A Carnival of Dreams and the Brazilian Left.

(A journey into the heart of the Amazon, denuded multitudes and a Zapatista Encontro)

By Ramor Ryan, December 1999.


Once there was a black El Dorado in Brazil
It was there, it lived, fought, fell, died and rose again
It rose again, a peacock of all colors, the carnival of my dreams
And was born again, Quilombo, now its you and me.
(Quilombo- Gilberto Gil.)

When Latin America was visited by hell- the military dictatorships of the late sixties and the seventies, resistance was crushed like a flower under a boot. In Brazil, even the wonderful, melancholic pop songs of the era, sung by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania or Nazare Pereira, became victims of the repression. The flowering of culture was incarcerated or forced into exile. As Pele and the Brazilian soccer stars mesmerized the world, the military dictatorship murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands. Such is Brazil- aching beauty, startling cruelty.

*Amazon Adventures

The journey begins in a British Army Armored Personnel Truck. How could it? How could a journey to the heart of the Amazon, into Brazil, the most beautiful and precious country imaginable begin in a fucking British Colonial War Vehicle?

Because, it seems, everything is connected. Maybe if the British Army hadn’t occupied Ireland and they hadn’t murdered the 3 IRA volunteers in Gibraltar and I hadn’t attended their funeral and a British Agent threw grenades at the mourners and shot 3 more dead, then perhaps I wouldn’t be here on my way to a meeting of international rebels and revolutionaries and people who want to change the world.

So this British Army Truck is the only possible way of cross Guyana (for a while referred to as "British" Guyana) by land to Brazil. It is a 36-hour haul over a dirt track through the understated Demerara Woods. Understated because it is part of the Amazon Rainforest, and to call it a wood is the equivalent of calling a tiger a pussy. It is dense, rich, fertile jungle and there is one single dirt track that traverses it from Georgetown the Capital of Guyana to Lethem in Brazil, a journey of a 800km.

We board at a market in Tigers Bay. The decommissioned British Army truck is being filled with sacks of grain, drums of petrol and a variety of building materials. On top of all that, we are squeezed in- all 11 of us. Most are traders, involved in cross-border trade, while others are Brazilian workers returning home.

We, the 2 foreigners, were delighted to find ourselves positioned at the rear of the open-backed truck. What a wonderful view, we thought, as we bounced off down the dirt-track, a panorama of trees and mountains disappearing behind us. 2 hours later we are caked in mud and being attacked by an army of insects. The rest of the passengers snuggled deep inside the truck smile at us politely - tourists! It was exciting for those first few hours, the lush, fertile rainbow of green colors, a kaleidoscope of nature, huge beautiful butterflies, the rich aroma of the forest, a world further and further from civilization.

And when the excitement ebbs, when the panorama become enclosed into one single frame, a receding dirt-path framed by a wall of forest on either side, when this doesn’t change for hours and hours, when the world becomes an insular passage of numbing boredom and bumpy discomfort, then romanticism flies away, leaving an innate desire for creature comforts and the journey to end.

But it has barely begun. Night falls and the air is dense and moist and the shrill sound of the forest remains a dark secret: out there beyond the wall of trees, all of life. Only we can’t see it, and all we hear is a cacophony of night sounds and the tormented rumble of the army vehicle struggling over rougher and rougher track. Soon we are being thrown around in the pitch dark. The truck tumbles down gullies, clambers back up near-vertical hills, crashes through streams, rumbles over delicate tree trunk bridges. The truck groans and creaks and tilts dramatically, we are gripping the metal frame with all our strength and the tarpaulin covering allows overhanging branches to occasionally smash through. It is like being on a roller-coaster/ghost-train in a demolition derby only it doesn’t end, there’s no finish. Time lumbers by tortuously, and we don’t ever stop, we flail heavily into the endless night and there is only infinite discomfort.

