Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Rainha dos Ventos (The Queen of the Winds)

By Jennifer Summerhays, Global Education

The driver accelerated, and the Fiat whined up the final stretch of road. He wedged his stomach against the steering wheel to keep the tires from twisting in the sand blown up from the dunes below.

“Muito peso, senhora,” he puffed.

I flushed with shame. I was arrogant about living well on so little, and now! Carting so much stuff marked me American. Rich. Pampered. I despised that, wanting to remain unburdened and free like the wind. But this trip was not a vacation. I’d come to stay.  To experiment with solitude. To write.

“Chegamos!” the driver said with a wet spray. He pushed himself out of the car with a fart, like toothpaste leaving a tube. I walked through the salty metal gate of the villa, and looked down over the dunes.

Ocean unfolded flat and wide, striped with bands of blue: khaki-azure, turquoise, and indigo that fell over the horizon’s edge. It stretched from there to everywhere. A hotel with comic-yellow awnings added color between the villa and the sea. Tiki huts and bars dotted the beach, and fifty meters up from the shore, the dunes were smeared with poverty. A chain of favelas: small slums were connected like knots on a single rope. A dirt path was the expressway between hardship, deficiency, indigence, and privation. Crumbling brick walls and patched tile roofs crouched in low armpits of the land, extending along the coastline. Laundry flapped between open windows, and the smoke from small beach-fires filled the air with gray. Daylight was sinking into the sea, and boys atop mountains of trash cheered for teammates who scored goals between piles of donkey dung.

A swath of yellow grassland was middle earth, where the shanties ended and the villa began.

“My name is Rinaldo,” he said. “But, Naldo will do, just fine.” That was my cue to pay. I handed the driver forty reis, and then I saw that he’d left my bags on the front step of the North house, while I’d been hypnotized by the view.

“Naldo, por favor aceita um pouco mais.” I pushed the extra cash into his hand. He didn’t resist.

“Boa sorte, a senhora,” he said, and then he was off. And I was alone with the sea, and the wind at A Rainha dos Ventos, an isolated villa in northeastern Brazil.

***

The wind blew seven days a week, and swaybacked donkeys wandered the dunes with dry mouths. Eeeeeeeeawawawawaw! The bray shocked me. Even during the day they were terrifying. Deep, honking exhales changed to screams in the wind.

The wind was relentless, howling through the villa nestled in the dunes above Praia do Futuro. The miniature owls roosting in the beach grass bobbed to dodge the persistent blasts. And all the while, the villa walls were unmovable, defending the four houses from the eastern gale. It was in The Garden of Paradise where the East Wind had taken the hero to visit the eponymous garden. But this was a far different East Wind at the villa, that forced itself between the hinge cracks, and loosened window latches at night. This was the trickster North Wind I knew from myth; the wind that is naughty sometimes.

I felt defenseless.

The villa’s exterior wall was thick, white-washed cement. It stood twelve feet high around the entire circumference of the property. A heavy sconce perched on each of the high corners, transforming the villa into a fortress. The four cottages inside were simple, single-story colonials with straight lines. They looked out onto an interior agave garden and fountain, an oasis for black birds and parched creeping things.

The South house was the largest, and painted mustard yellow. The West house was slightly smaller and washed white. The East house was salmon-orange with decorative round curves and shell-like shapes. I lived in the North house, the only cottage with an elevated veranda, and no buffer from the sea winds. Except for mine, the cottages were vacant, waiting for the one-off tourist with a penchant for the primitive.

The straight lines of the villa drew clean boundaries between civilization and savage wilderness, but the wind was a perpetual trespasser. It peeked through keyholes and leaked into electrical outlets. There was no such thing as privacy from the wind.

* * *

I stood at the square bedroom window, pressed my hips against the windowsill, and
leaned out as far as I could without falling. The wind had blown the sea clean all the way from the west coast of Africa. I closed my right eye like a land surveyor, and measured the distance from water’s edge to windowpane. The space between my extended thumb and pointer finger was about a half mile, a trick I’d picked up watching my mother paint landscapes. A kite-seller on the beach held four red diamonds on a string. I drifted to my childhood and the foggy summer months in Daly City with my cousin Bryan and his dragon kite.

I closed the other eye and listened blindly. A wave of sound that started out at sea, was gathering notes as it rolled up the dunes: wet fishing nets slapping wooden decks, a bottle breaking, motorcycle engine, baby babble, snarling dogs, Pentecostal preacher, phone ringing, donkey cry, and a yellow-bellied canary all turned to a wild swell that rode in on the wind, broke through my window, and flooded the room with song.

