Of all the treasures I discovered in Florianópolis, Brazil—secluded beaches, historic Portuguese fishing villages, pirouetting zouk dancers—the richest was my host family’s backyard. Like any great treasure, it was hidden. Nestled in the lowlands of a suburban neighborhood, the wood-paneled house is pleasant but not eye-catching. Walk out the backdoor, however, and you step into a new world of wonders. The first thing you notice is the boat. Complete with a slide for abandoning ship, it was built by my host dad for his now seven-year-old son, much to the envy of his friends. Poised among the banana leaves and treetops, it stands ready to sail into the open sky.
Beside the ship stand the arbor and patio, packed with an array of ornaments and instruments. Most of the region’s most traditional ingredients can be found inside this cozy space. The centerpiece is the barbeque stove or “churrasco.” Although as a vegetarian I never enjoyed its fruits, I always appreciated its pyramidal shape and creamy brick surface, charred over the years by Sunday gatherings. Then there is the clay-shingled roof, the bottles of artisanal cachaça on the counter and the Azorean fishing net hanging beneath the wooden yoke on the wall.
Walk beneath the arbor and you reach a creek running through a mangrove swamp, where troops of marmoset monkeys roam and cry in the treetops. On one occasion, my host dad reeled in a large fish from the creek’s murky waters. On another, we plucked oysters out of the mangrove mud and fried them for dinner.
Yet the richest element in that backyard is the garden. Within a modest plot, it produces lemons, oranges, blackberry, passionfruit, bananas, acerola, açaí, grumichama, jaboticaba, papaya, potato, ginger, not to mention innumerable ornamentals, with names like Sapatinho-de-judia (jeweled slipper), Costela de Adão (Adam’s rib) and Chifre-de-veado (deer horn).
When talking about his garden, host dad would often cite the Portuguese explorer Pêro Vaz de Caminha, who wrote that, “in Brazil, everything grows.” The time I spent in my host family’s backyard showed me just how accurate this expression can be.
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