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People from here, there and everywhere
MY MOTHER USED TO SAY THAT AT SEVEN MONTHS, I CRIED IN HER BELLY.” And does anyone doubt it? Not in the community of Santa Luzia, an old escaped slave settlement embedded in the thicket of Marajó, where Cipriano is a man destined, an embassador of spells to soothe all types of pains of the flesh and spirit. He introduces himself as a “surgeon.” He also calls himself a witch-doctor, a shaman, but never a wizard. “The caruanas* are the wizards,” he clarifies. They’re the ones that Cipriano lends his body to for them to administer cures and undo curses. Here’s how it works: “There’s an underground city where the caruanas live. When we pray, we can feel them nearing us. Feel the moisture rising from below, taking charge.” Then come the Indian maracas, Christian prayers, African drums and Cipriano all worked up, wrapped in belts, immersed in that magical dreamstate which makes you forget who you are. There are those who swear they’ve seen Cipriano smear his arm with cachaça and light it on fire without feeling a thing. They also say that he sucks out the pain with his mouth, then spits it out, and in this spit there’s insects, glass, blood. Everyone in Santa Luzia attests to it: everyone who comes here and falls under this man’s spells comes out walking on two feet. Caruana is powerful. “Without him, we’re nothing.”
* Deity of native Brazilian mythology, called upon by shamans to cure the ill.
Porto Velho, RO.
THEY SAY IT WAS HELL. It was woods, rain, beasts, Indians, mosquitos, as well as that demonic heat, in an endless struggle which, if it didn’t kill you, wore you down to skin and bones. Over six thousand men died in the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railroad. But Dionísio’s father wasn’t one of them. Good thing. Charles Nathaniel Shockness came as a young man, torn by necessity from the paradise where he lived, a beautiful island in the Antilles called Grenada, and here he met the devil in jungle form. That was 1910. Along with him came many men, all of them black, nicknamed “Barbadians,” from other islands. Those who survived either went back home or ended up staying. Charles stayed, and made his living from the railroad. He and his son. He worked on Madeira-Mamoré for over forty years; and Dionísio nearly as long. The latter started as a boy, just twelve years-old, and before he had whiskers he was already working as a machinist between Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirim. The man’s greatest pride is having conducted back when the trains were steam-engine locomotives that made sparks fly on the tracks. Even after he retired, after the Madeira-Mamoré met its end and the forest had started to eat into the scrap metal, Dionisio Shockness didn’t let go of those trains. He went there and assembled a museum out of what was left over, redid the tracks, put back a locomotive to whistle once again, even if it weren’t just to transport tourists or delay people from inevitably forgetting. In the railroad of death, a father and his son found life.
Vale do Catimbau, PE.
SMART KID, THAT VANIEL. Nine years old and already working like a grown-up. He even tells his older siblings what to do. When his father heads into town, he doesn’t think twice: Vaniel’s in charge. The kid does a little of everything: he crowds the bulls into the car, makes beiju and even cares for the goats-taking them places where they can eat, every other day, trailing through the scrubland like a good cowboy. On the other days, he gathers all the animals in the corral to milk them, then mixes the milk with flour, to make mush. “When there’s lots of milk, mommy makes cheese,” he adds. And all this in the morning, because Vaniel goes to school in the afternoon. And he goes by bus, which they now have in the place he lives, Brocotó. Just a short time back, the only way to leave was atop a donkey. They didn’t have TV either, nor dish antennas. Not even the water tanks which these days provide water for the whole family. Light only came from oil lamps and people slept on beds made of Likuri Palm straw. Now Vaniel sleeps on a mattress. And did his parents ever imagine that life would be like this? In Brocotó, the quality of dreaming and dreams themselves have improved a lot. Lucky kid, that Vaniel.
São José dos Ausentes, RS.
WHETHER OR NOT THE SOUTHERN WIND IS BLOWING, ELISEU IS OUT THERE. He gets up bright and early everyday to scavenge the hills, taking care of the livestock, fixing the fences and whatever the ranch most requires. It’s always cold out, especially mornings, when the earth here is the iciest in all of Brazil, plains that stand over a mile high and where snow is even known to dust the grass. But when the southern wind starts blowing, then it’s winter at its most brutal. For this is a wind that cuts and slices, hissing across the fields and ramming against the flesh. “It almost seems like we work inside a refrigerator.” But Eliseu doesn’t fight it: he goes out shivering and does what he has to do, which guarantees there will be meat for supper. Aside from the work, the guy also finds time to help his father making cheese and even takes side jobs guiding foreign visitors, taking advantage of the opportunity to expand his English. And he has music, his favorite pastime. Now and then, you can find Eliseu lost in Gaúcho lingo, making up his own lines, mixing rock’n’roll with chamamé. “We have to modernize, right? Haven’t you seen the sertanejos?” he explains. Sometimes, in the fields, on horseback, he likes to sing the songs that he writes. Singing to himself, since there, in the isolated recesses of the ranch, no one’s there to listen or sing along. Except when the southern wind blows, and then Eliseu and the wind sing together.
Alto Rio Moa, AC.
THE PLACE WHERE DONA RITA LIVES HAS A BIT OF EVERYTHING. It has good drinking water, it has game in the woods, it has land to plant corn, manioc, bananas and beans and a house for flour milling where she can make beiju*. Dona Rita even has a little beach in her yard, when, in the ebb tide, the Rio Moa shrinks away and the sand gives way to a small coast at the foot of her house. TV is something she doesn’t have, but her neighbor has one, a black and white set which he lets the entire village watch when it’s time for the telenovela. And look, even phone lines have made it there: a yellow payphone, right next to her house, pride of the place which the people closed off with a fence so the cattle wouldn’t ruin it. “I have everything I need here,” she says. Except for a stovepot, right Dona Rita? All that’s left is for her then is to go into town, something she doesn’t like to do. If it were it up to her, she’d stay there, in that pretty little village with no name in the foothills of the Serra do Divisor, right where rubber invented a state and Brazil became more Western and Amazonian. But Dona Rita is a fussy cook: she can’t rest without a pot. So now and then, she ventures out of the boonies, in the country’s extreme west, just to add to her collection of cooking pots. She travels twelve hours downriver to the port of Japiim and another 25 miles on land to get to Cruzeiro do Sul. Afterwards, she makes the entire trip back, with one more pot to hang on her kitchen wall. Like a trophy.
* A kind of dough made from manioc or tapioca, of indigenous origin.