Back home

    Back home

    I’m visiting Brazil after a long time away. As a tourist
    with saudade in her heart, I thought I could blend, connect; but
    instead, I am treated as "affluent" because I am, comparatively.
    Newspapers here do not talk of the super-highway, bank cashiers have old
    typewriters, and much of the roadwork is done with pick and sledgehammer.
    I have connected to my heritage, but not in the way I imagined.
    By Kathleen de Azevedo

    The bus is traveling north on the narrow two-lane highway from Salvador,
    Bahia to Maceió, Alagoas. It honks its horn as it tries to pass
    a flatbed truck hauling butane tanks. The truck with its red slat sides,
    moves to the right, the bus starts to pass, and a car coming the opposite
    way reels over to the clay shoulder. Then the bus, called Bom Fim which
    in Portuguese means "good death," sails ahead, squeezing between
    the two other vehicles.

    People who live in nearby towns or in lonely huts shrouded by banana
    trees, are busy working. Women harvesters in a cornfield use bright colored
    umbrellas for shade and an old man swings a scythe through the stripped
    stalks. On the dried grass of the town square, a farmer grazes his trio
    of donkeys — each with a pair of baskets strapped to the saddle. As the
    bus pulls off the road and into a small terminal, child vendors jump up
    and slap the bus’ metal sides; they lift makeshift wood racks so bags of
    peanuts and nets of peeled lemons float past the windows, and others tap
    the window glass with coke cans and bottled water.

    A small boy climbs onto the bus and wanders down the aisle with a pot
    of cooked chicken, and chirps out his sales pitch. The passengers look
    forlornly at him because it is impossible to eat such a tempting but messy
    dish on the bus, with no plates or utensils. At the next stop, the bus
    picks up a man who has been waiting at a roofless produce stand. He is
    lean and dry-skinned and his clean white shirt has an L-shaped tear in
    back. His bony shoulders shift as he waits for the driver to open the side
    luggage hatch, then he tosses in a large waxy burlap sack of mandioca
    (manioc), a long root with rough brown peel, a food staple.

    I’m visiting Brazil after a long time away. I was born in Rio, but lived
    most of my life in the US. My images of Brazil used to be the palm trees
    of postcards, and memories of relatives having loud emotional conversations.
    As a tourist with saudade in her heart, I thought I could blend,
    connect; but instead, I am treated as "affluent" because I am,
    comparatively. I was raised in a country that is perceived to be paved
    in gold. Brazilians talk of going to Miami as if it is Oz. Brazil is a
    country where the separation between the rich and poor is adamantly preserved,
    and its people constantly remind me of which side I stand on.

    The state of Alagoas in northeast Brazil is one of the oldest developed
    regions of the country and has a history of exploitation of the land and
    its people. This heritage accounts in part for the drastic class divisions.
    In the 1500’s, much of the coastal tropical vegetation was cleared out
    for sugar plantations. The sugar growers tried to enslave the Indians,
    but found them too "nomadic" for plantation work. The booming
    plantations, or fazendas, then turned to Africa for their slaves.

    In the 1630’s during the Dutch invasion of the Northeast, many of the
    slaves took advantage of the unrest and escaped from the plantations and
    formed independent Black republics, or quilombos, the most famous
    being Palmares in Alagoas. But the quilombo in Palmares was gradually
    crushed by Dutch and Portuguese expeditions and it breathed its last in

    Today, Maceió draws tourists to its beaches and resorts and has
    the design of a small Third World city. The luxury beachfront hotels are
    toward the outskirts and seem like they sprouted among the coconut palms.
    The hotels’ empty balconies stare at the ocean and the outdoor patios slump
    as sun umbrellas snap in the wind; these places are deserted. Some empty
    lots have the framework of new luxury hotels that have been abandoned for
    lack of money.

    For the rest, there is the city of Maceió, covered in a brown
    haze, a sweaty city of brick huts on hills and on dismal streets. It is
    a good city, a cab driver tells me, not violent like Rio. This could very
    well be true as it doesn’t seem to move fast enough for fleet feet. Businesses
    are only open from 10-4. In the marketplace are stands of languishing food:
    the olive-green pinha covered with small bumps, grapes, green oranges,
    warm sunken cheese, sugary lemon cakes, coconut brittle, and jaca.
    The jaca sitting in a wheelbarrow is as big as a watermelon and
    looks like an ocher armadillo. The vendor with his machete, chops its yellow
    pulp in pieces while fighting away the flies.

