A winter storms into its galactic arms. New York City took a major hit. I happened at the time to be on Grand Manan Island watching the Bay of Fundy churn, the surf rake rock against rock on the Castalia shore in front of my home.
I’d come to my family’s retreat in Atlantic Canada for a much needed week of writing. I was reading an essay by one of my Tucson students about gang life in the city. “If he was going to slang,” she wrote, “he’d better get strapped up.” A drug dealer was out for justice over the mismeasure of his goods. He was heading for a club, armed and righteous. This is not fiction. This is the daily life of one student, a woman who comes to class wearing a white wife-beater that showcases her spectacular tattoos. She has a smile as warm as Oprah. Sometimes there’s a sheepish quality to it, as if she’s asking, “What am I doing in this movie?” She knows how to use a Glock. “You’re gonna need it,” her boyfriend said, looking after her. She’s lost so many friends to the street, she’s afraid to count them. Still, she feels pride in belonging, hanging with a guy who wants to put Tucson on the map, wants to make it as badass as L.A. or New York.
May 25, 2012. São Paolo, last day, last post.
We visited two stunning museums here, each of which moved us deeply both for the substance of their collections and the brilliance of design qualities in the their exhibitions and installations. First, the Museu Afro Brasil, which so powerfully tells the story of cultural relationship between Brazil and Africa, of slavery and the African diaspora, of the syncretism in art and religion that have developed from the fifteenth century to the present. We felt the terrible kinship of this society with our own, seeing a reconstruction of a slave ship and woodcuts illustrating the heartless ferocity of the slavers, every inch of a ship’s deck covered with human woe. No comfort to see a contemporary photograph showing a policeman arresting four black youths suspected of being robbers, thick ropes laced around their necks tying them together as they were being taken out of a cane field. Racism is hidden and subtle here, we were told, by our museum guide who had been a student at Howard University. It was very meaningful, she said, to have a teacher who is black, to talk about how we deal with diversity in our country. It is rare to see black doctors or professors here, she said, though schools are now required to teach Afro-Brasilian history.
How to begin to encompass the experience of two days spent in a cosmopolitan city of 20 million? The Airbus, riveted angel of conveyance, drifts over the misty cerrado. When we descend, the city is there repeating itself for mile after mile of blocky white spires, gaseous air, stately European grace and accreted Lego-land geometry. The city’s intensity is cut with thick green parks. The city’s velocity is slowed by a transit workers’ strike, which is fine by me. It’s difficult enough to get my head around this density of human energy. As writers, we are students of patience anyway, and our state department motor pool driver is a dignified professional whose face never strays from calm focus.
We are arts ambassadors, as Alan has dubbed us. After speaking/reading/performing to over a thousand Brazilians in over twenty events in three cities during the past ten days, we feel deeply the diplomacy inherent in art. Art educates empathy.
At a visit to the Universidade Católica, a professor told me that Brasilia is considered a mystical city. Not far from here is a city of 20,000 people, Vale do Amanhecer, which was founded by a woman truck driver who had a vision in the 1960s to start a city and a new religion, which she did. People come from all over the world to live there. They’re all “veteran spirits of the Earth with nineteen or more incarnations.” They help people, drawing them in during “times of confusion and insecurity.”
Brasilia is something else entirely. A designed, futuristic national capital of the nation spurred by President Juscelino Kubitschek. All the development in Brazil was happening along the Atlantic Coast, including the capital of Rio. JK moved the capital to the nation’s center, which made many citizens happy–except those in Rio who saw their city decline and face more poverty and violence following the move in 1960. Brasilia was designed by Lucia Costa and Oscar Niemeyer in 7 to 8 months, built in three years by 60,000 migrant workers laboring day and night. The nineteen ministerial buildings, the presidential and vice presidential palaces, the metropolitan cathedral, the plaza of the three powers, the national congress, national library, museum, theater, the museum of the indigenous people, etc. Sectors of the city designated for education and churches, hospitals, hotels arranged in superquadra, with commercial streets separating them.
Yesterday we flew three hours southwest to arrive in Brasilia, the uber planned city that became the capital of Brazil in 1960. Before that the capital had been Rio. On the flight I tried to watch how quickly afternoon turned into night. There is no colloquialism here for “Good evening.” One goes directly from “Good afternoon” to “Good night.” “We don’t have a concept of evening,” said Maria Jose, “the sun sets so quickly.” It seemed from the plane to take about fifteen minutes. Ah, the sunset is coming. Ah, the night is here. Perhaps I fell asleep in the interim.
We’ve flown from a city of 2.5 million built brick by brick to a city of 2.5 million built with poured concrete. The idea of Brasilia was to build “fifty years of progress in five years.” The president and ministers were living in tents during construction. Candangas, migrant workers, came from the northeast to do the labor. Many of them never left and live on the outskirts now in poorer communities. This is an area in the center of the nation, an area of low mountains and dry savanna. The city is sleek, linear, modernist, elegant, and spacious. It’s disturbingly rectilinear. An experimental city. One woman joked and said, “We feel a bit like lab rats.”
