Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Dying Dog Leaves a Will and The Cat Shits Money

Ariano Suassuna
You guys. I think I'm in love. 

This is Ariano Suassuna, a living playwright from João Pessoa, Paraíba in Brazil. So far, I've only read one little thing he's written, but I'm pretty sure this is the beginning of a longterm love-affair with his writing. 

Yesterday I read his 1955 play, Auto da Compadecida (you can find an English translation by Dillwyn Ratcliff under the title The Rogue's Trial). With an intelligent and biting wit, this play riffs on fantastical literatura de cordel stories, Molière-esque humor, baroque auto sacramentales, the vernacular Catholicism of Brazil's northeast, and of course, hilarious scatological jokes (see: the title of this post). 

The plot is driven primarily by the actions of a poverty-stricken trickster named João Grilo (which means John Cricket). As he tries to improve his lot in life with the help of his only friend, Chicó, he deliberately creates confusion and chaos in order to extract money from the wealthier residents of his small northeastern town. He does this by successfully predicting the sinful ways of the other characters-- the lustfulness and greed of the baker's wife, the sloth of the baker, the greed of the sacristan, the pride of the parish priest and the bishop, and the murderous violence of the superstitious bandit, Severino. 

Cordel-inspired image of the play
The play opens with a scene in which João and Chicó are trying to figure out a way to convince the parish priest to bless the baker's wife's dog, who is near death. Through a series of amusing lies, João actually succeeds in getting the priest to bless the baker's wife's dog (and even get it buried in sacred ground with a Mass recited for it in Latin). João also creates a Last Will and Testament for the dog, setting himself up as one of the recipients of its financial bequest ("what a remarkable animal! such noble intentions!"). As the lusty baker's wife grieves her dead dog, João succeeds in selling her a cat who, he claims, shits money (the cat does a little demonstration of this special talent, shitting out a couple of coins that João and Chicó have shoved up the poor feline's ass). 

This first act establishes the picaresque lengths João is willing to go to in order to get a little money and get back at his former employers, the baker and his wife. It also demonstrates that João is the only character smart enough to create confusion and to straighten confusion out. This contrasts with his friend Chicó, who although he is constantly telling tall tales of fantastical adventures he claims to have had (in the style of fantastical literature de cordel), he is never clever enough to remember all the twists and turns in his story. When João points out an inconsistency in the story, Chicó always ends up concluding: "Não sei! Só sei que foi assim." ("I don't know! I just know that's how it was.") 
Another cordel-inspired image of the play
There are two major turning points in the play. The first major one comes when Severino, the bandit, and his righthand henchman, summarily execute all of the characters except João and Chicó, thanks to João's clever trickery. The lie João tells Severino succeeds in getting himself and Chicó spared, but only for a moment until the lie is discovered and João, Severino, and Severino's henchman all end up dead. 

The second major turning point immediately follows their deaths. All the murdered characters find themselves at their last judgement: Satan on one side sporting the leather outfit of the backlander bandit; and Jesus on the other side, an affable black man with a great sense of humor. As Satan levies charges against each one of the characters, they tremble and try to prepare themselves for an eternity in hell. But João, after having bungled everything up, is the only one able to un-bungle their mortal predicament. To do this, he calls on the Virgin Mary to intercede and act as their "defense lawyer." Mary's mercy knows no limit, and she gently defends the group of sorry souls against Satan's accusations. 
Still from the 2000 film adaptation of the play
This final act in which God the Judge decides the fate of all the play's characters reminded me a bit of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 17th century allegorical auto sacramental called El gran teatro del mundo. The key difference between Calderón's drama and Suassuna's is the presence of humor in the latter. The audience laughs as the souls squirm during their judgement because João's irrepressible sense of humor continues even after death. And God Himself partakes in jokes-- it is only Satan who wishes to be serious, which makes him even more loathsome, monotonous, predictable.  

