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This is the first part of a memoir I wrote years ago about my time in a fishing village in Brazil. This trip took place many moons ago, before I had a digital camera. Film photos were scanned or photographed into digital form to include here. While edited for length, I otherwise haven't altered the text from when I wrote it close to a couple decades ago. This was my first trip with Earthwatch, my first trip living in a non-Western culture, my first trip being exposed to a community so impoverished, the first trip to open my mind to so many questions and revelations. Some questions I've since answered to myself, some not. Some of my attitudes and perceptions have changed as I traveled more in Third and Developing countries and came to recognize the naïveté and ignorance behind some of my original views. I'm sure I'm still subject to that and will continue to evolve my opinions and refine my insights with further travel. But here is how I first saw my experience in Brazil. I learned about as much of my own self as of the village.

 

Our accommodations were a little crude, and yet far better than many homes we would see.  We boarded in two square, concrete houses connected together like townhouses, one pink and one yellow, right on the shore of an inlet, looking out across the small bay.  We had blue tile floors, an indoor shower (no hot water, no curtain), and one low-wattage light bulb hanging bare from the ceiling of each room (a kitchen, a small front parlor, two bedrooms and a bathroom).  The walls had been painted at one time, but were now peeling and smudged with dirt.  Fish bones and a wide variety of other trash littered the back yard.  Vultures perched on the trees near the back fence.  As we unloaded our luggage from the van, everyone walking by stared openly at us. 

We were a pale-skinned crew in a small town near the southern mouth of the Amazon River.  We’d known each other two days, having met in Belém from different corners of the world, as volunteers on an Earthwatch-funded anthropological expedition.  We held on to each other like best friends to form a net with which to hold the stares.  I think if I’d been alone, I might have fled into the house.  But with companions—a band of people riding into town with me in a blue minivan—I felt brave.  I stepped into the provincial, impoverished world of Sao João de Pirabas with a suitcase full of naïveté and a fast friendship with a small group of white, middle-class First World people like me, bent on seeing what lies beyond us.

After we had our narrow, wooden slat beds with one-inch thick mattresses arranged three in a room, and mosquito nets affixed over them, we came out to the porches to take in the scenery.  We bought two chickens and hired two women, the Donas, to cook and clean.  The chickens would keep coming into the house to walk around aimlessly, much as the Donas did, trying to look busy during the middle of the hot days.  We of the crew were constantly shooing the chickens out, a behavior which seemed to mystify the Donas.  One day I caught Dona Rosa Maria in the backyard kissing one of the chickens.  After witnessing this, and finding that most of the homes we visited had chickens wandering around in them, I quit bothering with ours.

As we arrived at our house, the fishing boats were coming in to the docks—a  small dock about 80 yards away from our house on the right, and a large one owned by the fish plant ¼ mile down the road to the left.  Men walked back and forth along the road that bordered our house in bare feet with large, woven baskets of fish suspended from a wooden pole supported by the shoulder of a man at each end. Next to our house was an open cobblestone square where people loaded fish into large styrofoam coolers in pickup trucks.  We pale-skins stood on our front steps and watched until the trucks drove away with a great rattle and roar up the rugged, pot-holed street. 

Little kids, ranging in age from about 4 to 10 or so, clad only in shorts, swooped in to our porches and gathered around us in droves.  George, a volunteer from England and well-prepared to impress little kids, took out small juggling balls and threw the balls back and forth with them.  As for me, I took out my journal, sat on the step, and began to write of my first feelings in this foreign place. 

The kids were crowded in so close to me that I could barely move my elbow out far enough to be able to write comfortably.  They incessantly asked questions, but I could not understand most of them, having only a rudimentary knowledge of Portuguese.  They asked me how I got the scar on my knee, and I mimed a motorcycle crash.  They raised the eyebrows above their wide, brown eyes and smiled, seemingly impressed.  They wanted to try on my sunglasses, they wanted to touch my necklaces and my scar and the paper I was writing on.  They pored over the words I wrote with serious faces, looking from the paper to each other, as if collectively they could figure it out.  Light-hearted Paula tickled the kids and laughed with them, talking to them as if they could understand her Australian-accented English, touching their noses and kissing their cheeks.

I wondered what I was doing, sitting there writing when a whole new world was at my feet, crowding my elbows.  Surely I could write any time.  But I kept scrawling out words, drawing them more and more slowly to stretch out this phantom mission of immediately committing my experiences to paper, as if any time-lag would destroy them.  I was drawing holes while others were hugging the kids.  I lost, momentarily, my bravery.  For a time, I was oil and the crowd of adorable children was water, and I sat isolated, a little glob in their pool.  I was me, and they were they.  At first we didn’t mix.

I thought maybe we’d start in immediately on our expedition’s purpose, but Roberto, our project leader, gave us the day to ourselves.  We were there to try to quantify the effects that television was having on this small, rural village, which was wrenching itself from the grip of traditional values and cultural traditions.  We would interview people with televisions and people without them, then try to discern consistent patterns in the two groups of people and see if we could attribute any differences between them to the owning of a television.

