from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brazil Dispatch 29

The first night back in my ocean-breezy bed after a month of travel, I dreamed that I was floating, but not in a good way. I was lost. I dreamed that I didn’t know where I was or even who I was, exactly. It was good to wake up to my sunny, palmy view through the mosquito net, my stone floor, and the mirror. I was home! Let the re-integration begin.

Our month-long trip served the aspect of myself that I inherited from my mother: wanting to be in the middle of a party. Back on Cotovelo Beach, I can indulge the aspect of myself that I inherited from my father: wanting to have still, beauty-drenched moments. What is missing is an airport/airplane gene.

Back to the foliage and the foibles of Brazil! The first sight to capture our attention after landing was a huge dent in the trunk lid of the car as we met up with our caretaker, Marcos, at the airport. He explained some unlikely timing whereby the car was mysteriously damaged while he took some minutes to buy one of those mosquito-zapping, rechargeable tennis rackets, as requested by Newton. When we reached the house, the news was that the downstairs bathroom flusher had broken the day before when the maid had come (with her nine-year-old daughter) to clean and cook. Besides the gallons of water that had gushed out of the bathroom wall, there was more pouring down the inside of the wall and flooding the cesspool outside the gate. The dining room ceiling and floor outside the bathroom were wet. I was home alone when little explosions began bursting from inside the increasingly hot wall. We called the handyman. He could only come a couple of days later, so we turned off the electricity for that area, which was all of the downstairs except the office, plugged in the refrigerator and freezer with long extension cords to the office, and cooked dinner by candlelight. The only way to change a flushing mechanism in this house is to break the brick/cement wall. There went the dining room. But the leak was from further up, so there went part of the wall in our upstairs bathroom, as well. The really “Nordestino” part of it is: the handyman and Marcos finished the job and sealed up the (very wet) wall, plaguing our dining room with the unmistakable and enduring smell of mildew…and leaving the upstairs toilet in a new, now-leaking state. The water bill was about US$70. We’re pulling for the added plumbing tape and some exceptional flushing methods to bring the water bill down.

But then there was the paradise of my hammock again! I was reading 2666 by the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño. This book won prizes and was on many Best of 2008 lists (in a remarkable translation). It does represent a re-thinking of the novel and the language is truly astounding, but it has a brutality that makes it tricky to recommend. I guess it’s those more than two hundred murders of young women in a fictional version of Juarez, Mexico, recounted with coroner-like detail, that give one pause. I asked my bona fide literary friend from college, Peruvian-American author and former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, Marie Arana, for a private paragraph-long review of this momentous and disturbing work: “It's a labyrinth. A catastrophe. And yet, he takes us where he wants us to go. And so, it's a masterpiece, for sure. But to me, it's like a Mahler symphony or Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet---messy, harsh, with tender interludes, and bewitchingly human.”

I tried soothing my furrowed brow after that book with my beloved Alice Munro’s Open Secrets short story collection. Then it was time to tackle some pulp, the heavy volume of Dan Brown’s latest: The Lost Symbol. This is basically a hack screenplay that passes for a novel, shamelessly formulaic. One can rush through it as there is no language to savor – it is written in the vernacular! But for all the shock of bad literature after good literature, it was fun hearing about the Masonic Founding Fathers and their mark upon our nation’s capital. At the moment I’m reading about the Puritans who founded Boston in Sarah Vowell's informative and funny The Wordy Shipmates.

As Richard Russo put it, “reading is a primary reward in life."

We innocently drove to our favorite pizza place, Curva do Vento, when we got back in our groove. It is a small restaurant/bar on a tiny windy corner of land next to a high-rise construction site. In a shared Twilight Zone moment, Newton and I rubbed our eyes and looked again: there was nothing but rubble there. Newton found the lost Curva on Facebook and learned the new location. We were astounded at the owner’s story: apparently after some palms were greased, the builder of the high-rise was able to take over the corner illegally, which was unsalable city property. The Curva owner was informed that he had forty minutes to clear out before the bull dozers arrived to raze the place. That’s what I mean by ‘foibles.’ He is suing for both the illegal sale and inadequate notice to evacuate.

We enjoyed the World Cup final with a big group of ex-pats that included not only the Dutch locals but the Spanish locals, as well! It was a very orange and red occasion, and just as jovial and good natured as the Holland-Brazil game had been. We wouldn’t miss a shindig with our international crowd of friends; these are always fun.

Our favorite bohemian spot recently reopened, Buraco da Catita. Buraco da Catita 1 This is basically a street corner in a bedraggled section of downtown where a great mixed crowd gathers on Friday nights to hear chorinho music – the ‘sad’ samba that is “a little cry.” There is a corner bar there that has expanded and the side street has been closed off to traffic now.

Buraco da Catita 2 








Here’s the way Brazilians are sad:

We also heard some good local blues at “Feijão & Rock,” meaning black beans and Rock-n-roll. This happens on occasional Sunday afternoons at the large tree-filled property of one our Blues-playin’ friends.

I am relieved to report that we still have a coconut tree field across the street, Coqueiro field even though next to the cashew bush barely visible on the right there is construction of a makeshift wall, a makeshift road, the beginnings of a structure (the office to sell the future condominiums), and all manner of trucks, bull dozers, saws, drills and shouts filling the morning air. We have to lean out the right side of the balcony to see what is going on, so I am still grateful every morning for the coconut tree “mural” in front of the house that I see walking out our bedroom door.







