I’m visiting Brazil after a long time away. As a tourist
with saudade in her heart, I thought I could blend, connect; but
instead, I am treated as "affluent" because I am, comparatively.
Newspapers here do not talk of the super-highway, bank cashiers have old
typewriters, and much of the roadwork is done with pick and sledgehammer.
I have connected to my heritage, but not in the way I imagined.
By Kathleen de Azevedo
The bus is traveling north on the narrow two-lane highway from Salvador,
Bahia to Maceió, Alagoas. It honks its horn as it tries to pass
a flatbed truck hauling butane tanks. The truck with its red slat sides,
moves to the right, the bus starts to pass, and a car coming the opposite
way reels over to the clay shoulder. Then the bus, called Bom Fim which
in Portuguese means "good death," sails ahead, squeezing between
the two other vehicles.
People who live in nearby towns or in lonely huts shrouded by banana
trees, are busy working. Women harvesters in a cornfield use bright colored
umbrellas for shade and an old man swings a scythe through the stripped
stalks. On the dried grass of the town square, a farmer grazes his trio
of donkeys — each with a pair of baskets strapped to the saddle. As the
bus pulls off the road and into a small terminal, child vendors jump up
and slap the bus’ metal sides; they lift makeshift wood racks so bags of
peanuts and nets of peeled lemons float past the windows, and others tap
the window glass with coke cans and bottled water.
A small boy climbs onto the bus and wanders down the aisle with a pot
of cooked chicken, and chirps out his sales pitch. The passengers look
forlornly at him because it is impossible to eat such a tempting but messy
dish on the bus, with no plates or utensils. At the next stop, the bus
picks up a man who has been waiting at a roofless produce stand. He is
lean and dry-skinned and his clean white shirt has an L-shaped tear in
back. His bony shoulders shift as he waits for the driver to open the side
luggage hatch, then he tosses in a large waxy burlap sack of mandioca
(manioc), a long root with rough brown peel, a food staple.
I’m visiting Brazil after a long time away. I was born in Rio, but lived
most of my life in the US. My images of Brazil used to be the palm trees
of postcards, and memories of relatives having loud emotional conversations.
As a tourist with saudade in her heart, I thought I could blend,
connect; but instead, I am treated as "affluent" because I am,
comparatively. I was raised in a country that is perceived to be paved
in gold. Brazilians talk of going to Miami as if it is Oz. Brazil is a
country where the separation between the rich and poor is adamantly preserved,
and its people constantly remind me of which side I stand on.
The state of Alagoas in northeast Brazil is one of the oldest developed
regions of the country and has a history of exploitation of the land and
its people. This heritage accounts in part for the drastic class divisions.
In the 1500’s, much of the coastal tropical vegetation was cleared out
for sugar plantations. The sugar growers tried to enslave the Indians,
but found them too "nomadic" for plantation work. The booming
plantations, or fazendas, then turned to Africa for their slaves.
In the 1630’s during the Dutch invasion of the Northeast, many of the
slaves took advantage of the unrest and escaped from the plantations and
formed independent Black republics, or quilombos, the most famous
being Palmares in Alagoas. But the quilombo in Palmares was gradually
crushed by Dutch and Portuguese expeditions and it breathed its last in
Today, Maceió draws tourists to its beaches and resorts and has
the design of a small Third World city. The luxury beachfront hotels are
toward the outskirts and seem like they sprouted among the coconut palms.
The hotels’ empty balconies stare at the ocean and the outdoor patios slump
as sun umbrellas snap in the wind; these places are deserted. Some empty
lots have the framework of new luxury hotels that have been abandoned for
lack of money.
For the rest, there is the city of Maceió, covered in a brown
haze, a sweaty city of brick huts on hills and on dismal streets. It is
a good city, a cab driver tells me, not violent like Rio. This could very
well be true as it doesn’t seem to move fast enough for fleet feet. Businesses
are only open from 10-4. In the marketplace are stands of languishing food:
the olive-green pinha covered with small bumps, grapes, green oranges,
warm sunken cheese, sugary lemon cakes, coconut brittle, and jaca.
