Sunday, October 21, 2007

BRASIL AS A GIRL

When I was 12, my family moved to Brazil for a year. It took over a day of travel by plane to get there, with stops and transfers in Houston, Miami, Lima and Caracas before we arrived in Rio de Janeiro. We stayed a few days in Rio at the Hotel Gloria on the Ipanema, a grande dame of a hotel that is amazingly still there. (Maggie and Bill Barnett at Hotel Gloria pool, December 1967) According to my childhood diary, we arrived in Rio on 14 December 1967.

(Hotel Gloria pool as it looks now, still the same)

(Hotel Gloria, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil -- the first place I ever drank guaraná)

We went on to Salvador (Bahia) for a day, then arrived in Aracaju where we would live.
(Map of Brasil showing Aracaju.)

Aracaju is the capital of Sergipe, the smallest Brazilian state. It was then a city of around 100,000, located where the River Sergipe emptied into the South Atlantic. The main commerce centered on coffee and sugar, and on weekdays until noon the smell of roasting coffee penetrated every room in the city.

(Wetlands near Aracaju.)

We rented a stucco house that was on the very last paved street near the southwestern edge, bordering on a swamp and then jungle. (It's now an urban neighborhood.) Our address was Rua Construtor Joao Alves #47. Just around the corner was the house of my father's boss, Bill Paetzold, and his much younger Danish trophy wife, Hanne, who became my only friend and my first serious crush.

Our year in Brasil, 1967-1968, was When It All Changed for me. For the first time, my family did not include my older brother, who had been left behind in the States to attend college. My freedom from his tortures utterly changed me. I stopped having asthma that year, and stopped being anorexic. I defied my mother (a first for me) by refusing to continue with the correspondence course she ordered to teach me and my little brother Bill -- there were no English-language grade schools in Aracaju. Instead, I created my own course of study, despite her daily worry and verbal beratement about how I was going to lose a year of school.

I read voraciously, anything I could find in English, including my first murder mysteries and science fiction. I read my way through Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poe, and Dorothy Parker. I also read my way through our Encyclopedia Britannica. I studied geology and physics, I devoured history, and I began writing sonnets.

When we returned to the States, in the middle of what should have been my eighth grade year, I was at first told by the rural school I entered that I'd have to repeat a grade. My mother, however, switched over from being my detractor to being my ally and demanded I be tested first. In every subject, I placed at least sophomore level college -- in literature and history, I tested far above that. The school immediately offered to place me at least two grades ahead, but Mama refused. She herself had been moved ahead two grades in school and suffered socially. I remain grateful she advocated for me in this regard; I'd have been destroyed by peer pressure otherwise.

I was utterly happy in Brazil. I liked the tropics, I was healthy for the first time since toddlerhood, my brain was growing by leaps and bounds, and we had enough money. I was suddenly relieved of the responsibility of caring for my mother and little brother. This responsibility would return even more intensely when we came back to the States, but I didn't know that yet.

(Entry from Maggie's diary while she lived in Brazil, from 31 March 1968.)

It was an enormously political time, and I began acquiring a radical outlook that year, very much assisted by Hanne but also what was in the air. I first started thinking of myself as a woman, and as a lesbian, that year (something I still kept secret). I also kept secret my growing pacifism and anti-war stance. Moving from a small town in Texas where we had been seriously poor to a country where we were now able to save money and where poverty took on another whole dimension gave me my first shoves into class consciousness, and a new outlook on racism. And the ability to see how women and girls from another culture were oppressed (as they very much were in Brasil) enabled me to understand, thanks to Hanne's insistence I drop my ethnocentrism, that we were just as oppressed in the U.S., although it was expressed in different ways.

I began listening to rock music, another change my mother didn't appreciate. It was a great year for rock and folk, and I acquired whatever American albums I could find there. But I also became a fan of the Brazilian rock idol Roberto Carlos, whose blockbuster movie Ritmo en Aventura hit the screen in November 1967.
(Roberto Carlos in Ritmo en Aventura, 1967)

Hanne took me to see it several times, in non-air-conditioned funky theaters full of shrieking fans. I still have that album, and I often break into one of the songs from it, especially "Quando" --
Quando você se separou de mim
Quase que a minha vida teve fim
Sofri, chorei, tanto que nem sei
Tudo o que chorei por você, por você


or my favorite, "E Por Isso Estou Aqui":
Olha dentro dos meus olhos
Vê quanta tristeza de chorar por ti, por ti
Olha eu já não podia mais viver sozinho
E por isso eu estou aqui

De saudade eu chorei e até pensei que ia morrer
Juro que eu não sabia
Que viver sem ti
Eu não poderia

Olha quero te dizer todo aquele pranto
Que chorei por ti, por ti
Tinha uma saudade imensa de alguém que pensa
E morre por ti


To hear clips from these songs, go to the Roberto Carlos official website and click on the song link. To see a five-minute compilation from the movie, including the speed-racer chase up to Corcovado while Roberto belts out "Eu Sou Terrível" or the harpsichord-backed version of Roberto singing "E Por Isso Estou Aqui", go to the filmography page here and click on the movie camera icon.