    Forró, a popular Nordeste music with its guitar
    and accordion, seeps from shops and small radios. Many from Rio dismiss
    its upbeat chank-a-chank sound and melancholy lyrics of love as unsophisticated
    music of the poor. But what bliss to dance it! Couples dance to forró
    close together with the woman astride her partner’s leg. I saw a couple
    dancing on the beach in the late afternoon, the woman with her dress way
    up past her knees, the man holding his hand on her joyous hips.

    The work in Maceió is labor-intensive. Newspapers here do not
    talk of the super-highway, bank cashiers have old typewriters, and much
    of the roadwork is done with pick and sledgehammer. I feel guilty for being
    captivated by manual labor and its graceful movements, in part because
    in the US I see it less and less as machines take over. I also have the
    luxury of observing labor because I don’t have to do it myself. Still,
    in some cases, work done in a group is its own synchronized ballet.

    Near the shore at the Praia de Pajuçara, a fishing net floats
    in the water. The children stand in the water, grab the edge of the net
    and try to pull in the booty. The net gets heavier as it drags on the sand,
    and the older men move in as the kids splash off to the side. The net is
    finally brought in, and it seems like a pile of seaweed and garbage, but
    then small silvery fish glitter. Kids pick up the tiny fish and put them
    in bags for bait, and they swipe up the small crabs, pull apart their legs,
    and give the pieces to an old fisherman standing by.

    The older men unravel the net and toss away the seaweed and coke cans
    and plastic bottles to get to the bigger fish. Someone drags a basket toward
    the net and people throw in fish and eels. One man pulls out an ugly stubby
    fish with gills which fan around the head like a ruff. He takes out his
    small machete, slices off the gills and head, and throws the body in the
    basket and the head out to sea.

    The section of Alagoas coastline that runs north to south is called
    the litoral, and some of the best beaches are supposed to be on
    the Ilha da Croa, a small narrow peninsula. My intention is to shun the
    tour buses, and get there on my own. However, the buses outside the city
    are elusive, and only the natives seem able to track its path. The raspy-voiced
    clerk at the hotel says she knows a taxi driver who is honest and who can
    take me to the litoral for the day. She has large hooded eyes and
    wears frosted eye shadow.

    I remembered her throaty laugh when I decided to stay at the hotel,
    she was almost triumphant, her discount bargaining refined to an art. Her
    long black hair spills down the back of her blue uniform. She is with another
    employee who has curls round and dark like her eyes, and both women, with
    honest intensity, claim that this driver is the best, then they both look
    at each other and giggle. I tell her I will hire her taxi driver friend.

    I’m lucky to come from an affluent country, yet I somehow like to pretend
    it doesn’t affect me. Argentines and Paulistas (from São
    Paulo) go on packaged tours and seem to move through Brazil without much
    guilt, probably because the world tries to make South America feel guilty
    enough. As an American, it is hard to detach myself from the "powerful,"
    and yet I have that mind set. I don’t have servants and I find it hard
    to ask someone to do my bidding. But the Brazilian business of jeitinho
    — unofficial deals sealed with a nod of the head — makes me uneasy
    and suspicious, as if someone is trying to trick me.

    I am relieved when I meet the driver. He seems non-assuming and honest.
    He also is a bit distant. His stocky body is brick-like and he grips the
    wheel with thick hands. As we ride along, I try to form a bridge between
    us, Brasileira to Brasileiro, and that is a start. My simple
    rambling Portuguese seems to open his standoffish Nordeste manner.
    Now, hopefully, he will take me to a "secret" place devoid of
    tourists, and perhaps we can work out a jeitinho.

    He says he wants to show me something as he drives through a busted
    up side street. We pass by a large resort, and I’m a bit concerned he’ll
    Club-Med me. Yet we end up on Pratagi Beach, lined with barracas,
    which are outdoor snack bars. One of the barracas has a large cage
    of blue crabs fighting each other. The driver has friends who work here
    and he sits and plays cards while I descend the wood stairs that lead down
    to the beach.