The jaca sitting in a wheelbarrow is as big as a watermelon and
looks like an ocher armadillo. The vendor with his machete, chops its yellow
pulp in pieces while fighting away the flies.
Forró, a popular Nordeste music with its guitar
and accordion, seeps from shops and small radios. Many from Rio dismiss
its upbeat chank-a-chank sound and melancholy lyrics of love as unsophisticated
music of the poor. But what bliss to dance it! Couples dance to forró
close together with the woman astride her partner’s leg. I saw a couple
dancing on the beach in the late afternoon, the woman with her dress way
up past her knees, the man holding his hand on her joyous hips.
The work in Maceió is labor-intensive. Newspapers here do not
talk of the super-highway, bank cashiers have old typewriters, and much
of the roadwork is done with pick and sledgehammer. I feel guilty for being
captivated by manual labor and its graceful movements, in part because
in the US I see it less and less as machines take over. I also have the
luxury of observing labor because I don’t have to do it myself. Still,
in some cases, work done in a group is its own synchronized ballet.
Near the shore at the Praia de Pajuçara, a fishing net floats
in the water. The children stand in the water, grab the edge of the net
and try to pull in the booty. The net gets heavier as it drags on the sand,
and the older men move in as the kids splash off to the side. The net is
finally brought in, and it seems like a pile of seaweed and garbage, but
then small silvery fish glitter. Kids pick up the tiny fish and put them
in bags for bait, and they swipe up the small crabs, pull apart their legs,
and give the pieces to an old fisherman standing by.
The older men unravel the net and toss away the seaweed and coke cans
and plastic bottles to get to the bigger fish. Someone drags a basket toward
the net and people throw in fish and eels. One man pulls out an ugly stubby
fish with gills which fan around the head like a ruff. He takes out his
small machete, slices off the gills and head, and throws the body in the
basket and the head out to sea.
The section of Alagoas coastline that runs north to south is called
the litoral, and some of the best beaches are supposed to be on
the Ilha da Croa, a small narrow peninsula. My intention is to shun the
tour buses, and get there on my own. However, the buses outside the city
are elusive, and only the natives seem able to track its path. The raspy-voiced
clerk at the hotel says she knows a taxi driver who is honest and who can
take me to the litoral for the day. She has large hooded eyes and
wears frosted eye shadow.
I remembered her throaty laugh when I decided to stay at the hotel,
she was almost triumphant, her discount bargaining refined to an art. Her
long black hair spills down the back of her blue uniform. She is with another
employee who has curls round and dark like her eyes, and both women, with
honest intensity, claim that this driver is the best, then they both look
at each other and giggle. I tell her I will hire her taxi driver friend.
I’m lucky to come from an affluent country, yet I somehow like to pretend
it doesn’t affect me. Argentines and Paulistas (from São
Paulo) go on packaged tours and seem to move through Brazil without much
guilt, probably because the world tries to make South America feel guilty
enough. As an American, it is hard to detach myself from the "powerful,"
and yet I have that mind set. I don’t have servants and I find it hard
to ask someone to do my bidding. But the Brazilian business of jeitinho
— unofficial deals sealed with a nod of the head — makes me uneasy
and suspicious, as if someone is trying to trick me.
I am relieved when I meet the driver. He seems non-assuming and honest.
He also is a bit distant. His stocky body is brick-like and he grips the
wheel with thick hands. As we ride along, I try to form a bridge between
us, Brasileira to Brasileiro, and that is a start. My simple
rambling Portuguese seems to open his standoffish Nordeste manner.
Now, hopefully, he will take me to a "secret" place devoid of
tourists, and perhaps we can work out a jeitinho.
He says he wants to show me something as he drives through a busted
up side street. We pass by a large resort, and I’m a bit concerned he’ll
Club-Med me. Yet we end up on Pratagi Beach, lined with barracas,
which are outdoor snack bars. One of the barracas has a large cage
of blue crabs fighting each other. The driver has friends who work here
and he sits and plays cards while I descend the wood stairs that lead down
to the beach.
