BRAZIL – Pernambuco Memories



Brazil – Cornelius


Why have Ed and I traveled twice to Brazil, exploring different parts of the country for the whole month of August in 2012 and 2016?  We do love to travel and explore the world when we can, but even so, the Brazil vacations are a particularly grand commitment of time and resources for us.  The answer lies in Ed’s history with Brazil.  In the early 1980’s he spent three years in Brazil, working in a program similar to the Peace Corps.

I asked Ed to write the main part of today’s blog post, his memories of the time he spent in the countryside near the small town of Orobó in the State of Pernambuco.  About three hours west of Pernambuco’s capitol Recife (and about an hour east of Caruaru, see map).  In 2012 we returned to the area and searched for Ed’s old home driving our progressively more mud-speckled rental car on dirt roads through puddles and over precariously steep slopes in the picturesquely hilly countryside.  The pictures I took then will annotate Ed’s tale.

Pernambuco is the the Northeastern bulge of Brazil

As will three versions of the popular Brazilian tune “Último Pau de Arara” (written by Jose Palmeira Guimaraes, Manuel Jose Do Espirito Santo and Marcos Cavalcanti De Albuquerque in the 1950’s).  Pau de Arara literally means “the parrot’s perch” and refers to the unfixed benches on the open backs of trucks rural Pernambucanos would travel on to get to faraway cities.  Eventually the trucks themselves acquired the name Pau de Arara.  The song title refers to the final truck taking the last people ever to leave the country, there will be no truck after; the singer will take it only if the rains fail, the crops and cow die and there is no choice but to leave the farm:
I hope that rain comes right away
I hope so, my God,
I only will leave my Cariri (city)
when the last pau-de-arara arrives
Brazil culture abounds with references of migration out of Pernambuco (for example the song Sampa about São Paulo).  “Último Pau de Arara” is one of the most famous.  I will include three versions of the song, the first a lively traditional rendition, the second a stark torch singer version, and the third a guitar-centric instrumental.


Último Pau de Arara – Ary Lobo




And now, without further ado, Edward Elder’s article:

Pernambuco Memories

I lived in Brazil as a volunteer for the Mennonite Central Committee from January 1983 to December of 1985.  We began in Brazil with 3 months of language training in Recife.  While not as obviously lovely as neighboring Olinda, Recife is considered the Venice of Brazil for the many rivers and canals that cut through it.  It has some truly wonderful beaches, even if there is some risk of being bitten by a shark.  I never actually heard of anyone being attacked while I was there, but there are plenty of signs up now.

After getting some facility with the language, I moved with another volunteer to the town of Orobó, which is about 100 km from Recife.  At the time this would take about 3 hours, either by bus or cômbe (small van), because the roads were so filled with potholes.  On Danny and my first trip to Brazil in 2012, we made that trip and the roads at least had not changed much.  At least the road to Orobó had not changed.  The road to Caruaru on the other hand was fantastic, beautiful and smooth.


Ed tried to find the road he used to take out of Orobó to get to his farm house, a 45 minute walk from town.  But Orobó had changed too much since 1985.


This man remembered all the volunteers who came with the Mennonite Central Committee.  He recalled that Ed had trained his wife in public health.

The Mennonite’s had asked for a volunteer to help train people from the countryside in basic medical services to help expand the reach of Brazil’s marvelous (on paper) health care system.  Each town should have a Basic Health Unit, with larger city’s having Intermediate Health Facilities and the major city’s having state of the art Tertiary Health Units.  When I got there, I found that there had been a bit of a miscommunication and no one in Orobó had known this is what I was going to do.  So, my partner and I moved to a small house in the countryside and began doing our volunteer work as best we could.  He was there to help with rural agricultural development, having grown up on a farm in Ohio.  Of course farming in the agreste (fertile land) of Brazil is very different from farming on Ohio.  And I was to train women in health care, having a year of training in health education from The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.  And the book “Where There is No Doctor”.


Orobó’s cemetery.  Thirty years ago Ed helped bury two of his neighbors, carrying the coffins all the way from the country to town (remember, that was at least a 45 minute walk).


We believe this is the grave of one of the neighbors Ed helped bury.  She was a woman who died at 80 of severe burns after falling onto the hearth fire.  She refused to be taken to the hospital, and perhaps it would not have helped.  Ed did what he could for her until she passed.


