Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but they accurately coincide with real events. Personal names are fictional.
The first two of these letters are about a Methodist VIM project– Volunteers In Mission. I am a Methodist by virtue of family, and inclination, who has participated in several VIM Missions; I find the people who do this sort of thing are unusual and outstanding in the best sense of the words. Our two designated drivers, Frank and Ted, two senior citizens, can serve as examples. They neither speak Brazilian nor have ever been in the country before. Frank is from Oregon, has never been out of the USA. He has spent his life in electronics, and is retired, now trying to develop a practical small hydrogen generator. He has been breaking down water into its gasses, Hydrogen and Oxygen, trying to use only a small amount of energy to do that; and then generating power through the chemical re-fusion of the gasses, recycling recreated water in an endless cycle. To me that seems an impossible perpetual energy machine, but… what do I know? Nada. He has blown up his work-space a couple of times.The other driver- call him Ted- is an executive who made his fortune late in life at a silicon valley start-up. He’s hard working and focused. And, most importantly from my perspective, an alert and oriented, even in this place where he had never been before. He has led several VIM projects; this is one more.
It’s cool now, but the day promises heat and humidity. This is the second big night of Carnaval here in this small Minas Gerais town at about 3000 ft ASL. My companions went last night but I begged off, too much noise and too many people… tonight will be enough for me. I’m writing this in the still of the morning at a friend’s home, a friend, Nana, who has a fast internet connection. She is, I’d say, a self-made woman who began to make and sell clothes, married well, expanded to a store, and gradually accumulated a number of pieces of rental property. At age 90, the madrefamilias of her clan she still is constantly thinking and planning new enterprises, alert but weak; she just had a bypass, diagnosed as diabetic only a few months ago, is on metformin, apparently controls her blood sugar well. To use Nana’s internet today is a great advantage for me because I work on the asilo –– a home for the elderly and handicapped–during most days, and in the evening transportation is a problem.
My flights to Sao Paulo, Brazil– SMF HOU GRU– were uneventful. Houston was under a thick blanket of sea fog, but arrival and departure were on time. Leaving HOU I was in the janela seat- window- so only uprooted the two sleeping Brazileiros twice to walk about. There were only a few people in the’ foreigner’ line at immigration, in the main Sao Paulo airport. My well-traveled checked bag, hadn’t gone to Heathrow like it did in the past; I suppose it was disappointed.
Three people of our group should have already arrived from Chicago. I checked for their flight; it had landed on time. Yet they were not at the place we were to meet, a certain a restaurant. The only other likely nearby place was a Pizza Hut. ‘Informacao’ said there is NO way to page, ‘ nao ha parlantes’ –no speakers? Really? Police don’t have them?Nao. …I looked around for a prepay phone to buy, but found they could only be sold to Brazileiros–9/11 effect? There are many. For example, foreigners wanting to visit the USA can find the experience not only difficult, but sometimes administered by those who are callow and demeaning. After 9/11 the experience became more troublesome, and Brazil responded in kind. Like Argentina they decided to require a ‘reciprocity fee’ just as we do in the USA:—$160 at the time, and an extensive application. Hassle for Hassle. Mordida for Mordida—as well as a convenient way to collect another tax.
I needed to find a way to the town where we were to work– in case my colleagues had failed to make their flight. So I checked out the omnibuses and found they leave from terminal four. Rather than go there immediately, I waited. The last two people in our group were to arrive from LAX at about 1330; and indeed, right on time, our leader appeared, call him Ted. He went directly to a little clutch of chairs nearby and the first 3 were there. But he had news. The other leader, Neli, our native Brazilian organizer, who would guide us, had missed her flight in LA. American Airlines did not wait 10 minutes needed for her and 15 others to arrive. So she would arrive at midnight. We decided to stay the night in a nearby Marriott, a quite plush and comfortable nearby Marriott.
The next morning, Ted immediately sets to work arranging for two vans from Hertz; not a simple task as it turns out: the phone call required about 50 min and the car pick-up another 50 minutes. So after two hours we load up two minivans. My van has a sliding door that won’t open but Hertzians confidently say ‘neve- mind-no-problem’ and we take off planning to follow the lead van onto the nearby freeway. Within a few minutes our van’s door alarm began to sound unceasingly… so we turn to go back to Hertz.
Not so fast. There is the central São Paulo freeway ‘system’ to consider; it allegedly is a system, but almost impossible for a stranger to decipher. One MUST use the freeways to get from one sector of downtown to another. Further, one can never just drive round the block without heading one-way toward some distant unknown place or world. When our van begins its beeping-complaining we are in the midst of at least 15 freeway lanes; the actual count changes due to off and on ramps, merging and sets of parallel lanes separated by cement dividers, off and on ramps, with signs with names we find meaningless; it is a traffic limbo.
