Brazil Dispatch 27
Meanwhile, back in Brazil…the larger, scissor-tailed humming bird and the smaller, I mean 3” short-tailed humming bird vie for the bounty of our hibiscus bush. Whether only one makes a sound or they both make the same sound, I don’t know, but we wake up to a sound identical to – bear with me – one of those desk gadgets that has a row of metal balls suspended on strings that set off an equal and opposite reaction when one end ball is set in motion. Both birds are iridescent black, which looks like iridescent green in the sun. From the balcony I watch the chase flights into the neighbor’s yard, and later at breakfast on the front porch I watch the gathering of nectar by the tiny brave one or the larger one playing sentinel from a neighboring tree limb.
Except for a different sound that one morning when we were awakened at 6:00 by a dull hack, hack, hack. We needed to chop down a mostly dead tree to make room for a new flowering one our caretaker, Marcos, had grown in a pot from seeds. He knew someone we could hire to chop it down. Newton had not yet told him which tree it was since there were some dead areas on several of our “Brasileirinho” trees - so called because their green and yellow leaves are the colors of the Brazilian flag and the national soccer team. Marcos has complained to Newton several times that he doesn’t know why the previous owner planted these, as Marcos doesn’t like them. We have no idea why; they are lovely. So what was this hack, hack sound? The chopper had arrived and Marcos had decided that the tree in question was the largest, most beautiful, most privacy-producing Brasileirinho beside our front gate. Thank heavens we discovered the destruction after only seven limbs had been removed, so we still have the tall, if sparse tree. I will devote a dispatch one of these days to the wonderful, puzzling, non-linear workings of the Potiguar mind, of which Marcos is a supreme example. (Potiguar is the indigenous name of this region; it means, “one who eats shrimp.”)
The summer has come to us in doses around our two big trips. The neighbors arrived in January, bringing much animation, new sounds, bad music late at night and people-watching on the beach. January and February had an unexpected plethora of cloudy days and intermittent rain. The coconut field across the road is already green. Now that summer is in its last weeks, we’re getting sun, blue skies and heat with less breeze than we’d like. I woke up uncharacteristically at 4:30 one morning and caught the rare sunrise without clouds covering it on the horizon; then later, the full moon out our bedroom window:
We stopped over in São Paulo en route home from NY. A day at a water park with our two nieces, Mariana (25) and Mayra (21) was a highlight. I spent most of the time people-watching since I’m too cowardly for the rides. A circular waterway that strongly propels effortless swimmers in a clockwise direction was my speed! People-watching when everyone is barely clad is interesting in a completely different way than on the sidewalks of New York in winter.
The day we returned to Natal there was no Marcos to meet us at the airport, so we eked out a call on the dying cell phone and he told us the car battery was kaput. We took a taxi home, but then realized Marcos was at his afternoon job and had the keys. We actually managed to eke out a few seconds on the phone to get him home. Then we discovered that there was no electricity. Luckily, it was still daylight when it came on, but we then discovered there was no internet. We took a walk to the beach, only to discover that the end of the steps leading to the sand from our road had been torn asunder by the ocean. We followed a new route to the sand, regained the internet connection and bought a new car battery; we were ecstatic to be home again!
Our circle of friends in Natal has an international flavor. One Sunday afternoon on a lake, our Singaporean host who used to live in Sweden and is married to a Brazilian who modeled in Japan, had guests from the US, Canada, the UK, Malawi, Holland, Norway and Sweden. I get very spoiled by everyone speaking English, which means real conversations! And we just loved getting to know a great couple, Babac and Lola, who got stranded in Natal for a month when their 4 x 4 vehicle got stuck in the sand and overcome by the tide. A mechanic dried it all out, piece by piece, and rented them a small apartment for the month, to boot. Babac was born in Iran and raised in Columbia, Missouri; Lola is from the northwest corner of Mexico. They drove from the US and are making their way down Central and South America, ‘parking’ their 4 x 4 every nine months for an extended visit back to the US. They will arrive in Buenos Aires in October to be joined by relatives for their wedding! The Iranian dinner they cooked for us at Rossana and Cassio’s house was unforgettable. They carry the saffron around in their luggage. In the meantime, my American friend Mary has taken her 12-year-old son to India for four months at a sustainable living community called Auroville. She says he is sleeping through the caterpillars that drop from the ceiling all night better than she.
