After relocating her family to Brazil, a young mother learns the limits of the landscape.
Illustration by Erin Schell
I stepped out of the Luis Carlos Magalhães airport, sleepless and disoriented, into what I imagined as my new life, and flopped down on the pile of suitcases to nurse the baby.
Across the median, the coconut palms greeted us with a coy wave.
In my semi-delirious state, the trees seemed highly symbolic. They seemed to mean something guileless and slightly smug, to stand for everything I wanted, adventure and gritty third-world beauty and good weather. They seemed to nod their heads and say, yes, it was worth it, giving up a house and a good job, leaving playgroups and a pension, breaking my parents’ hearts.
Inevitable, they whispered, in their feathery green tongue.
Palmy (adj): triumphant. Ex: I sat on the beach under the big yellow umbrella, sipping the water from a cold coconut, nursing my three-month old, watching my two older sons dig in the sand, warmth spreading across our skin, feeling palmy.
What secret did we discover to end up here?
Palmy: The word is imbued with the sense of balmy—as in both pleasantly warm, and touched in the head.
Palm: (1) “flat of the hand,” c.1300, from L. palma, “palm of the hand,” from Proto-Indo-European *pela-, “to spread out, flat.” Skt. panih, “hand, hoof.”
We live between the dunes—the wild mato—and a potholed highway. Behind us, the mato spreads itself out like a hand: undulate and empty. The wolf-fruit is dying. A horse puts down its head to graze on roadside trash and scorched grass.
The coconut palms, at least, appear indifferent. They spread their graceful fingers, shielding the lagoon of Abaeté, its wide black eye. Their trunks are stout and tough, marked with rings of leaf scars.
Once, on the median of the highway, I saw a man at the top of a coconut palm, easily fifty feet up, clinging to the trunk. How did he get up there? And why? How would he possibly get down?
I live in Brazil. First it was a fantasy, an imagined aura of romance I could create with words; then it was a stage set, something I used to hide my discontent. Finally, I saw it for what it was, just another sentence.
There were shorter trees, coconuts that were much more accessible; if you were tall enough, you could practically just reach up and hack one off with a machete.
But I was only driving past, and glimpsed him briefly out of the corner of my eye. Shirtless, a red bandana tied around his head, his dark skin glistening in the sun.
The nut has a husk, which can be woven into strong twine or rope, and is used for padding mattresses, upholstery and life preservers.
The shell, hard and fine-grained, may be carved into drinking cups, dippers, scoops, smoking pipe bowls, and collecting cups for rubber latex.
According to this source, coconut is a folk remedy for abscesses, alopecia, amenorrhea, asthma, bronchitis, bruises, burns, colds, constipation, cough, debility, dropsy, dysentery, earache, fever, gingivitis, gonorrhea, jaundice, nausea, scabies, scurvy, sore throat, swelling, syphilis, toothache, tuberculosis, tumors, typhoid, venereal diseases, and wounds.
Is what draws me the usefulness or the infinite shape-shifting?
The man at the coconut stand calls me amiga. He has a big round belly and doesn’t wear a shirt and is always cheerful.
When his wife is working there, she tells me she’s afraid of being held up. They take everything and run into the mato, she says, gesturing to the stretch of wild dunes behind the stand.
Her teeth are crooked, and some are missing.
I get so thirsty, she says. I’m sick of coconut water.
Sometimes, when I felt beleaguered by the stress of my job, worn down by the relentless heat and my sons’ neediness, I glanced enviously at [the other mothers’] designer handbags, thought longingly of their air conditioning and staff of household help, their studied leisure.
Palm: (2) to conceal in or about the hand, as in sleight-of-hand tricks.
Maybe I allowed the words to fool me. I moved to a city called Salvador, hoping to be saved (From what, exactly? From the stultification of the suburbs. From the ordinariness, I suppose, of my own life.). I imagined the steep cobbled streets, the barefoot kids playing complicated rhythms on drums they fashioned from tin cans. The beaches along the edge of the city, palms like fringed and decorated sentinels.
This was a city with a street named O Bom Gosto de Canela (The Good Taste of Cinnamon); another called Rua da Agonía (Agony Street). There was the neighborhood called Águas Claras (Clear Water) and the one called Água Suja (Dirty Water). There was the Jardim de Ala (Garden of Allah) and the Ilha da Rata (Island of the Rat). Then there were the many nameless streets, dirt-packed, pocked and rutted, and the areas with Indian names whose meaning no one knew.
