Friday, February 08, 2002

Hey guys. Just back from my trip, and as long as I was telling my family I’m safe and what happened, I figured I’d cc it along to everyone else and save you all the suspense.


First off, parenthetically, I’d just like to comment on how many people are saying that they’re less interested in the girl parts of my messages, and more interested in every other part. —What? You’re interested in WHAT? I thought I’d cancel all my usual railing against the heavens this time, but seriously—I am stricken. Please put at least a tiny bit of consideration into your responses, guys, and understand what I’m going through here. I’ve thought this all through, though, and starting next message I promise I will write 95% about hot Brazilian ladies.


In my last message I was troubled at my use of the expression “blank joy” to describe what I felt at serving the black men who came down here—I sat there staring at the words for several minutes trying to think of another way of putting it, something that wouldn’t seem like the monkey cousin of “blind faith,” which makes my blood curdle, and ended up giving up and thinking: “Ugh, well if I’m slipping into raving fanaticism, so be it, let the pieces fall where they may etc.”
Over the past few days, though, I’ve come to the realisation that this blank joy is maybe not such a very bad thing ... it seems like its crystalline simplicity actually lays the bed for a kind of furious panegyric that’s currently blowing my mind. Really I can’t shake the feeling that I’m flexing new muscles here.


Like take the fact that on the day I wrote you last, the knuckles on my right hand were all livid oval bruises, because I’d tried to take on a city bus singlehanded. I mean, there’s this one bus connection here in Salvador, between the intercity bus terminal and the city bus terminal, that I hadn’t been able to figure out in the five months I’d been here ... every single attempt would take me on a three-hour tour of some unknown slum, and I’d end up crawling home meekly vowing my revenge on the Salvador transit system. This time, coming back from getting bus information for my trip, I finally thought I had the system beat, and got onto a bus (correctly) marked “Lapa” only to see that for some reason they’d installed the wicket at the other end of the bus, and everyone was yelling at me to get out and come back in by the right door. Of course I just walked right through the bus and pulled out my fare, helpfully trying to show them how the wicket could be turned to make it seem just like I’d come in the right door ... and the driver and the ticket collector and all their friends all kept shaking their heads, so I gave in, and the moment my foot hit the pavement on my way out to the other door, the bus took off like a bat out of hell and I gave it two big stupid whacks with my fist as I helplessly watched it go by. Damn you, Salvador transit system.

And this is the guy who was supposed to go it alone on a 5-state tour of the country. I was hoping for three days on R$300, in time to be back for some Saturday childrens’ classes, but really in all honesty I knew I’d run into all kinds of hellish trouble and I’d probably be unheard of for weeks except to the bank attendants sending me installment after installment of emergency cash. Even Melissa’s younger brother ended up not being able to go, but then again he’s just 14, and maybe he was mercifully being spared some unneeded childhood trauma.

But at times Brazil makes me believe in miracles. I needed the buses, and the buses worked. I got to Maceió, capital of Alagoas State, at 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, to unexpectedly find a Bahá’í friend from the youth conference there waiting for me—she brought me to her newlywed apartment and fed me and showed me the beaches in the one city that an old ex-pat I know said he bothered visiting on his returns to Brazil. I saluted the waters and thought I’d try reach the mountaintop of escaped slave king Zumbi over the afternoon—a ridiculous effort which proved to not only be possible but to set me up perfectly for my next overnight leg of the trip: when I came running back to the bus station, the bus driver emerged blue-suited from under a mango tree, saying not to worry, he’d wait while I bought my ticket up to Ceará, and proudly showed the fruit he’d found to his friends while I scampered off.

