Friday, June 21, 2013

Rest and Unrest

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived safe and sound in São Luís, Maranhão. As I stepped off the plane, I could already hear the percussive sound of folkloric drums being played. And that is not meant as a metaphor-- in the airport, a group of dancers donning the traditional junina costumes danced and performed to the delight of the recently arrived tourists (the vast majority of whom were Brazilian).

It was about 3 in the afternoon when my advisor, Tania, and I arrived. We were met at the airport by one of the undergraduate students participating in the conference next week. He drove us through the confusing streets (paved and unpaved) of São Luís. It seems motorists here in São Luís need not a driver's license but a contract with God or the devil to be able to navigate the intricate and ever-changing traffic patterns. An example: on a road where at one time there seems to have been a stripe painted down the middle, implying two lanes, we are weaving between three and sometimes four lanes of traffic. Another example: it is perfectly acceptable to drive down the wrong side of an unpaved road in order to avoid Escalade-sized potholes (naturally).

As I peered out the car windows, I took in my first glimpses of the city. The green of fruit trees, though ubiquitous, is often eclipsed by the neon paint covering small shops, hardware stores, car garages, and community centers. The breezes from the nearby Atlantic offer a welcome reprieve from the otherwise dense, humid air during this (winter!) season, two degrees off the equator.

Jimi Hendrix, the Brazilian dog
When we arrived at our hosts' house, we were greeted by a small pack of adorable little dogs, and hugged and kissed by our hosts (a handshake is such a cold greeting- I'm giving it up!). We were immediately given a tour of their beautiful garden, which had coconut trees, carambola (star fruit trees), sweet chiles, spicy chiles, and buriti palms (a tree with which people of this region make a huge variety of goods).

After the tour of the garden and the house, we were told to go shower! Due to the humidity and heat, one showers about 3-4 times daily, as a matter of cleanliness but also comfort. My host joked with me, saying "When you come to Brazil they say, 'welcome, do you want to take a shower now?"

Food, wine, and rich conversation about Brazilian history followed. After about 27 hours in airports and cramped airplanes, I felt I had died and gone to heaven.

This morning, Tania and I ventured into the historic downtown of São Luís. Many of the buildings were built in the 17th century by Portuguese colonists. This area was declared a cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 2002, but since then, there has been little restoration work on many of the buildings. I'm told that the houses are privately owned and many owners chose not to spend the money for repairs, simply waiting for the buildings to fall into such disrepair that they can demolish them and build a parking lot, which is apparently much more lucrative than a house that is about 500 years old. Other  owners are just hoping that the government will step in and complete the necessary repairs. Either way, it is a little bit sad to see heritage crumble in places.

Nevertheless, the city center is gorgeous. The buildings' facades are adorned with beautiful Portuguese tile and, due to the 20-day festival held every year in June, little flags stretch between the balconies.

Lanterns, waiting to shine at night
While Tania and I explored the area, we popped into a number of different shops selling artisanal goods made by local indigenous groups. We went to the Igreja da Sé and the Igreja de Carmo (I didn't take photos inside, as people were praying). We stopped into a hat maker's shop, too, as I am on the hunt for a chapeu de cangaceiro for my husband. We also had fresh coconut water in the middle of a cobblestone street. Finally, we visited a free museum (located in an 18th century house) dedicated to showing the works of Dom Nhôzinho, an artist who was crippled from birth, had claw hands, one foot, and one eye. He fashioned his own wheelchair and made art compulsively. It was hard to get pictures from inside the museum, but there are no other images I can find available online.
Hat maker

Coconut seller: first she wields the knife...  

...then she gives you a delicious drink.

Note: the street I'm enjoying this coconut on was constructed in the 1600s. 

Ceramic plate depicting traditional masks and costumes of the junina festivals

From inside the Museu de Dom Nhôzinho, looking out

Giant puppets

The Museu is located in a 18th century colonial house- this is a fountain inside

Dom Nhôzinho's art work

Dom Nhôzinho

Dom Nhôzinho

A collection of art studios next door had this giant statue of Christ, watching over the painters....
I believe that tonight I will get the chance to see the Bumba meu boi celebration. I am not sure if I'll be able to take the camera, however, as it will be a very crowded event, and it takes place at night... we shall see, fair petticoat rustlers!