The two-lane highway that stretches north out of the city of Salvador along the coast is called the Estrada de Cõco (Coconut Road). It was built in the late 1960s. According to the guidebooks, the beaches of the Coconut Road are known for their calm, warm waters. Sometimes on the weekends we drove north to Itacimirrim or Jacuipe or Praia do Forte, past the big-box stores, the long narrow sandbars, palm trees single-file along the shore, silhouetted against the cloudless sky.
Past the turnoff for Arembepe, where Janis and Jimi stopped in the sixties, soon after the road was built, when this place could be made to signify something obscure and vaguely mystical—to Americans maybe—although what it signifies to the locals, if anything, is blunter, tarnished and pragmatic as the machete leaning against the wall.
Past the mysterious chemical plant with Arabic lettering on the sign.
Past the unmarked spot on the road near Camaçarí where several months ago, bandits pulled over a government deputado on the road here near Camaçarí while he was giving a radio interview on his cell phone, and shot him in the head.
His wife’s screams from the passenger seat reverberating on the airwaves.
“Palm oil” was used earlier in the punning sense of “bribe” (1620s) than in the literal sense of “oil from the fruit of the West African palm” (1705).
It’s not a bribe, exactly, when you slip the police officer at the checkpoint twenty reais. His hand is large and hot, the skin the translucent orange of the palm oil in the enormous vats the women use to fry acarajé on the side of the road, their hoop skirts and headdresses an impossibly white glare.
There’s always a jeitinho, a little way around the rules.
They appear impenetrable, regal and untouched, but coconut palms are also vulnerable to disease. Eye-rot; leafburn; heart rot. Bitten leaf spot, gray leaf blight. Damping off.
Unopened flowers are protected by a sheath, often used to fashion shoes, caps, a kind of pressed helmet for soldiers.
During World War II, coconut water was used in emergencies instead of sterile glucose solution, and put directly into the patient’s veins.
When my boys got sick, I punctured the flat macheted surface with a knife tip, upended the coconuts into a glass jar. My sons lay in bed, pale, drooping flowers, weakly sipping the sweet water from a straw.
Palm (4): to touch or soothe with the palm of the hand.
In the hospital, I lay awake all night on the narrow cot, curling my body around my baby’s, trying to avoid the tubes snaking out of his arms. In the morning, an orderly in a pale blue uniform brought boiled manioc for me, and coconut water in a bottle for the baby.
I slid open the accordion partition to the little hospital room, and the light from the outside window was too bright, the palm trees along the highway, and behind them, the favelas rising against the hills.
This was the other secret I was discovering: the strange feeling of falling, sleepless, off the steep drop to the highway.
The stiff midribs make cooking skewers, arrows, brooms, brushes, for fish traps, and short-lived torches.
The roots are (as Borges says of the roots of language) irrational and of a magical nature. Visible above the ground, a tangle of thick braids. They provide a dye, a mouthwash, a medicine for dysentery, and frayed out, toothbrushes; scorched, they are used as coffee substitute.
I liked to say: I live in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. When an old friend found me on Facebook, or I called a college in the States for my work as a guidance counselor, I imagined the impressed pause, the unexpected jolt of it, and what it must have signified to the other person. Something exotic, worldly, warm. The complex rhythm of the batuque drums. Palm trees on the beach.
The phrase was more ornamental than substantive; saying it or writing it gave me the sort of thrill you get from a new shirt or dress. You stroke the silky fabric, imagining who you might be when you wear it.
Although, in reality, of course, you’re still the same person, just wearing a different shirt.
I live in Brazil. First it was a fantasy, an imagined aura of romance I could create with words; then it was a stage set, something I used to hide my discontent.
Finally, I saw it for what it was, just another sentence.
Then the words took on the slightly acrid tang of the water from a coco seco, the dried brown coconuts that look like shriveled skulls lined up in the market. Sweet at first, then the more you drink, you realize that it’s past its prime.
According to this source, the coconut palm is useful as an ornamental; its only drawback being the heavy nuts which may cause injury to man, beast, or rooftop when they fall.
Palms were planted all around the condominium where we lived. They leaned above the benches on the hill overlooking the soccer field. In the late afternoons, the mothers sat on the benches while the younger children played at our feet, poking ant hills with sticks.
There were dangers lurking everywhere: the fire ants that left raised welts on your toes. Cupim, relatives of termites, that burrowed into the soccer field, that bit and drew blood, left their heads sharp-toothed in your flesh.
Dengue. Meningitis. Robberies at gunpoint.
