Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Let me get this started while I’m still pissed off at the Salvador public library, because this is all just going to seem silly in about half an hour. It’s a big, impressive building housing a pitiful old collection, which is all the more jealously guarded: the one time I used it last year, they wouldn’t even let me bring in the book that had the words I needed to look up, or a pencil and paper to write things down, and I reasonably vowed never to return. This time I had one word to look up, and carefully memorized it in order to slip past the guards: it’s a term that supposedly refers to some kind of elder spirit among Brazil’s Tupi Indians. You can’t enter the library stacks yourself, of course—instead, a clerk brings out anything that might vaguely match your description, and as my wait dragged on and my hands itched to get at the books themselves, I took in aging posters dating from the military dictatorship: copying books is a crime punishable by four years in prison; wise men make books to make more wise men, be a wise man, don’t mess with the books; smile, the cameras are watching you. I’d asked for a book on Tupi religious beliefs—what the clerk finally plopped down in front of me proved to be, after two seconds of examination, a study of healing practices in rural Colombia. “No it’s not, it’s definitely about Brazil.” Of course this is a profoundly uneducated country, but when experts throw up their hands and wonder why more people don’t just use the public library, I throw up my hands in disbelief. It’s like a timewarp straight to the 18th century here, where private libraries are the only ones worth a dime, and back outside I was once again surrounded by legions of leggy Brazilian women stepping around open sewers, and thinking what thoughts of their own.

So, for better or worse, it’s just my thoughts you’re stuck with here: which these days have concentrated just about solely on the intersection between pterodactyls and social injustice. The Tupi word in question was for the opening to the second chapter of my comic, which accompanies a painting of a pterodactyl (Tapejara imperator) over an image of (let’s say) the Boxer Rebellion:

“When naming Brazilian pterodactyls, the current trend is to choose a figure from Tupi Indian myth—and thus dinosaur texts universally translate “Tapejara” as “Old Being.” Tupi is a broad linguistic group that stretched the length of the Atlantic coast and provided the basis for both lingua francas of the early Portuguese colony: one in the southern area around São Paulo, and the other in the Amazon basin. The Amazon dialect remains in use to this day, often by native groups who have lost their original language, while the long-extinct São Paulo branch has left its own huge legacy in the form of loan words to Brazilian Portuguese: in Portugal, fern is “feto,” whereas in Brazil it has become “samambaia”—the list goes on and on. This means that any good Tupi or Brazilian dictionary alike will tell you that “tapejaras” have nothing to do with Old Beings, and instead were old bushhounds who knew the trails like the back of their hands. Regardless of what Indians might have to do with pterodactyls in the first place, it is doubly ironic that this name should be so speciously associated with indigenous spirituality, and then bestowed on an animal from an area that has lost all trace of its native population.”

The whole comic is going to be pretty much just like that, yep. I’ve written the paleontologist in Rio who named the thing, so my own curiosity is cooled—and speaking of Indians, I’ve got to tell you about the town of Mirandela. Back on April 19 I was invited to celebrate the “Day of the Indian” with them, and just got more and more excited as people told me hushed stories of what to expect. The chief is a Bahá’í, and it turned out I’d met him before, when he spent a week at the Regional Centre during my disgrace. He was maybe four feet tall, maybe 60 years old, and if you opened the door at just the wrong time you might find him cross-legged and out of his dress shirt, praying in a spot of light on the floor. I tried bringing him water when he was sitting alone, but he spoke so quietly that eventually I let him be. After he left, the others there wondered where “that old Indian” had gone, and I frowned, but couldn’t remember his name myself.

But now the stories started rolling in: in 2001, he’d been one of 19 Brazilians chosen to attend to the opening of the new gardens at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, and standing before the central tomb he asked all those present to pray that the land of his Kiriri people be restored. On his return, this apocalyptic little vision was made flesh: the city of Mirandela, founded 300 years before as a white outpost in the heart of Kiriri territory, and which in the past several decades had been fighting increasingly lethal skirmishes against sallying natives—one local schoolteacher told me about frantically piecing his motorbike back together, just in time to escape the approaching crossfire of arrows and guns—disbanded and left their homes without firing a shot, at the sudden appearance of the entire tribe in grass skirts and full war paint. The Kiriris had been living in the abandoned town ever since, the chief doing what he could to promote justice on all sides: just as the government had declared the city Indian land dozens of years before, yet did nothing to affect the status quo, it was now doing nothing to pay restorations to former landholders, and this was among the reasons that Chief Lazaro had gone to Brasília when I first met him heading home in March.