Furthermore, the intercession of Mary allows for "wiggle room" and negotiation in the souls' final judgement, which in turn allows for Jesus and Mary to outwit Satan and steal back the wayward souls he desperately tries to make his. Mary takes advantage of her position as defender to out-trick-the-trickster while she simultaneously rescues him from Satan's grasp, teaching João a lesson for having created so much chaos. 

But she does this with great sympathy; the mother of God not only has mercy, but also fun. Here we can begin to perceive a parallel between the divine elements of the play and the profane ones: Sinfulness--among mortals and in Satan himself--is predicable and boring. Humor and wit--among João, Chicó and Mary and Jesus--are surprising and edifying. A smart jokester (in this case João, not Chicó, who is a little dimwitted) is humble and adaptable to any situation, responding to his surroundings with a pun or a quip, thus saving himself in both worldly and heavenly realms. The pompous attitude of the self-important men-of-position are not able to interpret their circumstances quickly enough to respond effectively--they are too caught up in their own self-image, thus leading to a troublesome and dull life and afterlife. 

All of these elements of Suassuna's play come from popular tales of the northeastern oral tradition. "The obsequies of the Dog" and "The Cash-Evacuating Horse" are both anonymous popular folk ballads from the region, while the intercession of Mary is based on a popular folk play called O castigo da soberba. The result of this amalgamation of folk tales, humor, and wisdom is a play that calls attention to the human condition, its hypocrisy and its ability to redeem itself through humor. Dillwyn Ratcliff has said that Suassuna's satire "is forthright and emphatic but not bitter ..." In precious few pages, Suassuna has united a vast array of popular opinion and wit, much in the manner of the old playwrights of the commedia dell'arte. 

How do I know this...? "I don't know! I just know that's how it was..." 

Chicó, in a still from the 2000 film adaptation, reciting his characteristic line: "I don't know! I just know that's how it was." 
I highly recommend you get your hands on this play. You can expect some more reviews here on the blog of Suassuna's work in the near future, too! If you are interested in checking out the film adaptation of this play, the entire thing is available on youtube here, however there are no English subtitles on this version (you may have to purchase it to get subtitles). 

Have you read any plays recently?? Who are your favorite tricksters?? How important do you think humor is (in matters both sacred and profane)??

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers! Keep rustling!!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

In Short: Harry Crews

I love short stories. They come by the book full; a whole collection of different little stories that you can read in an hour, sometimes less, and feel as utterly satisfied by that story as if you'd just finished a novel. You can read the stories in any order you chose. You can skip a story if you don't like its title. You can become attached to a character in the span of a page, and then you can leave that character as you found him, several pages later.

Welcome to the first installment of "In Short," the aptly named new feature here on the blog in which I will dedicate a weekly post to a short story and its author.

I decided that I need to read more short stories and write about them here. I arrived at this decision after recently (and voraciously) reading a collection of short stories in a couple of hours. My husband had insisted I read this one short story by Harry Crews called "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!"

Harry Crews. Photo by Tom Graves.  
"C'mon," he kept saying, "it's only seven pages. That'll take you, like, five minutes. And its a really great story." He had just finished reading this author's memoir and was now getting into a collection of his short stories called Blood and Grits. Every meal my husband and I shared included some episode, some remark, from the things he'd just read by this author. I had been wrapped up in reading the Brazilian epic, Os sertões (which will be a post unto itself), but when I finished that book there was nothing standing between me and reading those seven little pages anymore, so I did. And then I knew I had to read the rest of the collection.

Harry Crews was a beer-drinking man. And a vodka-drinking man. And a whisky-drinking man. And he wrote as if, after having been drinking all of those things all morning, he had gotten a little uncomfortably sober in the afternoon sun, irritated by anyone who happened to enter his periphery, and probably even self-consciously irritated by having to keep himself company if he was alone.

