Saddam Hussein, that beleaguered statesman, nearly slipped beneath the noses of his captors, but a white rug had been placed over his spiderhole and his position was given away to an alert soldier. The Third World has legions of cheerleaders, so many that the withdrawal of the sizeable Russian pep squad in the early '90's went largely unnoticed, but it may have just two connoisseurs, me and that unnamed soldier. We seek the white rugs, and we - or at least I - muse on the fastidious dopes who put them there. Was this one punished for his bonehead play? Or are he and all his neighbors confident he did precisely what he was supposed to do? I strongly suspect the latter, though perhaps, yielding slightly to introspection, the guy has since made a note to himself: I must remember to purchase a square yard of used Astroturf the next time I'm at the bazaar.

On my tenth trip to Brazil, I proposed to set foot in Acre, way out in Amazonia and also the only state I had not yet visited. Brazil, like Iraq and all the Third World, has a few white rugs, but just as important, it has a vast number of dusty fields waiting for someone to put white rugs in them. For example, nobody has yet determined how many states this country even has. I haven't - yet - met a Brazilian who's thought to count them, and as for First-World enthusiasts, not even the most incontinent will exclaim over any of the structural details of a "federative republic," whatever the heck that is. Indians are curing cancer with herb tea! is more like it.

But never mind that last outburst. Besides being wrong - next time you take ipecac, thank Amazonia as you barf, nearly the only effect of nearly the only drug to come from there - it's nothing a Brazilian would say. What Brazilians have said or done, and all that they have not yet said or done, are what interest me. Acre has pretty much its own time zone, but it is not called the Acre Time Zone: it is not called anything at all. On the other hand, the airport near the capital, Rio Branco, is named after the general who presided over the harshest phase of the most recent dictatorship. He wasn't popular; he wasn't even from Acre; why would anyone name this particular airport after him? Couldn't they have just named it after the city? No. They're Third Worlders and this is how they do things.


Whatever you call the airport in Rio Branco, it's not easy to get to. It took me 37 hours and five airplanes to end up in the same time zone I'd started in back in Texas. But the passage was not troublous. The big longueur, an 11-hour layover in Rio de Janeiro, was spent well. I went to Petrópolis, where a young couple asked me to take a picture of them with their camera. They stationed themselves before a statue of Dom Pedro II; the boy sat, but the girl assumed a hipshot stance which was funny without being disrespectful; I think the old Emperor, who was deposed and exiled for no single reason that anyone can now state, would have been as cheered as I was. Later, back in Rio, I rode to the airport with a cabbie who declared himself the #1 fan of Lionel Richie - whoever's #2, you've got a lot of catching up to do - and in the airport itself, I ate at Bob's Burgers, a domestic franchise which no longer displays either its Mission Statement or its Vision Statement. (One - I can no longer recall which - had alluded to obligations to stockholders.) All in all, a Brazilian day.

No Brazilian taxi driver has ever deposited me where I didn't belong, and the one in Rio Branco was no exception. The hotel was his choice, and a good one. I slept well. Then, to breakfast. Pizza! Interesting. Maybe tomorrow. I had the usual, bread, cheese, fruit, and that life-affirming coffee, and contemplated the air conditioner running alongside the open windows. They'd done that in Manaus in 1997, but had stopped that by 1999. In 1989, they'd had almost no a/c at all. Brazilian progress.

In the eighteen years I have known it, Brazil has scarcely changed, except it has more stuff. It should - if you borrow money and don't pay it back, that's because you spent it on stuff. Go ahead, America, repossess my TV! By every popularly, academically, and governmentally accepted standard, this is progress. Brazilians are like us, for like us, they have stuff. There is a kind of gravelly prosperity to the place, probably due to its lack of natural resources, those fatal bonanzas that make all primitive peoples think From now on, we can just mail it in. Brazilians do get up in the morning and go to work, at least until they qualify for a pension. Exactly how or why the place runs, though, I cannot say. Nor, for all their vigorous worship of economists, can Brazilians.