Tapwater was not potable for us in Brazil -- I got dysentery twice from drinking local water, the second time becoming dangerously ill -- so all our water had to be boiled and stored, because bottled water was not available then. To give me and Bill something else to drink (we couldn't have milk, either, and the bottled fruit juices contained local water), Mama allowed us to have a soft drink called Guaraná, a lovely golden concoction on which we developed an almost immediate dependence. We'd get jittery and headachy if we didn't have several a day.
(Guaraná cola)

Mama was bothered by our consumption, but still considered it a better choice than Coke, which she felt was not appropriate for children because of caffeine. According to Wikipedia, "A 2007 human pilot study assessed acute behavioral effects to four doses (37.5 mg, 75 mg, 150 mg and 300 mg) of guaraná extract. Memory, alertness and mood were increased by the two lower doses, confirming previous results of cognitive improvement following 75 mg guaraná." It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I discovered the main ingredient in this mate-like drink is the equivalent of 2.5 times the caffeine of a Coca-Cola. Yeah, baby.

We all became avid eaters of acarajé, which was sold by street vendors as well as in local restaurants. These bean fritters originated in Western Africa, but with the slave trade they spread to the Caribbean and into South America and Brazil. Crispy on the outside and creamy in the middle, they are variously known as akra, acra, accra, acrat and acarajé. In my book Ginny Bates, the main character Myra makes acarajé for her friends and family, and I'm including her recipe below.
(Brasilian woman making acarajé.)

I've written a great deal about Brazil, since it launched me into womanhood. One poem I've already posted, "Brazil As A Girl". Other poems follow, as well as a section of narrative memoir. Since I have only the one photograph of me from that entire year, and it's a fuzzy Polaroid, my word descriptions will have to stand in for images of me.

(Acarajé.)

ACARAJÉ (MYRA'S HOT BLACK BEAN FRITTERS)
This is a dish of fried bean cakes with a sauce or other ingredients folded into them that is sold by street vendors in Brazil and which Myra remembers vividly from her childhood. She's recreated the recipe, only she prefers to use black beans instead of the traditional black-eyed peas.
INGREDIENTS FOR FRITTERS:
2 cups of black beans, soaked overnight
2 cloves of garlic
1.5 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1-2 cups of canola or peanut oil for deep frying
3 tablespoons dendé or palm oil added to frying oil (cannot be used for other cooking because of strong flavor)
PREPARATION OF FRITTERS:
Rub the peel off the beans, either between your palms in a bowl of water or against a dishtowel. Combine all the ingredients except the oils in a blender or food processor and blend until you get a dough. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Stir the mixture often to re-incorporate watery seepage.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees F. Deep-fry spoonfuls of dough for 8 minutes or until crispy. Drain on brown paper.
Split the acarajé and let people fill them with their preferred fillings.
INGREDIENTS FOR PIMENTA CAMARÃO (HOT SHRIMP SAUCE):
1/2 cup sundried shrimp
3/4 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon freshly peeled ginger
1/2 teaspoon pepperoncino
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
PREPARATION OF PIMENTA CAMARÃO:
(Makes about 1-1/4 cups) Soak the shrimp in cold water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain and puree in a food processor with onion, ginger and pepperoncino. Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the hot shrimp sauce for about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a bowl and serve with acarajé.
INGREDIENTS FOR VATAPÁ SAUCE:
1/2 cup sundried shrimp
1/2 cup fresh peanuts
1/2 cup fresh cashews
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
PREPARATION OF VATAPÁ SAUCE:
(Makes about 1-3/4 cups paste) Soak the shrimp in cold water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain and puree in a food processor with the nuts and coconut milk. Heat the oil in a skillet and sauté the vatapá for about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a bowl and serve with acarajé.
OTHER FILLINGS: Diced tomato.


(Sapo gigante -- the Brazilian version we saw was much larger than this)

SAPO GIGANTE

When I was 12, my family went to Brazil for a year. We lived in a small riverport named Aracaju, in a house on a block-long street that was at the very edge of the settled area. Behind our back yard was a swamp, and beyond that was jungle. My brother Bill (age 8) and I were under dire threat to never set foot off our street, and we obeyed. My mother was not someone to trifle with when it came to limits. At least, the ones she had already articulated.

During the middle of the day, it was hot beyond description. We had no air conditioning -- nobody we knew did -- so my mother would lie down after lunch in her bedroom with a fan blowing. I would sprawl on the living couch, listening to rock albums that my mother hated (volume turned very low) and reading poets that I later found out were lesbian and gay. If I had real privacy, I would fantasize about the convent one block away. Bill would play with his Hot Wheels and plastic army men on our tiled patio, waiting for the other kids on the block to get up from their naps and be available again. I mean, everybody went dormant in the middle of the day -- the stores shut down, the buses stopped running during the middle of the day. Only an idiot would venture out into that kind of heat.

One day, Bill ran into the house and told me breathlessly "There's something weird next door, come on". I followed him languidly. The house next door, at the very end of the block, had been empty for a couple of months. The gate was locked but Bill scaled the metal fence and so did I. Once in the small front area, I could hear what he was talking about. There was an intermittent boomy, resonant kind of sound coming from the front porch, which was enclosed by stucco, tiled and gated. We crept close and listened. It was a completely foreign sound, and it echoed off the tiles.

I was the oldest, and it was my job to not be a coward. So, I found a ledge to use as footing and shimmied up the stucco to look, cautiously, over the porch wall into the tiled area. As soon as I did, I about crapped myself. Backed into the corner, looking up at me, was the biggest bullfrog I had ever seen. Think cocker spaniel -- no, think bulldog. I'm not exaggerating. It had a browny, wart-covered skin, and as I stared in horror, it billowed out its throat and that sound came from it.

I dropped back down to the ground, light in the head. Bill was saying "What, what is it?"

"Bullfrog" I said. "Nuh-uh" he responded.

"Swear" I replied. "C'mon, I'll give you a boost, look for yourself."

