Ralfie & I
RALFIE & I
We had little in common and never become close, Ralfie and I, but we both set down roots that grew and remained in a place very foreign and strange to us both. Of a generally serious and aloof demeanor, tall, string bean thin, very fair skinned and with light blond hair, we contrasted physically. I was as tall, lean and with dark hair and a skin that tanned easily. I was from the white suburbs of Northern California and he from the white suburbs of Florida. Southern white, I thought. I was from a large, extended Portuguese family while he was an only child who did not even seem to be close to his parents.
We met late in August of 1966 in the bairro (neighborhood/district) of Pernambués, an isolated section of Salvador, the capital city of the brasilian state of Bahia. Pernambués was located in the hills above the city and was nestled amidst dense, second growth tropical rain forest. Its Indian name means fresh air. It is almost always graced by gentle breezes from the ocean and bay and equally battered by thundering tropical cloud bursts. Today the rain forest is gone all replaced by urban development.
Previously a deeply rutted, dirt road off the highway leading out of the city, climbed up a steep hill and wound through the dense growth into Pernambués. It was the only entry and exit to the city below. Frequently the only bus serving the bairro would unload the passengers on the bottom of the hill and have us walk up to the top, get on and finish the journey. Too much rain and the bus could make it neither up nor down the slippery, red clay quagmire. The Pernambués bus of those days often appeared to be a Disney cartoon satirizing South America. But that is a story for some other time.
Finally the bus would arrive at the bairro’s first stop, the Praça da Mangueira. An ancient, majestic Mango tree under which donkeys grazed, pigs rutted and chickens scratched, dominated this plaza. The animals far outnumbered the cars in those days. Today the Mango tree is gone and only us old timers call the bus stop by its old name.
There was some electricity but it would go off whenever there was a futébol game in the local stadium. Fresh killed chickens and a butchered pig were available daily. Most beef was dried, and fresh beef was bought in such small amounts it was referred to as ”seasoning.” The only drinking water came from two public fountains. Opened early mornings and late afternoons, women and girls lined up with their flimsy, five-gallon tin cans to fetch and carry water. Men loaded donkeys with four, several-liter wood drums to sell door-to-door. There was not one single telephone.
These were not the descendents of White Anglo Saxon Protestants that Ralfie and I came to live with. No, they were the descendents of Africans brought over by the hundreds of thousands from all over Africa and sold into slavery as plantation labor, servants and service providers. They had preserved their individual ethnic identities and recognized each other’s. They sang and told tales in their African languages. Ate the same food they had eaten across the Ocean. Practiced the religions they had brought with them.
While the contribution of the Indigenous peoples appeared throughout the population, and the presence of Portuguese blood could not be denied, it was Africa that dominated.
Ralfie and I came there knowing nothing of Negro Africa. We could not tell Ashanti from Yoruba. In fact we had never known either existed.
What were these two young American men doing in this strange and foreign place? We were Peace Corps volunteers unashamedly avoiding service in the Vietnam War. Ralfie had been there a year already when I arrived. It was decided I should find a place to live at the other end of the bairro in order to spread our “impact.” Whatever that impact was and who was actually impacted? Even the names we were born with changed: “Ralfie” was actually “Ralph” but they said “halfie” as I was “hoberto.” Dropping the R was –and is- the baiano accent.
I found a tiny two-room house made of mud and sticks with cement floor, tile roof and plastered walls. It was on a short lane of similar small houses sharing one common privy that also served as a laundry room. On more then one occasion I had to rapidly excuse myself and rush in due to diarrhea. The ladies would depart giggling. I peed in the small sink in my house that fed into an open drain running down the middle of the lane. I bathed using cups of precious water to wet myself, soap up and then rinse off. The water came from a nearby, polluted well and had to be boiled, treated and filtered to drink. I had a small, handmade kerosene lamp and a big Aladdin kerosene lamp with a filament that was the envy of my neighbors. I bought a chair, a one-burner kerosene camp stove, and a clay, water filter. I made my own bed frame, table and shelves. I had a mattress and always slept under a mosquito net tucked in to avoid hordes of blood sucking mosquitoes, cockroaches the size of mice, lizards that fell from the tiles and spiders with long legs that could leap for feet when I tried to hit them with a broom. In heavy rain I was trapped, I could not make it up the steep, slippery wet red clay path, but I would get some clean rain water.
My neighbors were so desperately poor that at times I could not help but question our shared humanity. It shamed me to react that way, but I was not prepared to see so many so destitute. My next-door neighbor was often ill and would huddle miserably on the floor in her furniture-less house looking less then human. My laundry lady up the lane was sour and embittered, more then once I had to intervene to make her stop beating her two children. At “home” I tended to sleep in late, and stay up late reading or writing by my fancy kerosene lamp.
