Category Archives: Brazil

Tamba-Tajá, 2

This post continues the story of my trip to rural Moju in 1993.  Double-click the photos to see them in original size.  One more installment of the story is left…

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Rosângela was Nego’s aunt, and it turned out he and I knew all the same people, so I went home at 3 in the morning to collect my things and meet him back at the Tamba-Tajá.  I brought my toothbrush, a blank notebook and a couple changes of clothes to last me through Tuesday.  Back at his parents’ house, Nego and I got a couple hours’ semi-drunken sleep before we set off for the docks in Cidade Velha, Belém’s old quarter, from which you can get local boats for just about anywhere in the Amazon.

Everyone laughed at Nego and me in our hangovers.  Aluízio, the patriarch, had seen this before.  Nego’s twin brother ribbed us through our headaches.  Nego’s mom just shook her head, while his sister chased after her 4 year old son, Hugo – her yelps of “ooooo-go!” “ooooo-go!” (in Portuguese the “H” in Hugo is silent) echoing throughout the trip as she tracked after the boy to keep him from falling off the boat, pull him away from knives, or just quiet him for a few minutes so we could rest our ears.  Oscar, Hugo’s dad, hung with Aluízio and Nego’s mom, who made sure I was comfortable and happy as we set off.

This was my first boat trip in Amazonia, crossing the Baía de Guajurá to the bus stop at Barcarena.  As the boat backed away from the dock, we watched the city recede into a collection of smaller houses and palm trees, behind which rose a massive skyline of highrise apartment buildings.  A lot of women from Jurunas live in those highrise apartments, in the maid’s quarters, next to ironing boards and sewing machines, just off the kitchen.

Belém, from the Baía de Guajurá

It took an hour to cross the bay, where we waited for the bus in a parking lot.  Used to be you went everywhere by boat, Nego told me, and then it took a full 24 hours to get to their little farm in Moju.  With the roads and busses the trip shrunk to about 5 hours, quite an advance from the past.  The bus ride itself was broken into a couple of parts, because you had to cross the Moju River and then change busses in the town.  At the river, everyone got out the bus and ran down to water, where dozens of men and boys waited to ferry people across in small, open, wooden boats, a few cruzeiros for each person.  About 20 minutes later, we were on the other side, in Moju town.

Moju was a typical Amazon river-town – a collection of dusty buildings and streets, a trading post, some government buildings.  In the center of town were the older houses, stuccoed and whitewashed, with Portuguese-blue lintels and trim.  The further you went out from the center, the houses turned to wood and occasionally brick, getting smaller and more rustic.  Nego had some relatives in Moju, one of whom was a political official of some sort.

Marajó 1998

Nego’s own family was from Marajó, the large island in the mouth of the Amazon, to the northwest of Belém.  There, Aluízio had been a mayor in some small town at one time or another.  He was a staunch member of the “PMDB” – Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement – which was the official opposition party during the military regime in the 1970s and 1980s.  By the 1990s, the PMDB was the official party of the state governor, Jader Barbalho, who rode the opposition wave to wealth and finally condemnation as one of Brazil’s most corrupt politicians.  Aluízio complained that all his children were “petistas” – for the party initials “PT,” the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party), which was the main left-wing party that had emerged in 79 as a more radical alternative to the Aluízio’s own PMDB.  Nego laughs when Aluízio says these things.

From Moju, we took the road again.  It started out paved and but wound up in the same red clay as the streets of Jurunas.  Thick rainforest alternated with cattle pastures.  Charred stumps poked out the ground amid sparse tufts of long grass that would grow on the land for a couple of years, until the topsoil becomes barren and can support vegetation no more.  All the life in Amazonia is in the trees and bushes, and the soil they sit on is barren.  Charred stumps and lumps of clay.  Loam.  Shrublike bushes.  Not too many cows out there, but it sure was hot.