There was that feeling of falling again, or an imminent fall, a slight dizziness, as though I were perched on a edge of a great gulf, looking down.
Below, on the field, the older children kicked the soccer ball, calling to each other in Portuguese.
“Do you trust it?” the mothers would ask, looking up at the pendulous green coconuts. I don’t trust it.
The acerola bush in the dooryard of our neighbors’ house burst into fruit several times over the course of the year, usually after a big rain. In the spirit of communalism that reigned in the condominium, children and adults alike often wandered over to pick one or two or a handful.
Once in a while the neighbors who lived in the house with the acerola bush would come out onto their front veranda while I was standing there with the boys, and we would greet each other, but I was always left feeling somewhat sheepish.
They were friendly enough. They had two small children, a boy and a girl, and the mother, Luisa, was on maternity leave. Luisa and the kids spent the entire day inside their apartment. The interior, I knew, from having been inside many of these attached units, was exactly the same as ours—narrow, dark and hot, hard tile floors and a tiny kitchen that made it impossible to cook and watch the baby at the same time.
The family emerged briefly at the end of the day, when Luisa’s husband came home from work, the kids pale and blinking in the late afternoon sun.
How did Luisa do it? I wondered. How did she manage, with barely any help, to tend to the children and the house all day without stepping outside?
I had stayed home for five years in the States, ever since my first son was born. But staying home in the U.S. seemed a different thing altogether. I chafed at the thought of being trapped in the house—I spent the days carting my children to the library and grocery store, the children’s museum and park and playgroups.
I don’t know if it was my own inability to sit still or the feeling that if I didn’t leave the house, I would in some sense cease to exist.
In the condominium where we lived, there was the reassuring sense that one was filling a slot; that there were people in each of the small joined apartments, nannies with young children, housekeepers sweeping the floors, the retired women in their housedresses gossiping on the veranda.
Like the acerola, which is capable of simultaneous blossom and fruit, wither and bud, people seemed to live side by side in unhurried coexistence. Perhaps Luisa knew herself to be a part of this interdependent ecosystem. Perhaps this is what gave her the calm, unruffled fortitude to spend hours upon hours in the small dark house. Or—who knows?—maybe she too felt trapped.
I worked for half the day, then came home to be with my baby and my four-year-old. On those occasions when I spent the whole day at home, I felt I might go crazy, confined within the house, and beyond that, the walls of the condominium, topped with broken glass, bordering the stark, windswept dunes of Abaeté.
The acerola is a popular bonsai subject because of its small leaves and fruit and its fine ramification. It has a shallow root system, which allows it to be easily toppled by wind when planted as a shrub or hedge, but lends itself to the bonsai form. As does the plant’s glossy red fruit, its delicate, pale flowers and wavy, elliptical leaves.
It was the first time I had been alone in so long. I remembered other autumns, before I had children, when I would run for miles along wooded paths until I felt that I could lift right off the ground, weightless as the dry leaves.
The mothers at the school where I worked sat in the open-air cafeteria in the mornings after dropping off their kids. They chatted about their aerobics classes and fundraising parties. Many were corporate wives, whose husbands worked at the Ford plant outside Salvador. It was a strange position in which I found myself, dropping off my own sons in their classrooms, then crossing the cafeteria to the high school building where my office was.
Sometimes the mothers greeted me and smiled indulgently behind their expensive sunglasses. Other times they didn’t seem to see me at all.
Sometimes, when I felt beleaguered by the stress of my job, worn down by the relentless heat and my sons’ neediness, I glanced enviously at their designer handbags, thought longingly of their air conditioning and staff of household help, their studied leisure.
Even as I envied them, though, I knew I could never feel comfortable in their two-inch Gucci heels (even if I could have afforded them, which I most definitely could not). As much as I felt my own life there at times constricting, theirs seemed in some ways even more confined. Something about them seemed at once frantic and aimless, as they sat, perfectly pruned and trimmed, waxed and plucked and manicured, sophisticated and chic, contorted on the unlikely and uncomfortable perches of the metal cafeteria chairs.
Once one mother brought me a plastic sack of acerolas. “Do you like them?” she said. “My maid picked them from the bush in front of our house, and we can’t possibly use all of them.”
The Ford Motor Company in fact has a long, fascinating, and somewhat twisted history in Brazil, which Greg Grandin details in his book Fordlandia. Henry Ford himself had the idea, both ambitious and bizarrely misguided, of starting a small colony in the Amazon, where they would grow and harvest the rubber for Ford tires. This way he could control all aspects of the production while also bringing what he believed were the miraculous spoils of capitalism to this Brazilian backwater.
