Tuesday, November 27, 2001

I’m just a few days shy of the three-month benchmark in my stay ... I got my raw scores back for the Foreign Service exams, and they were sucky: 92% English, 81% logic, 56% situational. (—I mean, 56% situational!!! What is up with that?) My only hope now is that the Canadian government only requires its officials to make sensible decisions roughly half the time. Still, it looks like I have a back-up plan, because the drunken Canadian consul here still wants to give me a sort-of-legal job in his office, and that would mean that I could stay here for the rest of the year instead of getting booted out of the country after six months like a common tourist.

But the Canadian consul ... I really don’t think I can bear much more than a month of working for him. He’s a volunteer who surrounds himself with all the superficial symbols of power, apparently out of his own pocketbook: he hires a Brazilian chauffeur who doesn’t know anything about the city, and who took us down several wrong streets when I rode with him, finally convincing me just to ask to be let out of the car; his office reeks of pipe smoke, because whenever anyone visits him to ask about their visa, his response is to screw up his features and suck furiously at his pipe; the consulate is really being run by a step-daughter of his who replaces him in the afternoons, and the only reason he’s latched onto me is because she’s like nine months pregnant and he needs to find another factotum on the double. We shall see how this all pans out. Maybe this is a fair indicator of how much competence the Canadian government really requires, after all, and his pipe-smoking silhouette can just happily recede into the distance as it drives around and around in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car.

I came back last Tuesday from a long trip up in the flat, drought-prone sertão north of Salvador ... on my way home I was feeling swimmy and teary-eyed, just from the greatness of things, and I had my latest little revelation when three groomed and tailored businessmen stepped onto the bus at a stop in a sudden industrial park on the plains. They didn’t belong there with the poorer people in the other seats, and they were laughing and happy and generally pissing me off. What got me thinking is that, really, I belong just as little as they do, and I can do nothing to take off the rich man’s suit that everyone sees in my blue eyes and light brown hair. Which just gives me an even greater appreciation for the people who are able to see through that—I’m not sure I’m half as open to the suit-wearing dips in my own life.

The town I was in is called Ribeira do Pombal, built on a sandbank overlooking distant fields, and beaten down everywhere by the sun. The centre of town is cobblestone, but the surrounding houses are lined up along roads of deep, broad sand cut up by crisscrossing furrows of sewage water ... the children try to keep their soccer balls from getting into the muck, and inevitably end up screaming when they do, and then fish them out and take them inside to be washed before they resume their games. During the day when the neighbourhood kids disappear, their places are overrun by clutches of black-headed vultures, and those fly away in turn when the occasional men on horseback come whipping their humped cattle through town. The cowboys here are well catered to—all the leatherwork stalls in the marketplace carry bulletbelts along with the saddles and broad-brimmed hats.

I was in town with my Bahá’í friends, who’d been invited by the local Assembly to help with some regional elections, paint the local centre, etc. We got to visit a fair number of tiny outlying towns, and while the gungho Bahá’í youth went off to do gungho Bahá’í things, I got to sit with the older ones and listen to them talk about which snakes were good to eat if you could shoot one in the fields, or what you had to do if you were bit by a rattler (“No way would I be willing to drink anti-venom—the best thing I know is straight cachaça [which is the wicked-strong cane liquor everyone drinks in the squares here]”).

I got to know the neighbourhood kids pretty well too. They dig getting piggyback rides and drawings of their favourite toys (wooden semi trucks, Transformer knock-offs), which I’m well equipped to offer—I was very impressed by the resolve of Manuel, who was about eight and hung around with me a lot just to, you know, “shoot the breeze,” and who stoically gave up his favourite of two semi trucks to a younger kid, and then silently watched him colour it all way outside the lines. Fabiana was a ten-year-old black girl who decided to have an adolescent crush on me, but aside from just bringing me freezies from the ice cream man every day, she also consistently tried to hook me up with a girl she referred to as her “older sister”, an act which I was never entirely able to ascribe to either unconscious transferral or some kind of more self-aware sacrifice.
The first day that I drew a few pictures for the kids there, Fabiana begged me to come draw her sister, sitting me down in the shade with the local gossips while she ran inside to get her. The girl that came out with her was, relative to all the hot Brazilians I’ve seen here, incendiary. The fine blond hairs on her lower back looked like they’d gone fair from the roots up, out from her torrid brown skin without any help from the sun. Despite the unwilling overbite I’m sure I assumed, I dutifully started looking at her and taking her down in her notebook.

I spent the entirety of the next four days drafting and painting a new sign on the front of the Bahá’í centre, sitting up at the top of a rickety ladder with my face an inch from my brushhead and my neck in the blistering sun. Whenever Adailza came outside my work slowed down enormously, mostly out of a need not to fall off of the ladder. Those of you who know Russia know that Russian women change into housecoats when they get home—Brazilian women, from what I’ve seen, pretty much change into outfits that pass as bikinis back home in Canada—spaghetti straps and lycra. And there she was, always just stretched out in whatever crack of front door that would always keep her in view.

From the first day that I was in town, Fabiana had begged me to take her to a dance that was coming up, which was cute, and I ended up offering to treat all the kids to their tickets. It turned out, though, that almost all the parents kept their kids at home that night, and I ended up going with just two of the Bahá’ís and a couple of girls who lived on the street. After all this build-up, Fabiana just paired me up with Adailza and hung back from our conversation. Which wasn’t all that rich: for the evening, Adailza had chosen to go punk-gothic, with heavy near-black makeup all over her face and clothes that had gone under the knife. I basically asked if she was still in school, she replied that she’d hated it and dropped out a long time ago; I asked what she did, she said she just stayed at home and helped her mother; I asked what she wanted to do with her life, she shrugged. The dance was busy and all I can say is I know what small-town Brazilian coverbands look like … the other city kids wanted to leave early and I went with them, and they laughed at my samba all the way home.

On my last night I hung back myself, sketching everybody on the street. It was 9 p.m. when I finished, and Adailza came up to me and asked if I’d draw myself in her notebook too. I spent another hour out under the streetlight, drawing with a mirror they brought out, and when I handed her the picture she smiled and said, “Thank-you, querido.” Which all goes to show, I guess, the kind of power that any guy wearing a suit can have over the imaginations of the most beautiful girls caught in these small towns.

I have another story to tell about the day I was with a Swedish nurse here and got captured by spiritualists, and we both barely escaped a seance, but I suppose it’ll have to wait until next time. Keep writing all of you ... there’s been a bit of a drought in my inbox as of late.

Your evil twin,


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