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Brazzil - Nation - September 2004

In Brazil, for Every Moment There Is a Beer

Boys were drinking cachaça while outside the rain smacked the
roofs of huts. Every so often a boy would sneak off to the back of
the house to vomit, pretending that nothing had occurred, and
then come back for some more rum. We left quickly. Jaymes had
just insulted his girlfriend for refusing to kiss him good-bye.

Nicholas Arons


Picture Cerveja
(beer) is the cure for everything in Brazil. If I have a stomachache, someone goes to get me a beer, even if it is early in the morning. If I am tired, beer. If I am thirsty, beer. If I feel full from eating too much, beer.

If it is raining, then people do not go outside; they drink beer. If it is too hot, they have a beer to cool down. If the temperature goes below eighty-five degrees, it is too cold, so they have a beer to warm up.

One Friday my communist friend Ulix told me to join him to drink cachaça. It is much stronger than beer, similar to tequila, basically cane liquor, and the last time I had it I was not well for a few months. I was not exactly looking forward to a Friday night of communist rhetoric and cachaça because every other night of the week seemed to be filled with communist rhetoric and booze.

I had already been to two cachaça museums in Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte and to a cachaça factory and had met several cachaça producers at their homes. Every region and state has its own flavor, and tastes do not cross state lines.

Try suggesting Pitú (a bottle with a mean-looking lobster) in Ceará, and you might well get your head torn off because it is the drink of choice in neighboring Rio Grande do Norte. If you believe the infomercials, 51 is the "mania brasileira" (Brazilian addiction), and Pitú is "uma boa idéia" (a good idea). Actually, it is not.

Every time I got near cachaça, the smell made me want to vomit, but if I wanted to be accepted into people's homes and lives, I had to become a cachaça expert, so that is what I did.

I learned everything there was to know about it—the distilling process, the flavoring styles, how to use a crab or lobster in the fermentation process to produce a sea flavor, how guava or mango adds to the alcohol level, as well as how to consume it correctly.

But getting sick several nights in a row convinced me that perhaps the Mormons and other alcohol-free proselytizers have the right idea.

Long before this particular Friday night I had had enough of cachaça. Nevertheless, I said yes to Ulix's invitation, thinking I would pretend to drink while pouring the cachaça under the table or letting it run out of my mouth and not actually swallowing any. With any luck, I would run into Valter, a homeless poet who ran with the same crowd as Ulix and was helping me with my research.

So when Jaymes Alves drove up to me that afternoon and said he was going to Quixadá—a town in the interior of Ceará—and asked if I wanted to join him, my answer was an immediate yes.

I said yes to get out of cachaça night, despite the fact that I had no idea who Jaymes was. He gave me his card before he drove off, and it said he was a T-shirt and hat salesman, and his name was spelled "JaYmes."

I was fairly certain that I knew him from somewhere, so we agreed to meet at five-thirty that evening at the Workers' Party headquarters because he was delivering hats to Quixadá for the party.

I later found out that his Christian name was James, but he had added the y to protest the fact that during the dictatorship the military leaders decided to ban the letter y for absolutely no reason at all except to show they could. He also felt that this letter "Americanized" his name in case he ever decided to move to the United States.

I was tardy for my appointment with Jaymes, arriving an hour late at the party offices. I told an office boy that Jaymes and I had agreed to meet at five-thirty, and he just laughed, saying Jaymes would be there soon.

He told me to have a beer and wait, so I did; four beers and three hours later Jaymes showed up with a car full of hats emblazoned with revolutionary slogans such as "Down with the IMF (International Monetary Fund)."

"Let's go," he said. We got into the car and drove around the city listening to Cuban music (he had just been there as a delegate for the Workers' Party) until we found the little store that made the T-shirts he was to take to Quixadá.

He had forgotten the money to pay the shirt manufacturers, so he squirmed a bit, told some jokes, and then ran for the car—T-shirts in hand—and took off, hitting a pothole, cursing some, and smirking while I arranged a thousand T-shirts in the backseat.

