Brazilian Adventure: Homage to Peter Fleming, part II |

Brazilian Adventure: Homage to Peter Fleming, part II

Bruce Berger

This is the second in a three-part series about the author’s recent trip to Brazil. In the first installment, Berger described the midsized city of Campo Grande in the state of Matto Grosso Do Sul, and visited the remote swampland of the pantanal. As we pick up the narrative this week, he is full of grilled meat from a barbecue, or churrasco, and driving south from Campo Grande to famous Igauçu Falls, on the Argentine border.Long before I had read of the pantanal, back in earliest childhood from National Geographics and books of marvels, I had learned of Igauçu Falls. It was our trip’s only other official goal and it lay a long day’s drive toward the south. By day it had to be, for we were told the danger of assault on the highway was so great that even truckers were afraid to drive it after dusk, and vans like ours – sometimes driven by citizens of Campo Grande en route to duty-free shops over the Paraguayan border – had engendered a race of thieves. Truckers themselves remained our own menace, and given our late start after the churrasco, our only option for the night was the unpromising town of Dourados. We were unable to locate a hotel, asked and asked again, and at last were routed out the far side of town and caught sight of our goal, a building vast and curving like a slice of the Wall of China, with huge letters on the roof proclaiming Dourados Park Hotel. The reason it was hard to spot was that the sign and the vast pile beneath it were wholly dark except for light leaking from the front entrance.We parked and ventured in. A cavernous lobby trailed into darkness, but at the near end blared a TV and a couple of young people staffed a lighted front desk. Yes, they were open and had rooms. While Clifford signed in, the young man unloaded our car and piled the luggage in the tiny elevator, invited me in too, closed the door and disappeared. I waited, cornered by our bags in the dark, then in a wave of claustrophobia I burst out. The boy reappeared, motioned me back in, and I hoped not to catch his severe cold as we rose with excruciating deliberation and stepped out on the third floor, which the others reached more comfortably by a flight of stairs. We converged in its lobby, in whose dim expanse huddled a cluster of vinyl sofas the hue of skin-colored Band-Aids. The boy carried my bag into the room, ducked into the bathroom, emerged with a glass of water, poured it into the back of the minibar refrigerator, plugged it in and instructed me to report if it didn’t make ice. He vanished into the hall and came back staggering under an enormous TV, which he heaved onto a stand, plugged in, then adjusted until he had focused its black and white. I thanked him, switching it off.We hadn’t planned to leave the safety of our hotel on that perilous stretch, but there was no food in the hotel and we needed sustenance to accompany the cold beers we more seriously needed, so we ate in town and returned to find the evening dark but still young. Maru and Clifford continued to their room while I, on a whim, paused at the second floor to explore the hotel. The second-story lobby had no furniture, unlit corridors curved in either direction, and I started down one in the dark. A glow from outside the windows on one side of the hallways showed me where they continued, but because of the bend it was impossible to see the end in either direction. I tried a door. With a cinematic creak it gave onto a heap of mattresses and stored furniture. I tried other doors. Some were locked; some led to empty rooms. Here we were, off the road to be safe, and I was exposing myself to foul play with every dark corridor, every knob that gave. Why? I plumbed the rest of the corridors. At the last room of one of them, light shone from under the door. It may only have been where some employee lived, but the touch was perfect and I beat a noiseless retreat.Exhausting the second floor, I climbed to my own. As I started down one hall, there was a sudden blinding light, which detonated just as I reached it, then went dark when I was several doors past. I retraced my steps to see if it could be. Yes, in this dark hotel whose door numbers indicated it contained 150 rooms, there was one bare bulb that went on and off by electric eye. The first door of another corridor led to a cement room with a ladder to the roof. I climbed up and was out in the night.The building beneath me was a curving pier over fields, sprinkled with the houses of the town’s outskirts, distant streetlights and remote barking. I prowled to each extreme, looked down at a large round pool and was cautious not to decapitate myself with the wires that held up the large letters that said Dourados Park Hotel. I stood still and tried to get a grip on this place. The huge institutional darkness, the utilities that didn’t work, the vinyl like dead skin were how I imagined Russia under Stalin. What sustained it? Did they pack the rooms with the odd phrenology convention? It occurred to me that if Kubrick had set “The Shining” here instead of the quite respectable Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, he might have come up with something scary. I retired to my room to watch the Olympics in black and white, then compared notes with my travelmates in the morning. Maru thought she had heard a strange mooing from the next room and speculated that the hotel was haunted by a phantom cow. Commented Clifford, it looked like the owner of the Bates Motel had moved to Brazil.

