By Glenn Cheney
Here is another excerpt from Glenn’s book Journey on the Estrada Real: Encounters in the Mountains of Brazil” which details a hiking trip along the Estrada Real, the oldest road in the Americas. It goes from Rio and Paraty to Diamantina, estrada de terra all the way, passing through not only the famous historic cities but scores of villages that were among the first settlements in the interior, back in the early 18th century. Along the way Glenn stopped in each village for a few days to write about the people, the local situation, the history, geography, good, and such. It’s close-up look at a part of Brazil that few non-Brazilians know about. We will serialise one more excerpt from the book next week.

Helena Sigueira Torres
Helena Sigueira Torres, a storyteller of some renown, lives in an ancient house on São Gonalo do Rio das Pedras. A German woman from São Paulo came to hear some stories, which she then published in Germany in a very fancy book of the world’s fairy tales. Three women came from the state of Gois to hear stories for a research project. Someone came from Divinópolis, MG, to gather stories she could tell to patients in a nursing home. I went to hear stories about her life.

Dona Helena, short, center-heavy, happy, sixty-something, her face a toothless smile of bliss, has me come right into her little house and have a seat on the bench of the little table that all but fills her little dining room. Her great-grandfather built this house of straw, sticks, and mud. I presume it is invulnerable to the huff and puff of wolves. The clay roof tiles are black from the smoke of the fires her father used to build on the earthen floor of the dining room so the kids could sit around and hear stories. That was in the days before electricity, before television. I can just barely imagine the magic of a campfire on a dining room floor, the vivid images in the coals and flames and shadows as father and grandmother and aunts told stories about shifty goblins, stupid farmers, talking animals, nature beyond the control of God.

Helena remembers the good-old days of fires on the dining room floor and walking to the well to fetch water in a 20-liter can she carried on her head. Until 1949, all imported goods – goods imported from outside of town – came in on the backs of mules. After the road from Serro to Diamantina was put in, the people of São Gonalo could, in time and at great expense, reach medical help. If they needed to go to the hospital, they could send a telegram to Diamantina, 20 miles to the north, requesting that a taxi come pick up the patient.

She remembers the concept of irmãos leite – milk siblings. By tradition, a newborn baby’s first milk will be taken from the breast of another lactating mother. These milk brothers and sisters provide thread through the warp and woof of the community tapestry. Unlike blood relatives, in-laws and god-parents, a milk brother or sister is made almost at random, the available choices defined by whoever is currently nursing.

Life was hard back then, Helena says, but people were healthier. They had no running water, no toilets, no bathtubs. They had no medicines other than roots, herbs, and cachaa. Everything they ate, however, was natural. What little they bought came home in bamboo baskets or sacks woven of string or tree bark. They produced no garbage. None. They therefore had none of the ill health associated with the smoke of burning plastic or the mosquitoes born in abandoned cans and bottles. They didn’t have television, but children knew how to pay attention. All you had to do was build a fire on the diningroom floor. Today, Helena won’t share her stories with children. They squirm too much. She tells adults and lets them tell the children. Children can’t sit through catechism, either. They’re losing their faith and, with it, their morality. On the other hand, women don’t die in childbirth because they’re depending on a midwives with chicken feathers. They can go to the hospital and get a caesarean. It all balances out, Helena says, her face a dreamy smile. “Back then, we did what we had to do. Today we do what we can do, and everything goes well.”

For more excerpts and some photos browse The book is available at and other online bookstores, and you can order it at any storefront bookstore. The publisher is Academy Chicago Publishers, ISBN 0-89733-530-9.

Previous Articles by Glenn Cheney:

Brazil: Journey on the Estrada Real Part 2
Brazil: Journey on the Estrada Real Part 1

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