CANELA, Brazil (AP) --Water, above all else, is the lifeblood of the Brazilian soul.
Yes, folks, here are soccer nuts and they are known to samba past sunrise and dabble in spirit cults when not in church, but water is the element that soothes, electrifies and gives body to the alma brasileira. Without so much coastline, so many mighty rivers, so many lakes, I suspect, Brazilians would be a lot less playful, less upbeat, less affectionate -- a sad shade less Brazilian.
Over the years I'd seen this special relationship:
-- On New Year's Eve in Salvador, when scores of Bahianos stood on the edge of the Atlantic and tossed roses in the surf in homage to Iemanja, the goddess of the sea.
-- During Carnival in Rio one summer, when a samba school paraded to the theme "A Tribute to Water," which featured a float with a woman dancing in a shower for 90 minutes au naturelle but for the suds.
-- At a photo exhibit in Porto Alegre, which featured portraits of street boys in silhouette frolicking beneath the golden spray of a public fountain during a heat wave in Sao Paulo.
"The water caresses, the water embraces, the water soothes the pain of the children abandoned to the hot asphalt," the display caption explained to visitors.
I was telling a friend how I could use some soothing. I guess I'd been in a rut. Wound up, run down. Nothing too traumatic. Just a little fed up with lots of things.
"I'll tell you what you need," the friend said. "You need to get in contact with some water. Get that old negative energy on the run. Ever go waterfalling?"
Truth be told, the only waterfalls I knew by name were Niagara, Victoria and, of course, the Iguacu Falls that separate Brazil and Argentina -- those falls Eleanor Roosevelt once gazed at in awe before exclaiming, "Poor Niagara."
But Iguacu was in Parana State, more than a day's trip by car from Porto Alegre, where I was living. I needed something closer. I looked on a road map.
Waterfalls are not listed on road maps.
Then I remembered an Oscar-nominated film I'd seen not long ago, "O Quatrilho," which had been filmed in the Serra Gaucha, a handsome range of mountains north of Porto Alegre. In the movie there was a scene in which a man and a woman share their first adulterous kiss behind a curtain of water that leaped off a cliff's edge.
Its name was O Veu da Noiva -- The Bride's Veil.
The trip did not disappoint. I took the main highway into the high country and, approaching the old Italian settlement of Bento Goncalves, turned off onto a blacktop that perfectly suited a horse and buggy. The road dipped and rolled, sometimes through deep pine timber, sometimes coming out into clearings and farmyards, once passing what could only be a pig farm, and, leaving behind the sharp, brooding basalt of a cliff face, kept twisting and dropping and climbing until a rusted metal sign slid past with an upward-pointed arrow that read FALLS.
I had to drive on a few more miles before seeing any further sign of such a falls. My first sign was the river to my left, brown and wide and swiftly moving and white against fins of stone, and my second sign was a small bridge that spanned that river.
The road veered to the right and I followed it until a wall of trees stopped the road and me. I stepped out of the car and into the cool, moist shade of noon.
I heard it first.
There was a rapid, whooshing noise, like thousands upon thousands of hairpins dropping on a marble floor. It had a sweeping, rushing steadiness to it, a sound I found relaxing.
Down a dirt trail, through an opening in the foliage, the falls came into full view: Its water ran white over a ledge of rock and down a 10-story declivity, a pall of foam seemingly still, hanging in the air, erupting in clouds of spray at the toes of the cliff.
The trail curled in a half-moon beneath a jagged, stony, tree-topped awning. I stood there behind this watery shroud, tasting the falls on my lips, watching the minute flecks of spray float and sparkle around the train of white.
Gift of nature
There were no signs pointing this way or that, no threats of fines for littering or historical markers. There was just a ribbon of mud winding down the cliffside to a pile of boulders below. And there was no litter. Brazilians apparently appreciated this gift of Nature.
I tucked my towel and shirt and boots between two rocks and waded into the river. It was cold and dark. I couldn't see my waist. It was like my lower body was detached from me. I went in up to my shoulders. Now all I had was a head and a neck.
There were boys and girls and elderlies and in-betweens splashing about the basin. I swam over to where the falls hit bottom, pulled myself up on the rocks and sat on a smoothed ledge, feeling the cascade slap and pummel and needle my head, neck, back.
