Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Brazil Chronicle

Marie with children in Alcántara, Maranhõa - 1977

After months of searching to understand why I was having such a difficult time advancing on Marie’s book, I have possibly found an answer. Perhaps this has to be our story, following the path that we walked together for over thirty-three years. When I sat down recently at el Mercado Pochote in Oaxaca and wrote in my journal, it poured out. As I looked back on our lives from that first encounter in Quito in 1977 to that painful parting on January 9, 2011, I saw a timeline filled with adventure, creativity and love. Sketching was a big part of that story, as Marie was sketching from the day I met her to the day she died. It was her “raison d’etre”, one of the most burning passions in her life. But there was so much more; there was the sharing of the road that we walked together, so many  adventures, and our day-to-day existence that made our lives so full and joyful. We each took different trails at times, let our own interests guide us, but we made the road together. This entry is a section of that road we walked together from Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle to Salvador, Bahia on the north coast of Brazil. It starts shortly after we had met and decided to travel together. We had no idea that we would still be walking hand in hand thirty three years later! 
Marie sketching on the beach
Note: Marie and I lost nearly all of our photographs and sketches from this time period in our shipwreck in the Mediterranean in 1979. Therefore I am using a few photos from internet sites reminiscent of ones that I took. Words alone cannot do Brazil justice!

Our Story
Travel is a true test of how well people get along; it can bring out the best and the worst in us. Within a few months of our meeting in Quito in the spring of 1977, we made the decision to "hit the road" together. My contract at the Colegio Americano in Quito was done, and we had already discovered that we enjoyed each others' company. Since we both were planning to explore Brazil, it seemed logical to make the trip together and then part ways when Marie headed back to Brittany. So we packed our bags and moved slowly northward toward Bogota. 
Marie during our travels in Brazil
We had been told that it was possible to hitch a ride on a cargo plane leaving from Bogota to Leticia, a port town in the Amazon basin. The procedure was to go to the Bogota airport and arrange to talk with the pilot of the cargo plane. There were two or three seats available, and the pilot was the one who decided to take anyone on. We were successful on our first attempt! We boarded the small prop plane headed first to Villavicenco in the llanos of Colombia, and then onward to Leticia. The cargo was a shipment of frozen chickens and a motorboat. The trip over the Amazon Basin was incredible, (although a bit chilly with the chickens right behind us), with thick dark green forest and an occasional plume of smoke rising up to tell us that the area was inhabited by more than just an amazingly diverse bird, insect, and animal population.
Upon arriving at the tiny airport in Leticia, we were met by customs officials. Leticia is right next to Tabatinga, a small town on the Brazilian side of the border, relentlessly hot and humid, a real taste of the Amazon jungle. Our plan was to take riverboats down the Amazon until we reached Belem, where the Amazon enters the Atlantic. We had to take a series of boats, as each boat only navigated a section of the river that the boat captain knew well. Then you had to change boats and go the next leg in another. Connections were hit and miss, as there was no set schedule.
           While we were waiting for the next boat to leave from Leticia, we met Antonio, a young Brazilian traveler from Rio de Janeiro. He was very friendly and told us that he made the trip frequently and that we should not take the next boat that was preparing to leave. He informed us that another boat was coming in soon, a better boat that would actually arrive ahead of the other. We were very grateful for his insight and advice and decided to wait. He then gave us another tip. The boat had one small cabin beside the hammocks on deck for sleeping. Antonio said it was well worth the additional small fee and proposed sharing a cabin. Since there were only two beds, we would alternate sleeping in it for the three-day journey. Again we agreed, thankful for the inside tip.
            Antonio was correct, the second boat did arrive a day after the other boat had left, and the three of us booked the cabin. We all put our bags inside, and Marie and I were given the first night. When the second night sleeping rotation came up, Antonio graciously said that since we were a couple, he would let us sleep there all three nights, he would just keep his bag in the room. Again we agreed.
            That night as we were sitting on deck, a patrol boat with bright searchlights pulled up next to us. Three customs officers boarded with flashlights and began speaking rapidly in Portuguese. First they asked if we had maconha (marijuana), which no one did. They were obviously checking for contraband. Antonio flew into action. He was a charmer and a smooth talker and it became very evident to us why he had proposed to share the cabin and then so generously let us have it. The customs officers were checking bags and wanted to see inside our cabin. Antonio told them we were foreign tourists, and never stopped talking as they approached to look inside. They took a quick look, decided that all was OK, and continued on with their search. Antonio had done a good job of distracting them. Apparently it was not the first time he had done this! Who knows what arrangements might have been made beforehand.
            The next afternoon we were sitting in the hammocks on deck when Antonio asked for the key to the cabin. He came back with a small box that he wanted to show us. Besides Marie and me, there were two Italian women who seemed to have walked out of a Fellini film directly on board. Most of the passengers aboard were male Brazilian locals returning to their home villages. The two Italianas seemed oblivious to this fact. They scampered around in thin, white, see-through dresses that accentuated their nearly nonexistent under garments. They even offered Marie a pair of leopard-spotted bikini panties, saying that a very shy crew member on the boat had asked them to give to her.
They were anxious to see what was inside of Antonio’s small box. As the five of us sat grouped together on hammocks, he showed us his collection of semi-precious stones that he was running from Minas Gerais, Brazil to Bogota, Colombia. This was his livelihood, and our role in this trip appeared to have been a tried and proven procedure. There were no more customs checks, and we arrived to our first stop, Benjamin Constant, a bit wiser to travel on the Amazon than we were before we left.