    About 20 yards beyond the shoreline is a finger of land made up of weathered
    rock. At the tip of the finger, is a large statue of a mermaid, the sereia,
    a gift from the governor of Pernambuco — the state directly to the north
    — to the governor of Alagoas. The governor of Alagoas is known to be fond
    of mermaids, and the sereia is a gift from one woman-appreciating
    man to another. Unlike the demure mermaid at Copenhagen’s harbor, this
    mermaid sits upright scrunching her tail, and her solid body and has two
    large bullet breasts which boldly point out to sea.

    After we get back in the car, the driver passes through a coconut plantation
    where the hills are a mass of green fronds and delicately slender trunks
    that remind me of the legs of young boys. The coconut, he says is a gift
    to us, it is our survival. Everyone knows about the coconut meat and milk
    of course, but the leaves make fibers for mats, and people dry out the
    hulls and use them for bowls and scoops. We stop by a coconut stand, run
    by another one of his friends. Green coconuts are stored in coolers so
    the juice keeps cold. The top of the coconut has a natural indentation,
    and the vendor stabs a hole and slips in two straws. As I drink the milk,
    which is more like sweet water, our driver extols the fruit’s vitamin content.

    I walk out to the beach at low tide. A blue fishing boat, tilted to
    one side and parked in the sand, waits for the sea to rush in again. Around
    my feet, scuttle thousands of little bug-like crabs with one overgrown
    claw; they dig small burrows, leaving behind tiny piles of sand. Down where
    the sand is saturated, women and children shovel for clams. The women work
    on hands and knees and drag buckets as they go. When they see me watching
    and drinking a coconut, they seem to glare behind the hunch of their shoulders.

    Finally I arrive at Barra de Santo Antônio, a small town with
    boats that go to Ilha da Croa. For $10, the boatman gives rides across
    the strip of water to the peninsula. His boat is powered with an old gasoline
    outboard motor. The boatman has no top teeth so his voice sounds watery
    as he shouts to the two fisherman in a nearby wood pirogue. One of the
    fisherman nods as he pushes the pirogue forward with one large oar, while
    another crouches and tosses out a small round net.

    The Ilha da Croa is an extended beach and the wet sand stretches toward
    the sea like a large silvery sheet. Small children crowd around and chatter,
    where are you from, are you a Paulista? From Argentina? They all
    want to be hired to do something and they urge me toward a barraca.
    One small boy with a head of brownish red curls, has pursued me a bit more
    vigorously and offers to sit at my table to "watch my stuff."
    Another pushes by a portable bar with fresh pineapple and bottles of rum.
    Others peddle copper decorations, leather thongs with búzio shells.
    The driver knows the owner of the barraca, and sits and has a beer.
    The owner of the barraca hovers around to make sure I order something
    too, as if he is afraid I’ll run off. The food here is ice cold beer and
    shrimp slathered in yellow dendê oil. I couldn’t resist, even
    if I wanted to.

    The sand bar stretches for about a quarter of a mile, and has pockets
    of warm pools where small children play. The bathwater churns up to my
    knees, and I crush with my toes the tight ripples in the sand. A balsa
    raft floats by, heading out to sea. By the time the water gets waist high,
    the shore is far away, and the straw of the barraca roofs is a brown
    strip in the white sand. I try to imagine what it’s like to be an early
    explorer staring out of his ship gazing upon the beautiful remote land.
    I wonder how long a foreigner can stand such beauty, before the urge comes
    to manipulate the beauty into the homeland left behind.

    On the way home, I asked the driver about the World Cup, is he a fan
    of the famous Brazilian champions? I assume all Brazilians are crazy about
    futebol. No, he doesn’t have time, he says. He has eight people
    to support: his wife, four sons, a younger brother and his mother so he
    works weekends. He tells about his sons who were kicked out of school because
    he was late paying their tuition. The two most important things Brazil
    needs, he says, are education and health care and one can’t be spared for
    another. He adds, with sadness that 80% of Brazilians have no health insurance,
    and if he misses 30 days of work, he might as well die.

    As we approach the city, we follow a bus that is dragging a rat tied
    by a string to the bumper, a kid’s prank. By now, the driver is silent,
    tired. He has done his job well. He has showed me the beauty in a land
    of hardship, yet the hardship seems to give the beauty an edge. I will
    travel back to America, to a much easier life, to a more successful plantation
    of sorts. I have connected to my heritage, but not in the way I imagined.
    I can only integrate so far, having lived my life so far from where I was
    born. Nevertheless Brazil’s aching beauty, like a ghost, follows me home.

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