So we barreled on down the road toward some place I’d never seen.  By early afternoon we stopped and got off the bus in front of a small wooden shack by the side of the road.  A smaller path left the roadside and disappeared into forest behind the house.  A man greeted us and we went inside to eat, have a drink of water, and talk about the latest events in the area.  This man was Nego’s uncle.  He has a small farm next to the road and lived there with his daughter.  Fruit was everywhere, hanging from the trees and on a plate before us.  Mangos, caju, goiaba, pineapple, coconut.  There were rice and beans, chicken.  Good food and a lot of it, for we still had a few kilometers to walk through the forest.

The forest around Moju, 1993

Notes and Credits

The photographs in this posting are all my own, taken on various trips to Belém and environs in the 1990s.

Right now the rainforest and Amazonian issues are stirring up heat at the COP-15 summit, and as someone who has lived a significant portion of my adult life in Belém and has traveled all over Amazônia, I am hoping that some good things might come of this.  The ties between deforestation and cows and greenhouse gasses are tight, though as Brazilian researcher and advocate João Meirelles Filho notes, cows are a bigger problem than Brazil or the Amazon.  I don’t hold out that much hope from politicians, however, but I do find a lot to inspire in guys like Doug, whose Amazon Pilgrim blog recounts his journey across the Amazon, from Belém to Peru, by bicycle.

You can find out more about Doug and his adventures at Green Upgrader, where he’s an editor.

And of course, we can always find inspiration with one of the most popular foreign rock bands in Brasil, or anywhere else, for that matter, outside of their home Germany – and I am speaking of course of The Scorpions, whose concerts in Manaus have been sold out for the good of Greenpeace and the rainforest.  For a different kind of concert in Manaus by foreign travelers, check out “Our Jungle Journey,” a blog by a North American couple who moved to Manaus to play in the symphony orchestra and other music groups there.  They’re enjoying the splendid, world famous Manaus Opera House, one of the true gems of the Amazon’s belle epoque during the rubber boom (1880s through 1920s).

One of the most interesting groups working in Amazonia on building sustainable lifestyles for the forest and the people who live there is IMAZON, Instituto do Homem e Meio-Ambiente da Amazônia (Institute for Man and the Environment in Amazonia), which was founded in the 1980s by a team of Brazilian and North American researchers.  I’ve visited there several times in the 1990s and 2000, and they do great work.

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Tamba-Tajá, 1

Santa Maria de Belém do Grão-Pará

I’d been introduced to the Tamba-Tajá by Marga, who was a Lutheran minister, human rights activist, and liberation theologist.  The bar’s owners were her friends, Iza and Rosângela, who were related by marriage.  Iza had been a revolutionary and women’s rights activist in Brazil for many years, including the worst years of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rosângela was raising her children and grandchildren while selling apartment leases in Belém and generally dabbling in real estate.

They named their bar for a plant of local legend, called Tamba-Tajá by Amazonian natives, known as the Elephant Ear plant to others, which people grew in their yards.  The Tamba-Tajá can tell if there is much love in the house, very little, or if one of the spouses is cheating.  A friend of mine in Belém made a point of telling me that a smart woman always plants one in her yard.

The bar called Tamba-Tajá was a family affair in the working class neighborhood of Jurunas.  In January, during the height of the rainy season, the streets of Jurunas are deep with a mud of dark, red clay which can also be home to ferocious tribes of fire ants out in the countryside. People debate which is better, the mud during rainfall or the fine red dust kicked into the air when the streets are dry.  The dust gets in your nostrils and mouth, leaving the taste of clay on your tongue.  They say the dust causes the “gripe,” colds and fevers everyone lives with and no one likes.

A street in Jurunas, 1993

The Tamba-Tajá opened right on to the unpaved street.  It was in the bottom floor of the house where Iza’s estranged and still quite revolutionary husband lived.  He was a poet of some local fame.  The bar was completely open to the outside, inside and outside having little meaning in a place where inside is often outside, defined less by bricks or wood than by the way people inhabit those spaces.  In the front, palm trees shade the patio and keep the rain off people as they eat and dance and drink.

