Updated: Feb 12
By Paul Mitchnick:
The invitation had come sometime in dark November. Michaelin and I were being invited to a wedding celebration in Chile—far away from Toronto, that’s for sure.
My second-cousin Karin’s son Alexi was marrying Karla. Growing up, Alexi spent six months in Canada and six months in Chile. Alexi and Karla had been boyfriend and girlfriend since the tenth grade. Earlier in the year, they had married in Toronto, but this was to be Karla’s family’s celebration in Valparaíso.
The wedding was to be held February 28th at a vineyard outside Valparaíso. We had never been to South America before; we just never had a reason until now. It would be summer there and definitely winter here. Perfect timing.
So South America . . . if not now, when?
We decided to make a six-week adventure, eventually landing in Valparaíso in time to meet other family members from Canada and enjoy the wedding.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, would be a must see. We could have an Airbnb apartment with a balcony in San Telmo, the older part of downtown Buenos Aires within walking distance of lots to see. We like to eat, so walking tends to mitigate some of those unintended consequences.
Michaelin found a dude ranch north of Buenos Aires. My aunt and uncle had a cattle farm, and there would often be a saddled pony when we visited as kids. I have been hooked since. Michaelin is adventurous and willing to try.
In Valparaíso, my cousin Karin had made arrangements at a nice hotel for her family and some other out-of-towners, eazy-peazy.
Each country required a different visa and a different fee and a different visit to a different embassy headquarters in Toronto. No country required special vaccinations. Neither Michaelin nor I have ever spent time in prison, so we anticipated no problems, and there were none.
Swimming is fun for us. Being in the water has always been an important part of my life. In my early days, my mother would drag me for weekly swimming lessons at the Hamilton YMCA. The brown and yellow–glazed bricks made it noisy, and the over-chlorinated water made it smell. A bunch of nine-year-old boys swimming naked in the pool. Why naked, I have no idea. Didn’t bother me much swimming with other boys, but all the mothers watching me naked made me uncomfortable. Being chubby, I was self-conscious enough, adding naked didn’t help. To this day, I never swim naked no matter what the circumstances. I did, however, learn to love the water.
So swimming often dictates where we go. For our South American adventure, my job was to find a great beach. Best Beaches in South America. Click. Most beaches were judged on their surf potential—not so good for swimming. The next search was for Best Snorkeling Beaches in South America. Click. Two of the top beaches were on the island of Fernando de Noronha off the northeast coast of Brazil.
There is no trip anywhere, anyhow, anytime without a camera. I am not so whole without one. A Voigtländer Bessa III folds up quite small. It is a modern remake of a folding medium-format bellows film camera from the forties. One lens, built-in light meter, the case is part of the body. Perfect. And, of course, the ubiquitous iPhone.
Traveling with film internationally requires special handling. Refrigeration is always important. Hotel room fridges, hotel kitchen fridges, friends’ fridges. Stopping customs officials throwing the film through the x-ray machines is always a challenge. I beg. I charm. I cajole. I tell overly polite jokes so it gets hand-checked at airports. Usually with resounding success.
But however charming I might think I am in English, it is not the case in any other language. Twelve flights through five countries would be certain disaster. Why film and not digital? Well, I still believe it looks richer and more organic; this from a guy who listens to a vacuum-tube stereo.
Something written on hastily put together letterhead in Portuguese, Spanish, and English ought to help—a formal letter giving a brief accounting of me: who I am, what I do, and a link to my website. It also stated how important taking photos has been all my life. The travel agent translated the Spanish, and Janet at my dentist’s office had her husband translate the Portuguese. There were lots of copies.
We flew from Toronto to Miami, had a brief layover, and then off to Recife in Brazil. It’s on the northeast coast and the closest jump off to Fernando de Noronha. Michaelin had booked a few days in the nearby colonial city of Olinda before heading off to our island paradise.
Founded in 1535 by the Portuguese, Olinda is built on steep hillsides. Lots of 18th-century architecture, baroque churches, convents, and monasteries, it’s now an artist’s colony with galleries, workshops, museums, and the whole historical center is designated as an UNESCO world heritage site.
The Monastery of St. Benedict was rebuilt in 1660 after a town fire, and there are three other churches of almost the same vintage. It is one thing to stumble across old churches in Europe, but this was very, very nowhere in the 17th century. All the craftsmen, designers, materials had to come from Portugal. So imagine you are sitting at home in Portugal having dinner with your wife and kids and find out that your next gig as a church painter, builder, designer, or marble worker is half-way around the world . . . for probably the next 5 years of your life.
We arrived at the Pousada dos Quatro Cantos ("Inn of the Four Corners"), a restored 18th-century mansion with great verandas and colourful open spaces. Decorated with local arts, it felt quite homey. Our small, breezeless room was not mentioned on their website and was probably originally servants' quarters. The hallway was wide enough for a person but not wide enough for a person with a suitcase. It was slapstick getting to our room.
