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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Brazil: Entry Four

Trip complete. I’m now sitting in the airport in Rio, drinking a beer and writing with a pen that I believe I may have stolen from one of the Germans during one last night of cachaça induced stupor. My instincts about the festival turned out to be more than paranoid American reflex — things did not go well. At the closing ceremony, the organizer had nothing but vitriolic invective for the community and local government. The festival lost money yet again this year. The mayor’s office had promised financial support and then withdrew it. The check to the web site developer bounced. The bus drivers complained of being overworked and underpaid. The festival organizers announced, amid a sea of booing from the audience, that this would be the last year for the event. It’s just too ill to continue.
Regrouping with the fiddler at the close of the festival, we tired to make a list of high points. Here’s what we found:
1) Hanging out with the French-Canadians. They were great guys and great musicians. We’ll almost definitely see them again somewhere.
2) The overwhelming weirdness of the event had us so out of our element (and our senses) as to count as a positive. Most places I’ve traveled internationally, the McDonald’s-ization of the place has been apparent. Not the case here — I had plenty of chances to be completely disoriented. Emblematic moment: standing in the cold rain outside of the stadium, simultaneously speaking in broken French to a Polish guy and broken sign language to a mute Brazilian. Linguistically challenging, to say the least. The various creoles that developed during the week would have linguists throwing up their hands in agony.
3) Final highlight — the hospitality of the Brazilian people, festival organizers notwithstanding. I got to be plenty friendly with the cachaça distillers; some of the ladies got cozy with the mulled wine vendor. On the last day of the festival, the mulled wine vendor invited us to her shop, saying that she had something special for us. She was dressed in her best suit, with hot wine poured out for everyone, and proceeded to relate the following story (by way of our translator):
Even though she spoke no English, the woman had always had a fondness for Americans, and particularly for The King of Americans, Elvis Presley. She had a large collection of Elvis records, and knew all of the words, if only phonetically. A couple of years back, she was diagnosed with cancer, and became too ill to work. So she prayed to be healed — not to Jesus, but to Elvis. And Elvis heard her prayers, and through time and medicine, her cancer was healed, and she started her mulled wine business. She vowed that one day she would repay her debt to The King. And then along came us, a bunch of American dancers and musicians, visiting her wine hut every night for warmth and good cheer. Her chance had come. So she put on her best clothes, presented us with complementary beverages, and so fulfilled her debt to Elvis.
Some things can only make sense in Latin America, I guess. Everything has a saint — even the bus stop. But it was pretty all right to be an emissary of Elvis for a day.

Brazil: Entry Three

Things at the festival have taken a turn for the better, for reasons yet opaque to me. I suspect word got out that I was preparing my exit, meetings were held, and suddenly the schedule is both distinct and unhurried. Spent most of yesterday sightseeing around town with the bass player, then a brief evening practice and performance, then a late night dance with the Quebecois. The meal schedule has vanished, replaced with an open buffet. The requirement to remain together has also vanished, replaced with autonomy restricted only by a couple of daily commitments and a wristwatch. This I can live with.
Today I climbed another mountain, this time to the Parque du Santa Cruz, an enormous cross towering over town. From the top of the mountain, the whole region is spread out below. One can see the cathedral, the industrial district, the favelas, and the mountains. Fences separate the haves from the have-nots — everyone who owns something worth protecting has a fence and a dog to do the job. Santa Cruz du Sul is one of the wealthier towns in the region, but even here the wealthy homes are fairly modest by North American standards. I’ve not been able to talk politics much because of my very meager Portuguese skills, but there is definitely not much love in this part of South America for the Republican white house. Too many guns and dollars going to the wrong side of those fences, I guess.
Last night, in the midst of a cachaça-fueled hotel party with the German marching band, the mother of one of the cloggers turns to me and says “You don’t much like rules, do you?” I guess it was a rhetorical question. Does anyone, when the rules are arbitrary or paternalistic? (When we were told that we needed to remain together and in sight of the guide, one of the cloggers had nodded knowingly and said, “For security.” Apparently the fear society has already gotten the best of her.) I had wandered out earlier into the night, body full of liquor and nicotine, bundled in an alpaca wool Peruvian tunic, to see the stars. This is the farthest south that I’ve ever been, the sky had finally cleared, and I intended to see the Southern Cross. There it was in all of its winter glory, splayed across the Milky Way, and just like that I have seen twice as much of the galaxy as I have ever seen before. It’s one thing to be in a place where the buildings are different and you don’t speak the language, but it’s something quite different when even the stars — billions of years old and almost utterly immobile in the human time scale — are completely foreign and entirely illegible.

Brazil: Entry Two

Three days into the festival, and things are not going well. For one, the weather has been cold and rainy, and all of the festival events are in sheet metal structures with no heat. It’s wreaking hell on the instruments — I’ve broken five guitar strings in three days — definitely a new record. But the larger issue is the festival itself. It’s managed by obsessive-compulsive control freaks who nonetheless can’t give us a simple schedule of events. Instead, they tell us that a bus will get us at the hotel at 10:30 sharp — don’t be late — and it finally shows up at 11:15. The festival itself is inside a barbed-wire enclosure that we aren’t allowed to leave and aren’t allowed to explore. We are told to remain within eyesight of our guide at all times, no exceptions. We ask permission to use the bathroom. We’re told to be prepared to perform at 2:00, and we perform at 4:00. When the festival ends for the night, we wait outside in the cold for two more hours, and then the bus shows up and takes us back to the hotel — also enclosed in wire.
All of this would be barely tolerable if we were paid performers here on a sponsored visa. Be we aren’t. We’re unpaid, on a tourist visa, and the festival has provided nothing but the hotel (four people to a room) and meals (rice and bread). To top it off, I’ve come down with a cold.
So today, on our day off, I did what any red-blooded American boy would do. I missed the bus, walked into town, bought a decent pack and a bottle of water, and headed off into the jungle to think. Currently sitting beside a waterfall weighing my options. As it stands, the only thing keeping me at the festival is respect for the fiddler who invited me. I’ve explained my perspective on the situation to him, and have decided to give the festival one more day. If nothing improves, on Wednesday I disappear into the countryside.

Brazil: Entry One

Apple Chill
Crashed into Brazil last night in a flurry of noise and color. Twenty hours in planes and airports, reading Hunter S. Thompson and settling into an embrace of chaos, listening to Portuguese language tapes and drinking just enough too-much-coffee. Baggage claim a surreal site — dozens of Brazilian youth just back from Disneyland, crowded around the conveyer belt, luggage carts pressed tightly together, Minnie Mouse ears proudly displayed on all the young women. Our bus had not yet arrived, so we played tunes and danced in the airport, sleep deprived and delirious with novelty and travel. Then beers for dinner in the airport and a long bus ride with dozens of French-Canadian teenagers. A song swap on the bus; they singing in unison, we drunkenly playing tunes and belting out “The Worried Man Blues”.
Upon arrival, we stood around in the cold and rainy night outside an enormous sheet metal stadium, awaiting the opening ceremony. More tobacco, more coffee, and then a disorienting blast of noise and color as each nation marched to the stage, flags preceding us, to stand blinking before hundreds of Brazilians while incomprehensible speeches were made by unknown dignitaries. Finally, a late night dinner of noodles and a bus ride back to the hotel, the back of the bus full of Slovaks, the front filled with American cloggers, the aisles and spaces between the seats stuffed with Venezuelan children. Only after eight hours of sleep does any of it begin to make sense. I am in Brazil. The festival has begun.