Photo credit:
            We made the trip down the Amazon to Belem in six days. We were lucky to have made quick connections from one boat to another, or it could have taken considerably longer. I was amazed at how wide the river was. Most of the time we could not see either shore. It was only as we approached a village where a stop was planned that we saw life along the river. Sometimes the boat stopped to deliver items that had been ordered through a catalog, as the Trans Amazon Highway was far from being completed. The only way to get things into these river villages was by boat. As the boat approached shore, it created a series of waves that the local children loved. They paddled toward us in their dug out canoes to “surf the waves” Amazon style! Needless to say, the whole village turned out to see what would be delivered and what news the boat may bring. 
One of our more memorable stops was in Manaus, once the center of the Amazon region's rubber boom during the late 19th century. For a time, it was one of the gaudiest cities of the world. One Wikipedia historian has written, "No extravagance, however absurd, deterred" the rubber barons. If one rubber baron bought a vast yacht, another would install a tame lion in his villa, and a third would water his horse on champagne." It had a extravagant opera house adorned with marble, glass, and crystal brought over from Europe. It was as if we were inside of a scene from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.           
            Our arrival in Belem ended with a bang, literally. Belem is a huge port right at the mouth of the Amazon. Our boat pulled in to a dock and all of the passengers disembarked. However no sooner had we gotten off the boat, we heard loud shouts and a frantic scurrying taking place. The waves from a large ocean going tanker had arrived and were smashing our boat against the boat that was docked nearest to us. Crew members from both boats were desperately trying to prevent both boats from being demolished. Luckily, no one was hurt and damage to the boats appeared to be minimal.

