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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Brazil

The Nine Lives of Barra Grande

 Editor’s note: Last in a series from a reporting trip to Brazil Oct. 21-27, 2023

  BARRA GRANDE, Brazil – I’m sitting at a beachfront café table overlooking the Atlantic in Barra Grande, the village, talking with Barra Grande, the man.

  Having just met him, I’m confused how one can be named after the other. Barra Grande is not surprised.

  “That story, my friend, will come soon enough,” he says.

  I had heard about the man and his legendary life in advance of my visit and was told he was someone I would enjoy getting to know.

  At first glance, Barra Grande the man looks like an aged beach bum. His tanned face is deeply lined from his many years of sun exposure. Although his mostly grey hair has thinned on top, a thick white crop runs above his pink tee shirt collar half way up his neck.  By contrast, his thick eyebrows are suspiciously black and he has perfect white teeth that look too good to be his own. I don’t ask.

  It’s when Barra Grande starts talking about his many lives that he crushes any preconceived notions I may have had from my early observations. The man is a magnetic force of positive energy that compels you to listen to every word, even if you aren’t fluent in Portuguese, which I am not.

Young Barre Grande

  Home for Barra Grande as a youngster was not far from this world-class beach, located in northeastern Brazil, 120 miles east of the Piaui state capital of Teresina.  Barra Grande was a fishing village in those days, the early ‘60s. Barra Grande, the boy, built coconut-fueled fires for his mother to bake the cakes she sold in and around the village. His father was a peddler as well, canvasing the area by donkey selling flour. The family also operated a small grocery.

  Since the area lacked schools, when Barra Grande was 11 his mother moved him and his three siblings to Parnaiba, Piaui’s second largest city, 42 miles west. His father remained behind, running the family business.

  Barra Grande remembers his first day in school when the teacher asked him his name. He responded: Antonio Luis Marques de Albuquerque Silva.

  “That’s too long,” the teacher told him. “Where are you from?”

  “Barre Grande.”

  “OK, that’s your name now.”

  Barra Grande’s always active hands are fully animated as he retells the story, one he clearly has recounted many times.

  Over the next 21 years, he sailed through school, earned an accounting degree, moved to Teresina, worked in the chemical industry, and married and fathered two children, Bruno and Carol. Teresina’s mayor at the time recognized Barra Grande’s business acumen and hired him to monitor the city’s trading activity. He then joined the office of a prominent state official. There, his leadership skills and dynamic personality attracted such a following there was talk of Barra Grande starting his own party. It appeared there was no limit to how far he might go.

  Then, his marriage fell apart. And he started thinking about his village and the simplicity of his previous life.

  At 32, Barra Grande returned to Barra Grande.

Into the Gutter

  The year was 1993.  “It was fate for me to come back,” he says. “I had a good life in Teresina, but I kept thinking about this beautiful beach that I remembered as a kid. There was nothing here at the time. It was a small community of fishermen.   Everyone knew everyone. I was just looking for some peace and quiet after living such a hectic life in the city.”

  Although his mother had died, his father was still living in the simple home he had built before Barra Grande left. He helped his father in the grocery and with the family chickens and vegetable garden.

  Everything was good. Until one day, when he was 35, it wasn’t.

  Barra Grande found a new love; it resided in a bottle.

  The wind has picked up, blowing hard off the water from the east. Someone cranked up the volume on the café’s music system. Barra Grande, a bit more somber now, has to speak louder to be heard.

  According to Barra Grande, there was no significant event or warning on his slide into the abyss. “I’m not sure how or why it happened,” he says. “It just did.”

  He drank beer, vodka, whiskey, cachaca - the local moonshine - anything that would give him a constant, mindless buzz. He lived in the streets, moving up and down the coast from village to village - a filthy, homeless drunk with hair half way down his back. His past and still reasonably pleasant personality bought him some sympathy from the locals. In exchange for basic chores, they fed him and paid him enough to sustain his habit.

  It went on and on for nine years. Somehow, he survived.

  In the 10th year of his infinite bender, he acquired a small boat and started fishing. He fished and drank and avoided drowning.   He was pretty good with a lure and was able to earn a living, although most of it paid for his booze.

  During this time, he was estranged from his family. He hadn’t seen his children in years. It didn’t matter: Nothing could steer him toward sobriety. Until the day he was told his son, Bruno, one year out of law school, had died. The news shattered Barra Grande, causing him to experience a long-lost feeling of sadness and remorse.

  “I started to think about my son and my life,” he says. “And I finally realized that if I continued drinking I would die.”

  Once again, Barra Grande returned to Barra Grande.

The Comeback

  By then, he was almost 50 and had wasted 14 prime years. He quickly realized he had to focus on something just as important as abstinence.

  “The hardest part was not stopping drinking,” he says, “but regaining the trust of my family and friends.”