Yet, in spite of the jagged edge with which much of his writing is presented, there is a vulnerability that permeates each line-- the true brute masculinity of his writing is most evident in the moments of fear, melancholy, uncertainty, awkwardness. Crews has a remarkable way of looking shyly at something and then proceeding to describe it, always a little bashfully, in a savagely raw and accurate way. No frills, no apologies-- no attacks or accusations either-- just a timid observer with an unflinching gaze, a relentless power to see. The force of his narrative voice moves over his literary landscape with authority, but does not bulldoze it.

Here's an example from "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!":

The building in front of me, the L.L. Bean store, was a miserable-looking structure. ... For no good reason, I though it looked like the kind of building that would house a third-rate plumbing company on the verge of bankruptcy.

The stories of Blood and Grits are strangely real, too. By strangely real, I mean they're non-fiction. Blood and Grits is a collection of this man's experiences and thoughts. All but one of these short stories were originally published in Esquire, Playboy, or Sport magazine in the 70s. These stories describe the confusion of the forest and its natural and unnatural inhabitants, the comfort of lonely dive bars along highways, the threat of violence from animals, the threat of violence from men, the crude impulses that we indulge in when we think no one (or everyone) is looking. They describe how many stupid ways we've come up with to stop hearing ourselves think, at the same time they listen deeply to the longing a man's soul can harbor.

One of his former students, Lucy Harrison, describes the collection like this: "It's a funny book. It's also awfully sad. It's about living the best you can with whatever burden you've chosen for yourself. It's about getting rid of that burden and dancing around like a crazy person. It's a book, largely, about drinking. ... It's a man's book. It isn't a guy's book. But I'm a girl, and I get every word of it. Got it?" 

Yep. That's about right. 

Probably one of my favorite stories from the collection was "Tuesday Night with Cody, Jimbo and a Fish of Some Proportion." It is such a simply story, all of 8 pages, in which nothing really significant happens. It takes place in a dark old bar sparsely populated with dedicated, professional drinkers. Crews describes the pleasure and downright necessity of such a worn-down  worn-in place: "Say it's sentimental or romantic or silly, but I'm convinced nothing new will work with whiskey because whiskey is never new. It's old and likes old things." 

The story is about two friends that don't shy away from demonstrating their "mutual admiration" by getting "locked up toe to toe and beat[ing] each other severely about the head and shoulders." One of the friends, Cody, brought a fish he caught that day into the bar and was estimating how much he thought it weighed. His friend, Jimbo, disagreed with that estimation. To settle the matter, the men took to the empty parking lot to put the powers of their pick-up trucks to the test in a reckless competition in which the friends, with trucks hitched to one another at the rear, tried to dominate his opponent's truck by putting full force on the gas peddle.

It's a funny story, but its also deadly serious, in the way you can tell a joke to a drunk who laughs at first but then suddenly becomes angry and dangerous. You watch two men take their lives into their hands, over the weight of a fish, on a Tuesday night, in a near-empty bar. And then they laugh about it and head back to their stools to finish their beers. Think about it.

I am inspired to read more of Harry Crews' work, especially his fiction. He died just last year on March 12th, but he left behind a large collection of work. In precious few words, the Crews short stories I read today seemed to say so much about life. The tattoo on the author's arm, an excerpt from an e.e. cummings poem, shows in equally few words the way Crews felt about death-- at once taunting it and fearing it:

how do you like your blueeyed boy 

  Mister Death

What are your favorite short stories?? Have you read any Harry Crews?? What are your favorite author tattoos??

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Hand, The Head, The Heart: Ana Serrano

John Ruskin, the Victorian age art critic, said in his 1895 lecture titled "Unity in Art" that, "Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together." He explains that the heart is where emotions are formed, and those emotions are then sent to the head where they are processed, and finally those emotions, once contemplated, are sent to the human hand, which Ruskin regards as a perfect technology ("No machine yet contrived, or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of the human fingers"). Only with the perfect coordination of the hand, the head, and the heart is it possible to create true fine art. 

One of the things that I like most about the how Ruskin defines fine art here is what he hasn't defined: he doesn't talk about subject matter, medium, or concept. He gives authority only to the sincerity of the heart, the intelligence of the mind, and the ability of the hand-- which means that any artist, producing a work that is honest and true, in any medium, creates fine art. 

That is why, starting today, I am starting a new feature for the blog called (unsurprisingly) The Hand, The Head, The Heart, in which I present the work of a visual artist I feel has these three elements working in harmony. 

The first artist to be featured is the Los Angeles-based sculptor/painter Ana Serrano. I saw her stuff and instantly fell in love with it. 

She works mostly paper and cardboard to create works that gaze openly and honestly at the urban environment in which she lives. A first-generation Mexican-American from LA, Serrano's work speaks eloquently with a Spanglish visual vocabulary to playfully express real hardship, pain, and danger in her home city, at the same time she captures the beauty, love, and persistence. 

The artist Ana Serrano, creating "Cartonlandia" 
On her website, her artistic vision is described like this: Her work bears reference to those in low socioeconomic positions, with particular interest in the customs and beliefs, as well as the architecture, fashion, and informal economies present within this segment of society. A current theme explored in her work is the socio-cultural aspects of drug trafficking, and the branding and acceptance of the drug lord lifestyle.

"Chalino" (detail)
"Tres Animales"
"Road to Malverde" (detail)
Serrano makes cardboard versions of buildings - in both small scale and life size. These buildings are definitely evidence that her heart, head, and hands are working perfectly together...

A year ago, the Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas commissioned her to do a whole life-sized neighborhood in their gallery. You can watch a short video of Serrano talking about that work (called Salon of Beauty), her creative process, and her artistic vision here:

You can keep up with her most recent work on her blog.

What are your thoughts about this artist?? What are your thoughts on Ruskin's idea of fine art??

Until next time!

Let's Stay Connected!

Let's Stay Connected!
I have some great news to announce: you are now able to follow Band of Wild Petticoats on Bloglovin'!! Simply click on the icon at the top of the righthand column to add it to the list of blogs you follow.

In other news, I have been thinking about some new features to add to the blog- so look for some wonderful new weekly traditions to start popping up soon. Have a wonderful rest of your weekend!


Monday, July 15, 2013

Bulls, Drums, and a Triangle

Dancing and screaming, they bring the bull back to life...
The brief time I spent in Maranhão was packed full of incredible cultural festivals. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky enough to be there during the junina festivals. From the word junho, meaning "June," the festivals unsurprisingly span the entire month of June every year, as there are such a high concentration of saints' feast days within this one month. The festivities kick-off with the feast of São João (St. John the Baptist) and continue until St. Martial's feast day on the last day of the month.

The tradition of performing bumba meu boi coincides with the junina festivals and, in Maranhão, those performances are more popular and anticipated than carnival celebrations in February. In this northeastern state, there are schools for bumba meu boi-- like there are schools for samba/carnival-- that bring together communities to make costumes, write songs, and choreograph dances. I got the chance to see several different schools perform (there are multiple performances every single night in June in every different neighborhood). There were no two schools who expressed the bumba meu boi tradition in the same way; each school had a unique interpretation of this centuries-old cultural practice. 

The basic story stays the same throughout all the performances, however, and is the story of Pai Francisco and his wife, Mai Catirina. Pai Francisco is a slave working on a large hacienda. His very pregnant wife Catirina decides that she wants to eat the tongue of the hacienda's most prized bull. She cajoles and nags and finally convinces Pai Francisco to kill the precious bull so that she can eat his tongue. When the patron of the hacienda discovers that Pai Francisco has killed his favorite bull, he threatens to kill him...unless he can somehow bring the bull back to life. Pai Francisco implores an indigenous tribe ("indios") living nearby to help him by using their magic medicine to revive the bull. They come to his assistance, dancing in elaborate patterns around the bull until he comes magically back to life and joins in the dance.

Pai Francisco always carries a machete as he dances, and Mai Catirina is often (though not always) played by a man in pregnant drag. The rhythm and melody to which this dance is performed is provided by a huge section of people either behind or to the side of the dancers, the majority of them playing matracas (wooden blocks hit together) and large, handheld drums. The lyrics of the songs are written by the singers of each school, and so they tend to reflect current relevant events (my favorite song lyric was "Foi no instagrã que te conheci..." which means, "I met you on Instagram...").

Towards the end of June and the junina festivities, St. Peter's feast day is celebrated, which is a big deal in the state of Maranhão and especially on the island of São Luís, as St. Peter is the patron saint of fisherman. The celebration for this feast day is special, and in fact goes all night. The event is referred to as the encontro dos bois (the meeting of the bulls) in which all of the bumba meu boi schools from all around the state make a pilgrimage to St. Peter's small chapel in São Luís. The chapel sits at the top of a steep hill looking out over the ocean. It's roof is made of sails, stretching out towards the sea, appearing as if at any moment it would sail off, through the sky, down into the sea.

St. Peter in his boat
The open basket sits at the foot of St. Peter's statue and is where people could drop off offerings such as the ex voto arms pictured here. The basket frequently filled up throughout the night and a volunteer would store the offerings in a back room and replace the basket, ready once more to be filled. 
Hundreds of bulls and their musicians and their Pai Franciscos and their Mai Catirinas and their "indian" dancers arrive throughout the night and into the morning. They begin by dancing and singing at the foot of the hill, where large stages have been set up. Slowly, each school makes their way up the hundreds of steps towards the chapel, where they dance and sing for the statue of St. Peter, who has been placed in a small boat filled with flowers.

Community members from the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as from the farthest corners of the state, make the pilgrimage. They come to make petitions to the saint in the form of ex votos, they come to fulfill promises (such as dancing all night) as thanks for miracles in their lives that they attribute to the saint, and some even come to shake their fists in anger, shouting at the saint and berating him for not having granted some petition.

Many come, many dance, many weep - from the sheer intensity of the tremendous sound of throbbing drums pulsing through the small chapel, the fervency of the prayer, the neverendingness of the night, the elbow-to-elbow crowds dancing there in the extreme heat of an island two degrees off the equator.

Sunrise from the heights of the ship-like chapel. 
From inside the chapel, I saw the sun rise over the ocean. At about 10:30am, four men hoisted the statue of St. Peter in his boat on their shoulders, and slowly made their way down the harrowingly steep stairs. When they reached the street, they loaded the saint onto the top of a big truck which carried him to the shore, where he was placed on a boat, to continue the procession in the water.

Here is a video I made of one of the bumba meu boi performances I saw and the encontro dos bois: 

While this event was, without a doubt, the culminating experience of my time there, I was fortunate enough to witness other smaller cultural traditions as well. In São Luís' historic city center, many bumba meu boi performances were celebrated in the streets, alongside music and dance traditions such as tambor crioula and forrô. One could simply walk around that neighborhood, find something delicious to eat at a small stand, purchase a cocktail or a beer from another small stand, and discover a different live music performance waiting for them around almost every corner.

The tambor crioula was beautiful to watch. A group of men sang call-and-response songs and played drums while a circle of women wearing long, floral skirts and head-scarves twirled and danced and improvised steps. This tradition was brought by African slaves to Brazil and continues to be danced today by their decedents. What I didn't know at first about this tradition is that the women dancing the tambor crioula will sometimes pull female bystanders into their circle to dance with them for a little while, greeting them by putting their arms up into the air and bumping bellybutton-to-bellybutton. I saw several women get close to the circle when they were watching and, sure enough, bump-twirl-twirl....

When we arrived at the band playing forrô music, we all started dancing. Forrô is an incredibly fun dance music, native of Brazil's northeast. I love that one of the driving forces behind this music is the triangle- it is such a wonderful (and underused!) percussion instrument.

