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I wrote the second issue of Folha da Frontera on July 14, about two-thirds of the way through my trip. The last month was the hardest in terms of missing Pam and Pablo and our home, but it was also the most productive and the time when the friendships I made in Rondônia really deepened. It was also the time that I took a week-long trip to the interior of Rondônia - to spend some time in the towns of Ouro Preto do Oeste and Rolim de Moura.
I am still far from fluent in Portuguese, but during the last month I found that I could leave my little dictionary at home and still manage in all kinds of situations, like working my way through government bureaucracies, discussing politics, and arguing with Varig, the major Brazilian airline. Arguing with Varig is a kind of national pastime. I got pretty good at it. The main argument I had is when I discovered - by accident - that my return flight, which is only once a week, would be leaving a full day early.
The way we did this newsletter is that Pam has helped me pick out some of the more interesting bits from the many letters I wrote during the last month. It might be a little disjointed, but here goes ...
The Ouro Preto Airport
July 23: In Ouro Preto do Oeste, a town in the center of Rondônia, the air strip, which had been used for miners and other workers coming to the area, was abandoned in 1985. Within six months, people had started a community along the strip. Today it is a regular neighborhood, called Jardim Aeroporto (Airport Garden), with the original runway as the main thoroughfare. So if you take a bus marked "Aeroporto" in Ouro Preto, don't expect to find any airplanes at the end of the route!
What's the Bzzzzzzzzz?
July 26: This morning while I was waiting to catch a ride out to a ranch near the town of Rolim de Moura with Moreira, the friend of a friend of a friend who had been the first mayor of the town, a guy who reminded me of Frank-Zappa went by in a very uncommon-looking truck. A few minutes later he came back with Moreira. This was my ride. You know you are in a very unusual vehicle when you draw odd looks in Rolim de Moura, Rondônia! The truck was home-made, and had no frills (like a hood, fenders, seats, etc.). It did surprisingly well on the highway, though. We went out to a ranch where Moreira and his friend keep some of their bees. The owner, who lives in town, lets them use his land in exchange for a bit of the honey. I got to wear a beekeeper suit and watch these guys tend their flock. I learned later from Chris, an American friend in Ouro Preto who is a bee expert, that these were, indeed, Africanized Killer Bees! Glad that suit held up. They gave me a jar of killer-bee honey when we got back to town.
We got in his little motor-canoe, which has a very small engine and only a very minor leak. We putt-putted up stream past mile after mile of forest. The river itself is a beautiful, opaque green, except in one mini "wedding of the waters" where a black-water tributary enters from one side. We saw quite a few birds, including some very fast black-and-white swallows which live in the river banks, a blue heron, and quite a few others. There were also enormous butterflies.
We passed turn after turn of the river - it meanders quite a lot through the green green forest. From time to time we saw people swimming or fishing. We passed about a dozen houses in almost as many miles, but they are all on high bluffs and hard to see. We saw three or four gold mining dredges, pumping sand from the bottom of the river up onto the bank.
After an hour and fifteen minutes, with sore butt but soothed spirit, Anká pointed to the top of a very high bluff -- his home. He and his wife Estela have been there since 1975 -- a government land grant of 450 acres. Unlike most grantees, however, they have removed almost no forest from their land. Their house is right among the trees, with a beautiful view of a great loop in the river. The house is 100 feet above the water, which is reached by steps cut by hand into the soil. The way we came is the only way to reach the house. They have built the house themselves, transporting every bit of it from town by boat. For the first five years, they did not have a motor, and the trip from the highway took six hours. The house has all of the ordinary fixtures, including a refrigerator and a generator. There is also a lot of tile, furniture, and whatnot. Power is from a 12-volt battery and generator. Everything in the house comes either from the land itself or from Porto Velho. I was incredulous and impressed. I asked over an over again how they got things up there, such as the fridge, and Anká was very matter-of-fact in his answers - "not really that heavy," for example.
The main room of the house is probably 12 feet square, with a cathedral-type ceiling and a balcony in one corner. There is a very clever ladder up to the balcony, with steps alternating left and right. It looks funny but is actually very ergonomic - and it was made without glue or nails - just careful cutting and balancing.
On all of the walls are his art. I can't really describe it very well. It is a combination of painting and carving that is unique. He is a bit of an eccentric, and he explains the technique as the result of a voice coming to him and forcing him to do art. Doing art in the middle of nowhere where people don't appreciate art is crazy, he says, and he would not do it if he did not have to. Art is suffering, he says. Actually, Anká is a pseudonym, and he has a little flier describing the birth of Anká as the hearing of this voice. I asked him several times where he was literally born, and he said this kind of thing is stupid details for the police or the government. Where one is born makes no difference in what a person is. As a geographer, I have to disagree, but I let this one go.