The windows are open to the outside air, too, as there are no screens in Belém, except on Marga’s house, perhaps because she was descended from Germans.  In the streets and through the windows of the Tamba-Tajá you can see dark silhouettes of palm trees swaying in the breeze over Jurunas and its little, wooden houses, home to too many people with too little money, though they always seem to have enough to stop by the Tamba-Tajá and the other housefront bars in the neighborhood on a Friday night. Cold beer beats the heat in Belém.

There’s a group of reggae musicians who hang out at the Tamba-Tajá, along with political dreamers and the friends and family of Iza and Rosângela.  These musicians spin records on some nights and everyone dances.  The sweat soaks your body as you twist and find a place in the scratchy rhythms booming from the old, battered speakers Ivan dragged to the bar on the back of his bicycle. Over crackling, jerry-rigged wires and pounding drums, Bob Marley lived for a while at the Tamba-Tajá.

The first time I went there was to meet Marga and celebrate Iza’s birthday.  They had me play for them.  The stereo wires were re-rigged to a microphone that had seen much better days many years ago, and they gave me a guitar that made the microphone look like a piece of new equipment.  I didn’t know any Brazilian songs, but that’s not what they wanted to hear from me.  “Let It Be” always brings down the house in Brazil.  And it did again, that night at the Tamba-Tajá.

Rua Tupinambás

Now Iza’s birthday had passed, and it was a Friday night.  I hadn’t been over to Tamba-Tajá for a while, and with no plans to speak of I headed for Jurunas, a slow walk about 10 blocks down Rua Tupinambás, like “Jurunas” the name of one of Brazil’s original, native peoples.

It had been a long day for me, with much work to do, and the rain storms were particularly hard.  In Belém, the blue skies of morning typically give way to clouds and showers by mid-afternoon.  From January to May the rain can start in the afternoon and not stop til near daylight.  It washes the city and cleanses its ills and keeps the equatorial sun from burning everyone and everything to a crisp.  In all, about 86 inches of rain falls in Belém each year, a little over 7 feet.

The rain leaves the air smelling fresh with the breeze off the giant Guarajá Bay, which brings the ocean to into the mouths of the three rivers that surround Belém:  the Amazon, Toncantins and Guamá.  The ocean tides are sometimes so strong that they send waves up the rivers, so that they seem to flow backwards for a while.  Pororoca, they call it.  All this water gives life to the land and its people.

As I walked down Tupinambás, I looked to the sky for signs of rain, letting my eyes graze the cloud bottoms and measure how far or close they might be.  The city lights bounced back from the clouds, and the clouds glowed orange in the distance, a false sunset that lasts all night long until the clouds dissipate in the coolness of dawn and the new day.

Tonight at the Tamba-Tajá there was no one I knew, save for Rosângela.  I greeted her, got a frosty Kaiser, and sat down at a table of strangers, just listening to the conversation.  A man was speaking to a boy.  The man held his right arm across his chest.  He held his right arm with his left hand, as he would the neck of a guitar.  The boy did the same.

So we began to speak about music.  The man called himself “Nego,” which is a common nickname meaning “black dude.”  The boy I recognized from reggae nights at the Tamba-Tajá.  He had wide, brown eyes that spoke of youth.  Nego had curly black hair thick atop his head, a round face and full lips like my own. His smile and manner drew me in.  He asked me questions, about music, my life, why I was sitting in the Tamba-Tajá and what I was doing.  We talked for a long time, over a few more Kaisers.  The others round us had their own conversations, and we had ours.

Nego wanted to know if I’d ever been out of the city to see the forest.  I hadn’t.  He asked me if I’d like to go with his family to a farm they have in the middle of the forest, a day away from Belém in Moju.  I said, “sure, Id love that.”

“We’ll leave in a couple hours,” he said.