It’s a dusty drive out to Mirandela, with beautiful, rolling vistas stretching out between the cactus that tower most close to the road. Just before town, the road rises through a cleft whose rock walls ripple orange and black, the work of Kiriris generations past, but the city itself does look abandoned—what fraction of the 1,000 or so remaining Kiriris who have chosen to take up residence in its old houses can hardly fill up the town, and everywhere you see fading signs for bars and butcher shops over doorless, grass-filled gaps in the streetfront. The town square boasts Mirandela’s two most impressive buildings, squared off face to face: the cathedral, its doors now blankly closed, and a new roundhouse built beneath the trees of the straggling city park. An empty building behind the two now holds handicrafts and some children’s posters displaying the town’s struggle, before and after the coup … and standing there in that big space during the day, when everyone is in the fields that descend on either side, there is no sound for miles.

The Day of the Indian celebrations got started with a supper after sundown, in a back porch loaded with candles. Although the chief made a point of inviting me and the few other Bahá’ís to get our rice and stewed meat, I was still without a guide or the right kind of friendships to tell me whether there was any reason that, say, the drums and flutes sounded so much like Carnival, or what exactly it meant when everyone started coming up and scattering cane liquor around the pots of corn liquor on the floor—and without even the academic version, your conversations are all too often limited to the kind I had: “So what are you celebrating here today?” “Well it’s the Day of the Indian.” “Yeah, but what does it mean? Did something happen today? What are you commemorating?” “Eh? It’s the Day of the Indian.” Which seemed to go along with my suspicion that the whole thing was a government invention, given its name and the fact that every tribe around seems to use it to celebrate and publicize its culture. (It’s actually celebrated in several Latin American countries, on the day that Indian delegates were finally convinced to participate in a 1940 conference on indigenous peoples in Mexico.) So, by the time the guys had gotten their grass headdresses on for the winding toré dance in the square, I was getting discouraged about what the echoed chanting might mean to a people who now speak only Portuguese, and thinking how lonely it must be to think that this dance of a few hundred men and women might represent everyone in the world who shares their deep beliefs. There were grinning tourists poking their heads inside the cathedral, and we all packed out before it ended—our driver had to pull over and throw up in the bushes a few miles out of town, and I was spared my own convulsions until about 4:00 in the morning, when I started purging myself of corn liquor and stewed meat in every way humanly possible.

My home base for operations like that is Ribeira do Pombal, the same interior city that I’ve been writing about since falling head over heels during my first visit last year—it’s the city with all the vultures, the cowboys, and the furrows of sewage water crisscrossing the sandy streets (if any of you have misplaced my Bulletin of Misery and Woe from November 27, 2001, feel free to ask—this letter continues the life stories of several people I first described then), as well as the girl who was, “relative to all the hot Brazilians I’ve seen here, incendiary.” Every time I go back, however, I feel less like getting misty over the sheer greatness of things, and more like sinking deep into depression. At the bingo game that Jen and I played here, first prize was the sheep tethered in the corner—and when I got back, this kid Manuel said the prizes had gotten even better. Before I could even say, “You mean, now it’s two sheep?” he chirped: “First prize is two sheep!”

Husayn, the kid who spat blood in my last letter, has a grandmother and uncle living here who put me up when I visit. By and large, it seems like Husayn’s family is relatively well-adjusted: the grandmother is a 70-year-old dynamo beloved everywhere she goes, and despite his difficulties, Husayn has become the kind of tortured, ironic wisecracker that only stable, affluent homes produce. His uncle in Pombal is just a year younger than me, and is, I think, dying of boredom without any great plans to leave his provincial town. He got a teenaged girl pregnant a few years back, but even a gala wedding at the Salvador Bahá’í centre couldn’t keep that misconceived marriage together. The uncle all but hides from his ex-wife now, and at best pays cursory attention to his daughter during her weekend visits with him … at over 70, it’s only her grandmother who sings to her, feeds her crayons, and calls her to quit playing in the sewage water (not to mention brewing 80 kinds of tea for her ailing Canadian wards), and I don’t know how many more years her incredible energy can last.

A year ago, Fabiana had been a spunky 10-year-old girl who was trying to pair me off with her older sister, Adailza. She seemed—and still seems—really bright, easily reading passing street signs to make her walks go faster (literacy this far inland falls to about 30%). This time, I found out that in compensation for that she’s failed three grades, and although she later denied it in company, she boasted about getting her hands on a bottle of beer. She scraps and wears clothes that constantly fall right off her new breasts, and lord knows what examples she has to follow in her sisters.

A year ago, Adailza had been a rural 17-year-old dropout who was way too good-looking for her own good, and had decided that seducing a visiting gringo was as good as any other way out. This year, I barely knew what to say when I saw her nine months pregnant—she had the baby the same day I travelled back to Salvador with Jen, and by the next time I was back she’d moved, somewhat thankfully, to her boyfriend’s house instead. Her daughter’s name is Karolayn, with big, crossed, almond eyes that will some day be as beautiful as her mother’s … for the short time that I held her I gave her little leg exercises, and arm exercises, and eye exercises as she looked around the room.