A Rainha dos Ventos, Brazil  Photo by J. Summerhays

A Rainha dos Ventos, Brazil
Photo by J. Summerhays

 

O Mercado Adolpho Lisboa

By Jennifer Summerhays, Global Education

stamp brasil

I thought I wanted to be a nun. The ones that wear sandals and help the poor. The free-spirited ones that grow their own tomatoes and drink Chianti at night after prayer. So, I moved to Brazil for a year. The Sisters were good to invite me; to give me a hammock and patient community. I lived with them and moved between their cities – Santarém, Alenquer, Monte Alegre, Belém, São José dos Basílios, Fortaleza and Manaus. Each place left an imprint, but Manaus – an indelible mark. It was the man without shoes who spoke like a prince outside the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa.

The air hit me like sweet glue. Manaus is sticky because it sits at the breastbone of wet and wetter – the confluence of the Negro and Solimões Rivers, two-thousand miles north of the National Congress in Brasilia, and two minutes from anaconda nests and trancing shamans. Sister Inês was waiting for me.

“Bem-vinda à Amazônia,” she said warmly, pinching my cheek. I answered with a hug, and we drove away in her blue pickup truck. We followed Avenida Djalma Batista out of the airport and toward the city center. I rolled down the window. Manaus smelled like algae and earth. A small wooden cross hung from the rearview mirror, and a yellowed psalm book was pushed into the corner of the dash. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a Franciscan Sister, or at least an explorer like Percy Harrison Fawcett, who spent most of his time in the blank spaces on the map.

“Obrigado,” I said.  “I mean Obrigada,” I corrected.

“Um prazer,” she said shifting into second.

Manaus means “mother of the gods”. It is the capital of the Amazon region. I don’t know why, but I never thought about the Amazon having a capital. I didn’t think all those trees needed one. But Manaus is more of a metropolis than I’d ever imagined. It’s a super-city and the industrial engine of Northern Brazil.

On the flight, I’d read in my guide book that Manaus had been at the center of the Amazon’s rubber boom, and for a brief moment during the nineteenth century it was one of the gaudiest cities of the world. Sister Inês’ hands left the steering wheel while she tried to explain the history of Manaus in charades. We swerved into oncoming traffic more than once, before I finally understood that rubber barons once watered their horses on champagne.

Remnants of the glory days were still there. We passed shabby architecture of the bygone nouveauriche: a little German, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, with indigenous shoved to the side. When Manaus was raped and the seeds of the rubber trees were smuggled out of the region, the mother of the gods tumbled headlong into poverty. The stench of hot waste hit me, and made my nose burn.

“Lá é onde eu trabalho às quartas e quinta-feiras,” Sister Inês said pointing. I understood one word, trabalho. She worked with the poor who lived in the rows of small colored boxes on stilts. “Eles são os mais pobres dos pobres.” I didn’t understand, but I wanted to be interactive and optimistic, and say that at least the houses were colorful. I only knew how to say beautiful colors. So I said, “cores bonitas”. She looked at me and laughed. I wished I could have explained myself better, but I couldn’t so I went quiet and sat without stilts in my own poverty.

We drove through the city and along the water’s edge on Avenida Beira Rio. Tour boats were leaving to see O Encontro das Águas, where the black waters of the Negro meet the brown waters of the Solimões. They flow side by side for nine kilometers without mixing, like Sister and me. We turned onto Rua dos Barés and looked for a parking space near the central market.

“Esse é o Mercado Adolpho Lisboa,” she said. “Quero apresentar o nosso mercado famoso, se você não estiver muito cansada,”she offered kindly.

“Sim. Obrigada,” I said with an emerging headache. We eventually parked on Avenida Lourenço da Silva Braga, and then without warning, Sister blasted off like a rocket in Portuguese.

“O mercado foi construído em estilo art nouveau, entre o final do século 19 e início do século 20. Mercado Adolpho Lisboa é uma cópia do um mercado famoso de Paris. As estruturas metálicas foram construídas em Paris e enviadas para Manaus por navios. Hoje, o Mercado Adolpho Lisboa é o maior mercado em Manaus, e uma fonte de frutas, peixes, e medicamentos indígenos.”

She knew I couldn’t keep up, but her English was even worse than my Portuguese, and she was twenty years older than me. So, I just gave way to hope, trusting that the miracle of divine translation would take over.