We learned that the hotel had been built 20 years back in the expectation that it would fill with tourists, but none ever came. Why would they? There was nothing here. There was only the reservation of the Caiguá, and back when the hotel was built, the government tried to generate a little income by having the natives do dances for the public. The government gave the dancers a pittance and kept most of the money for itself. The Caiguá, seeing they were being exploited, torched the ceremonial center and the government retaliated by declaring the reserve off-limits to anyone from out of state. This information came from our guide to the reserve.As we checked out of the Dourados Park, Maru explained to the boy with the cold that she was interested in shamanism and wanted to talk to the Caiguá. He made a phone call, then told us to go to the Dourados cultural center and ask for Joe.Joe turned out to be a Guaraní, an award-winning sculptor who served as an all-purpose cultural liaison for the town. Maru stressed that our interest was not touristic; we would take no cameras, we would not intrude. She was pursuing a degree in psychology, was learning hypnosis, and was particularly interested in distinguishing between physical and psychosomatic illness. Did the Caiguá have shamans, and if so, how did they diagnose? They had curanderos, traditional healers, and Joe would lead us to them, though visits by out-of-staters were officially prohibited. He climbed into our van and directed us past the sign denying our entry to this “area indigena” that inhabitants called la reserva, the rez.We turned off the pavement, onto a narrow and pitted red dirt road past houses that were barely huts, roofed with corrugated metal and palm thatch. Cars were few, outnumbered by small carts with burros. There were fields of wheat and bean, and some vegetable gardens, but trees were few and much open land lay fallow. The people seemed fallow as well, isolated groups of them mostly standing around. After several kilometers the road dipped to a pond and suddenly we were overtaken by a large official car. It was the tribal police, five of them, smooth-faced and taciturn. I stared over the wheel at the pond and we held our tongues while Joe explained that we were citizens of Mato Grosso do Sul. The motley look of the populace made such baldface feasible and the police didn’t question it, but we would have to turn back. “They’re just trying to be important,” said Joe, and soon after we reversed course he had me turn onto a side road, then into a drive. I parked under a shade tree amid assorted thatched buildings.We were approached by a 40-ish woman in T-shirt and pedal pushers, nearly toothless, accompanied by a younger, undernourished man in running shorts. Both wore bead necklaces. They were mother and son and were curanderos, as was the husband and father, away at the moment. We stood in the sun while Maru explained that her grandmother in Puebla, Mexico, had been a curandera; she was the only descendant who took an interest in such things. The son invited us into a long quadrangular building, two slanting sides of palm thatch that swept to an apex 4 meters above the ground.The large cool interior smelled agreeably of its clay floor. Three crosses of different sizes, hung with strands of beads, stood in a row, paralleled by a kind of clothes rack with 10 different gowns. Mother and son took turns answering as Maru inquired about their practice. They dressed in white garments cut like bathrobes and tied with belts, and began by touching the patient and speaking invocations. They sat the patient on a stool in front of them, placed a crown of feathers on the patient’s head and began to chant, shaking maracas. Once the patient was prepared, they performed the diagnosis by placing their hands on the location of the problem or pain. If it felt hot, the ailment was physical; if not, it was of the spirit – a more respectable category than our corresponding psychosomatic. The man had heard of hypnosis, his mother hadn’t, and they didn’t practice it. They made disruptive motions with the crosses around the patient to break up the enveloping ill. They finished by placing herbs to the side of the eyes, and gave the patient more herbs and tea to take home. It was the patient who decided what to pay, in money, food or useful objects.When they finished the explanation and we returned outside, Joe produced a camera and asked if he could take our pictures. I had to laugh: We had made a sensitive fuss about not taking cameras, not insulting the Caiguá by acting like tourists, and here was our Guaraní guide acting like a tourist. The woman draped each of us with a necklace of the sort they were wearing, and Maru gave her a packet of mandioca flour she had been planning to take back to La Paz.The necklaces made us look like hippies but we got happily back into the car and drove more back roads. Another tribal patrol car sped toward us. This time, I thought, we would be given our orders to leave, but it roared past, paying us no mind. Joe directed us into another drive where we spotted a similar great A-frame of thatch, this one in need of repair. There was a curandero couple in soiled clothes, the woman in black Lycra cycling pants, the man in dress trousers several sizes too large and tied with a cord. A succession of handsome children joined us in the sacred building, paid their respects and took off. The couple gave variant answers to Maru’s questions, and Maru asked about the attitude of reserva churches toward their practice. The Catholic Church tolerated it but there were few Catholics left. The rez was saturated with evangelical sects, all competing – what Fleming called “evangelical claim-jumping.” The fundamentalists found shamanism sinful and wanted to wipe it out. Both curandero families had been practicing medicine for generations but the future of their tradition was uncertain.

