VIGNETTES FROM THE PEACE CORPS BRAZIL 1964-1966
I trained for the Peace Corps as part of Brazil VIII, a heterogeneous group of a little over 100 young Americans from all over the US, in Brattleboro, Vermont, at the Experiment In International Living during the late summer, fall, and early winter of 1964. We went from swimming in a tree-shaded pond in the heat of August to sledding down snow covered hills in early December, enjoying the stunning Vermont fall foliage in between. Our training revolved around learning Portuguese, community development principles, and basic health related skills. We worked hard, and we played hard. A half dozen Brazilian teachers (a fine group of people) were brought up from Sao Paulo and Vitoria to teach us to speak Portuguese. The first few weeks we had no text books and embarked on our study of Portuguese the way a child learns to speak: by listening and repeating everything the teachers said. As we learned to speak phonetically, I was startled the first time I saw the written language. For example, the word for cup is "xicara", but it's pronounced "sheikara". After studying Portuguese 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for 14 weeks we could engage in simple, but fascinating, conversations; such as: "How are you?" "I'm fine." "My house is small, but it is very comfortable." It took another 6 months in country before most of us were semi-fluent.
During my home-stay my first month in Brazil with a family in Vitoria (the capital of the State of Espirito Santo), before setting off for my first assignment in Baixo Guandu, a small town on the banks of the Rio Guandu on the border with Minas Gerais, I managed to get the whole family in hysterics one evening. The father had slowly and carefully enunciated the words to ask me, "What Brazilian fruits do you like?" and I carefully replied, "I like bananas, pineapples, mangos", and then what I thought was the word for coconut. Unfortunately, I put the accent on the wrong syllable and what I communicated was that one of my favorite Brazilian fruits was "shit". No shit. Of course, there were a couple of language mavens like my friend Selma, who was spoke fluently before she got to Brazil. I once ran into her in an ice cream parlor in Recife (capital of the Northeastern state of Pernambuco) seated at a table with ten Japanese sailors. After I finished my ice cream, I dropped by her table and asked her what she was doing with all the sailors, and she looked at me like I was some kind of idiot and replied, "Practicing my Japanese, what else?" But then Selma has a tremendous facility for languages and likely speaks half a dozen (besides French, Spanish, Tagalog (that's what they speak in the Philippines), Farsi (Iran), Arabic, and Greek) fluently.
Training also included studying various tropical diseases, their causes, how they are transmitted, incubation periods, how you prevent or avoid them, nutrition, sanitation fundamentals, maternal and pre-maternal care and how to give vaccinations. The latter skill we developed practicing first on oranges and then on each other. We had to be vaccinated against yellow fever, typhoid, tetanus, polio, measles, etc. When I was about to vaccinate one 6-foot hunk, his hands turned cold and clammy, his eyes rolled back in his head and he keeled over. So much for my bedside manner. At least when we were training to give vaccinations we used disposable syringes. When it actually came time to put these skills into practice in Brazil, it was more challenging. My first experience came when there was a huge storm and flood in the slum area where I lived. This neighborhood of shanties on stilts in the water was in a tidal marshland on the coastal road between Recife and Olinda and the storm was compounded by a high tide. The drinking water was even more contaminated than usual, people were homeless and living in a school with the meager belongings they salvaged from their poor, tiny homes. Three or four of us were given yellow fever and typhoid vaccines to administer to a couple of hundred men, women and children who queued up in lines in the sticky, hot days that followed the flood. We had about 6 syringes and about 10 needles. Every time we used one it had to be washed and then boiled for 5 or 10 minutes. It took a long time. Of course, after a needle is used and reused many times it becomes dull. As I was giving one little toddler, screaming and thrashing, a vaccination, the needle broke off in her arm. This was bad. Again, so much for my bedside manner.
In Brattleboro on Friday and Saturday nights we played. We had some good guitar players and would sit around for hours singing folk songs and old American favorites. We also had dances ˝those were the days when the Beatles were first the rage- played beer games, and endless games of hearts. We put on skits and programs to amuse ourselves. I recall writing the lyrics to a rock song about Chagas disease ("The Chagas bug will get you if you don't watch out, the Chagas bug will get you if you don't watch out, the Chagas bug will get you if you don't watch out, EEEEEAAAHHHH!!") that rivaled "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds".
