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 In Part 1, I ended with the question: "Who were they, these people with bare and nimble feet?" Let's begin meeting some of the villagers we interviewed (as part of a study to determine the effects of the introduction of television on the community ... the questions were largely geared toward gauging their views of social norms and trust in community). And again, this is my first immersive experience in a Third World or Developing Country, many years ago. 

Jacirne.  Jacirne invited us—me, Paula and Andrea (expedition assistant and translator)—in as a matter of politeness, into her shack on stilts, a little square of irregularly spaced, unchinked wooden slats.  But it would have been much nicer outside.  Inside, it was absolutely stifling.  I thought I was going to suffocate.  There was no air circulation at all.  The room we sat in was hardly able to accommodate two modest loveseats and three plastic chairs.  As we sat on one loveseat and Jacirne sat across from us on the other one, our sweaty knees touched.  A string of white Christmas lights stretched along the wall in lieu of a light bulb.  A rickety rack of narrow shelves was in the corner,  upon which sat a 12-inch-screen television, tuned in to a tennis match, and on the shelf below sat one 12-inch tall plastic Tweety Bird (of the Warner Brothers cartoon). 

Paula asked to use the “toilet” while we were there, which was “just the same hole in the floor as the shower drain!” she whispered to me upon returning. Jacirne sat knee-to-knee with us in a pair of cotton shorts and a white tee-shirt with some Portuguese slogan splashed on it.  She looked and acted like any people I know back home.  I knew in coming here that I’d see a different standard of life.  But somehow the importation of the modern world — a television and a loveseat — into this tiny shack made the all-purpose hole in the floor stand out, a blaring siren of poverty.  If nothing about our houses had been mutual, it may not have seemed as shocking.  But the TV, the loveseat and Tweety, all crowded together like some Dr.-Suessian version of a living room back home, pulled me down like an anchor, forced me to tether myself to the First World in things I recognized.  I then found myself considering all the things I didn’t recognize in terms of the First World as well.  And so the wooden shack, pitiful against even the storage shed in my backyard, with the hole in the floor serving as both toilet and shower — not just primitive but surely unsanitary, and I did not want to think about what happened to the solid waste so I didn't ask — fell on me heavily, this undeniable poverty.

[Current note: I struggled with this a lot, and still do if not as much, how to feel and behave toward the depth of poverty around me in other countries when I can't wave a magic wand and fix it. Living in a poor peasant village in China (some years after Brazil) complicated matters, because the villagers' beautiful homes and their ways of life were so dignified, an outsider could almost forget how poor they were. I think the big difference is that their poverty was softened, or at least masked, by their abiding deep traditions. Whereas in Pirabas, traditions were of little daily consideration as the townspeople yearned instead for televisions and Western products in their rickety shacks, and to be considered, literally, "white." So what stands out is their failure to acquire products and change their skin color. Whereas in the Chinese village, nothing stood out as a failure, everything seemed the success of tradition to endure. (You can read about the village HERE.) Similarly, in Africa, rightly or wrongly, I find myself with different feelings toward impoverished villages where people are still living traditional lives (livelihoods) in their traditional homes — mud huts, rondevals, bandas, etc. — and villages and slums of tin shacks and plastic tarps.] 

I had nothing with me with which to wipe away the sweat running down my face.  I swiped at my forehead and temples with the back of my hand.  I searched Jacirne’s face for beads of sweat, for signs that she was not immune to the heat, that she was not actually a camel in disguise.  She answered our interview questions with some discussion over each and then sat back and opened the floodgates as if she had been waiting for someone like us to talk to.  She told us about how villagers set fire to the last mayor’s house and burned all his documents because they were unsatisfied with him.  She talked for about an hour, confiding in us all kinds of gossip.  I began to wonder if she was a witch cooking us in her oven-house for dinner.  We would be naturally salted with our sweat. 

Andrea would translate as much as she could for us in the tiny holes in Jacirne’s monologue.  She talked about how young girls get pregnant.  She said it happens often but is not really socially acceptable.  “Young” meaning about 12 years old.  Girls usually get married by about 16 or 17, as she herself had, as many women we talked to had.  Jacirne said young girls go after married men because they have money.  She didn’t blame the men for getting the girls pregnant because, she said, “men are men.”  She blamed the girls, blamed them for conniving at their tender age to steal what they wanted with their budding femininity.  When I asked at the end of the interview if I could take her picture, I could see her recounting the opinions she’d unloaded on us, and she said, “no.”  Then after a momentary, thoughtful silence, she repeated “no.” 