Anká's art is based on things he has seen in the area, primarily on his own land. He brings out fantastic shapes among the trees and vines, and his ability to give depth to an essentially two-dimensional surface is stunning. (You'll have to come to our house in Pharr to see a beautiful example of this work - just about my only souvenir from the trip, except for my chimarrão gear.)
Walter de Sousa, a professor of English at the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR), was my host for the entire stay. He generously gave up space in his home, providing a convenient place for me to stay and to work. More importantly he included me in his daily life and his friendships, helping me to learn more about the place and its people than I ever thought possible. Walter has friends from every walk of life, and he never ceased to amaze me, especially on a weekend morning, when he would say, "I'm going to my friend's house today. Would you like to come along?" I never knew what to expect, but I almost always joined in, and I was always glad I did.
Although I did not live with them, I also consider Miguel and Vera Nenevê to have been my hosts. Miguel is a colleague of Walter in the English Department, and he and Vera happen to live on the same street with Walter (with Clarissa, Cynthia, and Carolina, three of the most delightful kids I've known). I enjoyed their friendship, and I am grateful for the many favors large and small they did for me. At the beginning of my stay, Miguel helped me a lot with the language, but toward the end I was able to enjoy long conversations with Vera as well, which improved my speaking skills even more. Miguel and I are continuing to collaborate on a project related tangentially to my dissertation research. More than most people I met in Brazil, Miguel understood the work I was doing, and offered valuable insights.
I would never have met Miguel or Walter, however, had it not been for the generosity of Madalena and Ana Christina, two professors of geography. Shortly before my trip, I sent a letter in incredibly broken Portuguese to a fax number I had found for the university, addressed simply to "Departmento da Geografia." I did not know whether I would get an answer. Luckily, Madalena not only answered my letter, but put me in touch with Miguel and Walter. Ana Christina was there to pick me up at the airport, and she also was there to drop me off. In between, we met from time to time on campus.
Of all of the kind and interesting people Walter introduced me to, Gilmar Dalmolin and his family made the greatest impression. Gilmar does not speak English, but he often acted as my translator. Howz that, you say? Gilmar had an unusual ability and the unusual patience to notice whenever I was not understanding something, and to re-phrase it for me. Sometimes it was just a matter of somebody having an accent I did not understand or talking to fast, but sometimes he would spend fifteen minutes trying different ways of explaining some complicated idea to me. I would reach for my dictionary or maybe call on Walter, but Gilmar would insist that I could understand if I worked with him, and it usually worked. Gilmar's family also took me on some pretty interesting outings, including some of the ones I mentioned in earlier newsletters.
Another dear friend in Porto Velho is Rose Gannon, and American who was born in Portugal but has lived almost her entire life in Brazil. She runs a bookstore downtown that is a crossroads for local intellectuals and travelers of every description. She knows everybody and everything in Porto Velho, and her private library is probably the best on the history of the state. I spent several days in her beautiful home overlooking the Madeira River, going through her archives, and many hours in her shop, talking to her, getting advice, and meeting her interesting customers.
One afternoon near the end of my stay, Rose left urgent messages with all my neighbors to come to her shop. It was then that I met Lee Clockman, a photographer from Dallas who is working on a very interesting project about landscape change in Rondônia. We enjoyed several intense but too-brief conversations about the place. People were convinced we had been friends before, especially since we are both from the same state (that's when I got to explain how big Texas is). One of the most peculiar encounters I had in Rondônia was my first meeting with Lee in the bookshop. We both opened up laptops and started swapping data and software and Internet links, right there in the middle of the erstwhile rain forest!
Actually, computing in Rondônia is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Of course the household computer is still pretty rare compared to the U.S., and computers are unbelievably expensive throughout Brazil. Internet service arrived only recently. Those who have jumped on the technology bandwagon have done so in a big way. State-of-the art PCs -- loaded with Pentiums and Windows 95 -- could be found in the back rooms of houses in some pretty humble neighborhoods. Because of the very isolation of the place, I encountered more than one foreigner who had never used the Internet until they got to Rondônia!
Marisa is professor of Portuguese from Rio. I spent a lot of time with her and her husband Kahlil and children Lucas and Maísa. We could show up at their house at any hour, and Kahlil would whip up some great food and conversation. Marisa (and her mom, Dona Maria) taught me to somewhat samba.
Another good friend from the language department is Graça, and English professor who also lived nearby. Her husband Paulo, an attorney, asked me many times to explain why lawyers are held in such low esteem in the United States. Near the end of the trip my Portuguese was just good enough that I could sort of explain concepts like contingency fees and class-action lawsuits. He began to understand.
I am still at Right Away Foods, doing interesting and varied work. I am also teaching one course at UT Brownsville and, of course, working toward a May completion of the Ph.D.
Pam is still doing very well at the library. All three of us have begun to jog in a somewhat serious way, and we're feeling great!
Go to Vol. II, No. 1 - Summer 2000