Mato Grosso: Work of a Weary God

Mato Grosso: Work of a Weary God

Mato Grosso! Brazil’s vast savannah is not nearly as famous as the
Amazon, so not nearly as
visually available in countless nature films.
Remoteness excites me. This land excites me. The horizon is
limitless, that Mato Grosso ("thick forest") becomes one of those areas

of earth that presents
itself less as a sight than as a vision.



Campo Grande/Rio Verde

June 1. It’s a fifteen-hour bus trip from Curitiba to Campo Grande, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
We arrive exhausted. I haven’t been able to have a coffee, and there’s no time to try before Eva’s brother, Elton, picks us up
and takes us to the hotel he has booked, the wonderfully-named Hotel Advanced. It’s clean. But it’s only "advanced" in
terms of what we can glimpse of the city, which is not as dust-ridden as Eva has led me to expect but just as poor and dirty.
We’re still mad for coffee.

Brazilians drink a thick expresso called
cafezinho in demitasse cups, while pouring in loads of sugar. I’ve been
ordering either pingado or
média, which is served in larger cups or glasses, calls for plenty of milk, and can be drunk with no
sugar, sem açúcar—if you insist. You have to insist. It’s simply inconceivable to drink coffee without sugar to Brazilians. So
nothing has represented our effort at American solidarity more than ordering coffee
sem açúcar. Will such a thing be possible to
command in Campo Grande?

Yes, it turns out, just round the corner from the hotel, in a little bar, run by two kids, each twelve or so. One makes
the média very carefully—and then pours in so much milk
(média is mostly drunk for breakfast) that we howl, prompting
him to come up with a second glass, and then add more coffee to each. At last we sip contentedly, and relax into how much
warmer Campo Grande is after Curitiba. Suddenly an old man staggers in off the sidewalk. A beggar? His clothes are in shreds,
and he’s draped in a filthy blanket. "I’m so cold I can’t stand it," he exclaims, to no one in particular. Circumstances are
always too local.

There is more to Campo Grande besides its squalid surface, which turns out to be largely confined to the old section.
For example, this city of 600,000 has a brand-new complex of government buildings and theatres. Elton drives us around.
An accountant, he handles thousands for some sort of consortium of meat-packing companies. He’s the only one of Eva’s
family who has any money. So it’s appropriate that later in the evening we gain access through Elton to our trip’s highest
ascent in class, in the person of Bruno, the Lebanese owner of the city’s finest Italian restaurant. Here this night Elton fetes
both us and his daughter, Fabiana, seventeen today.

The place is festooned with pictures of happy patrons: principally lawyers, judges (Bruno’s wife is a judge) and
owners of fazendas. I’d love to see one of these fabled baronial estates, which, it seems, really do dominate the local economy.
My image is of something as fabulous as the spread (complete with zoo and satellite dish) of the Columbia drug lord in the
movie, "Godfather II." Bruno gestures at a picture he proclaims to be of the richest
fazendeiros and his wife. "The house alone
cost ten million dollars." "Too bad," Bruno confides, "the man is a homosexual."

Eva has another brother in Campo Grande, Edson. But only Edson’s daughters and son—all in their 20s—are at the
dinner; Edson himself is, as usual, on the road, selling sandals. His son, Hueber, works as an architectural designer while
studying to take the feared state exam, the
vestibular, so he can attend college. His parents never even made it to the fifth grade.
At one point Eva jokes with Hueber (whose name Brazilians pronounce "way-ber") about studying in the United States.
"You realize," Eva smiles, "that if Americans ever see how your name is spelled, they’ll call you `Who-ber.’" "That’s what
you get, tia," he laughs," when you have illiterate parents."

Mato Grosso! Brazil’s vast savannah is not nearly as famous as the Amazon, so not nearly as visually available in
countless nature films. I’ve never seen Mato Grosso. As Elton drives to Rio Verde, two hundred kilometers north, where a
final one of Eva’s brother’s works, I stare out another car window in awe. My God, Mato Grosso really looks just as Updike
writes in Brazil: "The sky became enormous, as if God had breathed a sigh of relief and given up the intense labor of Creation,
contenting Himself with a few mangles of low thorns, mixtures of caucas and brush, and tall grass, and an occasionally
unimpressive forest."

Now I wish we had taken another week or two, and more buses, and made it to the state of Rondônia, far north, on
the edge of the Amazon, where the most wayward of Eva’s nephews lives. I wish—what? Remoteness excites me. This land
excites me. It’s so flat, and the horizon is so limitless, that Mato Grosso (the name means, "thick forest") becomes one of those
areas of earth that presents itself less as a sight than as a vision. Though halfway to Rio Verde herds of cattle become visible,
and then signs for fazendas, little disturbs the vision. It’s as if, unlike even the vulnerable Amazon now, Mato Grosso is
invulnerable to human predation. The land is complete in itself.

