VIGNETTES OF CENTRAL BRAZIL
IN THE NINETIES
The only sound was that of their pounding hooves in the soft earth.
I got out of the truck and walked closer to these beautiful animals whose faces and
drooping ears gave them a look of gentleness. I wanted to be closer to them to feel the
earth beneath my own feet shudder with their running.
By Jerine P. Watson
Presidente Prudente, a city of 200,000, is located in the state of São Paulo, 400
miles west of the megalopolis of São Paulo, a sprawling giant of 13 million people.
"Prudench", as the residents say it, is the thriving, throbbing heart of the
beef cattle industry and related businesses, including a lifestyle centered around the
cowboy, rodeos and all facets of things "western". I was employed by an importer
of western goods as the English-speaking liaison between his company and American
manufacturers specializing in western clothing, hats, boots, trophy belt buckles, home
decor, ropes, tack, etc.
In this part of central Brazil, in the oppressive tropical heat from early December
through March, it is far too humid to walk for pleasure. The necessary hikes to the market
and to the farmácia were about all I could manage until the month of June, when
the Brazilian "winter" brought welcome relief to the bustling city. The perfect
weather was reminiscent of that in Southern Californianot too hot, not too
coldlike Goldilock’s favorite porridge.
One Friday afternoon, I got off work early and strolled along a closed-off street known
as "downtown", which is the main shopping area. Merchandise of all kinds is
displayed along both sides of a bricked-in street, eight blocks long, and benches are
placed strategically along the walkway for shoppers to rest on between purchases. All the
store fronts have metal garage doors the merchants pull down and lock at the end of the
day, because robbery is rampant and uncontrollable. This same area is off-limits after
dark, because of the danger. During the day, especially on Friday, payday, it’s jammed
with locals. I, too, was wandering around, enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere.
I stared at the fake plastic running shoes (for $40) and the real ones (for $150),
deciding my old ones could serve a while longer. In the distance, I heard the sound of a
drum, and as I proceeded farther down the brick walk, the throbbing got louder and louder.
I approached a large semi-circle of people standing around some sort of entertainment
which obviously was the source of the hypnotic music. I edged my way closer to the front
row of spectators and was instantly spellbound. There were six musicians, muscular men,
all rather short of stature, wearing black pants and white shirts, over which they wore
white ponchos trimmed in royal blue fringe that danced with their arm movements. Their
bodies, bent forward slightly, moved up and down in time to the rhythm. Their faces made
me want to paint them, with their high cheekbones, their slanted eyes, black as pitch,
their hair as glossy as patent leather and their aristocratic hooked noses. These were
full-blooded Indians from Uruguay, I was told later, performing their own primitive music,
which was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Two of the men strummed guitar-like
instruments; one of them frequently compressed his lips against his teeth and emitted a
high, piercing whistle, like the sound of a jungle bird. It was an eerie trilling and did
not seem human in origin. The two men in the center blew their breath across graduated
lengths of bamboo tubes, lashed together with thongs. One of these "pipes" was
over two feet in length; the longer the pipes, the deeper the tone.
The result was a rippling melody, like water flowing over pebbles. Another man played
percussion instruments, small ones, one of which was a thick bracelet of cowrie shells and
seed pods around his wrist. The leader, standing closest to the crowd, struck a drum
constructed of a hollowed-out tree trunk about two-feet long, over which was stretched the
hide of an animal, with the brown and white fur still attached. The intricate rhythms
accompanied by their voices singing an unintelligible language was mesmerizing. It was a
glimpse into the near-past of this raw, emerging country, a connection back to the
From out of the crowd lunged a very obese nun, who walked up to express her
appreciation to the group. She was dressed in a snowy starched habit that looked as if she
had never, ever, sat down in it. The creases were as sharp as military attire and the
endless yards of startlingly white sheeting, stiff as plywood, enveloped her ample body in
a myriad of intricate folds and trains. Her face was hidden by her wimple, a huge cone,
extending far beyond her peripheral vision. She was so glowingly "white" in the
middle of the tawdry area as to appear a visiting angel. Her crucifix dangled down from
her left side, its beads a bright blue, its cross swinging against her voluminous skirt.