Out the door now, to downtown Rio Branco, which was itself busy. I was just wandering around, finding things like the post office and the bus station and (by luck) a breezy riverside park. The state flag was in evidence. I'd say that's unusual, even for a state capital. It was attractive, and simple: none of this the-yellow-symbolizes-valor-the-gray-symbolizes-agriculture-the-sewing-machine-symbolizes-industry talk.

I rode a municipal bus to the south end of town, which proved interesting for two reasons. One was a sign at that end indicating a Pacific Highway. I don't know if there really is one. Acre borders Peru (and Bolivia), but no map I've seen shows a border crossing. The other reason was a T-shirt a passenger was wearing: it said students at the Federal University of Acre were, or had been, on strike. Portuguese doesn't sound at all like Spanish, yet these two items served to remind me that "Latin America" was right there and also right here.

Actually, I hadn't quite forgotten. The Wright brothers centennial had already reminded me. The local argument goes as follows: the Wrights took off from rails in 1903, but Santos-Dumont taxied before he took off in 1906, Q.E.D. Note the savoring of the technicality, the belief that in aviation, what you do on the ground counts for more than what you do in the air. But more important, note the complete unawareness of what happened in 1904 and 1905. What happened was, the Wrights flew again and again. That's what's so Latin American about all this: the idea that you do a big thing once, then retire.

Another Latinness, less common than it was just a few years ago, is the use of the word "patrimony." It comes up a lot in political chatter, and it always means exactly 50% of what it should. In Brazil, patrimony is always what your ancestors left lying around, and never what you are going to build for your descendants. It's a good thing nobody's ever struck a gusher in Amazonia, because the rules of patrimony would require that nobody do anything with it. It's also a good thing that Brazil has latterly hit it big in soybean production. Since nobody inherits soybeans and nobody possesses soybeans for the sheer joy of having them around, the word "patrimony" is never applied to them.

If you root among Brazilian encyclopedias, you may find some hurtful yearning for the good old days of rubber-tapping, another stolen treasure. It was Henry Wickham, or Wickman, or Nickman - Brazilian encyclopedias disagree - who exported those rubber-tree seeds to England. Acre, indeed all Amazonia, would never be the same. Then again, considering what it used to be.... A wonderful history of rubber, titled Rubber, was published in the 1930's and barely mentions Acre. The book was written by two men in Akron named Wolf, and it is a fine read because the authors, being related, were chatty for 512 pages. They move smoothly from Bolshie journalizing to industrial poetry, which turns out be easy for the conversationally gifted, as this pair clearly was.

But as I say, Acre doesn't loom large in this or any tale. It did a big thing once, and then it retired. There is still some rubber-tapping going on, but as my Brazilian almanac admits, this is francamente improdutiva. The cessation of history in Acre is nothing strange in Brazil. Well into the twentieth century, one region or another was carrying the country, flourishing off one or two commodities (latex, coffee, gold, sugar), and then failing irreversibly. To a Brazilian, indeed to any Latin American, Acre's station in life makes perfect sense.


Was it just a decade and a half ago that Amazonia was supposed to have burned to a crisp? Like predictions of "global cooling" three decades ago, and "global warming" now, this was just one more backwards baseball cap in the intellectual shopping mall of Earth. Yet Brazil is not a good place to reflect on the baseless and indestructible prestige of ecologists. In Brazil itself, there are hardly any whom you hear about, and the Green Party is invisibly small. Environmentalism is a species of self-hatred, and while Brazilians generally don't like themselves, they certainly don't hate themselves. Anyhow, as I said, this country adores economists. Theirs is the acme of scholarship, and moneylending is the highest biological function. No less than life itself, it is generally and incorrectly imagined to violate physical laws, such as Conservation Of Gold.

On the radio I heard that, on the average, an area the size of Sergipe got burned up every year of the twentieth century in Brazil. This ought to have added up, even with Sergipe being Brazil's smallest state. (I once bicycled its length in two and a half days, and for that half I was slowed by flu.) But plants grew back. Not the same plants, sure, but Amazonia ain't no parking lot. My plan, on the bus ride to Sena Madureira, was to duck into the woods and hike a few hours. There were no woods, which maybe I should have guessed. Instead, there was ranchland. Big, and rolling, and plenty green.

