When five riders set out to discover the secrets of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, they acquired far more insight than they had bargained for.
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The Parisien motorcycling friends arrived in Brazil with a clearly defined checklist: have an adventure, meet new people and find out the true meaning of beauty.
As they ticked off the first two they started to find the answer to the third… that the secret of true beauty goes much deeper than what brand of make-up, lipstick or face mask you wear.
L’equipee (the team) consisted of Cecile, Cindy, Pauline, Louise and Louise B, all in their 30s, among them a director, product manager and upholsterer.
Photographer Ludovic Ismael joined the girls on the three-week Marie Claire-sponsored ride to capture their joint love of adventure, overpowering need for liberty, rebellion and non-conformity… and all consuming love of riding.
Here’s a daily snapshot of their 4,000km from Copacabana beach to the Amazon through the muddy tracks of the Pantanal, on Triumph Bonneville T100s.
From Copacabana beach to the Amazon
A swim at the beach and feijoada (Portuguese bean stew with beef and pork) for lunch, is followed by an afternoon trying to discover the true meaning of diva. Beauty salon owner Evânio Alves, his walls adorned with portraits of screen god-desses, helps us: “A diva in this digital age must be surrounded by mystery and live in a certain isolation.”
Next stop Lapa, streets packed with people queuing to dance in one of the neighbourhood’s many clubs, where we try a few Samba de Gafieira steps. First chance to discover how Brazilian women live and what they like comes as we meet a female beach volleyball team. The answer, in Rio at least, is hair extensions.
The evening is spent with historian Elida Aquino, who runs the Meninas Black Power blog, its aim to strengthen black women’s self-esteem against a backdrop of racism. We leave after three hours, more convinced than ever of the importance of cherishing the whole spectrum of female beauty.
The poverty-stricken favelas on Rio’s hills are one of the city’s most striking features, yet some of the truly inspirational stories within the shanty towns go unreported. We climbed the hill to Vidigal to visit Casa Geração Vidigal, a fashion school founded by Nadine Gonzalez and Andrea Fasanello who, from a modest house, have trained 20 students from poor communities. It takes student Jessica Senra three hours to reach each day, but by the end of this year she will have the commercial skills to create her own collection.
“Last year’s graduates are all employed now,” says Andrea. “We have some financial support to start the school year, but need more. Each student costs 25,000 Brazilian Reals a year so we need companies to sponsor students.” After learning to sew, we meet Dr Paulo Müller, one of the nation’s leading plastic surgeons, who tells us how the Brazilian woman regards beauty care as a cultural necessity rather than a financial burden.
He said: “No matter how humble, she always wears lipstick and perfume. To be good, plastic surgery must pass unnoticed. Today, with 30 years of experience, I can say that beauty is more of a state of mind than an aesthetic matter.”
We leave Ipanema at dawn to head inland towards Brazil’s colonial past at Tiradentes (Minas Gerais), once famed for an abundance of gold, and a world away from the bustle of the city. We stop for lunch in a modest restaurant in the centre of Petropolis, a municipality in the interior of Rio where Dom Pedro II – the nation’s second king – once built a palace and other aristocrats followed suit.
Garage stops on our 70s-inspired bikes create a stir every time as five women on bikes do not go unnoticed! The Bonnies eat up the 320km motorway. Suddenly we are immersed in jaw-dropping and stunningly preserved colonial architecture.
Communication has been a struggle since we arrived in Brazil. It is rare to find French speakers, but some say food is a universal language. They are right. In Kitanda restaurant, Portuguese-speaking chef Tanea Romao shows us how to create a delicious Brazilian lunch using old Brazilian recipes that have been lost through the generations and mists of time.
“Recipes disappear for two reasons,” she says. “One is because people discover new ingredients and forget the old ones. The other is to do with social change – as quality of life improves, people leave behind the symbols of harder times, such as certain types of food.”
We learn that culinary secrets can only be learned from the female elders, who often believe that no one else would be interested in them. A taste of the bean broth, flour, pineapple butter, polenta and cheese bread suggests otherwise.
After taking Tanea for a pillion ride we’re off again, this time towards Ouro Preto but not on the route we had planned. The ancient Gold Road – built by slaves to connect the port of Paraty in Rio state with Ouro Preto – is flooded. Lightning streaks the sky. Asphalt for the next 30km is the only way. Beauty is nothing without putting safety first.