He gave a little scream, which he later denied, and tumbled back down next to me.

"Can we keep it?" he said.

"No way" I said, "They'll never let us have anything that cool. Remember how Mama freaked out about the giant spiders?"

Before we left for Brazil, Mama had "redd up" as we called it, and discovered in the jungles there were giant spiders big enough to eat mice, birds and frogs instead of insects. Spiders big around as a dinner plate. Mama had gone pale and sweaty, and told us we were never, ever to approach any spiders of any size in Brazil. Then she had wheeled on my father and begun yelling about the time I was a baby in Calcutta and came within inches of putting my little hand on a cobra behind the living room drapes.

So, Brazilian pets were a no-go, I was pretty certain. Bill didn't want to give up, however. He pleaded "She's asleep, all the way in the back, she won't know for a while!" We looked at each other for a long moment and, well, until he died we fought over whose idea it was. But one of us whispered "We could take it home and set it loose in her bedroom while she's sleeping" and the other said "Yeah!"

There was only one door out of her bedroom, and her bed was all the way on the far side of the room from the door.

At this point, I want to remind everybody that we had no idea on earth at this time that my mother had a serious heart condition.

The next question was, how to catch it? After we both shoved "Not me" back and forth at each other a few times, older and more brilliant minds came up with a solution. All of our household belongings had been shipped to Brazil via freighter, packed into wooden crates. These were all still stored in our garage, for the time we'd need them again. We skedaddled to the garage and found a book crate, about 2 feet high by 3 feet in the other two dimensions, made of pine with a stout wooden lid. We hauled this next door and sat down in the shade to do some strategerizin', as W would say.

Touching the behemoth was out of the question. (As it turns out, they can be toxic, but for us it was just the ick factor.) Finally we decided to drop the crate open-side up on top of the toad from over the porch wall, then slide the lid underneath it, turn the crate back over and wah-lah.

I had the job of doing the drop, because as skinny as I was, I still out-muscled Bill. I perched myself on the edge of the porch wall, and that thing looked at me with deep suspicion. I momentarily wondered how in the world it had gotten onto the porch in the first place -- could it jump that high? Not a good question to allow into your thoughts at that particular moment. Where it had come from was clear enough -- the swamp next door.

I took the crate from Bill and dropped it swiftly on the toad. There was a double crash, the first of the wood hitting the tile floor and the second of the toad slamming itself against the upper side of the box. The second crash was much louder. I screamed at Bill to help and slid my legs over the side to stand on the crate. I could feel the percussion against the bottoms of my sneakers as that thing jumped over and over again. When it finally stopped, I was soaked in sweat. Bill had not gotten onto the porch with me, but was sitting on the side, staring at me with huge eyes.

"Get the lid" I commanded. Once we had it, however, logistics again became a palsy-inducing issue. Somebody had to hold the crate down firmly enough to keep Swampthing from pushing its way out but still allowing the lid to slide under. Logically, since I was stronger, I should be the one providing the muscle, and Bill was all for being the lid-slider. But -- if I stopped standing on the crate, would I really be strong enough to hold it down? The toad had become supernatural now in my mind. Clearly it was pissed off, and clearly it knew I was the one who had imprisoned it.

Finally we just did it, and it worked. The toad didn't slam around any more, not during this procedure or when we slowly inverted the crate and got it upright, lid still on it. We sat down on it, weak with relief, and took a rest.

I actually don't remember getting it over the porch wall and the outer wall. Perhaps we tied it up with rope, although the rope was gone a few minutes later, as you'll learn. At any rate, we got it into our house and at the end of the long hall that led to Mama's bedroom.

And that's when the giggles hit us. We were imagining her reaction when she woke up from a torpid, tropical slumber to that creature in her room. It was the most deliciously wicked thing either of us had ever done, and we couldn't stop our hysterics. We sat on the lid and covering our mouths brutally with both hands, but we kept setting each other off, and every now and then the toad would slam up against the lid, thumping our asses, and that would make me almost pass out from combined terror and delight.

We were in such a frenzy that we failed to hear Daddy's Jeep pull up out front. He worked in the jungle all day with a seismic crew and usually didn't get home until dinner time, at dark. For some reason, he got off very early that day. Mama always jumped into the story at this point and said it was god's will. At any rate, suddenly there was a large shadow standing between us and the front rooms, and Daddy saying "What're you two kids doing?"

Bill definitely led the way at this point. Without a moment's hesitation, he bolted for his bedroom down the hall -- there was no door to the outside from where we were, Daddy was blocking it, but Bill's bedroom window had a screen out, not yet repaired. Bill did a neat hurdle over the sill and vanished down the outdoor corridor to the front of the house. I was right behind him. He went in one direction -- to Obano's house, to cry sanctuary there -- and I went to Hanne's. Hanne's much older husband worked with my father, and she found my story so entertaining I had to tell it six times when I got there.

Since we were absent the premises, at this point Mama and Daddy would pick up the telling of this family legend. Daddy watched us flee headlong down the hall, make a left into Bill's room, then heard our footsteps thundering to the front. Completely unconcerned, he walked over to the crate and lifted the lid.

Mama would jump in now, saying "I was sound asleep when I heard a girl screaming in the hall, one long scream after another. I knew it wasn't Margaret (that's me) but I couldn't figure out how it was. I staggered to the door and opened it to see Harold sitting on a crate, white as a ghost. It was him screaming."

Daddy would then say "I pitched my voice high to disorient the toad."

