By Robin Sparks
I’d been to every country on my list except for one, Brazil. The Brazil in my head was passion, romance, the samba, fresh fruit, tropical beaches, and the bossanova. When I heard that in Brazil it’s rude to show up on time, I thought that this just might be the place for me. How could I not love a country where I’d never be late? There was also the hope that in Brazil, I could blend in more easily than in Bali, my other favorite place on the planet. There’s no way I’ll ever look Balinese, but maybe I could pass for a Brazilian.
Brazil is a colossal country with more beaches than all of California and Florida put together, so where to begin? I started by emailing expatriates who lived in Brazil. And that is how I came to meet Jim and Debbie, and how I came to be not on a Brazilian beach, but in the mountains in Teresopolis, 3,000 feet above Rio. Jim and Debbie spent years trekking in Brazil before purchasing a home last year in Teresopolis.
For me, the opportunity to begin my exploration of Brazil under the tutelage of American Brazilophiles, was ideal. I accepted their invitation to visit. I was fascinated when Jim months earlier had emailed me saying that he and girlfriend Debbie had bought an estate which included five buildings, a spring-fed swimming pool, vegetable garden and enclosed tennis court for $30,000. Was he joking? This was something I had to see. Turns out, if anything, Jim was under-exaggerating. Thanks to a tip from local friends, they were able to purchase what looks like a Mediterranean compound for the price of a tool shed in the US. The question everyone always asks me after one of these articles is Hey, I wanna do that. How?” This is how Jim and Debbie do it. Their monthly expenses run under $500 per month.
Meanwhile, back home in Crested Butte, Colorado, they lease out Jim’s modest cabin. Debbie works as a neonatal nurse in Austin, Texas when they are in the states. The couple doesn’t bother with pricey health insurance premiums. Jim figures if something unforeseen happens, they can always take out a second mortgage on their “over-appreciated” house in Austin, Texas. They have also made a personal decision to do without a car by using buses and they don’t own a telephone or a television. So what is a typical day like for Jim and Debbie in Tere (what the locals call Teresopolis)? Jim putters around the estate; there’s always something to fix and he has a list of improvements that would last him several lifetimes to finish. The week I’m there, he’s building a wall with the help of local laborers and Debbie is sweating out a paper at the downtown internet caf and emailing back and forth with her nursing instructors in the States. Both enjoy their neighbors, reading, and hiking in the Serra dos Orgaos National Park.
It’s a tough life, but Debbie and Jim have to do it. We talk late into the night my first day in Tere’. Jim is a Libertarian who loves to argue. He’d found in me a cheerful debater. We discuss everything from insurance laws (a crock of shit, in Jim’s words), to health care (a crime!), to circumcision (pure idiocy!), to politics (more idiocy!). About politics, Jim says,” The Republicans want to put a camera in your bedroom and the Democrats a hand in your back pocket.” Debbie sits on the couch knitting, keeping quiet, smiling knowingly. Before the week is over, I will have joined the ranks of those who no longer try to change Jim’s mind about anything. There is one thing, however, that Jim and I agree on and that is that Brazilian women are the most beautiful in the world. The way they move, belies their belief that sexuality is a natural state, not something to be squelched. Throughout Brazil, for example, I saw pregnant women who exposed swollen bellies unselfconsciously, managing even in string bikinis, to appear sexy. “Ah, la abundancia do Brasilia!” Jim exclaims. An abundant bunda (think J Lo) is the part of a woman’s anatomy most admired in Brazil.
Every country has its way of “being”. My own fly-on-the-wall approach when I am in a foreign country, is to discern and adopt a culture’s nuances in as short order as possible. To stand out as a foreigner is to change people and events around me, which prevents me from doing what I came to do, which is to write about the heart of place and its people. And so, although it’s true I’ll never really be a Brazilian, I can have a darn good time trying. Take, for instance, the way women walk in Brazil: From the waist up, they stand tall and straight, neck long, chin tucked in. They place one foot in front of the other causing their hips to sway with exaggeration. I shadow local women at the mall and on the streets to learn the walk. Initially, it takes great effort not to charge forward, leading with my head. But after a few days I too am sashaying like a Brazilian without giving it a thought.