Her black, bushy eyebrows did not detract from the kind expression emanating from her
eyes. Smiling, she turned to join another nun, dressed identically, but as tiny as the
first one was large. They began to walk side-by-side, swinging briskly through the crowd,
talking animatedly, and I followed close behind, observing their matching black plastic
sandals and white socks. Their wimples had been ironed deliberately and carefully, the
creases forming the shape of a cross centered on the backs of their heads. As the Mother
Superior (she had to have been at least that) stopped to raise her arms in greeting to
someone she knew, she looked, for a moment, like a gigantic, benevolent butterfly. I
walked on, edging by their radiant cheerfulness, and the scent of sunshine and soap wafted
across my nostrils.
All of the activity was memorable, but only to me. Everyone else took the afternoon for
granted, as part of the weekly scene in downtown Prudente. It was reminiscent of seeing
native Americans in Arizona or New Mexico and sensing an inner chord of awareness that
THEY were here first and WE are the "newcomers".
Brazil, in the central interior, is like an overgrown, rebellious teenager with the IQ
of a genius, trying to cope with technical knowledge far beyond the capabilities of the
majority of its citizens. In the year 1990, the average life expectancy of a Brasileiro
was 60. As recently as 50 years ago, the city of Presidente Prudente had no electricity.
There is no observed speed limit in the city proper and no restrictions as far as vehicle
emissions are concerned. Clouds of carbon monoxide flow through the open windows of the
one-story dwellings and the traffic noise is deafening, 24 hours a day. I came to the
conclusion that Brazilian people rarely sleep or at the very least, don’t seem to need
much rest. That may be due to the amount of caffeine consumed in the form of Brazilian
My accommodations in Prudente were luxurious by average Brazilian standards. I lived in
the home of my employer’s mother-in-law, a gracious lady named Alcina, whose house was
designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the famous architect and designer of the city of Brasília.
Like most Brazilian homes, the house was built of concrete, tile and marble with dark wood
accents. The shadowy interiors and hard surfaces were designed to combat the heat but also
tend to amplify the street noises. This particular house showed grievous signs of
obsolescence and was located at the intersection of two of the busiest city streets in a
commercial area that had once been only residential. One wall of my bedroom was all
windows, each covered with three vertically sliding partitions – one of patterned glass,
one of screen and one of louvers.
Through the years, the wooden shutters had developed wood-rot and often did not
function as they had been designed to do. There was no way to keep out the traffic noise
and the noxious gases that wafted into the room periodically. Brakes screeched,
motorcycles roared, trucks varoomed, horns blewall night long. Many times I was
awakened by the loud noise of crashing vehicles or of a passing "boom-box" on
the shoulder of a pedestrian. It was impossible to carry on a conversation inside the room
and often the hum of the electric fan could not be heard over the din.
Alcina, my hostess, did not seem to hear the noise. She has lived in the same house for
over 30 years and has grown accustomed to the sounds reverberating from the hard surfaces.
When the house was new, hot water came through the pipes and the eight-foot bathtub in the
hall bathroom was functional, but with the passage of time, the cost of replacing the
obsolete hot water heater and repairing the rusted pipes leading to the tub was out of all
reason. There was no hot water for washing dishes, for bathing or for washing clothes and
the faucets in the bathtub had been oxidized and non-functional for years. The large
glass-enclosed shower barely emitted enough water to wet down one’s body because of the
water pressure. Just above the showerhead, an electrical apparatus hung suspended above
the water pipes. There was a gauge on the side, with a black calibrated button, that was
supposed to increase the heat of the water when turned in the right direction. The first
time I tried to manipulate the shower to warmer water, an electric shock coursed down
through my whole body. Later, I mentioned this and everyone laughed, saying that happens
all the time. I was content to try and shower in cold sprinkles after that.
Alcina is an authentic pioneer woman. She had raised small children in a house built by
her husband, close to a river, on their family-owned land about 50 miles southeast of
Prudente. During those early years, she had no plumbing, no electricity, no telephone, no
modern conveniences. She hauled water in jugs on her shoulders to cook and clean with; she
washed clothing by pounding it on a rock at the edge of the river; she boiled the
carcasses of wild pigs to render their fat for cooking; she made soap of ashes and lye;
she ground corn by hand and did all the other primitive things we think of as having been
done many generations ago, not just one. The lack of hot water to a woman with Alcina’s
history is not considered a deprivation. All her children and their families have the
latest in conveniences, but not she, the matriarch of the Madeiros clan. It appeared to be
almost a matter of pride, if not martyrdom.