After riding through torrential rain we reach Ouro Preto. Time to relax and enjoy the architectural treasures of Minas Gerais after yesterday’s exhausting stretch. Waking up here is breathtaking. The views, the white facades of the colonial houses are a stunning contrast to their colourful windows and surrounding lush green hillsides. The sun welcomes us, its reflection warming us off the charming sloping streets of the city lined with baroque churches.
The lure of tiny jewellery shops and the merchants’ tales of Minas Gerais stones prove intoxicating despite the sweltering heat and humidity. The only antidote is a coconut water, huddled around a café’s fan. Talk turns to the feijão tropeiro, a bean stew which chef Tanea Romao had created the day before. Sharing, enjoying the flavours—it was unforgettable. And Tanea’s personality, so warm and smiling. A truly beautiful woman!
Rain follows the sun just as we intended to hit the road, so we waited. Darkness fell – rain and darkness are not friendly companions.
From Copacabana beach to the Amazon
The peasant women of Noiva de Cordeiro grow the fruits and vegetables that feed their community and spend their days in the fields, their hands in the dirt. When we arrive they have been in the plantations since the early hours, toiling under the unforgiving sun. They keep their spirits up by singing together. Suddenly, everything makes sense.
Under their wide straw hats and maximum strength sunscreen, religiously reapplied, the women are busy planting, grateful for our help but concerned by our bare shoulders and hands. We start to learn that Brazilian women’s obsession with beauty filters all the way into their work in the fields, and discover that they have hands like princesses, even though they work the land.
While most women make themselves presentable before work, the women of this small community of 400 prettify themselves together after their gruelling shift. There are few men here to impress either. Most work outside the community and return only at night or the weekends. These princesses of the plantation notice our blackened nails and waste no time in offering a manicure. They spend hours doing each other’s nails, a collective mani-cure session so unexpected, so sweet, joyful and benevolent. Here, women don’t use nail files, they prefer steel wool to give their nails a nice sheen and prevent yellowing.
Nearby, a man looks benevolently on – a pleasant change from the usual tones of men who mock what they see as feminine futility.
Sharing the everyday life of the women from Noiva do Cordeiro has created strong bonds. After being welcomed like family there is still so much to say. The language barrier means little. Gestures, laughter and looks are enough. Everybody helps here, whether it’s someone who needs help building a house or just to borrow something. The community is structured around the casarao, a central house where everyone gathers to meet and share.
The surrounding houses are simply used for sleep. The moment we’ve been dreading is here. We’ve been moved by the communal life and would like to spend a couple of months here, to truly live their life, savour their relationship with the land, their relationships. One day.
The women gather in front of the big house and as we start our bikes they start singing. Cindy and Pauline are moved to tears by the genuine feeling of tenderness, family and fraternity. Two days were definitely not enough.
The longest stretch of road between two cities is devoured as we power towards the centre of Brazil, our T100s eating up road. We ride 500km in one go, almost double what we’ve been covering daily to now, so stops for coffee, a stretch or toilet-break are kept to a minimum. The only exceptions are when a bee got into Cecile’s pants and she jumped off her bike laughing to get rid of it. When she filled her tank with ethanol and we had to suck it out with a hose.
We never lose our sense of humour – a “one-for-all and all-for-one” spirit is the only way to make a trip like this work. We are like five animals. We protect each other, are united and loving… and we don’t let the road distract us from keeping up our style standards. Whether it’s light make-up, a scarf, a bracelet, a well-cut jacket, printed gloves or a cool hairstyle, none of us ever hit the road without perfecting our personal style. To achieve volume and length, three of us have had extensions. In this sense we are similar to Brazilian women, but we are noticing some beauty care differences between both cultures. We see many people wearing braces – you don’t see that in France.
After eight hours on the road, tiredness creeps up on us so we stop to try out the famous Araxa mud baths at the Taua Grande Hotel spa. It has been famous since the 18th century, thanks to the beauty of Dona Beja, one of the most beautiful courtesans of her time, who bathed naked in the sulphuric and radioactive waters of the region. The Araxa waters have exfoliating properties that activate the skin’s regenerative powers – it feels strange to be in a black bath you can’t see through. There’s a sense of weight all over the body. It holds you in, so restful, and, since it’s warm, it gets inside your skin.
Mud bath, black water bath, hot water bath, cold shower, meditation, relaxation. We are recharged and ready to go!
