Tinderbox

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Wildfire across the valley

It was my first day in Brazil after the long nighttime bus ride back to our interior town. It had been a month since I had stepped on Brazilian soil. I opened the living room door and peer out into the yard. The light burned my eyes. Was the Brazilian sun always this bright?

My eyes itched. I rubbed them. There was a haze in the air. I couldn’t see clearly to the other side of the valley. It took me a moment to realize that wasn’t my eyes, weakened by northern climates, it was the air itself. Every so often a wisp of cinders wafted by, lingering confetti from some strange, morbid party.

The dry season had come again, and the fires with it.

Fire is an essential tool. Used in August, it beats back the jungle, destroying hard to cure brambles that would otherwise have to be treated with pesticides. It clears land quickly and renews it for new growth. We use it, as most farmers around here do.

And then there are the fools who set fires in late September and early October, when the grass and trees are parched, the land starved for moisture, when a single spark or errant cigarette can start a blaze that will last for days.

When we first arrived in Brazil the hills of Belo Horizonte were ablaze, wildfires dotting the mountaintops, sliding across ranges, clouds billowing towards our plane. It was awe-inspiring to see an arial view of the conflagration. It was unforgettable.

“They burned the top of the farm.” My husband updated me while I was traveling, “It’s been burning for two days.” My mind saw an arial view of our home, fires sweeping across its crest. My heart sank into my stomach.

Who set the fire? We don’t know. Was it a dirtbiker’s cigarette? Or a vandal? In either case, the callousness of the act leaves me gasping. Acres were burnt. A natural spring that watered four families depends on the green in that section of the valley. We wouldn’t know until later that year if the wandering band of monkeys that habit that intentionally wild part of the farm fled in time.

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After my return the top of the farm caught fire again, burning down even further into the valley. It burned for days, dying down, flaring up. My husband and brother-in-law did battle with machetes, scythes, and hoes, clearing firebreaks wherever possible to slow its growth. They returned each day blackened and defeated.

At night we eyed the oncoming fires warily through the darkness, marking the glow on the landscape, mentally counting the pastures consumed versus the tally of cattle to graze. Those were the fields that were supposed to get us through the winter.

Before and after the fires

A week later smoke sprouted again at the other end of the valley, away from the fires. I quickly deposited my daughter in my sister-in-law’s care, and took off in long strides down our dirt road to get a better look. The last thing we needed was to lose the other pastures to a new blaze, as threadbare as those were.

Two blazes. One was clearly intentional on a neighbor’s property, a pile of burning brush with nothing near it visible on the other wall of the valley. I sighed a breath of relief and continued walking to the gate. Across the road in the neighbor’s banana orchard, close to the margin of the road, another blaze raged. Banana palm leaves curled and waved in the heat.

I pondered whether it was planned or accidental as I gauged prevailing winds and possibilities that it would jump the road to our fields. Safe, I decided, and turned back up the driveway.

Now that the urgency had faded, I felt the scalding mid-day sun on my shoulders and the dry air in my mouth. Cinders drifted by me in the wind. Such is life when you live in a tinderbox.

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Glimmers of green among the char. Hope–and grass–spring eternal.

Fotocrônica: Drink Milk

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Our region is famous for its milk production. It’s ranching country around here. Lots of local little producers, who deliver their milk daily to larger distributors who then either re-sell it to customers in-town or to larger, national buyers. Every morning the milk farmers drive their milk into town by pickup truck or by strapping their 50-liter tanks to the back of their motorcycles, a balancing feat that never ceases to amaze me.

I saw this homemade sticker at a local roadside restaurant. I’m pretty sure it belongs to a local milk farmer:

"Drink Milk"

“Drink Milk”

As the slogan goes: “Milk, it does a body good.” It’s pretty good for the local economy, too.

Fotocrônica: Import Taxes

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I nearly cried in the post office.

My mother sent us a box of used Legos, used baby clothes and other assorted items (none worth more than USD$10 each). The Brazilian Customs upon x-raying our box re-valued the items, deciding that in total they were worth R$350. They issued a tax based upon that worth. The state of Minas Gerais issued a second tax based upon that worth. So, if you examine the two receipts on the left, you’ll see that we were charged a total of R$349 in taxes. 100% of the estimated value of our box.