Notes and Credits

This story, Tamba-Tajá, will be told in 3 parts on truth and rocket science.  It recounts a visit I took to the bar on a Friday night in 1993, during my year of doctoral research on Belém.  There I met a young man who became a close friend for most of 1993, and he invited me out to his family’s farm in the rainforest.  I returned home on Tuesday.

I took the photo of Belém’s docks in the “Cidade Velha” in April 1993, as the boat left Belém for the journey that is recounted in this story.  “Cidade Velha” means “old city” and refers to the original colonial settlement of Belém that was established in 1616 to consolidate Portugal’s claims over the Amazon.  The other photos of Jurunas were taken around the same time by me, except for the photo of Rua Tupinambas.  That photo comes form the site Skyscraper City, which contains a great number of photos of Belem.  Very nice collection!

For more on my friend, Rosa Marga Rothe, see her Wikipedia page.  Her daughter, Iva Rothe, is a accomplished musician.

The picture of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the text is from the website, “Pasarela Cultural,” which goes on to discuss the legend of the Tamba-Tajá.

The legend of the Tamba-Tajá can be found all over the Web.  Silvana Nunes’s fotolog has a great photo of the plant and a simple text of the myth, which I have translated.  Nunes, a teacher and photographer, has another blog called “Foi desse jeito que eu ouvi dizer…” (this is how I heard it…).

In the Macuxi tribe there was a very strong and intelligent Indian.  One day, he fell in love with a beautiful Indian woman from his village.  They were married a little later, and they were very happy, until one day the woman became very ill and was paralyzed.

So that he wouldn’t be separated from his love, the Macuxi man made a sling to carry the woman on his back, taking her everywhere he went.  One day, however, the man noticed that his cargo was heavier than normal.  When he untied the sling, he found that his beloved wife was dead.

The man went into the forest and dug a hole on the edge of a creek.  He buried himself together with his wife, for there was no reason for him to continue living.  Some time passed until a full moon appeared in the same place where they were buried, and a gracious plant unknown to the Macuxis began to grow there.

The plant was the Tamba-Tajá, with dark green triangular leaves, which have on their backside another, smaller leaf which appears similar to the female gentialia.  Together, the two leaves symbolize the great love that the Macuxi couple had.

Amazonian caboclos grow the plant near their houses and attribute mystical powers to it.  If, for example, the plant grows well with exuberant, lush leaves, it’s a sign that there is much love in that house.  But if the larger leaves don’t have the smaller ones on their backs, there is no love in the house.  If there is more than one smaller leaf on the backside of the larger one, one of the spouses if unfaithful.

The photo of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the story’s text shows the “small leaf” or flower on the backside of the Elephant Ear quite well.  Without that flower, love ain’t going right in the house.

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E/F – the glass of youth

halfglass-beer

E.  Things that we never would have done had we known better, but that we must live with to the end of our days.

F.  Wonderful things and great discoveries that never would have happened had we known better.

Note:  E/F will be a recurring feature of truth and rocket science. If you have a half-glass photo to share, or want to create one, send it to me at jguidry.7 AT gmail DOT com and I’ll use it in a future posting, with full credit to you.  Make sure that you tell me the story behind the photo, including the contents of the glass, in the following manner . . .

Credit:  This standard Williams Sonoma pint glass is half-filled with Hoegaarden whitbier.  Its taste is semi-tart and well-accented with a slice of lemon.  It sits on a small faux-marble coffee table, in front of a love seat futon that was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Sixth Avenue b/t Garfield and Carroll, on a spring day in 2008.  As the mattress was clean and the frame in almost perfect shape, we took it home because we needed a sofa.  Ah, providence.

IMG_3264

a comfortable living room, for people and cats

The paintings were acquired in Bahia, Brazil in the summer of 1998.  The artist signs himself “Alberto,” and they are of mixed media, acrylic paint with splatters of sand and swatches of cloth added for texture.  I don’t recall the name of the shop, but I could certainly find it in a minute upon return to the city.

