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A Glimpse of Wonder

A Glimpse
      of Wonder

Staring at the massive views and feeling the silent majesty of this
place was like being in a wondrous cathedral and experiencing something very profound
within oneself. It seemed to take longer to climb out than it did to descend, but perhaps
that was because part of me didn’t want to leave there and I kept stopping to look down
and back, trying to etch the memory of the place forever in my mind’s eye.
By Jerine P. Watson

Last year I lived and worked in Brazil, performing as the
English-speaking liaison between my employer/host, an importer of western goods and
clothing, and more than 60 American manufacturers. I was delighted with the opportunity to
learn Portuguese, to observe another culture and to see a part of the world I had never
even hoped to visit.

February, a summer month in Brazil, was torpid, humid and sticky-hot
when we landed in São Paulo after an 11-hour flight from Dallas. After progressing
through customs and loading our luggage in the bed of my employer’s four-door pickup, we
began the long drive to our destination—the city of Presidente Prudente. Weeks
earlier, I had misunderstood my employer and thought the town was located a mere four
hours from São Paulo. Not so. We had to drive 400 MILES west, not four hours. Nine hours
or more in a truck after flying 11 hours down into the lower half of the world is a long
way, even with part of the journey at supersonic speed.

Most tourists would take advantage of the many luxurious (and
expensive) hotels available in São Paulo, in order to rest after the arduous flight.
However, I was the guest and employee of Marcos, who was anxious to get back to work in
Presidente Prudente and to reunite with his wife and daughters. I wore a cloak of a
different cloth now: not a tourist, not a native, but an American with a tourist visa who
had agreed to tutor Marcos’ teenaged daughters in English, in exchange for round-trip air
fare as well as room and board with his elderly mother-in-law. Plus assisting with his
business correspondence and contractual language, when necessary.

The size of the city of São Paulo intimidated me. I thought we would
never reach the outskirts, much less the countryside. Everywhere loomed the tall,
rectangular columns of beige and gray narrow buildings they seemed to have erected for
every conceivable purpose, as if the architects had agreed beforehand not to use any other
shape. The teeming traffic defied comprehension. A speed limit, if it existed, was
ignored. Wagons, horses, trucks of every age, Volkswagens, Fords, Chevrolets, motorcycles,
bicycles, hundreds of motorcycles, all racing at a heart-thudding speed through clouds of
carbon monoxide and deafening blasts from Klaxon-type horns. The cacophony of boom boxes
hovered over it all, ebbing and flowing like an accompaniment to the frequent screeching
of brakes. I tightened my seatbelt and clung to the armrest like a survivor in a bounding
lifeboat on a stormy sea. Conversation was impossible for nearly two hours as we fought
our way westward.

When we finally reached the edge of the suburbs, we stopped at a lanchonete
for refreshments and I was amazed at the cleanliness of the combination rest stop and
restaurant—and at the quality and taste of the delicious foods offered the travelers.
The tropical fruit juices were fresh and blended with ice and/or cold milk; I’ve never
tasted anything quite as satisfying.

By the time we filled the gas tank and got back on the highway, the
traffic had thinned out considerably and the stars were beginning to hang low in the sky.
I was enthralled, staring at the constellations of the Southern
Hemisphere—particularly the Southern Cross. I had studied star maps during my
astronomy classes in college, never dreaming I would actually see these constellations.
The farther out in the country we drove, the bigger and brighter the stars appeared. Soon
we were driving through the endless blackness of unoccupied farmlands, with only the
lights from other vehicles and a myriad of stars to keep us company. The occasional
hamlets were few and far between, always with a town square around which were clustered
small, one-story homes, surrounded by a protective iron fence or masonry wall extending
out to the street. The tiny homes of most Brasileiros are constructed of concrete
walls, which adhere to inner structural walls of adobe bricks—resulting in a very
thick insulation to keep the interiors cool in the unforgiving heat.

Electricity is prohibitively expensive in Brazil, so there is very
little air-conditioning in private homes. Even the very wealthy utilize room-sized
air-conditioning units and then only when absolutely necessary for sleeping. The average
home has no plumbed hot water, no bathtubs and, of course, no dryers. The showers are
equipped with an electrical apparatus which, when activated, heats the pipes above,
through which the cold water flows to the showerhead. However, even families of low to
moderate income have domestic help, one of the few bargains in Brazil. These are the women
who launder the clothes, often by hand in cold water, and hang them to dry in the hot air.