Roberto made it clear to us that first day that he wanted us to experience Pirabas; he wanted us to know the locals, to fit in as best we could.  Understanding any “results” of the interviews would have to stem from understanding the people and the village life.  Two weeks is hardly enough time to gain any meaningful understanding, but we whole-heartedly embraced this directive.  I stumbled at first, that morning on the steps, experiencing only the sensation of my own pen upon my paper.  The last time I’d really tried to live inside a foreign country and culture was 14 years earlier in 1986, when I’d spent my 16th summer in France and lived with a host family.  Since then I’d only been a tourist, looking through windows and over red velvet ropes, imagining people in typeface or flipping through them on the television.  I’m inherently a shy person, and it took me a moment to regain my bearings, and to remember what “experiencing” is all about.

My fellow volunteer, Kelly, was an elementary school art teacher in Atlanta who had received a grant to come on this expedition.  She was Korean, with a gracious smile, and we hit it off from the start.  We were both about 30 and the only two of the crew who were married.  After I put away my notebook, we decided to walk over to the dock just across the road.  We walked to the end of it where a small fishing boat was moored.  A circle of men were crowded on the deck drinking beer.  It made for a fun picture, and Kelly asked if she could take it.  The men very happily agreed and then invited us onboard the boat.  

We glanced at each other briefly, then stepped aboard, where we engaged in a fairly lengthy exchange with one of the men.  It was a comical exchange, and fortunately at both ends we appreciated the comedy that none of us understood what the other was saying.  The men knew zero of our words, and I could pick out but the smallest fraction of theirs.  Eventually, Kelly and I decided that the men wanted to take us for a ride to a place called Fortaleza which was 20 minutes away.  We accepted rather warily, but as the men unwound the ropes and pushed the boat away from the dock, we shrugged at each other and said, “What the hell!”

My wariness turned to giddiness as the men rummaged around and found two yellow plastic cups somewhere at the back of the boat.  They were covered with dirty fingerprints and ringed with dried beer in the bottom, but offered to us like china.  We took them into our hands and the men poured us some beer.  We raised our cups to their beer bottles and the little boat rang with “Cheers!”  Just then we chugged past our house where the rest of the volunteer crew was assembled on the steps.  Kelly and I waved at them, and they waved back as if they might never see us again. 

On the boat, we all tried to talk to each other, but in the end fell into fits of giggles at our lack of success.  The owner of the boat was named Iki, and he steered us toward an island down the bay.  I felt exhilarated standing at the front of the boat, chugging through the dark water, the wind blowing back our hair and our cares.  Our lips were moist with sea water and beer, framing bubbles of laughter. 

At the island, the men helped me and Kelly jump down from the boat deck and then they showed us around the island in their bare feet and long shorts.  We were all pantomiming as our major vehicle of communication and laughing at each other’s efforts.  At one point they asked Kelly her nationality, and she told them she was Korean.  Immediately they all started faking karate moves.

It wasn’t long before Kelly and I each broke out a camera to take some photos of the island. The men crawled over each other to get in front of the lens every time I focused on something.  They kept pointing at things and then to our cameras wanting us to take a picture. I wondered if they thought they would get to see the developed photos.  (We had only film cameras, not digital ones.)  The men were enthusiastic tour guides, practically manic.  They romped around like little boys, playing with us and each other.  One of the men picked a flower for me and I stuck it behind my ear.  When we got back to the shore to board the boat, a man I called Allen (because I couldn’t remember his real name and he reminded me of a tv-show character named Allen) swept me off my feet and carried me through the water to the boat and lifted me up onboard.  Another man did the same for Kelly.

On the ride back, they asked if I was married, and then if I had children.  I said I had no kids, but that I had a cat.  They didn’t seem to understand, so I started going, “meow, meow, meow,” and they all fell over with laughter. I had studied a little bit of Portuguese in hopes of being able to crudely converse.  In my imagination, though, I was somehow carrying on long, philosophical discussions with the locals.  But I was only slightly disappointed that we weren’t communicating better in light of my Living Language lessons, for it occurred to me that a nice, docile conversation would have been rather more dull than the pantomiming and meowing.

After Kelly and I got back to the house, I sat down on the empty step again to write about our little adventure.  Almost instantaneously, a horde of kids crowded around asking questions.  Several of them had small, crusty lesions on their arms and legs.  This time I said to myself, we should know each other, so I asked them all their names, and they were suddenly very shy.  Their curiosity had been sheltered in their anonymity.  They didn’t want to own up to their curiosity, to name their prodding hands and wide eyes, as if by identifying themselves I could rob them of their abandon.  Like how it’s easier to ask a complete stranger than someone you know a really stupid question that you’re dying to know the answer to.  

But one girl, after a moment, happily got up and introduced everyone.  When I got up a short while later and went in the house for a briefing, the kids all clamored to the glassless window, their grubby little hands smothering the peeling paint of the window sill.  They peered in after me, and after all the volunteers as they filed in.