Alcina has a companion that sleeps in the house with her, a young woman from the state
of Mato Grosso named Zoraí (pronounced Zoe-rai-EEE). A younger woman companion is very
common among widowed ladies of Brazil. Alcina also employs another young woman as a maid,
who cleans the house, does the laundry and cooks; domestic help is one of the few bargains
in modern-day Brazil.
Alcina still prefers comida caseira (country cooking) which consists of foods
prepared by the same methods used years ago, with emphasis on seasoning with animal fat
and sugar. Nutritionally, central Brazil is easily 50 years behind the United States.
Brazilians start the day with a demitasse of "coffee", which is very strong,
almost bitter, and heavily sweetened with sugar. It is quite common for Brazilians to sip
on this mixture throughout the day. Shops and offices all have the standard silver-colored
pump thermos filled with the sweetened beverage, surrounded by tiny cups and miniature
spoons, which are constantly offered to customers or passers-by.
Refined sugar is added to nearly everything imaginable, even the fruit juices blended
to order in lanchonetes. Fresh fruits are cut up, whizzed in the blender with water
or rich top milk, sugar is added, then the mixture is strained into a glass for serving.
Sweetened condensed milk is cooked with sugar to three different consistencies: thin,
thick and fudge. The different thicknesses have distinct uses, such as toppings, cream
fillings and candy and is flavored according to the needs of the cook with coconut,
vanilla or chocolate, etc. One afternoon, I helped Alcina put away groceries purchased for
a two-week period; there were 14 large plastic sacks of refined sugar. I asked an
English-speaking Brazilian woman about the incidence of diabetes, questioning whether or
not she knew if there were many cases in Brazil. She answered, "Come to think of it,
I do seem to know a lot of people with that disease!" Doctors and clinics for the
treatment of diabetes advertise heavily in the newspaper. Diabetes is prevalent in Brazil,
as is AIDS. The number of new cases of AIDS for the year 1996 were more than double the
number projected. The majority of macho Brazilian men staunchly refuse to believe the
disease is a threat to heterosexuals and that having more than one sexual partner can
prove to be deadly. One gentleman told me he thought Americans were entirely too concerned
about AIDS and, in fact, assured me his personal physician ridiculed the danger to
heterosexuals with more than one sexual partner. Trying to convince this person otherwise
was an exercise in futility.
A Visit to the
When I arrived in Brazil, I spoke no Portuguese, but I am fluent in Spanish, which
enabled me to be understood. The difficult part was trying to understand what others were
trying to tell me, in Brazilian Portuguese. After nearly three months, I realized the
lyrical French-sounding words were beginning to make sense. At least, some of the phrases
were. I jabbered in my Spanish-Portuguese mixture and used a lot of sign language and
mime, which often resulted in gales of laughter from my listeners. My employer spoke
excellent English, but he wasn’t always nearby and I was on my own at the house where I
lived and in my wanderings around the town. It seemed to me I was the only American in the
city, other than a few exchange students I had heard about.
I had packed three dozen paperback books purchased from a second-hand store before
leaving the United States, confident they would keep me reading for at least four or five
months. Much to my astonishment, I had read every single one in less than five weeks. I
could not understand the television or the radio, there was essentially "no one to
talk to" in the evenings, so I read. And read.
And wrote letters, begging my friends to send books. I found the local library three
blocks from the house, but was shocked to discover there were only eight books in English
on their shelves. I read all of those, too, including an ancient edition of archaic plays
and essays. Weekends moved slowly by when I had nothing to read and had washed and hung my
weekly laundry. So it was with a great deal of enthusiasm I accepted an offer to visit the
family fazenda when my employer called early one Saturday, saying he had to drive
there to tend to some ranching business and I was welcome to go along.