I buy rubber flip-flops and a tight pair of low-rise cropped jeans (that I wouldn’t be caught dead in in San Francisco.). My dark hair and light eyes, an anomaly at home, are commonplace here, as is the aforementioned abundant bunda. I am on my way to Being Brazilian. A man in a caf speaks to me in Portuguese, I reply in bad Portuguese, “I don’t speak Portuguese”. “A e’ Francesa?” he asks. “No”. “E’ Americana?” “Yes”. The Australian man (it turns out) says that he never would have guessed. I’m going to have to learn to speak Portuguese if I hope to blend in. Portuguese is one language I don’t mind unscrambling. I love the sound of it – hard consonants softened into sh’s and ch’s and -odgys. And vowels are elongated. And all of it is spoken with a melodic lilt as if everyone is singing the same tune. It is similar to Spanish – Diferente, however, is pronounced diferenchay, dia – gia. Kathy – Kaughtchi, and so on. Add a splash of French to really mix it up – Bom, pronounced Bon (good) – and you have the lingua of Brazilian Portuguese, a mixture of languages, like its residents who have settled here over the years.
We are invited to lunch today at Kathy and JaJa’s, neighbors who live across the cobblestone street from Jim and Debbie. At the top of the hill, I stop to catch my breath and to admire their fairytale-like castle. They built it themselves over half a dozen years, using old windows and doors collected from abandoned churches. JaJa a musician, and Kathy a painter, have day jobs respectively as a world history teacher and a social worker. Ten-year-old son, Luan, is a photographer’s dream with blonde ringlets, light blue eyes, dark skin, and a love of the camera. Christiana (Kathy’s sister) and her family live in the storybook house on the hill just below Kathy and JaJa, and below Christiana is the house of hobbit house of Herman, the girls’ father. Herman was born in Brazil 80 years ago, shortly after his German parents immigrated here. He eventually married the indigenous Brazilian mother (now deceased) of the girls, which explains why Kathy looks like my Bolivian friend back home and Christiana, like a tall lanky German with hints of Brazilian in her hazel-eyes and olive skin. Each family member from grandchild to grandfather looks entirely unrelated.
Ironically, Brazil was the last of the South American countries to free the African slaves, while today it is the most racially mixed. JaJa has laid out a table for us topped with farofa (baked and grated cassava from the Amazon), sliced linguisa, cauliflower, white rice, a stew of beans and beef called feijada, and a brilliant plate of shredded carrots and beets. There is also Skol beer, and JaJa’s premium cache of cachaca (sugar cane alcohol that is to Brazilians as tequila is to Mexicans and just as deadly.). Debbie rings to say she’ll be late. JaJa announces that we will wait for her. “In that case,” I say,” I’ll go back across the street to write until she arrives.” I head for the door. “Tranquila, Tranquila”, JaJa says. “One should not rush through life. Far better to contemplate life and philosophy with friends over tasty food and drink in the company of beautiful women.” Only what he really says, best as I can recall, sounds like this: “Nao e bon passar o tempo correndo. Temos que contemplar a vida con os nossos amigos, con comidas e bebidas sabrosas e meninas bellas.” Ok, so I stay. And make a mental note to slow down. JaJa pours a shot of cachaca. A squirrel scampers into the kitchen. Jaja calls out, “Mi amigo!” and bends down with a fresh chunk of coconut in his open palm. The squirrel approaches timidly, takes the treat and scampers back outside. JaJa says, “That one, he is my friend.” Then “Robin, Do you have a religion?” He points outside and says, “Mine is out there in the trees, in the animals of the forest.” He leads me then into a discussion of politics by asking what I think about the conflict between Bush and Saddam Hussein. JaJa says that Americans think they are free, but that they are not. He says it will take South America hundreds of years to recover from US interference during the seventies. Kathy lightens things up saying, “But we love Americans. And the men don’t dislike all American politicians. They love Prezedenche Cleentone and Moe-neeka Lewinschay”. The men guffaw.
I mention my surprise at the diversity of Brazilians’ physical attributes. Jaja says that after Holland invaded Brazil they held it for seventy years during which time they intermarried with the former black slaves and Indians. “Muito bonita!” he says about the resultant blue-eyed, chocolate colored Brazilians that came from those unions. He says about his blonde haired son, “Luan, is a mixture of German, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian, and African. We are proud of our diverse make-up. But above all, I am Brazilian.”