A minimum salary in 2014–what most around here earn unless you have a government job–was R$620. R$350 is approximately half my month’s salary. I was faced the with tough decision to pay, or send back the toys and books–some of them from my own childhood–and risk them getting lost. Feeling as though I was crumbling under the weight of emotional blackmail, I paid.

re-valued at R$350, this received R$340 in taxes

re-valued at R$350, this received R$340 in taxes

This is the story of taxes in Brazil. In some ways it’s very smart–tax imports so that the national producers can thrive. In other ways it’s very, very dumb because many items essential to growing the country become inaccessible to the ordinary consumer. Cars are outrageously priced, and everyone dreams of someday if they really save maybe, just maybe they’ll own a Nissan Corrola. Many items simply don’t exist in Brazil (I’m looking at you window screens and industrial dishwashers) because there are few national producers and the imported versions are prohibitively expensive. It’s often even hard to produce items because–guess what?–the parts to start the factory are imported.

It does explain why Brazil has a thriving black market. Until the import tax structure becomes more flexible and reasonable people will continue to work to thwart the system to get the items they crave.

As for our box? Well, our daughter and the other kids at the farm are loving the Legos. So maybe it was worth it.

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Priceless.

R.I.P Mr. Lao

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Lao was the most scurrilous cat I have ever met. Ever regardless of the consequences or others’ preferences he did what he wanted, where he wanted, when he wanted. Even if that included peeing on our rugs, eating our cake, sampling the milk pasteurizing on the stove, or stealing our chicken dinner. He scoffed at spray bottles. Pet him once, and he’d harrass you until you were sorry you ever were kind. If there ever was a cat sociopath, he was it.

Everyone has a redeeming quality, though. Lao’s was that our daughter adored him, and he had endless patience for her aggressive “hugs.” They got along famously. He kept her company. She gave him the affection he craved. Every morning she would crawl a straight path to the front door to go visit with him. Visitors chuckled about her new “babysitter.”

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Life for farm animals is tough, and while we’ll buy antibiotics and other basic treatments few here in rural Brazil will take a gravely sick farm pet to the veterinarian’s for treatment. When it’s time, it’s time.

This December Mr. Lao’s time had come. It surprised us. Like that 90-year old grandfather who is still kicking despite an exclusive diet of cigarettes, beer, hamburgers and Cheetos, we started wondering if he was indestructible. Our best guess was that what finally got him was some sort of kidney stone–probably from his lifelong diet of stolen milk products. He got similarly sick a few times, each time recovering. Until the final time when he laid down and despite our kindest care (yeah, he drove us nuts, but we’re not monsters after all) he didn’t get back up.

R.I.P. Lao. May we always be remembered for our best qualities. So we’ll remember you like this:

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R.I.P. Lao

Tanajura Time

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Note: Tanajuras have pincers, which we removed prior to this photo, obviously.

All the littles at the farm are excitedly chasing flying insects around the yard. Anesio (age 4) is the most excited of them all:

“TANAJURA, Tía! Achei uma TANAJURA!”

The rains have come. The adults sigh a breath of relief as the fields start to green again. Women sweep cupim wings out of house every morning. The kids scramble for their plastic PET bottles and go racing for the yard, eager to catch a few tanajuras for themselves.

Tanajuras—huge, edible ants—sell for R$20/plate (~4cups) in the market this time of year. Sellers have buckets of the awkward insects for sale. The harvest is brief—approximately two weeks—and cyclical. They emerge from the ground to mate seven times a year, usually after heavy rains. Only the females are eaten. Their tail ends are separated from their thoraxes, roasted, and either popped in your mouth like popcorn or ground to a cornmeal consistency and sprinkled on food. People here are crazy about them. My husband bailed on a conversation with me mid-sentence to get some. A plate of just the tail ends can easily retail for R$50.

Apparently, tanajura is also Brazilian slang for a dramatic rear-end, similar to the bulbous behind of the insect. Per Urban Dictionary: “Goodness, baby got back! Yeah, she’s a tanajura.” Hah. Oh, the things I learn…

IMG_3977Three years ago when I first arrived in Brazil I was honored with a spoonful of tanajura flour. It’s nutty-tasting, like cornmeal crossed with peanuts, and dense. You can feel the rich proteins and amino acids in every bite. I like it. Although I’m not sure I could eat a lot of the stuff, it’s so rich.

I still can’t bring myself to munch on the insects straight. It’s hard for me to forget what I’m eating. Nevermind that I’m from a state that prides itself on its delicious sea insects; this is different, don’t ask me how.