"Fasten your seat belt!" he yelled in English, quoting a soap opera he liked. "Dees is dee ride of your life." We sped off into the night, heading for the interior.

The plan was to drop off the shirts and hats, look around the town, and return the next day to Fortaleza. The drive normally takes more than three hours, but Jaymes did it in well under two.

During the entire ride—when I was not listening to Jaymes's stories about shaking Fidel's hand and what he would do if he ever met Julia Roberts or the flight attendant on his very first flight en route to Havana—I was praying.

Worse Driver Ever

I was not praying in the manner of schoolboy who is forced to say his daily blessings: I was begging God for forgiveness for my myriad sins and misdeeds. I promised to pray, observe the Sabbath, and treat those around me with pious respect and dignity if She would just let me survive the night. I have never been in a car with a worse driver (including other male Brazilian drivers) in my entire life.

I thought I was going to die that night. I had not prayed in some time, but I was pulling out everything I could remember, from Hebrew school, Passover services, the mourner's kaddish, even a few Hail Marys I learned from the Catholics in Iraq.

I finally got up the nerve to ask Jaymes to drive more cautiously, and he slowed down to 120 kilometers per hour for a few seconds before going back to his normal speed of 140.

We finally arrived in Quixadá around midnight, and Jaymes said we had to drink some beer before sleeping. We went to a bar in the middle of nowhere. It had a large television showing a U.S. country music festival, and we were met with strange and ominous looks from the locals (owing to my presence) until they realized that Jaymes was the guy with the political hats sporting revolutionary slogans.

Then they were nice to him because they wanted clothing that said "Down with the IMF" or "Fora FHC" (something like "Beat it, Fernando Henrique Cardoso!"). We went to sleep at his brother's house at three in the morning, where we were to sleep in hammocks, which was fine because I could have slept standing.

The brother was away. In fact, he was never home. The next morning his wife told us that he was lucky if he spent two months out of the year at home. He was off fighting drought, she proudly reported, which meant that he was digging a reservoir, building a road, or planting drought-resistant crops several municipalities away.

Their home was built out of bricks and mud, with gaping holes through which wind whistled and rain trickled. The house had no door, but instead a brown sheet, and was really one large room subdivided into smaller rooms by yet more sheets. The walls were mostly bare, covered occasionally with framed pictures. Some were of family events—a wedding, a baptism.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed that Jaymes's sister-in-law had cut out photographs from calendars and framed them. They were lovely, though it made me sad to think about the effort that went into saving the money to buy the frames.

Otherwise, the home had very few amenities: a propane-powered stove, a latrine out back, and a small yard with a few chickens, one of which was to be our meal the next day.

Jaymes had woken me at eight o'clock that morning, saying we had to drop off the hats and shirts. So we went to the Workers' Party convention, and Jaymes decided to sit and listen to the speeches, which consisted of several middle-class white men complaining that too many middle-class white men ran the country.

The temperature in the room was easily higher than 100 degrees; we all were sweating profusely, and I was wishing for the end of the speech. But every time the bearded man said "in conclusion," he would talk for another ten minutes, repeating what he had already said.

Every time he repeated himself, he would shout louder, but the people in the audience stared with the same riveted attention, which told me they really were not listening at all.

More annoying, every time he started to shout louder about politics, the room seemed to get hotter, and I tried to peel away more layers of clothing. I felt dirty, having not showered in days, but the people there were dirtier than I, having just finished work in the fields. So I calmed down and tried to pay attention to the angry man.

Jaymes could not have been happier. He was doing good business. In the intermission and during excruciatingly long monologues, men and women approached, handshakes and friendly conversation were traded, money changed hands, and revolutionary hats and shirts were on their way to another convention. Jaymes would be a millionaire one day, I was certain.