Beyond daydreaming, in that fevered underworld of sleep-denied delirium and beyond pain, when your muscles should still ache from gripping the metal bars so long and your arms should have being ripped from their sockets long ago, the legions of Brazilians tortured by the Dictatorship came to mind. Then the world turned upside-down.

The bulky British Army Truck tumbled down a ravine overturning in the pitch darkness.

In slow motion, I fell on top of the body that had being horizontally beside me, but now is vertically below me. Then a 50-gallon barrel of oil rolled on top of me. It is one of those excruciating eternal moments between life and death that remains imprinted on your consciousness like a rapturous vision. And suddenly you emerge the other end- you are alive, and clambering around in the chaotic darkness and all around figures move frantically about, a dissonance of screams and grunts. But we are all alive and although bruised, share cigarettes and laugh nervously in the deep Amazonian night, uneasily relieved to still be here.

The truck is pulled out by the other British Army Truck and I’m beginning to have more than a little grudging respect for British Military Engineering. We all clamber back on board, and with heroic resignation, continue our pilgrimage

As dawn light seeped through the forest canopy, and day returned like a resurrection, we pilgrims were rewarded with our first beatification. The forest miraculously open up into a small clearing, and there in the shadows, a peaceful clump of little grass-roofed dwellings. We blinked our eyes, startled, and then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, figures appeared, running out of the huts, pulling on trousers and shirts and suddenly young Rastamen were hanging from the back of the truck offering handfuls of marijuana for sale. The truck slowed to almost a halt, and the deals were made; the herb cost mere centavos. And just as suddenly, we pulled away, and returned to the ubiquitous enclosed passage through the forest, the surreal clearing receding in sight and memory. Did it really exist at all, and are we imagining these powerful joints?

It was a Maroon settlement; it’s occupants the descendents of runaway slaves who set up shop here in the 16th century. Maroons are Guyana’s version of Brazilian Quilombo’s - or like pirate utopias and Freetown’s. Today’s inhabitants are a bedraggled residue of that feisty, rebellious world, now struggling to survive in a forest encroached upon by loggers and a government wanting to control the land. Maroons are employed, it is said, as assassins and hired guns for rich farmers in their internecine wars with their contemporaries and with landless peasants searching for plots. Looked down upon by both the East-Indian and the Afro-Guyanese sections of Guyana’s society, the Maroons, about 2% of the population, remain isolated, discriminated against, and despised.

* Ah! Brazil

By early afternoon, we had left the forest and traveled through a vast savanna; for as far as the eye could see, the burnt earth undulated gently in hills littered with low shrub and bare trees. This dramatic change in environment marked the unspecific frontier between the two countries. Some hours later, we pulled into a small town, Lethem, population a few hundred, tumbleweed blowing up and down the sandy roads.

To find Migration is a problem. Take a canoe across a river, walk a trail for a half an hour and you will find an office on the side of a road, we are told.

We have walked 45 minutes under the boiling sun and stumble upon, finally, what appears to be a migration post. A figure appears, dramatically silhouetted by the sun. As we get closer, we perceive the uniformed figure of a woman. She is a tall and striking, sporting tight ray-bans, her hair held up in her peaked hat, her military uniform an iniquitous challenge.

She breaks into a huge welcoming smile and starts chatting to us in a most marvelously musical tongue of which we do not understand a single word. We slump down, and this magnificent Border official fetches a couple of glasses of water; she removes her sun-shades and her eyes blaze in intrigue and wonder.

All my travels, I have untold trouble with Migration. Like cops and soldiers, no situation on earth is ever made better by the arrival of a Migration official. Here is the exception that makes the rule. Seduced by her august approach (and her devastating charm), we have both fallen in love with her. The alluring way she takes our passports, the impetuous manner in which she stamps the pages, the warm smile as she hands them back…Reluctantly, we must depart, fleetingly love-lorn. We lean out the window of the dusty bus, waving tragically as the old vehicle pulls away. You couldn’t make it up - Brazil is already unmitigated passion.

