Since when I started writing seriously, I also started living with a constant fear. The fear of having my writing time stolen from me. This affected my relationship with Persefone more than once, even if in a light way. She was always my supporter, but never accepted the fact I was obsessed with writing. That is, “obsessed” is something she thought I was. To me, I only put passion into writing and we know that it takes a lot of hours during the day to have some writing done and while this time seems very little to us, it is terribly long to the people who live with us and are not accustomed to this kind of activity.
Looking back, I feel sorry for Perse, she deserved a much more present husband but I am glad I sacrificed most of the time I had to look after our kids and trying to be a good family man. For a time, I was. Today, I’m still family, but I have my own life.
Back then, during the early days of our life in Brazil, all was different.
This is a special installment of my 52-week writing challenge, where I present episodes of my life-changing experience in the inland of Brazil, where I lived from early 2013 to the first half of 2016. The episodes are inspired directly from the journal I kept during those years, a journal titled “The End of the Rainbow”. This article places between Beam #8, published last Monday, and Beam #9, which will be published next Monday and contains elements of both, but in a different form. Each week I will post an episode where a new experience is shown and today, I will talk about our trip to the countryside.
Farewell to writing. Welcome, Brand New World.
By the time I was leaving Italy, I had grown accustomed to not having neither more time nor concentration to put down a single sentence. The initial anger and frustration were the cause of quarrels and arguments between my wife and I, so in the long term, since that situation had become draining and unfruitful, I decided to take a time off of writing. If God wanted, He would have granted me time in the near future. So when we got to Brazil, my attention got astray because of the whole new world that was displayed in front of my eyes. Suddenly, the void left by the lack of writing was replaced by the surprise of novelty.
A few days into my new life, I found ourselves dressing up dirt-friendly clothes because we were about to visit the countryside and early one morning, a man with a big and dusty pick-up truck came to pick us up (no pun intended, but quite welcomed). Perse told me that if I was to spot a red-dusted car or pick-up truck in town, that meant the guy driving it was a very rich man.
“It is the car of landowners.” she said. “The dirt means they drive it through the roça* to see that all work is going well.”
So here, dirt meant money.
The man who climbed down the truck was tall, well-built and grey. His face looked like a worn road map, his eyes like two sharp slits. He wore a worn pair of no-more blue jeans, an even more worn shirt and light brown boots. I don’t need to point out the boots were dirty.
That man was Joaquím, the landowner.
“I worked in his property for two years.” Perse said. “It was the best job I have ever had.”
She told me she found a job in a supermarket, the only one in Piracanjuba at that time, back in the late nineties; she started by cleaning up the aisles and two years later she was one of the most prominent bakers. Joaquím, who was associated with the supermarket, noticed Perse and asked her to go work for him in his fazenda, as a cook. He would pay better and she would work a more reasonable amount of hours. Perse accepted and when she went there, she was reunited with her childhood friend Raiane, whose husband Armando was Joaquím’s nephew and led the works of planting in the land. He was also a co-owner of the lands Joaquím administered.
The kids and I jumped on the cargo bed of the pick-up truck and off we went. Perse sat in front with Joaquím, talking away their nostalgia. He was an educated, gentle and soft-speaking man, as opposed to the majority of Brazilians. We stumbled out of town, into a dirt road and suddenly we were surrounded by fields. The road was large, red and dusty. Very dusty. The wind swept through my hair, the insect repellent drying on my skin and the kids screaming and talking. The fields were so vast I couldn’t see nothing else on the horizon and at one point, they started to present little heaps of red earth; these were widespread and there were many of them.
“Those are the houses of cupins.” Eloise said.
The cupim [coo-peen] is a big and strong, somehow enhanced ant, with big jaws and an aggressive attitude. That’s what I was told. Our journey lasted almost an hour, when the pick-up bounced and bumped on holes and drops in the dirt. On my two sides, green land and plantations of soy, the money generator around here and above and all around, only sky and clouds.
In the end, the pick-up stopped in a little oasis made of coconut trees, a house, two sheds and a lot of dogs.
The house was long and wide, it had many windows, a garden outside and a little open air corridor that ran through it. We entered and found ourselves in a large area, some kind of a hall, with a wide opening on the bottom wall and another that led into a garage at the right. Two tables had been placed one across the other and there were two old people sitting on each of them. One was a thin and bearded man, his face carved by age and his skin all wrinkles. He might have been in his eighties. He was peeling garlic with a darkened but sharp knife. He looked up at me and smiled.