Parking Brake & Pousada - Photos: Paul Mitchnick
Olinda is old-world pretty, with countless pastel-coloured houses. I believe some are painted every few years for the tourists’ benefit. To our great joy we found graffiti—lots and lots of beautiful, exciting, visceral, hip graffiti that was social, that was political, that was creative, that was arresting. Everywhere: on city walls, abandoned buildings, not-so-abandoned buildings, old half-walls of sometime-to-be-demolished buildings, people’s homes . . . everywhere. And just when we came across something fabulous, ten minutes later we saw something even more so.
Apocalyptic & Mirror - Photos: Paul Mitchnick
A perpetual early riser, searching for new graffiti became my pre-breakfast ritual. The original site of Olinda was chosen for its natural harbour and the defense its hills provided. So I wandered up and down every hilly, cobblestone street of old town in search of new graffiti. It was quite exciting to see such open, public creativity. Whatever discovered that morning was shared in the afternoon with Michaelin. And I got to visit them twice.
One artist in particular drew my attention. Graffiti of grace, elegance, power, and humanity. His work was on walls, on gates of boarded-up buildings, on houses that were being torn down, and on the side of hills. His signature is "Enivo," and his name is Marcus Vinicius. It would have been great to take some of his work home with me; however, getting the side of a wall into my suitcase wasn’t going to happen.
We had been very seriously advised to stay in the old town, as there were lots of security cameras and more police to look after the tourists, so we mostly hung out in the neighbourhood near our hotel. But one day, we went for a walk along the beach harbour. It was hot, and we wanted to swim. Something about vicious bull sharks kept us from pursuing that notion further.
We walked as far as the town square that divided old town from the somewhat darker energy of everyday Olinda. It was the only time we encountered a hustle. Nothing came of it, but a guy spent twice too long following us, trying to chat us up, and wouldn’t leave . . . easily. We had ventured outside the walls of the old town and were a certain kind of prey for a certain kind of shark. And later, when we ran into him outside a church, it was as if we were his long-lost cousins.
Olinda is full of galleries. Michaelin and I are usually very careful about buying. We wait until we find something we really love. However, here, we walked into a gallery, met the artist, and looked at his work. Didn’t buy anything, but we were thinking about it. Later that evening, he spotted us in a restaurant, sat down, and continued chatting . . . and chatting. He made us watch a YouTube interview of him from Miami. It ate up all the data on my phone. We went to his studio, and that evening we walked out with a print (a big smile on his face), something we carried home, framed, and hung for a while; now it sits alone and unloved.
We arrived in Olinda ten days before Carnival. Everyone knows about Carnival in Rio, but Olinda’s is free and unfenced. A real street party. It is big on life-sized masks, music, and local dance troupes. Everyone participates. Papier-mâché masks and papier-mâché human forms. On display. For rent. To purchase. You could walk around with a seven-foot face. Great fun.
Evenings in town were full of pre-Carnival music and dance rehearsals. If you are rehearsing at night, your kids and partners watch. The streets were full of musicians, dancers, families, and children. Everyone. Practicing, watching, hanging out. Real joyous life.
Three busy days later, we boarded our flight to Fernando de Noronha. The flight is a 350-km hop on a jet, and it was the most expensive of all our flights. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its abundant marine life, Fernando de Noronha was discovered by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. An archipelago consisting of a number of small volcanic islands, only one is inhabited, measuring 10 km long by 3.5 km wide. In the 1700s, it became a penal colony that stayed in operation until 1957. This tiny island also has a mini Sugar Loaf Mountain similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro. You could see it from almost everywhere, which, thankfully, kept me from getting lost.
Mostly brush grows on the island. Trees and forests had been cut down to prevent escaped prisoners from hiding and building boats to flee the island. Just like then, today everything has to be brought in. That bag of peanuts with your beer had to come in the same expensive way you did. Our accommodation was in a local’s cottage that had maybe 5 rooms. It was neat and tidy with a great breeze. There was a fridge; there were a couple of hammocks. This guesthouse idea was quite common. Tourism is restricted to 500 people at a time.
Seventy percent of the island is a designated park. This includes all of the best beaches. To access the reason you came means getting a pass. And it is a 10-day pass. So if you stay for two weeks, you get two passes. The non-park part can be accessed by free public transit. The park part, not so much.
On one of our first days, we walked to the eastern end of the island. It was hot. Maybe too hot. A great view of the dazzling sunset, the sugarloaf, and the uninhabited islands was to be had from the local bar. Two beers and an order of fries was $75. We chatted with a South African freelance boat captain who was piloting a client’s cruising sailboat across the Atlantic. Fernando's geographical position, favourable winds, and currents make it a popular boating destination. In fact, that’s how the Portuguese first found it.
Days Past & Looking North - Photos: Paul Mitchnick
By the time we got our park passes, we had figured our way around: where the good snorkeling beaches were, where the surfing beaches were, where the "don’t go into the water because of the undertow" beaches were, and where the exploring beaches were. This little island is about 85% beach.