In 1927, the government of the Brazilian state of Pará agreed to sell Ford 2.5 million acres along the Tapajós River, and he set to work reproducing a small bit of Michigan in the rainforest. Fordlandia had a main street complete with sidewalks, street lamps, and red fire hydrants in an area where electricity and running water were virtually unheard of.
Still, imported American workers died by the hundreds of malaria, yellow fever, snakebites, and other tropical ailments.
The town’s “Swiss cottage–type” houses and “snug bungalows,” designed in Michigan, were completely unsuited to the climate, trapping both insects and the sweltering heat inside.
The Americans even imported Prohibition; alcohol was forbidden in Fordlandia, though neither the Brazilians nor the American workers took to these rules too fondly, and a flourishing strip of bars and brothels sprang up on an island just off the banks of the settlement.
The modern-day Ford plant in Bahia is situated on the outskirts of a town called Camaçarí, less than two hours from the city of Salvador, in a blank expanse of countryside twenty miles or so inland from the coast.
Suddenly, between the gently rolling hills of palm trees and scarred red earth, along the two-lane highway, a skyline appears.
It’s a ghost town, a grim post-apocalyptic landscape populated only by factories. In addition to the huge Ford plant, there are industrial complexes for Dow Chemical, some German companies, and Monsanto.
This industrial site is located, not coincidentally, on the aquifer that provides water for the entire municipal area of Salvador.
We passed through Camaçarí once, on our way to a barbecue hosted by the American Society of Bahia. It was a Saturday evening. Women strolled arm in arm through the praça, boys kicked a ball on a dusty soccer field. Men lounged on the street corners, playing cards and drinking beer.
The barbeque was held at a ranch several miles from town named, inexplicably, Tsedakah Technología.
The children went for a ride on a horse-drawn cart. We ate potato salad and talked with a family of Baptist missionaries and a gay ex-pat who was in the Brazilian civil service. A terrible bluegrass band played.
But all evening that image of the empty industrial city hovered at the edge of my consciousness, unsettling me.
On the way home it was dark, and the lights of the smokestacks blurred past the car window.
I could almost imagine I was back home in New Jersey, except for the dim awareness of being in the middle of a vast, dilapidated continent, where the land is relatively cheap, and the rules are hazy, as the lights bled out of their borders into the night sky.
The acerola is tolerant of drought, and will adopt a deciduous habit. Even in Bahia’s hot climate, the bush’s leaves occasionally turned brown, dried out and fell, not all at once, but enough to cover the ground in a thin autumnal sheath.
The bushes actually appear to be composed of canes. These limbs are brittle, and easily broken.
If Ford’s original settlement in the Amazon was a bonsai tree, this modern industrial outcrop is an overgrown thorn bush—a hardy, tough-stemmed perennial. And yet to compare it to anything in nature seems wrong, contrary to the spirit of the enterprise. If the bonsai attempts to turn nature into a stylized bauble, a plaything, these spires and drainpipes and stark edifices dwarf nature in another way, making it appear irrelevant.
I tried to put it out of my mind. When I drank a cup of water, I tried not to think about the industrial wastes and solvents, the inevitable runoff.
Even in the confines of the condominium, I sought out the small salvos of wilderness: the leafcutter ants, carrying their tiny parade of petals; the pitanga and acerola bushes; the dunes’ barren, forbidding beauty.
A well-developed root system and healthy branches and support are vital in the development of bonsai. Ford’s settlement in the Amazon had neither, and so, predictably, it eventually withered. The company abandoned its outpost in 1945. The last Americans there stepped on a boat bound for the United States and, without having warned their Brazilian employees of their departure, bid Brazil farewell.
“Goodbye, we’re going back to Michigan,” one woman called to her nanny from the deck of the steamer.
On the screened porch, a man lowers the needle onto a phonograph. Outside, the river is flat and implacable. Mosquitoes settle into the grooves of the trees, leggy and elegant, surgically exact.
The humid air hangs around our shoulders like a loosely knit shawl, full of holes.
On the table, a small glass dish of acerolas, red integument hiding the seeds’ three-pointed stars. Libra, Scorpio, Southern Cross.
Rudy Vallee’s wistful tenor floats over the Amazon basin. “Why are we here? Where are we going?…We’re not here to stay…”
One guide to growing bonsai chastises: Do not be in too much of a hurry. Be patient and don’t wish the years away!
