2009.11.08: Gabriela Taylor returns to Brazil after 42 years
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2009.11.08: Gabriela Taylor returns to Brazil after 42 years
Gabriela Taylor returns to Brazil after 42 years
I am traveling with my friend, Madaline, a fellow Ex Peace Corps volunteer. We revisit the unique city of Salvador where the Portuguese built a church for every day of the year. Strolling along twisting cobblestone streets admiring the plethora of vintage pastel painted colonial buildings, we are drawn to various plazas that pulsate with live, highly percussive music. Because indigenous Indians wouldn't work on sugar plantations, the Portuguese shipped African slaves into Salvador during the mid-1600s. African traditions augmented those of the Catholic Portuguese to create a rich culture. This African fusion has resulted in a skin pallet throughout Brazil that ranges from black to white with every shade of brown (moreno) in between. Africans brought not only lively music and spicy food, but a religion called Condomble whose gatherings result in a trance or "possession" of its white-clad participants by African saints. And they introduced the haunting Birimbau, a single stringed bow-like instrument attached to a large gourd that accompanies Capoeira, a robust fight/ dance form. When I visit the studio of Master Bimba, the legendary Capoeira teacher I met here in 1966, I speak with his daughter and son who have taken over since his death 5 years ago. I am happy to see that Afro-Brazilian traditions are still alive and well in Salvador.
Gabriela Taylor returns to Brazil after 42 years
Back to Brazil -After 42 Years
By Gabriela Taylor – Special to The Garden Island
Published: Sunday, November 8, 2009 3:10 AM HST
Caption: Keapana Valley resident Gabriela Taylor, right, enjoys a meal with old friends to mark her return trip to Brazil, 42 years after she first went there as a 24-year-old Peace Corp volunteer. Gabriela Taylor/Contributed photo
Known for Copacabana, Carnival, soccer and the bossa nova beat, Brazil is the largest country in South America and the only one that was colonized by Portugal. I spoke Portuguese fluently 42 years ago and now find myself struggling to express myself on the level of a 4-year-old. Returning to the area where I lived in Brazil for two years and visiting people I knew then is not deja vu for me. Why? Brazil has changed - dramatically!
Brazil then: 1965-1967
Inspired by President John Kennedy, I came to Brazil as a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer with the intention of making difference. I wanted to help allay the misery of poverty and abysmal health that dominated over two-thirds of the population. With sadness, I witnessed countless malnourished children who lacked protein in their diets and whose bellies were distended from parasitic infections. Flies lined their lips and eyelids but they never shooed them away. I remember a child asking why I moved my hand in front of my face so often.
Feeling helpless, I watched emaciated babies die from dehydration as a result of infectious diarrhea. Instead of animals bearing loads, I saw men and women bend their thin bodies in submission under heavy burdens and strain as they pulled loaded cargo carts in order to earn a pittance for food. If they were lucky, they could buy beans, manioc and rice, the same food they ate day in and day out. Half of the babies died before age 2 and those who survived might live until the ripe old age of 55, God willing (si Deus quiser), a common saying that expressed an inability to choose the course of one's own life.
Brazil now: 2009
Returning to Brazil as a tourist, and to visit friends, I see that Brazilians have lifted themselves out of the throes of paralyzing poverty. Catapulted into the 21st century with skyscrapers and gigantic shopping malls, urban Brazilians who make up the major part of a burgeoning middle class, have taken on the ethos of capitalism with gusto. They drive new cars, wear fashionable clothing, eat out, take vacations, use cell phones and buy with credit. Brazilians enjoy universal health care and benefit from the social assistance programs of the current government. They are strikingly taller and healthier looking now. Yes, poverty still exits, but much less, and now people have enough to eat. Many live in the same style houses, but they are made from bricks rather than mud. However, there is one architectural modification now - TV. An antenna or dish sprouts from every roof!
Their role in society greatly expanded, women are tipping the Brazilian scale towards abundance and self-determination. Besides joining the work force, they have radically altered their dress - perhaps, "undress" is more accurate. When I lived here in northeast Brazil, women wore "below the knee" dresses, and waded into the ocean fully clothed. But a global fashion revolution occurred several years ago when Brazilian women introduced the thong (tonga), which, in case anyone has forgotten, is a kind of bikini that allows it all to hang out- from behind! Simply scanty now, they flaunt short shorts and backless blouses too. A major plus for women today is the prevalence of free government-sponsored family planning clinics.
