Stepping out in the Tropics of Brazil

Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 17

The Journey - Recife  July 28 -- August 13, 1980
July 30: Not always possible to maintain an enthusiastic “high” - Once in a while, as now, it slips and you feel a real stranger.
Edson Nery, library “scientist” at the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, a lay Benedictine monk, could not be nicer but has no concept of what it takes to write a book like Brazil. Yesterday was spent poring over museum collection - useful; today was passed in Foundation's library with excellent old engravings, also useful but dangerous:
I have to get out, experience and “look.” U.S.A. has best libraries in the world and when I'm back home I can sit in them for as long as is necessary. Here, I've got to see not pages but people. And the past insofar as one can separate present sights and scenes from what has been.
Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil
Edson is a dear librarian of special repute, no doubt, but too close to his books and eleven cats to see the finger-dirtying reality. A contemplative man, he himself says, grown pessimistic about the world and seeking his main solace in Sunday hours spent with the Abbot and Prior of the Monastery at Olinda.
So, though the day was spent in hard research and I got many visual images of use, I'm wary of over-involvement with the Fundação. Maybe they will come up with an engenho to visit and, of course, there's my interview with Gilberto Freyre himself. But I'm determined that these hours shall not be “book-bent.”
July 31: Once again proved that to accomplish things in the tropics you have to step beyond the lethargy so easily induced.
Day started with call to Edson Nery at home complaining very indirectly about lack of cooperation. Well, aside from suggestion that I go back to the library to look at more pictures this morning as planned, Edson showed clear understanding of my needs. A car will be arranged!
And it is: In afternoon my Recife travels begin in earnest. I'm also invited to dinner tomorrow night with anthropologist Dr. Robert Motta and friends
Afternoon visit to Iguaraçu, site of first church in Brazil, built 1535/plus Jesuit church/and third church atop hill. All vital to story since it is vicinity between here and Recife proper that I will place Cardosos (“Cardoso” family later changed to “Cavalcantis.”) Have to find way to move to second locale. Will probably be after Dutch invasion with re-start further away.
Convento de São Francisco - Olinda  Vladiney Pimento/Wikipeida
My guide, Amalia Correa, proves as fascinating as the historical aspect. Her brother was Minister of Agriculture under Goulart. Father was federal deputy from Pernambuco representing Bom Jardim to the north. Family is obviously one of the older political ones with classic coronel (Cardoso?)and wide connections.
Memorable anecdote of Amalia's sister who teaches at a favela in the evenings: "Simple things that people will understand like words for food etc. She explained 'meat.' Woman in class responded: 'Oh, I know meat but it is so long since I have tasted it.'"

"A Life of Constant Humiliation in Recife"

Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 16

The Journey - Recife  July 28 -- August 13, 1980
First impressions of Recife are grim and I suspect that they're not going to be altered as easily as Brasília. - Met my first Brasília detractor, Edson Nery de Fonseca. He lived there for twenty years, was Librarian of House of Representatives and calls Brasília “a crime against humanity.”
What I've seen of Recife seems to earn that appellation. Whereas we in “developed America” flinch at abandoned dogs and cats, here you have to get used to droves of abandoned children, abandoned people. I remember in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) some years ago, remarking on the number of people, young especially, hanging around the streets of Bulawayo during work hours: Here was the real “security” risk.
Recife is a hundred times worse. Hundreds and hundreds of kids, adults, beggars with nothing to do; hundreds of others pathetically trying to make an honest living by selling anything from plastic toy planes to graters, packs of envelopes, sidewalk foodstuffs... Many gravitate to Recife from the backlands seeking a new life and, I suspect, invariably meet disappointment.
As Luiz “Black Jimy” said yesterday: “It is a life of constant humiliation.”
Alongside this cruel, brutal poverty is first real evidence of The Military. In Salvador, Brasília, in countless little villages, you see a few police/militia but here the presence is overwhelming. Traveling out to the Institute (Fundação Joaquim Nabuco) you pass base after base of one or another military establishment.
My immediate response is that this is a manifestation of government awareness of past rebelliousness on part of Recife/Pernambuco, traditionally a point of fire through every regime. Walk the streets and you can easily understand the “nervousness”...
As anyone who knows me will accept, I am not one to creep into a protective shell. I love exploring a new city by day/night, really “exploring” it and its people. Here, for first time, I feel a need for caution. Step out there, let things carry you along, and I sense real trouble. There are thousands in real need and desperate: One lone “American tourist” is a quick mark. (Like the licensed bandit of a taxi driver who charged me 400 cruzeiros for what should've been a 80cr. ride. Made up for it though, with bus ride x 18cr. = 200 taxi trip to Joaquim Nabuco Foundation.)
Difficult to believe that twenty-two days have elapsed since my arrival. Have covered thousands of miles, met dozens of people, many beyond the mere acquaintance phase. Toughest part of the trip is breaking fresh ground each time, going through the long introductory phase, establishing credentials. 

The whole day today was spent in this activity. But it's vitally important to opening up a city, situation for research. - Go slowly, let them understand you, above all believe in you, and so win their confidence. - I overheard Nery at lunch telling Fernando Freyre, Gilberto's son, “He is a serious student of Brazil.”
Got my first glimpse, at Museum of Man in the North-East, of artifacts of the sugar plantations: sadly impressive preponderance of equipment to keep slaves in their place. Worst was a device called "The World Turns” which would make a man into a ball-like figure binding leg and arms.
James S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.
(c) 2006 Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia
Edson Nery liked my description of Brasília as the ultimate "fazenda" and example of the coronel/latifundia way of life.
"Anna"(not real name,) a guide at Museum is from one of old families with an engenho (plantation) to the south. She expressed to this stranger all manner of statements about the poor summed up by: “It's the will of God.” The same is said by others in so many places...
Things like that make me realize just why all my traveling in the past is so important: To write a book for the world you have to know the world. You have to have a comparative base to work from, a benchmark against which you can “rub” your opinions and see how they come up.
Prosaic note: Lord, the food is monotonous: Steak ABCD/ Frango (chicken) ABC/Fish ABC/ That's it, day after day. For a week now I've had file (fillet)/contra file + beer + coffee!