Alcántara tiled house
            After a short stay in Belem, we moved eastward toward São Luis Maranhão, a city in the Nordeste of Brazil. At this time the region was experiencing a long, serious drought that was driving its inhabitants to leave as famine was setting in. From São Luis, we visited the small island of Alcántara, an old colonial sugar cane colony that had the tiled wall remnants of a once prosperous colonial town. Those days were long gone, and the island was now a struggling fishing village that was far from prosperous. (See title photo)
            Thirty five years is a long time, and our travel between Maranhão and Bahia is now very cloudy. Our time in Bahia, however, is very memorable indeed. It was the African side of Brasil with roots deeply embedded in Angola. We rented a small house  at #10 Rua da Amoreira in Itapoã, less than a five minute walk from the beach. It was a simple, one bedroom house with a thatched roof and cement floor, an outhouse and a small kitchen. We also had a tiny yard in front with an almond tree that the local children loved. We slept on the floor on thin straw mats with a piece of plastic underneath to protect us from the humidity. There was a space between where the earthen wall ended and the thatch roof began. When it was dark inside, we would often hear the scratchy sound of cockroach feet scurrying across the plastic around our bed. Although I am no cucaracha lover, I could deal with them better than Marie, and it became my job to make sure the coast was clear before bedtime. Marie had her job as well. Frequently  when we laid down to sleep, you could see three or four long, straggly rat tails dangling down from the top of the wall where they had decided to spend the night. There was not much we could do to get them to leave, but Marie was good at calming me down and assuring me that I would not be bitten and contract the black plague during the night. She was right!
            Rua da Amoreira had an unusual mix of inhabitants. Of the eight or so houses on the block, most were simple structures where local fishermen lived. There was one house where a young man with badly deformed legs had a bicycle repair shop. Across the street from him lived Sante Scaldaferri and Calasans Neto, both famous Brazilian artists. Their houses were modern and comfortable, but somehow seemed to fit in well with the rest of the neighborhood. Marie was traveling with some of her pen and ink drawings and I had a portfolio of photographs from South America. She decided to go visit Sante and was well received. She showed him her drawings and he was very impressed. He contacted a friend of his, Silvio Robalto, who was curator at Solar da Unhão in Salvador, a state sponsored gallery located in what used to be an old prison that jutted out into the ocean. It was a beautiful location, and Robalto offered Marie and me an expo for the following month. It was quite the event, a full blown vernissage with food and drinks.
Marie, Werner & Luisa - Itapóa
 The other gallery space in Solar da Unhão had an expo of our neighbor, Calasans Neto, and was attended by many well known Brazilian artists and writers. I believe we even had our photo taken with Jorge Amado, one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers. It was a grand event and we headed back to Itapoã around 6 AM the next morning. We were exhausted, and I was dozing nicely when I heard Marie shout to the bus driver to stop. He did, and two people on the side of the road came running to board the bus. It was our friends Carmel and Marc from France! They knew that we were in Bahia, but not much more than that. In a time when there was no e-mail or instant messaging, this was an incredible happening. They stayed with us for a while and then continued on their way to explore more of Brazil. Carmel and I are very good friends to this day.
We were in Brazil long enough to make a few good friends. Werner, a retired Swiss insurance salesman, lived in the house next door to us. He was forced into retirement by an advanced case of Multiple Sclerosis, and had come to Brazil to try some traditional cures. He was interested in some of the practices of Condomblé, a form of animism which claims to have healing properties. He had a beautiful Brazilian girlfriend, Luisa, who spent a lot of time with him. We became good friends with them as well as their friend Marina. The time we spent together helped our Portuguese a lot and gave us a special insight into Brazilian culture. Werner went back to Zurich uncured. I visited him a few years later and his condition was slowly deteriorating. I have no idea how long he survived before succumbing to the disease.
             While we were in Bahia, we were invited to a session of Condomblé by a neighbor. Of course we accepted. We were the only foreigners there. In fact outside of Werner, we were the only foreigners in Itapoã. The session started with the Mãe-de-santo, the queen bee of the group, sitting on a chair on a small platform in a room without any other furniture. She was quite heavy set and in her mid to late sixties. Three percussionists were drumming in what appeared to be a hypnotic trance. Their eyes were far away and their rhythm was flawless. A small group of people was dancing in a circle to the drumbeats. Round and round they went, until one of them was “caught by a spirit”. They would then start to make strange noises, a duck quacking or a dog barking, and at some point they would begin to convulse wildly, throwing themselves down on the floor. Someone would quickly run to their aid and carry them out of the room. At one point, the Mae de Santo was caught by the spirit. She sprang off of her chair and went into one of the wildest dance displays I have ever seen. She was on the floor, in mid air, a loose atom in a nuclear reactor! She carried on like this for a good ten minutes before regaining her composure and returning calmly to her chair. It was a truly incredible display of stamina and faith in the powers of the supernatural.
Mae-de Santo: Photo Credit:

