reflecting centuries of miscegenation.

Within the island, mini vans were the transport of choice. My foreign accent (no one could guess its origin) gave me instant prestige and I was invited to sit next to the driver instead of being squeezed on the backs seats. I also rode taxis, plentiful even in the most remote parts de the island. Itamaracà drivers are a chatty bunch, and my trade-mark curiosity was fully satisfied.

Xica the gentle sea mammal does not make headlines in Recife; a more sinister sea creature does. Pernambuco holds an unwelcome and vexing record that of having the most shark attacks (57 since 1992 when records were taken) of the Brazilian coastline as well as the highest shark attack-related death rate in the world. Bull and Tiger sharks are enthusiastic man bitters, they love the warm waters off Pernambuco State and migrate along a deep water trench parallel to the Boa Viagem beach where most of the accidents happened. They also feed on the coral reef between the beach and the trench. Pollution and environment destruction have also disturbed their routine. Every Pernambucano as the inhabitant of the state is known has his or her explanation for these deadly attacks. The Pernambucano doesn’t taste sweeter than the Carioca (Rio de Janeiro resident), but there are more of them in the warm waters of Boa Viagem, hence the high number of casualties.

Coincidentally, Recife owes its name to that reef, the killer sharks’ diner table.

This blog is dedicated to my friends Kathleen and Richard who can spot sharks from their balcony overlooking Boa Viagem beach.