I took my meals with Ralfie a few doors down from where he lived. We ate at the house of d. Angelina; the “d” for Dona, a married woman’s title. Dona Angelina was fortyish, of afro-indigenous mix, living single with her five children. Food was cooked to Ralfie’s specifications; all vegetables and greens blanched in boiling water and served without dressing, meat fried to a crisp, soups into which my sweat would drip due to the heat, fried eggs and one local soda pop. I soon asked how to say “vinegar” to see if she had some to put on the tomatoes and lettuce. She did and d. Angelina provided it with some surprise at my request.
One day I showed up unexpectedly. D. Angelina apologized saying all she had ready was the lunch she had prepared for her family. Fine by me, I had no other choice. Out came rice and beans, mandioc flour to soak up the bean gravy, salad and tender meat cooked with onion and tomato. Delicious! And there would be many, many more delicious meals over the nearly three years that followed. D. Angelina fed this mother-less son of a foreign land very well.
Ralfie and I ate later. We ate at USA dinnertime in the awful heat of late afternoon. And we always ate alone in private. But he was becoming more and more involved in a project at the university’s school of music and was less and less in the bairro. I preferred the midday meal the family ate. D. Angelina’s only daughter, my age, and her youngest brother would come in to clear up the table. Slowly these two, Lizete and Nene became my Portuguese teachers and also my teachers of local customs and practices. Patiently, often laughing but never mocking, they nursed my broken Portuguese into a spoken and understood language. It wasn’t only proficiency, it was also meaning. They taught me how to give and to take the constant mutual ribbing the baianos dish out to each other. Taught me how to act and how to react; and how not to act and when not to react. They became close friends. Lizete was like a sister, and one Feast of St. John we held hands, leaped over a bonfire three times repeating a pledge of friendship and became comadre e compadre. I have never seen her again. We’ve talked on the phone, but could never arrange a reunion.
D. Angelina’s oldest son, Antonio, worked downtown and commuted home for lunch. A handsome man with an athletic build, he was always clean and well dressed. My age, he was the man of the house. Yet he always ate in the tiny kitchen, sitting on a stool with his plate balanced on his lap. Eventually I asked why? Because like Ralfie, they assumed I wanted to eat alone. I did not want to. Antonio not only became my lunch companion but also a dear friend. Unfortunately we shared a couple of things in common; both of us drank too much and we both picked up a liver parasite. Antonio would die in his mid 40’s and I would never see him again.
Ralfie introduced me to the local “movers & shakers,” the community leaders. There was the parish priest who only came on Sundays, the lovely Italian nuns who provided educational, health and social services out of the St. Joseph the Worker parish up the street, the owners of local businesses and the leaders of local organizations. Some of these turned out to be wonderful people from whom I would learn so much. But he had almost nothing at all to do with people our own age, kept a private house and did not socialize much.
Eventually Ralfie decided to move into the city and devote himself to the university project and I inherited his house. To me it was a mansion; electricity, my own private indoor privy with a bucket rigged up with a shower head hanging from the ceiling. I had a 50-gallon drum with a spigot welded on that I could pay to get filled with precious potable water. There was no more slippery clay slope to maneuver.
My house was at the end of a large, long lot owned by Sr. Silvano and d. Luiza. In those days much of the lot was undeveloped; today it is one large, multi-unit building. I had a private entrance and two shuttered windows (no glass, but few windows did) that opened upon Rua Nova. I could buy fresh warm milk for my morning coffee from the window. My rent went up from $5 a month to $12. I did not complain as my quality of life improved greatly.
No longer a private house, it became a local youth center. I had gotten a typewriter for the local neighborhood newspaper, O Jornal Pernambuense, of which I was the so-called editor. It was in doing this job that I learned how to read and write Portuguese. The typewriter got a lot of use. To this day I meet people in Pernambués who remember coming to my house to learn how to type or to do their homework on that typewriter. It was a productive investment of USAID dollars.
I joined the local futébol team, Real Baiano, and did a poor job as goalie. Sr. Silvano had cut the field out of the thick Mato for the community’s youth. After playing we would bathe in the local polluted creek rinsing off in fresh water from a leaking municipal pipe. Not the brightest thing to do. I picked up a snail borne parasite in the creek water. Of course they did too, but I got treatment. The girls bathed there earlier in the morning. We could sneak a peek at them as they descended, but that is all we could see. They swore they could sneak a peek at us, but we never found their secret vantage point.
There was a long path from Pernambues down thru the thick growth to the white sandy beach of Pituba. Today Pituba is a neighborhood of high-rise, middle class apartments. We would leave in the morning, make the long walk back before lunch, bathe in the creek and then eat. After lunch we’d sit in the shade leaning against a wall and watch the girls and young ladies gracefully carrying water from the fountain balanced on their heads. The more flirtatious ones would pause, let a little cool water trickle down their faces and over their bra-less bodices teasing and delighting us. Years later I would lament the passing of that delightful sight only to get my ears righteously pinned back. “Do you know how hard that was on our legs and feet? Do you have any idea of how much time we had to devote to fetching water?”