Advice that as the parent of small children I strive and fail again and again to follow. It’s not that I think of the children as my bonsai trees. Any pretensions I harbor of their malleability are knocked down as quickly as they pop up.
No, if anything, I am both tree and grower—rubbing off the unwanted nubs as they appear, applying the wire bonds gently, so as not to leave deep scars.
I loved watching my sons pick the acerolas—their deep concentration, the way they could maneuver their small bodies between branches, their pride in the small pile of fruit cupped in their hands.
What appeals to me about acerolas is not the bonsai aesthetic; not their ability to be tamed and trimmed into a preconceived idea of beauty, but precisely the opposite. I like their uncultivated edge: the cane’s ragged slashes, and the small, irregular cherries, not cloying or too sweet, but more like wild fruit—small, sour, unpredictable.
I took my first and only business trip last September, to a college fair in Campinas, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. I’d been in Brazil and working as a college counselor for less than two months. Ju was barely four months old. He was still nursing exclusively, and since I couldn’t—I refused to—leave him overnight, I’d arranged to leave at five in the morning, and return to Salvador that same evening.
My taxi to the airport arrived at four in the morning, an hour before Ju usually woke up. The streets were deserted. The road to the airport cut through the dunes of Abaeté a graceful stretch of sand and scrub reputed to have mystical qualities, and more recently known as a place where bandidos and homeless people hid from the law.
In the predawn quiet, from inside the taxi, the dunes still felt more peaceful than threatening, though.
When the taxi dropped me off at Departures, I floated in a sleepless daze, feeling lost, that particular lost of being in an airport. I wondered about the baby. Was he getting his first bottle already? Was my husband walking him outside under the palm trees, watching the sky begin to lighten?
I should have arranged a meeting place for the students I was chaperoning, should have at least walked around the airport looking for them.
Instead, I sat at a food court beside a wall of windows. It was the first time I had been alone in so long; possibly, I thought, in years. I remembered other autumns, before I had children, when I would sit staring out the window at yellow leaves falling, or run for miles along wooded paths until I felt that I could lift right off the ground, weightless as the dry leaves.
When I looked up, it was light and my students were standing over me, looking relieved. One had called his father on his cell phone, who’d called the school’s director, who apparently was in a panic.
I quickly closed my journal and stood up, as though it were all a silly misunderstanding, instead of pure irresponsibility on my part.
They announced our flight, and we made our way to the boarding area.
Campinas was gray and misty. It had recently been countryside, but as we made our way from the airport on the outskirts to the town itself, I could see how development had bled out from the city, which was now both center-less and edgeless, like the fog itself. Favelas sat back from the road on little hills, small ramshackle houses made from tin and brick and scrap lumber.
A light rain fell intermittently. The campus of the school was open, the uncovered stone walkways slick, flanked by enormous vine-draped trees. The director of the school showed us to the cafeteria, where they had cookies and salgados, little sandwiches and cheese pastries. I asked for coffee, and the cafeteria lady brought out a thimble-sized fluted plastic cup, strong and bitter.
I sat with my students at a table overlooking the athletic fields, and the construction area beyond where the school was building a new gym. “I always bring a few new iPods back from the States when I travel there,” one of my students was saying. “They’re so much more expensive here.”
The other kids nodded.
The coffee made its way into my veins, and I felt my brain begin to clear a little. The coffee somehow helped me to pretend I was a grown-up, a person in the world with a job and important responsibilities, not the feral, unkempt mammal I often felt like, the amorphous, eight-limbed creature of soft flesh and effluence and want.
The director came back to get us, to escort us to the library, where we’d break up for different sessions with the college admissions officers.
The director carried a big umbrella, which he held high, offering shelter to the group. I lagged behind, admiring the huge trees. They must have been there for years before the school even existed, when this area was still countryside. “That’s a jabuticaba,” I heard one of the kids say, up ahead. “We have some of those on my dad’s ranch.”
Small fruits protruded from the trunk like unsightly skin growths. They were scattered across the ground, too, purple-black and glistening, the size of cherries. Now I knew what our nanny, Dete, meant when she complimented Ju’s olhos de jabuticaba. His eyes shone like that, dark and beautiful. I imagined him in her arms under the mango trees, or splashing in his bath.
My breasts were hard and swollen, and I had to will myself to stop thinking of him, to keep the milk from letting down and dripping through my shirt. I excused myself to find the nurse’s office, where I sat behind a screen and expressed the milk, pale and watery, still warm from my body, into a bottle, which I then emptied into the sink.
I sat in a workshop on financial aid for international students, with the Brazilian fathers in their Italian leather loafers, the mothers in their expensive sunglasses. I felt out of place, like the foreigner I suppose I was.
Different definitions of need, the admissions officer wrote on the board. Net cost. Parent contribution. I dutifully copied in my notebook.
I made my way around the tables laid out with free pens and glossy brochures, tried to chat with the representative, nudged my students toward tables of colleges I thought they’d like.
By late afternoon, when it was time to gather my students together for the van back to the airport, I was tired and spacey. The strangely cool and rainy weather made me feel that I had traveled farther from Salvador than the two-hour plane ride, that I could be in another country altogether. I chatted a little with my students, asking what they found helpful, what they thought they’d learned.
“It was OK,” said one, a skinny twelfth-grade boy, the one who brought back iPods from the States. “I wish there had been some better schools there, though.”
“Yeah,” said an eleventh-grade girl with braces, twirling her dark hair around a finger. “My parents will only pay for me to go to the States if I go to an Ivy League school.”
The other, an eleventh-grade boy from Michigan, leaned his head back against the seat, eyes closed, earbuds in his ears.
I returned home to Salvador after dark, the children already in bed. It was almost as though the day hadn’t existed; as though I been plucked from this dark place, and quietly returned there.
Even as the year went on, I never fully reconciled myself to the partitioning of my time that was required of me. I pined. I wasted time, surfing the Internet at my desk, paralyzed by a powerful longing to be with Ju, and also a guilty relief at escaping.
There was the sense of moving forward and yet standing still. Students walked past my office, weighed down with books and papers, the seniors in their last-minute college application frenzy, the eighth-grade boys full of confusion and suffering—Ricardo, who’d lost his father, Pedro, whose family was on the brink of financial ruin. David, who’d been shuffled between schools in the States and Brazil and who was painfully awkward with his long hair and darting glance.
None of them could sit still long enough to pass algebra, and so they ended up in my office weekly, bouncing their knees under the table, promising they’d do better next quarter, they just needed to focus and do their homework.
Their parents sat in my office for academic advisement meetings, Pedro’s father trying to encourage his son with soccer metaphors. “It’s the final quarter, Pedro, we’re all rooting for you.” Ricardo’s mother crying, saying, “ What did I do wrong, I give him everything I can, but we both just want his father back.”
I imagined my own sons in eighth grade. Some days I felt almost as young and raw as the eighth-graders themselves.
“I’m sorry,” I said, putting my hand on Ricardo’s mother’s arm.
I had no idea what to say.
Time slipped away from me somehow. The endless stroller loops around the condominium. The diapers, the mess, the constant churn of the washing machine. Shadow of the mango tree sliding slowly across the grass.
In April, when Ju’s birthday approached, I secretly mourned his first year’s passing. I had the feeling I had given away something that was meant for me—a difficult gift. A geode, like the ones our friends brought back from Lençois, a small town in the interior, the dun, pock-marked exterior yielding to an impossibly complex and glittering inside.
The students I had walked through the application process received their thick envelopes with glossy welcome brochures, or the thin ones, whose meaning was clear even before they were opened. Some were offered money and some weren’t. Emilia, whose father was undergoing treatment for cancer, turned down Tufts to stay in Brazil. Marta was deciding between UNC and Stanford. Simão got a full ride to Georgia Tech. Bernardo deferred his acceptance to Connecticut College to take a gap year and travel around Europe and Asia.
We left Brazil before I had the chance to taste jabuticaba. We moved in June, right before São João, when the fruit ripens and everyone travels to the interior, to drink licor de jabuticaba and dance forró and build bonfires that fill the sky with ash.
Why didn’t I grab one from the ground that day in Campinas, or pluck one from the tree’s bulbous trunk, and pop it in my mouth? I can imagine it bursting between my teeth like an overripe grape. I can imagine turning its one hard seed over and over on my tongue.
Surely it’s better as I imagine it, perfumed, dark, the slight sourness just below the skin exaggerating the sweetness.
Eleanor Stanford’s book, The Book of Sleep, was published by Carnegie Mellon Press in 2008. Her poems and essays appear in Ploughshares, the Harvard Review, the Massachusetts Review, and other journals. Last year she lived in Salvador, Brazil with her family and worked as a guidance counselor at an international school. This essay is from a book she is currently finishing about her experiences there.
The one resource that comes to mind immediately is Fordlandia, by Greg Grandin.