“Seu Zé!” Perse cried of joy.
She hugged him and he put an arm around her, quite slowly. He was Joaquím’s brother. I introduced myself and he shook my hand, his look was very kind.
The other person there was a big, old woman with curly grey hair, big dark-brown eyes and a quite smart look. Persefone was moved by seeing her.
“This is grandma Clara, seu Zé’s wife.” she said.
When I was in front of grandma Clara, I hugged her. I did it instinctly. Maybe it was the fact I was missing my actual grandmother, who had stayed behind, in Italy and never really accepted I went away. She never really accepted many things, but that is another story.
Grandma Clara offered us coffee and cake and soon she brought Perse into the kitchen and started to prepare lunch with her; that’s what grandma loved the most, that’s what Brazilians love the most; prepare meals, grant there is always something to eat for everybody and plenty of it. That may be a reflection of a history made of suffering and poverty. In those minutes, Raiane and Armando showed up.
Raiane was Persefone’s childhood friend, they shared a lot of adventures together, as well as a scar in the inner part of the arm. They had it after a bycicle fall on the downhill of the street where dona Geovana lived and Perse told me many people in Piracanjuba have that kind of scar.
Raiane was a beautiful woman. She was a morena, her hair falling long and straight down her back, she had a bright and lovely smile and her eyes smiled with her. She wore a black and pink-spotted corset rimmed with flowery lace patterns that held her imposing breast and a pair of jeans. She wore boots too.
Armando was the typical farm worker, thin but strong, his skin darkened and prematurely aged but constant exposure to sunlight; jeans, shirt, boots and a straw hat. He had a gentle smile.
“Beware of him.” said Perse mockingly. “He looks calm but he is not. The last time, he filled my shoes with leaves, dirt and corncob hair.”
Raiane and Armando had two daughters; Raissa, seventeen and Amanda, eleven. Raissa looked much like her mother, while Amanda was the copy of her father. The two of them were very skilled in farmer’s work, having been raised in the country since their birth. Amanda could drive cars, motorbikes and even tractors.
“I’ll show you the place.” she said. She liked to talk a lot and wherever we went, three or four dogs followed us. She brought me to the tanque [tun-kee], an artificial lake where his father bred lambaris [lum-ba-rees], a local fish. She took some pieces of bread and threw them in the water. The bread kept floating for less then five seconds and then all the pieces disappeared one by one, sucked underwater in the blink of an eye.
She brought me with her scooter to see the orange trees that were giving fruits in that moment of the year and when we got there, some miles away from the house, I saw green balls the size of a small melon hanging from those trees. Tens of rows of orange trees, each one with hundreds of them.
The orange is not eaten, nor drunk in Brazil. It is sucked. It may sound dirty, but it is one of the most delightful things to do. Here’s how: you cut away the very tip of the orange, just a small part of it. You carve into the cut and take out a little cone, just half of an inch. Then you start to peel it, careful to not cut deep into the white layer. Seu Zé peeled oranges from top to bottom and in the end, the rind fell on the floor in a single thread and he had a perfect white ball in his hand. Well, all you have to do now is take your orange with both hands, raise it above your head, open your mouth a squeeze it. The juice will come out of the carved top and there’s a lot of it. Tropical fruits are still genuine and pure; when you peel an orange, one can smell the essence of it feet away.
We lunched all together with the workers, who were just arrived from a burning day of planting and harvest. They took off their hats, filled up their dishes with all that was on the plates on the stove and ate. The content of one of their dishes was what I ate in a single day. There was rice, beans cooked in the pressure pan, pork meat, mixed steamed vegetables and mandioca**.
All was very tasty; they had a different way of cooking the same things we have in Italy. Rice is cultivated differently in Brazil and when I talked to Raissa that we cultivate rice in the water, her eyes widened with amazement.
In the afternoon, we climbed on the motorbikes and went to see Joaquím’s properties. Or better, a part of it. I let Perse drive, because I was not able to, so I got on the back and held fast; roça’s roads were hard and insidious. Eloise got on the back of Raissa’s motorbike and as soon as she tied her arms around Raissa’s waist, Raissa started the engine and sprang away, playing the horn to us and giving a high laugh, making Eloise jump and scream in surprise.