About 20 yards beyond the shoreline is a finger of land made up of weathered
rock. At the tip of the finger, is a large statue of a mermaid, the sereia,
a gift from the governor of Pernambuco — the state directly to the north
— to the governor of Alagoas. The governor of Alagoas is known to be fond
of mermaids, and the sereia is a gift from one woman-appreciating
man to another. Unlike the demure mermaid at Copenhagen’s harbor, this
mermaid sits upright scrunching her tail, and her solid body and has two
large bullet breasts which boldly point out to sea.
After we get back in the car, the driver passes through a coconut plantation
where the hills are a mass of green fronds and delicately slender trunks
that remind me of the legs of young boys. The coconut, he says is a gift
to us, it is our survival. Everyone knows about the coconut meat and milk
of course, but the leaves make fibers for mats, and people dry out the
hulls and use them for bowls and scoops. We stop by a coconut stand, run
by another one of his friends. Green coconuts are stored in coolers so
the juice keeps cold. The top of the coconut has a natural indentation,
and the vendor stabs a hole and slips in two straws. As I drink the milk,
which is more like sweet water, our driver extols the fruit’s vitamin content.
I walk out to the beach at low tide. A blue fishing boat, tilted to
one side and parked in the sand, waits for the sea to rush in again. Around
my feet, scuttle thousands of little bug-like crabs with one overgrown
claw; they dig small burrows, leaving behind tiny piles of sand. Down where
the sand is saturated, women and children shovel for clams. The women work
on hands and knees and drag buckets as they go. When they see me watching
and drinking a coconut, they seem to glare behind the hunch of their shoulders.
Finally I arrive at Barra de Santo Antônio, a small town with
boats that go to Ilha da Croa. For $10, the boatman gives rides across
the strip of water to the peninsula. His boat is powered with an old gasoline
outboard motor. The boatman has no top teeth so his voice sounds watery
as he shouts to the two fisherman in a nearby wood pirogue. One of the
fisherman nods as he pushes the pirogue forward with one large oar, while
another crouches and tosses out a small round net.
The Ilha da Croa is an extended beach and the wet sand stretches toward
the sea like a large silvery sheet. Small children crowd around and chatter,
where are you from, are you a Paulista? From Argentina? They all
want to be hired to do something and they urge me toward a barraca.
One small boy with a head of brownish red curls, has pursued me a bit more
vigorously and offers to sit at my table to "watch my stuff."
Another pushes by a portable bar with fresh pineapple and bottles of rum.
Others peddle copper decorations, leather thongs with búzio shells.
The driver knows the owner of the barraca, and sits and has a beer.
The owner of the barraca hovers around to make sure I order something
too, as if he is afraid I’ll run off. The food here is ice cold beer and
shrimp slathered in yellow dendê oil. I couldn’t resist, even
if I wanted to.
The sand bar stretches for about a quarter of a mile, and has pockets
of warm pools where small children play. The bathwater churns up to my
knees, and I crush with my toes the tight ripples in the sand. A balsa
raft floats by, heading out to sea. By the time the water gets waist high,
the shore is far away, and the straw of the barraca roofs is a brown
strip in the white sand. I try to imagine what it’s like to be an early
explorer staring out of his ship gazing upon the beautiful remote land.
I wonder how long a foreigner can stand such beauty, before the urge comes
to manipulate the beauty into the homeland left behind.
On the way home, I asked the driver about the World Cup, is he a fan
of the famous Brazilian champions? I assume all Brazilians are crazy about
futebol. No, he doesn’t have time, he says. He has eight people
to support: his wife, four sons, a younger brother and his mother so he
works weekends. He tells about his sons who were kicked out of school because
he was late paying their tuition. The two most important things Brazil
needs, he says, are education and health care and one can’t be spared for
another. He adds, with sadness that 80% of Brazilians have no health insurance,
and if he misses 30 days of work, he might as well die.
As we approach the city, we follow a bus that is dragging a rat tied
by a string to the bumper, a kid’s prank. By now, the driver is silent,
tired. He has done his job well. He has showed me the beauty in a land
of hardship, yet the hardship seems to give the beauty an edge. I will
travel back to America, to a much easier life, to a more successful plantation
of sorts. I have connected to my heritage, but not in the way I imagined.
I can only integrate so far, having lived my life so far from where I was
born. Nevertheless Brazil’s aching beauty, like a ghost, follows me home.