Fortaleza, the home of fabulous beaches and coconuts
Hard to believe this beautiful city is seventh most dangerous in world
Tobias has left his sticker album on the table, and it is as tough to resist peeking inside as it is to keep from kicking a football that rolls your way. Not only is the album complete, but the day’s results are already written in in boyish joined-up writing: “Germany 2 Algeria 1”. In a family home in a Brazilian World Cup city a kid’s football dreams are like any other kid’s.
Earlier Tobias is the key man in a game of computer translation. “How to get to beach? Bus or taxi?” He is sitting in his little Portugal jersey beside his mother Eliana, a laptop on his knees, helping to bridge the huge communication gap between visitor and host. Eliana is renting out rooms in her modest apartment to World Cup travellers, cooking great breakfasts, asking if everything is okay.
In case there’s any confusion she gets an English speaker on the phone: “Is there anything you need?” Eliana nods earnestly as the message is delivered.
She takes the journalist’s cynicism-ruined clothes and puts them in the washing machine. Other clothes are retrieved from the spot where they fell and quietly hung in the wardrobe. In the sitting room Tobias eyes up the media accreditation badge like it’s a big bar of chocolate. He types into the computer: “We will take you to the beach.”
It’s a group outing: mother, son and daughter. We travel a couple of miles in comfortable silence. The car winds down Fortaleza’s uneven roads, high-rise blocks all around, and stops near the Fifa fan fest at Iracema beach. Each person shakes the visitor’s hand with comic solemnity before he gets out.
Fifa’s fan fest, a vast pit of boiling sand, is the most hostile environment to watch a World Cup match at 1pm in Fortaleza. You wonder again how the Netherlands and Mexico could have played at a time when most here are shielding their skin from the sun or sitting in small havens of shade. Fifa’s many high-profile sponsors command all surrounding scenery and are an incongruous sight. You can inspect a Hyundai car in the fan fest – but you cannot buy sun-block or ice-cream.
In mid-afternoon the heat breaks just a little. Up Beira Mar, the long strip of roadway along the beach at upmarket Meireles, where high-rise hotels spit out customers onto the sand, people are sitting in plastic chairs drinking from coconuts. Some slap at flesh to thwart bothersome insects.
This is the urban Brazil of the tropics and the postcards: a fisherman moving from table to table selling prawns from a basket; waves lapping up from a soupy ocean; the agreeable paralysis of a deep tropical heat.
Is this the Fortaleza you heard about? It is and it isn’t. In a dichotomy that seems to correspond to the vast chasm that exists between rich and poor in Brazil, Fortaleza is both one of Brazil’s most alluring, exotic sites of escape, and one of its most violent and dangerous places.
In a report in April, the British security and defence specialists Jane’s, citing a UN report, described Fortaleza as the seventh most dangerous city in the world. On one weekend in March alone, 21 murders were recorded in this city of 2.5 million people.
In the build-up to last Sunday’s Netherlands-Mexico game, a Dutch newspaper noted sarcastically that there had been only 24 murders in Fortaleza in the World Cup’s first six days.
The vast majority of the killings take place a long way from the tourist sites, a result of inter-gang violence and drug-trafficking. But tourists are at a high risk of theft, and many of these incidents take place at gunpoint. You do not experience any of the edginess at Meireles beach near sundown, but later on in the suburbs – the long, quiet streets where there is a pointed implication in the fact that every apartment block is guarded by security in a watchtower.
As visitors noted last weekend, this capital of Ceará state has Dutch roots, specifically the building of a fortress on the site – Fort Schoonenborch – by the Dutch West Indies Company in 1649. The Portuguese expelled the Dutch from Brazil five years later and renamed the area Fortaleza – meaning “fortress”. The economic engine of this poor state is now tourism, with 600km of incredible beaches enticing many visitors.
You want to take a sober approach to security issues, but at Beira Mar – with its relaxed assortment of Mexican, Dutch, Spanish fans – it is hard to think of anything but the coconuts.