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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

The first scream is real. It explodes out my mouth like air from a burst balloon as our dune buggy erupts over the crest of a sand hill and rapidly decelerates. The tortured vehicle fishtails into a side-slip down the hillock's face. The manoeuvre turns into a backward slide with, miraculously, no flip.

After that, I keep faking the scream for comic effect as if the first shriek was bogus and there was no real fear, a face-saving device to cover the shame. The three other passengers, Paulo, Rose and Daniela from Sao Paulo, are not deceived. This is their second expedition by buggy through the rolling white-sand hills that surround the city of Natal in northeastern Brazil. They know a wimp when they see one. To make up a full car, our buggeiro driver randomly tossed me in with the trio at the last moment.

Safety-conscious, I rummage under the cushion for a seatbelt and come up empty-handed. So much for buckling up. It seems the driver has forgotten the seatback cushion too. With every jolt, my back bangs painfully against bare metal. The women don't care. They're sitting up high on the back of the buggy, adventurer-like, clinging to the roll bar, sunglasses pushed up into their hair, smiling rapturously in the wind.

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"Stop," Daniela yells. Her sunglasses have blown off and we circle back to retrieve them. When we halt, I take the opportunity to get out and rub my aching back. The sight of a gringo in pain seems to amuse Rose. "You're not enjoying the trip," she laughs (with mock sympathy?). But, relenting, she folds her towel and places it behind my back. We slam off into the glare.

The coastal dunes, pushed by the prevailing easterly winds, have been fleeing inland over millions of years as if shunning the possibility of supporting visitors' umbrellas. Near Natal's main tourist beach, Ponta Negra, they are jealously guarded by environmental police. Natal, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, wants to maintain its reputation not only as the country's safest state capital but also as a city that is environmentally aware.

But 30 kilometres north, it's open season on dunes. The rubber wheels of low-slung, gaudily coloured vehicles that sound like motorbikes slice through the beautiful landscape of sand hills and freshwater lakes. We hurtle down toward one of these lakes.

Surrounded by monstrous walls of white sand, like a skateboarder in a half-pipe, we zoom first up one wall, side-slip down, then up the opposite rampart. My fear subsides. I realize the buggy has such a low centre of gravity and our tourist-board-authorized driver, George William, is so skillful that there is only a minor chance of flipping over and dining on dune. We are on our way to Jacuma Lake to try our hand at "aero-bunda" a pastime available only in this part of Brazil.

For "aero-bunda," entrepreneurs have strung cables from the top of a 30-metre dune to the opposite side of the lake. Wearing no life jacket, the enthusiast sits in a crude seat made of webbing attached by a pulley to the main cable and is swung out and down toward the water. I timidly bow out, citing my camera, lack of a bathing suit and aching back.

After several daring dunkings in the lake, my soggy car partners are ready to continue the adventure. We pile into the dune buggy. My back is screaming for mercy by the time we reach the Potengi River a short distance from our hotels in Natal. The buggeiro guns the engine and races up the ramp of the one-car wooden water transport. He stops suddenly, with just enough forward momentum to break the raft away from the shore.

Then I notice the muscular raftsman poling our craft is wearing a pair of cow's horns attached to his baseball cap. In South American culture, wearing horns is a symbol that a man's wife has been unfaithful to him. Like an animal that is the last to see its own horns, the man is the last to learn of his wife's infidelity. But why would a man want to draw attention to his marital problems, I wonder?

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It is both a joke and a warning that infidelity can happen to anyone, Rose explains. "Here in Brazil, people try to relax and feel better by joking about their pain," she says. My back is killing me, but I manage a weak smile. It's the Brazilian way.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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