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Authors: Amy Ragsdale

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BOOK: Crossing the River
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8
8

Time to Watch and Listen
Time to Watch and Listen

 

I
T WAS RARELY QUIET
in Penedo, at least by our standards. The sounds were layered like a complex symphony, from the Doppleresque crescendo and decrescendo of the buses rumbling past our front door, to the soft sound of rain on leaves in the back, to the distant patchwork of village sounds from Bairro Vermelho across the valley. Those varied depending on the time of day.

At five, daybreak, we mostly heard animals: hoarse roosters, staccato dogs, whistling monkeys, and rasping crows. But by midday, the music started, an infinite variety of scraps on the wind, floating out of windows without glass whose wooden shutters had been thrown open. Then there was the insistent cheerfulness of the pop that blared, at deafening volume, from speaker systems mounted on passing motorcycles and vans. When we first arrived, these nomadic speakers were advertising political candidates, as elections were just four months away. Each candidate had his or her own song with earnest lyrics about jobs and education dressed up in pop rock. (A good way to reach a population with a high rate of illiteracy.) After two months, they almost drove us out of our house.

Then there were the itinerant vendors, each with an identifying rhythm or melody, announcing the sale of coconut water, bread, tapioca cakes, or popsicles and ice cream—that last with a pitch that rhythmically rose and fell like cursive, “
Picolé e Sorvete, Caicó!
” By nightfall, the music was overlaid by a blanket of pulsating insect sounds.

Punctuating the symphony was the daily, startling pop and crackle of firecrackers—or were they small sticks of dynamite? At first I thought it was just party-time-all-the-time in Penedo, but then I started to think the jangling pops might have announced things like “time to go to church.” Finally, I began to think Penedenses just like noise.

Walking down our street one evening, I heard, then saw, a man leaning on his windowsill, pumping away on a whistle. I thought he was trying to get someone's attention or signaling something; then I decided he was just making noise for the hell of it: a piercing declaration of
Hi, I'm here.

This was just another of many events, inexplicable to an outsider, for which I would invent an explanation. It reminded me of walking down a main street in Maputo, in Mozambique, and hearing the watchful young men emit erratic whistles. I'd spy them hidden in the shadows and wonder if they had some code, a way of alerting someone down the block,
Here comes fresh meat
,
Big unzipped purse
, or
Wallet in back left pocket, partially exposed
. . . It took months before I figured out that they were the same guys who, pointing two fingers to their eyes and then one to your parked car, would offer to watch it for a few coins. They helped each other out, letting a sleeping compatriot know, with a quick set of whistles, that their car's owner was about to return.

Some years ago, one of the things that made me realize I would choose Montana over other places to live was my growing understanding that I valued living in a place with little or no manmade sound. Penedo was not such a place. Manmade sound seemed to be prized—the louder, the better. By the end, I found I rather admired this insistent celebration of life, especially since, recalling Giovanni's statistics, I knew life there could be hard. Brazil has the ninth-highest homicide rate in the world—and our peaceful town of Penedo turned out to be right in there with the best of them. Giovanni once said, shaking his head in resignation, “We just live in fear, fear, fear.”

But he laughed as he said it.

“Ana Licia says Brazilians are the happiest people on earth,” Molly announced one night, quoting one of her classmates, as we lounged around our dinner table.

“Are they?” I mused.

Or are they “HwH,” “Happy with Help”? Was it that with a little beer—okay, a lot of beer—a little pot, or a little crack, the not-very-promising world looks a lot better? Of course, we have a lot of people on the HwH plan in the United States—drinking, using
antidepressants—and we still don't claim to be the happiest people on earth. What's the difference? I wondered what role ambition—the pursuit of achievement—and the resulting workaholism might play in keeping us in the States from being the happiest people on earth. Ambition and workaholism were two things I'd been dealing with a lot. I suspected they were at the root of my struggle to maintain balance and joy.

