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Images of Brazil fuel potent memories

From Westways May 2013

From Westways May 2013

By Andrew McCarthy

First a handful, then hundreds, then thousands, and then what seemed suddenly like hundreds of thousands of small, yellow butterflies flittered across my view as I sat on the bow of a listing and dilapidated riverboat churning its way down the Brazilian Amazon, three days out of Manaus. The equatorial sun sank heavily behind me; the eastern sky was left a soft purple. The boat’s straining engine maintained its insistent drone. The butterflies fluttered their herky-jerk course around me and above, drafting on the breeze created by the boat’s nearly imperceptible yet relentless progress down the almost 4,000-mile river. I felt as if I could have reached out my hand and grabbed a dozen of the small insects with little effort.

Brazil has provided me a disproportionate number of vivid, potent, almost hallucinatory waking dreams like this one. Sensations and images that have lived on long after other memories have faded. These experiences seem to move beyond the category of mere happenings and slip into something more visceral, more primal; the way a dream can feel even more real than the reality we know to be true.

I wouldn’t claim to know Brazil intimately. (Could anyone know such vastness intimately?) I’ve never been to São Paulo. I’ve yet to be swept up in the orgiastic frenzy of Rio during Carnaval, and Iguaçu Falls remains on my bucket list, but I’ve spent enough time in the country to know that my dreamlike sensations offer a glimpse into the kind of earthy, sensuous passion for living that Brazil is famous for—and that keeps me coming back.

Sublime Isolation
In the mid ’90s, I spent several months working on a film in the small fishing village of Canoa Quebrada (translation: Broken Canoe), situated in the northern state of Ceará. When filming ended and the others headed home, I remained, captivated by the high rolling dunes that reminded me of the Sahara. They rolled down to a broad beach that stretched uninterrupted for miles in either direction; the Atlantic was a roiling blue green.

Electricity had arrived only a few years earlier. Maybe half the simple homes were lit, and by late in the evening, the street lamps would dim to a weary, shadowy glow, as if exhausted by their efforts. My simple guesthouse was usually without power by the time I slipped in late in the evening. The village streets were paved in sand—donkeys and dune buggies the primary form of transport. Old women sat on low stools mending fishing nets outside modest shacks, while men rose long before dawn and, under the watch of the Southern Cross, pushed tiny, wooden, raft-like fishing boats called jangadas out to sea. I spoke no Portuguese, and back then English was not widely used, so I drifted through my days free from idle interactions. I was happy in Canoa.

Each morning, after a breakfast of star fruit, papaya, and mango plucked from local trees, I would walk the beach as the sun climbed through the often-cloudless sky. The fishermen would be just returning with their catch. One morning, instead of turning back at my usual spot, I kept going. I walked along the edge of the continent for hours, occasionally stopping to douse myself in the sea, and then continuing.

I passed no one and saw no signs of human life; there were only small birds pecking at things in the sand that only they could see. A blistering sun climbed higher in an empty sky. Far ahead, a dot appeared, set back on the beach, near where scrub and then high dunes took the land. As I walked on, it grew into a small, three- sided shed made of palm fronds, supported by driftwood beams. I took refuge from the midday sun in the deserted fisherman’s hut. There was a driftwood bench inside, and nothing else. My thoughts wandered, then long stretches passed when I didn’t recall thinking anything at all. I floated in some kind of a sun-induced Brazilian fever dream. The tide crept high, swallowing the wide beach to within a few feet of my hut. Finally, the sun lost its bite and I made my way back, ankle deep in the receding surf.

I’ve been on beaches in Hawai’i and the Hamptons, the Caribbean and California, yet when I picture myself walking on a beach, it is always that walk, and that beach, that asserts itself in my mind’s eye.

My recollections of the city of Brasília are also shrouded behind a dreamlike gauze, but perhaps for a different reason. On my first trip there, I arrived near midnight, with a five-hour layover before my connection to Rio. I was curious to see the “planned city,” so I roused a sleeping taxi driver.