Worse, if you find yourself on the set of freeways going in the wrong direction, (as we did twice), to get from that wrong way series of lanes to the right way you must invent your own clover leaf under and around all these lanes. We finally did so, and got back to HertzHell. They give us another van after another 30 minutes and we head out again. Frank is driving the lead car guided by Neli- the native Brazilian; but she is almost as confused about the freeways as any American; she grew up in her small town and for many years has lived in California; in our van no one excepting me speaks any Brazilian, and I speak poorly.
We are immediately separated at the first on ramp. In one of those incredible episodes, after wandering around for half an hour we find a gas station to ask directions: There they are, the lead car! Relief and joy, we’re on our way! But I had a nagging premonition, and ask Neli to write down the sequence of towns we are expecting to drive through.The traffic is heavy and the lead car switches constantly from one side of the stream to the other as we follow. The signs are hard to detect or understand. Guess what! We are once more instantly separated. Despite our in our vast collective ignorance, Ted finds what we think is the ‘actual’ freeway, according to Neli’s ’s instructions. So we simply start the drive North dripping with doubt.
We travel private toll roads; they are new, beautiful, with contractual requirements for maintenance: at the end of a couple of decades they will revert to the State and begin the inevitable process of rising tolls inefficiency and decay. Every half hour or so there is another toll booth, usually about US$ 5 or 6. Every hour or so we pull off the toll road to a gas station to ask the way; happily, as time goes on we start to see the names of places we expect; it becomes clear we were on the right route. At first the very attentive and friendly gas station attendants we ask don’t even recognize our destination, but in time they re the name, and we began to see highway signs that confirm it. Celebration time again. Right?
Wrong. At the next to the last toll Candy, wants to pay the toll and finds she has left her purse in the women’s banhiero, at the last gas-direction station. It contains ALL her documents, credit cards, and money. She is frantic. We turn around, paying tolls again as we go back. Ted, our compulsive leader, goes directly to the right gas station. I explain our problem to the cashier , who says no one had been into the locked ladies room since we left; and he is right! Candy breaks down in tears. We resume our northward way again paying a third toll twice. No credit for recent payment!
At last we arrive, a town of about 14,000. I have been here before on an earlier VIM trip and know generally where to meet our contact at a church on a central rise, that can be seen from afar. That church is the very heart of the local Carnaval celebration. We immediately find our contact, call him Dan, an old-timer from earlier missions here.We are Home free, like in the old childhood game, Hide and Seek: Alli Alli Oxen Free! Right?
Wrong. Dan has more news. The lead Hurts-van broke down at a divider strip in the middle of those parallel freeways. After a frantic 15 minutes with high-speed death passing on either side, Neli apparently decided she would rather die crossing to a nearby hotel than from starvation or humiliation or anger. She crossed 5 freeway lanes, a low cement divider, and 3 more lanes to the hotel. She called Hurtz. They send a tow-truck, which required 40 minutes because afternoon traffic was picking up. The driver agreed to take them to within 50 yards of the hotel. He explained that was as near as he could get in his tow rig, because the entrance is blocked… a big convention.
Our colleagues dragged the luggage from their van across the huge parking lot. ( I am very happy my big blue wheeled bag, the one that likes to go to Heathrow, survived.) Our companions told Hurtz to take a Hike, and got a ride in a taxi to the bus terminal nearby. They boarded an elegant Marco Polo Brazil-made bus and finally reached our town at about 1 AM after a long but easy ride, with one change of bus; the way many normal Brazilians travel.
A week later we have complete the task proposed for the newest section of the asilo. That is the topic of the next letter, but here are some photos:
HurtzHell Carved fruit at Bob’s Hamburgers (!)
I’ll email this now because I’m dreadfully afraid of losing it somehow…. Outside it’s still quiet. I want to take some pictures, and my companions are due back in another hour or so. Nothing will really happen with Carnaval til it is dark, and less hot and humid. That’s why it begins at Midnight and ends at dawn. The celebrants are not stupid. Ted has vowed he is not finished with Hertz. I take him at his word.
Letter Two: of a series about Brazil and Chile, Feb 5 to Mar 25, 2015
Note: These letters are a form of Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events. I have changed little excepting the personal names
Monday Feb 16, 2015
This small town in Minas Gerais is 4 hr by car NW of Sao Paulo. I am spending the next ten days with Volunteers in Mission, a Methodist program, working on an asilo–a home for invalids and old people. It has been a long term project, now reaching a state of viability, with increasing support from town people, who at first were quite dubious; they doubted the project could be completed. At first the Methodists worked, while locals, and politicians talked and watched; but now both are more active, as are average people in this rural town of less than 15,000.