Maru asked if they were instructing their children and suddenly the woman asked us to stand in a line side by side. The oldest son put a crown of feathers on his head and took a cross from a rack of miscellaneous objects, the father grabbed a spear, and bearing maracas they faced us in a line with their eyes closed. They began to chant in short, repetitive, heavily accentuated phrases while shaking the maracas in rhythm. Maintaining their position in line, dragging rather than lifting their feet, they began to move in a circle around us, the woman and son with their eyes closed, the man’s eyes concealed by the brim of his ball cap, the men making lunges with the cross and the spear as if to break whatever evil surrounded us. They completed two slow circles around us while we wondered what provoked this ceremony. Were they merely demonstrating that the tradition continued? Did they think that as visitors we expected it? Did they see some ill around us that needed dispelling? We gave it a long postmortem without reaching a conclusion. When we left, Joe mentioned that there were three more curandero families to visit, but we were concerned about making so little headway toward Iguaçu. Enough anthropology; tourism pressed. We said we wanted to see his sculpture. He directed us back to town, to the municipal gallery where a pair of his waist-high ceramics, strange clay shrubs with branches of diabolical faces, shared space with the paintings and sculptures of others in a multitude of styles, including the first artistic use of medical X-rays I have seen. He asked us to his house, warning us that it was humble, and humble it was, a board-and-batten shack on a back street, full of his sculptures and tools and some mock-elegant furniture in decline. His non-indigenous wife and 3-year-old son emerged from the kitchen. He offered us maté, which he passed in a small hollow horn, and we sipped it through a species of metal pipe stem. The horn only held a few sips of tea, and he constantly renewed it by pouring cold water onto tobaccolike flakes in the horn’s recess. The taste was appealingly bitter. I worried about germs on the pipe stem and Maru worried about the water, but there were no ill effects. Maru asked if he had any statues of capivara, and he fetched a huge piece from the next room. She explained that a life-sized sculpture of a 50-kilo rodent was difficult carry-on luggage, didn’t he have a figurine? He presented her a small animal that may have been a tapir, refusing payment, then gave me a painted ceramic mask. We thanked him for giving us his morning, Clifford slipped him a bill he didn’t refuse, and we made it another third of the distance to Iguaçu.”I can’t understand it,” said Clifford. “I’ve been burping this whole trip, whereas normally I don’t burp at all.””It’s because we’ve crossed the equator and your body isn’t used to walking around upside down,” I explained.”As a scientist, I appreciate that.” Diversions had stretched a one-day trip into three: We spent another night on the road, crossed into the state of Paraná on a long bridge over another dammed river, and didn’t reach the town of Foz do Iguaçu until the road had fouled most of another day. Iguaçu was high tourism and we braced for it. We had been warned of threats, from scenic helicopters to snatchers of purses and bodies. We settled on a large hotel called the Mabu, largely because it offered tours that would take us to the sights while keeping us unsnatched.

