This is a continuation of a memoir of my time, many moons ago, in a relatively small town in Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon River. I was there on an Earthwatch expedition with the assignment to try to quantify the effects that television was having on this rural village, which was wrenching itself from the grip of traditional values and cultural traditions. We would interview (via a questionnaire) people with televisions and people without them, then try to discern consistent patterns in the two groups of people and see if we could attribute any differences between them to the owning of a television. We interviewed a lot of people and made a lot of friends in the span of two weeks. These were three of my favorites. (photos originally taken with film)
The Old Man. One day we interviewed an elderly man sitting on a small stool outside his tiny convenience store. His mellow smile pushed up wrinkles at his temples. His bulbous stomach exceeded the boundaries of his shirt. When I asked to take his picture, he tried to button the two ends of the beige cloth together, but gave up and smiled.
He claimed he owned the first television set in Pirabas, which he bought in 1971, even though there was no television reception available in Pirabas then. He still had it sitting on the shelf in the middle of his store, amid tomatoes and onions, pots and ladles. It wasn’t plugged in or even functional. It was purely a piece of décor, its small screen encased in a thick, red-orange rind. (Can you find it in the middle of the shelves?)
His grandson who had been milling about disappeared momentarily and reappeared with “the” family photo album, a slim book with about ten pictures spanning many years. This was presented to us with great pride, each photo explained to us and the people in them each named. The old man was serene on his tiny stool. He nodded gently at each photo his grandson explained. He began to wax poetic about his life, telling us it had been a good one. He said that one is born as a blank slate, and achieves happiness by growing older and adding happy experiences to one’s palette while forgetting the unhappy ones.
We were offered cafezhinos, tiny glasses of concentrated, strong coffee. I asked our translator, Marianna, if it would be all right to refuse (because I hate the taste and even the smell of coffee), and she said, “No, not really." I tried to entreat a fellow volunteer to secretly drink mine for me so I could present an empty glass, but she said she couldn’t stomach another one. So I explained to Marianna how I hated coffee and really couldn’t drink it, so she said to go ahead and pass it up. I am quite fair-skinned and people there called me blonde even though I had reddish-brown hair. The old man winked at me and said, “You’re afraid you’ll turn black like us if you drink the coffee!”
It was interesting that many people, when asked their color (given the choices: black, mulatto, white) answered “branco” (white). But one of the most fair-skinned people we interviewed answered “negro.” We couldn’t quite figure out the people’s perceptions of their color. I wish I had had the nerve to put my arm next to theirs and say, “If you’re white, what am I?” I was rather annoyed with them for telling us they were the color of what I perceive to be their oppression. Were these people trying to forget who they are? Do they think we don’t notice they’re not pale like us? I felt it showed a lack of pride in their heritage but I have no place to judge. That was just my feeling at the time. And that's part of why I liked the old man ... he bluntly and good-naturedly acknowledged our outward difference. But I also liked him just because he radiated such peace and friendliness.
It was very hypocritical of me to chastise anyone for wanting to take on Western attributes and to acquire Western products ... for there I was clowning around the dance floors trying to be like them, taking home farinha and cachaça and guaraná to eat and drink like them, making tapes of their music (does that date this?? haha) to sing like them. How do we reconcile all this sameness and otherness? Do we even know what we want from each other? When I first arrived at Pirabas, I wasn’t even aware that I wanted anything at all; I thought I was just going to be this outside, detached observer like a hunter in a duck blind checking them out with binoculars, doing our assigned research. All I thought about before coming was how interesting it would be, how academic. Sure, I envisioned myself hanging with the locals and maybe getting all chummy, but I didn’t foresee all these conundrums I would come to feel about how we should act for each other and relate to each other. All those conflicting thoughts and emotions just blew away when the Old Man winked at me, as if his eyelashes were a broom — they closed with my anxiety upon them and then swept it away as they opened, revealing a comforting twinkle in the eye.
The Old Woman. A beautiful old woman in a long, pink dress, her white hair pulled back in a bun, the edges of her mouth and eyes deeply creased in wrinkles, came over to bless our house and us volunteers "with happiness."