They would never tell us what they did with it. We shambled nervously back at dinnertime, where we found our parents eating and no places set for us. Mama refused to talk to us or acknowledge our presence for two days. Daddy caved and got us food from the pots in the kitchen, but we had to eat in our rooms. He joined us and got the story from us, and he laughed so hard he almost choked. Three days later, Mama finally saw the humor in it, too.

Yet it wasn't until Bill and I brought home the fer-de-lance in a mayonnaise jar that Mama laid down an absolute law about no contact with Brazilian wildlife of any sort. Fer-de-lances are small and beautiful, a jewel of a snake. Their venom kills adults in less than a minute. There was no known antivenin. But that's another story.


BAHIA 1967


The airport in Bahia had open windows
Beyond the tarmac were unfamiliar trees
The children kept asking if we might
see monkeys, kept asking for something else
to drink, why can't we eat the ice

The plane was there, we could see it
but men had pulled apart one engine
Pieces of metal flashed in the sun

I spoke not a single word of Portugese
I kept opening my phrasebook, trying
to memorize anything useful but if I
did not keep my eyes on the children
every single second one of them walked away
into the crowd that contained crates of chickens
and dogs on ropes, were they really going to
let those dogs on the plane?

The loudspeaker had a short
but I couldn't have made out
a word in any case

Ourr boarding passes were
kelly green plastic squares, I kept track of
the people nearby who had the same color passes
If they got up to talk to an agent, or stand at
the window, I did too, hissing at the children
to grab their bags, come on, this might be it

What kind of mother would drag her children
onto a plane that obviously needed major repairs
At least if it went down, we would all be
together. I had no idea if the jungle here
had monkeys, or snakes, or giant black scorpions

The phrasebook said Thank you was Obrigada
which seemed to mean I'm much obliged

When my son tried to wander off one more time
I was going to declare out loud if he got lost
I planned to just leave him behind. His pale
face would go bloodless but nobody here would
understand what I had said


© Maggie Jochild, 27 April 2006, 5:41 a.m.


BAKER’S DOZEN


She was twelve. In another month, when she
hoped the drenching afternoon rain would stop
soaking pocks of stucco from the outer
courtyard walls of her family’s renthouse
here in this riverine, coastal city
As all Brazilian cities are coastal
or riverine -- she hoped her birthday would be
sunny again as she became a
teenager. This age right now, still one thing
but almost another, reminded her
of the thick french rolls, fist-sized, her mother
bought at the padaria each morning
before the rest were awake. They came in
a baker's dozen, usually but
not always thirteen for the price of twelve.
Her mother carried them home wrapped in brown
paper and string, laid them in the center
of the long rosewood table – still warm, crusts
chewy in a way adults preferred, to
be spilled out with a small dusting of flour
by whoever got up next, arriving
torpid, barefoot down the long gleaming hall
to that central room with rain-streaked windows
into the smell of simmering cocoa
Made with powdered milk, of course – “Trichinosis”
her mother told them as if they knew what
that was – but real chocolate, shaved from bricks
dark and bitter, cocoa so strong that when
she dipped torn rolls into it, she could not
say whether she was softening the crust
or mellowing the pungent chocolate.
Yeast and cacao, her breakfast all that year
leading into womanhood.

She lived free that year, had bought her freedom
by betraying her mother, speaking up
against all custom when her father came
home with one more overseas job offer
Siding with him against her mother’s need
to stay small-town, her ravenous hunger
for adult backup. She wanted to move
because it would mean enough money for
store-bought dresses, armor against the shivs
of junior high, but even more because
it would get her thoroughly away from
her just-graduated eldest brother,
the football player who hunted her
with tortures both casual and secret.
Another continent was enough room
to unlatch her cage, let her imagine
desire without invasion or disgust.

After breakfast, she sat in the front room
where equatorial sun slanted in
brightest through lacquered lattices to read
every last thing she could scrounge from the one
biblioteca that sold English print.
That year she discovered Millay, Richard
Halliburton and Mazo de la Roche.
She read her first Auden, and listened to
Aretha Franklin records, lying back
with closed eyes and face, daydreaming about
the convent just a block from their front door.

A block away was the plaza, and one
whole side was the convent, with walls high to
block most thievery or observation.
The cloister itself stood taller than its
walls, so the upper rooms were exposed if
shutters were left open. These were narrow
sleeping cells: unpainted plaster walls, no
closet, presumably an iron cot
beneath the single wooden crucifix.
The sisters wore grey with white wimples. They
worked all day, laundering, gardening, feeding
the poor, scrubbing an already spotless
entryway. She was in love with every
single one of them. Her dreams centered on
somehow coming to live with them – perhaps
her family is suddenly killed in
a disaster that leaves her intact save
for her memory, and no one knows she
is American. She is given to
the nuns to raise. She sleeps in one of the
cells. She is tucked in at night by one young
sister – and here is the launch pier, from here
she is no longer twelve almost thirteen.

Every other day she walked with her
family to the combi stop beside
the convent, where they could catch a ride to
downtown. If no van was in sight, her mom
allowed them to buy acarajé from
the old woman whose stall claimed that corner.
She fried it as they waited, black beans torched
with spices even her mother could not
name, a crisp cake that made her eyes run, her
throat burn for hours, poured into paper
twists that soaked up the grease. They sat on an
stone ledge opposite the convent to eat
taking small bites, and she could look into
those upper rooms to near satisfaction.

Every now and then, a sister slid
grey and furtive from the side gate to hand
over coins to buy not acarajé
but a pink-and-white striped bag bulging with
peeled chunks of sugar cane. Forbidden treat,
açucar at its most elemental.
Something to suck on during evenings
of prayer. When she imagined those closed
lips and the cane hidden behind them, tongues
teasing out the dark raw juice, she would grow
dizzy and cast a quick glance to see if
her mother was watching her.

