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.
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
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 itthe 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
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
So when Jaymes Alves drove
up to me that afternoon and said he was going to Quixadáa town
in the interior of Cearáand 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)."
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 carT-shirts in handand 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
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
During the entire ridewhen
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 HavanaI 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
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 eventsa 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
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
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
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
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?"
"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
"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
Visiting de Queiroz
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
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).
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
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.
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
"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."
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
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?"
"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,"
I played along, saying
back, "Well, would you ask Rachel de Queiroz if I could interview her,
"She left for Rio,"
Rachel answered back.
"Can I please interview
you?" I pleaded. "I know you are Rachel de Queiroz."
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."
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
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
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
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 amazingwomen running with buckets, taking advantage of the rainand
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
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
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
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."
"Don’t worry about
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 email@example.com.