When we finally left, I was woozy and unsteady from the heat.  I tumbled out of the shack onto the narrow dirt path, breathing in deep the salty air that blew just slightly through my hair, creating small ripples through my skirt.

Rose Angela.  We interviewed Rose Angela at a food shop just up the road from our house.  The shop was a small, white building with one large window through which orders were placed and food passed.  As with many of the tiny cafés in town, the tables, usually three or four, were all outside under an awning or extended roof.  Miguel followed us there and sat on one of the mini pool tables which dotted the town.  He was probably about 10 years old, with the ubiquitous rotting of this two front teeth.  He had come to our house the first day we arrived.  He was a little older than most of the children that hung around us, and so he was asked to run an errand for us.  After that he was constantly at our house, and we took him under our wing.  He ran all kinds of errands and we paid him a little money.  Andrea bought him a soccer ball, but he had to promise not to tell his friends where he got it, as we didn’t need ten errand boys, just one.  Wherever Andrea went, he followed. [I have since wondered what on earth Miguel could tell his friends as a plausible story of how he magically acquired a soccer ball.]

Several of Rose Angela’s friends appeared and sat down on stools nearby.  A cow munched grass beside the shop. Rose Angela had a pet parrot named Maroqua that she fed and showed off for us.  The parrot liked to bite my hair, and eventually he just all-out attacked my head, got tangled up in my hair, and had to be extracted by Rose Angela. 

While we were sitting there, Allen from our boat ride rode by on a bicycle and called out my name and waved.  I was ecstatic to feel like I already had friends in town, and I smiled for a long time.  He hadn’t forgotten our shared beers, like I somehow thought he would, the boat ride to the island with someone who didn’t speak Portuguese, the dancing with someone who didn’t know how to dance — he might have thought it was just a funny dream.  But he called my name and waved.

Rose Angela told us during the interview that she didn’t approve of women smoking in public, yet she was smoking a cigarette when we first walked up.  This was one of our standardized questions—whether it was OK for women to smoke in public.  There seemed to be no question of it being alright for a man.  Most people, however, would answer that it was not OK for a woman.  It was somehow a masculine habit, like forming pregnancies, and not to be questioned in its rightful gender.  Consistently, the people we interviewed had a well-formed view of an ideal woman and knew exactly how she should and shouldn’t act.  Yet, we found few women, if any, who accommodated this ideal.

After the interview, Rose Angela insisted that we come by that night for a drink.  Many of the people we interviewed would make this sincere entreaty as we left them.  After answering 106 questions for us, we were friends.  Whether or not we came by later for the drinks, we were hailed ever after with waves and hellos, and how-are-you’s and the latest gossip. 

They were so quick to turn – at first, we were treated very skeptically, in some cases even with hostility and curses.  But anyone who agreed to an interview, by the end of it was a different person.  And after only a few days, the whole village turned; suddenly people were anxious to be interviewed, and there was virtually no one who wasn’t immediately our friend.  I began to wonder if I could make friends this way back home.  Here, I just asked a person 106 questions that someone else made up and we were friends.  Just like that.  Could it be so simple the world around?

The Empty Office.  We conducted interviews at the Office of Social Services.  One of its main functions was to hand out food staples once a month to the most needy families in the area.  It kept rudimentary statistics about the townspeople and their needs.   The sparseness of this office, one of the more visible and “official” in town, was a little comical.  Considering the rest of the buildings in Pirabas, it was fairly large, significantly larger than many homes.  It wasn’t partitioned; it was just one rectangular room.  The only things in it were a small bookshelf against one wall, with two or three books and a few bulging 3-ring binders trying desperately to make the shelves look useful; a small cupboard/counter in a back corner for making coffee; in the middle of the room a table and five chairs at which three women sat quietly, and a tiny desk with a typewriter covering its whole surface, where a man sat typing ever so slowly, his two index fingers alternating to hit one key at a time.  With its sparse furnishing, the room seemed rather cavernous and the steady punching of the typewriter overrode the murmurs of the women at the table, becoming the dominant sound in the building.