I’m sure that in no time my daughter will be chasing them with Anesio and popping them in her mouth with her dad. Mom’s happy to just watch and take photos, thankyouverymuch.

What about you? Would you snack on an ant?

Aerial Slumber Party

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Have you ever flown internationally? Something strange happens when you pack two hundred people together in a confined space for nine to twelve hours. We lose all sense of propriety; really, it takes a strong individual to stand on formality past the second hour. First shoes come off, before you know it we’re telling deepest secrets to total strangers, and drooling on their shoulders in the wee hours of the morning.

You get to see people in all their glory. There’s the sweet old guy at the front who hasn’t figured out the call-button system, so waves his arm in the air at the flight attendants like a child waiting two be called on by the teacher. Oh, wait, no–he’s waving to the grandkid five rows ahead of him. Even cuter still. And the two girls a few rows ahead. One has a pink sleep mask like something out of Angry Birds. The other one has pink headphones that match her seat companion’s sweatshirt. There’s a lot of pink happening over in row 34.

Why is it that the airline can’t seat people together? There’s families scattered all over this plane. People wander by on their way to the bathroom, checking in on loved ones, comparing notes about the in-flight meal, trading pieces of luggage over the heads of their fellow passengers.

The flight attendants: glorified babysitters or in-flight security technicians?   Here to protect us in the case of an emergency, get us safely down the lighted path and to the fluffy inflatable life rafts, or more just safeguards to get us our mealtimes and keep us reasonably entertained so that we don’t take our boredom out on our bunkmates?  There’s always that one that ad-libs his way through the emergency landing instructions and who plays pranks on all the passengers. Was he always this way? Did his super-extrovert find it’s calling, or did one day he just snap at the routine of it all and decide that the world needed some extra zing? There’s always the perfectly coiffed stewardess who makes me wonder if she and I actually inhabit the same gender, and likewise there’s always at least one flight attendant who is a consistent hot mess of makeup and crumpled uniforms which in some ways secretly reassures me that our culture has moved enough that there’s room for darling ugly ducklings in the service industry. I always wonder how it’s possible that both groups shop at the same company store?

How will they handle the mix of languages on the flight?  I always find this an interesting study in cultural dominance.  Will they have bilingual flight attendants–all of them or just a token one who serves as interpreter for everyone? Will they subtitle the in-flight instructions?  Or will they just insist you follow along in English because it’s an American-owned airline?  I watch as passengers team up with their neighbors to help explain beverage preferences to the crew and fill out customs forms.  The same is true of the food.  American cuisine or Brazilian?  Do we get cafe do mananha with cafe com leite or an egg on a muffin?  Which culture wins out over the other?  I sit, mentally tallying the scorecard for entertainment.

We awake together in the morning, faces smushed, wrinkled, makeup smudged.  It’s like a slumber-party, except you didn’t know these people before a ticketing agent put them on your guest-list.  You don’t look so put together anymore, not after sleeping in an arm-chair all night.  Not even these perfectly coiffed Brazilians, god love ‘em. The humanity is heart-warming.  Some women rush for the bathroom before the plane lands to reapply the veneer.  The rest of us just stretch and yawn, hoping our morning breath is tending more towards “kitten” than “dragon.”

We exit the plane, calling loved ones to tell them we’ve landed, checking for connections, heading our separate ways.  You might see some of these same people, people you’ve slept with, in line for your next flight. Like one-night stands crossing paths later in the grocery check-out aisle, only the bravest of souls pause to say “hi.”

Fotocrônica: Too Many Avocados?

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I suppose it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Too many avocados? I’m not sure that’s possible.

What? You don’t store your extra avocados in the oven?

Oven filled with avocados

Fotocrônica: Purple Eggs

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Green Eggs and Ham may be a thing of fiction, but purple eggs? For reals. Not even dyed.

My brother-in-law cares for the cows and is often wandering home with some discovered wonder–a stash of passionfruits, an orange the size of a grapefruit, and, why, oh why I didn’t take a photo of the 1.5m (dead) snake? This time: purple eggs, people. They come straight out the bird like this! Best I can figure, they’re laid by the spotted nothura. Beautiful.

Spotted Nothura Eggs

Fotocrônica: A New Leaf

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I got home the other evening and said to myself, “My, that’s new. I’ve never seen green leaves on that plant. Waittaminute….”

Well played, my little friend, well played.

Hiding in plain sight.

Hiding in plain sight.