The upper middle class of Brazil usually live in
"apartments", which are purchased outright and sometimes, as in the case of my
host family, occupy the entire floor of a luxurious high-rise. Marcos told me his
seventh-floor apartment had cost $250,000 a few years ago and they had spent that much and
more having it redone to suit their needs and professionally decorated. Counting the
live-in maid’s bedroom and bath, the apartment consisted of five bedrooms, five and a half
baths, Marcos’ paneled home office, a family room, a main sala or "great"
room, elevated formal dining room, breakfast room, modern kitchen, huge laundry room,
walk-in pantry and spacious marble entry hall.

It was interesting to note they did have plumbed hot water but no dryer
and only one air-conditioning unit installed in the wall of the master bedroom. Most of
the people of Brazil do not live in such elegant surroundings however, but there appears
to be an increase in the size of the "middle class", particularly in the larger
communities surviving on a regional industry.

We arrived in Presidente Prudente near midnight that first evening,
after making several stops in order for Marcos to visit with friends and relatives on the
way. Marcos’ wife, mother-in-law and daughters were awaiting our arrival and, after
unpacking my things and taking a blissfully cold shower, I slept nearly 10 hours on a bed
with a two-inch thick mattress about as soft as pebbled concrete. The next day was a
Saturday and by the end of the weekend, I was as rested as I could get in the tropical
heat and ready for Monday morning and the workweek.

The language barrier was the most difficult for me, particularly not
having anyone to converse with on the telephone or in person. I could not understand the
television nor the radio, even with my fluent Spanish, so I spent most of my free time
listening and concentrating on Brazilian-Portuguese language tapes. As the days slid by, I
began to pick up phrases and within three months, was able to converse in Portuguese, even
though I was told my version was a strange mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. I began to
fit into my new environment and came to love everything about Brazil.

I was invited to accompany Almeli (Marcos’ wife), her mother, Alcina,
and her aged aunt, Sensata, to an upscale resort near the city of Bonito in the state of
Mato Grosso do Sul. We left the state of São Paulo around noon on a Thursday in the
company truck with the driver at the wheel. Around 8 PM, we turned off the main road and
found the only hotel in a small town. What had appeared to be a mediocre place turned out
to be exceptionally modern and spotlessly clean. We had two large rooms, each with
accommodations for three (Brazilians always allow for the standard female
"companion" for the elderly lady or the usual "nanny" or au pair
for the children), stocked refrigerator, air-conditioning and plumbed hot water in the
bathrooms.

We left the next morning at 7:30 after a picture-perfect Continental
breakfast of cylinders of prosciutto and cheese, numerous kinds of breads, papaya, yogurt,
fresh orange juice, strong coffee laced with sugar, goiaba and guava conserves. The
two older ladies spoke no English at all and had no understanding of anything I said;
Almeli had only a minimal knowledge of English and the driver, none. I was straining to
communicate and to understand, overwhelmed by a feeling I can only describe as "near
helplessness." At times, my fellow travelers seemed to enjoy my consternation and
looked upon me with sympathetic superiority. I wondered if I, myself, had ever imparted
this kind of discomfort to a foreign visitor in my own country. I vowed silently never to
be unaware of the tendency again.

After the banquet-breakfast, we climbed back into the truck and drove
the desolate highway for what seemed like an eternity. Without warning, the pavement ended
abruptly and we literally rattled, banged and bumped over a pot-holed, rocky, corduroy
road cut through bamboo jungle and endless fields of soybeans, mandioca (manioc),
papaya and date palms. Stately, tiptoeing emu watched us pass with their long necks
extended and their heads cocked in curiosity.

A beautifully marked red fox narrowly missed death as he dashed across
the road in front of our tires. Bright green parrots squawked from the tops of trees.
Hundreds of red dirt termite hills lurched upward intermittently in the fields, like a
strange epidemic of the soil, some as tall as a small child. Three huge buzzards,
appearing more like condors, lifted up on massive wings in arrogant protest as we
interrupted their feeding on carrion. The expression in their yellow eyes was fierce and
for a moment I doubted my own safety inside the protection of the truck.