I am traveling with my friend, Madaline, a fellow Ex Peace Corps volunteer. We revisit the unique city of Salvador where the Portuguese built a church for every day of the year. Strolling along twisting cobblestone streets admiring the plethora of vintage pastel painted colonial buildings, we are drawn to various plazas that pulsate with live, highly percussive music. Because indigenous Indians wouldn't work on sugar plantations, the Portuguese shipped African slaves into Salvador during the mid-1600s. African traditions augmented those of the Catholic Portuguese to create a rich culture. This African fusion has resulted in a skin pallet throughout Brazil that ranges from black to white with every shade of brown (moreno) in between.
Africans brought not only lively music and spicy food, but a religion called Condomble whose gatherings result in a trance or "possession" of its white-clad participants by African saints. And they introduced the haunting Birimbau, a single stringed bow-like instrument attached to a large gourd that accompanies Capoeira, a robust fight/ dance form. When I visit the studio of Master Bimba, the legendary Capoeira teacher I met here in 1966, I speak with his daughter and son who have taken over since his death 5 years ago. I am happy to see that Afro-Brazilian traditions are still alive and well in Salvador.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, my husband and I were located outside the city of Recife in Jaboatao, a village surrounded by sugar cane plantations. Sound familiar? However, there is a difference between Kaua‘i and Brazil regarding sugar cane. Brazil has captured the attention of the world with their prodigious production of clean sustainable energy for vehicles. I visit one of the big sugar mills and learn that although it produced only sugar less than10 years ago, now over half of the already existing sugar crop is converted into ethanol. All new cars are "flex," meaning that they can burn gas or mix it with ethanol, usually going from 50 percent upward. The choice is yours when you pull up the pump.
The last time I saw Esdras, the son of our friends, Antonio and Berinice, he was 6 years old. Now 48, with a keen likeness to his father, he picks me up at my hotel. Jaboatao, an hour and a half bus ride then, has become a suburb and is only 25 minutes by commuter train now. We drive to Berinice's house and embrace in a tearful reunion. I miss Antonio who passed away several years ago. Also, the woman who I trained to take over my job in the family planning clinic, Petronila, surprises me. The reunion is much deeper emotionally than I expected.
Porto de Galenhas (Port of Chickens)
After I learn that 42 shark attacks occurred in a two-year period at the beach across from my Recife hotel where I swim each morning, I decide to go elsewhere. The story is told that even though slave trade was abolished in Brazil, the traders continued by hiding slaves under crates of chickens. Hence, this beautiful little fishing village, south of Recife, became known as the Port of Chickens. But now instead of chickens, it is filled with Brazilian tourists. When I tell a Brazilians that chickens run wild all over Kaua‘i, they can't believe that we haven't eaten them.
Tropical fruits are abundant and there are more varieties in Brazil than on Kaua‘i. Out of 24 varieties of mangos, the one called mango S, is shaped like the letter S. Also, this is the cashew fruit (caju) season, and street venders hawk heaps of this colorful fruit that comes with a cashew nut attached to the bottom. Green coconuts piled up on stands at every corner provide a refreshing drink. Coconut water fills a huge cooler as an option to fresh passion fruit (maracuja) juice at the breakfast buffet. Am I in heaven?
Completing the circle
Back in Recife, I enjoy the annual International Dance Festival. Besides traditional Brazilian dances, I watch skilled contemporary dance troupes perform in classical theaters built in the colonial era. In the coming week, a journalist from the city paper will interview me. They want to publish my Peace Corps story from 42 years ago. I will go to Jaboatao with the reporter, back to the place and the people where I lived and worked. I hold the intention that this story will bring my two-year Peace Corps term full circle.
In 1967, a week before we were to leave Brazil, two reporters from the city paper came unexpectedly to our house. They asked about the family planning clinic that I had started with a Brazilian gynecologist from Recife. I explained that my job was to educate women about contraceptives, which they had never heard of. I rode my horse out to the sugar plantations to meet with women and once we opened the clinic, I registered them. I told the reporters that they should speak with the doctor who, along with a nurse, conducted all medical matters. The next day my photo was on the front page of the Recife paper and subsequently all over Brazil, saying that I was sterilizing Brazilian women.
This time the newspaper story will not be sensational. I imagine that it will show how the fabric of life can change, how people can evolve and how their lives can improve - despite all the obstacles.
This story will be a tribute to the Brazilian people, to their endurance under crippling circumstances and to their ability to climb out of poverty and hunger and to celebrate life. And furthermore, to do it in the Brazilian way - with dance and music!
• Gabriela Taylor lives in Keapana Valley. She is the author of "Geckos & Other Guests: Tales of a Kauai Bed and Breakfast."
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