Authors: Amy Ragsdale
IFE SEEMED TO BE
settling down, if more easily for some of us than others. Before leaving the States, I'd had my share of anxious visions about what could happen to our kids in a small town in Brazil. Among them, I'd wondered whether our beautiful blond teenage daughter would fall prey to sexually predatory men. Would her inherent celebrity status as an outsider protect her, or would she be seen as a special prize, a conquest, a target?
My mind had been filled with the stereotypes one can have before getting to know a place. For Brazil, I'd imagined macho cruising men and scantily clad women. We would find that while the women were scantily clad, they, at least Molly's friends, were much
likely to hop into bed than her sixteen-year-old American counterparts; that while a Brazilian woman might wear a “dental-floss” bikini, she would never go topless. The statistics on rape and the demoralizing debate about whether a woman, through her dress or behavior, “asked for it” are just as disheartening and confusing in Brazil as they are in the United States, but not any more so. Ultimately, we would get to know many protective, respectful men to whom I would gladly have entrusted my daughter.
Nevertheless, Molly and I had been warned by a Brazilian friend in Missoula that it was a common practice at parties to be asked by someone you'd just met if you wanted to make out. “
Quer ficar comigo?
” No strings attached. It turns out this is not a prelude for anything more, as it can be in the United States. But still, with a stranger?
So when Molly came home from school one day jubilantly announcing that she'd been invited to her new friend Keyla's fifteenth birthday party, we thought we were prepared. Molly was excited. She barely spoke Portuguese and, so far, only two people we'd met spoke English,
but she could dance, and, at a party in Brazil, dancing would get you a long way.
“Mom, what should I wear?”
“What do you have?”
At ten that night, another new friend, Leila, came to pick Molly up. Molly was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and her favorite multicolored flat sandals. She opened the door. There was Leilaâin a beige satin minidress and four-inch heels, beautifully showcasing her mahogany skin and long legs. Molly rushed back into her room.
“Mom, what can I wear?”
She re-emerged in a short black dress and the only heels she owned, two-inches high with a tame strap.
“Have fun,” I called as she slipped out the door. I doubted she'd heard me, or the trepidation in my tone. Molly has never been one to look back, when friends are involved. I remember dropping her off for her first day of preschool in Missoula, age three. I couldn't get her attention to wave good-bye; nor at the next preschool in Spain, age three and a half; nor for fifth grade in Mozambique, age ten. She faces forward.
Parties in Penedo start at ten or eleven, after our bedtime. We had no car. We'd considered finding a taxi driver to bring Molly home in the wee hours but had thought better of it. After midnight,
they were willing to work, chances are they would be doing it under the influence. In Brazil, the parties are intergenerational, so I knew Leila's mom was there and would drive them home when the party ended. But if Molly wanted to leave earlier, she was stranded with no way to bail. We kept our cell phones by our bed, figuring maybe we could call Zeca, one of our trio of guides, if she was really in trouble. It turned out Zeca was often at the same parties.
That first time, I woke up at 3:00
. It was still dark. No sign of Molly. I'm naturally optimistic and I really trusted her; even so, I wished she were home. I was less anxious, however, than I would have been in Montana. Perhaps because in Brazil I didn't know enough to know what to worry about. She'd been told to keep her eyes on her drink (in Brazil the legal drinking age is eighteen, but it's not enforced)
and stick with friends, but the U.S. bogeyman, drunk driving, didn't exist. Lots of people were drunk, but almost no one was driving.
I went to lie down on the living room couch. Not long after, Molly quietly opened the front door.
“How was it?” I asked blearily.
“Oh, Mom, it was really fun, but . . .”
“It was kind of overwhelming, too. There was lots of dancing. It was really cool. Everyone dances. They love to dance. But these guysâ”
“How old were they?”
“Oh, I dunno. Twenty . . . ish? But they made a big circle around me and they were shouting, âMohly, Mohly, I love
I love you
“Yeah. In English. For a long time. It was really loud. And they wanted me to dance. And they kept asking me to
”âto make outâ“with them.”
“Wow, Molly. What did you do?”
“Well, my friends were trying to protect me. But finally, I gave in. I told Felipe, you know, the guy who worked at the desk at the
, that I would, cuz at least I kinda knew him.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I said, âOkay, one.'” She brandished her index finger. “One quick one. Then he stuck his tongue down my throat.”
“Oooh, yuck. What did you do then?”