The coffee table was given to me by a friend to hold for her while she moved back to Rockford, Illinois to live in the barn on the family farm while writing her first three books.  One day she may want the table back, but until then, it’s here.

IMG_3260

Pixie, ace mouser

Pixie, the cat, is about five and a half years old.  She came into the family in February of 2005, for the specific purpose of eradicating the mice that had beset us in the fall of 2004.  As I told Duke, Pixie was “a technician,” and she proved a very effective one:  in her first 14 days, she took out 13 mice, and we never saw another one.

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Duke loves Pixie

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The truth and Brasília, 3: Faroeste Caboclo

Brasília, Metropolitan Cathedral

Brasília, Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida

Brazil is a country of inspired appropriation.  Its peoples, cultures, sounds, and visions grind against each other.  They rise up and smash together like tectonic plates.  In the collision of Brazil and Brasília, the city of candangos gave the country Renato Russo.

No “torso of steel,” no “[w]inged elbows and eyeholes,” but like Zweig and Plath a literary mind and poet, Russo’s voice became his generation’s.  In his epic song, “Faroeste Caboclo,” Russo tells the story of a poor kid’s migration to Brasília across 159 lines of free verse, punk sensibilities, and an affecting melody that calls to mind the traditional country music of Brazil’s Northeast.  Faroeste is what they call a “Western movie” in Brazil, and caboclo refers to the Brazilian mestiço everyman, a mixture of races and cultures, poor, seeking his or her fortune in some faraway place.  Faroeste Caboclo is Walt Whitman, rogue-Gary Cooper and Joe Strummer together in Niemeyer’s white palace.

The hero is João de Santo Cristo, from Brazil’s Northeastern “backlands.”  Brazilians call this region the Sertão, a rural, agrarian, drought-afflicted area that is the poorest place in the country and carries the deepest currents of Brazil’s premodern past.  João robs the poor box from the church.  He goes after the girls in the town.  People don’t trust him.  He feels the effect his skin color has on others who are lighter, more well-to-do.  He’s arrested and goes to reform school, where he is raped and degraded.  He is filled with hatred.

When a man on his way to Brasília decides not to go and gives his bus ticket to João, he becomes an accidental candango, leaving his past for the “beautiful city” where everything will be different.  He works as a carpenter’s apprentice, but he can’t make ends meet and becomes a drug trafficker.

After some time in the criminal world, he tries to go straight when he falls in love Maria Lúcia, but eventually the drug trade pulls him back in.  João’s enemy, Jeremias, steals Maria Lúcia and they have a child together.  João challenges Jeremias to a duel, which is covered in the press and shocks the city’s elite but makes João a hero to the people.  In the duel, Jeremias shoots João in the back and wounds him fatally.  Maria Lúcia rushes to her first love and gives João a gun.  He challeges Jeremias to die like a man and shoots him.  In the end, Maria Lúcia and João die together in each other’s arms.

The people declared that João de Santo Cristo
Was a saint because he knew how to die
And the bourgeoisie of the city didn’t believe the story
That they saw on TV

And João didn’t accomplish what he desired like the devil
When he came to Brasília
What he wanted was to speak to the president
To help all the people that

Suffer

Russo and his bandmates in Legião Urbana (Urban Legion) grew up in Brasília in the late 1970s.  Their songs of protest, love, and everyday struggles became the nation’s soundtrack to the last years of the military dictatorship and the re-emergence democracy in the 1980s.

“Será,” a love song with an anthemic refrain, could be heard blaring from sound trucks at the massive marches and rallies of the caras-pintadas (“painted faces”) in 1992, as they challenged the nation to bring down Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president since 1960.

So called because they painted their faces in the Brazilian national colors, green and yellow, the caras-pintadas had grown up under the military regime and saw their hopes threatened by Collor’s massively corrupt regime.  They led the way for the whole country, which stopped each day at 7:00 for the allegorical soap opera, Deus Nos Acuda (God Help Us), a comedy in which the angel Celestina tries to save Brasil from the excesses of its social and political elite.  In the show’s opening, the rich are smothered in mud and flushed down a whirlpool shaped like the country itself.