But her mother would be loudly counting
their combi fares, engaged in her hopeless
Yanqí struggle to pass on her oldest
bills to the urchin throwaways who clung
to each combi, leaving seats for paying
riders, boys in sandals and rags whose smell
was beyond belief, boys who leered at her –
Despite their starved frames, they were likely her
age, maybe older – but she was having
none of them. Not ever. This much, she knew
already.

© Maggie Jochild, 25 November 2002, 6 p.m.


ARACAJU YARDS


Waking up in heat already torpid to
the familiar sound of new concrete being
troweled down onto old
Then the measured shatter of glass as
bottles are broken by judicious
hammer into lacerating spikes
to be stuck like candles into the concrete
frosting atop each wall. Today

It's the neighbor's house next door. These
cut-rate defenses are renewed
every so often, as the desperate find
ways over and through. Crews
with carts come down our street, offering. You

Pay them a small sum, and must
stand out there, to be sure
they don't leave a loose-toothed weakness
where their friends will know to come
later, when you are in town. Once
I learned how we pay the poor
to please, please leave us alone

I can see the makeshift razorwire
anywhere I look


© Maggie Jochild, 1 December 2004, 1:45 p.m.

(Praia de Atalaia, on the South Atlantic just outside Aracaju.)

TURNING YEAR IN BRAZIL


The only ice cream they would let me get was grey sorbet
made from prunes. I chose guaraná instead, a golden
maté drink jiggered full of caffeine. It was so hot.
Hot all the time. Hot at three in the morning.

Mama let me choose fabric for shorts, any print
from bolts of loose cheap weave in hot oil colors.
When the first pair came off the Singer, she
blew a smoke ring and, peering through it, said
I looked like a two-bit chippie. But my legs
were bare, and I loved the orange/lime/magenta.

The Danish woman around the corner who married
my daddy's buffoon of a crew chief, she told me
Americans did not invent freedom, we were not
the best country in the world, we held onto slavery
long after Europe saw the light. She painted
my nails to match my shorts and one day as we
sat on dunes overlooking the South Atlantic
squinting at my family shrieking in the surf,

She told me I would grow up and leave them.
Find my own way of living, love someone else
more than them --- much more than them.
With a click, the light shifted and faces
I knew best became photographs I would hang
on walls I didn't have yet but could imagine


© Maggie Jochild, 6 June, 3:30 a.m.


STONEWALL


They have persuaded the men, who spend all day
in the jungle working, to use a Saturday in driving
the perilous roads to Itabaia. There is a cathedral
the women want to see. Her mother packs a lunch
of potted meat sandwiches, fruit and iced beer for
the adults, Guarana for the kids. With them are her
father's young boss and his Danish wife plus their
two-year-old. Her father is furious that his boss is
so much younger, and so they are all on best behavior.

But she did not care. She was in love. With Hanne,
her father's boss's wife. Hanne is lonely, and the other
crew wives do not like her. So in the afternoons,
while the rest of Brazil naps, she goes to Hanne's house
where they play chess and talk. Hanne has reel-to-reel
tapes of music from every continent, and comedy by
Peter Sellers. She does not think America is the best
country in the world. She treats the thirteen-year-old
like a friend. It is enough to make anyone fall in love.

The cathedral is crumbling, and none of them are
Catholic, anyhow. She'd rather be in the car, pressed
against Hanne, helping hold her daughter. They of
course get lost for a time, none of the gravel (at best)
roads are marked, and suddenly there are monkeys in
all the trees around the Land Rover, hooting and leaping.
They stop at a salt factory for directions. Paddies of sea
water have been canalled in and sealed off, to evaporate.
In tin warehouses are mountains of salt. The children
are allowed to slide down the briny slopes as if they
were snow. She does not want to be one of the children,
but she cannot resist. She is sorry minutes later, as the salt
works its way into unknown cuts and leaves her skin agasp
for air. There is not enough water to wash them all off.

They had planned to stop at a beach, but on the way,
they pass an unexpected colonial house turned
into a wayside, complete with pool. There are tables
with umbrellas, and cold drinks. The adults are easy
to persuade. She is ashamed that she does not yet know
how to swim, but Hanne laughs gaily and says she will
join her in the pool. They change in separate stalls.

The pool is deep green, fed at the bottom by springs.
Hanne's swimsuit is iridescent blue, her hair red gold.
She has the careless affection of Europeans; she is allowed
to hold onto Hanne rather than the side of the pool.
They talk softly, as if they are sprawled alone on the floor
of Hanne's house with only a chessboard between them.
She knows she will never forget this instant, these
colors, the cast of light, and her sudden awareness that
every man around the pool, including her father, wants
what she has in her arms right now. She is also aware
of her mother's jealousy. She is exultant. She means to
have a life soaked through with this difference, the kind
of intimacy she does not see in the lives of any adult she knows.

Last month at the beach, Hanne turned to her as they sat
on the dunes, watching their families in the surf, and said,
serious, "You will leave them, you know. You will leave
your family. You will have your own life, your own
place, your own way of living. They will not be at the
center of your days any more." It was the most important
thing anyone ever said to her, El in the burning bush.

