Posts Tagged ‘Parnaiba’

A crab in the hand is worth two in the mud

May 10th, 2009

Rogerio de Sousa’s fish-processing plant was up to its gills in shrimp when we arrived next morning. The sweating crew of a shrimp boat, just in from nine days at sea, was unloading crate after crate of fat pink prawns. While these succulent-looking monsters up to 15 cm long were being stowed and iced, a dozen women and children at a table in the shade peeled a smaller variety of shrimp—known as “seven whiskers”—to be snap-frozen in the blast freezer.

Crossing the channel to the mangroves.

ELAINE CORETS
Crossing the channel to the mangroves.

Rogerio and his parrot.

KENNEDY WARNE
Rogerio and his parrot.

Meanwhile, Rogerio was showing us his pet parrot, Pedro. It cackled in perfect imitation when anyone laughed, and spontaneously croaked various Portuguese words, which, of course, were lost on me.

Soon it was decreed that the tide had fallen sufficiently to go crabbing, and Rogerio introduced us to Seu Manuel, “Sir Manuel,” a small, whippet-thin old man with the leathery skin that comes from a lifetime on and about the sea. He had been collecting caranguejo for 30 years, he said—“so I am just a beginner.”

On his crab-catching arm he wore a denim gauntlet up to the shoulder. A string around his waste—his “tool belt”—held a dozen short cords for tying up the live crabs and a canister of mosquito repellent. He carried a hook for reaching into the deepest of burrows.

We took a rowboat across the channel and squelched and slithered through glutinous grey mud to the crab zone. Dense thickets of prop roots, head-high and more, formed a maze of interlocking arches through which Seu Manuel nimbly squeezed himself or clambered over, muttering to himself and stopping every few steps to plunge his arm down a burrow. He moved so spryly through the mangroves I thought of him as a Brazilian leprechaun.

Seu Manuel gets down to business, reaching into the crab´s lair.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seu Manuel gets down to business, reaching into the crab´s lair.


Sometimes he softened the mud a little by treading it with his feet, then lay down on the grey gloop to reach up to his shoulder into the crab’s lair. Sometimes it looked as if he were trying to insert his entire body down the hole. About half of the burrows he tested produced a crab. If it was feminino it was set free—no females are taken by the collectors. As well as being much smaller than the males, they represent, of course, the future of the stock. Masculino crabs were tied, four to a cord, which is the way they are sold in the markets. Seventy percent of the crabs caught in the Parnaíba Delta go to Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará, where crab feasts are standard fare at the beach.
Author with his prize catch.

JEREMY WARNE
Author with his prize catch.


After watching and photographing Seu Manuel work for a while, I announced that I would like to try. He glanced at me with wry amusement, then pointed to a wet patch of mud beside a prop root and went off to catch more of his own. I pushed my arm in, trying two or three routes past a tangle of mangrove feeding roots that blocked the way, then found the main hole, or toca, and reached the full length of my arm. Nothing. The hole seemed to go on forever.

I tried another spot. The burrow entrances are easy to recognise, once you have your eye in. They are covered with sloppy mud that looks like a small puddle. This time, again at the fullest extent of my arm, I felt something prickly and twiggy at the end of the tunnel. Surely the legs of a crab. I wriggled and twisted my hand until I had whatever it was in grasp and pulled it to the surface, hoping that the pincers weren’t in nipping range of my fingers. I had seen Seu Manuel bring one up with the pincer clamped on to his finger. When he shook the crab off, the pincer broke away from the crab before it let go of his hand.

I looked at the clump of black mud and crustacean I had in my nervous fingers. Bingo! A big male. I manoeuvred it so I had it pincer-side-out and held it up proudly. Surely it was a record. “Grande, no?” I said in my pidgin Portuguese. The old man grunted and nodded. Seen it all before.

I caught another one, but it was feminino so I released it with my best wishes for the next “Carnival of crabs.” May it produce muitíssimo offspring and keep alive this colourful traditional fishery—one more gift of the mangroves.

We meet the king

May 8th, 2009

Today started off more catastrophically than usual. We didn’t just have flooded streets to contend with, but the electricity was out, the water was off and the cellphone networks were down. We were desperate to find some crab catchers to go out into the mangroves with, but we had no way to communicate with anyone. Collecting mangrove mud crabs is a major part of the economy of the Parnaíba Delta, providing a livelihood for thousands of people. Getting the crab story was one of the reasons I had come to the delta, and I was running out of time.

Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.

KENNEDY WARNE
Walking to work Parnaíba-style. Jeremy and Elaine negotiate the floodwaters outside our pousada.


We tossed a coin and decided to take a taxi to the town of Luis Correia, where Elaine had earlier made contact with a journalist who had offered to help us. But her cellphone was down, and we didn’t know where she lived. We made inquiries at the mayor’s office, and in an instant our luck took a giant swing to the positive side. It turned out that the mayor himself was in the crab business. In fact, he told us he was the “rei do caranguejo”—king of crab. If this man couldn’t fix us up with a crab collector, no one could.

