Photo by Monica Belaunde Montero
ENCOUNTERING THE UNKNOWN BRAZIL
Copyright ©2012 by Alice Walker
So there I was, on my way to a huge book festival in Brazilia and only then realizing, because friends casually mentioned it: Brazilia isn’t actually Brazil. It is a man-made city, only fifty-two years old, created to be the center of Brazilian government and plunked down in the middle of a desert, with 1950s style buildings surrounded by scrub vegetation.
Yikes! What to do?
My partner Kaleo Larson and I went anyway. And we made a fascinating discovery. Perhaps the same discovery we make everywhere we go.
In this world of war, where peace seems elusive and the war machine grinds relentlessly, how does one extend the integrity of peace?
By giving one’s self over to the experience of being genuine with whoever one meets, without a single false smile or bit of pretension, and by being present to each encounter in one’s true character.
Does this sound easy? It actually is.
Jet-lagged, I still found myself the first evening of the festival flying out the door of our hotel to hear the great Vandana Shiva, whom I had not known would be there! She was, of course, amazing, and talked with her usual strength about the corruption of the planet’s seeds, soil and water, and her heroic battles in India against the evil corporate giant Monsanto.
And that was just the first night!
The night of my “lecture,” and after a restful sleep, I talked about Some of Everything, to one of the most affectionate audiences I have ever experienced. Overwhelmingly Afro-Brazilian women, all luscious colors of the human rainbow, they were so vibrantly alive the huge tent in which we gathered seemed to hum! They called out that they loved me. I responded that I adored them. At the signing later I was kissed and hugged, and I kissed and hugged back, until it felt as if our mutually enslaved and separated ancestors were, after four hundred years, reuniting.
The following day Kaleo and I were taken on a tour of Brasilia by someone connected with the Festival whom we only knew as Pablo. In the heat, in a white van that had seen better days. With a driver we’d never seen before. Reassured somewhat by the fact that we were joined by “the other Alice” who had translated one of my several interviews. Off we went rolling around Brasilia, looking at the incredible, to us, flatness of everything .
And here is where we came around to our realization of peace. For half the ride I was not inclined to talk; or even to look at the others in the van. We felt dragged along, at first, and longed to be done.
I felt I could never live in a place like Brasilia. Too flat. Not enough hills. No ocean. No real views. The land was red and seemed depressed. The trees stunted. There were no horses, cows, pigs or goats, which, in my view, would greatly improve everything: the soil would be fertilized, for instance, and gardens might be planted. Food grown.
No gardens. No fields of growing food. At all! Shocking to the farmer in me.
So. No smiling. No anything on my part but stoic endurance.
The first shift came when Pablo sent the driver off to buy gas and we were left at a huge apartment block (heavy and lifeless looking) where we stood among a few sickly trees with yellow flowers and Pablo began to talk about how beautiful everything was.
It was so strange.
As was our realization that a man was sitting near us with his dog. The only dog we’d seen; and that the dog was objectively “ugly” all pug nose and scrunched jowls, but that, subjectively, it was sweet and lovely. It sniffed all of us gently, with benign interest. Dog lovers, we began to revive in spirit.
And then a single bird dashed through the flowering trees.
And again, Pablo thought this one bird was fabulous. We all admired its long tail and graceful way of hopping about in the dirt.
And then, because my partner (who mixes his own tobacco) had lost his pipe and wanted to buy a new one, we found ourselves at the local head shop. And there, haggling over the price of a couple of cool pipes, a haggling that eventually drew us all in – the two young women selling the pipes adamant about their price – Alice, the translator, called into the fray. Me, called in to give my opinion that haggling over anything is absurd in hot weather…. The other Alice smoking a cigarette and not knowing there was a time women were beaten for doing so in public…. Me noticing her quiet kindness and sweetness and not just the coolness of her opal gray eyes. The two saleswomen following us out of the shop at last with kisses and hugs. Pablo suddenly, back in the van, talking about how he’d rather have schools and hospitals instead of the giant stadium we were passing that is being constructed for the World Cup coming to Brasilia next year. Then saying, out of the blue, that he plays the piano and loves to farm….
He decides to take us to what he calls “the real Brazil.” It is on the outskirts of Brasilia. It is the third world.
No running water or paved streets. No sanitation. No fifties style buildings and no sterility. Only poverty. Where poor people have squatted, settled, begun to build their shanties and over time have made a community. Drugs make it a scary place to be at night, Pablo tells us, but I see that a few inhabitants have taken what excess of money they have and painted the walls of their dwellings blue, orange, yellow, green; the bright, clear colors of the hopeful heart. I begin spontaneously to clap my hands, to applaud.
And I keep finding things to applaud all the way back to the hotel.
Not the flatness, not the grandiose and unfortunate statue of the founder of the city of Brasilia, not the president’s strange house that looks like a library, or the congress that looks suspiciously uninviting, but the spirit that lives beneath all of this.
The “real” Brazil.
The four of us are happy and peaceful as we turn toward our hotel. Arriving there we hug and kiss good-bye. Friends, though we may never see each other again.
What makes any place truly beautiful? Even the flat places, even the deserts. Even Brasilia.
The courage and patience to encounter the unknown Other simply as one’s self. Whether it is other humans, animals, or land. To see that self reflected back at you.