He had said he would pick me up in 30 minutes, but 30 Brazilian minutes equates to a
minimum of 45 American minutes. Eventually, he and one of his ranchhands, a carpenter,
picked me up and off we drove, leaving the noise and the odoriferous city behind us. Soon
we were out of the city limits and immediately the land as far as the eye could see looked
like a meticulously maintained farm. The earth in this part of Brazil is brick red, iron
rich and the grasses are emerald green. As we drove past endless fields of lush tropical
land, I marveled at the countless shades of green scattered across the picturesque
landscape. Many crops are planted in undulating parabolas with windbreaks of tall
eucalyptus trees standing like wise old sentries, nodding in the breeze. Here and there
appeared a white ranchhouse, or fazenda, with a red-tiled roof; magnificent horses
with glossy coats grazed in the fields, swishing their tails rhythmically. There are no
billboards, no highway gridlocks, no freeways; just the hugeness of the countryside of
Brazil, which is as big as Forever. There were very few other vehicles on the road and
after we turned off the main highway, we didn’t see any others.
After an hour’s drive, we came to the long double row of large mango trees planted by
Alcina’s husband many years earlier, put there near the shoulder of the highway in order
to share the fruit with anyone passing by who might be hungry. At the end of the mango
trees stood the double pillars of the entry road into the ranch proper, which led up to
the large house down a rocky, tree-shaded lane, one-third of a mile long.
Handsome wire fences kept the cattle in the fields on each side of the road. We drove
toward the house, a large cloud of red dust trailing behind us, the silver-colored steers
raising their soft brown eyes to glance our way, then ignoring our arrival to lower their
heads and eat again.
The twin-rutted gravel road bent to the left, dipped down into a rain-washed slough,
then curved back to the right. We approached the ranchhouse from the back and, when the
motor was turned off, the stillness swept over the truck as palpable as a fog bank. We had
parked in between the house proper and a large outbuilding, in front of a connecting
porte-cochère. The outbuilding housed the "outdoor" kitchen; most upper-class
Brazilian fazendas have two kitchens. I was told the "outdoor" one was
primarily for cooking things that might emit unwanted cooking odors in the main house. The
structure of the ranchhouse was of beige stucco; unusual circular stained-glass windows
faced the breezeway and the large veranda was floored in dark red tiles.
I got out of the truck and stood on the "porch", facing the vista of the open
land beyond. The Madeiros family has owned this property as far back as anyone can
remember, since colonial times, and their ownership includes many hundreds of hectares. As
far away as the horizon in all directions, the property was theirs. On this land, they
raise beef steer for market, which are divided into pastures according to age.
Alcina’s husband had built this fazenda for his family’s recreation place, or
weekend getaway. Alcina’s daughter and son had inherited the property and the interior of
the house was divided into two complete living areas around a central "sala".
Each side was comprised of three bedrooms and two baths, with another half-bath near the
shared formal living area. The central dining room housed a tremendous table cut in one
piece from a mahogany tree growing in the Amazon forest. The wooden slab, weighing nearly
a ton, was floated by barge down the Amazon River, then trucked inland to the fazenda.
Ten strong men working a crane managed to heft the piece of wood into the house and onto
its pedestals. The resulting table, shining with the patina of years, could easily seat 20
No one lives at the fazenda permanently; the caretaker and his wife, who lived
in a small house nearby, keep the house in perfect condition with the beds made and food
ready to prepare in the event anyone in the family wishes to drive in for a few days’
The high ceilings of the house and the cool tile floors were more than inviting after
the noise and heat of the city. A wide veranda stretched across the front of the house,
facing a tranquil swimming pool. A hammock swung gently to an fro at one end of the porch
and a sense of peace permeated the whole place.
Adjacent to the "outdoor" kitchen, a roofed-in area is used as an outside
dining room. The long table is another solid wooden slabthree, four inches
thickagain cut in one piece from a tree, with the grooves and roughness of the
original bark still on the sides. The scarred top has been polished to a fine slickness
and the grain of the old wood peeks through the peeling shellac. I sat down at one end of
this table after my employer and his carpenter drove away to tend to their ranch business.
As the sound of the truck’s motor faded in the distance, I marveled at being alone in the
middle of Brazil, with the alien scents and sounds and sights hammering at my senses.
