Brazil the Long Way



Once more, our travel plans were shaped by my Brazilian citizenship. In order not to forfeit my green card, I needed to set foot in the US before going on to Europe. Robert wasn't sure Puerto Rico counted as the US, and he didn't bother to call the consulate to find out. In any case, that was the reason to make Puerto Rico our first stop on the way to Brazil.

The beach at Isla Verde

In a two-night stay, we relaxed from the stress of Bogota, visited the Spanish-era San Juan de la Cruz fort, made a trip to the highlands in a rented car, and went to the beach at my begging. The beach was as beautiful as any I remembered from Brazil, lovely crystal clear water and white sand, but Robert was so concerned about sunburn (or so he said) that he allowed us only fifteen minutes of sunshine. The kids didn't even get pink. The car trip to the highlands was remarkable for the descent. The road dropped relentlessly, and our rental car had automatic transmission so Robert couldn't downshift, or didn't know what the "2" meant. The drum brakes soon glazed over. Robert was near panic when he finally pulled the car to a rough landing by the roadside.


San Juan de la Cruz Fort

Our next stop was the island of Trinidad, off the coast of South America. Port of Spain, the capital, stuck in my memory as a collection of houses on stilts, a crowded downtown, and a sullen population. The photo below was taken on a trip up a mangrove swamp. I worried that the motorboat had no life jackets for the kids, and to this day I know that if we'd capsized in the murky water there would have been no saving them. We spent a couple of rainy days in Port of Spain before heading down to Belém, our first stop in Brazil and a chance to take a day trip up the Amazon in a large wooden boat. An American expatriate was at the helm. We briefly walked in the drippy rain forest and admired army ants as large as my thumb. The thought alone was creepy—enough of them could clean up a carcass in a few minutes' time. I got to practice my Portuguese with the taxi driver, who told us that the majestic greenery lining up the streets of Belém were mango trees, and that in season the street would be coated with impossibly slippery mango mud.

Powerboat trip to mangrove swamp

After Belém and its mangoes, we stopped in Brasilia, then the new, raw capital arbitrarily placed in the geographic center of the country. It was quite the showplace for Brazilian architecture, but we heard that no self-respecting Brazilian wanted to live in the boondocks, no matter how glossy the buildings. Public servants would fly back to Rio at the end of their (short) work week. Brazilians took surprising pride in their new capital—a passerby yelled at us for walking on the grass.

Brasilia, 1969 and 2001

The next leg of the trip took us to São Paulo, where we stayed at the Lord Hotel, the site of our honeymoon so long ago. Mother had taken the train to São Paulo to visit with her sister Elisa and then meet us, but we initially had no idea how to get hold of her, since Aunt Elisa did not have a phone. Next day we took the local train to Vila Santa Clara, the humble suburb where Aunt Elisa now lived. Robert asked around for the Baptist church and by some stroke of luck someone pointed us to Aunt Elisa's street. The six of us ran into Mother, walking up the red clay street to dry her just-washed hair. Vila Santa Clara was a huge place, and I have no idea how we happened to be so lucky. Dear Aunt Elisa lived in what might best be called a hovel, having surrendered her share of the original Varpa colony property to the Baptist church in exchange for a promise of old age benefits that never materialized. She would eventually move to Porto Alegre to live with my parents and die destitute in 1983.


Emilia and Deborah, Laura at the Lord Hotel, 1968

The photos above were taken from our high-rise hotel (everything Brazilian seems to be high-rise) in São Paulo. Mother visited us at the hotel before taking the train back to Porto Alegre. We offered to buy her a ticket so she could fly with us, but she had never traveled by air and wasn't about to do so now. After two days' sooty, bone-rattling travel, she met us at their place on Rua Duque de Caxias when we arrived for a four-day visit. My parents did not want to hear of our staying in a hotel, and they fixed up beds for the six of us. Robert and I slept in Father's office in front, on a plastic sofabed that was too narrow and too short. The children were cold in the Porto Alegre winter—coming from California and Colombia and going back to summer in the northern hemisphere, all we had with us was summer clothing. Hand-me-downs from Miriam came in handy.

Robert and Deborah with Wesson children, Naumann children

Miriam, Pedro Tarsier, Rolf Naumann. Tramandaí, 1967

Four days went by all too fast. We visited Espírito Santo, the property up from the river Guaiba, where I had spent so many happy summer days. We drove to Tramandaí, two hours away, to spend the day at Father's house on the beach. The sea was beautiful, an endless expanse of white sand and surf, as most Brazilian beaches are, but it was winter, cool and windy. In the confusion of five adults and six children in a small house, Eric wandered off alone down the street. We couldn't find him for some twenty minutes of frantic searching. Robert was in tears when a neighbor showed up, carrying Eric in his arms. Father took us all to dinner in town before heading back to the city. Not wanting to appear stingy, I guess, he ordered full three-course dinners for everybody, including the children. We were stuffed after the first course, but the waiters brought out additional platters of food like the curse of the sorcerer's apprentice.

Pedro Tarsier with Eric on the '46 Hudson, downtown Porto Alegre

I could have visited for two weeks. There was so much to share with my folks after eight years of separation. There's nothing like family, whether loving or not. Mother later wrote that the visit gave her some comfort: the knowledge that I had grown up and was able to take care of my family. I think we remain children to our parents for a long, long time. I had developed a dry cough, and I was touched that Father inquired about my health. My second departure from Brazil was harder than the first. I resented Robert's curiosity at my tears in the car as we drove to the airport. We would spend a couple of days in Buenos Aires before flying back to the northern hemisphere.