There was a chunk of afternoon left, and the hotel had the most beautifully leathered and paneled bar we had seen in Brazil, complete with a Fritz Dobbert grand piano. There were no other customers and we settled in. I discharged the Schumann and Chopin that always build up under piano deprivation, then tried to fetch up the Brazilian: a fumbling version of Villa-Lobos’s “Porbrezinha,” Jobim’s “One Note Samba,” the theme from “Black Orpheus.” Maru and Cliff were drinking and chatting with the bartender, and I abandoned Fritz. This was the moment for my planned cairipinha, the Brazilian national drink. Its distilled cane was said to be powerful and I feared the aftereffects, but that pungent glass induced a nap from which I woke feeling marvelous, ready to attack the evening tour. (1)During the full moon there were night trips to the falls, and we had lucked out. I was startled when we were asked to bring our passports – we would be going to the Argentine side of the river. We were assigned our own cab and our own driver, the tall and affable Giovanni. He drove us through the dark to a long bridge over the Iguaçu River, then stopped beyond it at passport control. We were a bit nervous when Giovanni disappeared with our documents, but he returned 10 minutes later with stamps of approval. We continued 25 kilometers upriver on a dim road through the trees. Maru asked the odds of assault. Not to worry, said Giovanni, Brazil and Paraguay had their perils but Argentina had its act together. We reached a complex of scattered buildings – a ticket office, gift shops, most of them closed. Giovanni stopped us and said, listen, you can hear the racket of the water, then walked us to a tourist train, packed and ready to take off.For 20 minutes the narrow gauge rattled through the trees while along my inner track ran the train in Villa-Lobos’s tone poem “The Little Train of the Caipira.” It stopped and our herd walked a series of boardwalks over a silently moving current, on and on, so far that it felt like we were walking on water back to Brazil. This was my first good look at constellations below the equator and I scanned for the Southern Cross, but all I saw was random squiggles: It didn’t make sense like the Northern Hemisphere.Suddenly a chunk of the water crumpled, as if the darkness had bitten it. The causeway came to an end and we train passengers bunched up at the rail. Water poured over the brink directly beneath us, a plunge that curved around a broken horseshoe to a far cascade that faced us. In the middle, water boiled up as mist, and I was even more impressed by the water that rose than water that fell – visions that dispersed, for all was half-imagined and half-lost in the moonlight. We stared, shifted positions, waited for openings at the rail, and stared some more. Cameras flashed in front of faces, causing unappreciated night blindness in third parties, but it was all part of the experience. Saturated – almost literally – with no one telling us when it was time to go, we straggled back to the train, which carried us to a buffet waiting in one of the low-lying buildings of the tourist complex. The reality of food, wine, lights and chatter turned the falls to a lingering dream. Giovanni – how did he pass the time? – whisked us back through the night, across a Brazilian border with no one on duty. We told him we wanted to resume next morning.There was sleep and food and even tourist shopping in between, but like a dream transformed we were soon back at the falls, by daylight and on the Brazilian side. The first sight of their full sweep was one of the great moments of my life. They are not tall; they are grandly horizontal. Broken by basalt outcroppings, vaguely curving as if to embrace the viewer, they are almost a sea in free fall, a multitudinous pouring through subtropical forest that clings to every knob, fold, ledge and precipice. Someone has counted 250 separate falls. Bathed in smoky light and roaring with a steady, almost unvaried white noise in the freshness of the morning, they were really too encompassing to take in. I stood at the stone barrier and gaped, trying to transfer it all inside. Someone, Clifford or Maru, was grabbing my arm. I was to turn around and smile into the sun, facing a camera. “Dejame solo!” I shrieked loud enough to be heard over the falls. I was half-shocked at my own rudeness, but my prevailing half would not have this grand first impression spoiled for a mug shot.A trail with viewing platforms snaked for a half kilometer along the riverbank, and Giovanni would be waiting with his taxi at the end of it. Through fronds and spatulate shapes and lianas in silhouette the falls shifted, came closer, ducked behind foliage, and there was all the time in the world to savor it piecemeal. Time was needed because of tourists with cameras. I was packing one myself, and tried to use it discreetly, but Latin American travelers devote most of their excursion time to taking pictures of themselves in front of the view, instead of photographing the view itself, or even looking at it, and they don’t want others in the way. This morning’s stars at the falls were two young women who had made themselves up to perfection. They posed for each other, smiling against Iguaçu with practiced innocence, and sometimes their boyfriends took pictures of them together. I waited patiently for an extended shoot at a prime viewing platform, then moved in for a non-photographic gape. A boyfriend touched me on the arm and asked me to move. They needed to take more shots. This scene repeated itself just after I was beginning to enjoy the next landing. By body language I tried to convey my displeasure, but it was apparently no better than my Portuguese.I thought I had seen the falls in their entirety, but the trail rounded a bend and there, on the near side, was the most impressive cascade of all, and with a double take I recognized it as the horseshoe falls we had stood above in the full moon. Those long boardwalks had come up behind the other falls, and we had indeed nearly walked back to Brazil. An offshoot of the trail descended to a walkway at riverbottom, where the falls soared overhead and misted camera lenses. But no! There were the starlets again, and one handed me the camera and asked me to take a shot of the two of them. Wasn’t this what their boyfriends were for? Had the dudes sickened of their vanity and taken off? I composed the shot, discharged my touristic duty, and they passed out of my life. They were, in any case, a mere spice amid the heart-stopping gorgeousness of this place. If there was a more stunning spot on earth, I hadn’t seen it. Giovanni was waiting for us and drove us downriver to our next mode of viewing the falls. A ticket-taker ushered six of us into a little string of wagon cars on wheels and, luxuriating amid room for 30, we were driven slowly through the forest toward the water. The driver stopped frequently to explain the palms and lianas. He let us out and we descended a steep trail, past a lone waterfall, to a dock, where a raft was waiting. We slipped on raingear we had bought during the morning’s shopping, stuffed our possessions into plastic bags, stashed our shoes under a bench, were bundled by attendants into life jackets, then piled with other tourists into the kind of craft that river runners call a baloney boat. An enormous outboard, of a sort usually owned only by drug runners, powered us swiftly and silently toward the falls, banking and looping for thrills. As we approached the plunging water, it stopped impressing and began to terrify. Maru and I had thought quite independently the previous night that to jump over the rail and into the water would be a quick, clean way to go, but I didn’t care to be pounded to death. As we nosed up to the deluge, I closed my eyes and bent forward. We were only on the fringe but it was like being pelted by a hundred fire hoses. I am usually silent when other people scream, but I found myself laughing from anxiety – and screaming. The boat backed off, giving us a moment to catch our breath, then returned, backed off and returned again, like a hummingbird worrying a feeder. Despite the raingear, I was soaking and I was glad when we banked and looped back to our shoes.