We were beaten unmercifully on this road for over an hour, emerging
finally upon a blacktopped crossroad. Making a right turn, we rolled into the small town
of Bonito, resentfully protesting tourists with gut-wrenching speed bumps and, I found out
later, a steadfast refusal to grade and pave the main road we had just survived.

Driving around the square, we spotted a nice hotel for the driver and,
after depositing him at the entry, Almeli drove back through town, then west again, toward
the Zagaia Resort Hotel, several kilometers beyond.

We found ourselves on another dirt gravel road and, with a cloud of red
dust trailing behind us, we rounded a bend and there, nestled at the foot of a sloping
hill, at the end of a winding, flower-edged guarded lane and kiosk entry, was a fairy-tale
dream of a hotel: sparkling clean, meticulously maintained, surrounded by manicured lawn
and flower beds, out in the middle of Nowhere, as it were.

As we drove up the curving drive, we passed a landing strip, a small
lake with tranquil ducks gliding slowing among the lily pads and innumerable blooming
tropical flowers and trees. We parked under the porte cochere where two attendants
cheerfully unloaded our things from the truck and led us into the spacious modern lobby.
We again were given two rooms with three beds each, stocked refrigerator and plumbed hot
water. I enjoyed the privacy of one of the huge rooms all by myself.

After unpacking, we changed into bathing suits under long pants,
T-shirts and tennis shoes. We checked out beach towels, drove back into town, picked up
our girl guide and proceeded to drive a few kilometers beyond the other side of town to a
privately-owned fazenda, or ranch, upon which had been discovered a tremendous,
natural, spring-fed aquarium in the river flowing through the property. The owner of the
land had agreed to allow tourist access for a moderate fee but only with the authorization
and supervision of the Brazilian equivalent of the EPA. The cost for half-day excursion
was $6.00 each, plus $25.00 for the guide and equipment rental.

We walked from the parking area to a large thatched-roof structure,
which encompassed a small coffee shop and displays of souvenirs as well as dressing rooms
and racks of wet suits in all sizes—the short-sleeved, short-legged style. We peeled
off our outer clothing and squeezed into the wet suits, pulling them up over our
swimsuits. I could hardly walk, much less breathe, as we followed our youthful, bouncing
guide off into the jungle down a long, wood-slatted walk. Our voices became more and more
subdued as we walked over two curving footbridges and noticed the jungle rapidly becoming
more and more imposing and wildly beautiful. Bamboo and palm fronds met in an arch above
our heads. In places, the bright sun was hidden from sight by the leafy growth overhead.

Eventually, we reached another structure built like a lean-to, where
were hung life jackets, snorkeling masks and breathing tubes. From not too far away, we
could hear the sound of rippling water, like soft music on the top of the breeze. The
guide gave us instructions about using the masks and we were told never to put our feet
down on the river bottom or amid the weeds because of polluting contamination and the need
to protect the environment of the pristine Formoso River.

We were led to the river’s edge where a large deck had been constructed
extending out over a very wide part of the river. From somewhere off to the right the
sound of gentle rapids originated and the water was as clear as the air above it. One by
one, barefoot and wary, we descended the wooden steps from the observatory deck into the
icy water.

When I stood on the bottom rung, it was time to submerge and snorkel
properly, in order not to touch the bottom with my feet. My first view into those depths
was startling. Hundreds of large fish, 10 to 12 inches long or more, teemed thickly around
us, fearlessly approaching our masks to stare as curiously at us as we were staring at
them. They were golden in color, with blue and vermilion stripes marking their length from
gill to tail, and as they curved and swirled in the water, the sunlight reflected from
their bodies in silvery shimmers.

Toward the deeper center of this "aquarium", we could see a
large, concave indentation along the bottom, which was covered with a fine, white gravel.
From the center of the "hole" in the bottom, rock debris and bubbles indicated
miniature eruptions, freshets, thrusting jets of spring water upward then across the floor
of the entire riverbed. The guide had told us to be watchful for a minuscule vermilion
fish which, she said, was extremely rare and exists on the planet only in this part of the
Formoso River. When I saw the first one, I thought I had imagined it, then I saw another.
And another. In an hour’s time, I caught glimpses of at least ten of these brilliant red,
miniature fish. They were like animated tiny rubies flashing by in the coolness.