From the sauna of the convention, we went to his friend Oclesiano's house because we "had to have a beer with Oclesiano." Then Jaymes took me to the Cedar Reservoir, which was beautiful, albeit completely dry. There was no drought when I was in Quixadá, yet the reservoir was empty. I shuddered to imagine what it looked like during a drought.

We drove into the mountains to a church overlooking a sprawling valley and had another beer. We got dirty looks from the people entering the church, but this was Brazil, where you can drink a beer next to a church and people do not get overly upset.

We saw the spot where the concentration camps for drought refugees sat in 1915, and we visited the location that Rachel de Queiroz observed during the drought of 1915, which she immortalized in her novel O Quinze, a book of dreams, torture, drought, devastation, feminism, famine, racial awareness, and government cruelty.

She was nineteen when she wrote the book, which reminds the reader of the beauty of the sertão and of the kindness of those who live there. It tells of a father who is too proud to beg for food and whose son eats a poison root out of hunger and dies.

The Big 1915 Drought

It speaks of a region where life is so precarious that families often split up forever, simply so they can survive. The horizon de Queiroz depicts is gray, and the air is colored red. Life is literally sucked out of cattle: "the cows dried up as if a parasite within them was absorbing their blood and devouring their muscles, leaving only the hard exterior of bones and a miserable body of rusted copper and dirt."

The 1915 drought killed approximately seventy-two thousand people, twenty-seven thousand from the state of Ceará alone. An additional seventy-five thousand emigrated to the Amazon in that year alone.

The day was getting older, and I began to realize that we were not leaving Saturday night, as Jaymes had promised, which worried me because I had made plans with a friend for Sunday. At ten o'clock, I finally asked Jaymes if we were leaving that night, and of course he said no. We had been invited to a party.

We drank more beers and headed to the party at a nearby bar. It was Arab Night, which meant people were dressed like queens, sheiks, nomadic shepherds, prophets, Bedouins, and Moses. The cover charge was one real (fifty US. Cents at the time).

The patrons looked nothing like Middle Eastern nomads, holy men, or belly dancers, but the party was fun. Jaymes told me I should find a woman to kiss; when I told him I didn't think so, he replied, "It's easy, friend. You just pick one and kiss her. You will see what I mean."

I was not sure exactly what he meant, but when the party was starting to wind down, I found myself at the back of the bar cum mosque, surrounded by couples sticking their tongues down each other's throats. Everywhere I turned to walk, I ran into another couple going at it.

I was the only one not kissing someone, so I stood there in the middle of a sea of lovers and smiled to myself. I was on the way out when I struck up a conversation with the bartender.

I told him I was interested in drought, and he told me that Rachel de Queiroz was at her fazenda that very night, in Quixadá. I was quite surprised because she was very old and rarely left Rio de Janeiro.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Yes, very sure," he replied. "I will show you where she lives."

"Now?" I asked.

"Yes, why not; it is close to here."

So he finished his duties and got off early, telling his boss that an American needed his help with some research. At two o'clock in the morning, we walked through Quixadá, past drunk men weaving and waving and talking, an old man sleeping on the street, scores of wandering mutts, itinerant kittens, geese, chickens, and ducks, and several teenagers kissing each other furtively under mango and orange trees. We walked and walked, leaving the city center and arriving at an orange dirt road leading out of the city.

"It is this way," he said. "Follow me."

I was getting a bit suspicious of this too-genial man and asked if he was sure now was the best time to go to her home. At this point, I should probably mention that I had already consumed several beers. I should also mention that Jaymes and I had smoked some funny green stuff at the back of the Arab Night party in order to appreciate our surroundings more fully, so I was also seeing several trees where there should have been only one. Let us say that the sertão looked very different that evening.

"I should tell you," my new friend Samuel said, "that I am the groundskeeper of her fazenda, and I live in the shack beside her home."