Glades has almost comically tragic reports about the fishermen’s boss from Nigeria trying to retrieve or sell the fishing boat here. She is serving as the interpreter through all sorts of surreal bureaucratic nonsense which, on his first trip resulted in the following: he would have to return to Nigeria to retrieve all originals of the boat documents because he had only copies; he would have to obtain power of attorney from the owner of the company/owner of the boat, as he was not the actual owner; the fishing company has to pay a naval engineer $50,000 to remove all the rust from the boat, repair it and have all the paper work in order; the boss was reduced to tears on several occasions. Now that he has returned with all the required documents and is determined to sell the boat, which is all he can afford to do, the bureaucracy has come up with a new one: he cannot sell the boat because that would be selling an illegal ‘import.’ He can render the boat a Brazilian boat by acquiring new Brazilian documentation at great expense. BUT…some clever agent working with him found a precedent where a used boat could not be considered a regular import subject to the legalities of importing. Some poor, handy tinkerer is repairing the boat – still stuck on the beach - in the meantime. The boss will not pay Glades or this repairman until he sells the boat, supposedly, but the repairman has already bought thousands of reais worth of parts and is receiving threats on his life for non-payment.
Williams, Glades’ boyfriend, was not able to accompany the boss because he has to reimburse the Brazilian government not just the amount of his ‘deportation’ ticket back to Nigeria, but his part of a $5,000 bill for the four policemen who escorted the fishermen to São Paulo, including their meals. Then he has to come up with the additional money for the flight back to Brazil. It may be some time before he has such an amount. Glades is suffering, but getting back to work and life as best she can.
Carnaval began for us with sunset on Rossana and Cassio’s commercial catamaran amidst traditional Carnaval music by a six-piece band. It was perfect! Here’s a sample, with Cassio on percussion and Rossana busy in the background making caipirinhas:
We managed a couple more nights of wonderful live samba music and revelry, plus a visit to Natal’s version of a Carnaval parade downtown. As I usually mention every Carnaval: Natal ain’t Rio. But it was fun seeing the kids dressed up in indigenous Potiguar attire, moving to a slow rhythm at an almost imperceptible pace down the street. The rich people abandoned downtown for the duration of Carnaval, showing up mostly in the next beach town south of us, Pirangi, where there is a January-plus-Carnaval overdose of everything. This makes us grateful for our much calmer spot. The neighbors to one side of us never showed up this year. Someone said they had rented an apartment in Pirangi, but their intensely loyal caretaker continues to show up twice a day year-in and year-out to water their small lawn and three potted plants.
Our routine is feeling back on track, which means I am feeling one with this place again. We have a little grace period before the rainy season requires the mosquito net, except for the one mosquito that shows up at night (not the same mosquito…we whop it with a folded T-shirt if we are lucky enough to find the little bugger). I love to wander over to the balcony every morning while brushing my teeth. I'm back to taking care of plants and beading and doing handwork on the front porch, yoga on the balcony. We now eat our Friday spicy buffalo wings on the grassy slope above the beach to avoid grit. We love to cook salmon on the grill, and Newton makes shrimp “Alho/Oleo” (fun to say – it means with garlic and olive oil) every weekend after returning from the beach. We sit in front of our computers too long, but have a good time watching movies on the living room wall with the new projector (I recommend The Visitor, Frozen River, The Namesake, The Hurt Locker, Grey Gardens, Julie & Julia, and Invictus) or following the best series I know of, HBO’s old series, The Wire. We’re on season 5, the last season, which we are trying to stretch out and make last. The depressing news about American cities in The Wire (Baltimore is the setting) is counterbalanced by the thrill of seeing that misery made into brilliant art. We watch it with English subtitles to better grasp the lingo of the drug sellers, the cops, the port of Baltimore unions, the school board, the city council, and the newspaper reporters.
I don't mean to overlook the difficulties of adjusting to the crazy-making stuff here. I'm not so fond of running errands and crashing into the reality of being a monstrous, frustrated, vocal, logical foreigner amidst the slow pace and mysterious thinking of the natives, who remain sweet, calm and unfazed by the idea that the hours posted on the post office should be the actual hours of operation, etc. I still have so much to learn from the Potiguars.
I read books by Salmon Rushdie and Alice Monroe while traveling. Since home, I’ve enjoyed a well-written contemporary book, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott. But what could be better than hammock time with Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories? I’ve just spent 550 pages on the morbid farms and small towns of the mid-20th century gothic South, complete with a one-legged daughter in the hayloft with the Bible salesman, murderers roaming the countryside, a 14-year-old on moonshine, the annoying judgmental woman getting gored by a bull in the field, bigoted do-gooders felled by strokes…oh, but I risk ruining stories for you, and I definitely recommend this collection of dark genius!
We always seek out local live music and have several favorites. Local star, Geraldo Carvalho, was at our neighborhood Zen Bar last week with Cassio on percussion. He wrote my absolute favorite song about Natal, “Potiguarina.” He mentions several neighborhoods, including the industrial town outside the city, Parnamirim, which is our actual mailing address, even though far from the beach; Alecrim is the commercial neighborhood full of street vendors. I like the lilting rhythm and phrasing of the song best of all, because that’s what it feels like to live here! Enjoy: