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Marian Lindberg

So you found out you’re really Brazilian?

Not exactly. Brazil is where the book’s central character disappeared, and where I went to understand why.

 

Every family has its dirty laundry. Why was it necessary to write about yours?

Some of the most personal passages were the last to be added. The writing brought me there, and they were integral to the story. In some ways, they were the story, explaining (to myself and others) why I was so driven to investigate the disappearance of the man who raised my father. While there are some unflattering aspects of family members on display, I don’t believe any of it is gratuitous. Patti Smith and Philip Schultz were two of my guides: their beautiful memoirs are revealing and discreet at the same time. Ultimately, I hope that my message will help others to communicate better within their families. In the short term, truth can seem like the more difficult choice, but my story shows that secrets can have far worse consequences for generations.  

End of the Rainy Season_FINALI had never thought our last name strange until a few elementary school classmates came to my birthday party and chased me from the yew hedge to the back-door steps shouting “limburger cheese, limburger cheese.” That’s what I was named after, they claimed, a really smelly cheese.

“Am not,” I retorted, before seeking protection inside the house. In truth, I didn’t know where our name came from. Other than Mommy and Daddy, I had never met another Lindberg.

I stood inside the door leading from the garage to the kitchen, listening for the sound of Daddy’s car pulling in from the train station. I often did that as a girl, waiting for the life Daddy brought into our quiet house—at 6’3” a lot of life. He set his briefcase down and hugged me, and I told him what the mean girls had said. After dinner, in the safety of our wood-paneled den, he assured me that we weren’t named after an odiferous dairy product. Quite to the contrary, the name “Lindberg” came directly from a hero.

Fans of writer/director/artist extraordinaire Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) may be interested to know that Gilliam’s daughter Holly Gilliam has been sorting through her father’s extensive archive and sharing some of her discoveries online as of this month.  As she explains on her blog “Discovering Dad”:

Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Do you really wish that, or are you just being overly apologetic in hopes that your one-time girlfriend and current pitying host will forget that she ran into you at the Whole Foods bean bar where she felt obligated to invite you to her “Tuesday supper club” because she “knows it’s tough to be in a new town”.  Do you really wish you could’ve gotten out of work sooner? Because your nervous stomach and that fresh bile stain on your collar tell a different story.

Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Do you really think you’ll be fine navigating the party on your own, or is this just a reflexive attempt to thrust yourself into a situation wherein you might add to your empty arsenal of easygoing guy qualifications? Do you really not need your ex to introduce you to any of her friends? Because while you sat at work, hiccuping back vomit and debating whether or not you’d attend this party, every guest became immersed in conversation about mutual friends whom you’ve never met, would hate you, and are coming soon.

Do you really want to live in Africa? Do you really want to, or is this just something you’re saying now because you’re drinking a glass of Malbec and there’s a good-looking girl with leather bracelets and uncombed hair sitting next to you? Do you really want to live in Africa? Because no one there will care that you “appreciate Infinite Jest more at thirty than at nineteen” or have a friend who works at Google; in Africa, tenuous ties to accomplishment still wouldn’t be fodder for introductions.

Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Do you really love it, or do you just feel like unbuttoning your shirt one more notch wasn’t enough to make you seem like an aficionado of all things alternative? Do you really love this obscure bossa nova record? Because the kind of people who love this record didn’t even wear shirts to this party and won’t put one on until they fly to their Peace Corps reunion in Senegal next week.

Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Do you really wish he could’ve, or do you just want everyone to know that you and your host have a French mutual friend? Do you really wish Alain could’ve come tonight? Because if he came, he’d barely recognize you and comment to your enthralled former girlfriend about New York audiences appreciating bossa nova in a “façon” totally different from the Brazilians.

Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Do you really hate him, or do you just think having a strong negative opinion about a conservative politician will make up for the fact that you wore loafers to a flip flop fest? Do you really hate Mitt Romney? Because if you hated him, you’d be too busy right now to give conservatism a thought; you’d be texting Alain about yoga retreats and Freegan microenterprises in fluent French.

Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Do you really think that, or have you just not spoken since your Romney comment? Do you really think dinner is even better than the appetizers? Because thinking that would mean you’d eaten one single olive tapenade cracker while precariously fielding questions about why you think Mitt is “worse than Hitler and Bin Laden combined.”

Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Do you really prefer them, or has Todd Phillips made every movie you’ve seen in the past five years? Do you really prefer Italian filmmakers to American? Because liking the bruschetta and penne alla vodka you’re eating better than the olive tapenade just means you have the palate of a nine-year-old; it doesn’t mean you know anything about Rossellini’s neorealism.

Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Do you really hope to, or are you just glad that your time studying abroad in Barcelona has enabled you to seem nostalgic for a place other than Disney World? Do you really hope to get back to Europe soon? Because the locales you’re remembering as “incredible” and “unforgettable” seem to be recollections of landmarks other guests mentioned five minutes ago, during the Italian filmmaker conversation.

Do you really wish you could stay? Do you really wish that, or would one more minute at this dining room table fashioned from unlacquered Balian driftwood cause your restless leg to bob so high it knocks the glasses off your soon-to-be-forgotten face? Do you really wish you could stay?

Because, it’s really fucking okay if you fucking really don’t fucking wish that at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I enter the simple youth hostel in Rio de Janeiro where Mr. R. Belo has agreed to be interviewed, I am struck by how very ordinary this man looks. I am reminded of something Winston Churchill once said about Prime Minister Attlee: “Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. But then he has much to be modest about.” Mr. R. Belo is indeed a modest man, never seen without his trademark red tie and dark suit. After a difficult, impoverished upbringing, Mr. R. Belo has risen through the ranks of political workers and now dominates the forward-looking Brazilian Communist Party which is considered one of the most progressive organizations in the world.

Recently Mr. R. Belo has presided over the relaxation of his country’s forestry codes, so that small-scale farmers and hobos can slash back the jungle and grow more food. Some foolish people seem to think that this reform will simply pave the way for industrial interests, that will very quickly move in and buy up all available land to start exploiting the rich mineral wealth of Amazonas.

I am meeting with Mr. R. Belo today so that I can sound him out on his new forestry code and, of course, find out more about his social programs.

Q:

Good morning, Mr. R. Belo. I wonder if I could begin by asking about your policy objectives for the 21st century? You are a leading figure in the government of one of the world’s fastest-developing nations, i.e. Brazil. Some argue that your reform of the forestry code for Amazonas may have ramifications for the environmental stability of your whole continent, possibly even the whole world. Could you begin by explaining how you see the future? Would you say that non-Brazilians are entitled to their own opinions on your country’s new policies?

A:

No, because the West has a colonial perspective. We have always said, and we will always say that our stated objective – in accordance with Paragraph 18, Sub-Section 23 of the 1934 Communist Congress – is to continue the crucial work of alleviating poverty in this country. Capitalism is finished in the West, anyone can see that. But in Brazil we are different, our country is huge and we are building a new, revolutionary Capitalism. It’s very easy, all you need are large digging machines and a hell of a lot of concrete. We have a lot of metals to dig up, a lot of oil to drill for and of course we have this very large redundant area known as Amazonas, which we intend to scale back quite considerably and turn into a productive resource.

Q:

When you say “productive”, what are you driving at? Some would say that Amazonas is extremely productive, as it produces immense amounts of water and oxygen, which are crucial to life on earth.

A:

The bourgeoisie in the West are criticizing us for developing our great country. They say we need to preserve our forest for the sake of the world. Let me simply say this: the global community is not our concern. We must look to our own interests, and these interests are quite clear. We will not stand by while poor farmers starve.

Q:

Surely there is no need for them to starve? Brazil has a buoyant economy. Could you not help them in other ways?

A:

Absolutely, and Brazil will continue to grow because we will develop our country and go for prosperity.

Q:

Yes, but would it not be reasonable to develop in a way that can be sustained in the longer term?

A:

That is a bogus concept. The future is another country, you know… (Mops his brow, momentarily confused) But Brazil is not another country, Brazil is Brazil. And always will be. We must deal with today and then when tomorrow comes we will deal with tomorrow.  Make no mistake about this, we will deal with tomorrow as soon as it comes along. I make this promise today, hand on heart.

Q:

Yes I can see that. So… how do you see the future of your… great country?

A:

Capitalism has failed, comrade. The factories of the world have simply crumbled into dust, and the pollution and unemployment and moral and physical sickness of your societies is plain for all to see. Just look at those riots in England! How sad to see young people so alienated, in a post-industrial society.

Q:

Right. But if that’s how you feel, why not do something more progressive with your own society?

A:

Oh, we will. After we have finished burning the Amazon jungle, we shall turn it into the most spectacular productive region of the world. Dams, factories, oil wells and mines will cover this enormous area, and the tribal people of the whole region will no longer have to hunt the monkeys of the trees or go fishing. They will have more dignified roles in our society. They will have houses, and cars and credit cards.

Q:

But this Capitalism you advocate… is it really a viable long-term vision? Industrialism has created a lot of problems in the West? Do you see heavy industry as the future?

A:

Yes, because we have a clear goal. We will take one of the world’s most valuable ecological resources and then, in a very purposeful way, convert it into an efficient vehicle for the production of pork and beans, so that our workers can live with dignity. We are not simple or brutish people, we are a humble confederation of comrades, our goal is a better world for everyone. I will not rest until our workers have pork and beans every day. (Adds, with a gleam in his eye) As a child I had to starve, I had to watch my mother feeding our family on tomatoes an pasta. And this is scandalous.

Q:

What about those who say that the Amazon jungle is the lungs of our planet and contains a massive share of our biodiversity? What about the immense wealth the forest offers in terms of new pharmaceutical products? Could not Brazil try to invest in new technology and social engineering projects? Your country is becoming an important member of the world community. One might have hoped that it would be more of a pioneer, a beacon for how the rest of the world should develop?

A:

This is frankly an insult quite typical of the Western perspective. We have every right to develop in whatever way we like, and frankly we see little value in listening to anyone on this point. Our critics seem to think we are stupid. I say to you, they should stop worrying and mind their own business.  We will keep a few reserves of forest here and there where pharmaceutical workers can mess about with herbs and experiment with their medical technology. In England and France the Capitalists kept the workers on bread and water for years. We will not do this. We will let farmers clear the forest so they can produce the food they need, and have themselves some decent rice and pork and beans.

Q:

Is it not a problem that the land cleared for agriculture is not very suitable for agriculture and tends to revert to dry, unproductive land?

A:

This is nonsense. The large areas that have turned to desert are very useful land for factories and other wealth multipliers such as garbage dumps, mines, roads, airports and other useful things… schools, for instance…

Q:

I was going to ask you about that. What about the education of the masses? Are you investing in education?

A:

Absolutely. And once we have sold off Amazonas to Capitalist interests who will set about turning it into a large, arid flat area pockmarked with disused mines and contaminated soil, we intend to set up Centers Of Marxist Agrarianism (COMA) to train our people in environmental technology. Brazil will become a leading player in this industry, we are already a world leader in bio-fuel. Our Air Quality Initiative is far more advanced than anything the West has come up with.

Q:

What about the climate talks? How will Brazil meet its carbon emission goals if it burns the Amazon?

A:

Look! (Mr. R. Belo’s face goes a very deep red) We don’t need all these trees! We have plenty of oxygen and as far as carbon emissions go, I’d say let’s not lose our heads about it. (Leans back, adjusts his tie) It is much more important that we develop traditional Marxist industries such as oil, mining and steel-making. Those were the industries of the past… and we intend to keep them as the industries of the future too.

Q:

I see. But what about the new industries, high technology, alternative energy and green solutions? Would it not be beneficial for the Brazilian Government to listen to its critics, both inside and outside the country, and do something socially innovative?

A:

We will train our workers and tribal brothers in how to make metal, drill for oil, drive trucks and so on. We need everyone to take part in our development of Amazonas. If our tribal comrades refuse to do this, we will simply put them in reserves, more or less as the United States did with its own native tribes – which, incidentally, was scandalous and a blot on the history of that country. (Stops, scratches his chin, looking puzzled) You know I have this friend in the Congress, her name is Wilma, she’s been a bit skeptical about all this, she worries too much about breaking her promises to the electorate. She actually told them she would protect Amazonia. But I’ve made it clear to her that the electorate must do as it’s told. (He laughs pleasantly, then adds:) Of course I am joking…

Q:

I saw recently that ten of your country’s previous environmental ministers have written a public letter criticizing the reform of your country’s forestry code. And now your current Minister for the Environment has also resigned. Doesn’t all this indicate that there’s something seriously wrong with your policy on Amazonas?

A:

I disrespect these people from the very bottom of my stomach. You know, suddenly I understand how Syria, China and Iran feel when the international press agencies gang up on them. Or when people demonstrate against them. Of course Brazil is quite different from these countries, Brazil is a democracy and that means no one in the world is entitled to criticize us. We are doing what we were elected to do, in fact we are also doing what we were not elected to do, but that is our decision. Also our duty.

Q:

Do you really think that all the poor, unskilled and uneducated people voting for your party, give you the mandate to ignore the views of scientists, environmentalists and world opinion?

A:

A democrat must do what he or she is elected to do. My voters are looking for pork and beans, and I will let them have what they want.

Q:

But surely what’s required here is a more sophisticated approach to managing a globally important resource like Amazonas? Should you not be providing leadership and innovative solutions that safeguard the future?

A:

I can see that you are a corrupt Western elitist. Nothing could ever be more innovative than Communism and populism. And I can say that because I am a democrat. I don’t mean to sound repetitious, but I will say this, just for the sake of clarity: we believe the impoverished landless people must go into the Amazonas and burn it to the ground, so that they can start the vital work of producing rice, beans and pork.

Q:

Is there any validity in the claim that Amazonas, like the Antarctic, should be a protected World Heritage Zone partly paid for and protected according to international law? Should we implement the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth?

A:

This would be colonization!! We are the people of Brazil. We are a free, liberal and enlightened people. (Mr. R. Belo breaks into a sweat, mops his brow with a red handkerchief, and raises his voice with fevered intensity) We do not need any foreigners having opinions about our precious Amazonia, which is a part of our national identity, an indelible part of our soul. Amazonia belongs to us and no one else.

Q:

Does it worry you that once Brazil’s farmers and logging companies have finished clearing Amazonas, there will be a tendency for the area to turn to desert, with a lack of water and good soil for cultivating crops? Does it worry you that by the time corrupt Western regimes have developed new, clean energy systems – let’s say in twenty years time – Brazil and its neighboring countries will have major environmental problems as a result of deforestation and excessive industrialization?

A:

No, not at all, because once the trees of Amazonas have been cleared there will be so much pork and beans for the workers that this party will be voted in for years and years to come. This is our goal and I believe it is an honorable and entirely reasonable goal for a political party to try and stay in power for as long as possible, by appealing to popular sentiment. Brazil is a great land, a land of truth and democracy and workers’ rights, and, as a consequence, no Western country is entitled to comment on anything we do.

Mr. R. Belo stands up and shakes my hand, then stalks off with fluid steps, like a jaguar. I am grateful for this opportunity to commune with a great mind, a great intellect that surveys the future with the keen eyes of an eagle. My mind buzzing with inspired thoughts, I return to the newspaper, where I type up this interview with trembling hands.

 

 

We were crammed into the back row of a hot, damp van. Outside it was raining hard and very dark, the rain absorbing the streetlight as it fell. With every change in the van’s speed and direction, a wave of cold water sloshed from whatever pool in the ceiling in which it had gathered and splashed my arm or Karen’s back.

“This is funny,” I said, more to myself than to her. It was funny that we’d paid $60 each to be kept waiting for an hour in the steamy lobby of the hotel and then herded onto this fungus-friendly, packed van by a wild-eyed “guide” whose shirt was open to the third button. Though he repeated everything he said in English, French, and Spanish, I never caught his name. As there were no seats, or even half-seats, he stood just behind the shotgun seat, hovering over the young Frenchwomen who sat in the second row, telling us all about the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé.

“This is a big night,” he shouted. “Because a man who was Candomblé for forty years, he die. Many people come tonight for him.”

After a pause, he continued, “Now you may notice… many people ask me why so many Candomblé men are the gay?” He paused to let that sink in. “And it’s true; most of the men you see, they are the gay.”

“Why?” Someone up front had the sense to ask.

“We don’t know why. It seem more gay men get possessed. If you see a man possessed in Candomblé, he is probably gay.”

We turned a corner and Karen elbowed me in the ribs.

“Also,” the guide went on, “Candomblé is a very open religion. Other religion, Christianity, Muslim, they don’t like the gays, but in Candomblé, they are accepted.”

From our hotel in the old Pelourinho section of the city of Salvador, the drive took forty minutes, and I spent the last fifteen in a quiet rage. Why didn’t they tell us this would be a long ride? Why had I instantly become a sheep and allowed myself to be herded onto this van?

Finally, we got off the highway and drove through a neighborhood that was almost entirely constructed out of plastered over cinderblocks and poured concrete. The Candomblé Church of Santa Barbara was a flimsy little house with a courtyard. We were ushered into the main hall, which was just a big rectangular, white-walled room with hot air bouncing off of several fans positioned along the high windows.

I had been expecting darkness, shadows bouncing around from flickering candles or smoking torches. The light was all wrong, daylight bright from fluorescent tubes. Green leaves were scattered here and there across the concrete floor, and they led to a grass and twig canopy set up at the back wall. There was a golden throne with a red plush seat, and behind it a few big drums. On the wall next to the canopy hung an enlarged photograph of some guy sitting on the throne wearing the Candomblé costume of lacey shirt and pants, funky floppy hat. He was not smiling. On the other side of the throne, an altar was set up in a nook with a little statue of what I guessed was Santa Barbara.

The walls were already lined with tourists sitting in folding chairs, and we were lucky to find seats in the back row near the altar. There were maybe thirty or forty Candomblé devotees dressed in white, wearing wreaths, some of them, all flowing with fabric. The women wore wraps in their hair, some white, and some bright yellows and reds and blues. They were old and young, black and white and everything in between. They greeted each other by hugging and clasping hands and taking turns bending low at the waist and inclining their heads to kiss each others’ hands. Every time I saw this I thought of Henry Higgins. How do you do! their bodies said to each other. How do you do!

Some teenagers in white shirts and bowties walked around with trays of bottled water and plastic cups of soda, running out just before they got to us. I consoled Karen.

The show began with drumming and singing and dancing, and it pretty much went on like that for much longer than necessary. “Just like at temple,” I thought. The devotees formed a sort of Conga line around the room, inside of the circle of spectators. I was really glad I wasn’t in the front row. Occasionally one of them bowed down, touched the floor with hands, kissed the floor, and got back up.

Then, some people started to lose the rhythm, their dancing becoming more and more jerky until they were basically just shaking. Their expressions got twisted, and their eyes became slits. (If you want to know what you’d look like possessed by an orixá, take a hand mirror with you for your next shit.)

The possessed were quickly attended to by other people, who removed their glasses if they wore them, and followed them closely like spotters, just in case they did something crazy. I’d hoped that I’d be able to tell which gods possessed which people by the change in attitude, but it was hard to tell for sure who was even possessed and who was just getting tired of dancing around. At some point, I gave up, let the drums hypnotize me, and I daydreamed about two skater kids having a conversation, except the word “gay” was replaced by “Candomblé.” “That shirt is so Candomblé,” one said. “You’re Candomblé,” the other said.

When I came back to myself, the devotees were filing out of the room, and the drummers stopped drumming. The guide came over and told us the devotees were changing into “really nice” costumes and they’d be right back.