Passion and cruelty. We arrive in Boa Vista, a dusty frontier town populated by cowboys, shysters, criminals and the usual dodgy border crew. Boa Vista is the bastion of a particularly vicious band of Latifundistas, Large Estate owners, with a penchant for killing Indians. Massacres are common, the most recent, a slaughter of 8 indigenous men from the Yanonami tribe. Better to move on than suffer another moment in cemeterial towns like this with its endless lines of concrete warehouses and car repair workshops. We board a jungle bus to Manaus, into the Amazon proper, no Demerara Woods nonsense, this is the real thing.

And it’s the same, a wall of trees; we are enclosed in a uniform corridor of forest, until we debark to cross the Amazon, (or one of its tributaries) by motorized raft. The vast body of water is muddy brown and warm to touch. It is 1km wide at this stretch. We putt-putt across on a low-slung raft, the bus almost tilting into the waters, and I imagine the brown liquid full with man-eating piranha and fish the size of crocodiles, crocodiles the size of boats. The imagination can run riot, because it is beyond the imagination.

But the ride through the jungle is monotonous: we are in a regular bus and there is a basic road, most of it paved. We pull into Manaus around dawn. Manaus is the place where the mad German-Irishman Fitzgeraldo in all his hubris, built a grand opera house in the middle of what was then, almost pure jungle. He dragged ships over hills to get the materials here. Lots of workers got killed. A good example of the kind of mental disease that affected the ruling classes of the 19th century high colonial period.

Anyhow Manaus is today an Amazonian metropolis of over a million inhabitants, and it is baking hot and sweaty, nobody bothering to wear much in the way of clothes, and even in the bus-station, or now in the airport, people are clad mostly in what would be considered underwear in other places. Older people in Ireland would consider it going around ‘naked’. We are in the airport because we have just discovered that the ferry to Belem, upriver to the Caribbean, is 5 days sailing, and the Encontro is beginning tomorrow. So we try to find an affordable flight.

This 10-seater motor vehicle with wings is implausibly called an airplane. My thesis is further validated by the fact that we never fly higher than the tip of the jungle the entirety of the 5-hour flight- real airplanes touch the clouds. At one point crossing the Amazon, at the point where the muddy Rio Negro joins with the clear Rio Amazonia, we could see water as far as the horizon; no land in sight anywhere, and we are relatively high up. The Amazon River is that immense.

The hours of endless green rainforest ends suddenly a half an hour from Belem- like someone took a ruler and just cut away all the forest in a straight line. Suddenly the forest is a field; suddenly the jungle gives way to agriculture. This brutal incision welcomes us back to civilization. Then the forlorn skyscrapers of Belem appear on the horizon, and a pall of smoke lingers over the city.

Encontros sin fin.

We are here to attend the 3rd Encontro (Gathering) for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, in Belem, Capital of the Amazon, on the cusp of the new millennium.

It follows on from the First Encuentro convoked by the Zapatistas in Chiapas in 1996. A great success, drawing 6 thousand participants from all over the world, it marked itself historically by (in)formally drawing together the new political constituency that was forming into a Global-wide movement. The backbone of the attendees were from social movements (as apposed to political parties), activists (as apposed to politico’s or academics), NGO’s (not (yet) government or UN representatives) and church groups (from the preferencial-option-of-the-poor faction, not Rome). The term ‘Civil Society’ was ostensibly used to describe the crowd, although the hordes of anarcho-punks, ex-guerrillas, Maoists and militant feminists present could hardly be considered ‘civil’. ‘Multitudes’ was another word used to describe the horde because they were representative of the majority of people worldwide who are not part of the ruling class. Representative of, not representing- that is an important distinction.

The Second Encuentro took place in Spain in September 1997, again attended by thousands from a similar range of groups. This gathering further consolidated the idea of the growing Movement, and contributed towards further developing tactics, strategy and philosophy (I avoid the word ideology, because the movement remains studiously post-ideological as a means to not be pigeon-holed Marxist/Anarchist/Autonomist etc... A Movement in which all movements fit, was the guiding philosophy.). Strategically, the Movement is directed against Neoliberal (Global) Capitalism and fights for government from below, decentralized, and premised in self-determination and autonomy. It employs tactics of direct action mandated by participatory democracy. (Mandar obedeciendo- To command obediently). It is a humanist philosophy, based on solidarity, participation and respect (Para todos todo, para nosotros nada — Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves).

The 3rd Encontro in Brasil was proposed by the Sem Terra (The Brazilian Landless Movement), and endorsed by the Zapatistas. But somewhere along it went all wrong.

* How we lost the Encontro…..

Lets start with the Opening Ceremony… We are gathered in a sweltering tropical park in the center of this lush breathtaking city being mesmerized by an array of liberating cultural performances- musicians, dancers, singers, artists. Aching beauty. Accompanied by frustrating brutishness. There’s insipid political maneuvering going on. The same crowd who were clapping with delight at the sensual dancers is now booing the ignoble speakers from the organizing group.

Briefly, the Sem Terra, (the Landless Movement) who were to be the hosts, were shoved aside of the organizational mechanics by the Belem City Council, a left faction of the PT, (The Workers Party, Brazil’s then main opposition party). Sem Terra pulled out because they accused the Belem City Council of abusing the Encontro for their own gains, vis-à-vis, using the Zapatistas’ popular image to make themselves look good before the electorate in the upcoming Elections. Remarkably, and unbelievably, the venerable 3rd Encontro for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism is high jacked by the Workers Party faction to become in all intents and purposes, a showcase for their electoral hopes. Using the public funds at their disposal, the PT council has gained control and is using all the cities’ facilities to host the Encontro. Welcome to the Belem City Council Encontro!!!

Nevertheless, this night is not one for the tricky politicians; it is a social gathering to celebrate the coming together of thousands of radicals and our culture of resistance. Rene of San Paolo is typical of the spirit of the night, and indeed of the whole Encontro. He is warm and friendly and shares whatever there is to share with you. Part of an Anarchist group that traveled far to be here, he is appalled by the Machiavellian behavior of the politicians from the PT. "We must take back the Encontro!", ("Here, have some of this," he proffers). Sharing and passion and openness and solidarity are in abundance, the celebration is great ; peoples’ hearts are wide open.

Next day it is clear the set-up for the Gathering is all wrong . Located in a university, the PT has created it in the image of a Conference Center with large auditoriums facing central podiums. The speakers on top of the podiums have microphones, while the multitudes have earphones.

This Movement does not gather in conference halls to listen to specialized speakers and select representatives - this Movement meets in open assemblies where all can speak, and participatory democracy can be exercised. This Conference Center set-up is more reminiscent of the old left- centralized and hierarchical, dominated by educated white men. (Here with the PT, it can be said, men with a whiter pale of tan). We find ourselves in circumstances more like a Communist Party meeting or a Political Party Convention. This is not in the spirit of Zapatismo!

This Movement would not allow the Zapatista delegation to be spirited around as VIP’s, as they are here, hidden from view and overly protected by handlers. Nor does this Movement have guards at the entrances ensuring people have paid their dues- this Movement does not exclude poor people! And this Movement is not patrolled by cops walking around with their hands on their batons, as is happening here.

So this is the crux: we came here to build a movement to change the world and we find the prefigurative politics of the proceedings replicate the dominant discourse. The scourge of organizers thinking and acting like the State!

Unsurprisingly, the NGO’s (and the ‘nice’ faction), falling into step with the political party are trying to negotiate a compromise solution. "We must respect our hosts", they said, and focus on "getting work done". But the stirrings of a rebellion rumble among the multitude.

Another Encontro is possible!