  True enough, he remained sober but kept fishing as no one would hire him for work suited to his capabilities. But this new Barra Grande, a mellower, more spiritual version of the original, believed with a deep conviction that his time would come.

  Seemingly as quick as flipping a switch, in the early 2000s Barra Grande’s unspoiled beach and idyllic setting was discovered by other Brazilians, particularly those living in Teresina, only two hours away. A number of wealthier visitors saw the potential and began building hotels and restaurants. As the village developed, some of the fishermen realized they could make a better living in tourism. One of them, Capucho, a close friend of Barra Grande, built a hotel and several homes on the beach about 500 yards from the café where we sat.

  “He’s a very wealthy man now,” Barra Grande says.

  Barra Grande’s break arrived subtly with a simple request. Ariosto, a successful restaurant owner, thought the village’s strong easterly winds five months of the year would make it ideal for the growing sport of kitesurfing. He asked Barra Grande the man to help with a promotion campaign. I didn’t have to ask if it was successful. As Barra Grande told the story I looked over his left shoulder, across the beach to the sea. Flying high above the water were 30, maybe 40 kites of all colors, sharply contrasted against a blue sky, being navigated by young surfers. That scene generated a large smile of satisfaction from Barra Grande.

  “Yes, that has been a big part of the village’s growth,” he says.

  Word spread: Barra Grande the man was back. A pair of developers building two hotels asked him to help. So successful was the project, they planned a celebratory event. Barra Grande shocked the hosts when he told them he would prepare a grilled seafood meal for the occasion. Unbeknown to his new and old friends, he spent considerable time during his drunken years hanging around kitchens at restaurants he’d frequent. Barra Grande would handle menial tasks in exchange for food. But he also observed the chefs’ grilling techniques, which he filed away in his still lively brain.

  The dinner was a hit. Afterwards, the developers presented Barra Grande with a new paddleboard, the idea being that he loved the water and the sport would get him in shape.

  “I had never been on one before,” he says. “For me it was a mental and physical transformation.”

  He tackled the sport with vigor. He soon became so accomplished that he bought five more paddleboards and began renting them out as well as directing backwater tours to Barra Grande visitors, a business he still operates.

  The paddleboarding and a healthy diet clearly has paid off. Barra Grande stood to stretch – we have been talking non-stop for almost two hours – revealing a slender body and lithe movements. At 62, his stomach is taut, his legs and arms well-toned.

  In addition to the paddleboard business, his culinary skills had been noticed. He became in demand for catering gigs. It all happened so fast, sometimes Barra Grande had to stop and think about how far he had traveled from one world to the next.

  “My life keeps getting better and better,” he says, shaking his head, seemingly amazed himself by the improbability of his late-life ascent. “I have a relationship with my daughter. She’s a nurse in Teresina.”

Giving Back

  At this point, Barra Grande, the man, turned his attention to Barra Grande, the village, which was becoming unrecognizable – and unaffordable - to long-time residents. The beach side of the village, a square of sand-covered streets and boardwalks, is crammed with bars, restaurants, boutique hotels, retail shops and kiosks featuring mostly jewelry artisans.

  “Things were getting out of control,” he says. “I wanted to help develop the community in a thoughtful way.”

  A generation had passed since fishing and poultry farming were the life bread of the community. Barra Grande began teaching young adults how to cultivate oyster beds and the proper methods of chicken farming. Surprisingly computer savvy, he schooled locals on the importance of digital technology. As happened when he was a young man in Teresina, he built a following. This time they encouraged him to run for the village council, which he did.

  It didn’t go well.

  “The politicians were jealous of me because I was doing the things they should have been doing,” he says. “They also didn’t want a former drunk in office. So they conspired against me by promising my supporters favors.”

  He had hoped to get 250 votes. He ended up with 12.

  Still, the always positive Barra Grande has a healthy outlook from the experience.

  “I don’t feel betrayed. I was a victim of politics,” he says. “I will continue to do good things for my village. Who knows, maybe I’ll run for mayor one day.”

  Our visit winding down, Barra Grande has a final surprise – an invitation to his restaurant this evening. The catering business, though successful, was a grind. But he loved to cook. His late father had left him his house, so he sold it and used the money to open a simple eatery featuring grilled seafood, his specialty.

  “What’s it called?” I ask.

  “What Do You Want? he replies with a mischievous smile, knowing I’d be confused once again.

  He explains: “When I catered parties, people always asked me,   ‘What are you serving?’ I’d always respond, ‘What do you want?’”

  We adjourn to the beach for a photo session. A firm handshake and a final comment follow, confirming the impressive depth of this vibrant, complex man.

  “I got lost for a very long time,” he says. “I am lucky to have survived. So it’s very emotional for me that I got my life and my family back.”

  With that, Barra Grande, the man, disappears into Barra Grande, the village.


Reported and written by: George J. Tanber

Edited by: Michael Gordon

Photo editor: David Kozy

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