He ushered us into his office, swept aside the needs of a town without electricity, and started talking about what was clearly his favourite subject, the mangrove mud crab. He had been a crab boat captain for 15 years, then had set himself up as a crab distributor and now operates two seafood restaurants as well. He spoke of the life cycle of the crab, about the three months they spend in their burrows waiting for their old shell to fall off, and how when they finally emerge their shells are as soft as jelly. Within two tides the shell hardens into the solid body armour a crab needs to protect itself from predators.

The mayor of Luis Carreia, 'king of crab'

KENNEDY WARNE
The mayor of Luis Carreia, Francisco Araújo Galeno, 'king of crab'


While we talked, the mayor’s secretary brought in trays of iced water and cups of hot sweet cafezinho, the strong black coffee Brazilians favour. Fanning himself vigorously with a piece of paper, Francisco Araújo Galeno told us about the closed season during summer when the crabs are mating. “This is the Carnival for crabs,” he said, “when the males and females are checking each other out—just like we do.”

I liked the mayor. He spoke passionately about the crucial part crab collecting played in the economic life of the delta. He scribbled notes on a pad as he talked and gesticulated with his hands. Glancing on the wall behind him, I noticed he was flanked by a painting of Christ and a crustacean montage, featuring a huge stuffed lobster and a mud crab. I asked him if he planned to run for president. He laughed and threw his hands up in the air. “Deus sabe!” he said—God knows.

I asked about shrimp farming in the area. Readers of this blog will know that shrimp farming is a major threat to mangroves. I wanted to know if the mayor ever found himself in difficult administrative position, on the one hand protecting the mangroves where the crabs live (the source of his own livelihood), and on the other encouraging new business activity such as aquaculture in the area.

He told me that with the slump in the shrimp export market, aquaculture expansion into mangrove areas wasn’t a problem at the moment. But he said he thought there needed to be a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits of farmed shrimp, to establish once and for all if the economic benefits of aquaculture was outweighed by the damage done to the mangrove environment and to economic activities such as crab collecting and ecotourism.

His own position was plain. “Our survival depends on mangroves,” he said.

From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

KENNEDY WARNE
From mud to menu, a mangrove crab undergoes a final clean before its appointment with the pot.

Towards the end of the conversation, the secretary of fisheries, a young man named Luis ‘Rogerio’ de Sousa Filho, joined us and offered to take us to lunch at one of the dozens of beach restaurants where Brazilians go for a seafood feast.

He drove us to the place, and I visited the kitchen to watch fresh mud crabs being prepared. It’s nothing fancy. The kitchenhand kills them with the stab of a knife, washes them and cooks them in a pot of water. They are served au naturel, accompanied with crisp fried manioc flour and a vinegar salsa of tomato and coriander. Most diners sit at rough tables under thatched sun shelters on the sand, where you smash the crab legs and pincers on the tabletop with a wooden beater and extract the sweet white flesh with your teeth. The sweetest flesh of all is inside the body of the crab, where with each crunch you get a mouthful of some sort of interior shell structure (I’m not an expert on crustacean anatomy). The fiddliness of eating them is more than compensated by the taste.

Rogerio runs a wild shrimp-fishing business near the port. Across the river from his operation is a mangrove forest where crab collectors go. I asked if it would be possible to go out that afternoon, but he said the tide was too high. It would not be low enough until nightfall. But tomorrow, he promised, I could try my hand at catching the caranguejo.

A word from the cheap seats

May 7th, 2009

We took the night bus from Fortaleza to Parnaiba—a nine-hour trip on a road whose ruinous potholes were made worse still by the flooding that has been continuous along this coast for weeks. Kennedy had been jet-lagged all the previous day after his arrival at 2 a.m. (Faithful son that I am, I waited the two hours between my arrival and his in the airport, dozing in an alcove among the silent tourist offices), and the jolting, stop-start bus ride did little to speed his recovery.

Cyclist in a flooded Parnaiba street.

KENNEDY WARNE


Donkey cart passes outside our window.

KENNEDY WARNE
Top: Cyclist in flooded Parnaiba street. Above: Donkey cart passes outside our window.

But all of our spirits were revived when the sun rose, revealing a sky scrubbed a brilliant blue, and a land festooned with pools of water. On the way to our guest house we asked the taxi driver when the rain had stopped, and learned that it had been solid up until the previous night.

The river has overflowed its banks and filled many streets, including the one our pousada is on. To get to the main road we have to wade through knee-deep water for 50 metres. But life for our neighbours goes on. Outside our window, a girl manoeuvres her motorbike through the gate of her house and rides into the stream. Street vendors cycle past, calling out their wares. A donkey cart has just gone by, producing a bow wave that laps against the high kerbing. It could almost be Venice.

We’re finally getting some action, however. We’ve arranged our activities for the next couple of days, organizing boat rides and meetings with members of the local crab-collecting community. I’ve joined Kennedy and Elaine for a few days from where I’ve been staying, in Salvador, Bahia, training capoeira and coding websites. It’ll be interesting to see the forests whose presentation has been my focus for the past few weeks during the construction of this website. I may not be as capable as the old man of studding my trip updates with literary quotations, but if I can just get the font sizes to match up on all the different pages, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.