Word gets around, and people seep away from the boring lectures in the large auditoriums. In the open-air cafeteria, a mass of people- indigenous and women's groups, representatives from the Quilombo movement, internationals, radicals, youth, students and punks have gathered and are engaging in lively debate. They are constructing an Alternative Encontro and unlike the staid, controlled, Official Encontro, here the energy and passion is palpable. Under a light palapa, a gathering of every class, color and subculture spontaneously takes control of the proceedings and says Ya Basta! A mutiny! Quilombo!

Critics would understand it as the typical decomposition of the fragmented left, unable to hold a meeting without a plethora of splits and defections. No, this is something else. We are constituting a new movement. This is not an argument over ideology or the correct line, this is fundamentally about methodology- for political participation, not political representation. That this Movement is not about Politics, it’s about Political Action.

And this is why the Landless Movement, Sem Terra were wise to pull out. This Encontro is about fomenting party politics and consolidating political power, not building a social movement and strengthening popular power.

A Carnival of Dreams

We are off again. Out to a favela to dance and drink and sing. There is something unique about how Brazilians celebrate. The whole community is in the street, from 2-year-old kids to 80-year-old grannies. The music is that wonderful uplifting samba that inexplicably commands you to enjoy yourself. The mood is happy and impulsive. It reminds me of wild nights during the West Belfast Feile (Festival) when all the woes of poverty and hardship find wings and soar, if only for a few hours, and people celebrate life. We are invited to join a bunch of revelers at their table. Don Josheu and his extended family- daughters, sons, their kids, their friends, their friends’ parents, welcome us like long lost family members. They are impressed that we have traveled so far and wish to reciprocate our solidarity endeavor. Beers keeps appearing miraculously on the table and conversations are attempted enthusiastically through a variety of mediums due to lack of common tongues, with all and sundry. Again it must be noted that people are predominantly clothed in their underwear, and the dance-forms would be banned in most ‘respectable’ countries. There is no youth or beauty barrier- this is an unpretentious utopia for all. The separation between children’s space, youth culture and adulthood is diminished- a healthy fusion. Everyone dances and makes merry, from mischievous kids to audacious pensioners; and openness, sharing and solidarity are again the enduring characteristics of this long night of revelry.

*Occupy! Resist! Produce! Sem Terra Uncovered…

We are lodging in a Jesuit seminary. It has all the trappings of the usual seminary enclosure- high walls, monastic silence, and pious simplicity. Except the seminarians are fiery radicals whose eyes fill with passion when they talk about the social movements or the Sem Terra landless movement. At the beachfront of Icoraci, the mouth of the Amazon, we learned about the Sem Terra movement from these young devoted seminarians

46% of the land is owned by 1% of the population. People are driven from the land, dispossessed, pushed into the slums at the edge of the cities. Nobody is going to give you land- being poor and powerless, so what is to be done?

Vote for political change? Pray and beg for land? Emigrate?

With the Sem Terra, they went out and took land. Direct Action gets the goods. They saw a piece of unused land, joined together, and occupied it on mass. Solidarity is strength. And they did it in their hundreds of thousands.

When the dictatorship ended in 1984, space opened for old forms of resistance with new forms of organizing under the umbrella Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (The Movement of Rural Workers Without Land). The idea was an old one, and a simple one- to re-occupy idle land and work it. Ownership of the land for those who work it- and with land comes dignity and liberty.

In 15 or so years, Sem Terra grew from a few thousand disparate land squats to being today the biggest radical popular movement in the world with a support base of millions and 150,000 camps around Brazil, each a growing community on occupied land, and 50,000 settlements, ‘legalized’ communities. How did they become so strong?

The answer seems to lie in their strategy of mass mobilization, a commitment to participatory democracy and the tactical use of non-violent direct action. They are not a political party, but a social movement. They are not a Trade Union although they struggle collectively. They are not communist but they are communal.