We followed the guide’s lead and cautiously paddling flippers and
pulling ourselves along with our cupped hands, we snorkeled another hour, following the
river downstream. The reeds and water ferns grabbed at my head and arms and legs and
minnows nipped at my toes but nothing distracted me from staring in appreciative wonder at
the beauty of this underwater place.

We reached another set of wooden steps leading up to another deck and
after climbing out of the river, the graceful weightlessness I felt in the water was
replaced with the soggy burden of a dripping wet suit encasing a now-too-heavy worldly
body. We walked slowly back through the jungle, each of us preoccupied with our own
thoughts after observing so much colorful, busy life in a comparatively silent world. We
dried off, pulled dry clothes over wet suits, shivered with the cold, had a demitasse of
Brazilian coffee—and returned to town and the Zagaia Hotel, where a hot shower felt
unbelievably luxurious.

The evening had grown much cooler and there was a breeze strumming the
palm trees as we walked outside and up a sloping walk to the spectacular, glass-enclosed
dining room. The buffet dinner was elegant, with uniformed attendants waiting to serve our
every need. There were delicate carvings out of tomatoes (roses) and squash (swans). I
concluded in every Brazilian heart there lurks an artist as I walked by the creamy soups,
salads, pasta, beef, fish, chicken, potatoes, rice, pudims (flans), tortas
(pies), coffee and an impressive selection of wines. Fresh flowers graced every table and
all the creative cuisine was presented with an artistic and gracious flair, as if every
guest were visiting royalty. All of it, all the time, was delicious.

The next morning, we were up and ready to go at 7:30. Breakfast was
another gastronomical wonder, also served buffet-style, but this time in the open-air
dining area overlooking two of the swimming pools. We wore jeans and long-sleeved shirts
as we stopped by the government office to pick up our guide for the day—this time, a
young man. Our drive to the entrance of the Blue Grotto took about 45 minutes. We followed
the nondescript signs and turned off the main road, driving through a peaceful meadow in
the foothills around Bonito. Less than a dozen vehicles were parked on the grass near a
hand-lettered sign designating the main entrance. Tourists milled about, awaiting a signal
from their guide for permission to walk down the narrow path toward the grotto. Only 14
people were allowed to enter at a time, due to the narrowness of the passageway. While we
waited our turn to approach the point of descent, our guide told us the history of the
Blue Grotto.

In 1927, a group of Indians stumbled upon an opening in the ground,
almost hidden from view by overhanging brush and tall weeds. Inside this opening, 100
meters straight down, the Indians crawled and tumbled down to discover a huge, underground
pool of water the color of a deep blue sapphire and crystal clear. All around and above
this pool, which was actually an underground river, looms a mammoth, arched cave with
gigantic stalactites and stalagmites still forming from the drops of mineral-laden water
oozing down through the earth above. Since that early time, the landowners of the area
have had rock "steps" carved from the surface down through the massive rock
formations, all the way to the blueness of the grotto below. At certain times of the year,
the sun’s rays enter the circular opening in the earth and strike the surface of the
water, causing the entire interior of the massive cave to appear a translucent blue.

This is the only cave, or cavern, of this type on the planet Earth.
Scientists and spelunkers from many countries have traveled to Bonito to explore the
depths of the Blue Grotto. Divers in wet suits and fins wearing oxygen tanks tried in vain
to reach the bottom, descending over 100 feet. A diving bell was finally brought in and
lowered into the navy blue depths. The skeleton of an ancient saber-toothed tiger and the
fossilized remains of an albino shrimp were found as well as a large round aperture nearly
200 feet down from which streamed a strong current of clear, ice cold water, as dark as
blue ink. The origin of the strange underground river remains a mystery.

As recently as 1991, visitors to the Blue Grotto were allowed to swim
in the azure depths until geological experts advised against risking any further
pollution. At present, people are allowed to descend in small groups but only if
supervised by guides. No smoking, eating or drinking is permitted inside the cavern and
tourists are forbidden to stray from their assigned group.

We listened to this discourse with concentrated interest, but still
were not prepared for the immensity of the sight awaiting us. We entered the dark recesses
of the entrance and after our eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, perceived the first of
the steep, rocky steps leading downward.