I also wanted to note that the Brazilian people, in cities all over the country, are in protest of the government's shameless appropriation of their money and the rampant corruption that plagues the political system here. I have not seen, nor been part of, any of these protests yet. I suspect (hope) I will see one, and be able to relay to you what it was like. I am very impressed by the peacefulness and tranquilness with which the people demonstrate their agitation... it allows their movement to retain dignity and integrity-- two things they are attempting to get back into government.

Until next time- keep rustling those anáguas!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Order and Progress

The words that stretch across the starry sky of Brazil's flag mean "Order and Progress" and come from the French philosopher Auguste Comte's positivist motto: "Love as a principle and order as the base; progress as the goal." Soon I will be hurtling through a starry night sky towards the country that waves this flag.
"Order and Progress" 
Tomorrow I begin my journey. Flying all night, I will reach Brazilian air space by Thursday morning. I will land first in São Paulo, one of the world's most populated cities. I will not have a chance to explore this great city, though, as I will remain in the airport to catch another plane to São Luís in the northeastern state of Maranhão. After meeting up with my phD advisor and having a little lunch, we will board a boat that will take us to a smaller island called Alcântara. Thursday night, far from the Colorado Rocky mountains, I will sleep near enough to the Atlantic ocean to hear the sound of waves.

Packing bright colors
Packing good books
For many years, I have dreamed of seeing this country. It is almost surreal to be packing my things, mentally preparing to arrive in a place I started believing only existed in books and songs. I imagine Brazil to be a place in which history and future intersect; standing in one place, one is able to see yesterday and tomorrow all around.

The only book I've written so far: my passport
It has been almost ten years since I last ventured outside of US borders. Since my last adventure abroad, I have lived in three different US states, earned 2 postsecondary degrees, tried my hand in the nonprofit and the corporate world, and married my soul mate.

I am older and perhaps even a little wiser, which means that traveling seems to present itself in a different light now; I feel I can comprehend with much more clarity what Italian writer Cesare Pavese meant when he said "Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it." I am more aware that traveling is a "brutality" but I am also more aware that it is a privilege and a precious gift to encounter the things I imagine reveal the eternal...

Another change is that I am not traveling merely as a tourist, but as an academic, participating in conferences and working with research groups on potential articles and books (and of course, on my dissertation). So while I will be encountering Brazil for my first time, I will need to know a good deal of things about it already (such as the language). I am terribly excited and terribly nervous.

I will not know until I get there how much access I will have to the blogosphere, but I hope to be able to provide at least one update while there. Wish me luck!.. and until next time, keep those petticoats a-rustling!

Friday, June 14, 2013

America in Color

And speaking of old photographs...

"Bound for Glory: America in Color" was the name of the 2006 exhibit that displayed photographs of American life in the late 30s, early 40s. Taken by the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information and preserved today in the Library of Congress, these photographs are reproductions made from color slides - which gives them the distinction of being some of the only color images of the effects of the Depression on rural communities. 

These images are beautiful and painful - the resilience of the human spirit and the misery of extreme rural poverty are shown in full, brilliant color. 

Here are just a few of the images: 


You may view the rest of the photos here- they are captivating. 

Long before these photos were taken, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem acalled "There's a certain slant of light" that I think fits with these rare color photos of post-depression America, as communities struggled to emerge from the "scar" and "internal difference" of hard times...

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
'Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.

What do you think of the photographs? What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem? Until next time, kept rustling!

Thursday, June 13, 2013


I love looking at old vintage images of what life used to be like on the American frontier. These small grainy squares of visual information are like silent storytellers around a campfire, telling jokes and repeating stories about life on this frontier... the way the hills and mountains rise up to an endless sky, the way livestock seem to be the most loyal and worthy companions, the way people always seem to be staring deeply into a wide open landscape who's dangers and treasures have given their lives meaning. 

And yet, looking at these old pictures makes it feel as though the true experience of the untamed frontier has been forever lost to highways, gas stations, rest stops... or perhaps simply to a preference for comfort and convenience. You can hop in your car and pass the same landscapes captured in these vintage images, but you don't get to test your ability to survive in it, you don't get the same sense of never-ending natural challenges, and you don't allow yourself to be formed by the unpredictable West. 

At the same time the experience may seem out of reach or lost to progress, there are people willing to reclaim it, live it once more, and reveal the vast amount of the west that are still wild. A group of four young men have recently embarked upon an expedition that will take them through the uninhabited frontier of five western states. Beginning in Arizona at the US-Mexico border, they will travel north through the Grand Canyon, up into Utah, through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, all the way to the US-Canada border. 
Reviving the frontier
Ben Masters, Thomas Glover, Ben Thamer, and Jonny Fitzsimmons decided that they were going to take this trip not only to prove to themselves that they could, but to prove to the rest of the continental US that the freedom and risk of the American frontier still exists. 