Power lies in the camps; each camp is an autonomous unit, decisions at camp level are made by an assembly- direct participatory democracy. Each camp networks with other camps on an inter-state level. As if to put emphasis on decentralization, the national organization is very small- a few offices, a newspaper, a press office and a rotating council committee (somewhat like the Zapatista Clandestine Council) oversees implementation of policy. (Indeed, the Sem Terra are now looking at the Zapatista Autonomous Councils as a model for larger, regional organization.)

It sounds similar to the Zapatistas, yet they developed completely separately, Continents apart. One common factor is the influence of Liberation Theology; both movements grew rapidly in turf already set up by the Catholic church of the poor. This brings us back to the Seminary. The young seminarian Gilmar is a devotee of the movement, and spends most of his time organizing in the camps around Belem. I suspect his Lord must wonder as to where his wayward seminarian has wandered; the conspicuous absence of God as he deplores capitalism in the name of the people is apparent.

We visit the Sem Terra office in Belem. It is a non-descriptive little house in a poor suburb. Inside there are about 10 volunteers busy as bees, and people come and go constantly. A song, the Hino do MST blasts away from a stereo — it is a rousing marching cry that immediately strikes up memories of the CNT and FAI songs of the 1936 Spanish Revolution. On the wall, beside numerous posters about local demonstrations, strikes, occupations and more global themes (or Anti-Globalization themes), predominated a portrait of Carlos Marighela . Marighela was a guerrilla leader assassinated by the Dictatorship in Sao Paulo in 1969. His famous work Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969) became standard text for many armed struggle groups in the 70’s- the IRA, the Red Brigades, the FSLN, Red Army Fraction etc. What is this renowned figure of the armed solution doing on the wall in the local headquarters of a totally unarmed mass movement? The volunteer explains it in terms of Marighela being a hero and a martyr and a national symbol of resistance. And his theory of armed struggle? "We have only our scythes and sticks, we do not use arms."

Back at the Seminary, Gilmar is apparently irritated by this question of the use of arms. The systematic state repression aimed at Sem Terra has resulted in dozens of extra-judiciary executions, and multitudes imprisoned. "The people have no defense! This suicidal pacifism of the organization will get us all killed!" The seminarian was all for setting up armed Self-defense Militias against the private armies of the Latifundistas and the Paramilitary police who operate without impunity.

And this is a real problem: it is clear that the Sem Terra have not being pacifist but it stops short of using arms, for fear of engaging in an armed struggle with an enemy who holds all the arms. How to protect the militants, the spokespeople, the people engaged in direct action?

19 Sem Terra were killed in 1996 at a land invasion at El Dorado de Carajas by the paramilitary police. Nobody was charged. Sem Terra activists continue to be murdered, imprisoned, beaten, and tortured. How to protect them? How to fight back?

Sem Terra remains shy of using arms as self-defense. "Our only chance of victory is to get everyone aware and participating, using whatever arms they are able to use. In our occupations women, children and old people use what they have: wooden sticks, stones, knives…another has a .38 revolver. We don’t recommend using firearms. This tactic is certain to frighten..." And bring the full wrath of the military state upon you. Armed self-defense in Brazil would be suicidal. Yet still, how to defend your people at the mercy of paramilitary death squads and murderous police?

Tales of Two Encontros

Back at the Encontro next day, both the Official and the Alternative forums continue with gusto. At the Conference Center representatives from Colombia’s guerrilla the ELN warn of US interference in their country in a strongly anti-imperialist presentation. The FARC representative had already being expelled from Brazil. Under a thatched Capella by the sea front, impassioned speakers in the Alternative Encontro engage in participatory democracy with such gusto that they almost come to blows... I don’t know why, it’s all in Portuguese. In the Conference Center I can understand, every speech is simultaneously translated, but it’s increasingly academic and by the way I keep drifting off into siestas, I realize they are speaking with corpses in their mouths. Back at one of the Alternative assemblies, a group of black hip-hoppers are demonstrating their craft and it’s clear why hip-hop is such a huge and important form of expression in the urban favelas (slums). The Alternative Encontro invades the Official Encontro in the form of a nude protest by some anarcha-punks and at this amusing juncture, all chaos is unloosed.