Now things were starting to make sense, though I could not figure out what I would do there at this ungodly hour of the night, considering that I had hoped to meet de Queiroz in Rio and interview her. He had told me that it was a short walk, but we had been stumbling along the road now for at least twenty minutes. Nonetheless, we walked some more until we came to a tall fence, behind which, according to Samuel, was de Queiroz's home.

"I climb over the fence instead of going through the gate," he said, "since Rachel prefers that."

Visiting de Queiroz

"Oh really," I said. "Interesting, very interesting."

We climbed over the fence, which was not very difficult to scale, and I found myself staring at the most famous fazenda in northeast Brazil. It was here that de Queiroz watched drought after drought unfold until, at the age of nineteen, she wrote the novel that made her famous.

She then went on to join the Communist Party, for which she was arrested in 1937, and to write hundreds of short stories and newspaper articles and dozens of novels about life in northeast Brazil.

Samuel led me through the front door and said, "Let me first show you her room. But be very quiet, we cannot wake anyone up. They would kill me if they knew I brought you here since she rarely lets people inside. Especially foreigners."

We walked through a long hallway full of photographs and flowers until we got to her bedroom. He pushed the door slightly ajar and pointed to a frail woman sleeping in a hammock. "There she is," he said, "Rachel de Queiroz."

I looked in for a second and immediately knew it was she because I had seen recent photographs of her, and then I pulled back, feeling enormous guilt, as if I were a stalker (I believe I actually was).

"OK, thanks," I said, suddenly nervous, "that was really something else, but I think I should go home now." But Samuel wanted to show me the rest of the house.

He took me through several more rooms, told me who had slept where and when, and recounted some funny stories about presidents, senators, and dictators who had walked down these halls.

It was like a formal guided tour, except it was taking place at three o'clock in the morning and he was talking in whispers. The moon poured through large windows, making eerie shapes on chairs, tables, and tiled floors. He finally led me out into the garden and showed me where she read and where she wrote.

Samuel wanted to walk me home, saying he feared I would get lost or mugged, but I insisted that I would be fine. He drifted off into the night, heading toward his shack next to the author's home.

I sat in a hammock hanging between two trees and stared at the moon and de Queiroz's home, feeling guilty that I had just stared at a ninety-something-year-old sleeping woman. I was also uncomfortable because I was still on her property.

I started thinking about her novel and what it must have been like to watch such horrific events. I felt for the little girl who watched people die of thirst, who lived only kilometers from a concentration camp, and who lived in a society where a nice, smart girl like her should be worried only about whom she would marry.

I was looking forward to awaking early the next morning so I could come back and ask for an interview. Samuel had said he would tell her about me, though he made me promise I would not tell about our late-night visit.

It was just amazing to sit there, and I wondered what the little girl would have thought in 1930 if someone told her that seventy years later an American would be lying in her hammock at three in the morning just so he could soak up some of the magic of her presence.

The problem with these thoughts, coupled with a cool evening breeze and comfortable hammock, is that they put me to sleep. Fortunately, the rooster crowed early, and I awoke with a start to hear de Queiroz's maid singing in the kitchen. I realized I had not yet been spotted.

I jumped to my feet, head spinning and hurting, and sprinted to the fence. I leaped like an Olympic high jumper and made it over with two incredible surges and strides. I stopped for a moment to marvel at my own physical ability and elasticity.

Just as I was coming over the other side to the safety and freedom of the road, however, my shoe slipped off onto her side of the fence. I also made a yelping sound when I snagged my shorts on the barbed wire. The maid looked my way. She started running toward the fence, which fortunately had enough weeds on it to shield me from sight as I ran off into the rising sun.

I made it back to Jaymes's brother's home before they awoke, so I jumped into my hammock and implored the heavens that the maid had not seen me.

Lucky Dog

I sat there praying for two hours, drinking water as fast as it would boil to ease my headache, and then made coffee for Jaymes. He woke up shortly thereafter, looked up, and said, "Nícolas, I knew you were going to get lucky last night. Which one was she, the Cleopatra? I saw her giving you the eye. Or was it the masked gypsy woman? Man, she looked real good, didn't she? You lucky dog."

