By C. J. Peiffer
In 1967, a few days after turning twenty-two, I moved to the middle of nowhere.
The challenges I faced weren’t simply those of a young woman relocating from a large American city to a small town. I had moved to a different continent, culture, and language. I was in a town without running water, sewage system, or full-time electricity. There was no doctor, pharmacy, super market, television, or telephone service. The town’s “dentist” pulled teeth with pliers. By bus, it took five hours to travel from the coastal capital on the dirt road which was part of the federal highway system.
My new home was in the interior of Brazil’s northeast, in a town called Glória, which means “heaven” in Portuguese. How such an underdeveloped place could be called “Heaven” seemed laughable.
I had expected poor conditions. After all, I had volunteered for the Peace Corps. Yet, I didn’t know circumstances would be so harsh. I had spent weeks of training in a small town that didn’t want for any of those things.
Those who have lived in modern cities probably cannot imagine how difficult it is to exist without the conveniences they’ve always enjoyed. Glória’s generator, known as A Maquina—“The Machine” —went on at six each evening. Electricity consisted of dim street lights and single light bulbs hanging from ceilings in homes that opted for service. Radios were still attached to car batteries. Seamstresses pumped foot pedals on their Singers. Carpenters used hand tools. A few shops had kerosene-powered refrigerators, but the only place for most residents to store leftovers was in the bellies of pigs and chickens in their backyards.
At first, I thought I couldn’t survive in such a backward place and there were times when reading by kerosene light, teaching with few resources, and cooking from scratch became frustrating, but eventually I learned to do without or to do differently. There were even positive sides of some inconveniences. When the town went dark at ten each night, the stars didn’t have to compete with city lights in the big Brazilian skies.
Although most people used wood-burning stoves for cooking, I cooked on a small stove powered by a propane cylinder. To bathe, I poured heated water over my head in the middle of my brick-floored kitchen. I used an outhouse during the day and a chamber pot at night to avoid running into snakes in the dark.
For those without a cisterna to store rain water during the six-month rainy season, a neighborhood teen carried water from the dam outside of town in large cans strapped to his donkey. He poured the liquid through a clean dish towel into my four-foot-high ceramic container. The towel trapped small stones, insects, snails, tadpoles, and vegetation. I paid a woman to wash my clothes in the dam. She pressed them with a heavy iron filled with hot coals. I boiled water for cooking or drinking for twenty minutes.
Yet, I learned that I was lucky to be in Glória when I was. The man in charge of A Maquina, shut it down during times when his political party wasn’t controlling city hall and the region had gone through years when it hadn’t rained at all.
Neighbors looked at me as if I were pathetically dense when I didn’t know how to do simple tasks. It was obvious to them that one rubbed the filter of a drinking water container with sugar granules to clean it. It amused me when a neighbor asked me how I did something in America, such as prepare feijão, the black beans Brazilians ate daily with lunch. I had never eaten, let alone cooked, black beans at home. At those times, I asked myself what I could possibly teach people who were surviving well in their own environment.
Primitive conditions weren’t the most difficult things to accustom myself to in Glória. There was the problem of speaking Portuguese. Language learning had always been a struggle for me. Although everyone was patient and helpful, at first most of the town’s residents were unable to make the leap from what I was saying to what I was trying to say. Unless I asked everyone to slow their speech every fifteen seconds, I caught only two or three words in a sentence.
Until I fully grasped the language, I didn’t understand the culture of the small town, how things worked, what was acceptable behavior, who got things done. As a foreigner I was given leeway on some social norms. However, few understood why I left my country and family to teach high school English and work on community projects in Brazil’s interior.
I had altruistic motives for joining the Peace Corps, of course, and did my best to make a difference in Glória. However, I was really running away from home. College had opened my eyes to people and ideas that dismayed my parents and I had rejected my strict religious upbringing. They wanted me to live at home so they could rein me back into their fold. In my rebellion, I chose to live as far from home as possible. Although they had apprehensions about my safety in the hinterland of a foreign county, my parents looked upon my choice as equivalent to becoming a missionary, and therefore, decided it was an acceptable endeavor.