Baía do Sueste was our first beach, at the western end of the island. We got off the bus and walked down the road. There were facilities. There were snorkels and fins to rent and people to rent to show you how to use them. There was a snack bar and washrooms. There was shade should you want that. We were told there was nothing in the water to worry about, nothing poisonous or scary or man-eating. Oh, if you see a little lemon shark, don’t worry; they just cruise the shore reefs looking for little fishies. We were eager to get into the water and do some swimming, see a little coral, some fish, and some turtles. The water was warm and clear, and we were successful. We also got to see those 3-meter-long sharks swimming 3 meters away from us. Well, say what you will, I have seen as many shark movies as anyone, and these are big sharks—way bigger than us and definitely faster in the water. They also have more than one row of teeth. Now, there were lots of people in the water, and the sharks swam near the reefs and didn’t bother anyone . . . but still.
The best beach, Praia do Sancho, was in the park and far past public transportation. The most fun option to get there was a ragged 125cc dirt bike with a headlight and plank-like seating. As a motorcycle owner for twenty-five years, this made me pretty happy. We were laden down with snorkel stuff, beach stuff, and other stuff, but the bike was a champion, and we arrived at the parking lot in one piece. Our passes got shown to someone who showed us the walkway to the beach—ten minutes on a wooden walkway over thick brush. And it was prickly hot. The end of the walkway had us overlooking hundred-foot cliffs to an almost deserted kilometer of beach. There were lots of coral heads not too far from shore, a good sign of underwater life. The breadth of this quiet vista had both the water and breezes moving in very slow motion.
We were looking for the walkway down but instead found a hole in the ground with a very steep ladder down a narrow abyss into volcanic rock. Someone was monitoring people coming up and down to avoid a pinched encounter in the dark. At the bottom of the ladder, there was a horizontal walkway to light about forty feet away, then another ladder descending into more dark rock. My claustrophobia had me breathing very deeply and very slowly. If not for the light, I might not have gone. Our reward was a steep, narrow walkway down another fifty feet to the beach.
As stunning below as above. Hot sand the colour of your dreams and water a silky blue-green gently running its way to and fro along the beach greet us. There are no facilities, no shade, but lots of beautiful. The cliffs behind us are imposing and the beach is long and wide. There are six other people. This bay is a protected area for spinner dolphins and sea turtles to play in. Michaelin and I swam out together, and when one of us saw something great, we got the other. Around noon, the little tour boats visit, have a snorkel, and leave half-an-hour later. We swam in this vast wonderland together, alone. This is what all those laps in the pool were for. Years of them. All the moving sardine-can-like laps. People swimming over people, lineups to get in, dressing rooms where it was impossible to end up with dry feet, and lockers way too small for your clothes. No matter what the season. Every instant worth it for this.
One afternoon, Michaelin had a little tummy thing, and I decided to venture alone. No one was monitoring the ladder traffic, but there was no one on the beach either. Swimming alone is gratifying and not uncommon for me. Experience, fear, and luck have taught me my limits. Stay beneath them. The lemon shark thing still freaks me out a bit, but they are in the water every time, and so are my body parts. Amongst the coral is lots of life. My first companions were a pair of hawksbill turtles out for a very lazy swim. My distance away was so as not to spook them, and their speed let me stay in range. For over 15 minutes they played and swam; I watched. They stopped; I watched. They swam out to sea; I watched them go. A ray replaced them. Its gentle meander had me its most willing observer, just watching elegant motion in the sea. Rays seem like physical embodiments of water itself: barely perceptible in their movement, taking advantage of the currents, however slight. If only I were as graceful anywhere at anything.
A long walk to the west end of the beach to dry off had me passing lots of birds just hanging out on the beach. A thought a nice photo might be birds in the foreground with the vista behind. As sneaky as my approach was, the birds flew away every time. So with the camera pointed straight out in front of me, I ran at the birds and pressed the shutter over and over until there might be something that worked. So there was this guy running down the beach at a bunch of birds who took off when he got close. Then he did again. Then he did it again, and again. Live your life like no one is watching, and this day no one is.
My life has been blessed with many memorable experiences in and by water; that day was the best. When I want or need to cheer myself, I remember the perfect wonder of that day.
Praia da Atalaia is a rugged stretch of wild oceanfront on the northeastern part of the island. There is little in the way of beach, but there is a trail that takes you along the striking coast and cliffs. Every turn presents a different vista. A visit requires a special permit and a guide. There is no diving, no sunblock, and one is supervised along this unspoiled coastline. We get how important behavior is in environments like this. Our guide pointed out a deep tidal pool where we might do a little snorkeling. Flippers weren’t allowed, but we had our masks, snorkels, and running shoes. Our reward that day was a giant green sea turtle hanging around in the tidal pool, just waiting for the tide to return him or her to the ocean. The turtle was about 2 meters long, 1 meter wide, and 1 meter below the surface. We dove down very, very close, time and time again, looking at the shell, looking at the webbed feet, and looking at that face.
The scenery was visceral, raw, the walk was cool, and the turtle . . . well, amazing.
Two weeks of the best kind of hanging out.
Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."