Below are vignettes of the beauty, the aggravations and the lessons of the third world:
>Mornings nowadays are without noisy work along our road because the monstrous condo has been completed. It is sitting there empty at the moment. Waking up to the ocean sound never disappoints. I continue to savor the privilege of not rushing each and every morning, and I luxuriate in my routine of stretching and working all my joints at a relaxed and deliberate pace. After the rainy season, we always rent a power washer to restore our lovely flagstones from dingy grey and black to their warm, subtly varied neutrals. From the balcony I look down on the palm shadows swaying from overhead, and out to the aqua ocean rolling in between the fronds. The beauty: I am so grateful to share each morning with it!
Now that we have put up our Christmas lights, the iguana is completely baffled by his coconut tree!
>Some local errands are more eventful than others, though driving around town never really gets better. Often when we are about to pass a car, the driver absent-mindedly starts drifting over the line into our lane. We have seen people turning left from the right lane, or even the right shoulder when the light changes! I generally consider the road a gauntlet and try to anticipate intrusions from every side. The closest I have come to an accident was the day a car decided to ignore the jug handle and simply stop on the highway to make a left turn. I had glanced to the right quickly to make sure no one was coming through the jug handle (some people think they have the right-of-way over a car proceeding down the highway) and when I looked back I was cruising behind a stopped car! I think there was one inch left between us after I slammed on the brakes and swerved. Whew.
>At a traffic light the other day, a boy of probably eight years approached to wash the windshield, though I gestured ‘no’ (and it was clear that the windshield was already clean, thanks to our caretaker, Marcos). The boy soon knocked on the window after failing to get a taker and held out his hand for some coins. It is common that the kids are coached – very badly – into making absolutely pathetic faces. I said, “You don’t need to make that face, I’ll give you something.” When I handed him the coins and he still had the face as he said “obrigado,” I said ‘Smile!” and he plastered this big fake smile on top of the fake pathetic face. Then he said “ciao” with the plastered smile and the furrowed brow. A man sprawled on the curb was overseeing the windshield cleaning by this boy and a smaller one of about six. The small boy was stuck between lanes when the light changed, so I disliked the lounging man even more as I drove away.
>Inside the supermarket a 10-year-old girl approached me with a shoebox- size package of diapers in her hands. Could I buy them for her, she asked? I asked how much they cost, and she said R$14, about $US6. Feeling the Thanksgiving/Christmas spirit, I decided to do it. I know the store discourages this by way of announcements in a rare show of customer-friendliness, so I asked a nearby employee if there were rules I was breaking. He jabbered too rapidly for me to understand anything beyond “You can do it.” (He was probably asking what I meant by “rules!”). When I got home I saw that the diapers actually cost R$22, which made me resent the girl’s dishonesty. She had thanked me sincerely. Newton later told me that these store beggars pick out pricey items and later sell them or return them for store credit.
The supermarket ran out of regular-size plastic bags and had only small ones, so the packer put each item I bought into twenty-four separate little bags!
>There was a rash of robberies in town awhile back. The small businesses that line the streets have no recourse when a gunman shows up. It’s such a curse. Generally, no one gets hurt; the word out is not to resist; guns rule the day. The police are usually nowhere to be found until the rash has quieted down. Our very tall, ex-model friend, Carmen, from Spain was a little too attached to her large designer handbag and, when accosted by a much shorter young man downtown, struggled in a tug of war over the purse. It was only after he ran off the victor that Carmen realized he had had a knife (thank goodness not a gun) and had made eleven slashes in her hand and forearm. They have healed nicely, not being too deep, with just enough scar for Carmen to wear as her badass badge of honor! What a woman. I hope there is no next time, but if there is, I hope she does not resist.
After gunmen robbed a string of restaurants, we stopped carrying anything into a restaurant other than the credit card or sufficient cash in a pocket. We always leave the cell phone locked in the car and hide the car keys in a plant!
>Another going-out annoyance is the random police blitz to catch drinkers with breathalyzers. Newton says in Brazil they either do nothing or they take ridiculous measures, so there is no tolerance for any level of alcohol in these blitzes. When our kids were visiting last March and we were returning from dinner, Newton saw there were police ahead on the highway, so ducked quickly into some small dirt road. He decided to stop and check WAYZ for an alternate route when a police car roared around the corner and three military police jumped out with machine guns posed on our car. They instructed through a megaphone for Newton to put the keys on the roof of the car and to get out – along with Jake in the front seat – with their hands up. Elise, Larissa and I were instructed to get out and stay on the side of the road while they inspected the car. They suspected we were drug dealers since we avoided the police (it was not a blitz), but the one with the megaphone saw my terrified face and subtly indicated with his expression not to worry, as I beheld my husband and my son in police headlights with the automatic assault rifles leveled at them!
After they found nothing in the car, Newton explained to them that he had had one glass of wine at a restaurant and feared the police would take his license and impose the US$1,000 fine. The policeman let us go after telling Newton that he shouldn’t endanger his family by having a glass of wine!