Looking back on Orobó as we make our way to find Ed’s old country home.


Último Pau de Arara – Teca Calazans & Hector do Monte

“Where There is No Doctor” is a very handy book to have at 3 in the morning when a neighbor comes by and knocks on my window saying her sister is in labor and I should come quickly.  It didn’t matter that there was a trained midwife about a 30 minute walk away (nearby by rural Brazil standards), they wanted the Americano.  Yes I’d already delivered one child when his mother realized after walking 45 minutes to town and only getting to our house (with another 45 minutes to go) that she couldn’t walk any farther. For that one I was at least awake already.  The book helped me then, and because that delivery went well and because I was the Americano, I had alarmingly acquired the reputation of being the go-to guy for impending births.  So, I sent one of the kids to get the midwife and began prepping for the delivery.  After about an hour, the child came back without the midwife saying that she was coming, but since I was there she could take her time. “Oh my God! No! No! No!” I thought.  Luckily most births go fine and so did both of mine, ultimately. On the first, the child’s knee was not fully hardened, and the leg bent up towards to torso, but I learned later this was fairly common and would correct itself.  On the second the child was fine, but the afterbirth stayed put.  Happily the midwife did arrive in time to help a reluctant placenta to descend.  She did what the book told me absolutely not to do: she gave the umbilical cord a gentle tug.


Ed hesitated before braving driving through this particularly ominous puddle.

Danny and I did visit Orobó on our 2012 trip to Brazil, but I’d forgotten the name of the area where I’d lived.  Without realizing it I was asking about the wrong neighborhood.  Then I asked people to direct me to the home of the Americanos (in my mind meaning the two American men).  Up and down hills on muddy roads we were lucky enough to again and again find people who remembered the little hut of the Americanos.  And when we reached it I realized it wasn’t the hut I had lived in thirty years earlier.  I had been very helpfully directed to the home of the American married couple who’d been there before I arrived (and were still very much beloved).  While I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get back to my old home, the rural community looked very much as it had before.  Except for the satellite dishes.  We didn’t have electricity when I was there.


One perspective on a particularly steep dirt road.  It’s scarier driving down than looking down.


Último Pau de Arara – Nestor da Viola, Vanuque

After I’d trained all the women who wanted training in health care within an area I could reach on a donkey, I began doing other projects.  For a short time I was asked to teach cooking classes to my neighbors.  I’m not a chef by any means, but I had the “More with Less” cookbook (which I can heartily recommend), which meant I had access to more cooking ideas than my neighbors.  They simply kept making the same (delicious) meals that were always made. Rice and black beans, every day.  Many different sweets (special occasions). Specialty corn dishes (during the June festivals).  And chicken or beef on special occasions.  And always the ubiquitous farinha de mandioca (manioc flour, nutritionally almost empty of value, but very filling and easily grown).  To all that I could supply simple recipes from Africa, Asia, and traditional Mennonite cooking.


After many hours of driving over hill and dale, so to speak, we finally found the house the Americans had lived in, only it wasn’t Ed’s house, but the home married American aide workers had inhabited at the same time.


Ed says that “his” house looked a lot like this one does.

At the end of my time with the Mennonites, they asked me to go to Sao Paulo to work with a Catholic renewal group, Peace and Non-Violence, to learn about Liberation Theology.  This was a fascinating subject to me and took me into the slums of São Paulo and Florianopolis (which Danny and I visited this August), and shifted my career plans from international public health to ethics and theology (which would shift again over time to HIV counseling and the world of mental health).  When I came back to Recife before returning to the US, I got to play resident expert and teach the other volunteers, both North American and Brazilian, about this then new movement in Catholic activism to empower the poorest using the tools that Marx once claimed were the opiate of the masses, in order to improve their lives.


After three years, my Portuguese got to be pretty good.  The only problem was that my accent was that of the rural poor.  This confused many people I would speak with since my size and coloring are of the urban elite.  More than once I’d get a strange look from someone, with the question, “Are you Brazilian?”  I always enjoyed that.  Now, after 30 plus years, my Portuguese is still okay (some words are fading and Brazilian approaches to email addresses and modern terms like Uber throw me), but my accent remains with the people of the rural Northeast.  And it still gets me strange looks.


About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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1 Response to BRAZIL – Pernambuco Memories

  1. Pingback: An International Smorgasbord of QUEER CINEMA for 2019/2020 | Notes from a Composer

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