Two weeks later, they had retrieved several weeks’ worth
of out-of-date Time Magazines at the only English bookstore
here in this industrial city. Because there were so many, her
mother had been persuaded to let her have half, instead of
claiming them all first. She sat solitary in the front room,
hungrily turning the pages for news of home. And there it
was, a small article, about a police raid on a bar, in a small
town apparently named Greenwich Village. Except the people
in the bar fought back. The article was derisive; but that
word was there in print, the first time she'd ever seen it.
She instantly hid the magazine under her shirt. Feigning a
trip to the bathroom, she got to her room and transferred it
under her mattress. After everyone was asleep that night,
she pulled out the flashlight she'd stolen from her father
and read the article over and over. She had a people. She
had a place to go. There were others like her.

A year into their two-year hitch, her father's company decided
to send him to Singapore instead. Just like that. Hanne gave
them a farewell dinner. They'd never see each other again.
She did not know how to bear it. She focused on the goodbye,
the chance to pull Hanne aside and tell her how she felt. But
the adults never left them alone. Finally, she had to kiss Hanne
on the cheek, sobbing, and say "I love you" on the tarmac at
the airport. Hanne hugged her, said "I love you too." But not
the way she had imagined it. They had to help her --actually,
haul her up the stairs to the plane.

She could not stop crying. Her mother yelled at her with
open scorn, but even that didn't stop her. There were
transfers and stopovers -- plane travel was still the
leapfrogging across maps seen in old newsreels --
By the time they reach the states, she is ill
and desperate. This is no homecoming for her.
It is midwinter in North Texas, blue norther. Since
they've been gone, Dr. King has been assassinated,
and Bobby Kennedy. There is a new TV show that
everybody but them thinks is hysterical, called Laugh-In.
No monkeys, no beaches, only stretches of trim dead lawns;
all the streets are smooth and clean. At least she can drink
milk now, right from the bottle. And there are cherries,
the one fruit she missed. But she hates her family,
hates America, hates the cold, and they are one
and the same.

Her grandmother is visibly older. Her mother says she
should stay with her a few months, follow her father at
the start of summer. She enrolls them in the hick school
where she once was valedictorian. This is the final blow.
Her father leaves after repacking, trying to conceal his
arm-swinging room now that he is unencumbered by
family. It is her mother who drives her to the junior-senior
high, walks her in like a warden transferring a prisoner.
Everyone is friendly, because she has her mother's
passport, five generations of family lived here before
she was born. She hates them all, too. She refuses to
speak unless called on. She is miles ahead of the grade
she is placed in. She goes to the library at lunch, pulls
out an atlas and looks at the map of Brazil, then traces
a line from Texas to Greenwich Village.

At the end of the first day, she is in the hall picking out
a locker. A sophomore walks up, stands arms-crossed
in front of her. This girl has hazel hair cut like a boy's,
hazel eyes half-closed. She is wearing a dress straight
as a trenchcoat and flat hushpuppies, no stockings.
After silence long enough to knock at her chest,
this girl offers her a ride home. In the way of
rural children, at 15 she is already driving. She tells
this girl her mother is coming to pick her up.
The girl rolls her eyes, turns away. She says to her back,
"But, you can bring me in the morning." The girl holds
onto her elder status by managing to not smile, and nods
okay. So it begins.


© Maggie Jochild, 27 November 2002, 4:20 a.m.

(Maggie as freshman class president in 1969, year after returning from Brazil; also shown are Clay Lawson and Dale Mills. Dale was Maggie's best friend in high school, a distant cousin and eventually out gay male whose mother Margie had been Maggie's mother's best friend throughout school, and whose grandfather Tobe had been Maggie's grandfather Bill's best friend all their lives. Dale and Clay were secretly lovers at the time of this photo.)

8 comments:

little gator said...

Sorry I haven't had time to comment=your posts have been unusually good and chewy.

anyway, I tried to find your old place on Google Maps and failed. Couldn't even locate the street. Googling showed there is now a hospital somewhere on that street, but that's all I could figure out since I'm unilingual.

Can you describe the location in more detail?

kat said...

can I ask a dumb question?
re. the "don't drink the water or the milk," presumably people who grew up in that area did, right?
Is there an immunity that they developed?

little gator said...

I found it!

My keyboard doesn't do non-English characters or accent marks.

The key was finding the exact abbreviations googlemaps uses.
Plus I looked up the hospital again and figured out that the listing on that street was an orthodontist in Sao Jose, which appears to be a neighborhood of Aracaju.

so a serach for Sao Jose showed "R. Const. Joao Alves: and there it was.
#47 is a terra cotta colored roof in a sea of the same. They're so close togother there's nothign visible between them except the roads.

shadocat said...

What a post! I want to move to Brazil now, and drink that cola all day!

Maggie, I had to laugh when I saw that diary (with the little 19's on each daily entry---awww).It looks like the diary I had at age 13, with similar entries. I'm reminded a an incident in my family around that same time. My brother's friend Mark had stolen his sister's diary and had made it's content known throughout the neighborhood. MY diary was missing, and I accused him of doing the same.

"I would NEVER steal your diary!"shouted my brother

"Oh yeah? And why not?," I countered.

He got up in my face and yelled, "Because you write such BORING stuff in it!"

I guess he was looking for something a little more titillating that politics and current events...

Maggie Jochild said...

little gator, I did once find our neighborhood on a Google map and saved it but now cannot find that image. It was NOT where Google said 47 Rua de Construtor João Alves was, which means either my memory is wrong or, more likely in this case, that the street (which was only a block long then) has been renumbered. At that point, it was a brand new subdivision on the edge of the inhabited area, and the name simply meant that the street had been built by developer João Alves.