No one has ever asked me what Amazonia looks like, but if anyone ever does, my answer is ready: It's not like Vermont. Perfect. Not only is this true, it meets everybody's expectations. For those who like to get in a lather over this sort of thing, or every sort of thing, Vermont is the paragon. Amazonia, like Fallujah, isn't Vermont, and the best of it is, it's our fault! All sub-Vermont-ness is a failing we must take personally. However, I do not know, because I did not ask, whether Acreans see it this way.

Maybe some do. In Bajuri, the first village of size west of Rio Branco, there was a bike path. Otherwise, as I say, it was ranches. Every single one had fences neatly built and maintained. Corrals were solid. Homesteads varied in size and plushness, but all were clearly occupied.

You might - if you're naive, or if you're me - observe that Brazil's rumbustious landless-peasant movement has scarcely thought of invading the place with the most land, to wit, Amazonia. By virtue of its remoteness and poor communications, it's perfect for subsistence agriculture. But farmers are living proof that you can care for thousands of living things and still be a self-absorbed contrarian. One Sunday morning in Amazonia, I was up bright and way way early (all time zones in Brazil are a good hour or two east of where they should be) watching an ag show on TV. After rose grafts and poultry foot lesions, we got to that week's innovation in farm finance: loan a farmer 1000 reals, but only hand him 750. Before he's even walked out of the bank, he's enjoying the sensation he's already "repaid" 250. Alan Greenspan happened not to be my roommate at the time, so I cannot report his reaction. As for the plowjockeys onscreen, they milled around with that look of base astonishment that is, when you think about it, modern. It wasn't always the case that food was so abundant its producers couldn't sell it, but the twentieth century changed that. Agricultural economics has become the opposite, maybe even the opponent, of agronomy: the latter aims to raise production, the former aims to reduce it. If you have any sense, you hand those 750 reals right back, move way the hell and gone out, and drop out of the money economy. Amazonia is ready for you.

But if you wish to remain squarely within the money economy, apparently Acre at least can accommodate you. Is it just that BR-364 is a paved road in good condition leading to the more populous south-central part of Brazil? The rest of Amazonia has no such access. Although all Brazilian states have flags, and many have nicknames, I don't think any has a motto. If Acre does, it isn't "You Too Can Grow A Cabbage With A Sharpened Stick."

Finding nothing to keep me in Sena Madureira, I concluded my 45-minute stroll of the town by boarding the bus I came in on and returning to Rio Branco. Back in the capital, I walked past a sign that read "Don't Give Dengue A Chance." It depicted a mosquito, plus two old tires in which water might accumulate and permit bugs to breed. Just inches below the sign, there were two old tires. When I visited my penultimate Brazilian state, Roraima, in 2002, I heard on the radio a warning against flying kites near power lines, and the next day, I saw kids flying kites near power lines. White rugs, anyone?


Brazil used to have the worst food in the Western Hemisphere. I am aware, as I say this, that part of Africa lies in the Western Hemisphere, but African food isn't really that bad. African food is like European pizza: prepared by people who Just Don't Get It, but edible all the same. Anyway, sometime in the early 1990's, Brazilian eating got better. Although the table service itself was never bad, this improvement coincided with the appearance of self-service restaurants, the kind where you pile things on a plate and they weigh it. The vittles themselves just lie there on a steam table, but for some reason, they taste better, they're hot, and they lack hair and broken glass. My uncheckable theory is that a copy of some big basic reliable American cookbook, like The Joy of Cooking or Fanny Farmer, made it to Brazil and somebody translated it. This is uncheckable because nobody knows where Brazilian books live. Certainly not in bookstores, which are few in number, small in size, and mainly house sociology tracts. If Fidel Castro gave his nine-hour speeches in Portuguese, Brazilian bookstores would expand accordingly, but he doesn't, so they haven't. So it amazed me to read recently of a Brazilian cookbook titled Dona Benta: Comer Bem. This book has supposedly been around since 1940, and has sold over a million copies, which is enormous for Brazil. I never heard of it. Until this trip, the one cookbook I ever saw in a Brazilian bookstore had on its cover a photograph of milk being poured on a sunny-side-up egg.