In the United States, it feels to me as though our poor brains are addled, overwhelmed by the complexities of our world (as are the computers that are taking over for us, addled by the sheer volume they're expected to handle). In the United States, we say the addling is caused by the pace, too much, too fast—stimulation, information, options. What's driving the pace? In the States, we like to think we thrive on stimulation; we want options—who wouldn't? But when is the pace too fast, and the options so many that they're consuming us? Would we actually be happier with less? In northeastern Brazil, the pace definitely isn't too fast, and there often aren't a lot of options.

It must be baffling to the vast Brazilian poor how the few rich can so readily steal the food right out of their mouths, over and over and over again, century after century. It's not like the rich can't see the effects of what they're doing; it's right in front of you—in the rows of tiny houses with no water on dirt streets, their roofs leaking and dengue fever flying through their unglazed windows. Those poor don't have a lot of options. Their lives aren't focused on achieving their potentials. But then, somehow, the inhabitants of those houses are still singing, still rocking their hips to the
frevo
music—until the young men get drunk and shoot each other.

Sometimes my type-A American self has felt frustrated with people in other countries, usually the poor in developing countries who, understandably in their feelings of powerlessness, attribute their situations to fate. I've found myself harboring conservative-American pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps thoughts:
Come on! Where's your get-up-and-go?
But when it comes to producing
happiness
, I find myself wondering which approach might be the more successful—the resignation to fate or the pursuit of achievement?

Fate had nothing to do with my family's worldview. My father,
raised on Horatio Alger and existentialism, and my mother, an early feminist, passed down the belief that I could create my own future. I was in control—though they were the first to acknowledge that my educational privilege and middle-class finances had everything to do with my greater chances for success. As a result, I have forged ahead on the theory that if I just work hard enough, things I hope for will happen; there are no forces greater than myself. That's a lot of pressure. I watch middle-class Americans furiously striving as though the power is all theirs, if only they put in another night or weekend at the office, squeeze in another hour at the gym. But now, I wonder, when it comes to happiness as opposed to “success,” whether we might be better off in the end, have less existential angst, if we found a balance between fate and self-determination. Perhaps rather than “resigning” ourselves to our circumstances, we could “relax” into our situations, stop pushing so hard—for what? We could find a few friends to hang out with and sing, rock our hips, blow a few whistles—just for the hell of it. Just to say,
Hi, I'm
alive
! And I'm thankful for that.

In Penedo, there was a lot that was alive. If you thought something might be crawling on you, something probably was. One's connection to life in general is much closer in tropical places, where critters ooze out of the pores, and the houses aren't quite so sealed and screened as ours at home. The trick in a tropical place seems to be how to keep the outside out.

It took a few weeks before I began to notice the ants.

“Peter?” I queried, staring at the white tile wall above the kitchen sink. “Can you see where they're coming from?”

He was lost in thought at his computer at the dining table.


Hmmm
?”

“These tiny ants. They just seem to materialize out of nowhere.” I perused the white caulking, which was now dotted black and in motion, snagged a dishtowel, wet it, and gave a few unlucky ants a cursory swipe, knowing that really it would make no difference.

The next morning, I made what had become our standard breakfast—fried bananas, sliced mangoes, scrambled eggs, and fried bread (toasters seemed not to exist). I packed the kids out the front door
for school: first Molly, anxious not to be late, and fifteen minutes later Skyler, pleading, “Do I have to go?” This, too, had become standard. Shortly afterward, Aniete arrived, disappeared downstairs into her washroom, and reappeared in her “work clothes,” tight pedal-pusher jeans and a fitted T-shirt.

I had settled onto the bench by the back window, cup of coffee and Portuguese dictionary in hand, for my morning language drill, when I heard a high-pitched whistle. I looked out and, to my delight, saw something like a hybrid of a koala and a lemur in miniature, deftly running along the barbed wire fence that separated our long strip of yard from the neighbor's. It had a flat nose, tufts of white hair sprouting around small, circular ears, and a long, ringed tail.

