from Sandy Needham

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brazil Dispatch 19

August 13, 2008
Back home in Natal, Newton and I caught the remaining mania of Festa Junina, celebrated during the month of June all over Brazil. Its country bumpkin theme seems to suit it in a bigger way to the northeast. The Festa honors Saints Anthony, John (no one can tell me if this is John the Baptist or John of gospel fame), and Peter, while incorporating pagan influences, as well. The supermarket has live musicians throughout June, dressed in the typical rustic costumes and playing the charming, traditional version of forró. This is on a ukulele-type instrument (cavaquinho), an accordion, and a wonderful single triangle which tinkles out a relentless, lively rhythm that makes one bounce a bit in the grocery aisles. Children show up in straw hats and ruffled gingham dresses. On designated nights people make fires along the road. Students dance the quadrilha – a dance that enacts a legend about a country wedding. Our caretaker Marcos’ daughter Taynara and partner are pictured at the local school quadrilha.

Our masseuse invited us to a big Junina party at a nearby former granja – chicken farm – owned by her daughter’s anthropology professor, a French woman. Besides costumed children and loads of people roaming the beautiful grounds and house, there were musicians playing the ‘music of the coconut,’ which we like so much. I thought the traditional folk dancing was just marvelous.

In July we attended a Sunday afternoon of “Feijão & Rock” at another former granja. This event had four different rock groups covering Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Jimmy Hendrix respectively, all good. There was feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, comprised of black beans (the ‘feijão’) and pork. I enjoyed seeing my Brazilian boomer counterparts, aging but jaunty in their Pink Floyd and Hendrix T-shirts. There was a big crowd, plenty of space and an amazing sound system that was not too loud to distort everything for a change!

We got back to the groove of our weekly rhythms and weekends on the beach. A couple of guys were kicking a soccer ball into the waves, which sent the ball right back for more like a pitching machine. Each of us on two different occasions got to chase the styrofoam lid of our little cooler as it flew down the beach in the wind and, humiliatingly, evaded repeated attempts to capture it by changing direction on cue. This was in front of an audience. The highlight at our beach restaurant is watching parents shower their babies in the high-pressure outdoor shower. Some babes are howling; some are happy; some, oblivious. They all have bodies made of chubby curves and poochy baby butts.

On a cloudy Sunday we replaced our time at the beach with a hike in the Park of the Dunes. Too tedious lecturing by the guide rendered the adventure more of a “stand” than a “hike.” Happening upon these Sunday afternoon centipedes (shown in the photo below) while in the forested portion of the dunes did bring Cole Porter to mind..."Let's do it, let's fall in love!"

One night at dinner in the dining room a sudden series of shots rang out and we thought, “We’re dead.” It sounded like it was right outside the windows, but as we jumped up to avoid the windows, we realized the blasts were coming from our front porch. We turned out the lights and stole up the stairs like Nick and Nora in the dark, terrified in a numb, shocked way. Once we crawled out to peek from the balcony, we realized that these were fireworks set off at the street corner, celebrating a soccer victory by the local team. Too bad about the hour-and-a-half my heart was thumping afterwards!

Soon after returning from our travels, we fired the maid. She was stealing food. We were reluctant to give up her excellent cooking, but the feeling of someone being sneaky, the mounting grocery bills, and the dropping dollar made it all seem like a good idea. We had inherited her with the house for 6 days a week, but we figured we actually needed someone far less than that. In the ensuing two weeks of our hunt for a part-timer, I discovered why Cornelia had never rinsed the soap out of our clothes: the outdoor sink completely soaks you with spray if you try rinsing something. After soaking our towels in a bucket of soapy water, I put on my bathing suit and rinsed them in the outdoor shower. Problem was that a soaking wet towel weighs a ton and I am not a weight-lifter. Wringing them out just about did me in! We decided to get someone for two days/week and buy a washing machine. We found a lovely woman who works for my new American friend from the next town, Mary, one day a week. Her name is Lucia (lu-see-ah) and she cooks just fine and cleans much better in two days than Cornelia did in six. I love doing laundry in my new little toy-like washer. The somewhat romantic-yet-Zen activity of hanging everything out on the line to dry is my favorite part. I was becoming a political and internet news junky and enjoying it less and less, so the extra tidying up, dish washing and intermittent sweeping I do is not only a welcomed change of habit, it has actually made our home feel much more like ours now.

An activity I am increasingly drawn to is listening to music while not doing anything else. One of the best recent experiences was a two-hour documentary from Newark, NJ public radio's WBGO jazz station: 50 Years of the Beat: Bossa Nova. The link is: and you just click on ‘hour one’ and ‘hour two’ to hear this truly amazing program. My other favorite is National Public Radio’s podcast of Tom Wait’s recent Atlanta performance from his “Glitter and Doom” tour. It is stunning. (Better to be a fan who lovingly tolerates his ever more gravelly voice). The link is: .

Newt traveled to Japan and Taiwan for 11 days. I had much better luck staying here alone without a robbery kicking it off this time! I had plenty of crafts to work on, films to watch and books to read. I revisited Virginia Woolf via Mrs. Dalloway. There is no wonder we still read her, she is so thoroughly modern and brilliant. Newton stopped over in NY for one day on the way home, celebrated Elise’s 24th birthday with both kids, and brought me To the Lighthouse, Proust’s Swann’s Way, and more of my newfound passion: Alice Munro short stories. I have also been loving the poetry of Wistawa Szymborska and Philip Schultz.

I watched the film, "Lars and the Real Girl" around the time some real questions about kindness were seeping into my head. I feel indignant when people beg from me while I’m sitting on my front porch. Luckily, this does not happen often. The fact that it was recently the uncle of Marcos’ daughters (Marcos ex-wife’s brother, whom I had never seen before) asking me for a beer made me doubly frustrated. I told him I did not like people asking me for things while I am in my home, but that since he was the girls’ uncle, I would give him one this once. Good fences make good neighbors in my estimation. I try to be kind to Marcos’ daughters when they are around without encouraging them to hang out inside our house or to expect something from me every time I see them, because I like to give them friendly recognition and things that inspire imaginative play, not anything that will further rot their teeth, for instance. When Lucia needed to bring her 7-year-old-son for the day for the second Monday in a row while she worked, I immediately wondered if I had been too kind to him the first time and made his stay too enjoyable by giving him materials to construct with, a Pluto DVD to watch, and teaching him a card game. But if he is going to show up here for the day very often, I will feel some obligation about his not getting too bored, and I do not wish to feel that obligation. Neither do I want him to experience a drawing back by me; he’s a sweet child. I’m sure Brazilians do not understand the concept of boundaries the way I do. Today a guy showed up outside our kitchen door begging, mentioning that it would be wrong to steal, which felt like a threat. This is a place where people have their hands out. I assure you, the questions about kindness remain, without answers. Is kindness that feels meaninglessly obligated, kindness? Is kindness something sublime? In this lovely, absurd film about Lars, everyone in the little community seems to know exactly what amount of kindness is needed. It is very moving.

I am sorry for the length here. Hope everyone is having a great summer!


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