Water swarmed all over me and I couldn't see anything. I knew I was inside the waterfall, but it was like I was inside nothing at all.
I stopped over in Gramado that night, one of the more touristy mountain towns in the Gaucho Range. The innkeeper wrinkled the corners of her eyes when I told her of the Bride's Veil.
"Why don't you take a look at the cascade here?" she said. "I used to play in it when I was a little girl."
So I parked the car off the curve of a gravel road just north of town, marched down a zigging-and-zagging trail, touching the beaded petals of lilacs and azaleas along the way, and listened for it.
No need to think
The water raced through a break in thick, tangled woods, spit from a jutting promontory and tumbled from ledge to ledge, gathering golden and cola-colored and clear in rock beds, then spilling diamond-like over a tongue of white stone and plunging several hundred feet to a churning river.
On a ledge beside where the water gathered in a bowl I sat down and pulled out my backpack. I found a bottle of white wine I'd picked up a day earlier in Bento Goncalves, lowered it into the pool almost up to neck. My hand felt numb when I lifted it out of the water. Then I felt it pulsing again.
I sat for a while and watched butterflies and toads and the needles of light that shot off the cascades. I kept a lookout for monkeys. The innkeeper had said I might see one. I didn't.
I munched on a roll stuffed with salmon and cream cheese and cucumbers and thought about nothing. There was no need to think. I had left that need behind.
A woman and her daughters walked by, shot a few pictures of themselves. I heard the mother caution the girls, and then they were pointing to the top of the falls now in the sun, and oohing at the band of colors. After a while they were gone and the sounds of water rushing came slowly back.
I brushed aside a vine and pulled the bottle out of the water. It was coldly beaded. I sat and drank the wine and smelled the dewy, earthy smell. Goosebumps spread in a pimply wave over my back and arms. It was all right.
After a while I stood up. My head felt clear and sharp. Now there would be the walk back. It would be nice to get back to the inn and sit in a steaming whirlpool.
The sign on the ranger's booth had been forthright. This stairway had 862 steps. "People with heart problems should NOT descend the stairway," the sign had read.
It was wire mesh and steep. Wet, too. It had rained all morning, and most of the afternoon. I looked out at the squadron of mountains marching back to the horizon, dark green, then blue, then gray, as if some enormous paintbrush had swept a bar of color across the tops. Clouds hung above them like bunting.
It would be dark soon.
They call this country Caracol State Park. Rugged, stocky, busy with wildlife -- a swath of nature as lush and abounding with different creatures as you could find in a sea of peaks.
The park spread over 250 acres of hilly forest about 5 miles north of the mountain town of Canela. A network of trails had taken me along a brawling stream, past a dam, along rapids white with fury, atop a lookout that spanned an aqueduct, to the ruins of an old, water-driven mill.
It was a sanctuary for dozens of animals, most notably the guara wolf, a cinnamon-colored creature that looks and acts more like a fox; six different species of cobra, four species of woodpecker, three species of hummingbird and a plethora of fish, namely the barrigudinho, cascudo, jundia and lambari.
Queen of the park
Now, though, I was halfway down a mountainside, on my way to meet the queen of the park, the Caracol Cascade.
From the observation deck, it looked solid, unbroken, dropping white off the knuckles of a tree-bounded ledge, braiding in plumes down the gorge, shattering in crystal shards on a riverbed.
That view was heart-jolting, but not quite enough.
Vines dripped, tree branches waved, creepers dangled. A bush rustled. A capivara, a wart hog of sorts, grunted and scurried off into the bush. On a branch, a parrot dug its beak into its red breast. A white-beaked hummingbird whirred just an arm's length away, beside a bunch of wild, purple flowers.
Feeling cold breaths on my face, I slowed. Curtains of spray lapped against the mountain. My eyes closed. The mist gathered in drops on my eyelids and ran down my cheeks.
At the toes of the falls, I found a bench and sat down. My legs twitched.
Up above, the waterfall was doing what it always had: hurtling, plunging, tumbling, stretching, coming apart, regrouping, dropping, exploding, spraying, clouding. It never did it the same way, never had, never would.
I sat there and gazed and gazed and gazed. I didn't get up.