Miguel had taken us there, believing this to be a destination that would suit our purposes (which were rather vague to him), and he sat patiently at the table while we conducted our business.  We were given cafezhinos (tiny cups of very strong coffee), but I can’t stand coffee, so I talked one of my fellow volunteers into subtly drinking mine so the women wouldn’t be offended by my refusal.  All three women in the room and the typist agreed to the interview.

Everyone at the Social Services had seen or heard about me dancing on our first night and knew who all I danced with and who the girl was that tried to teach me.  They said I was really funny to watch, and they were all hoping I would go to the next dance.  (Which I did, with the same foolishness as before.)  All I could do was laugh at myself with them, but I could feel my face flush and I tried to think of something I could say to change the subject.  I thought about lying when I got home to Colorado, telling my friends that I danced the nights away with grace.

It began to rain outside and Miguel got up and closed all the shutters and helped the man cover the typewriter.  He was very concerned about my camera getting wet, as the roof was leaking on my head, until I finally put it in my lap underneath the table to ease his worry. 

When the male typist was interviewed, the women listened in with interest, cackling over a number of his answers (against good protocol, incidentally; we subsequently took more steps to assure privacy and confidentiality to the interviewee, though no one here in the office seemed interested in privacy).  There were a number of questions on the survey that most people found very amusing: “Should men cook?  Should men do laundry?  Is it OK for a woman to go after a man if she likes him?”  A lot of people answered, invariably with a laugh, that men should cook; only a few said men should do laundry; and about half said women could go after men.  But everyone was so amused by the questions that it would seem no one had seriously thought things could be that way.  The typist, though, gave out progressive answers to these  types of questions, posing them rather shyly. Mostly on account of the manner in which he answered (as opposed to the answers) I don't know if he really thought that way or if he was trying to impress us Western girls. I couldn’t decide whether to praise his progressiveness or whether to cower beneath it, beneath its trajectory into the modern homogenized Western world.

S.K.  We nicknamed one young man we met “S.K.” for shark killer.  He hunted sharks and cut off their fins for sale to the Japanese market.  It is illegal and extremely dangerous work, but he claimed it was the only way for him to make money.  He was really being exploited by all the others in the chain, as he, who does all the hard and risky work, earns a mere pittance compared to the others higher up in the chain.  Even the man who owns the boat, who doesn’t even go out to sea, gets a bigger share of the profits than S.K. does.  They are out to sea for seven days at a time; they have to go very far out in the ocean and then work around the clock in order to make a sufficient catch.  Their boats and methods are very crude and one mistake can get a person killed. 

The harpoon method they use is illegal, and sounds utterly terrifying.  They haul the shark in on the harpoon line and they have to pull it part way into the boat in order to reach its fin to cut it off, and they have to pull it up head-first.  If someone slips on the wet deck, they will slide right into the shark’s mouth.  S.K. had a scar on his arm from where a shark tooth went through when he slipped one time.  Although this operation does not kill the shark, a fellow volunteer, George, explained to us, it is relegated to living out its truncated life on the bottom of the ocean, scavenging for food off the ocean floor, unable to come up underneath its prey as is its instinct. 

George sat and listened to S.K.’s tale from beneath a “save the sharks” tee-shirt,  disturbed at the young man’s profession.  I had mixed feelings about this guy.  On the one hand, what he does is inhumane and also illegal and can’t be condoned.  But then there he is risking life and limb, claiming this is the only way for him to make money.  And it’s obvious that few in Pirabas are working for anything other than a subsistence living.  Nearly everyone in town agrees that fishing is about the only way to make any money in Pirabas.

In our surveys we asked people about their jobs and almost no one had a job they were very satisfied with.  Many said they had thought about moving away to try to find a better paying job, but there was not much optimism in this regard.  People seemed to feel trapped.  The inertia was too great to overcome.  They were afraid the prospect of a better or even different life was a mirage.  And so they stayed.  And hunted sharks.

Do they ever think of going “backwards?”  Instead of looking for more prestigious jobs and better houses, a car, have they thought of moving back into the jungle, throwing away their forks and televisions, and living off the land?  Of throwing in the towel for this life of few material rewards and calling back their ancestors?  Their jungle ancestors are not so far in the past — the Amazon Basin is still home to completely traditional communities. The people of Pirabas might yet remember the life that had once seemed timeless. 

*

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