A Dreadful Night

I once spent a rather miserable night on an island in the Amazon. It was in the 1990s, and my husband and I (perhaps not yet married?) were having an adventurous trip on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the Amazon river. On this day we had arrived by boat in a tiny village of no particular importance, using it as a stop-over on the way to the next larger town where we could catch the ferry back to the mainland. We arrived with our standard issue enormous backpacks and set out to find a hotel. Hotels were not to be found.

We asked a bemused local for advice and he suggested we ask the priest if we could use the guest house. The priest, a fat, lame and possibly excommunicated Jesuit, handed us off to a local teenager who cheerfully led us to the guest house. On the way he offered to shoot various wild animals, such as a vulture soaring overhead, just so we could see them. We asked him not to.

We arrived at the house, a cute clapboard cottage raised up on stilts to avoid tidal flooding. The young man hopped up the wooden steps and flung open the front door. Dozens of enormous spiders scattered into the darkness. A handful of large wasps buzzed in the now-sun-filled entry hall, annoyed at the sudden change of scenery. “A lady will come clean in a few minutes,” chirped the boy. “Just leave your bags inside. But don’t put them on the floor, so they don’t get bugs in them.” I looked desperately at my husband. I could not bring myself to set foot in a house filled with giant spiders, let alone angry wasps and mysterious floor-bugs. No amount of some lady waving a broom around was going to fix that situation. Fortunately he had sympathy for my panic and found a polite way to suggest perhaps another option could be found?

The boy pondered a bit, then suggested perhaps we could stay at the community center. We trekked back to the priest’s house, got a different set of keys, and walked over to an ample rectangular building of weathered board. Inside was a large space for community meetings, women’s sewing projects, and other group activities. It was simple, with only the plain board floors and walls, a few windows with single wooden shutters, and a small toilet room in one corner. The wooden posts supporting the roof provided a place to tie our hammocks. Hammocks were a nice way to avoid floor-bugs and spiders, so we happily accepted the new offer.

A bit later in the evening the boy returned, inviting us to go to the only bar to hear some local music. We had a beer and probably some fried snack foods while enjoying some local folk songs and guitar. Midway through the meal a gentle old woman came in, decided I was a long lost friend or relative, and sat next to me, clutching my hand and chatting happily. I was slightly unnerved, but sympathetic, and spent the next hour or two smiling back at her and nodding dumbly while she chattered.

When we were too tired to see straight the teenager walked us back to the community center. He passed the time telling us the local stories of the headless mule one sees at the cross-roads, the phantom black dog that appears when someone is going to die, and other ghostly tales. By the time we reached the community center I was terrified. I lay in my hammock sweating from the heat as well as nerves. Finally, too nervous to stay alone in the total darkness I begged my husband to let me sleep in his hammock with him. To fend off mosquitos, I draped a sheet over the two of us. Two people pressed together by a hammock while covered with a sheet in an equatorial climate was misery. Between the fear, the heat, and the endless unfamiliar noises I didn’t sleep a wink.

When I finally heard a cock crow I leapt from the hammock, ran to the bathroom, and then ran outside to enjoy some cool fresh air. I’ve never been so happy to see a day arrive.

The internet didn’t exist when we were there, but the little museum the Jesuit had built in this village is still there, and has a website!! Check it out!

Foreigner

Living in Brazil has been an exquisite balance of joy and pain. I think it went through some predictable phases. At first I had no idea what was going on because I couldn’t speak the language. Then I realized I could speak well enough but still had no idea what was going on because people here just have completely different choice-making mechanisms than North Americans do. Then I tried really hard to fit in by adopting all of the local customs to the best of my (poor) ability. This caused a nervous breakdown. I gave up. I now happily live here, being my own weird self, refusing to participate in the optional parts I can’t bear, relishing the parts I love, and being patient with unavoidable necessities.

My husband and I have long joked that you can cooperate with life in Brazil, or you can leave. You can’t change the way things work here. Brazilians may complain about the details here, too, but no one really wants to do anything about it. It’s like people in Chicago complaining about cold winters. Duh? Or people in New York City complaining about slow cross-town traffic. Duh!

Once one has sufficiently abandoned all the strange ideals we were taught were important back in the United States, life is really quite lovely here. It’s kind of cool coming to realize that some things you were taught were important are, but most aren’t. I am happy to have been converted to some new beliefs, such as the belief that lunch with family is one of the most important activities a human being can participate in. Another is the belief that a proper lunch should last several hours, at a minimum. Ideally it just runs right on into afternoon snack and then supper. In fact, eating six times a day is nearly obligatory. And cake is likely to be served for most of those meals.

The cleaning lady who works for us once worked for a Canadian family who maintained a severe northern health-food diet. Food was to be eaten only on a specific schedule, and consisted mostly of high-fiber crackers, apples, lettuce, and other delicate, low-calorie items. The family thought Brazilian food extremely unpleasant and would not allow it in the house. This story came to light when I noticed she had become unusually gaunt and inquired about her health. We came up with a strategy for feeding her extra rice and beans on the days she worked with us, so that she wouldn’t waste away on the days she worked for the Canadians. I assured her this was not uncommon dietary fussing on the part of North Americans, but certainly not standard either.

I probably could just write about food. It’s such a central part of social life here that nearly all my confusions as a foreigner have been food-related. It runs the gamut from not knowing how to eat things properly (the olives! the bananas!) to not liking the food choices (my God, not more cake!) to being frustrated with the timing of meals (are you sure we can’t just stand up and gulp some coffee and toast? please?) to enjoying an eight hour ‘lunch’ with friends (my God, it’s really possible to just enjoy each others’ company and not have to hurry up and go anywhere! pass the wine!).

In any case, it seems to simply take some years to find ones way of fitting in somewhere. Long enough that I’ve thought I certainly wouldn’t want to start all over again somewhere else!