“Aniete,
o que é?
” I called out, pointing. “What's that?”

She walked over from the kitchen sink, wiping her hands on her pants.


Um sanguin
,” she stated matter-of-factly.


Um quê?
” It would be months before I could sling around that special nasal
ng
that gives Portuguese its resonance. “
Sahngweeng?
” I said, trying to make my nose buzz. Aniete smiled ever so slightly.

This
sanguin
had all the amazing agility and manual dexterity of the squirrel-like monkey that it is. It scampered up the barbed wire fence to the neighbor's papaya tree, shinnied up the trunk, and gutted the pendulous fruit from the bottom up. Its six-inch body eventually disappeared inside, so that it looked like a papaya with a tail.

For the next several months, I watched them from my morning perch, up to seven or eight at a time, lying spread-eagle on a palm frond, letting others pick through their fur; smaller ones played tag, running out to the ends of precariously dipping fronds, dropping four feet to one below, then spiraling around the trunk and leaping into a nearby mango tree.


Eles vao vir na janela
. . .”—They'll come to the window if you put out a banana. Aniete was smart and patient and quickly became our coach for many things.

Along with the
sanguin
were gray lizards that darted up the garden walls, stopping to knock their heads side to side, like East Indian
dancers, or pump their front legs like leathery-skinned old men doing pushups on speed.

“Hey, Peter, there're three cows in our yard. I wonder whose they are,” I remarked a few days later. Peter was back in his place at the dining table.

Then, a week later, “Hey, Peter, there're two guys with machetes in our yard. They're hacking away down there.”

Whether they were hinting that we might hire them to clear the weeds or just helping themselves (to what, I'm not sure) was never quite clear. There were a lot of things that never became clear, such as how our neighbor could come over into our yard and just dig up a bush and take it without saying a word. (It turned out its leaves cured coughs.) There was something kind of renegade about this, kind of Wild West.

Above our yard, in the air, the birdlife was kaleidoscopic in black and white, rust and yellow, iridescent blue. Flocks of long-necked white egrets flashed as they circled over the field below us, banking in the morning sun. Above, huge buzzards rose on afternoon thermals, silhouetted wings spread wide and still. In the evening, bats came out, swooping in so close you could see the scalloped points on their wings.

That bench by the back window soon became my favorite spot. I noticed all these things because I had time—time to sit and watch. Time that I never seem to have in the States. Why do I have to leave the country to slow down enough to observe, to reflect? I'd wondered whether I could find the same thing by staying in the United States but moving to a smaller town. When I moved from New York City, where I was working three jobs to supplement my meager income as a dancer, to Missoula, Montana, to check out this guy Peter, I thought I'd found the answer, a way to slow down. But soon after we'd married and returned from our honeymoon in China, I was hired to run the dance program at the university, and there I was in a basement studio, twelve hours a day. I could have been anywhere.

When Peter and I decided to move to Mozambique, I'd reached my
limit. Ever since the births of Molly and Skyler, I'd been trying to figure out how to downsize my job. I'd sat in a parent-teacher conference at Molly's Missoula preschool, feeling totally inadequate. Her teacher looked at me sympathetically and suggested I buy a book called
The Good Enough Parent
. I felt relieved, for a while. But in the end, it didn't sit well. Just good enough? These are my kids we're talking about. I felt I couldn't do anything well. “C'mon, we need to go,” I was constantly urging my kids. “I'm sorry I'm late” had become my opening line.

I felt exasperated with my inability to curb my ambition to be great at work, great at home, great . . . We've all heard it. You can't run away from yourself. But for me, crossing an ocean helps. There I can grant myself the time to gaze out a window, to really see where I am, to reflect. The trick is how to hang onto that when returning home.