She was born somewhere inland several hours away. One night she had a dream about a boy-shaped rock. She didn’t know anything about it or where it was, but she felt that she had been called to find it. She packed her bags and set out, following vague intuitions. After not too long, she found the rock and made offerings. The rock is on the shore of the little island Fortaleza across the bay. There is no place to stay on Fortaleza, the island is uninhabited save for one soul, a German man the villagers say is a crazy man. So the woman stayed in Pirabas on her pilgrimage. She liked Pirabas so much that she decided to move there. During her gracious life, she had borne 11 children of her own and raised 22 additional children not her own. She believes it was her special destiny to raise so many children.
Now she put some hot wood coals into a small metal bucket and then layered various herbs over the coals. It smelled absolutely wonderful. She swung the bucket around through all of the rooms, and then up and down each of our bodies as she said her blessings. She said she has always had a gift for this—a type of shamanism, I suppose—all of her life. I tried to look into this woman’s eyes without seeming too bold or disrespectful. I wanted to know what lay there, what gentle wisdom steered the words of her blessings. Roberto translated them for us; she bestowed a different blessing on each person. Could she see into our souls, see what each of us needed, what words would fill our empty pores? Whether we needed happiness or wisdom or peace? Another volunteer took a picture of her blessing me:
I wanted to take all the children we had met to the old woman. Tell her to bless them with what they needed most, and take them back to the jungle. I wanted the kids to smell her herbs and curl up in her ancient voice. Maybe she, this woman, still knows the moon, still tastes its illumination. Maybe her pilgrimage is not yet complete. Perhaps she will be called to find the grave of Mani, somewhere far upriver. Perhaps the old woman is to go there with the children, to the place where the mysterious little pale-skinned boy, Mani — whose birth and death both were strange, sudden, and unexplained — was buried by his mother next to her house. It is from his grave that the white root of the manioc was created. From there it spread, was tasted by the boy’s tribe in his honor, and subsequently became the most important food of the region. And when the Old Woman and the children find that spot where death sprouted new life, there they will surely want to stay. I won’t be able to find them anymore.
Manuel. We met Manuel as he was weaving baskets, and he let us take a picture of his nimble fingers lacing green leaves. They were baskets to carry fish in.
His wife was pounding manioc with a huge pestle and mortar, and little piglets ran around their yard.
Their thatched house was situated at the top of a slope right on the bank of an inlet that fills and drains with the tide. They had a little herb garden in a box on stilts so it didn’t get inundated with the salt water. They had a small well for drinking water.
We sat and talked with them for awhile, and within a few minutes a huge crowd of neighbors had gathered. One of the kids, upon seeing me taking pictures, wanted to know how much it would cost for me to take his picture. I told him “nothing” and attempted to explain I would try to send it to him but couldn’t be sure he would get it. He ran home and combed his hair down, then came back and posed all macho-like, flexing his muscles. Everyone was making fun of him, but he didn’t care. I could only imagine the girl to whom he saw himself handing the photo.
We went back to the basket maker, Manuel, the next day to give him an official interview. He and his wife had 15 kids. (!!) He didn’t have a television set. He thought TV brought a lot of bad things with it into the world, which is why he had none. His wife nodded solemnly with these proclamations and household policies. Manuel had been both shot and stabbed in various situations where he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time — at least the way he tells it.
Manuel had injured his finger collecting fish since our first meeting and was unable to make baskets this day. He said it would be a week or so before it healed. Despite brimming over with his family — small children burdened with bright red spots all over their skin — their home was quite tranquil. He had taken us around to the back of the house, underneath a generous awning, where the neighbors couldn’t gather this time. His wife steadily pounded manioc while the children wandered in and out. It was one of the few places where I ever felt a pleasant coolness. Most houses where we conducted interviews, we sat in puddles of sweat; sometimes it ran down my temples in literal rivers.
Here it was cool and quiet, and the family was pleasant, and none of us wanted to get up and leave. We sat around Manuel like children at their grandpa’s feet while Marianna translated his tales of violence and his hostility against television. “Não!” he insisted. Never a television in his house! Everything has gone downhill, he said, since people started buying them. "They are beasts."
At last I felt refreshed by someone whose actions reflected their views. Plenty of other villagers said they thought television was a bad influence, yet they owned a TV. This is certainly not a phenomenon restricted to Pirabas, which is why I particularly and greatly respected Manuel for standing by his beliefs and somehow keeping television away from 15 children at least while they were in his house.