The Donas made us the standard dinner:  pasta and rice-and-beans with farofa (manioc flour stirred into melted butter and served warm) and a few chunks of breaded fish or chicken.  As we ate our dinner, vultures settled along the cement wall that bound the backyard and aired out their wings. Their thin necks dipped slowly up and down as they held their wings out at their sides.  They would hardly need such long, hairless necks to delve into the spare bean or two that would be left for the Donas to pitch into the yard.

After dinner there was a festa happening at one of the schools, and Roberto wanted us to go.  So to the festa we went, a giggling glob of white amid a palette of bronze and black skins.  The men from the boat were there, and Iki asked me to dance. 

I was promptly introduced to Brazil through the soles of my feet.  Our clasped hands, my hip under his palm, his shoulder under mine:  all these body parts I generally used to lumber around the world, through airports and cities, up and down stairs, now they were thrown in the ring, tossed around the floor to unfamiliar music.

As a child I took dance lessons for about seven years.  I learned to tap around the floor, and shuffle and flap out all kinds of rhythms.  I learned the classic lines of ballet, the five positions, how to sweep through the air.  I learned to squeeze my feet into toe shoes and balance on their tips.  In college I spent several nights each week throwing myself at whatever music was playing in my favorite venues, later I danced all night at raves.  I was not a stranger to my body. 

Until Iki took my hand and led me onto the dance floor. 

The other couples sailed across the courtyard with their hips wiggling and their feet in perfect harmony stepping forward, backward, sideways, in complicated patterns that I could not keep track of.  The music was fast and their feet were blurred in a whirl.  Two seconds onto the dance floor I was already completely lost and Iki was virtually dragging me around the floor as I laughed and stepped on his toes.  He was very sweet to me, trying to teach me, but eventually he had to give up—I just couldn’t get the hang of it. 

A girl then came up to me and offered to give me a lesson.  Her head barely came up to my chest.  Her long black hair fell down her back in gentle waves.  She started out slow, half time, and charted out the steps very carefully and deliberately, but every time we sped up I got flustered and lost all coordination. 

By now, some of the other girls of our volunteer group were out dancing, too.  They lurched around in fits and starts and spasms of laughter, and when we passed each other on the dance floor we screamed like kids on a roller coaster. I danced with Allen, and with another man who cut in and whirled me away across the dance floor. 

As we made our way home that night, the music of the festa pressed gently against our backs.  We went down to the dock and stretched out on our backs.  The night sky hung over us in an ancient tapestry, the stars knitting the fables of the people who once roamed this land in blissful ignorance of my people across an ocean.  I wondered if the villagers ever looked up into the galaxy, into the blackness, searching for a star shining back to them the light of their past, or if after drinking and dancing all night they looked down at the road to find their way home.  Were there still urutaus and Naias who wanted to touch the moon? 

For Naia, they say, was a beautiful young woman who used to dream along the banks of the Amazon River.  Captivated with the moonlight upon the water, she climbed a tree to try to touch the moon, but she couldn’t reach it.  The next day, she and her friends climbed the distant hills to feel with their hands the smoothness of the moon, but the moon was up so high, again they couldn’t reach it.  The following night, Naia left the longhouse to pursue the moon again, taking the trails next to the river.  There she saw the full moon on the water's surface and she thought the moon had come to bathe itself in the river and allow her to touch it. Naia dove into the deep waters and there disappeared forever.  The moon, feeling pity for the young lost life, transformed Naia into a giant flower - the Vitória Régia – which floats on the water to receive the full light of the moon.

The urutau also wanted to touch the moon.  The urutau was the bird with the most beautiful song in the rainforest, and to be heard by the moon, with whom it was deeply in love, it flew to the highest tree to sing love songs through the night.  But the urutau couldn't accept such a distance from its lover and flew higher and higher, trying to reach the moon. But the bird couldn’t escape the earth’s gravity. After a long struggle the urutau plummeted to the ground. Stunned and dizzy, it tried to recover and sing its beautiful song, but only a terrible screech came from its throat and echoed through the forest. The other birds surrounded the injured urutau and mourned for the loss of the most beautiful birdsong in the jungle.  Now when there is a ruckus of sounds in the rainforest and sad notes are heard in the air, one can assume that it's because the urutau is trying to sing.

With studio-recorded music spewing from a stack of speakers and tumbling through the streets of Pirabas, I wondered if something fallen was trying to sing.  If the sounds blaring out through the boxes of wires were a black veil for a more beautiful sound now lost.   If the rattling of beer bottles in the trash cans, and the clinking of shot glasses in the circles of friends was the ruckus of mourning for their own birdsong.

Were the villagers of Pirabas still people of the moon?  Did they remember the sweet birds who were here before the swarms of vultures? Who were they, these people with bare and nimble feet?

*

We'll meet some of them in the subsequent installments. 

 

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