9
9

A Gringo Befriended
A Gringo Befriended

 

B
Y THE END
of August, the rains were subsiding. Peter came home from his Sunday soccer game by the river, limbs limp and shirt soaked, looking dragged out, but also softened somehow. He'd been at loose ends since the failure of his book to sell, was combating an incipient depression, and was only slowly starting to think about other possible writing projects. I'd been worried about him and was relieved he was finding a source of exercise and camaraderie. The endorphins were good for him. The game had started at three. It was now seven. I was serving dinner.

“I must have danced with fifteen men,” he said. I was puzzled. I thought he'd been playing soccer.

Peter, an old high school soccer player who'd picked up the game again in his forties, had, like Skyler, been looking forward to honing his skills among the world's best in Brazil. Of course, it became immediately clear on our arrival in Penedo that the “world's best” don't play past age thirty. Until then, Brazilian men are among the most amazing specimens of manhood on the planet, capable of any imaginable physical feat. After that, they grow paunchy and bald and start losing their teeth. I tried to make sure all the teens and twenty-somethings with whom Peter was playing understood that he was
fifty-seven
. But I don't think they quite believed this tan, muscled man with the full head of chestnut hair was really that old. I was lobbying for his preservation. We didn't need any more head injuries like Skyler's.

Lu, the owner—
o dono
—of this slung-together team wasn't your American sports team's high roller. He had a business, with a bucket and sponge, washing cars down by the ferry slip. As owner, his job seemed to be to organize the games against similar teams in other towns, to gather money from the players to rent the city bus for transport, to raise the money for uniforms. Now paunchy and
snaggletoothed—old for Brazilian soccer but younger than Peter—Lu took Peter under his wing. Peter, the over-the-hill player, could come play with them if he wanted to. “We'll have the only
time internacional
”—international team—“in Penedo,” Lu had said, beaming.

Peter was delighted to have been asked. Not all of his teammates' arms, however, were quite as open as Lu's. Little Frankie, black hair streaked with blond, glittery studs in his ears, was always yelling at Peter as they played.


Toca a bola!
”—Pass the ball! Peter, playing a more American game, i.e., a passing game, rather than the glittering, footwork-heavy Brazilian game of keep-away, rarely
had
the ball. This was just Frankie's habitual cry, and Peter offered a good target.

Junior, however, at twenty-two a little older than Frankie, was curious about this
Americano
. With a quick smile and easy manner, Junior didn't seem to flaunt his skill quite as much as the others, though he was among the best goal scorers on the team. Peter found the tutor he'd been looking for. He asked if Junior would come to games early, give him some pointers, help him develop a “powerful shot.” (This had been one of Peter's wishes on the mobile we'd made at home.) Junior, unemployed like many of the other players, seemed flattered and pleased both for the money Peter offered and the chance to get to know the gringo.

After this particular Sunday game, they'd gone to Janelas, the nightclub across the street from the field, to suck beers and dance. “I think it was their way of saying they like having me on the team,” Peter mused. “To pay for drinks”—he looked a little rueful—“but also just to be on the team. Junior said he's never had a gringo friend before. He said, ‘Usually the gringos are afraid of us. They think we're going to rob them.'” Peter mused some more. “Of course they do, one way or the other.” He smiled.

“But that's not the same; you pay because you want to,” I said, handing him a plate of stewed chicken on rice that Aniete had made earlier.


Hmm
. Ever since the road trip to Bom Conselho, Junior has been teaching me how to dance. He shows me, and I try to do it.” Peter raised his arms over his head and knocked his ribs side to side. “He
thinks it's funny. So today he said, ‘Every time we make a goal, Peter's going to lead the dance.' I didn't realize he meant in front of the fans.”

“Did you?” Molly asked, aghast.

“Yeah. We'd run over to that balustrade to do it, you know, where people are leaning on the railing. He'd also said if we had a penalty kick, I'd take it, and if I made it, Lu would buy everyone beers afterward, and if I missed, I'd buy.”

“Sounds like he figured that one out,” I said, laughing.