I lived in New York City (pop. 6 million) before I joined the Peace Corps and graduated from the Univ. of California at Berkeley (student body 30,000) the year before. When I went to live in Baixo Guandu, I went into culture shock where I stayed for a couple of months. Although Baixo Guandu is a short distance inland from Vitoria, which is on the coast, it took 4 hours by train to get there. (When you traveled from the major cities of Brazil to the "interior" by train or jeep, it was like traveling back in time a hundred or more years depending on where you went. This is probably true today for travel from Recife into the sertao, the arid, parched land in the interior of the Northeast of Brazil). The county of Baixo Guandu, of which the town Baixo Guandu was the county seat, had a total population of 5,000 souls. It was SMALL. It was QUIET. Men road horses into town. I took a horse drawn cart from the train station to the mayor's home the day I arrived. Entertainment in the evening for young and old alike consisted of walking around the town square. The boys walked counterclockwise, the girls clockwise. What fun! The other choice for amusement was to go to the local cinema where you could either watch the most recent Gene Autrey movie (circa 1945-50) to arrive in town by riverboat (I would guess) or you could watch the bats and the shadows of the bats flitting back and forth in the light from the movie projector.
Brazil, of course, is a tropical country. It has a lot of flora and fauna we don't see here. It has a lot of bugs, snakes, and spiders in size, color and wing span that you also don't see in the lower forty-eight. When I traveled around the county in a jeep in the evening, I would often see pairs of tarantulas skittering in the headlights that fell on the dusty roads. One night I saw a strange green light emanating from an opaque plastic box in which I kept toiletry articles. Looking inside I saw a large, florescent, chartreuse beetle. The cockroaches were enormous and they had wings. I hate cockroaches. It was through my dislike of cockroaches that I discovered, like many other PCVs before and after me, the third use for Time (the magazine). First, obviously, you could read it; second, in your travels around the countryside where urban amenities such as toilet paper were scarce, it found another important use; the third use was that when rolled up it was just the proper weight and with a flick of the wrist it had the proper torque to efficiently kill giant cockroaches. Ah, the memories!
The sun in the tropics is much stronger than the sun in the more temperate longitudes. A gringo who spends any time in Brazil learns that you only go to the beach in the morning for a maximum of a couple of hours. Otherwise you are toast. A couple of PCVs, Jim and Natalie, went to a beautiful coconut and palm tree studded beach outside of Recife called Boa Viagem and fell asleep on the beach. When they woke up they were totally and thoroughly sun burned. In fact the soles of their feet were so burnt they had to be carried off the beach and took weeks to recover.
There is a whole culture associated with going to the beach in Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro. Gringos need to be careful that they don't make any faux pas. One does not take a picnic to the beach unless one is a rube. One goes in one's bathing suit with a sarong wrap (if a women) or at the most a T-shirt (if a man). One does not go in one's street clothes and strip down to a bathing suit on the beach. One brings, preferably, a beach chair, or a mat or a towel to sit or recline on. If a towel or mat is used, the sand must be molded and sculpted with agile feet to form head and knee rests. Light sandals or rubber thongs are appropriate. Sneakers, loafers, other leather shoes are verboten. You may bring suntan lotion and perhaps a magazine. Occasionally, someone brings a book. But most of all you hang out at the beach with your friends talking, sunning, taking a dip, playing volley ball, paddle ball or soccer and MOST IMPORTANT watching and admiring the beautiful, tanned, scantily clad bodies of stud muffins and stunning babes. My theory on the Brazilian string bikini is as follows: Brazil is an underdeveloped, poor country. The people can only afford the least expensive clothes. Therefore, they make skimpy bikinis to economize certain resources and to maximize (at least the display) of others. They call the tiniest, string bikinis "fio dental" or dental floss.
Brazilians have a fabulous sense of humor. They are extremely warm, friendly, hospitable. If they take you in as a friend, you are a friend forever, through good times and bad. The music is fabulous, vibrant and dreamy. The food is fantastically fabulous with terrific names like feijoada, farofa, xinxim de galinha, moqueca de peixe, xuxu, cuzcuz, and pao de queijo. And there is nothing like a caipirinha, the lime saturated, rum like drink, especially with Brazil's fabulous barbeque, the churrasco.
Well, this concludes Part I of Vignettes of a Former PCV. If you aren't bored to death, let me know and I'll share a few more memories, moments and events.