In the airport in Rio de Janeiro, however, I did at last see a copy of Dona Benta. OK; cross that one off my list. It was never on the list of the Chinese restaurant I patronized in Rio Branco. A bad Chinese restaurant is hard to find, but now I know where one is. The food's awfulness was so epic, my stomachache could not prevent me from laughing as I walked out.

In the morning I felt fine. Before going down to breakfast, I read the first few pages of the phone book, trying to decide what to do today. All Brazilian phone books have maps, list points of interest, and give histories (sometimes long ones) of the area. Here in Rio Branco, I was urged to visit a water catchment built in 1927 and demolished in 1984, as well as a famously large rubber tree which had been cut down in 1981. I played the straight man with those - yes, tombar can mean "to put on a list" as well as "to demolish" or "to topple," but if that's what the writer meant, he was going to have to say so with no cooperation from me - then I decided to visit a jungle park north of town and a lake south of it.

Though it has a lengthy greenbelt running right through town - with a bike path, O joy, what can be next, three-dollar cups of Seattle coffee? - Rio Branco is not a great walking city. And I'm not just saying that because I sprained my ankle on a tree root in that park. Some esthetic advantage, but not enough esthetic advantage, has been taken of the river; as for the architecture, well, photos I've seen of downtown Monrovia look worse but not much worse.

And the place is noisy. It is also violent. I myself have never felt threatened. But the news is voluminously bad. (When it isn't funny. The previous evening, a São Paulo mayoral candidate who had in one day moved $345,000,000 of his own undeclared cash riches among various undeclared offshore accounts tried to shake free of suspicion, but as with all Brazilian politicians, his only talent was for turning up the gas beneath the skillet he was standing barefoot in. The camera dipped roguishly to the prepared statement he was grunting through. It was handwritten, in very big letters, with about ten lines to the page.) This week's local tragedies were a 12-year-old girl shot twice in the back by a spurned suitor, and a teenager hit by stray fire from an off-duty cop in an apparently uncongenial bar.

And yet I feel more or less safe. These horrors can be figured out and seem avoidable. The list of Brazil's attractions has historically been short: "beautiful beaches," "superb coffee," "fewer Nazis than are still in Europe." In view of recent events, however, today's visitor can add so many more: "no Iraqis," "no Iranians," "no Saudis," "no Afghans..." As stressful and violent as Brazil is, it is not psychotic.

I considered spending the afternoon resting my foot inside a bus, but I couldn't go to Boca do Acre and come back in the same day. Though that town is no farther away than Sena Madureira, it takes twice as long to get there, because it's not on BR-364. So I idled in my hotel room. Next to the hotel was a movie theatre. Maybe I'd go. A Brazilian movie was playing, and there aren't many of those.

I've always preferred South America to Europe. More than that: I've always held out more hope for South America. But until recently, I was unsure why. Europe is unquestionably tidier and better-running. Only when I perceived that South America has no folk-dancing did I feel more confident in my judgment of the place. Folk-dancing per se isn't too alarming - north of novel-writing, south of mime - but its promoters are the least honest of reactionaries. They just don't sound as if they like folk-dancing, or as if they think the past was better because of folk-dancing. I believe what they're really saying is Our country's movie industry is tiny and dull. That's what bugs them, and that's the energy they give off. Brazil's movie industry is tiny and dull, too, but Brazilians don't care. They are healthily oblivious to their country's historically low cultural output.