Dalan—or
Ninguém
, “Nobody,” as he'd been nicknamed by the team—was another one who had figured some things out.

“I'm just a walking ATM machine,” Peter would snort some time later.

He soon became the regular funder for a number of people around town, usually men who, shy with me, were unabashedly open with Peter. There was Magrinho down the block, who appeared at the door asking for five
reais
(pronounced
heyice
), about three dollars, for medicine for his daughter. There was Iago's dad, next door, who started out saying he'd pay back the tidbits he borrowed, supposedly for their
energia
bill—though his habitual lurching walk and reek of
cachaça
belied that—then shifted to saying he would trade us cheese for the money, then dropped all pretense. Peter finally dropped him. But he hung onto the frail white-haired man with the dapper black felt hat who would rap on the glass panes of our front door with his cane. He wore the same blue-striped shirt, soft from hand-washing, and always asked for money for his wife's eye drops. And Peter kept Dalan.

“I went down to the
baixa
to find my watch today,” Peter said as he settled back into his spot one morning at the dining table, his office. (
Baixa
literally means
low
and is a common name for both the geographically lower part of a town and the commercial part of town, at least in water-based places where the commercial life develops around rivers or oceans.) “I'd left it with the guys at soccer last night so they could keep timing for
dez ou dois.

Dez ou dois
means
ten or two
. When they played pickup games, they frequently played for either ten minutes or two goals, whichever came first. Then they'd rotate in a new
team of two to four players. Peter was the only one with a digital watch to keep track.

“Dalan said he'd take care of my watch. He helps out somehow at Gordo's
lanchonete
, doing odd jobs, so I looked there, and they just pointed. He was asleep on the concrete floor behind the Coke machine with my watch on his wrist. I think maybe he doesn't have a home.”

I once identified Dalan's lean body miraculously asleep on the hard cobbles of the ferry slip, unbothered by the loading of cars, trucks, and backfiring motorcycles. Coach Lu had moved on to running a video game business out of the front room of his house, and Dalan had taken over washing cars. He was dark-skinned, with the sharper nose and small eyes of an African Arab. His speech was barely audible, and he moved like a cat burglar, silent on callused feet. I liked him despite the fact that I didn't trust him (not because he wasn't a good person, but because he had some of the do-whatever-you-need-to-do-to-survive desperation of the really poor).

Over time, you begin to sort out those who attach themselves to you because you have something they want (money, soccer balls, some amorphous potential for a better life), and those who hang around because they're genuinely interested in you. Dalan was probably a little of both.

One morning, Peter and I were sitting at Menezes, an open-air
lanchonete
near the river, and Dalan sauntered over and sat down. He barely talked. He just sat next to us, which I rather appreciated. It made me feel included. I had the feeling, however, that his body never fully relaxed into the chair, that he was always on alert. That day, one of the “Gypsy” women, in their trademark long, diaphanous dresses, lime green this time, asked to read our palms. I'd asked who these people were, and all anyone could say was, “They're not from here.” I wondered if they were distrusted the way I'd heard Gypsies were in Europe. As she went on and on, tracing one line, then another in our palms, intoning incomprehensibly, I began to wonder what Dalan, sitting across from us in his muscle shirt and surf shorts, thought about all this.


É tudo verdade. Elas sabem tudo
,” he whispered when she was finished, barely moving his lips. “It's all true. They know everything.” Too bad
we hadn't been able to understand any of it. In retrospect, we could have used a heads-up.

Sometime later, Peter was musing about Brazilian character. “They have an almost-animal quality. They're always watching; they see everything.” That was certainly true of Dalan. He never missed a beat. When Peter was open in soccer and no one passed him the ball, Dalan did. When I struggled to swing my baskets of groceries onto the city bus, Dalan appeared to help. Our first week in town, that man who'd run across the
praça
to tell Peter his son had split his head open? That was Dalan.

Somehow I could never bring myself to call him “Nobody.”

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