By Jennifer Summerhays, Global Education
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.