Monday, November 28, 2005

Drink Cart Land

November 28
It must be a funny thing to grow up in Jericoacoara, Brazil. Six hours removed from the nearest large city, and more than an hour by 4x4 from the nearest ATM, Jeri is tucked along the north coast of Brazil. It’s as far south of the equator as Philadelphia is south of New York.

There aren’t exactly seasons this close to the middle of the earth and even the length of the days stay nearly constant, starting and ending just before six. But in Jeri the year is divided into windy and not-windy, and when the easterly gusts blow across the village’s giant crescent shore, the windsurfers come by the all-terrain busload.

A half-hour down the beach little groups of rickety houses sit empty from June to January, when the wind is strong but the fishing weak. Those villages come to life just for the fish, and Jeri wasn’t much different 20 years ago.

But in that way beautiful places become popular because they aren’t populated, Jeri has become a bold type Lonely Planet recommendation. It’s topped lists of the best places in the world to windsurf. It’s only because its so hard to get here that it hasn’t been ruined.

To be 18 and living in Jeri today, is to have grown up right along with the town, to live in a place where the population is still less than 3000, but it can seem like there are just as many foreigners.

Alex is 18 and has been working five nights a week for two years at the bottom of Rua Principal. He—like a dozen other men—rolls his small cart down to the stretch of sand between two beachfront bars sometime after sundown. (It is a peculiarity of the country that independent entrepreneurs are allowed to sell their goods on the grounds of other people’s establishments.) Pedro’s cart has fifteen bottles of liquor, a cooler with ice, a bucket with sugar, a basket with fruit, a drink shaker and a wooden mallet used for breaking ice and crushing fruit.

The national drink of Brazil is the caipirinha, and I met Alex on my first night in Jeri when I asked him if I could make caipirinhas for our group. Business is always slow for the drink-carts and he happily stepped aside as I replicated the steps I’d seen:

I cut the small limes into several pieces and removed the seeds, I put them in the drink shaker and added two scoops of sugar, I pestled the fruit and sugar with the wooden mallet until they formed a sweet paste. Then I added ice and a large measure of cachaca, the Brazilian sugarcane liquor. I put the top on the drink shaker and—following Alex’s demonstration—vigorously shook the concoction. Since there is no liquid in a caipirinha to dilute the 80 proof cachaca it’s important to do enough shaking to melt some of that ice. Despite providing the labor, I paid the full two Reais ($.90) for each of the drinks. All reviews of my effort were positive.

Alex’s brother Pedro is the liveliest worker in Jeri’s land of the drink carts. Maybe that’s because he’s been at it for just two months. Each night he grabs the wooden box that will sit on his hips for the next many hours, puts it’s strap around the back of his neck, and sets out to sell a couple cases of cigarettes. “Mi frangelo!” he says with a giant smile, “My brother!”

I mentioned to Pedro one night that he was always smiling and laughing. “When I started working my mom said to me, ‘Always smile, it will make the people buy more from you.’” At least that’s what I understood as Pedro spoke his Portuguese slowly and I listened hard.

There are two cigarette sellers in Jeri, the other a 60-something man who smiles and laughs and talks much less than Pedro. You can’t help but look at the two of them and wonder if they’re on different ends of the same life. Cigarettes in Brazil sell for less than US$2 so there isn’t a lot of room for profit.

Pedro goes to school from 1-5pm each day (allowing him to stay up nearly til dawn selling cigarettes each night) and has picked up a few phrases of English (“You smoke, yeah?” “My brother, he is a so gay.” “You from America, your name is a George Bush?”). But it’s unclear what career paths he could aspire to, how he might get out of Jeri, or if he would want to.

There’s a strange rhythm to places like Jeri, a type of erosion far swifter than that suffered by the giant dune of the western edge of town. It’s the erosion of faces each morning, the constant, incremental change of the handful of visitors, set against the static backdrop of the Brazilians who live here. You recognize a group of faces each night, but the group is slightly different than the night before. If you live here I imagine the group looks exactly the same every night of your life.

But the foreigners who all look the same never learn, they always act like its their first night here—because for them it is. And there’s a freshness to their naïveté that maybe lets you share their excitement over the squishing of the limes and the shaking of the shaker. Each night they don’t know that the local girls went home with other foreigners last night, or they don’t care. They don’t know that they’re prostitutes (or at least that the locals who resent them for hooking up with the tourists call them prostitutes) or they don’t care.

“That is a girl who has sex for money,” Pedro whispered in my ear one night. To Pedro of course it doesn’t matter if its true. Certainly, she’s a girl who doesn’t have sex with a cigarette salesman.

“You know those girls are only interested in these old foreign guys for a Green Card,” people like pointing out, especially female travelers who aren’t getting so much attention. No one seems to mention how many western women are interested in western men for what they can provide.

There isn’t much sadness in Jeri, and only an over analytical outsider could find so much to fuss about. There’s no poverty or self-pity and there’s some money to be made from people who come to town with a bunch of money. Small towns in the world’s poorest countries always seem to do pretty well. They take care of each other, maybe. Or maybe its just easier to provide for a small community than a large one. But there isn’t violence or hunger that I could find in ten nights in Jericoacoara anymore than there was in Jomsom, Nepal.

The great lesson for me about these places has been one about happiness. Everyone likes to say they live their life to be happy, which is a nice enough thought. But I’ve come to believe that absent overt, immediate suffering or chemical imbalance everyone gets a fairly equal share of happiness. I found it in the smiles of tsunami widows in Thailand, the songs of subsistence farmers in Nepal, and now the gait of an over-worked tobacco seller in Jeri. We’re all dealt different lots, but if we all end up with just as many happy days as sad ones, then that’s something to be happy about too.

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