I had been informed of what to expect in the Brazilian interior, but some of it was incorrect. I was told that I would rarely be able to purchase meat. I lived in a cattle region and nearly everyone raised chickens and hogs. Although I was told that all Brazilian men had mistresses, most couldn’t afford them. Many residents may have been illiterate, but they certainly weren’t the hillbillies I’d been told to expect. Many former Peace Corps Volunteers said that Brazilians, convinced that nothing in this life would improve, were apathetic. In Glória citizens worked arduously to improve the town during my service there, the results of which I saw in 2011 during my first return to Glória, now a thriving modern city.
Much of what I was told in training was true or mostly true: to avoid gossip I should avoid being alone with a man, that “Brazilian time” was several hours behind real time, that Brazilians always took time to stop and talk, that they didn’t like to disappoint so would tell you where to find your destination even if they had no idea where it was. It was true that many Brazilians were superstitious and believed that many things were faz mal (makes bad) such as consuming pineapple and milk on the same day. Once I stopped at a shop to buy butter. The owner, who was sipping from a mug of hot coffee refused to open the refrigerator because she feared being in proximity of hot and cold at the same time.
Gradually, Glória began to feel like home. I learned to convert measurements to metric in my head, use a typewriter with some keys in different locations, haggle over prices at the weekly market, insulate food against mice and roaches, and sleep on a straw-filled mattress —under an umbrella when the tiled roof leaked. I taught with only a small blackboard and worksheets made on the priest’s typewriter, duplicated with carbon paper. I learned how to use an important Peace Corps concept: flexibility. I gave up the comforts of home in exchange for what I gained, for I acquired so much more than I was able to give.
At first, my reserved demeanor was nearly overwhelmed by the warm and welcoming Brazilians. They taught me how to survive. They laughed with me and corrected my fractured Portuguese. Many treated me like a daughter. I developed friendships among my peers and grew to love and appreciate my students, some of whom were adults aiming toward a diploma at the school that had opened only three years earlier. I embraced Glória, it’s shortfalls and it’s quirks, even the odd superstitions that I viewed as ignorant folk beliefs and later learned to accept as charming and mostly harmless.
I worried that my high school students would end up in dead-end jobs in Glória where there was no industry and only a handful of family-owned shops. Yet, nearly all managed to pay tuition at colégios in larger cities and continue their studies at universities. They became doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, social workers, bankers, business owners, engineers, agronomists, and professors.
After two years, I left Brazil with an appreciation for another culture, the ability to speak Portuguese well, and a point of view of my own country that I would not have observed at home.
Every day since I left my Peace Corps service, I have thought about Brazil with fondness and saudades —the Brazilian term for “acute nostalgia.” I still feel emotional ties to Brazilians whose open hearts bound me to them and to Glória. At times, I even long for the simpler life and slower pace I enjoyed there. In our currently-hectic world, my time in Glória sometimes does indeed see like “heaven.”
I still wake every morning thankful for the conveniences of electricity and running water, and the opportunities I have had that were not accessible to many in Glória. Yet, I am also thankful for the opportunity to live and work in Brazil. I view my experiences there as the most rewarding of my life.
I now see myself not as an American citizen but a citizen of the world. I know that any culture in any part of the world is not better or worse than any other, only different. Those differences make everyone and every place fascinating and well worth knowing —–and knowing well.
Photo: C. J. Peiffer
C.J. Peiffer is an artist, photographer, writer, former Peace Corps Volunteer, and retired public-school art teacher. She has won numerous art awards. She founded and edited the MOOsletter, the cow lovers’ quarterly and published over 100 short stories, personal essays, and reviews in newspapers and small literary publications. She owns or contributes to four blogs. Peiffer resides in Western Pennsylvania. Email: email@example.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.