Two Distinct Movements

It’s fortunate we are not an armed movement because otherwise, tonight’s Finale of the 3rd Encontro for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism would be a bloody mess. As it is, there are different factions screaming, pushing and at one appalling moment, individuals are giving each other digs.

Several thousand people from both Encontros had contrived to gather in the main conference center to trash out a final Joint Declaration. In the spirit of Zapatismo it has been decided that we should ‘work it out’. But what common ground is there?

The debate falls into those who wish to reform and those who wish to radicalize the state of affairs. Is it enough to have a representative at local or state level or is it more conceivable to build extra-parliamentary power from below? To attempt to win elections or to take control at the grassroots through popular power? Is the movement lobbyist or activist? To reform or to revolutionize? Clearly there was little common ground. The night air filled with clamor and tempers were unraveled and as the representatives from Belem City Council tried to read out an unacceptable declaration, the stage front became a mess and resembled a cattle mart on a Sunday afternoon. Rene the impassioned Anarchist from Sao Paulo is at the front of the stage rowing with some pro-PT Trotskyites and it seems pointless, when there is so much to be gained with the rest of the crowd.

Elsewhere the music begins and people drift there. As was the case the whole time of the Encontro, people informally made their own meetings, alliances blossomed and common cause was found. And it being Brazil everybody danced quite ecstatically- the Afro-Brazilians, the indigenous, the youth, the landless, the locals, the hip-hoppers and the punks. A noteworthy moment of unity was achieved. Not a political unity, but a social and cultural unity: we come together in the common refusal of the formal Encontro, the rejection of the political maneuvering and the party politics, and we begin to organize in a new space.

*A Life Worth Living

Belem in the sordid heat. The Encontro is over. I wander down to the seafront to the Ver-O-Peso market. Although antiquated and dilapidated, it feels consoling. The fishermen laze about on their vaudeville boats, small old sloops tenderly worn from innumerable sea-journeys. The echo of samba music drifts easily over the docks. A sudden tropical downpour engulfs the waterfront and the rain falls fresh and ferocious, cleaning away everything except the pungent aroma of rotting fish and vegetables. More sloops sail in and the robust fishermen, burnt raw from the unrelenting sun, unload their catch. Fish the size of humans, humans the size of characters from Jorge Amado novels. Scantily dressed prostitutes saunter out and lie familiarly on the hulls, chatting. Hard, muscular women like the men. Children and wives embrace their returned husbands and fathers. relieved that there are no drownings this time. There’s a taciturn kind of happiness here, an intangible strength of presence, of contented working men and working women. It is a nostalgic scene, and life has probably not changed for a hundred years in Ver-O-Peso. When the ravages of capitalist globalization has finally ruined and blasted its way off the world stage, this kind of fisherman's globalization will remain.

I wander over to a kiosk overlooking the sea. A young mulata tends her little palapa like a rose garden. I order a coffee and she smiles and remembers me from a visit a few days previous. For the millionth time, a stranger engages me with this fond, intrigued openness... The woman chats away in the enchanting music of her tongue, spitting through the gaps in her teeth and it reminds me of the initial encounter with the migration official at the border, and I realize this is not an exception, but the norm. A carnival of dreams. I swoon in this wonderful culture that is unsullied and sociable. This absence of cynicism and an abundance of simple trust have somehow turned my world upside down. We may have lost the Encontro, but we have gained the Brazilian spirit.

Nearby a gang of young girls strip a young boy down to his lurid boxer shorts with much mirth. He is mortified, and too proud to cry. The girls return to finish the job, and playfully and brutally strip him naked. Now he cries, and everyone laughs. The bartender laughs playfully and mocks the forlorn boy.

Such is Brazil, this aching beauty, this startling cruelty.


More articles by Ramor Ryan