The street on the west connecting to our block dead-ended at our street. The street on the east ran another block south, so there was another block-long street behind us, a sort of cul-de-sac. Beyond that were no houses or streets. Our "back yard" was tiny, enclosed by high stucco walls, and much of the space was taken up with maids' quarters and a laundry room. This subdivision had these hovels of rooms at the back or every house for maids, making it very upscale. Maids could be hired for the equivalent of $20 per month.

We did use the laundry room, which was a concrete tub with a rub board and a wringer. Modern washing machines were very hard to come by, and after a few tries at sending out our laundry to be done by the wagon vendors who patrolled the city constantly, offering every service under the sun, Mama gave up because they either failed to return all the clothes or items came back ripped, buttons missing, etc. Mama would go back there one day a week (with my complaining help) and do all our laundry by hand, hanging it up to dry during the spell between morning and evening showers.

After we'd been there a couple of months, Mama got hepatitis, not dire enough to go into a hospital (hospitals were to be avoided if at all possible because they were filthy places -- you went to the local farmacia for diagnosis and treatment) but enough to make her need to rest for months. Daddy wooed away the extremely popular cook from his work crew, Suliadora, by promising her she could sleep at home every night and offering her $75 a month in wages, almost twice what she had been earning.

Suliadora was brilliant, bold, and was the "second wife" of Daddy's crew chief, Joaquim. A common practice there -- men had a legal wife, and then second families usually in the poorer part of town. Suliadora had two children with Joaquim, a girl my age who had dropped out of school to take care of the baby brother. Going home every night meant an enormous difference to these children's lives, so although Joaquim was furious at losing weeknight access at camp to Suliadora, she jumped at the chance.

She was an extraordinary cook, and did all our marketing for us after that as well. Mama refused to ask her to do cleaning or laundry, but Suliadora found us a "laundress" named Rosetty who came to our house and did this twice a week while Mama was ill.

Mama and Suliadora became very close and spent hours each day sitting at the table talking. After a couple of months, Mama upped her salary to $125 a month, an unheard-of sum. It meant the older girl could return to school, which was the point. And it pissed Daddy off royally, because our income at that point with the flush money of overseas contracts was $800 a month, and he thought paying a servant one-sixth of our income was way too much.

I can remember the end of each month, when Daddy would bring home Suliadora's pay. Everything was handled in cash, no checks or credit cards there. And the currency was so devalued that the monetary unit, a cruzeiro, was not even worth a penny. One hundred cruzeiro bills were the smallest you usually ever saw; this were worth about 30 cents, and were called "contos".

To get around in the city, we'd catch rides on combis, which were battered old Volkswagen buses with as many passengers (plus luggage, chickens, goats, etc.) crammed in as they could hold. It cost an adult one conto to ride a combi, children half that. The driver would barely slow down -- the side door would be slid open and you had to just dive in. Hanging on to the outside would be a street urchin, an orphan boy, who helped shove you in, shut the door, and collect the fair. Combi boys, they were called.

One interesting aspect of life there was that Brasil did not have a system for rotating out its old currency. Here, banks remove battered bills from the market and are reimbursed by the government for whatever is destroyed, but not there. So people would tape up their money and keep using it until it was just filmy fragments held together by tape. The combi boys were especially determined to get rid of the "old money" by giving it to passengers in change, and Mama was fanatical about trying to make sure she was not exploited this way.

Anyhow, even with some 1000 cruzeiro notes (worth about $3), but mostly in contos, the pay for Suliadora was a multitude of stacks of bills, bundled together with rubber bands. It filled a shopping bag, and would sit on the middle of the table until dinner time, when Suliadora would have a chance to hide it somewhere on her person. Daddy would give her a ride home in the Rover on those nights, so she didn't get robbed.

Even after Mama recovered, Suliadora stayed with us. When Daddy wasn't home, she'd entertain us by imitating how he walked and talked -- she was a gifted mimic, and would have us in screaming stitches. Mama tried to maintain correspondence with Suliadora after we came back to the States, but since Suliadora couldn't read or write, it didn't work very long.

Those red slate roofs developed leaks constantly. I mean, it rained every day, and for a couple of months a year, it rained almost nonstop, the monsoon season. Some of the ubiquitous wagon vendors would be hired to replace tiles, fix the leaks as they appeared, or patch the chunks of stucco that fell out of walls because of the non-stop wet.

Our house was different from almost any other that I saw there because it had screens on all the windows, and this was a big part of the reason why my parents rented it. As a result, we didn't have to sleep under mosquito netting like everyone else did -- a torment in hot weather. Also, every room in the house had its resident geckos, who lived off whatever mosquitoes did get inside, plus other tropical insect life, which was voluminous. I was quite attached to the geckos in my room.

Yes, Kat, people in other countries do have an immunity to the intestinal bugs that afflict us here, although I don't think it's absolute. The second time I got dysentery (from swallowing water in the shower), I had a raging fever and went into delirium. Mama was frantic -- the stuff prescribed by the farmacia wasn't working. Suliadora went out to the market, bought some kind of fruit with a pebbly rind, brought it home and scraped off the rind. She scorched this in a skillet, then made a tea from it and they forced me to drink it. It was absolutely vile, but within an hour my fever broke and the runs stopped. So I'm thinking if there was a folk remedy for dysentery, it must affect the folk sometimes as well, claro?

Not drinking the milk was because it wasn't pasteurized, a different risk of disease. No cheese, either. But the bread, fish and fruit were out of this world delicious. I developed a taste for tapioca products there as well, which they called manioc.