Brasília was conceived to be the nation’s capital and had been laid out over a dry plain in the center of the country in 1956. Constructed in less than four years, it was inaugurated in 1960. Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed many of its futuristic buildings. My taxi rolled down straight and wide boulevards. We passed over a long bridge supported by three sleek arches built above a manmade lake. A hot wind whipped through the lowered windows of the car as we made our midnight way down the city’s main avenue—the broad and deserted Monumental Axis. We passed the National Congress and the glowing Cathedral of Brasília—a hyperboloid Niemeyer structure arching up toward the sky. I got out of the car and walked briefly among Dante Croce’s tall bronze sculptures known as The Four Evangelists, which stand outside the cathedral.

Under cover of the steamy night, the desolate, well-ordered streets and the sleek buildings had a spooky effect on me. In a country I had experienced only as a chaotic and improvised outgrowth of itself, it seemed I had landed in an alien world. And yet I felt as if I had somehow experienced this “city of the future” at the ideal, hypnotic instant.

This Sporting Life
It was sport that provided my dreamlike moment in Salvador de Bahia. I was walking amid the Portuguese colonial architecture of Pelourinho, the city’s historic center, when I saw a poster for a soccer match that was to be played in just a few hours’ time. On impulse, I hopped into a taxi. Half an hour out of town, we pulled up to the throbbing stadium.

“Will there be taxis coming back after the match?” I asked the driver.

He frowned. “Out here? There might be.”

Thinking fast, I asked, “Want to go to a football match? My treat.” (I have never known a Brazilian to pass up a soccer game.)

After only a moment’s hesitation, a broad grin spread across his face: “Why not?”

We got tickets and sat together, my new friend educating me as to who the best players were and those he thought overrated. Night fell, and a mood of dreamy agitation fell over the swollen crowd as they chanted and sang. We roared as one when the home team finally scored, and by the time they won, at 4–0, we were in an intoxicating fever of unity.

Magic Moments
Over the years, several of Brazil’s other cities have evoked equally haunting, even surreal moments of hallucinatory surprise for me. Coming upon the belle epoque Amazon Theatre in Manaus was a disorienting experience. The building is a shrine to the glory days of the late-19th-century rubber boom, and the sight of the gilded opera house, set amid the otherwise rough and ready river-city charms of Manaus—deep in the belly of Amazonia—is a testament to man’s shortsighted grandiosity.

The same might be said for the Theatro da Paz—the opera house in the city of Belém, not far from where the Amazon finally dumps up to 300,000 cubic meters of fresh water per second into the Atlantic. Yet what dominates my memories of this port city is a silky recollection of grilled peixe, eaten in a large glasshouse restaurant around the corner from the theater. Overgrown trees and plants, straining at their confines, crowded the cluttered room. It may have been the insufferably humid air fogging the glass walls that put me in my dreamy and light-headed condition, but as sweat rolled freely down my back, I savored what was perhaps the most succulent piece of fresh fish I’d ever tasted.

My visit down the coast to the romantic and raw Rio de Janeiro is also summarized by a singular moment. I visited Corcovado—with its massive statue of Christ on the mountaintop—and the favela of Rocinha, but what stands out in my memory is the ancient and heavily creased woman I came upon, sitting on the ground beside the promenade, across from the famed Copacabana Beach. She was selling hammocks. For more than an hour she unrolled one hammock after the next, blue and green, rope and cloth, until finally she convinced me the yellow and black striped one was the one for me. She spoke little English, and I knew less Portuguese, but the laughter we shared, and the interest and concern she showed toward my decision, evoked the feeling of connection that captured the real reason I travel.

Later that trip, it was that hammock I carried north and strung up on the listing riverboat that took me down the Amazon. Beside several hundred Brazilians, for six days, my hammock swung on the cramped upper deck. Food was scarce, and privacy nonexistent, except on the bow, where few of the passengers ever ventured and the heavy air moved more freely. Each evening I found my way there. And it was there that I saw the first single, yellow butterfly, then another, and soon the sky was filled with them.

I laughed as the last of their fluttering wings vanished, and then night fell quickly, as it does on the equator. I sat for a while longer, my mind floating in the dark, the way it had grown accustomed to doing in Brazil, and then I made my way back to my hammock. Most of the others were already full. I slipped into mine, and the rocking of the boat soon had us all swaying in unison. Before long, I was fast asleep, dreaming the night away.

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