This trip is about much more than physical beauty. We’ve already discovered the country’s many kinds of beauty, from the strength of its women, its works of art, its food to diverse landscapes and the smallest of gestures. We leave the mountain landscapes of Minas Gerais to power towards the Cerrado plains and the country’s capital, Brasilia. Truck-drivers who think they can behave like motor-cyclists are an issue, but they simply ensure we check on each other even more closely.
Brasilia, with its jaw-dropping Oscar Niemeyer architecture, is a futuristic city that seems to have sprung out of nowhere – a sci-fi environment perfect for riding despite the pouring rain. Later we explore the satellite town of Varjão to meet The Nzinga, a group specialising in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance, acrobatics and music. We take turns jousting with a Brazilian capoeirist alongside adults and children.
Capoeira is about releasing your body and maintaining concentration. Pauline overcomes her shyness and, guided by her partner and carried away by the music, quickly gains in confidence. Her ease is beautiful to see. “It’s like sex,” she says, “where two bodies need to be in the same rhythm.”
From Copacabana beach to the Amazon
We are starting to see the first signs of fatigue, our skin and hair betraying the permanent exposure to wind, sun and rain. We leave Brasilia for a 150km ride to Pirenópolis, a little town in Serra dos Pirineus renowned for its waterfalls. Founded in the 18th century along the mining trail, Piri today is a place shared at weekends by city workers and hippie communes. Life is quiet during the week, perfect to relax and visit one of the many beauty salons that adorn even the smallest villages.
At Ana Paula Diniz’s modest salon we learn about a valuable beauty secret from the Midwest – Savannah’s gold or the buri, a local seed that tastes like peanuts. It acts like an antioxidant on the skin and its richness in omega three, six and nine becomes a great activator when mixed with Vitamin C. It also fights bad cholesterol if ingested. Baru flour mixed with the seed’s own oil is a great exfoliator when followed by pequi pulp and a soothing mint lotion. The treatment finishes with a device that emits an electrical current that stimulates the skin’s healing, apparently normal in Brazil.
Elizabeth Senese, a holistic therapist, tells us that the antidote to riding for so long is to stretch before and after each trip, maintain a correct posture, keep a balanced diet and have a minimum of eight hours sleep. No visit here is complete without a trip to the Rodas do Tempo Museum, where we meet an 80-year-old woman with a passion for motorcycles who was thrilled to see five women.
From Pirenópolis to Barra dos Garças, we push towards the centre of Brazil and as exhaustion and growing despair grow, stumble across one of the highlights of our trip. We reach the depths of the Cerrado where the flat landscape and low trees blend into wide, cattle-filled green pastures. Today’s road was particularly tough. Of the 225 km covered, 25 were asphalt and 200 were dirt. It was the first time we’d gone off-road and as dusk began we still had 60 km of bumpy, rocky and wet dirt road left. A basic rule in any biking trip is knowing when to stop. You must stay open and attentive and, if necessary, knock on a door and ask for shelter.
After crossing a small hill, we spot a village in the middle of nowhere and ask for information at the local gas station. Was there any any chance of finding a hotel in a town so small that a single glance could grasp its beginning, middle and end? Araguainha is one of the three smallest towns in the country, with only 1024 inhabitants. Vanda Pereira de Souza, manager of the simple hotel Canastra, welcomes us as she prepares to go to work, but manages to rush everything and put us up comfortably. She even procures a dinner prepared by Dona Cleide, a cook from a bar around the corner who brought caipirinha, the national cocktail of cachaca, sugar and lime.
These are the kind of surprises only possible with the freedom that comes with the bike. We stopped here just to rest and it turned out to be a magical experience.
Leaving Araguainha, we still have 50km of dirt road ahead of us before the motorway to Rio Verde. We endure heat, cold, rain and wind and constant changes of clothes and kit before the sun arrives and dust and wind invade our mouths and noses, drying our throats. Our backs and legs feel heavy as the physical and mental challenge takes its toll. And yet overcoming this type of obstacle is what we like best. The tougher things get, the stronger and more beautiful we feel.
Heavy rains have destroyed the road, preventing us from going forward so we take a new route towards Campo Grande and Pantanal. Trucks, a torrential downpour, wind and rain and then….Rondonópolis, swathed in sunshine, reveals a landscape different to anything we have seen. The beauty of the colours takes our breath away. Red earth walls typical of the Cerrado in front of the pure blue of the rain-washed sky composed a picture-perfect landscape in which we travel along as if in a dream.
After a bend in the road, we find a waterfall made of seven cascades where we stop for two hours to experience another typical Savanna pleasure: dipping in its chilled, fresh and clear waters.