>Newton called the prefecture to report six adjacent streetlights that are burned out, of which he took note while running as the early darkness fell. There is no mechanism to replace the bulbs automatically, so when the prefecture gets a call from a citizen who has taken the trouble to record the number on each pole, they eventually replace the lights. Newton also called about their sending the truck that picks up limbs and plant cuttings piled beside the street. Despite the presence of computers at the prefecture and many businesses, there is much confusion about locations and addresses. Most of the streets by the beach are not marked. No one seems to check or printout a Google map for the drivers. The other day an inquiring guy said he had been driving around Cotovelo all morning, but without street signs he had no idea where to deliver his lumber. Lost productivity is simply not on the radar in Rio Grande do Norte…it can be refreshing when it’s not exasperating!
>The coconut man came to shinny up our three "coqueiros" to retrieve the mature coconuts, as he does now and then. He has an incredible invention – a sort of belt with a stirrup with which he sidles up the trees. He pulled down the dry palm leaves and threw down the coconuts to Marcos. His 'fee' is half of the lot to sell on the beaches, and the remainder fill our frig and Marcos’ frig in his little caretaker house. Newton drinks the coconut water from one or two each day till they run out, as I welcome the gradually expanding available space in the frig! I find the water a bit too sweet for me.
>As I closed the windows on the late afternoon light, the plants reflected in each windowpane produced an entire gallery of those botanical paintings typical of colonial Brazil. Enchanting!
>Our employee, Betania, comes twice a week to clean and cook. I like her and she laughs at jokes and is grateful for birthday money and seems smarter and more informed than our caretaker, for example. It looks like she and Marcos are becoming friends – or more than??? She smiles beguilingly when she talks to him. He has a young wife who is living in the interior with her parents and the baby daughter Marcos tried to prevent by paying for birth control (he already supports three kids from previous ‘marriages’ plus his daughters’ half-sister from some itinerant man). I am hoping his wife and child do not return to live here because she is a real Brazilian "gata" who arches her back and stretches herself over the doorframe if a male appears. It was unsettling to me when she was living here and working as our cleaner/cook. She is not very sharp or polite; when she wanted me to help her light the oven she would come to the office door and make that horrid “PSSTOOO” sound that is the cultural equivalent in the Northeast to saying “excuse me, I’d like to say something to you.” Then she would say “Light the oven!”
Betania is much sharper and mature, and I don’t want to lose her, even if she is too rough. She crashes the dishes around, knocks paint off the walls with the broom and off painted furniture when she moves things (yes – the paint I spent hours making perfect). We told her to empty out the manioc storage jar and wash it so we could use it for a new sugar jar and she said, “Oh, did it break?” The sugar jar, which is only used for the occasional guest, got crashed down on the counter so hard while cleaning that it was cracked all over the bottom…but still in one piece. Finally, when Newton made flan, the cracked bottom fell apart and the gig was over. Betania never mentions that anything is broken – we just hear shattering and try to figure out later what is missing! But I like her.
>On Thanksgiving we grabbed our beach chairs before lunch and had a beer in the shade above the beach. A big event unfolded as a bulldozer struggled towards us along the beach, dragging a dead whale! The whale - a baby - must have died in the deep and washed up, though we had never heard of this on Cotovelo Beach. It was light beige and partially opened with a large protruding jawbone that looked like a tusk. The stench hit us, so we hurried home along the diagonal wind trail from the ocean, praying that the bulldozer would keep moving past that diagonal! Marcos reported the next morning that the bulldozer made it up to the road via a dune at the end of the beach and a truck transported the whale away for burial. Problem was that the bulldozer stopped at the local gas station to fill up and all the workers were cringing from the stench!
>Our friends Priscila (Brazilian) and Ali (Turkish) just moved into an apartment they bought and beautifully re-designed themselves. They are a professor and a researcher in Ecology at the federal university, so are staying here for the foreseeable future. They love to cook a great variety of organic and healthy dishes with the luscious flavors of Turkey thrown in, so we ate the best dinner in town at their new place. Not only are they brilliant, they are also funny, well traveled and big on book exchanges in English! We went to Novo Mexico Brazil restaurant for a fun Thanksgiving dinner with them and to acknowlege the only American friend left in town, the owner Niels from New Mexico. Ali and Pricila met in the US and remember Thanksgivings with fellow students. Niels gave us all free dessert for the holiday.
>My friend Ana Paula, who moved from Natal to Florida, was back in town. She stayed with me for the weekend, which was so lucky because Newton was in São Paulo. We were enjoying martinis and food and great conversation on the balcony, me facing the open bedroom door. Suddenly, there was a black cat poking his head around the doorframe from the stair landing, looking at us. Ana Paula then saw him, too; I jumped up and the cat ran.
We checked the entire house to be sure he wasn’t hiding anywhere. We finally assumed he leapt back out the way he came in…wherever that was. The only openings were two high windows in the dining room and the high kitchen windows, all always open until we retire for the night. Is it my imagination, or can I smell cat pee when the dining room is closed up?