May 20, 2012
The future has arrived at Praia do Futuro. Here is what I had the chance to buy while sitting with my companions under the shade of a thatch umbrella: caipirinhas, bikinis, boiled shrimp, fruit salad, football caps, giant conch shells, sarongs, CDs of forró music, lace table cloths, massage, facial, lymphatic drainage, sunglasses, tattoos, a pair of polished magnets for stress relief, hammocks, screen prints, necklaces, spontaneous song by repentista, crab paws. Yes, crab paws. They were delicious. But the most wonderful were the bikinis. Armloads of all colors carried table to table. I saw a woman try one on while sitting at a table with a group of friends and family. No giggles or embarrassment. Finesse in the way the new bra was slipped over the old and the old slipped out from underneath. It made me think of the trauma it is for women in the U.S. to buy a new bathing suit, an experience we joke about because we dread it so much. We hate our bodies and feel shame not at the hating but at the imperfections. Here, whatever a woman has is on display and not a cringe in sight. One of our traveling companions is Maria Jose Barbosa, a Brazilian scholar and translator who teaches at the University of Iowa. When I asked her what is the situation of women in Brazil, she said that everything in Brazil is a negotiation of contracts. A man kills a woman thinking she’s having an affair and he gets acquitted. A woman is president. But the idea of femininity, she said, is not to be embarrassed by your body — to take ownership of it. The saintliness of motherhood is emphasized, but contraception is available and subsidized for the poor.
First of all, do not leave your purse on the floor or ground. If you do, a waiter will pick it up, bring over an extra chair and park the purse in it. Some say this is superstition: your money will bleed out into the ground. Some say it’s security: a thief will grab it from under your feet. Someone said it’s hygiene, so you don’t pick up crud from the street and press it close to your body.
Second, the lumpy green fruit is the cherimoya, a.k.a. “the count’s fruit” and custard apple. External and internal appearance are not promising. The skin has no glow, no smooth cheek to stroke. Dragon warts all over it. Open it to find a pasty ivory custard with huge seeds like black olives. Scoop, suck, pick, slurp. Plum passion fruit mango coconut taste all run together like ink in the rain.
May 17, 2012
No time for the ocean today, as we worked our way through Fortaleza with engagements at three educational institutions. But first, breakfast at the Hotel Luzeiros. Every morning I eat a new fruit. Guava — pale yellow skin, rosy flesh, chunky tan seeds impossible to chew. You send the whole delicious thing right on down the alimentary in hopes it travels through without commotion. Small bananas with the flavor of five bananas compressed into one velvety sweet/tart pleasure. Mango, papaya. The green lumpy fruit with a name I have not yet taken into my extraordinarily limited lexicon of Portuguese. Obrigada, I can say, the most necessary communication for a traveler: “Thank you.”
A man passes by my table in jogging shorts and t-shirt, glasses on an elastic band, carrying a whole green coconut in his hand, lifting it to drink the chilled liquid inside through a straw. Electrolytes someone says. If you are tired and hot, drink this. The man holds the nut like it’s a small baby balanced with tenderness and pride on his palm. This is what I see at breakfast with my “virginity of sight, or rather of observation” as Michaux says.
May 16, 2012
After Michaux (Ecuador: A Travel Journal): What is this name of this tree lining the beach, waxy open fists of leaves and briquets of green fruit. What is the name of that boat? Single sail, boxy hull, huge wooden rudder where the stern man navigates in the calm space separating the sand beach from the marine thoroughfare where the queue of behemoth cargo ships and tankers head for the loading booms and siphons in the city’s port, lined up like milk cows waiting to come into the barn. The small boat — not a panga, dhou, pirogue. I’m looking for what Michaux called “the faithful gong of the word,” one of the simple hungers of travel that accompany me.
Today we met with students and teachers at Universidade Federal do Ceará, this northeastern state in Brazil which was described to us as the poorest region in the nation. Federal and state public universities here are free. It’s not easy to get in. But it can be a ticket out of a neighborhood so dangerous a college student will not go outside after dark. They stayed in the auditorium for over two hours, asking questions about writing and racism and violence and The Hunger Games. They were eager for the conversation about contemporary literature and so were we, feeling that joy, as one young man described to me, that although we came for such differing circumstances we could feel alike for certain things in the world. He’d lost a friend, an old woman who had loved butterflies. He missed her but had found in one of my poems that connection, sweet and sad, come close into memory. They asked about influences and I mentioned Elizabeth Bishop and her many years of living in Brazil. The professors said she was in the Brazilian canon, which was thrilling to hear.