I am not sure why, but I blurted out, "I slept at Rachel de Queiroz's home."

"You dirty bastard," he said, laughing because he thought it was a joke.

For the next hour, Jaymes prodded me, trying to figure out whom I had been with. I denied everything until he gave up. I told him I had an errand to run.

"I have to make a phone call," I lied.

"Sure, I will take you there."

"No thanks, I think I will go alone."

"But you have no idea where the phone is."

"Yes, I do."

"Where is it, then?"

"Uhh, I have to buy some things for friends in Fortaleza."

"The stores are all closed on Sunday."

"I have to buy some water for my hangover."

"We have water here."

"Jaymes! Listen, man, I have to go to Rachel de Queiroz's home to try to interview her and, God willing, get my shoe back! OK, man, I had a rough morning."

"Americans are strange."

I walked back to de Queiroz's house, following the trail from the previous evening. The whole night had been unreal, almost dreamlike, but I was missing a shoe, which proved it had taken place.

I walked up to the gate this time and rang the little bell. It did not work, so I did what everyone does: clap loudly and shout, "Oi, moça!"

De Queiroz, or at least I thought it was she, came to the fence to answer it.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"I would like to talk to you, if you do not mind, about your work, life, and memories of drought. I am an American researcher, trying to understand the literature of the drought. I am sorry to just drop in like this, without warning, but I heard you were home and would love just a few minutes of your time."

"You must want Rachel," she said. "She has left for Rio already."

I knew it was she, but I asked anyway, "Who are you?"

"I am the maid," she replied.

I played along, saying back, "Well, would you ask Rachel de Queiroz if I could interview her, please?"

"She left for Rio," Rachel answered back.

"Can I please interview you?" I pleaded. "I know you are Rachel de Queiroz."

"Listen," she said, "I do not know what a maid has to say about the drought, and as I told you before, she has left for Rio."

"Sure thing then, thanks for your help. Do you think that I might submit to Rachel something in writing, which she could consider? I could explain who I am, what I am interested in, and what I want to ask her about."

"Yes," Rachel replied, "why don't you try that?"

"Should I send it to this address?"

"No, let me get you her address in Rio, where she spends most of her time," and she walked into the house, then returned a few moments later and handed me a piece of paper with an address and fax number.

"Thanks for your help, and sorry to bother you. By the way, can I have a word with Samuel?" I asked before leaving.


"Samuel, the man who lives in that shack."

"That shack is empty except for the chickens."

"You do not know Samuel, the guy who takes care of the grounds?"

"Junior does that," she said, pointing to an old man on his knees picking weeds with his bare hands, like the poor laborers in de Queiroz's novels. "There is no one named Samuel here, boy."

"Are you sure you do not know a Samuel?"

"I have to get back to work now, thanks for stopping by."

I turned away, completely bemused.

I had walked a few paces when she called after me. I looked up, thinking I had passed some hidden test of hers and now she would talk to me.

"Boy," she said, "you forgot your shoe," and she passed my running sneaker through a hole in the barbed wire.

"Be careful, child," she said. "Always be careful."

And she walked away like a queen.

Soon after I returned to the brother's home, it looked like rain. Jaymes's sister-in-law was there with several women who were assisting with lunch preparations. Everyone in the house had been smiling and getting high on anticipation when they smelled rain.

As soon as the thunder sounded, the women went into action. I counted eight buckets catching water coming down from the roof, and two women running around madly; previously docile women with stoic faces were now sprinting around everywhere to catch water. The house had a complex drainage system, with the roof pipe leading to one pipe leading to another. Then the water bounced off a wall, ricocheted off a tree and into one bucket, and the same happened in several other places. It was amazing—women running with buckets, taking advantage of the rain—and me just sitting and marveling at the spectacle.

Kids rolled around in the mud and wrestled; a drunk man was so happy he started frolicking in the mud, covering himself with it until his wife came to fetch him. Another man came to the house to discuss the rain after it stopped, and soon a debate started.

