Paradise found. There are some places on earth that come pretty close to what one would imagine paradise to be. Ilha Grande, Brazil, an easy day sail of about 60 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, definitely qualifies as a top candidate. We sailed there on several occasions, spending a good amount of time weaving about some of the islands and magical anchorages, all made most memorable by our encounter and ensuing friendship with the local notable yet infamous, Peter, the King of Paradise.
Ah yes, Peter was legendary. A cruiser's conversation in general about Ilha Grande always included a reference to Peter. He was loved, notorious, boisterous, somewhat cantankerous and crusty, unique, controversial, and unescapable. Simply referred to as "Peter at Peter's Place," he did indeed own a corner of paradise: an idyllic, palm tree spot with some acreage on Aroeira beach in a little tucked-away bay in the larger Abraao bay, on the main island of Ilha Grande. He was the king of his domain. Identifying himself as Austrian, and rumored to have served in the German army in WW II, Peter let mystery waft about him. One didn't pry nor ask too many questions.
We first met Peter through our ham radio network, and after subsequent conversations over the air waves, he invited us to anchor in his bay. Once anchored, the understanding was to come ashore and pay due respects, almost homage, to this man whose generosity allowed the use and unique pleasure of basking in his beautiful, calm, and secluded spot. In honor of his guests "du jour," (and at certain times of the year, arrivals were daily), Peter would always fly their countries' respective flags. Thus for us, both the French and American flags rippled colorfully high atop his flagpoles on the rise just beyond the beach, clearly visible from our vantage point on deck anchored down below in his bay. The "sundowner" cocktail hour was a command performance required by our eccentric host. Peter figured that if he deemed a boat worthy of an invitation to his anchorage, he was to be graced with one's presence for drinks at the end of the day. Not a terribly disagreeable contract to uphold.
Peter made a point of saying that he didn't particularly care for children, and that they weren't particularly welcome. Although early on in our initial ham radio contacts we were up front about our two small ones, he seemed to somewhat overlook that and nevertheless invited us, giving us the benefit of a doubt for beginners' luck. Apparently Peter decided that Sean and Brendan weren't too wild and crazy, because he didn't "shoo" them away nor forbid us to return onshore. After a day or two, he even exhibited a semblance of friendly tolerance for our two tykes, and bid they play with his dearest pet pal, XoXa, his beautiful and very tame, long-tailed gray monkey. In fact, the story goes as Peter told it, that XoXa was a type of monkey prized by certain tribes for its unique babysitting ability, and that many families kept one as a nanny of sorts.
Peter devoted a regular part of his day to communicating with the world via his ham radio network headquartered in his specially dedicated "radio shack" above and behind his house. It was his lifeline to the outside. I do believe he relished his notoriety and the fact that his paradise had become a "go-to" spot on the cruising circuit. Leading a simple and self-sufficient life—no TV, reading, and daily interaction with visitors from all over the world—Peter even ran a rudimentary solar power system (this being1984) that maintained a block of batteries to generate his own electricity. He was able to procure some limited provisions in the nearby village of Abraao, otherwise he made an occasional trek for major supplies with his small motorboat across the bay to Angra dos Reis, a bigger town on the mainland.
Occasionally, however, there was a rift in paradise. Smack dab in the middle of all this picturesque tranquility, not too far from Peter's Place and hidden behind some hilly terrain, there lay a neighbor of ill repute: a notorious prison. Here, in Brazil’s penal version of Alcatraz, dangerous criminals were incarcerated and an occasional prison break did occur—rarely—but it happened, and we witnessed a recapture unfurl one morning on the beach.
My parents and sister were onboard on this particular occasion. They had come from California to Rio several days earlier, and they were experiencing this new lifestyle with us for the first time. Peter warned us of the escape that very evening. He had been alerted immediately by prison authorities, and, as he usually does when this has happened in the past, he prepared the handgun he kept by his bedside for just such an occurrence. We aborted a plan to go in the dinghy around to the next bay for dinner at a local cafe. Prisoners were known to steal or hijack any kind of floating device. It was best we didn't leave ours laying around, so we stayed on board for the evening and hauled our dinghy up on deck for the night.
We had already planned to sail back to Rio the next day, having been royally received by Peter these past few days. He and my father had hit it off, and Peter was insistent that we come ashore for a final farewell and stock up on some of his bananas before lifting anchor. We arose early with the sun already high and hot in the sky. There was a lot of activity on the beach, and from what we could see from our anchor point offshore, it looked like soldiers milling around. It was, in fact, some of the prison guards who had caught some of the escapees.
Not quite sure if we should go onshore or not, a promise to Peter was not to be broken, so off we went in the dinghy anyway to say our final good-byes. We landed on the beach amidst the guards who held the prisoners prostrate and handcuffed at gunpoint in the sand. It was hot and there was no mercy for these miscreants. It seems there was still a missing prisoner or two, and other guards were continuing the search. Peter came down to greet us, a load of his homegrown bananas in hand. We all bid each other hearty, heartfelt good-byes, and it was the last time we saw that paradise, but not Peter.
Things came full circle many years later, when Peter looked us up California with his then-new wife. My parents lived nearby and my dad was thrilled to see Peter again, and Peter seemed genuinely pleased to see Sean and Brendan again, then grown boys.
As I write this now, we know that Peter has passed on, but we know that he would be pleased to know that his paradise has been preserved as part of the Ilha Grande State Park. Peter founded his paradise, opened it to many of us, and now it continues to welcome others. I am pleased to know that still today, as in 1984, Ilha Grande is paradise found.