For some inexplicable reason, there were a couple of clowns hanging out in front of the forrô stage... they weren't singing or dancing really, but there they were in full clown regalia and face paint. Just one of those creepy delightfully unpredictable details of the junina festivities!

Here is a video I made of what it was like walking around the historic center at night, finding tambor crioula and forrô performances, tucked away on each corner...

What are your favorite yearly festivals?? What new festivals and cultural traditions have you experienced recently? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Photos from Taim and Rio dos Cachorros

Being a tourist in Brazil was a phenomenal experience. Being a graduate student at an academic conference on social and environmental policy in Brazil's northeastern region was also wonderful- and intense and deeply engaging. The Universidade Federal do Maranhão (UFMA) brought together a diverse array of Brazilian and American scholars in the fields of anthropology, geography, and ecology (and literature, though to a lesser degree) for a four day conference that covered an enormous amount of information.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was a trip to several traditional communities to see firsthand how their local economies worked, what the natural resources of the area were, and what issues were important to the people who've been living there for centuries. The trip to Taim and Rio dos Cachorros made many of the scholarly papers (and the debates surrounding their arguments) become so much more real and immediate.

Here are the photos I took from those communities, who are currently engaged in an effort to protect their traditional way of life, their environment, and to make their local economy flourish as a result of the preservation of these lands (rather than at their expense): 

I've got several more posts on Brazil in the works! Stay tuned-- until next time, dear petticoat rustlers! 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Alcântara: Living in Fiction (Part 2)

From the shores of Livramento, gazing back at Alcântara
During our stay in Alcântara, Tania's husband, Marcelo, met up with us. Together, we took several day trips to the nearby deserted islands. One morning, we walked to the dock and asked a man to take us in his boat to one of the islands so that we could swim and hang out on the beach for the day. He took us in his fishing boat to an island called Livramento, about a 10 minute journey away from Alcântara (see a brief video of the boat ride below). On the way, he told us that the island actually had one inhabitant--a woman, called Dona Mocinha, supposedly lived on the island of Livramento. When we arrived, we weren't sure if that was just a story or if it was true- we couldn't see any houses at all when we got there.

For an hour or two, we floated up to our necks in the sun-warmed salt water. When our bellies started to rumble, we decided to walk around the island and see if Dona Mocinha was real. Before long, we came upon her house, tucked into the shade of the forest. Tania called out, and a woman emerged from the house, eyeing us with caution. Tania explained that we had been told she lived there and sometimes made food for hungry bathers and if it wasn't too much trouble, would she be able to fix something for us... Dona Mocinha was gruff at first, but after seeing we were harmless, decided that we should take a walk on the beach and come back later for a snack. And that's what we did.

On Caboclo the fisherman's boat, headed to Livramento
Guarás on the shore of Livramento
As we walked along the beach, I commented to Tania and Marcelo that it seemed Dona Mocinha must've always been in Livramento, that she sprang out of the ocean when the island had formed, and in fact was the very soul of the island, protecting its shores... but that was just a whimsical fancy, right?

We returned to Dona Mocinha's house to find she had pulled out a table and chairs and was serving the food she'd prepared. We ate right there, under a tree next to her house, on the beach, among her chickens, dogs, and plants. She sat with us and told us about how the trees kept her company, allowing her to tell them her secrets while listening to theirs. She told us how academic researchers from the university in São Luís visited her island to study plants there and how she takes them through the thick tropical forests to find what they're looking for- all the while protecting her island from getting overrun. Then Tania asked her how she came to be the sole inhabitant of the island. She said she received a call, a mystic call in a dream, beckoning her there. ...Maybe my narrative for her was not just a whimsical fancy, after all...
Dona Moçinha's house, built with buriti tree trunks, sitting right where the forest meets the beach
The "roof" under which we had lunch
Tania and Marcelo at Dona Mocinha's house - the blue kayak was used by a man called "Punk" to ferry supplies back and forth from Alcântara to Dona Mocinha