I hadn’t mentioned the oldest sister in the family, Nidinha, who is my age and has recently started paying long-distance charges to call me at odd hours in the big city. She in turn has been blessed with a spot of decay between her two front teeth that in the past year has grown to where you could insert a pencil eraser comfortably through the hole. She has a young son of her own, and she recently opened up about the father: he was a fisherman on the great São Francisco river that passes through the city of Paulo Afonso to the north, it was three months after Denilson’s birth, and they were going to be together—and then he went out in the water a second time that day, never to return. Nidinha is hoping to get her highschool degree—barring any more failed Portuguese and English courses, despite her printing that looks like her son’s—and go find work in São Paulo. Denilson won’t be coming. When he isn’t peeing in front of people or throwing wild punches, he often comes and buries himself in my lap, and one day when Nidinha was sighing over how difficult he is, I shrugged and said he probably needed a father figure … the next day, sure enough, he asked if I’d be his father, and I’m not entirely sure whether this was his idea or his mom’s. I tried helping her study for an English test one night, and ended up just trying to praise the joys of learning, telling her to get more out of science if that’s where she was getting better grades … later, when I poked my head out the door to say good night, she was still sitting out on the porch, this time with a dictionary in her lap. I’ve never seen her with it before or since.

Fabiana is all but black; Adailza is slender, tanned, and striking; and Nidinha is light-skinned and undersized—it took me long enough to believe that they were sisters, but it’s only writing this now that it occurs to me that it might not be Galdinho, their sheepish, quiet-tempered father, who was guilty of sleeping around: it seems impossible to square with him rushing inside to find me a picture of the town’s patron saint, or his constant “Isn’t that the truths” when caught in conversation with anyone brasher than him. Could it have been their mother, another slight, smiling woman with native features, who worked as a prostitute, and today has found Galdinho to help raise her many kids? Oof, I don’t know. In Carla, Bobó, and Cristina’s part of town, there’s a neighbour who eats all the pet cats.

Nidinha thought it was interesting when I told her I was trying to meet the local bishop—and you can imagine my amazement when she asked, during one of her many sudden phone calls, what exactly this “bishop” thing was, anyway. Whenever I can’t believe what I’m hearing here, I’m sure it seems like my Portuguese degrades back to Neanderthal levels, and I stammer, and make faces—and finally I said, basically, he’s like a boss for priests. She ahh’ed and promised to take it up with the priest in town, and said she’d be sure to relay his explanation to me the next time she calls.

So yesterday I met with the bishop, at the secretariat of the archbishopric of Feira de Santana. The building turned out to be a two-story office block with an optician’s underneath, and the lobby was filled with pontiffs—all wearing glasses (I confess I was hoping for signs of ostentation—but could this have been a sign of conspiracy?). Between two of the meetings that take him on endless rounds of the north of the state, he sat us in two chairs at the back of an upstairs classroom, and spoke eloquently, and winningly, on the need for dialogue and partnership in our pluralistic world … in the face of drugs, prostitution, and drought, there’s no room for ideological bickering. Conciliatory words that’ll piss off my desperate fictional character no end. He laughed off my request to draw him—who knows what the idolaters tend to do with that kind of picture, I suppose—and offered me a lift when I said I was heading back to the bus station. Off the mirror were hanging a rosary and a feather charm, a gift from the Kiriri. In the course of an hour, he mentioned only two things that I can even begin to see as pointing to a deeper torment: he said that the two other leading churches here, the Pentecostal Universal Church of God and African-Brazilian Candomblé—the same churches that are eating away the traditional Catholic predominance at an increasingly alarming rate—have engaged in a counterproductive battle that can never truly be won, leaving it to be understood that this is where the otherwise conciliatory Catholic Church maintains the moral high ground; and that dialogue has even increased within families, whereas his father had ruled with an iron fist when he was a boy.

This was a city of Indians who throw trash in the gutter and out of car windows, and a backwater Catholic town where a girl can’t find a single neighbour who even knows what a bishop is to tell. I swear I might be projecting my own ideas about what these people ought to believe—but when a place with so little education becomes a place without religion too, without even the most basic sense of connection to the world around it, I don’t know what they’re left with, and it drives me to grief. It was a solid-gold shaft of light from the heavens, then, to read taped to a column back at the Feira de Santana bus station, this note from a girl, Mariana, to her man: “The trip was great, but I’ll tell you about it in person. We keep getting closer … but it’s now, as adults, that we really begin to understand how good it is to have someone to listen.” Poetic, true, and well spelled—and that day I went home happy.

You see what obsessing over pterodactyls will get you,

Flipping serious,

Fra Angelico


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