Brasileirinho Our Brasileirinho trees are blooming for the first time since we’ve lived here – what a surprise: blossoms whose petals sometimes fall and accentuate the stone walk with bright accents of persimmon!





And then there’s Saturn in the western evening sky, just huge, brilliant and actually oval-shaped, which qualifies as seeing the rings with the naked eye, even if the space between the rings and the planet is not visible. I mistook Jupiter over the ocean for a smaller planet, having seen it a couple of years back in a closer orbital position, as big as the current Saturn. But Jupiter is rising every night and still dwarfing the surrounding stars, even if it’s further away this time.

We took a 27th anniversary trip to a simple island-like peninsula to the north, Galinhos. After parking and arriving on the ferry, we were offered donkey-taxi rides, but our expensive-but-simple pousada (inn) pousada was walking distance on the beach of the salt lake along one side of town. The ocean side had a beach that turned west (just picture that jutting corner on the map in the northeast of Brazil), thereby avoiding heavy wind and offering a most spectacular ocean sunset. The almost-full moon had a gigantic halo around it, and Saturn was outshining the beach lampposts over this western bend in the ocean. A small group of boys, probably around 8 years old, were practicing both their caporeira front and back flips in the sand (the Brazilian martial art) AND Michael Jackson moon walking and pelvic thrusts! It was so entertaining!





We took a boat trip to the salt mine and the dunes on the peninsula, passing Huckleberry Finn and Tom sawyer on the way:In the Galinhos dunes









Huck & Tom










We were a bit disappointed about the food and the weather on Galinhos, so decided to start back to Natal around 11:00 Sunday morning and have at least a good lunch in Natal. By the time we waited for the ferry, boarded alone, put-putted away, stopped, turned around to go back for more people at the dock, waited while the people – a band – loaded their collection of gigantic speakers, amp, drums, guitars, stands, cymbals, backpacks and plastic bags for about a half-hour in the rain from the high deck to the boat next to some precarious stairs below, and then put-putted to the parking lot, we were already feeling hungry, having had breakfast at 8:00. Just as we spotted a lunch possibility in one of the towns we passed and were making a U-turn on the highway, our friends Lorraine and Tom called to invite us for a big barbecue at their house. We arrived an hour and forty minutes later; after quick hellos and hugs to the group, we raced to the bathroom and then begged for food. Happy Anniversary, Newt!

Newton bought a real movie screen and installed it near the ceiling on the living room wall to make a home theater. We have been drawn in by the incredible texture of the music of New Orleans via the first season of HBO’s Tremé, by The Wire creator, David Simon. The title refers to a musical neighborhood in New Orleans, and the series begins with Katrina. The musicians involved really make you sit up and take notice. We also had never seen AMC’s Mad Men until Newton downloaded the first three seasons. We are absolutely haunted by the portrayal of that mid-century disappointment and disillusion. We also downloaded some classic comedy films and have had some good laughs via Howard Hawks, among others. Our nephew Michel was in town with his girlfriend and they came over to see Buster Keaton’s wonderful Seven Chances.

I have begun a free course on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the Federal University here, Portuguese for Foreigners. It is pretty basic, but affords me the chance to fill in some gaps since I never studied the language formally. Also, since most of the students have not been speaking it even badly and sparsely for 28 years as I have, I now feel like I can speak pretty well! This gives me more confidence, which is the first rule of speaking a foreign language. I’m not going to become a paragon of Brazil’s native tongue in this lifetime, but this is clearly going to help. The professor is young and relaxed, and the group of 18 is a wonderful mix, including a Turk, three academics from India, a wild-haired physics researcher from Russia, other South Americans and Europeans. I’m the only American.

I’m starting to investigate volunteer possibilities with children, so will see what fits. I wouldn’t want to be too busy to lovingly hang the laundry and then lovingly fold it and return the items to their proper places…the small joy-filled accomplishments of having time. Not to mention reading and writing. And after a too-frantic life, I call it all ‘resting.’

My Mother got sent off to the dreaded Methodist  Manor Nursing Center Mothershe was hoping to avoid, so the family is feeling heavy-hearted about this. Her painful arthritic shoulders necessitate more help for transitioning into her wheel chair than is offered in Assisted Living, so her safety was in jeopardy. My sister Janet was able to line up some excellent Hospice care to show up several times a week and keep their very expert eyes on her pain, her quality of life, and on the Manor staff. I am so thankful to my sisters, my brother-in-laws and nephews who have been able to show up and offer some hard labor and moral support to this most deserving of human beings. I love you, Mother.




  1. Busy times since your return. I just had a somewhat relaxing week with Max gone for 10 days to her piano camp in Vermont. After stacking all that wood, I did get to enjoy some quiet time and started reading again. I used to read most only airplanes, but now that my travels are more limited, reading kind of took a back seat. But this week I dug into "The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo" after getting strong recommendations from several friends. It captured me in the first 20 pages and it is a very good read. I also just read "The Art of Driving in the Rain", a metaphor on life as written by a dog.

    Your toilet troubles sounds tragic. I always hate doing plumbing, expectially on toilets, although needless to say our free standing models here are not as complicated as what you appear to have in your house.

    Good luck in your studies of Portuguese. It is a beautiful language.

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