We saw the fascinating mix of Catholicism and Spiritualism again December 8, the Catholic holy day of the Immaculate Conception, and the Condomblé celebration of Yemanjá, the Queen of the Ocean and patron deity of women. Candles glittered along the beach that night, and beautiful black women, clad in white dresses and turbans, would suddenly "get the spirit" and run into the ocean, fully garbed. Friends on shore would rescue them before they drown and pull them back to shore. The next morning they were all there again, this time dressed in more conservative clothing, lined up in front of the Catholic Church. They made sure they were covered from both sides!
            Itapoã was a magical place for us. Our Portuguese was good enough that we could interact socially with the Brazilians. It was a happening time in Brazil, with a strong youth movement and lots of fantastic music. Marie and I went to a free Gilberto Gil concert in nearby Rio Vermelho. Gil later became Minister of Culture under the “Lula” government. The concert was held under a large big top tent with people of all ages attending. The smell of “maconha” (marijuana) permeated the air. It seemed that the government was more than willing to let people get high, as long as they did not get political. At that time, many of Brazil’s most celebrated songwriters were in exile outside the country for their political views. People came up on stage to dance during the concert, young and old alike. No bouncers or strong arm security, just people who let the music channel through them. It is here that our love for música brasiliera was born.
            Sundays on the beach in Itapoá were always unforgettable. There was a small “barraca” a few minutes from our door that sold ice-cold Brahma beer and salty peanuts.
Praia de Itapõa -
Marie and I would go for a morning swim in the tepid blue water and then stop by the barraca for a cold beer or two. Sundays were a special day in Itapoá. For many people, it was their only day off and the beach was a very popular place to spend it. Impromptu percussion bands were always part of the Sunday scene. A man with a whistle would lead the others, tooting away wildly while the group of drummers followed his lead. And with the music came spontaneous dance, beautiful bodies of all shades of brown and black undulating like palm trees in the wind to the samba beat. Of course when the barman came by and asked, “¿mais uma cerveja?”, we would invariably answer, “Si, por favor." There was no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Photo Credit:
            We also had the good fortune to be in Bahia for Carnival. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, Salvador’s carnival was much more popular; the streets were rivers of people flowing ecstatically to the African rhythms that resonated everywhere. Costumes were elegant and colorful, reflecting the Angolan roots that are so deeply embedded in Bahia. An “everything goes” environment filled the streets for three non-stop days and nights. Marie and I went for one day only, and that was far enough for us. You took your life in your hands when you stepped off the curb; you were immediately absorbed into the liquid crowd, a wrong step could mean getting trampled to death. Despite the excitement of it all, we did not like being part of the human river. We were far more content being observers who had control of our movement and our lives. As it was, we had a near unhappy ending to our carnival experience. The buses back to Itapoá were extremely crowded, and the carnival atmosphere did not lend itself to acts of politeness or courtesy. It was every person for his or her self. There was a human chain of sorts for boarding the bus. We decided to take our chances on one that was just starting to slowly drive away. I had jumped on first and was helping Marie who was right behind me. She had both feet on first step of the back entrance, and it seemed that we had made it. Then someone trying to get on, grabbed Marie’s arm from outside. I still had her other arm and was making sure she did not fall off as we drove away. She was like a chicken wishbone about to be split in half! She screamed loudly and finally the person trying to board the bus let go. We were so happy to be back at # 10 Rua da Amoreira! We had had a true carnival adventure, survived it, and had no intention of having a second. We were much better off at the “barraca” drinking a few cold Brahmas and watching bodies undulate from the safety of our chairs!
          A few months later, when Marie decided it was time to head back home to France, she asked if I would like to go back with her. There was a merchant marine ship leaving for a three week crossing to Dunkerque in Normandy, and the pilot cabin was available for two passengers!  But that is another chapter in this story.


1 comment:

Quena said...

Happy to see these wonderful stories in writing! Look forward to more!