To get between Maceió and the old slave kingdom in the first place, though, there are hourly vans that run to a town called União dos Palmares [Union of the Palm Groves—the old slave kingdom having been the Quilombo dos Palmares, or Escaped-Slave-Community of the Palm Groves]. This is all rolling, green sugarcane country, but I was so prepared to see this part of the world as deeply impoverished that it took me a while to clue in—the first semi loaded with sticks just roused my sympathy, making me think how hard people must work just to sell off a bunch of crude fencepoles, though of course it was all stripped cane, and of course the hills are full of descending flatbeds trucking the produce down to the sea just like the DTC truckers working the forests back home in BC. When I got to the town, all I knew was that I had to find a mountain named Serra da Barriga [Mount Belly], and I wandered around for a while enjoying the old railbeds taken over by circles of laceworkers, eating lunch and watching the square-, spot-winged vultures swing around overhead. The town was full of motorcycle taxis, which made me really happy, something I hadn’t seen since searching for my buddy Robbie in the jungles of the Dominican Republic a few summers back. It was one of these bikers who finally rode me up to the peak—his name was Junior, on the way up he talked about trying to find work in Rio and São Paulo, doubting whether I’d ever had a job, and shrugging off my amazement that he was already on his second marriage at the age of 19. We’d haggled in town, but obviously it was all pro forma, I spent longer than I’d promised drawing the statue and the view up there, the results of which you should all see at some point—the land was a gigantic version of Hardy Mountain Road in Grand Forks, BC, magnificent, tropical and cradled, so to get an idea you either have to go to northeastern Brazil or southeastern BC—and plus when we finally got back down to the marketplace after talking about his orphaned childhood and poor shoes as a schoolboy, he found out his front tire had burst, and I ended up paying the dollar or two for the tire as well and giving all I could really give him that might be of any use, the numbers of friends in Maceió and Salvador if he ever finds himself in trouble there (I guess you can take that as a warning, Marisol...). As might be expected, motorcycle cabbies are way more into seeing their bikes get drawn than getting their own portraits done, and all of them at the corner got really excited to see how fast I drew Junior’s bike. In the corner, small, I’ll be bringing home an embarrassed five-second picture of Junior as well. He thanked me for the numbers I gave him, and walked with me down to the bus stop on my way back. There’s a festival in Maceió in November that’s supposed to be beautiful ... I told him if I came back, it would be this November. So that was the Quilombo dos Palmares, the valley where escaped slaves held a trading kingdom throughout the 16th century, only, as in so many of these stories, to have their final king betrayed in a battle against plundering Europeans ... one of those cliffs must have been the one he threw himself from in despair in 1694, on what turned out to be exactly the same day of the same month as I stood there looking.

So the overnight bus to Ceará worked out well, and after waiting in the Crato bus station for an hour while the sun came out, I got on the back of another motorbike and made it to the town square. The British paleontologist I’d contacted said that there was a little museum there—and there was, beside the cathedral where girls were dropping in to cross themselves on their way to school—where I should meet with a Dr. Artur Andrade, who of course would take a while to show up. I’d heard Dr. Andrade’s name before—this town was built on limestone deposits bearing some of the richest, most important fossils from all the 80 million years of the Cretaceous period, perfect, microscopically preserved bugs and plants and fish and pterodactyls. When I went inside the museum, I was reminded again of how this ancient life that I find so fascinating really is no more than so many lumps of dusty, pathetic rock with fangs and little pokey things, however microscopic, and probably it was more affecting to learn that in this same building, just on account of its being an old building in Brazil, there had been revolutionary ballots and fusillades in the 1830s. Of course I was very pleased when Dr. Andrade finally showed up, a slight friendly man, and I think that while he was offering to personally chauffeur me around the entire region, he was under the misapprehension that I was a close British friend of my paleontologist contact, who’s a colleague of his ... finally he said he’d pick me up at 2 p.m., no, that he was happy to do it, and I went out to see what other old bloody buildings the square had to offer.