To get in to see Olga, you had to be at least 12 years old. I think that was too low. Now I know what it's like to share a movie theatre with a couple hundred teenagers and a sex scene. Two sex scenes, in fact, but in a movie running a little over two hours, these weren't very much of a distraction. Olga Benário and Luís Carlos Prestes did not evidence a lot of onscreen chemistry. Despite that, and the one tepid review I'd read, the story was not to be missed. This flick wasn't great, but it also wasn't tiny or dull. Prestes was a Brazilian army officer who led a rebellion in the 1920's. His force, the Prestes Column, may not have got to Acre, but it sure went everywhere else. Nobody has ever traveled Brazil as Prestes did. After 15,000 miles, no defeats, but - Prestes recognized this - no victories either, the force found asylum in Bolivia, and Prestes went on to Europe, where he became a communist. Olga was a German assigned to accompany him back to Brazil for a second try at revolution. It failed, and Olga, now seven months pregnant, was deported back to Germany, where she went into the concentration camps that would kill her. I am relieved to report that the baby survived, as did Prestes, who himself lived into his nineties.

It remains to be seen how history will treat the harsh anti-communism practiced by South American dictatorships. I used to think they overreacted, and probably they did: Getúlio Vargas, Prestes's nemesis, would leave office more or less voluntarily, later get re-elected, and again leave office more or less voluntarily, if you can call suicide that. As for the most recent despotism, all those generals retired, something no Brazilian politician ever does. But as I came to understand how communism depends so much on resident snitches - having read about the U.S.S.R. in the 1930's, China in the Cultural Revolution, and Cuba right now - I could see why some Brazilians would get very nervous about it. So much of Brazil is apartment blocks. It's so easy to spy on your neighbors.

Anyway, the crowd's reaction at the movie's end interested me. Some people clapped. I did. They just don't make Lefties like Olga anymore. Nowadays, even the ones who have somehow neglected to avow their love of folk-dancing in a parade-ground voice come across as the ultimate conservatives, shunning struggle, pining for détente. Put it this way: if there were a Spanish Civil War right now, there would not be an Abraham Lincoln Brigade right now.

With these thoughts I began my last full day in Rio Branco. After breakfast, I watched TV while it rained. Perhaps the streets were thronged with Brazilians tapping watch crystals and announcing The rainy season is right on time. I got bored, and ventured out on my soft ankle. Maybe I could ride municipal buses around. I picked the wrong ones - if they ever showed up, it was after I got tired of standing on my soft ankle. Doing just that in the municipal bus terminal, I saw a sign advertising a charter to the Bolivian border, a shopping trip, and regretted having missed it. I'd seen Brazilians shopping on the Paraguayan border: That's Entertainment!

Or: We Want More Stuff!

Which isn't necessarily ignoble. Amazonia, anywhere there are people in it, is not pretty, and may never be. It's still a frontier. Economically, it's still nearly inviable. It could wither at any moment. But you have to look past that, and you will, because Amazonia's residents do. The story of frontier settlement, like the story of marathon-running, can't help but have within it the phrase From this inauspicious beginning. I've met few Brazilians in Amazonia who had a simple reason for being there - it's usually something involving government documents coming through or government permission being granted, and even kids who must have been born there give complicated accountings of themselves - but everybody's been responsive and articulate and basically "up." And "up" is good. The response of "up" people to scarcity is to seek plenty, while the response of "down" people to cholera is to invent yoga. Take your pick.

In the afternoon I found a bus to the Federal University of Acre. Unlike the Federal University of Rondônia, it had more than one building, and unlike the Federal University of Maranhão, it had no garbage fires. Plus I saw my first-ever pau-brasil, the tree that gave this country its name. This was not a tall straight specimen: if violin bows are made from brazilwood, you could play a cylindrical violin with a bow made from this one. Well, the student strike was evidently over. Back to the hotel, eat early, try to get some sleep, then report to the airport around midnight for the flight out. On the plane at last, I read another passenger's newspaper over his shoulder. A story about a recently elected city councilman who was about to be de-elected for some kind of campaign malefaction. But what caught my eye was the byline: the reporter's first name was Stalin.

Another white rug! Ah. A Brazilian parent put it there - I'll name my son Stalin and he'll be just like the other kids - and a Brazilian baby was under it.

© 2004 J.A.Hutter

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