At 10:30 PM, Debbie and I and a few of the neighborhood women take the bus to town for an outdoor rock concert. We work our way to the front of the stage where the Brazilian pop star is singing into a microphone, while below hundreds of teenagers, middle-aged couples, singles, and some elderly folks sing every word to every song, waving their arms high in the air, while those who find space, dance. The teens don’t seem one bit annoyed that their parents and grandparents have come along for the evening.
One morning the rain stops. And so we pile into Kathy and JaJa’s car to drive the ten minutes into the national park. Following their lead, Jim and I (Debbie is working at the internet caf) hop over rocks, under trees, stepping lightly over the spongy ground to the water’s edge where a cascade of water meets the creek. Then we are standing under the roaring fall, the sound of crashing water filling our ears. We paddle across the cool stream to a large granite slab. Kathy holds JaJa’s ankle while he leans down and pulls me up onto the rock where we lay on our backs gazing at the azure sky. Suddenly Kathy takes off the blue beaded ring I’ve been admiring and hands it to me, “Here Robin, I made it for you, my friend.” And then we crawl over to the shady side of the boulder, where it is slick with moss, and together we slide down on our backs into the roiling water below.
I’ve grown used to climbing into bed each night in my unheated cabin fully clothed, with the hood of my coat pulled up around my ears, and three wool blankets piled on top. It is summer in Brazil, but in Tere’, the air is thin and offers little warmth once the sun has slid from sight. I’m growing restless for the heat of Brazil’s beaches. Together, Jim, Debbie and I pore over maps and discuss my next destinations. Initially I was drawn to the people, celebrations, and animistic nature of northeast Brazil. But the reality is that no matter how massive Brazil looks on a map, it’s even bigger in person and I have only three weeks left in which to see it. I’m looking for towns within two hours of a major city, with a sizeable expat population, a bohemian community, with aesthetically tasteful architecture. I decide to spend a week each in Buzios on the Golden Coast north of Rio, and Parati on the Green Coast located half way between Rio and São Paulo. And I cannot come all this way to Brazil without going to Rio.
Teresopolis is Jim and Debbie’s paradise. For me it has been the perfect launch pad for Brazil, where until a week ago, I knew no one. Leaving Tere feels like leaving home – you know your parents are still there to run back to should things get scary. As for my first Brazilians, Kathy and JaJa? They are artists in love with life, and they are incredibly generous. I suppose when you live for the moment as they do, it doesn’t occur to you that you ought to hoard some for yourself. If Kathy and JaJa are a composite of what other Brazilians are like, I’m going to love this country. Rio is my next stop. My friends back home expressed great concern before I left about me going alone to Rio de Janeiro, reputedly one of the world’s most dangerous cities. What they don’t know is, that in spite of the fact that I haven’t lost my Pollyanna belief that down deep everyone has the same basic need for love and respect, I have developed a modicum of street smarts. It’s called blending in. For instance, in Rio I will heed Jim’s advice about dressing as if I’m headed for a day at the beach and I will carry no more than 50 Reals in my pocket. I bid everyone goodbye with the traditional Brazilian kiss on each cheek, climb onto the bus dressed like a Brazilian and head off to the big city of Rio in a big bus like a Brazilian. And once I get to Rio?, I will walk like a Brazilian.
This story was written by travel writer and photographer, Robin Sparks. Sparks has written about expatriates and the places in which they live for over 7 years, logging in time in over 23 countries. Read about her adventures at www.robinsparks.com and www.EscapeArtist.com. Although she has been published in over a hundred magazines and newspapers, Sparks concentrates these days on writing for online media, like EscapeArtist.com where she is on the staff.
Sparks also organizes travel writing workshops. The next one will be held aboard a Turkish gullet while sailing the coast of Turkey in a traditional Turkish gulet. The class will be taught by publisher and editor of Travelers Tales books, Larry Habbegger. If you are interested in being in the class contact Robin immediately as there are only 3 seats left in the class of 8. Sparks is presently in Argentina and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.“