Riding through the Grand Canyon, AZ
The riders, graduates in wildlife conservation from the Texas A&M University, took care to map out a travel route that ensures they will remain away from any man-made road or trail for 90% of their trip. Along the way, they plan to stop every ten days at pre-arranged ranches to replenish their supplies and rest for one night. 

The riders' travel companions are all mustangs. At the turn of the last century, there were millions of wild mustangs roaming the West. Today their numbers dwindle frighteningly-- less than 37,000 remain in the wild and 43,000 are held in captivity by the Bureau of Land Management, waiting to be adopted. The horses that the riders adopted were all born and raised in the wild; they trained them and began developing a relationship with them well before they began their journey. 
A man, a mustang, and the West
The riders claim that the decision to adopt mustang horses was based on the far that "they are tough, rarely go lame, have a good sense of self-preservation, and keep their weight." This practical reason for choosing mustang horses is later qualified by another, more personal reason. They wanted to offer freedom to some of these mustangs living in captivity, waiting to be adopted... they knew the horses wanted to return to the frontier just as much as they wanted to go for their first time. 

This incredible journey through the west has already begun, and you can follow their progress on a blog and Facebook page, updated regularly by the folks at Western Horseman. The riders carry a high quality camera with them and are taking phenomenal photographs of their trip. They are currently in Utah, recovering from a 42 mile, 3-day detour they had to make to recover some of their pack-horses (also mustangs) who spooked and ran for miles through high snow. 

When the riders and their horses finish their journey, a documentary about the experience will be released. Several cinematographers are following them and filming the trip... the forthcoming documentary will be called Unbranded.

I think that recovering the frontier narrative from the past is important. To feel that we are trapped in a completely discovered country - a country where all corners are mapped, developed, inhabited, and understood - precludes even the longing for adventure. The imagination, like the Mustang, must find new territory in which to roam if it believes there is no mystery left in the west... Our minds are branded by urbanity, chased away from the immense western region as if the strip malls stretched from sea to shining sea without ever being stopped by giant mountains, open plains, or great deserts. We make our stories in cities and forget that there is still so much wild here.

If we stop yearning for the chance to gaze deeply into the open landscape like the people in vintage photographs, the American West's mythic narrative will become a captive of those old photos, bound by grainy squares of nameless cowboys. It would be tragic to lose the sense that adventure and endless wilderness awaits us in our own backyard. To forget it would be to arrive, bewildered, at the vanishing point of our dreams.

What do you think about the "frontier experience"? Where is your frontier? What is the journey you must make through your homeland to connect to its mythic narrative? 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Internet Oral Narrative and the Pirate of Love

The mysterious oral narrative of Daniel C, The Pirate of Love
I am fascinated by the way the Internet's interminable open forum allows stories to be passed from person to person, critiqued, recontextualized, and propelled into unexpected realms of narrative existence.

Over time, I have been monitoring the emergence of animated literatura de cordel poems on YouTube and marveling at the way the stylized woodblock prints come alive to the musical recitation of this poetry that, until the advent of the Internet, could only be partially experienced outside of Brazil (because it is a hybrid poetic form that incorporates woodblock visual art and the recitation aloud of the poem to the accompaniment of guitars). The Internet made it possible for a regional art form to become available to an international audience.

Very recently, I came across another example of the way this Internet open forum can turn very small, local narratives into an oral history of global importance. This is not an exaggeration, this is The Pirate of Love...
"Will you ever know my love?" 
A CD of music by an unknown composer began circling the party scene in Canada, and along with it came several stories that people told one another, an almost requisite part of passing on the music, with each person claiming that their story was the "real" story of the man behind the songs. But no one knew for sure; this mysterious voice singing lonely (and at times quite poignant) lyrics with the accompaniment of an electronic keyboard became a faceless legend whose fame rapidly spread to Iceland, Russia, and the United States.

Short film about the Pirate of Love by Sara Gunnarsdottir
The CD and the stories that went with it constructed a narrative through the lonely voice of an immigrant man, cryptically known as Daniel C. He supposedly lived in Canada and sang songs of love to a woman named Sherry, but most thought that the love was unrequited. Daniel C's narrative resonated with enough people on opposite sides of the world that filmmaker Sara Gunnarsdottir decided to make a short film, documenting the Pirate of Love phenomenon and the multiple oral narratives that were passed around along with the CD as it continued to get shared.