“Vamos?” she said

“Let’s go inside,” I agreed.

The vendors were weighing palo santo, sweet potatoes, and camu camu in metal scales. A man with no chin was buying a bag of amor seco and catuaba, probably for his impotence. An enormous Pirarucu still twitched in the fish monger’s scale – fifteen reis per kilo, and I watched like a child.

“Pode ajudar a senhora?” The merchant called out to me. I smiled and slid deeper into the market.

If my Portuguese could have been weighed, it would have come to an ounce, maybe less, but I carried my dictionary everywhere, and studied grammar in my hammock at night. Good intentions had to be worth something.

“Why you like much my language?” Sister asked.

“Eu não sei.” I said with a smile and a shrug. I didn’t know exactly. A psychic in the São Paulo airport called me out of a crowd. She said I’d been Brazilian in a previous life. What do you say to that? It was weird, but I wasn’t shocked; maybe because I felt at home, so far from home. I never feel homesick in Brazil.

The market became a jungle. It twisted me in feathers, and tubers, and strange earthy things. Tiger-striped catfish screamed without sound. A man with a square head was cutting the Piraíba into pieces. I was unaware of Sister. I was consumed by the rows of Pacu on ice with their jaws locked open, and the healers setting up their make-shift pharmacies with cures for diabetes and heart problems. I smiled at the herb sellers, and then escaped before they could ask me if I needed help. There were critters in jars, handmade clothes, shoes, baskets, and jungle equipment hanging from hooks. It smelled like leather and grass, insects, and salty things. I never wanted to leave. The deeper in I went, the more alive I felt.

“Vamos?” Sister surprised me from behind. Tem missa às 12:00. Acho que você vai gostar de Igreja de São Sebastião.” I could understand enough to know she wanted to leave and go to mass, but I wasn’t ready. The chaos was making so much sense.

“ok,” I said in a small voice.

We exited through the main doors, and a half-naked man bumped into me. I heard Sister say, “Meu Deus!” but I saw him. He looked Biblical, like a half-crazed prophet with clear green eyes, and bottle-brush hair. He spoke to me with his thin fingers raised to the sky. His Portuguese was smooth and noble. He put his smudged face near mine, and whispered without stopping. I didn’t know what he said, but I cried because it was beautiful. The bells of São Sebastião called us to mass, while the words of the barefoot man flowed deep and cool beside the song of the bell-tower, like two rivers that coexist, but never mix.

Amazon and Tapajos Rivers, Brazil Photo by J. Summerhays

Amazon and Tapajos Rivers, Brazil
Photo by J. Summerhays

 

 

Italian Summer

By Antoinette Palmerio, English Department
001170

The dark water lapped against the rocks where Mom and I sat. Away from the piazza and the glowing yellow lampposts, our little perch was the color of ebony. The main bustle – the strolling couples, the teenagers leaning against their Vespas, the occasional stray mutt – they all kept close to the piazza where the strains of old Neapolitan crooners drifted out from the cafes that hugged the square. But Mom and I were sitting away from the crowd, in the dark, atop lichen mottled rocks that formed the jetty jutting out into Casamicciola harbor. Casamicciola is a town in Ischia, the Italian island where my father grew up. I was five years old and this was already my second trip to visit my paternal grandparents and aunt in Italy.

“Hungry?” Mom said.

Nodding vigorously, I watched as she opened the brown paper that she rested on her knees. Maybe Styrofoam hadn’t been invented yet. If it had, it hadn’t yet found its way to this small Mediterranean island. As she pulled back the paper, my stomach grumbled. In the dark, I could not see the pizza, so much as smell it. The slightly charred crust, sweet tomatoes and aromatic basil tickled my nose. Without a fork and knife, Mom tore pieces of the pizza into bits my small hands could handle. The reason we were eating our pizza with our hands and not at a table attended by white-jacketed waiters was because it cost more to sit in a café. But that was exactly what made the moment so extraordinary. As I devoured my pizza and bits of tomato stuck to my cheek, I loved sitting in the dark with Mom, watching the parade of people in the piazza. Though I didn’t know Italian, I loved the gesturing hands, the wild expressions, the girls who tossed their hair as they preened for attention from the men and young boys. It was a great and lively circus, much better than that old Ringling Brother’s stuff my parents had brought me to the year before. While many of my friends were back home, spending their summers at Girl Scout camp or attending July 4th parades, even at such a young age, I recognized that I was privy to something unique.

Photo by Antoinette Palmerio

Photo by Antoinette Palmerio