To the right of the table, a long, narrow water trough collected overflow water from
the tall cistern at the far edge of a mango grove. The sound of the cool water flowing
through the pipe was music. Just beyond the trough was another grove of palm and avocado
trees and beyond those were coffee plants, their blooms white and frothy. In the distance
I could see the silvery meanderings of the Paraná River, which separates the states of
São Paulo and Paraná. On the top of the breeze, I detected the smell of the green river
water and the faint scent of sweet blossoms. Gentle hills marked the horizon and the wind
made the fronds of the palms bend, dance and whisper with a gentle sibilance. A rooster
crowed not too far away. Above me, a black and yellow bumblebee thrummed his efforts to
probe the thick passion vine that had grown into leafy walls encircling the table. The
ceiling of the veranda is 20 feet from the ground and across from the table, a tremendous
bar-b-que pit brandished the smoky black residue of succulent feasts. Butterflies,
dragonflies, a blue jay rasping, a stray dog licking my bare toes, a herd of
vanilla-colored steer grazing on a hillside off to my rightI wanted to inhale deeply
to retain all of it at a primal cellular level. The four eight-foot-long benches along the
sides of the table were hand-made and sturdy, with supporting backs, the tops of which
were burnished smooth from years of resting arms.
A pair of brilliant green parrots squawked from a nearby tree-top, interrupting my
reverie and I heard bustling noises from the kitchen. Lourdes, the caretaker’s wife, was
beginning to prepare a mid-day meal. The odor of sautéing garlic filled the air and I
knew the men would be returning soon.
After eating a typical Brazilian meal of filet mignon, rice, beans, deep-fried mandioca
(manioc), couve (chopped turnip greens, fried), sliced tomatoes and lettuce with a
perfect flan for dessert, we bid adieu to the fazenda and drove off into the fields
to check on a herd of three-year-old steer.
When the grazing cattle heard the truck horn, they ran toward the truck en masse and
began to circle around it, like a living river of huge, horned animals. The only sound was
that of their pounding hooves in the soft earth. I got out of the truck and walked closer
to these beautiful animals whose faces and drooping ears gave them a look of gentleness. I
wanted to be closer to them to feel the earth beneath my own feet shudder with their
running. In seconds, my employer called me back into the truck, explaining they weren’t as
gentle as they looked and it would be much safer to observe them from inside the cab.
On the way back to Prudente, I asked about the lack of insects. After walking in the
grasses around the fazenda, I had not sustained a single insect bite nor had I seen
any "bugs", other than flies. My Brazilian host said at certain times of the
year, there were a few insects, but not many. It appeared the rich soil and the lush
grasses kept the steer at maximum health and, somehow, discouraged the infestation of
insects encountered in many American meadows and fields.
We arrived back in town shortly after dark and that night I slept soundly, completely
oblivious to the unceasing traffic noises outside my bedroom windows.
A Typical Brazilian
A few weeks after my visit to the fazenda, my hosts invited me to join them for
dinner with a few friends at their home, which is the entire seventh floor of a high-rise
condominium. The building itself is constructed of pink limestone, rising up ten floors
above street level. The parking garage is comprised of two basement floors, entered
through a guarded entry occupied by an attendant around the clock, who releases the
electrically-locked gates when he recognizes a tenant. Elegantly landscaped grounds
surround the building and an Olympic-sized swimming pool fills the back section of the
brick-walled property. The foyer and community reception rooms on the first two floors are
pink marble; two elevators, one for guests and tenants and one for service personnel,
shuttle occupants quietly up and down the narrow shaft. From the moment one enters the
oversized glass entry doors, the atmosphere of hushed exclusivity, of elitism and
secluded, protected luxury permeates the very air.
On the seventh floor, one exits the elevator to face opaque leaded-glass double doors
with antique brass handles opening into a large, marble entry hall. Directly across from
the entry and down wide marble steps awaits the main sala, with walls of warm
apricot and millwork of glossy white. Two 12-foot sofas are angled into the wall to the
left; chairs and settees are placed in such a way as to invite intimate conversation in
three different areas; a game table awaits in front of a free-standing entertainment
center that doubles as a wet bar; tasteful original oils grace the walls; the skyline of
the city and the countryside beyond stretches to the horizon in a bird’s-eye vista from
the balcony beyond; sliding bamboo wall-sized partitions in front of the plate glass doors
and windows keep out the hot sun’s rays; and to the right, up more marble steps, heavy
double doors lead to the formal dining room.