We left Iguaçu midafternoon, more fulfilled than we had been before by a touristic experience. We had visited the falls by train, motor vehicle, boat and our own feet, with connecting rides in our private taxi, and we admired how little this varied access, which processed multitudes, intruded on the falls themselves. Giovanni showed us the turnoff to the helicopter rides, but not one whapped our ears or eyes. Except for one historic structure, the hotels were kept out of the park itself, and our own balanced luxury and taste. (2) In 1937, Richard Halliburton had written in his “Book of Marvels,” “Some day there will be cheap hotels where now we see showers of moon-flowers spangling the banks.” Halliburton would be happy to be wrong. Even amid the crowds I felt I had directly experienced Iguaçu, and I respected Brazil and Argentina for the way they preserved and presented.Bruce Berger’s books include The Telling Distance, winner of the Western States Book Award, and, forthcoming, The Complete Half-Aspenite. He can be reached at

1. I was also refreshed by a sign on the dresser that said, in five languages:”We sincerely hope that God may give you peace and harmony under this roof.May this room and this hotel be your second home.May those you love be near you in thoughts and dreams.Even if we do not meet in person, may you feel cozy and happy, as if your own home.May the business that have brought you here be fruitful.May each of your phone calls and each of the messages you receive make you a happier person.When you depart, may your journey be safe.May these days be pleasant to you, beneficial to society, useful to those you meet, and joyful to those who know and love you.We are all travelers, as from birth to death. We travel together towards ETERNITY.”2. Relative taste. On each dining table stood a little plaque that read, in Portuguese and English: The concept of and symbol of Courtesy of Choice reflects the centuries-old philosophy that acknowledges the differences while allowing them to exist together in harmony. Courtesy of Choice accommodates the preferences of individuals by offering both smoking and non-smoking areas in the spirit of conviviality and mutual respect.

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