In the cool evenings we would stroll the traffic-less street, the evening passeio. I frequented a tiny bar with outdoor benches where we would drink and converse. Later we would gather in the small store d. Angelina had. Someone would play a guitar, rhythm would be batted out on a steel kerosene drum and the samba counter beat tapped out on a box of stick matches. We would sing, dance and drink.
Doesn’t it sound idyllic? But there will always be some trouble when young men get together and drink. As Sr. Silvano has often reminded me, “you were a ‘brincalhao’”. I played too much and drank way too much. Everyday I had a shot of the strong, sugar cane liquor, cachaça, before lunch “to give me an appetite.” And that was just the first of the day.
One rainy night my drunken revelry ended with me falling in the mud as I tried to prevent one friend from stabbing another with scissors taken from my house. I did not prevent the stabbing. The next morning I knew I was in deep shit. When I got my “wake up” drink the barkeep dispelled any doubt the previous night had gone unnoticed. The victim needed stitches in his throat, he told me, but would be all right. He told me the man who did the stabbing had his arm broken and the scissors confiscated. He was not from the neighborhood, not even a baiano; he fled and was never seen again. The barkeep did not reprimand me, but I knew he was displeased with my behavior. And I still had to face my comadre, Lizete.
Sheepishly I entered the house for lunch and there she was: “Vagabundo! You bum! Have you no shame in your face? Miserável. Thank God your sainted mother is not here to see the disgrace that you have brought upon her. Safado! What’s wrong with you, hanging out in the streets with that group of parasites, being a fool like some common nigger. Nêgo malandro. If you have no respect for yourself, at least have some respect for your mother and family. Preguisoso. You lazy good for nothing, não presta prá nada. What kind of example are you setting? Desgraçado. Is this how you represent your family and your country? Deixe com esta sacanagem!” With downcast eyes I would take the brow beating, sweating with a hangover and pledging penance and repentance.
But the baianos are a forgiving people and there would be much more late night revelry. No more stabbings, but it would not be the last time I was accused of having no shame in the face. This last time I met up with a middle aged man named Jilson. The name and his features struck a chord. “Didn’t you and I go steal caju fruit from a farmer one time?” He replied that was he. “And didn’t the farmer chase us off with a machete or a rifle?” Again, he answered in the affirmative. I did not remind him I had gone along innocently believing the fruit was free for the picking..
Ralfie had gone to Mass regularly. I went much less and then only to briefly kneel down, bless myself and then go outside to socialize with the other young men waiting for the young ladies to exit.
Evenings I often went to the Afro-Baiano religious services, Condomblé. Something they always remind me of with a certain amount of humorous admonishment. Was it proper for the young American who worked with the Catholic nuns? “Roberto was different, he hung out with the folks more,” they explain. Ralfie did not go to Condomblé, even though it was just across the street from our house. The beating drums and musical chants both fascinated and intimidated me. Wary, I stayed outside looking in. I saw unexplainable things. They cooked the animals that were sacrificed and served them to spectators. Free food was always welcome on Peace Corps pay of $75 a month. I mean, really, I did have cachaça, beer and cigarettes to buy.
Years passed and I was no longer a stranger, but the time came for me to leave and return to the USA. Parting was more then a month of sweet sorrow filled with overwhelming acts of kindness and affection.
Finally, my last weekend in Pernambués arrived. There was to be a Sunday Mass in my honor and lunch with the priest and nuns afterwards. But Saturday night comes before Sunday morning. There was much revelry my last Saturday night. I did not make it to Mass. The priest was gone when I showed up for lunch, but we had never gotten along. He stole the best of the Food for Peace that USAID donated for the poor and hungry. He even stole cement we were using to build a school to construct his beach house. I’d confronted him in public on that and gotten the cement back. He never forgave me. The lovely nuns were waiting for me, treated me graciously, and fed me a delicious meal. The youngest one remarked with a twinkle in her eye that they had not expected me to make it to Mass. My eyes asked why? “We heard you singing in the street this morning at sunrise,” she replied. There was no malice or rapprochement in her smile.
Yes, Ralfie and I were different, never grew close and grew apart when he moved. His service ended and I never saw him again until this year. On my return trips I found out he had returned too. That he married brought his daughter down to be baptized in the Church of Santa Anna and named her Anna. He had been down to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sr. Silvano’s folklore group, O Terno Rosa Menina. He too had roots. He too had formed bonds of mutual affection. He too had had an experience that changed him forever.
In 2001 there was a 25-year reunion of my Peace Corps group held in Palo Alto. At it I realized no matter what our experience had been, for each and every one of us it was life changing and unforgettable. So it had been for Ralfie and I. And this year, 2009, he showed up at our old house on a Sunday when I was there too. They had heard he was coming, but were unsure of when. He was in Bahia for a conference, took a break and came out. We would have passed on the street without recognizing each other after these more then 40 years. Greetings and hugs were exchanged, pictures taken and reminisces recounted. They were delighted to see us together. I do not know how he feels, but I like him much more then I did because he too, like me, returns to see these beloved people.