We reach the wilderness. In Fazenda San Francisco, we are welcomed by farm owner Beth Coelho, a mother of four girls, three of whom have continued the family legacy managing the livestock and rice farm with Beth and her husband. We arrive, leave our bags and go straight to the fields with two of the sisters for a typical Pantanal day cattle herding 300 cows alongside the cowherds, riding on horseback across the flooded alligator-infested fields to move the animals to safety.
We lead the way through the water and the herd follows. We walk through mud and moss, water up to our thighs. The horses swim. We have to keep stimulating them, so as not to let them slip away. We reach the other bank, and the animals rush out of the water, strong and powerful. Next we canoe across a river surrounded by a dense forest typical of the region, before a Pantanal dinner around the fire under the stunning, starry sky of the savanna.
It will be hard to leave the Pantanal, the great plain that shares a border with Bolivia, filled with prairies and flooded savanna, criss-crossed by a multitude of rivers.
From Copacabana beach to the Amazon
A long morning walk through the grounds. Pink hyacinths are in bloom, the egrets sing, the falcons keep watch, a nimble jacana appears to be walking on the water. Blue, red and purple ladybugs flutter around. The daughters are attentive to everything around them. This awareness is beautiful to see, the core that makes them beautiful; women of the sun. Beth says: “If you have beautiful eyes and something good inside, that means you’re beautiful, you just are. It’s what’s inside that matters most.” Which doesn’t mean that she would ever leave the house without a touch of lipstick on. “That’s just a question of respect.”
As we fish for piranha, the alligator-like caimans watch placidly on, biding their time… piranhas are like candy to them. There is much to learn from these big prehistoric lizards. They are slow, they seem dead, but in fact they are saving their energy and keeping their cool.
Like them, we enjoy the last rays lying down in front of the ship. Tomorrow, we will have to leave all this.
We start at 3am, taking with us the memory of unforgettable moments and the experience of life in the wilderness. To reach Manaus, capital of the Amazonas state 3,000 km away, we have no choice but to leave our bikes and rent new ones upon landing. Flying over the Amazon is quite magical and full of promise. On leaving the plane, we are shocked by the stifling atmosphere in Manaus – 89% humidity. There are monstrous traffic jams caused by the national demonstrations of the past few days.
All this in the starkest possible contrast to the quiet life in the Pantanal wilderness. We rush to the local market before closing time to buy local remedies, ready to face the troubles caused by life in the Amazon. Phytotherapeutic products made directly from Amazonian plants, cobra venom soap to fight skin affectations, Andiroba oil to repel mosquitoes… we hardly know where to turn. Honorina Garcia is an expert in medicinal plants and recommends the famous Andiroba oil. Very bitter, it is used for antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and healing purposes and is also known to make hair softer and shinier. But mostly, it’s used by the Indians to repel mosquitoes.
Before leaving the market, we stop at the hammock seller. Now all we need are new bikes to tackle the Trans-Amazonian Highway.
We haul our bikes onto the traditional Amazon river boat and sail away down a branch of the river that penetrates deep into the jungle. An hour in, we stop at Sao Tomé village, a meeting point for pink dolphins that are cared for and protected by Marcia Ferreira Mesquita, who uses them in a therapeutic program with handicapped children. Next stop is Tatulandia, a tiny community of eight families whose women invite us to join them for their children’s bath-time ritual before sleep beckons and we hoist our hammocks in a roofless house with a palm leaf roof, and quickly go to sleep.
A TV hums somewhere, a generator purrs. Somebody is snoring. The sounds of the jungle are all around. Next day a party has been organised to welcome us, with make-up at its heart. There is a red paint made from Urcum, used to shield their skins from the sun and mosquitoes, which they apply to their bodies earning them the nickname “redskins”; a black paint made from Genipa, which has curative and anti-bacterial properties; the clear Genipa juice turns black when it corrodes, and is used to make temporary tattoos that last several weeks.
The Indian women don’t emphasise their eyes or lips, but paint tribal patterns on their faces and bodies to feel beautiful. As a final touch, they take off their western clothes and exhibit their nudity to highlight their close relationship with nature. We dance and, as the day ends, share long, intense looks. We want this moment to last forever. We leave the Amazon with a heavy heart, each of us feeling the need to be alone for a while.
We have to end this amazing adventure, and it’s really, really hard!
Photography – Ludovic Ismael http://www.ludovicismael.com