Flowers growing out of the sand, fishing net drying on a branch
One of Dona Mocinha's dogs coming over to say hello
The most delicious farofa I've ever tasted

Fresh eggs provided by the resident chickens, cooked with the most fragrant, delicious combination of spices Dona Mocinha picked from around her house
Me with the soul of Livramento, Dona Mocinha 
The next day, we explored another deserted island. This time, a man called Chico rowed us in his canoe to another island, this one completely uninhabited. Chico rowed us through mangrove to a very secluded little break in the branches that grew so near to the level of the water we had to duck our heads several times. (At this point, I was almost certain I had entered a passage from Alejo Carpentier's 1953 novel, Los pasos perdidos.)

A small section of sand fanned out between two mangrove trees and Chico told us this is where we could get out of the boat. I was skeptical at first, because it didn't look like much. But as soon as we crested the little sand dune, I was left utterly breathless. A long beach of pure white sand stretched out in front of crystal-clear water. Of course, by the time we got to this beach, the battery in my camera was completely dead, so you'll just have to take my word for it...

The "dock" we departed from before entering the mangrove
In the yellow shirt is Chico, preparing his canoe 
Off to a fictional deserted island that happened to exist (at least for one day!) 
Alcântara was enchanting- I feel I could go back there again and again and not ever worry about the magic of the place diminishing for me. And as if to confirm that hunch, Alcântara gave me the most wonderful sendoff possible. 

Marcelo, Tania, and I boarded a ferry to return to São Luís in the early afternoon. Along with us boarded and entire bumba meu boi performance group. I got to see, for my first time, all the glorious detail of the embroidery and sequins of their costumes and headdresses. But that was not all I got to see... as soon as the ferry's motor grumbled into gear and the boat separated from the dock, drums, tambourines, shakers and even a trumpet erupted into sound. The performance group burst into samba, dancing all around the ferry's deck. They began passing around 2...3...4...5 bottles of cachaça (the national Brazilian liquor), singing at the tops of their lungs, clapping in time to the music.

The music and dancing continued for the entire hour-long trip back to São Luís, where we docked with everyone still singing as loud as their throats would allow. In the middle of the trip, the boat came up against some rougher seas, with huge waves tossing the boat back and forth. Did this diminish the raucous singing and dancing? No! It just made everyone scream with delighted, adrenaline-filled pleasure as they continued to samba but changed the song to one who's lyrics were about boats tipping over....

With no batteries in the camera, that adventure, too, was only recorded by my eyes (and Marcelo's cell phone), and archived amongst my most vivid, happy memories. 

What fictional places have you traveled to?? What is the most magical place you've ever visited?? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers... keep rustling! 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Alcântara: Living in Fiction (Part 1)

View from the sailboat in which we traveled 
We departed early one morning on a sailboat ferrying people from the island of São Luís to small island-like mainland town called Alcântara. The ferry's schedule changes everyday, depending entirely on the rising and falling of the tide. When the tide is too high, the boat doesn't brave the water. When the tide is too low, there is no water upon which to sail. When the water is at an acceptable level, you better be on the dock with a ticket in your hand, because it is likely to be the only boat leaving that day.

With the sails stretched out above the boat, the wind picked up. The motor was running to give us an extra push. The sea was calm and the water at the desired level... Tania and I were sailing towards the tiny town that would place us, in typical Brazilian fashion, at once in the 17th and the 21st centuries.

As the boat began to get closer to Alcântara, small deserted islands started to come into view. They were little dots of land keeping Alcântara's shores company, causing the boat's course to sway and curve towards our destination.

As we passed by these islands, brilliantly pink-- almost neon pink-- birds took flight. Tania and I thought they were flamingos at first but we later were told they were guará. The pink of their feathers in front of the emerald green tropical forest offered the same shock to the senses as the cold water spraying our faces from the side of the boat.