“Whose this?”, I said. “Of Joaquím’s.” Perse said. “And this?”. “Of Joaquím’s.”
I think we stayed away two hours. Two hours under a strong, burning afternoon and tropical sun. Perse and Raissa drove fast, but this did not prevent us to feel the skin hot on our neck. We didn’t wear helmets, none of us. The road was broad, very uneven and never ended. It ran through the fields I had seen when arriving by plane; that blood-red pattern that cut the green of the lands, now I was running through it, I was feeling how it was being down there and the land was not just vast. “Vast” is an adjective commonly used to determine a very much expanded area, normally an open air area. But to give you an idea, “vast” was a quite poor way to describe the extension of what I was seeing all around and in front of me.
“Whose all this earth?” I asked while we made a pause uphill, where we had a good sight of the landscape.
“Of Joaquím’s” Perse said.
I gaped. “All of this?”
Perse laughed. She gave gas and we drove for another ten minutes. We went downhill and then straight ahead, then the road started to go uphill and we realized we had lost Raissa and Eloise. We reached the peak of the hill, where the land ended and I couldn’t see further because of the height. When we reached the top and were able to see the landscape beyond again, I expected to find some houses, a bunch of trees, an undergrowth or some gado***. There was none of this.
What I saw was more land. More than before, more than “vast” and I saw all this in every direction.
“And… whose this?” I asked.
“Of Joaquím’s” Perse answered.
I pointed on the horizon, a spot that we could have reached in no less than twenty minutes if we were to move that moment and fast.
“And beyond that? Whose that?” I asked.
Perse laughed again.
“Of Joaquím’s.” she said.
This scene repeated two more times.
It is incredible. I remember I had dreamt of those landscapes sometimes, I guess it was no more than five times in my whole life, in the days when I could get some good sleep, when my parents were young, a lot of my neighbors still alive and my childhood idols still singing and jumping on the stage. I marvelled at seeing that reality can outdo imagination and dreams and it does it with great effectiveness.
What I saw and, more likely, what I felt, was the real meaning. It is not necessary to put an “of…” and then a name after the word meaning. I just felt the real meaning, that is all. Be it life, the world, nature, God, love. All of this and more. I grasped it, I breathed it, took it all in and let it work on and inside of me.
I didn’t need anything more in that moment.
The roaring of a motor grew louder and neared fast and suddenly Raissa surpassed us pushing on the horn and screaming with Eloise, the two making faces at us. They disappeared way ahead in a cloud of red dust.
When we got back, our clothes were hard with dust and the skin on our shoulders and back was hurting and burning. Mine and Raissa’s was light purple; we were pale by nature, so sun exposure did that to us. Perse mixed water with maizena [my-zè-na], a flour obtained by corn and smeared it all over my burnt skin. The same she did with Raissa, who was laughing at my jokes and screaming with pain at the same time.
“Did you like the ride?” grandma Clara asked me.
“A lot, nonna.” I said.
“It is vó.” she said with a tender smile.
Grandma Clara had Italian origins, her mother had Italian parents who migrated to São Paulo at the beginning of the previous century, so her accent was different. I had called her nonna, which is grandmother in Italian, but evidently she preferred the Brazilian version of it, that is vó.
Raiane and Armando were cutting through the shells of coconuts with big, long and menacing knives. They smiled while doing it, as if they were cuddling a baby.
I passed there five days and experienced much more, so the morning after my visit to the land, I asked Raiane if she got paper and a pen. She smiled at me and I melted. In less than an hour, I had filled both sides of the sheet Raiane had given me. I felt like that was the most honest, truest and faithful piece of writing I had ever put down in years. Maybe my whole life.
My journey through the Rainbow had just begun.
*Roça [raw-ssa]: countryside.
**Mandioca [mun-djaw-ka]: a long, knobby radish with a form similar to potatoes, but way harder. It has a brown outer layer and a white, harder one underneath. Once it is peeled, you cut it into pieces and boil it until it gets soft. Better than boiled potatoes! You can also fry it after having boiled it and it is good either hot or cold.
***Gado [ga: daw]: herd.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope you enjoyed it the way I enjoyed my motorbike ride. Next Monday, in Beam #9, you will read what I wrote in the sheets of paper Raiane gave me during those five days in the roça.
Keep following the Rainbow.