The "steps", or more appropriately, ledges, were sometimes as
much as three feet in height. The path curved downward to the left, then to the right,
then back again, with wide areas now and again for people to stand together comfortably
and listen to their guide’s descriptions and technical explanations of the geological
formations. As we descended deeper and deeper beneath the earth’s crust, the temperature
grew cooler very rapidly and the barometric pressure escalated. Heartbeats increased and
throbbed in our ears. At each overlook, we peered down at the quiet blue lagoon, marveling
at the size of the people in the group ahead of us, already at the bottom. They looked to
be no bigger than 10 inches in height. It seemed impossible for the bottom of the cavern
to be that far away.

There were no handrails or other supports paralleling the steps; small
children and the elderly were not permitted to descend for obvious safety reasons. The
closer we got to the bottom, the more awesome the cavern became. The roof soared above us,
dripping its centuries-old stalactites in nature’s most original sculptures, each one
incomparably designed. Instinctively, our voices dropped to a whisper. Staring at the
massive views and feeling the silent majesty of this place was like being in a wondrous
cathedral and experiencing something very profound within oneself. Regrettably, no
unprofessional tourist camera could possibly capture the effect of such magnificence. We
were dumbstruck by the view at every turn.

Reaching the bottom, we turned to look up at the entrance behind us and
I was fraught with misgivings about being physically able to climb out. I watched the
group behind us making their way down with the utmost care as we had done and then I
realized the increase in barometric pressure was making me feel more exhausted than I
normally would have been.

When our guide signaled for us to begin the long ascent, he told us not
to rush and to stop occasionally to take deep breaths. It seemed to take longer to climb
out than it did to descend, but perhaps that was because part of me didn’t want to leave
there and I kept stopping to look down and back, trying to etch the memory of the place
forever in my mind’s eye.

Several times, the steps seemed insurmountable and I had to drop to all
fours, clambering up like a mountain goat. The last three ledges were the most difficult,
but I made it, albeit with trembling legs. We stumbled back along the dirt path leading to
the parking area and stopped long enough at the souvenir shop near the entrance to have a
cup of coffee, sit and stare, reflecting on the experience. None of us felt much like
talking on the way back to the hotel. I sensed we all felt a sense of human frailty after
seeing one of the inexplicable wonders of our planet, particularly since we hadn’t
expected anything as overwhelming as it had been.

The cost of the Blue Grotto trip was $16.00 per person, plus $10.00 for
the guide. The rest of the trip—white water rafting, a dinner featuring fresh fish
roasted in banana leaves, breakfast al fresco with a baby emu wandering among the
tables, a professional, colorful dance review performed by employees of the hotel, more
spectacular buffets—all of it was memorable, but nothing was as awesome as the Blue
Grotto.

The rates at the Zagaia Resort Hotel are on a par with five-star hotels
everywhere, with rates for rooms beginning at around $150.00 per night. The town of
Bonito, famous in Brazil for its fresh-water river fishing, is 257 Km from Campo Grande, a
larger city northeast of Bonito in the same state (Mato Grosso do Sul) and easily
accessible by air from the city of São Paulo. Rental cars and chartered planes are
available in Campo Grande.

Inasmuch as Bonito is in the heart of the Brazilian "river
country", there are several other places of interest for travelers, such as the Rio
do Peixe (Fish River), the Rio Mimoso, the Rio Sucuri, the Ilha do Padre (Isle of the
Father) and others. Each area offers the services of tourist guides and reasonable prices.
I would recommend two weeks minimum, to allow for enough time to absorb the enchantment of
Bonito and its environs. There are English-speaking personnel at the hotel, which also has
ample facilities for conventions and business meetings and/or company retreats.

A vacation trip to Brazil that includes a visit to scenic Bonito is an
experience of a lifetime. For me, it was a great, gulping taste of the rugged, natural
beauty of a rural part of Brazil, which is still relatively unspoiled by the inevitable
commercialism of the future.

Jerine P. Watson, a graduate of Southern Methodist University with a
B.A. in Spanish, is a freelance writer/editor. Her opportunity to recently live in Brazil
and to love Brazil and Brazilians was the most profound experience of her life, she says.
She can be reached at Jerinew@aol.com   for
further information.

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