O Captain, My Captain, and Also Caipirinhas
Caipirinhas in Paraty
The pink boat stood out even in the crowded harbor. We were in Paraty, the tiny colonial town tucked into Brazil’s Costa Verde, on the recommendation of a friend. The cobblestoned streets, horse-drawn carriages, and white-washed façades that hid expansive pousadas were worth the trip, but everyone we met said taking a boat tour of the coastline was mandatory, so we grabbed water and sunblock and headed to the harbor to try and rent a boat.
The waterfront was filled to capacity with little wooden boats jostling for a berth in the harbor and captains spilled onto the sidewalk trying to negotiate a fare in any language you might speak. But the pink boat caught my eye and the Captain, with his long gray ponytail and deep, leathery, tanned skin, short-shorts, and neon tank-top accepted the fare we offered. We jumped aboard and set off to explore a tiny portion of the 325-mile coastline between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo on a double-decker pink boat.
Since the Captain didn’t speak anything but rudimentary English and I was only skilled at pointing to words in my Portuguese phrasebook, we mostly didn’t bother trying to talk. He would point, we would look. It was a fine arrangement for the most part, but it also lead to more than a few bewildering moments, like when seemingly out of the blue, the Captain climbed to the roof of the ship and jumped. That lead me to jump up from my perch in the bow to run to the side and try to figure out if the boat was on fire or being boarded by pirates or cyborg dolphins or something else that would make a full grown man flee. With no obvious pirates, I gave in to my fate and simply watched as the Captain swam towards a small, densely wooded island, in clean, quick strokes. He hit the beach quickly and disappeared into the woods.
Just as I was about to wonder if this was the beginning of some haunted-ship horror story, the Captain reappeared, atop a tree. He sidled his way up a trunk, stretched out his arm to grab a few somethings nestled in the branches and disappeared again. He soon reemerged on the beach and reversed his trip, diving into the water, swimming one handed, and clambering up the boat’s wooden ladder. After shaking off like a cocker spaniel after a rainstorm, he opened his hand to reveal six tiny limes. He then pulled out a giant knife and dove into his stash for a cracked bottle of something hidden in the inner reaches of his boat and gestured until we understood that caipirinhas were about to happen.
Caipirinhas are Brazil’s national drink, made from cachaça, or sugar cane liquor, sugar, and lime. They are simple and delicious. While the exact origins of the drink, whose name roughly translates as “little countryside drink,” are unknown, it’s believed they were invented in São Paolo in the early 1900s where cachaça, sugar, lime, honey, and garlic were given to patients recovering from the Spanish flu. Without the garlic and honey, the drink has gone from remedy to cause of many a hangover. There’s another version of the story where sailors would drink lime juice to stave off scurvy and at some point, realized that adding cachaça to the mix would make the sea journey much more tolerable. Wherever the tradition started, the drink has become emblematic of Brazil itself: intoxicating, refreshing, steeped in tradition, open to endless interpretation, and prone to making you dance.
Back on the deck, the Captain pulled out a supply of little plastic cups, used his giant knife to slice up the purloined limes, and muddled them with the hilt. Following the recipe in his head, he added sugar, muddled some more, pulled ice from a hidden cooler, and topped it all off with a healthy dollop of cachaça. As he handed out a round of drinks the boat turned from a scenic tour to a booze cruise.
With his bartending duties done, the Captain headed back to the helm, struck up the engine, and steered off into horizon. Thirty minutes later he turned starboard and pulled alongside another of the tiny islands that dot the Southern Brazilian coastline, dropping anchor. That’s when he pulled out the knife again, along with a bunch of honey bananas, quickly chopping them up, before inexplicably throwing them overboard.
We shrugged at the strange behavior (maybe he just really hated bananas?) but waited to see what would happen. We had made quick work of the tangy drinks and as the Captain made a new round, we saw movement in the trees that lined the island. The tiny animals were hiding in the shady treeline, but soon a brave scout was sent out to inspect the fruit. It was a golden lion tamarin, a member of the marmoset family (a family whose crest clearly reads, “Awwwww!”). Once the scout determined the food was in fact food, several more tamarins emerged from the bush and started to feast on the fruit. Golden lion tamarins are an endangered species with a dwindling wild population of only about 3,200—a fact I knew from a friend who had worked on a conservation program—and here were a family of five eating fruit in front of us. I almost dropped my drink in delight. Almost.
As the Captain handed me a new caipirinha, filled with the scent of freshly cut lime, enough ice to help stave off the heat, and sufficient cachaça to ward off seasickness (or the Spanish flu), I suddenly realized that I was in love. Not with the Captain, even though his way with a caipirinha would almost merit overlooking the ponytail and short shorts. But, no, I was in love with an entire country. Brazil is a vast place filled with an expansive wildness punctuated by small moments of pure magic and in that moment I became determined to explore it all … eventually. At the time, sitting in a pink boat being rocked by the waves of the quiet seas with a good drink was enough.