This is my second trip to work on the asilo. I was here before in 2008. Methodists, consistent with the views of founder John Wesley, generally value doing over talking; good acts over good words.( Politicians of the world please note.) The VIM leader, Ted, is from silicon valley, compulsive and aggressive. Probably that’s essential there, and as a VIM leader. He constantly speaks of herding cats; there are only six of us this time, three men and four women, all hard working and dependable, rather un-cat like in that regard. There are no slackers, but Ted doesn’t seem to suspect that cats are more easily led than herded. So we quietly do what cats do. Example: After it becomes clear we will finish what we started, the cats began to bypass our herder to repaint a dingy dining/TV area currently in use, and that will still be in use until the project actually opens; a place they spend 90 percent their days. The asilo director approves, and it is done, despite contrary rulings by Ted: ‘that’s enough… stop here’ and so forth. But the cats stray on, even recruiting a local volunteer and some residents of the asilo, who can be herded even less easily than Nortemericanos. And to his credit, our herder, who is wise and experienced, having led many similar missions, is unperturbed. He himself is an extraordinary cat.
Extraordinary is also the perfect word for people who leave their comfortable homes and and pay their own way to a remote part of the world in order to try doing something that might be illusory or idealistic, but takes them to a world that is new and renewing, where there is much to be done. That is just one reason I like to go on VIM trips. My companions are a breed apart, one I admire and enjoy being around. One can, as has been so common over the last century, ridicule missionaries. But that is merely a cheap and easy abuse, directed at those who are’t able to aren’t there to respond..Of course there are self serving frauds among all of us, including religious types, and those called missionaries. But I have traveled the world for more than 80 years one way or another, and my experience with missionaries is nearly universally positive. I may disapprove of religious institutions; I often do. But only very rarely do I disapprove of activist religious individuals. And this kind of VIM mission attracts the best amateur missionaries.
After our work is complete, Carnaval begins. It lasts about four days, shorter and low key by comparison with the cities. It is less crowded than I remember last time, less beer, more friendly; maybe that’s because the country– indeed the world– is more limited than it was then. Everywhere government is unpopular, corrupt, bungling, and worse: powerless. Brazil is no exception. Some things like this annual celebration endure in that hot humid Summer, one reason nothing happens until well after dark.
Here is something i found by the road while looking at coffee plantings. It captures the feel of Carnaval, and samba competitions. My translation, of course, is amateur, but it is roughly accurate. ‘Block’ is akin to barrio, or sector:
We are arriving, rich folk
we are only beautiful people
A toast to life itself
Founded in Alvarada’s garage
With Anisio Perez the theme’s fun
It’s Carnaval not UTI (?)
With peace and love in our hearts
with audacity and joy
And regard for the holy church; to the sound of my drums.
Come my love,Let’s do Aue Aue Aue; At Carnaval and Block Fuze.
I’m watching while a samba school band practices for their competition. Maybe 40 people. A leader starts to conduct from the front, then moves around constantly into the band, urging them with arm gestures, and rhythmic jumping, shouting instructions, arms pumping up and down in rhythm for emphasis, blowing on a police whistle to signal certain changes or rhythms. Toward the rear are 10 or 15 boys; they beat small metal rimmed plates, making metallic sounds. Toward the front are three or four large drums of differing sizes. They sound a heavy, usually steady beat. There are a number of high pitched drums, some tall with middle pitch some small with a higher pitch. All this collection of instruments, and some i miss, put forth complicated patterns of beating; often changes are made in unison. I could not figure it out; will have to go on line for more info!
It is Sabado and I go to the celebration. Two big schools compete, going slowly around the covered block by turns. Afterward are stage shows and professional bands for the rest of the night. The Samba parades are impressive, but I feel sorry for two performers in particular (reportedly women).Their school has chosen Disney theme and they are completely clothed in heavy Mickey Mouse costumes, dancing with great energy ahead of their samba school parade that takes at least 1/2 hour to circle the big old church square. And at the end or their route they are not done. The drummers keep drumming, the people keep dancing and prancing. The two Mouses stand and gyrate for pictures. When I stand between them for my photo they radiate heat through their heavy mouse costumes. It is still quite hot but they continue for another hour. Wow..
At the moment someone, a male voice on loud speaker, is going on about something… roving groups of similarly costumed people come and go. The samba band music seems a bit mindless at first. I’m reminded of a friend, a protestant, who said at a Catholic funeral mass: SOO Repetitive!! Samba drumming can give you that impression. But it is quite complex and precise. Even so, it’s hard for me to guess why people find this collective celebration as significant as anything else in life, like Futebol. Why it is samba so elemental to this culture. Maybe because it is a collective abandon. In a small town it involves everyone; even dogs come and go. Lots of beer for kids, as well as caipirinhas whenever they can grab them (rum and stuff …think, ‘rum and Coke’; the word implies rustic or hick); little kids running and jumping about; a sound stage… no, two.