My theory is that magical realism has leapt from the pages of South American novels into my life. Staying home while Newton is away has wrought strange happenings: black wires of our two laptops hanging out the office windows after robbers grabbed them when I was upstairs (that was early on before we knew to lock windows when we leave the office); electrical blackouts (twice); the security alarm going off multiple times in the night; that big black bird that flew into the bedroom at 3:00am and, thankfully, flew back out again after a few flappings around the ceiling; and now, the black cat. I feel like I’m Gabriel Garcia Marquez' boy with the yellow butterflies around his head, except mine are black bats! Is Brazil trying to make me superstitious about being home without Newton? It’s working.
Here is Claudia Mota, Prima Ballerina of the Teátro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro
Here is Edifranc Alves, as quite a handsome Gypsy!
Alicia and her husband, Ernesto, told us the story of their pousada (casual hotel) participating in the first gastronomic festival in Baia Formosa, a nearby beach town. The festival was to begin on Thursday morning. Alicia made a special trip on Wednesday night to decorate the booth that the town was providing. The organizer had not yet been able to tell her how big their space would be or how many tables and chairs the town would provide, so Alicia and Ernesto had rented 50 tablecloths and plenty of cutlery just in case. It turned out that no booth had been assembled on Wednesday night. Instead of starting on Thursday morning, the festival finally got underway on Friday evening! The promised signage identifying their pousada never materialized. Alicia and Ernesto’s booth had the most people and they made plenty of money from this success, EXCEPT, with all the rentals for two additional days and all the extra staff unnecessarily lined up, they only made $40 profit in the end. And were very tired.
The irony: Alicia worked in Madrid as the big events organizer for SONY PlayStation and actually ran an event with an air show. Too bad she is fully engaged with mothering, her current job in wind energy, and Pousada La Bonita duties because I think the town of Baia Formosa could really use her next year!
I had a great weekend at Pousada La Bonita over another weekend Newton was in São Paulo. Alicia and "Wild Man" Ernesto gave me the master suite again – the only room not rented! They included me in their family meals and activities. Carlitos, 9, was kind to work every English word he knows flawlessly into Portuguese sentences for me! Alicita, 7, is a good mathematician and learned a challenging card game my Mother handed down. I adore this family.
>Many of our gringo friends have moved from Natal. Most recently was Gabriela and Maurice, who are moving to Europe after they take a long trip through Bali, Indo-China, Tibet and India. A group of friends went to the airport to see them off. One of my favorite sights, ever, was Newton and Maurice’s fellow-poker-player, Fred, a bon vivant Frenchman, pushing a luggage cart replete with salamis and baguettes jauntily protruding from the cart basket and a cooler full of champagne! Once Gabi and Maurice had finalized the travel arrangements for their big dog Lica, we all went out by the Departures curb, Lica was let out of her travel cage on a leash, and we toasted and snacked until boarding time. NO ONE bothered us. Sometimes the third world really works! Maurice was always good for conversations in perfect English, especially as a fellow history buff, and darling Gabi’s English was getting really good. My loss.
Pictured here, left-to-right:Luciana (from João Pessoa); Jordi (a zealous Catalan); Fred (Français); Rita (Natal native); me; Gabriela (São Paulo); Newton; Isaac (Belgium); Lica; Maurice (Belgium)
>Fred has a new sailboat that he and his partner, Rita, navigated up from Rio. We spent an evening on the boat with a small group of friends, anchored at the local yacht club. The evening was calm, the temperature ideal, the wine cold, and the conversation in Portuguese more manageable for me than when the group gets too large. I am doing better. Rita is kind, beautiful, and a privilege to know. She is my favorite samba dancer, she has a fear of ghosts, her back is the straightest I have ever seen. She once replenished me with her own energy by rubbing my hand when I was faint; she knows things in her cells I will never learn. We have a huge mutual affection despite limited conversation…an admiration of essences. I love her. (AND she resembles my beautiful friend, Monica, from college!)
>Here is the current view in front of our house of the completed-yet-empty condominium, In Mare: (If there is anyone left who doesn't know, this used to be a field of coconut trees.)
We managed to be invited to a promotional event at the completed condo and finally saw beyond the wing in front of our house. We drank some hard-earned champagne and took photos.
I can still do morning stretches and yoga on the balcony with nothing but the empty ‘eyes’ of In Mare’s unoccupied windows looking at me. We don’t know what bureaucratic limbo is preventing tenants now, but this may change over the holidays or in January when owners move in for the summer. Will they see me if I do my yoga in the dark? I can only be glad I had some months since the trucks and workers stopped to savor the sanctuary of my balcony, once again. Let's see how the next phase goes.
>Considering the natural beauty, no schedule, and the marvelous friends that still remain in Natal, our lives in Brazil are rich…sometimes despite and sometimes because of the crazy quirks of this Third World backwash! It is such an interesting interval in my life. When I stop reading the appalling news from the US and the rest of the world and do whatever I want, or do nothing, and then I reflect on that, I see how serene letting go can feel.
As blogger Amanda Walkins put it: “Nobody regrets time they’ve spent unhurried and unburdened.”
We’re off to the US for Christmas in Las Vegas with our darlings. Here’s to wonderful holidays all ‘round!