“I retreated into the kitchen. They were really nice to me. Everyone was
nice to me.”
Well, we'd been warned this would happen to Molly. But to Skyler? It turned out that at age twelve, our tan, blond, blue-eyed son had an impassioned female following, both his age and older, acquaintances and total strangers. Brazilians aren't shy, and they start young. They'd regularly ask him to kiss them, at school or on the street. Anywhere would do.
“Mom, what do I do? I want to go play tennis, but there're all those girls out there!” And there wereâa little tittering clutch eagerly
watching our front door from the concrete benches in the
. He was trapped in our house.
“Can you just say we don't do this in the States? That we don't kiss strangers?”
“I've tried that. They just say, âBut this is Brazil.'”
In Skyler's first few months in school, we received several love notes a week, surreptitiously slipped under our front door. Once I heard it and whipped the door open, mischievously hoping to catch the author. She'd vanished. On purple or pink paper, with heart or rainbow stickers, in a combination of Portuguese and broken English, they ranged from the fairly innocent (and somewhat inscrutable), “Never get out of Brazil that is a rock. I'll die,” to the racy, “Just want your baby well,” or “I'am Prostitute and you is my Bum,” or better yet, “Fuck!
One Saturday, Skyler took part in a capoeira demonstration at a school. He and I had recently begun to take lessons in this Brazilian martial art/dance form. As soon as Skyler and the other
arrived at the school, he was swamped by girls wanting to pose for pictures with him, which he dutifully did. The California surfer: shaggy blond hair, clear blue eyes, a big white smile painfully frozen on his face. Theoretically, this should be a boy's dream, but it wasn't.
it was time to blow town, at least for the weekend; our fishbowl existence was becoming a little wearingâokay, somewhat exhausting . . . all right, just plain frustrating, at least for some of us. I was feeling guilty. Compared to Peace Corps workers or anthropologists out in the bush, what did we have to complain about? A clean house with tile floors and windows, kitchen help, lots of friendly people with arms wide. What was so hard?
A lot. The effort to express myself clearly in a new language, speaking at a kindergarten level when I had fifty-two-year-old thoughts, was surprisingly exhausting, as was the need to have all antenna fully extended all the time, so I could have a shot at understanding the response.
Every morning, I'd visit the dictionary before I made the day's foray into the world and build up my armament for some anticipated conversation.
ânail, plaster, computer cableâand my favorite,
, blender. Then there was the constantly being caught off guard because it turned out that though I thought I'd been understood, I hadn't, or I'd said something I hadn't meant to.
Even our minimal social life was wearing. Early one Sunday morning, Zeca's uncle Robson (they say
) had showed up unannounced, his family peering out the windows of their sleek gray sedan, inviting us to come out to the family farm,
para andar os cavalos
âto ride horsesâaround the fishpond.
Zeca would come pick us up, he said. I asked what time.
Good, that would still give us part of the day to ourselves. So I was confused when Zeca arrived half an hour later.
“But it's only ten. Robson said midday.” I was quite sure. I persuaded Zeca, accommodating as always, to come back later.
By the time we bumped down the rutted mud road to the fishpond, the horses were grazing listlessly.
Meia hora, Amy, nÃ£o meio-dia! Meia hora!
” Robson laughed. “Not midday, half an hour!”
He and his wife, Shirley (pronounced
), and their two kids, Julia and Mateus, had been waiting for us, out of cell phone reach, for two hours. But they graciously served us olives and urged
on Peter. The kids in their swimsuits rode the pokey slow horses, skinny legs dangling toward stirrups out of reach. Eventually Shirley asked, “
”âHave you already eaten lunch? Lunch is the big meal in Brazil. Dinner is more like a snack. We drove the few miles back into town to a local sports club, where another couple, friends of Robson and Shirley's, joined us. You might think that I'd already dispensed with my language mishap for the day, but no.
That was when I thought I heard the fat-bellied, bare-chested husband in the other couple use a word I'd heard and wondered about before.
” I asked the table, repeating the word I thought I'd heard.
It went silent. Then, slowly, Zeca, said, “Well, it can be like a, what is this?” he was miming wrenching at something.
“Yeah, but more, it's . . .” He'd been choosing his words carefully and had now come to a complete halt. “Not a good word. When you are angry at someone, maybe you say this.”
?” I asked.