After about an hour on the sea, we reached Alcântara's shore, wide awake and taking in the cheerful sounds of a coastal morning: water lapping against the wooden sides of boats, birds calling in the distance, dishes clinking together. We hadn't eaten yet that day, so we immediately sought out a small place near the shore that sold pão de queijo (a bread baked with Minas cheese). This golden little taste of heaven has just the right amount of crisp on the outside, giving way to a tender, savory center. After finishing one, we both went back for seconds right away. In fact, Tania woke up early and walked to this shop so that she could be there by 7AM and get the first batch of pão de queijo every morning.
Pão de queijo and a cup of coffee within earshot of ocean waves
Things were off to a great start. After we finished eating, we decided to head towards to house we would be staying in (the professors that put us up in São Luís had graciously offered us the use of their Alcântara residence, as well). Even with the coastal breezes, sweat poured down my back and both Tania and I wanted to take our shower-on-arrival before exploring the town further.

On the walk to the house, I noticed that the streets were paved with beautiful old grey stones that had been ground in to the red dirt of the roads. Rain water fed the bright green tufts of grass that outlined the stones. As we approached the house, we passed laundry lines strung between houses, several goats grazing in a yard, and a man leading a white cow down the road. We arrived at the green house with a blue door and used the giant skeleton key (this key must've weighed about 5 pounds) to go inside.

The green house with a blue door - can you spot the goat reclining nearby?

First nap of the day?
From inside the house, looking out the window, into the courtyard

Streets of Alcântara 
Steep hills allowed for ocean vistas (although, the sun was so bright my camera couldn't really handle it)
After a shower and a costume change, we braved the mid-morning sun to do some exploring. Closer to the center of the town, the streets were paved with black and white stones that zig-zagged to form a diamond pattern up and down the streets and sidewalks. Walking along these chessboard-like streets, we visited a small chapel, a beautiful white church (in which I attended Sunday Mass-- more on that in a bit), and finally we came to the central plaza of the town.
Diamond-pattern streets
Chapel, and a napping dog
View from the chapel
Upon the instructions of a local, we each rang these bells three times and made a wish (my wish ended up coming true!)
The main plaza was surrounded by beautiful colonial Portuguese buildings with the original porcelain tile still adorning the façades and large, arched windows and doors opening to the street. The ruins of an old church stretched up towards the sky, a reminder of how old and how much wear this plaza has seen over the centuries. And yet, the beauty of this place was harshly interrupted by the abrupt, stark vision of a white marble pillar in the center of the plaza.

This tall, ornate pillar is called a pelourinho and was the site in which the Portuguese settlers sold and publicly castigated African slaves. It is one of the only remaining pelourinhos preserved in Brazil and the top of the pillar retains its detailed original decoration. Towards the bottom of the pillar, there are marks of use, imaginably where chains rubbed against the marble. It is a grim monument to the horror of slavery, stuck directly between what was once a church (symbol of morality) and the ocean (symbol of freedom). Perhaps the most disturbing thing about seeing the pelourinho, however, was the fact that I witnessed both Brazilian and American tourists having their picture taken in front of it, as if it were any other architectural feature: leaning against it, smiling, thumbs-upping, even kissing.

Detail of Portuguese tile

Tile - Marble - Wood
Ruins of church in central plaza
The pelourinho
The ornate design on the pelourinho
Marks of wear on the pelourinho, the ocean in the background
The days I spent in Alcântara were like that-- filled with great beauty, novelesque encounters, and reminders (both bright and dark) of history. It was as if I were living inside a strange and wonderful fiction that became more and more fantastical the longer I stayed there... more on that in tomorrow's post!

Here are some more photos from our initial explorations of the town...
Junina lantern

Window detail on a house

Window-doors open to balconies overlooking the main plaza

These houses were constructed to last - the have been continuously occupied since the 18th century

Flag commemorating the town's celebration of the feast of the Holy Spirit

Ruins of a never-completed house, intended for King Pedro (18th century)

Purchasing fruit

The hammock where I spent some quality moments with my eyes closed...

Goats, clean laundry, breeze

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of my adventure in Alcântara...