When I arrived for the dinner at 8:30, there were already several couples present and
the atmosphere of relaxed conviviality strengthened as more guests entered through the
double doors. Most of the people gathered around the game table exchanging pleasantries
with many eruptions of spontaneous laughter, none of which I could understand. Small bowls
of assorted nuts and dried fruits dotted the tables in the large room and three different
kinds of pâtés were passed around for sampling. Shortly after midnight, the heavy doors
leading to the dining room were opened.
Dominating the entire room was the spectacular centerpiece on the glass dining table.
It was made entirely of tropical fruits resting in a shallow basket at least three feet in
diameter. The basket had been propped upward on one side at a 45-degree angle to better
display its contents: picture-perfect clusters of purple grapes, persimmons, each one
shiny and plump without a single blemish, large fresh figs the color of ripe eggplant,
bright green oranges, small yellow bananas, Argentinian apples of rosy hue tinged with
gold, pale yellow maracujá, proud Brazilian pineapple. All formed a perfect
complement to the casual elegance of the decor. Around the fruit basket small fruit plates
of English bone china were grouped with fruit knives and forks.
To one side, large dinner plates were stacked for buffet service with ecru linen
napkins folded and fanned for easy reaching. As we served ourselves from the fruit basket,
the cook and a serving woman began to place steaming dishes on the glass sideboard;
mouth-watering aromas filled the room. First was a heavy wooden bowl, shallow and wide,
filled with lettuce torn into bite-sized pieces, around which was a halo of lustrous, dark
green watercress. On top of the two greens was a circle of sun-dried tomatoes and two
smaller wooden bowls of salad dressings flanked the sides. One dressing was a pale green
creamy concoction and the other was an olive oil-balsamic vinegar base in which floated
paper-thin fresh garlic slices and chopped green onion. Next to the green salad rested a
mauve-colored gelatin ring made of puréed beets and cream cheese, served on a bed of soft
green lettuce and decorated with slices of purple beets on the sides and in the center.
The adjacent wooden platter held a pale yellow rectangle of corn and cheese pudding,
baked to a golden brown and cut into easy-to-manage squares. Then another wooden bowl with
the familiar Brazilian white fluffy rice and a bowl of pink beans, cooked with garlic and
At the end of the sideboard a very large ceramic platter held two Chateaubriands,
roasted to perfection, each pre-cut in thick slices, the pink middle of each a delight to
the hungry eye. There were forty guests with forty hefty appetites waiting to enjoy this
feast and many went back for seconds. Six Chateaubriands were prepared for the dinner and
there was very little left over.
When the dinner plates were taken away to the kitchen, the desserts were brought out,
with appropriate china and silverware. Brazilians never serve only one dessert and this
evening was no exception. First was a flan ring, with a caramel sauce made from condensed
milk; then Brazilian "sweet potatoes", whipped with cream and sugar and served
like a pudding; next a large wheel of dessert cheese and the grand finale, a wondrous
lemon torta, similar to a deep-dish Key lime pie. The meringue of unbaked egg
whites seemed to float just over the top of the pale green filling and the crust was
buttery-crunchy, melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
It was a beautiful meal and a beautiful evening with beautiful, sophisticated people. I
sat outside on the balcony before dinner, alone, listening to the soft background music
and to the lilting Portuguese conversation from inside. I looked out over the rooftops and
twinkling lights below, then off into the distant hills where the open country of Brazil
is never very far away. I knew this was very much like the daydreams of my childhood when
I really believed in the Magic Carpet that would carry me away, softly and fearlessly, to
distant lands full of new and exciting experiences.
Jerine P. Watson, a graduate of Southern Methodist University with a
B.A. in Spanish, is a freelance writer/editor living in north Texas. She spent most of
1997 in Presidente Prudente, São Paulo, working as liaison between an importer of western
goods and American manufacturers. While there, she lived with the importer’s mother-in-law
in a large home designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed the city of
Brasília. After three months of hearing everyone around her speak Portuguese, she was
finally able to carry on a reasonable conversation and make herself understood. The
opportunity to live in Brazil and to love Brazil and Brazilians was the most profound
experience of her life.
Jerine P. Watson can be reached at Jerinew@aol.com
for further information.