Collor was impeached and left office by the end of 1992.

Russo died on October 11, 1996, of AIDS-related illnesses.  Russo’s wishes were to have his ashes spread over the gardens of Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, returning him to Brasília and its modernist vision.

In 2006, Fernando Collor was elected Senator for his home state, Alagoas, for an 8 year term (2007-2015).  Brazil has absorbed Brasília.

Notes and Credits

Photo:  interior of the Brasília Metropolitan Cathedral.  As with the previous post, the photo is taken from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

Renato Russo was born Renato Manfredi, Jr., in Rio de Janeiro.  He moved to Brasília in 1973 at the age of 13 and became a songwriter and musician.  He renamed himself after the philosophers Rousseau and Bertrand Russell, and the painter Henri Rousseau.

Faroeste Caboclo plays on the iconic stories of migration from the Brazilian backlands, the sertão, to cities in search of a better life – one of the central storylines of Brazilian history.  It’s a story of spiritual depth and apocalyptic reach, most famously told in Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões.  Da Cunha’s book, published in 1903, tells of the Brazilian military’s destruction of the city of Canudos in the 1890s.

Canudos was a city that grew up around the milennial teachings of a folk preacher, Antonio Conselheiro, bringing tens of thousands of poor Brazilians together in a sertanejo enclave to await the last days.  The Brazilian government saw the city as a grave threat to its own project of bringing Brazil into the community of modern republics while still maintaining the class and racial divisions of its colonial and plantation (slavery) past.  Canudos was utterly destroyed by the military, and its inhabitants were massacred.

The destruction of Canudos removed one “sore” from the Brazilian body politic, but in the predictable irony of history and unintended consequences, Canudos gave birth to the next social threat.  Soldiers from the campaign, unable to find work on retrn to civilian life, migrated south from the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro and built their own squatter colony on a hill.  Thus was born the first favela, later to become the 21st century dystopian Canudos that continues to challenges the Brazilian modernizing project.

During 1992 and 1993, I lived in Belém and accompanied the protest marches through the city.  I was officially a researcher, but I was also 28 years old, not much older than the caras-pintadas who I spoke to.  Just a few years earlier, as a college student in New Orleans in the mid-1980s, I used to grab the New York Times every day to read up on the military’s exit from power in 1985.  In 1992-93, like everyone else in Brazil, I was glued to the television every day for Deus Nos Acuda.

Another song that rang out from the sound trucks and radios everywhere was the first Legião Urbana hit, “Tempo Perdido,” with the echoing call of the refrain, selvagem, meaning wild, untamed. It was a song about love and not losing the time at hand, but it was also about the passion for breaking free of repression that made this song the “anthem of an entire generation” (O hino de toda uma geração), according to Alexandre Inagaki.  In the video the band pays homage to all their forebears in rock and roll.

“Tempo Perdido” follows in the footsteps, or looking down from the shoulders of Raul Seixas and “Maluco Beleza.”  Raul Seixas was Brazil’s Elvis (his idol), Jim Morrison, and John Lennon rolled into one.  He “was not just a musician, but a philosopher of life …” (Raul não era apenas música, Raul era uma filosofia de vida), “Always Ahead of his Time.”  See Jesse’s portrait of Raul on her blog, Mundo de Jesse.   “Maluco Beleza” (“Crazy Beauty”) is for many the epic statement of individuality and creativity from the central icon of Brazilian rock.

Senhor Hype reports that the Brazilian RockWalk is in development, creating a walk of fame that will include both national artists as well as some international artists like the Scorpions.

For an English translation of “Faroeste Caboclo” along with the music, go here.  The translation of the ending of the song above is taken from this video, and credit goes to Alexandre Mello and Andrea Hilland.

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