Her film reached an even greater audience, and swept several prestigious awards at various film festivals, both for the bizarre and touching narrative but also for her beautiful animations of the stories and the songs. This film then rushed through the cyber community after being published on Vimeo (the film is not available on YouTube-- to view the short 10 minute film CLICK HERE).

The speculation on who this Daniel C could be and what his intentions were when he wrote and recorded his music swelled as the size of the audience grew. I think that listeners felt a special connection to this anonymous man who, most likely, had no idea anyone besides "Sherry" was listening to those songs.

This little CD, with the help of a filmmaker and the Internet, has begotten a series of beautiful and tragic love stories that were constructed by thousands of strangers' imaginations.

Today, however, I discovered that the real Daniel C has been uncovered. Sara the filmmaker is planning on making a follow-up video of The Pirate of Love-- one that uncovers the true story of this mystery man. Daniel C was told by his boss at the trucking company that he'd found a video on the Internet that talked about him. The trucker boss got in touch with the filmmaker and put her in touch with the real Daniel C. Cool... I guess?

And herein lies my dilemma with the Internet... it never stops. This is often a good thing, especially when stories like the Pirate of Love are being passed around, speculated on, and turned into a modern day trucker fairytale. But then... do I want to know the "real Daniel C" after having invested so much in the communal construction of his narrative? I mean yes, on some level I imagine that this guy's "true story" is every bit as bizarre as I imagined it (I heard he is now MARRIED to Sherry) and that he is a unique and mysterious guy, even when all the "facts" are known. But I can't help but think that the Internet has found an incredible way of connecting art and oral narrative and wonderment... at the same time it threatens to replace all of that imagination with "reality."

What are your thoughts about this dilemma of the Internet, dearest rustlers of petticoats? Until next time, keep rustling!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Last Ice Merchant

I have been thinking a lot recently about "home." It seems that home is less rooted to a place than to a set of practices which are carried out by your hands and the hands of those you love. And while this flowery description of home appeases me on some intellectual level, it does nothing for me on an instinctual level when I look around at a physical place and ask myself "is this home?"

Yesterday I saw a short documentary that really made me think more about the question of home and how it is affected by the work of human hands and hearts.

The Last Ice Merchant
Above is a photograph of Baltazar Ushca. He is the only man in Ecuador who continues to harvest ice from the glacial top of Mount Chimborazo (which happens to be the closest place to the sun on Earth). He has been hiking up this mountain with several donkeys Thursdays and Fridays for over half a century, continuing the work of his father and his father's fathers.
Ice in grass bundles is brought down from the mountain
Chimborazo was historically the sole source for ice, and people developed a way of "mining" this ice and bringing it back to their towns. The grasses that you see in the above picture are used to make a mat in which to carry the ice and rope with which to tie the ice to the donkey.
Dangerous, yet beautiful work
Baltazar is a one-man link to a tradition that has lasted for centuries in his community- he is the only living vestige of an earlier world; he has vowed to continue bringing Chimborazo ice to his community as long as he has breath left in his body. The work he does is full of risk, but as discussed in a previous post on risk, this risk seems to be an important and noble one with far-reaching implications.

 If you haven't seen the film, "The Last Ice Merchant," which premiered in 2012, I highly recommend taking 13 minutes to watch it in its entirety. This is a very short film, and full of rich light, blue and white ice, and wind in tall grasses (definitely watch this "full screen"!!).

 One of the things I like best about this film is the part where Juan, Baltazar's youngest brother, talks about how change is very much a good thing, but that change should not be synonymous with losing cultural traditions. I couldn't agree more.
Eating ice-cream made with Chimborazo ice
The delicate and fragile mission that Baltazar stays true to every week maintains a cultural tradition which, if lost, would forever rob his children and grandchildren (and everyone anywhere) of the taste and touch of the beautiful and blue ice of Chimborazo. It is very much akin to the delicate and fragile way in which Mount Chimborazo itself stretches up into the sky and is the closest of any point on earth to the incredibly hot sun, while remaining covered with snow and ice. 

When I think about this balance, I think ultimately about the interaction between ritual and place and how these two in harmony make physical space into a home. ...And I am responsible for making the two harmonize. Home is where I decide I can successfully do that. 

Where is your home? What makes it truly your home? Or do you find your home wandering?? ...Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers, keep rustling!