The old prefectural headquarters now has a surprisingly good selection of modern art filling the top floor, with the collection of an Italian benefactor all mounted and touched by light coming in from walls of shuttered windows looking onto the red tiled rooftops of the town, and the wooden floors dusted with drifting moths. I listened to the receptionist grieve over lack of funding for the arts; downstairs another cultural space fills what used to be the prison. There the main exhibit was devoted to a man named Lampião, one of several rebel leaders who led columns of scared desperados around the untamed country well into the 20th century. Lampião was gangly and funny-looking, with congenitally deteriorating eyesight, his followers were squarejawed country men; his companion was known as Maria Bonita, and one by one the pictures slowly revealed each of their severed heads as they were tracked down by the military.

Dr. Andrade was frustratedly talking into his cellphone when I got back to the museum, but after a moment he ushered me into his truck and we were off into new fields. This was something I never would have guessed at—he was the head government geologist for the area, and so the vehicle we were riding in was a slick African-safari-style pickup with the words “Federal Government Executive Power” splashed across a yellow stripe on each side. The day was brilliant, the roads all led straight across the sawback fields, and with our arms hanging out the windows we were waved past every roadcheck in our path. He didn’t speak too much, and I had enough time to wonder whether maybe my having chosen the politer pronoun to address him with had something to do with it; but at each field museum and rock quarry where he stopped he made sure to show me every single item of interest ... the thing that had captured my imagination the most was learning that locals had been increasing the value of their fossil finds by carving their own pictures into the fossils themselves—I thought this was at once a travesty and maybe superbly beautiful art, though what I’d been hoping might be looping patterns maybe something like the paleolithic rock paintings he was pointing out along the way turned out to be the crude transformation of the animals themselves. A big fish, when discovered, might have its head recarved to look like a pig-lizard, or maybe be turned into a frog or a prawn—and the quality was so bad, I was amazed anyone would actually pay more for the modifications. I drew some, I’ll show you. At the end of the day, as always, I asked Dr. Andrade if I could draw him, and true to character he acquiesced. Ten minutes later I showed him the finished picture, and it was sweet to see his double- and triple-takes, as he saw again and again that it really looked like him, and that the page was full of scenes from his life and work that day, his smile growing softer and softer. It was 6 p.m. by now, and the shops were closing, but he ran across the street to a pharmacy and joked them into turning the photocopier back on ... it was good to have something to give him for all his troubles, is all. He had me sign the copies and asked for my e-mail, and I thanked him again before letting him go and finding some kind of supper for myself.

Thursday night was the only real drag on the whole trip ... 16 hours of buses heading back home, with a 5 a.m. layover somewhere dark and in the middle of nowhere. Bad 70s cop drama on the TV overhead. Which couldn’t be worse than what they played on one of the buses, I can’t imagine anything worse, I’ve never seen the TVs in the buses used before but this time we were all constrained to watch several hours of subtitled 1980s South African Candid Camera, with the white gagsters making passing Blacks look like idiots. If there were an avenue for complaint I would have used it, but then by this morning I was looking out in peace over the dry sertão of Bahia again, and hot tears were welling up thinking about the world and our destiny, and it was probably just nerves and lack of sleep, but in that state I wouldn’t ever wish to be well-rested again. Every half-remembered line of the prayer entreating us to ... let’s see ... “Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.” Every half-remembered line of that made me shudder, I’m sort of getting it now … look at that, read that, that can be all of us, all of you. It’s making my weepy right now.


Yeah, I know, it’s time I came home. I can now, at last … the trip was good, well underbudget and faster than even my most optimistic estimate, and today when I got back to the intercity bus terminal in Salvador, all bleary, ready for another fight to find the bus to Lapa, a girl said: “No, you should really be waiting over there on the meridian. They come way more often there.” I’m sure she couldn’t understand the feeble-minded look of glib, untrammeled wonderment I gave her—or maybe she understood it all too well—but sure enough, the right bus was waiting for me, exactly where she’d said. Never again will I be made a fool of. Never.


A joy, a sea, a haven, a Thin White Duke,

Nathan

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