The VIP section fills with dancers; it’s a central, raised area, where some important folk like to hang out. I think it costs about U$100 to get in but that includes plenty of booze. All around is a milling crowd, mostly young, not all in costume, dancing and talking and drinking. Lots of loud harsh male voices, flocks of teens. It continues til dawn of course.There are only two days when the samba schools compete. The rest are for music, alcohol, prancing and dancing. . It is not a gaudy celebration here, more a family sort of thing; a barrio thing, where people from one area get together, make up some costumes, and dance along together in a sort of neighborhood solidarity that’s been developing for months.
Catholic Mass on Sunday is not particularly crowded. The religion was celebrated the night before, perhaps so people have the right to rest up during the day for the night to come. I can’t understand much at mass– even though in many regards there are similarities with protestant Christian litany. As usual, I can read almost everything, speak passably, though people don’t find my accent easy; but as to understanding average fast speech, and especially teen talk, almost nada. The church is fairly full. I want to take a little bit of video but am shushed immediately by my friends, and properly so I suppose; but one admirable thing about Catholics, it seems to me, is that it is very tolerant of real people’s behavior; much that would not be allowed in organized protestant churches is acceptable, even welcome.
We don’t go to carnaval that night. To finish the asilo work is demanding– and to recover from just one evening takes all the next afternoon, at least for me, just sitting around, napping and eating.
Last evening you may be surprised to know we ate Pizza; like many US imports that are re-exported, it is big in Brazil. The Pizzeria da Roca isn’t pronounced the way one might think; the c is cedula c with a tail, an ‘s’; and the R is like our H. It means small country hut and sounds like ‘Hosa’. It was an interesting place… a couple of local kids went to Italy, studied pizzology, and came back, bought a piece of land about 8 km out of town with nothing commercial around. They created a little park with rustic walkways meandering through the woods, and opened up their restaurant. It is regularly packed on weekends; especially with well off folk here. Perhaps they prefer to congregate in a more remote place. This Sunday night it is packed by 7 PM!
The next day, Monday, or segunda feira, I decide to wash clothes and everyone follows. It’s about time. As I hang out my rags on the clothesline the clouds thicken. A huge black cumulus rises in the East (Which is not E but L here– for Leste; neither is West W… it is O for Oeste. So the compass points are NSLO). Raucous parrots, (maritakas) hide in their hollows as a sudden wind comes up, mourning doves cease crying, and little hoppers flee… to where? And of course all this is my fault for hanging out clothes which brought on the storm. Worse, the wind that comes in ahead of the rain dries my things so I take them in quickly… not so lucky are those who wash and hung out their clothes after I do. Maybe that rain washes off the old-fashioned lye soap better for them.
Nana, has again loaned me her wi -fi connection; she is in her kitchen, on her own computer, copying verses from the bible in HUGE text. It looks like she’s almost finished. I don’t want to abuse her by writing too long, and stop. She loves to talk, is quite alert, and lonely at times. It is afternoon, and the clash of a practicing band and some samba drummers invades Nana’s house and its windows rattle to different resonances. It is muggy and warm. This evening the parades, will return with the drumming corps marching behind or among costumed samba dancers, schools in matching colors and designs, among people just coming and going independently. The celebration will be loosely guarded by … generally black… guards.
We talk of everything and nothing. Once she says: “A mea mae estaba en Cadeira de Roda por seis anos.” (My mother was in a wheelchair for six years) but I didn’t understand. . Roda of is pronounced Hoda. After a time she made clear it means Wheel Chair… I had forgotten that cadiera is chair.. I kept thinking of back or hip as in Spanish cadera. So I broke out my hearing aids to hear the foreign sounds better. She’s somewhat hard of hearing too, so I passed her one. We spoke comfortably each one-eared. Nana had tried some hearing aids before but my COSTCOs seemed much better… so she plans to get a pair. We talked, for hours, almost understanding one another!
The country house where we stay at night is at least an air mile from the cathedral on the hill, the site of Carnaval. Yet sometimes at night our windows rattle with the drum beats. Our rental is quite impressive as decayed luxury: a large one story house with a long veranda, a four car garage, a private well and leach field, large grounds, a pool, a lighted tennis court, and a few square miles of land for cattle grazing. I suspect it is empty most of the year, but all is cleaned up to make it attractive for rental during Carnaval. Tomorrow it will be time for me to go to São Paulo Sao to meet my daughter who is a very skilled barrista and coffee roaster; she speaks four languages–Spanish, French, Portuguese and English– ideal for scoping out coffee growers. She’s in Guatemala now, but I will meet her there tomorrow, and later we go to Chile to meet my wife and family.
My VIM colleagues are back, anxious to go home to bed, and they are not a patient bunch; so, Ciao.!