In this respect, it’s comparable to the Dakotas or Montana at the turn of the century. Perhaps I only make this
comparison because on the bus here I’ve finished
Bad Land, Jonathan Raban’s sad story of futile human settlement in the West.
Mato Grosso, by contrast, isn’t sad. It’s dry, monotonous, severe. But not sad. The land permits the growth of wheat,
sorghum, and corn, and it even contains wonders. And suddenly there is one, right over there, with a kind of scrawny dignity,
below a small rise, so you can almost make out the wind blowing its feathers, the most splendid thing we’ve seen in Brazil: a
wild emu.

If ever a town is in the middle of nowhere, it’s Rio Verde. So it’s a perfect place to live for Eva’s youngest brother,
Ermes, who left Maringá bankrupt and in disgrace. Elton set him up as an accountant for the town’s lone industry, a
meat-processing plant. The plant is outside of town. The town, which houses some 12,000 people, seems to have been created by
bureaucratic fiat: the wide streets form a single rectangular grid. There are plenty of shady trees. All the houses have the same light
brown shade, as if at one remove from the earth.

How to describe how woebegotten Rio Verde seems to the foreign eye? Dogs wander all over the streets. People put
chairs on sidewalks and sit drinking
tererê, the local tea, from
cuias, containers made from the bull’s horn. The brick houses
all have iron gates in front; boxlike trees appear like sentries near the curb. I can’t imagine how punishing and brutal the
sun must feel most of the year, when it’s over 100. Even now, when it’s only in the 80s, there’s little to do but sit, and watch
the time go by. And yet, the people seem happy. Somnolent, but happy. I don’t understand why. It’s taken too much time
for us to get here.

The scruffy little shops are full of cheap cassettes and clothes from Paraguay and Bolivia, each fairly close. Eva and
I are a minor sensation when we go shopping. Not only is our dress not local; consider only our manners—the clerk at
one place

whispers to her friend in amazement when Eva, i.e. the wife,
pays for something. Eva tells another shop girl when
she asks that we’re from the United States, but the girl doesn’t seem to believe her. I remember a time in China when our
largely American party stopped at a tiny village and the villagers thought we were Japanese, because Japan was the only other
country they knew. Maybe Rio Verdians appear so content because nowhere acts to absorb all differences, all details. Ermes
tells us that everything from the cattle is used in his plant, even the nose hair.

Ermes has three sons. The one I like best is Marcelo. Nineteen now, he’s still as sweet as he was five years ago in
Maringá, when we hung around together, went to a few movies, and kicked a soccer ball around. Now, after checking with his
mother, he takes us to a supermarket, and asks us to pick out a
cuia, which he wants to give us as a gift. No money changes
hands. The clerk just writes his name in a notebook.

Marcelo himself is into cars. Later, with a friend of his who stops by, the three of us sit on the porch flipping through
a car magazine that the friend has bought. I feel like a teenager I never was. We exclaim over all the shiny new
models—Silverado, Fiat, Mercedes. The boys have never actually seen any of these cars. But they can dream. A ’65 Chevrolet chugs by on
the street in front with more dents than a used tin can. We look up and laugh.

Then back to the pages of the magazine as if such cars were not somehow largely the limit of what there is to see.
Have the boys simply substituted one set of cars for another? Funny. I believe I can imagine what it’s like to grow up in São
Paulo, Maringá, Florianópolis, Curitiba, and maybe even—with lots of
média—Campo Grande. But Rio Verde is something
else again. To find a corresponding town in the United States, you’d have to return to Rabin’s pages. And that’s the problem.
Rio Verde is too wholly literal, too infernally
real for me. Faced with it like Marcelo, though I must concede the town (not
to say my life) its materiality, I’d rather live in pages that speak of somewhere else.

Rio Verde is proud of its river. What else does it have to be proud of? We’ve already seen the falls a few miles out
of town, where people go in summer to stand under or swim beneath. On our last morning before the only bus of the day
leaves for Campo Grande, Eva and I stroll down to the river. It’s just a few minutes away from Ermes’s house. But we should
have gone sooner.

First, there are some women beating their laundry against the flat rocks near the water’s bank. Eva is shocked. "I
never thought I’d see this in Brazil." Is she thinking of India? Then there are a group of people under a clump of trees on the
far side. They have strung sheets or blankets between their wagons and the trees. Eva first thinks they’re squatters. "No!
They’re gypsies." Neither of us has ever seen gypsies in Brazil. Eva tells me they don’t have the stigma gypsies do in Europe,
perhaps because there are so many other kinds of homeless people in Brazil.

A wooden bridge spans the river—hardly more than a stream at this point—and we cross over into a very different
town. Rio Verde turns out to be large enough to have its poor. All round there are wooden shacks rather than brick houses. A
thin man with an emaciated child in hand comes up to ask for money. Another man with legs terribly bent and curved comes
hobbling near when he sees us, head craned, as if he thinks we’re from another country. We think we’re suddenly in the rainless,
drought-plagued Northeast, where everything looks like this and there’s no river.

To be continued. Next: "São Paulo"


This text is part of an essay called

South of the Border, South of Brazil: Reflections on Another Life.

Terry Caesar is the author of, most recently, a collection of essays on academic life,
Traveling Through the Boondocks. He has been traveling to Brazil for some eighteen years, ever since he first arrived in Rio de Janeiro on a Fulbright. He
welcomes your comments at  


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