Back to the neighborhood for a minute -- I did eventually find our street on a Google map by tracking down the convent and cathedral next to the park. This was one or two blocks due north of us, the park parallel to our block and across the street to the west was another block filled with cathedral and convent. Next to the park was a large boulevard leading into downtown. The block between ours and the park, on the map I found, is now filled with apartment buildings -- the house where Hanne lived is gone. But it looked like our house was still standing. Those houses were long and narrow, with shared walls and only a covered walkway at the side leading from the front to the back.

Shado, I too was completely aware that my older brother would read my diary. It had a strap with a lock on it, but I right away cut the strap neatly in two -- giving up on any hope of privacy. (Chilling, that act.) Instead, I wrote in code. The entry I included in my post is in such code. The "we" couldn't believe Johnson was doing what he was doing was not a real "we", at least not in the same sense -- my parents were outraged that the bombing was being stopped, they were very much hawks during the Vietnam war, once my older brother had gotten a deferral from service because of his epilepsy. But I, on the other hand, was exultant. The giveaway is that I chose to write about it at all. Most of my entries are cautious and stripped of my personal feelings about events. If I expressed what I cared about, my brother would find a way to use it against me.

I am living proof that therapy works, kids -- the fact that I trust other human beings at all is the result of years of hard work.

Maggie Jochild said...

Hey, ya'll, I want to share here: I got a direct e-mail from Manu Herbstein saying he enjoyed the blog/Brasil post. He was writing from Accra, Ghana, which is an interesting coincidence because accra is the root word for acarajé mentioned in my post. The city of Accra was founded by the Ga people in the late 1600s. The word Accra is derived from the word Nkran meaning "ants" in their local language, a reference to the numerous anthills seen in the countryside around Accra.

Mr. Herbstein is the author of Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which was winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book.

The novel's companion website, Ama at Africa Today won the SABC's Award for Innovative Use of New Media at the 2003 Highway Africa conference.

According to his biography, Manu Herbstein was born and educated in apartheid South Africa. His Jewish grandparents, he writes, had "emigrated to South Africa in the 1890s. Two from Russia, one a Litvak, her husband a Romanian, whose name I bear."

"My father, a lawyer who became a judge, was 'liberal' in white SA terms but devastated when I announced my intention to marry a Ghanaian. My wife, Akua, is Asante, an economist by training, entrepreneur by profession. She runs a furniture factory employing a hundred and has recently branched into real estate. Her alma mater, the University of Ghana, awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2000."

"I left South Africa in 1959. Was in Lagos to see the Union Jack lowered in October 1960; came to Ghana first in 1961, was in and out during the '60s, lived in Bombay, Lusaka (where we married) and Scotland; (but in Accra during the coup which overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in 1966.) We've lived in Accra since 1970. I went back to SA for the first time during de Klerk's all-white referendum in 1992 (was it?)

"We have two sons, Kwame, a civil engineer, working in Johannesburg; Kwamena, economist and computer science graduate, working for near Washington, D.C."

In his e-mail, he states in February he is off to Instituto Sacatar for a couple of months. The Instituto Sacatar operates a residency program for creative individuals in all disciplines at its estate on the Island of Itaparica in the Bay of All Saints, across from the city of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Sacatar is a member of Res Artis, the Worldwide Network of Artist Residencies, and of the Alliance of Artists Communities.

At the website for Ama, the book is described this way:
"I am a human being; I am a woman; I am a black woman; I am an African. Once I was free; then I was captured and became a slave; but inside me, I have never been a slave, inside me here and here, I am still a free woman." In the course of three hundred years some twelve million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to serve European settlers and their descendants. Only the barest fragments of their stories have survived. Manu Herbstein's ambitious, meticulously researched and moving novel sets out to recreate one of these lives, following Ama, its eponymous heroine, from her home in the Sahel, through Kumase at the height of Asante power, and Elmina, centre of the Dutch slave trade, to a sugar plantation in Brazil. "This is story telling on a grand scale," writes Tony Simões da Silva. "In Ama, Herbstein creates a work of literature that celebrates the resilience of human beings while denouncing the inscrutable nature of their cruelty. By focusing on the brutalisation of Ama's body, and on the psychological scars of her experiences, Herbstein dramatises the collective trauma of slavery through the story of a single African woman. Ama echoes the views of writers, historians and philosophers of the African diaspora who have argued that the phenomenon of slavery is inextricable from the deepest foundations of contemporary western civilisation."

liza said...

Thanks for the heads up on Ama and Herbstein. I look forward to reading it.

Right now I'm showing paintings by a Senegalese painter, Amadou Sow, who grew up on Goree, Senegal, which was a large holding and shipping facility for the slave trade in West Africa. The paintings are not about the slave trade: they are beautiful meditations on the colors and images of the Sahel region of Africa, but conversations with Sow and a bit of research into the area have put the whole topic into my mind.

PS: you should remind your readers that if they order books through your link to Powells you will get a cut.

Maggie Jochild said...

I recommend you all go look at Amadou Sow's work at Pine Street Art Works -- in person, if you can. Goree is perhaps the most infamous slave trade market in Africa, and it's an inspiring balance to see his work, as a child who grew up on this island.

Most of the African-Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the English did not go through Goree; most of Goree's captives went to the Caribbean and South America (i.e., Brasil).

I think it's vital for those of us who are white in the U.S. and whose wealth as a nation depends on stolen humanity to know the complete history of Africa. Equally important, however, is to understand African nations and regions as modern places, not locked into a centuries-old idea of "the place where slaves came from". Art bridges that gap for us. And the work of Amadou Sow really percolated all the way down into my soul.