Zeca nodded his head vigorously, seeming relieved that I'd gotten it on my own. The wife of the man who had said itâor at least I thought he hadâwatched me intently, her painted eyebrows raised, her wilted smile unmoving.
It was definitely time for a break, for a little time on our own, for some
-language immersion. We'd chosen Penedo partly because it was only thirty minutes from hundreds of miles of ocean beaches. That weekend, our destination was Pontal do Coruripe, a deserted stretch of sand with a funky
we'd read about in the
guide. This B and B was run by Ada, an Italian woman who spoke English and had a library of books in multiple languages. Heaven.
We'd been told we could flag down the little vans that provided daily transportation to towns around the state of Alagoas. So we were leaning against the iron bars that surrounded the baroque pink mansion across the
from our house, our motley collection of umbrellas, backpacks, soccer ball, and boogie board arrayed at our feet. As it turned out, we had lots of time to look through the bars and study the bulging presence of the pink Peixoto family house, with its curving lines and romantic murals in blue tile of sailing ships from another era. Of Portuguese descent, the Peixotos remained one of Penedo's premier families. In the early 1900s, they had built the textile factory we could still see, shining picturesquely white, across the river. In the 1950s, they'd built the Hotel SÃ£o Francisco, the “modern,” anvil-like block plopped down in the middle of the tiny commercial district.
“Skyler, just kiss Mariana. Then maybe we can get into that house!” Molly pleaded, only half joking. Mariana Peixoto was a tall girl who'd just beaten Skyler at arm wrestling. Skyler had been under pressure from his classmate Mateus, Mariana's annoyingly pushy cousin, to kiss her.
Mateus was Skyler's nemesis. He was one big mixed message, solicitous one moment, taunting the next. “It's not even that he's so mean to me,” Skyler had said one day. “But he's mean to others. It makes me uncomfortable.” When it came to sex, Mateus was claiming king of the hill.
“He says he's done it with girls,” Skyler said one day, sounding dismayed.
“Do you believe him?”
“Yeah. I bet he has.” Skyler was beginning to sound desperate. “He's always pushing me to kiss girls. When I say I don't want to, he says it's because I'm afraid.”
Mateus had settled on Mariana for Skyler's proving ground. Mariana lived in the pink house. If only Skyler would kiss Mariana . . .
More vans passed, but not the one to Pontal. Either because of
our sketchy understanding of Portuguese or general Brazilian vagaries about time, we hadn't been able to get a clear sense of the schedule, and now it was getting dark. We decided we'd better schlep our gear down the hill and find a taxi. We found a willing driver down by the ferry slip.
“This is a seatbelt situation,” I said. But the belts were missing parts. This is when you let go of all the precautions you'd take at home and just hope your guardian angels aren't asleep on the job.
In minutes, it would be dark. We sped off over the cobbles, houses and shops on the left like some kind of dimly lit cubist jumble, and weedy, open fields meandering down to the river on the right. Lighted shops gaped through raised garage doors. Already people along the side of the road were difficult to see, their dark skins blending into the blackness.
Night driving in foreign countries is like getting ready for a raceâpart adrenalized excitement, part dread. I try to relax into what seems to be an inevitably wild ride and quell the anxious anticipation of what could go wrong. It was easier when I was younger. I remember, when I lived in Cairo as a child, loving this feeling of speeding through the darkness, the temperate breeze washing over my face through open windows. In Cairo, the only time a car
fly was in the predawn, when we'd be racing for the airport. Then the otherwise perpetually crowded streets were surprisingly empty.
Later, just before Molly was born, Peter and I had flown by airplane from morning till night in a great looping arc from Cairo, near the Mediterranean, to Ghana, in West Africa. By the time we approached the airport in Accra, we'd been sucked into an ocean of darkness. This great city appeared to have no lights. On the trip into town, the airport taxi driver opted to use his headlights sparingly, suddenly flipping them on at inexplicable moments, for example, just in time to blind an oncoming car.
That same strange combination of exhilaration and anxiety came back when we lived in Mozambique and would find ourselves racing for the South African border, a couple of hours away from our house in Maputo, for a wild-game-viewing weekend in Kruger Park. We'd
been warned that we did not want to be out on the roads after dark. We'd quickly gotten the picture from Maputo's expat community. Lock your doors when you're
your car, so people don't reach in and pull your purseâor youâout. Travel in convoys. Travel in daytime. And
break down, especially in South Africa. “There,” we were told, “they don't just rob.”