After ten minutes I started looking around for the hidden camera. “They’re watching us right now, ” I said, “and taking bets to see who’s going to crack and leave first. If anyone back there has good Jewdar, they totally have the advantage.”

“Does that mean you’re ready to go?”

“Isn’t there some traffic we have to beat?” Of course, we couldn’t go without calling a taxi, which would be tedious and expensive. We were stuck there.

The dancers finally came back out, and the nice costumes seem to consist of silvery bracelets and belts, tin-foil tiaras and veils made of strings of plastic pearls. Some new drummers relieved the old drummers and started pounding away. One guy seemed to take the lead. We’d noticed him before because he carried himself very dramatically, chest puffed up, voice loud and high when he sang. Also, we’d watched him totally pull rank on some younger Candomblé and steal his seat. He looked a little like Hank Azaria, but his attitude was all Nathan Lane in Birdcage, without the self-awareness. He ate up the stage, throwing himself all over the place with this weird smirk on his face, his eyes half-closed. He sprinted from one side of the room to the other. He hugged someone. He paused and pouted while someone wiped his exposed shoulders and arms with a towel. His tiara flew off his head, and he waited impatiently for a large man in a white dashiki to re-tie the red ribbon that had held it on his head. He had what seemed to be rings that belonged to some kind of hubcap wrapped around his neck, and when those got tangled and the woman tried to take them off, he yanked them away.

At some point, he was handed, in his altered state, a silver serving bowl full of acarajé, which are bean fritters. They looked a lot like falafel balls, and maybe that’s why, as he grabbed a handful of them and threw them in my direction, and I instinctively stuck out my hand and caught one.

Karen grinned at me. I thought, “She thinks I’m a superhero,” but she said, “That was just like in Awakenings!” she said, ” you know, with the ball!” she mimed catching a ball without moving anything but her arm. “Eat it,” she said. But I was afraid. I tried it only after the guy had thrown his acarajés all around the room, and I saw other people eating them. It was cold and salty and somehow both greasy and dry. I looked in vain for a bow-tied boy with some water or soda.

The show went on, with a new star, a fair-skinned, horsebrush-mustached man with gold-rimmed accountant glasses and hair growing thick on his shoulders. He wore an aluminum foil marching band hat, with the brim pulled down over his eyes. He started his solo in the center of the room, and he danced and danced, and I began to plot my route to the exit. “Wait,” Karen said, “I think he’s going to stop soon.”

But he was a tease. He would dance toward the door, get within a couple feet of it, and then veer off suddenly in the other direction. He would dance toward the drummers, slowing down almost to the point of stopping, only to get all agitated and bounce back to the far wall.

After we’d hit the two-hour mark, I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, and Karen led us as quickly as possible to the door.

The rain had stopped. There were teenagers and kids and old people milling about outside. “Just like at temple,” I thought.

While Karen went to the bathroom, I wandered around the courtyard and looked at the weird little arched nooks devoted to different sprits, with plastic figurines and brightly colored paintings behind little cast-iron gates. At the back, there was a whole Africa scene, including a slave trader. The Yoruba of Africa had brought Candomblé to Brazil, but I sensed that at least in this place it had lost some of its punch.

We shouldn’t have been there. How could one experience the divine in fluorescent light, with tourists gawking at one from all directions? Were these people actually having spiritual experiences, or were they just playing at possession, deciding to become possessed and then acting the way they thought a possessed person acts? Maybe there’s no difference, but I’d like to think there is.

In a footnote in his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace explains what to him is the futility of mass tourism:

It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

Were it not for the vanloads of tourists, these people might have even less money than they had (which was almost none), but wouldn’t their culture be better, realer, without our attempt to witness it? Without the fluorescent lights and folding chairs and bowties and plastic cups of soda?

The drumming and dancing went on, but soon the rest of our van’s hostages trickled out of the room, and we all walked back to the van. I don’t know how it happened, but Karen and I got screwed again, stuck in the back corner. At least the rain had stopped, and after the first few turns back toward home, the ceiling stopped dripping.

Candomblé,” I thought. “That was so freakin’ Candomblé.

Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.

December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.