I'm in a car with two men. They are arguing loudly in a language I don't know. I can decode some of the words, but not enough find meaning, and I am awash in their anger. Their voices rise as their shouts overlap, but suddenly they dissolve in laughter. It makes no sense. One of the men is my husband.
We are in a strange city, too, surrounded by mountains. We head into the hills and begin to drive up a steep road, mottled with green and gold light. The foliage is foreign, dense, vines dropping down from branches, taking root in the ground and rising up to become swift growing trees. All are broad-leafed, no firs or pines. Some have enormous brown fruit the size of watermelons growing out of the trunks, like warts on an elephant.
The car's engine keeps dying and the driver laughs, glancing back at me with a mischievous smirk, as he tries to restart the car. The car whines, then dies again, wheezes and then clicks on. We charge up the hill with a puff of blue smoke. It's then I see people emerging from among the trees. Their eyes are soft and dangerous. We should not be here.
At a sudden turn in the road, a crowd has gathered. The driver screeches to a halt, the engine dies, and he gestures for me to get out of the car and see what they are looking at. I don't want to, but I skirt the edges of the gathering and see that a three-toed sloth is crossing the road. Everyone pulls out cameras, and I do too, even though I'm nervous to be outside the car.
The sloth has a face like a smiling coconut, but its claws longer than my fingers. This is his road, and he takes the time he needs to drag himself from one ditch to the other, arm over slow arm. I am mesmerized.
Suddenly, whispers of "Autoridades, autoridades!" ripple through the crowd. Even I can tell that the cavalry has arrived. I see their uniforms: park rangers? But they carry AK-47s. I hurry back to the car and slide into the back seat. "Is it safe to be here?" I ask my husband. "What do you think?" he answers. "You saw the rangers. Imagine what the tourists are carrying."
We continue to drive. The road slants almost straight up like a kid's drawing of a mountain. Just before we reach the top, the car dies again. My husband yells at the driver who gets out slowly and looks under the hood. I can see eyes in the trees and figures shifting among the branches. The hood slams down and we start again, gaining the crest and starting down to where the road ends at a Pagoda-like building with dragon heads at every corner. It is stunning against the blue sky. Below, islands float on the turquoise water. One of the islands is shaped like a whale. . .This isn't a dream. It's a memory. Much of what I experienced during my recent visit to Brazil retains a dreamlike quality.
Part of this is the fault of technology -- or rather, the lack of it. We stayed in the apartment of my late mother-in-law, Dona Roberta. It was elegant, enormous (only two apartments per floor, each with its own elevator) and airy. But there was no television. That was fine, for the most part. However, the third day of our stay, my laptop died. No mail, no blogs, no Facebook, no solitaire! Then I found that my Kindle wouldn't connect from the below the equator. There were thousands of books but all in Portuguese, except for a copy of Lincoln, by Gore Vidal, and, thankfully, over 800 pages. It was my link with the English language.
Much of our concept of the world rests in language, and therefore, our self-concepts and those of people we encounter. Most of the lovely people I met spoke some English, but only a few conversations went deeper than pleasantries. My shallow understanding of the world where I was a temporary inhabitant was both crippling and revealing. I paid more attention to what I saw than what I heard.
Brazil was nothing like I expected. I pictured bright colors and laughter, sounds of the samba, rare birds dropping like jewels from the sky, monkeys in every tree, buildings from the Colonial era, gilt-edged and crumbling. There was some of that, but everywhere interspersed I saw the tired clothing and faces of people who worked hard every day-- harder than I ever have -- and whom only the night brings alive with a sort of desperate hysteria. I'd also expected danger, and had been warned by everyone to look as if I had nothing to take. I knew that Brazil was a country where the gap between rich and poor was not only enormous, but I also learned that it was clearly visible to everyone. In the U.S., poverty, like racism, is less obvious and, somehow, less honest.
From the windows of the apartment I could see both Sugarloaf and the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. There was also a view of Santa Marta, a favela that cascaded down the mountain like a waterfall of displaced humanity. I first came across the word when I read Robert Coles', The Moral Life of Children. He calls the favelas "a collective tragedy" (p.96). And, indeed, the tragedy of favelas seems to be public property in Brazil. There's no escaping them. Turn away from the ocean a moment, and the view becomes the mountains with their rivers of poverty. The poor look down on the rich and make their way down each day to eke out their livings from industriousness or crime. The cocaine trade makes its home in the favelas. Drug lords rule and shootouts are common. Children, though vulnerable to the ills that accompany poverty, are dangerous as well. It is a part of their survival.
In Rio, the rich prefer to live within walking distance of Ipanema and Copacaba beaches. The poor have the view property. These favela neighborhoods grew up, building by building and shack by shack, on the steep hillsides surrounding cities so that those who worked in the cities were close to their employment. There were no roads, and, until recently, little access to power and water.
From the window of the apartment one night, we looked through a pair of opera glasses we had found at the beginnings of a fire on the rooftops of Santa Marta. My husband told me it would simply burn because, without roads, no help could get to them. We watched as the flames leapt from one dwelling to another, the night-time silence uninterrupted by sirens. Against the glare of the flames, however, we could see help coming. The denizens of Santa Marta came with buckets and pumps to fight the fire and, by morning, only a black scar remained. What seemed a lost cause was rescued by community with deep ties and mutual responsibilities.
I don't understand Brazil -- but I don't understand my own country either. Experience continues to teach me this, but so did the book I read on my trip: Lincoln. The story in my head of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation was pure and generous, but the facts -- moral pragmatism, cronyism, corruption, politics as usual -- tempered my vision of my homeland, as well as the one I was visiting.
Even as I write, I know I'm making a fiction of experience. Putting images and impressions into words skews them past recognition. A trip up the side of a mountain becomes a surreal nightmare, while visions of a city become code for both fate and possibility. Always, truth runs faster than I can chase it, fleeting and ephemeral as dreams.