Ten-year-old Molly had been pressuring us to go to the South African town of Nelspruit, just across the border, a three-and-a-half-hour drive. She wanted to go to the mall.
“We didn't come to Africa to go to a mall!” was Peter's response.
But I caved. All her friends went. It was important for her to fit in. I started asking around, looking for a convoy. No? Okay, let's get a grip on the statistics, confront this amorphous fear. How many people have really been hijacked on the road? No one knew. I was aware of how easily fear can take hold without much actual grounding. Soâconscious that I didn't want unsubstantiated fear to dominate my decisions and as it appeared there were no statistics and few personal storiesâI decided to go for it. The claptrap Suzuki jeep we'd bought a couple of months earlier from a Pakistani used-car salesman was already in the garage for repairs. In the meantime, we'd been given a loaner.
Early on a Saturday morning, Molly and I backed through our gate in our borrowed white sedan, passports and a reservation for a recommended guesthouse in hand. An hour later, we were at the hilltop border crossing, an unassuming clapboard building. Passport control was its usual confusing jumble of people pressing forward to get the required stamps, but we made it through. We began the descent into South Africa. The countryside was bucolic, rolling hills with orange orchards, rock outcroppings, and trout streamsâsomehow immediately lusher than dry, hardscrabble Mozambique. But I was on the alert.
And then it happened. The steering wheel jerked. The rubber slapped. I swerved to the side of the road. We had a flat tire.
I pulled over and jumped out, hoping for a spare and a jack. Within a minute, a white pickup truck with two black men pulled over in front of us.
“Molly, get out of the car!” I shouted as I raced around to the back and opened the trunk. I wanted her to have a chance to run.
I was screened by the raised trunk. Should I pick up the crowbar lying in front of me?
And then the man appeared next to me.
“May we help you?” he asked.
Before I could answer, they were fishing out tools and had the tire changed. It turned out one was an English-speaking South African. They were returning from a visit to the home and family of the other, a Mozambican man, and were headed back to their jobs in a South African toilet paper factory. Before I could offer to pay them for their help, they'd gotten back into their truck, where they waited for us to take off, then followed to be sure we were all right.
So much for getting killed by the side of the road.
I felt chagrined at my susceptibility to prejudice and relieved to be reminded of the real goodness of most people. Constant distrust is exhausting, but it's so easy to fall prey to fear, especially if the safety of one's children might be at stake. On the other hand, over the course of our year in Mozambique, a family we knew did get hijacked on this same South African road and escorted at gunpoint into the bush; robbers tied up the French teacher from our kids' school and her children in their house in Maputo; and a Belgian acquaintance of friends was shot in her car. So maybe we were just lucky.
I was hoping we would have the same luck here in Brazil as our taxi picked up speed on leaving the cobbles and hitting asphalt. The stretch paralleling the Rio SÃ£o Francisco was long and straight and unusually free of potholes. The headlights of an occasional oncoming vehicle would start as a distant glow, then tree trunks would pop into silhouette as it rounded the soft curves, until finally its lights appeared head on; each time it seemed we were about to collide, but somehow the car would skim past. Occasional clumps of people would appear by the roadside, evanescent visions in sudden Technicolor, flashing up on a screen and as rapidly disintegrating back into nothingness.
Once we hit the coast, the terrain changed. Now spindly coconut
palms in orderly rows reared up into the headlights, marching along like fence postsâplantations extending for miles. The land began to dip and rise, diving into tangled draws and cresting into the sudden openness of sugarcane fields, their densely packed spiky grasses forming a canyon that our little car sped through under a wide, moon-shot, cloud-filled sky.
As we approached the town of Coruripe, traffic picked up, and we began the high-speed game of “tailgate, duck out, and dash.” Soon after, we cleared town and reached Pontal, a small oceanside village on a point.
We arrived just in time for dinner at Pousada da Ada, after flying down a steep hill through a gauntlet of small houses, turning left at the
, then right at the
Frango Vivo e Abatido
sign, and right again where the arrow dimly painted on the side of a house pointed the way.
The warm eating room glowed through open windows overgrown with hibiscus, oleander, and bougainvillea. From inside, we could hear the clink of glasses and silverware. Ada appeared in the doorway.
“Ahh!” Her voice was low and rasping. “You made it!” she said in English. “Excellent. How was the ride? Not too fast?” She chuckled. “These drivers, they are crazy here in Brazil. Come.”