I swear they talked about it for an hour: How much had fallen, did they keep enough, what sort of rain was it, and should they drink some beer to celebrate the rain? We sloshed through the mud to a neighbor's home, where Jaymes's girlfriend from the previous night lived.

He wanted to kiss her good-bye, but she would have none of it. The television was blaring with Domingão do Faustão (Huge Sunday of Faustão), a portly man who holds singing contests for youths, dances with well-endowed women, performs magic shows, and warms up the television audience for Xuxa (a popular blond ignoramus).

A Break to Vomit

Boys were drinking cachaça while outside the rain smacked the roofs of huts and turned the dirt road into a mud bath. Every so often a boy would sneak off to the back of the house to vomit, pretending that nothing had occurred, and then come back for some more rum.

Jaymes and I stayed for a while, tasted some of their cachaça, then jumped into the car before we too had to join them at the rear of the house. We left quickly because Jaymes had just insulted his girlfriend for refusing to kiss him good-bye.

God could not have protected us from her cachaça-inebriated brother and his adolescent buddies had they found out that she had been mistreated by an underweight, crazy T-shirt salesman driving a car with four different-size wheels.

We struck off for Fortaleza immediately, passing through muddy roads, spinning and hydroplaning out of control several times, and listening to music so loud that my hearing was permanently impaired. I was in a complete daze: I had screwed up my chances for an interview with de Queiroz, had hardly slept a wink, and had seen the interior of northeast Brazil in all its naked debauchery, horror, beauty, kindness, sympathy, depression, and glory.

Jaymes asked what I was doing in Brazil, and I told him that my research so far consisted of visiting writers to ask about droughts, reading the important pantheon of northeastern writers, watching movies about drought, and talking to people about their own experiences in the drought-stricken interior.

"Oh," he replied, "I thought you were researching something else."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Don't worry about it."

I wanted to tell Jaymes how interesting my research had been so far, but I was too tired. People were incredibly helpful, I wanted to tell him, and I had a huge stack of books that students had given me to read, CDs with drought lyrics, poems with drought metaphors, and stories about their families. If I just walked to the market, I met people from the interior who enjoyed telling me about the droughts, and all over the market I sometimes stopped and just looked at the chaos around me, the people hawking women's underwear, street vendors trying to sell me stereos or live chickens, cars driving around with huge speakers blaring political slogans or telling us of the sale at some store. I would look into doorways that led to rooms full of women sewing shirts or men drinking cachaça in the middle of the day or children playing soccer or a mother yelling orders at her kids. If I found the right place where everyone was yelling at once, it no longer sounded like chaos, but a symphony that sustained everyone and everything in a rhythm that never stopped pounding. I could walk to the square where an Andean flutist played and people circled around, or a poet recited verses from memory because he was illiterate, or a priest told us that we were all living in sin and heaven could be found in his church.

I wanted to tell it all to Jaymes, but I was just too tired, and as we reentered Fortaleza, I realized that I had not gotten out of drinking cachaça after all.

Note: Rachel de Queiroz, winner of the prestigious Machado de Assis Prize and the first woman to enter the previously all-male Brazilian Academy of Letters, died in her sleep on November 4, 2003. She was ninety-two years old.

Nicholas Arons has worked as a writer for international policy think tanks, at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at public defender legal offices, for civil liberties organizations, and as a non-violence educator. He observed the impact of economic sanctions and U.S. bombings in Iraq, publishing his findings in Fellowship, UTNE Reader, Punk Planet, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Iraq Under Siege.
He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to research the culture of drought in Brazil, a graduate of Yale College and NYU School of Law, and is currently an Institute for International Law and Justice Fellow at NYU School of Law. His book Waiting for Rain - The Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil can be found at http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/books/bid1553.htm or amazon.com. Comments welcome at nicholas.arons@aya.yale.edu.

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