Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Unexpected Visit

It was spring of 1982 in Sao Paulo City. In two weeks I was going on vacation. I was very excited with the prospect of traveling to my birthplace, I town called Itororo in the northern state of Bahia. I had not been up there for about ten years and I really missed my cousins. Since I left Itororo with my family at the age of eight, I had only been back three times. I was so excited, I could not stop thinking about the upcoming trip. I had everything already planned out. I intended to travel by bus on the 18th of October and would celebrate my birthday there with my relatives. I was going to be twenty three on October 22nd and I anticipated that it was going to be very exciting, but as it turns out, life has its surprises and I do not always get things exactly the way I plan. The road which led me to my destination was longer than anticipated and filled with elements of surprise. Periodically my mind has drifted away and brought back the memories of that experience, but despite of all of the shortcomings, I ended up having a great vacation that year.

I worked at a clothing manufacturing company called Glu’s at the time, located in Sao Paulo for three and a half years. I held the position of office aide and the company was relatively small with no more than thirty staff members onsite and half a dozen field representatives. I really enjoyed the time I spent working there. I had a good relationship with my co-workers and the customers as well, but among all of the people that I worked with, Tony was the person I had the best connection with. We played soccer together and at times he would invite me to go to his house for dinner. I would say we became friends. Tony held the position of sales representative and spent most of his time visiting clients. He used to show up at the company once a day for limited time. He was very concerned with the work ethics and treated his clients and friends very fairly and with respect. He was in his mid thirties, had a great sense of humor and an impressive ability to persuade people to see things his way. I really liked his style. One Friday we both went for lunch and I discussed him about my vacation plans. To my surprise he was also scheduled to take a vacation the same week as me. Not only that but he was also going to the same region. He was headed for Pernambuco, a state located further north from where I was going.

He mentioned briefly that he did not see his mother for many years and he wanted to persuade her to come to Sao Paulo with him. “This is not really a vacation. It is something I’ve got to do.”, he said in a quite serious tone. I could tell how important that it was to him. “How are you getting up there?” he asked.” I responded I was planning to ride the bus mainly because of the dangers we face on the road especially if driving alone. He then mentioned that he was going to drive by himself but he was joining a group of thirteen people who were all traveling together for safety. “There will be a group of five cars, all headed for the same region” he said. “Why don’t you come along and ride with us?” he asked. ”Well, I need to think about it” I said. “There is nothing to think about, just say yes or no.” Tony said in a resolute tone. “I cannot promise I will drive you all the way to your hometown but I can drop you off at a bus station when we arrive in Vitoria da Conquista” he said. Regardless of whether I was going to ride the bus or not, I would have to get off at Conquista station and swap buses anyway. That was not a bad idea after all. Certainly it would be better than riding alone on a bus all the way from Sao Paulo. I then decided to accept the offer to ride with him.

I was filled with anxiety prior to my departure. At 7:30 am on October 19th I was dropped off at Tony’s house where everyone was supposed to meet. I would travel with him until Vitoria da Conquista and then, I would take a bus to Itororo for another hour and a half. We left Sao Paulo at eight in the morning as planned. I did not know most of the people I was traveling with but soon enough, I made friends as everyone agreed to travel in different cars every time we stopped at a service station or rest area. Each individual had a different destination and at some point we all would go our separate ways. We would have to travel more than twelve hundred miles before people started to reach their destination. There were a couple of incidents in which one person had trouble with their car and everybody would stop and help. The incidents involved a flat tire and an over-heated engine.

I was really tired by the time we stopped at a hotel. The time was almost nine pm. We had arrived at a town called Teofilo Otoni in the state of Minas Gerais. By then we had traveled more than six hundred miles. From Teofilo Otoni I had another two hundred and forty seven miles to go to get to Vitoria da Conquista. Tony and I talked about many things as we spent all that time traveling together. He expressed that he was very thankful that I decided to go with him and keep him company for the long journey. I was also thankful that he was willing to take me along. We talked about family, future endeavors and inevitably we brought up our work.

I asked him about his mother. He told me that going to Petrolina was a long shot in trying to find her. He had not seen her for more than twenty years and the prospect was not great but he had some leads and believed it was worth to try. That sounded like an adventure out of the pages of a book and I listened to him with a lot of interest. How could someone be away from his parents for so long and why after all these years did he decide it was important to find her? As we kept talking , he started opening his life in a way that he may not have been willing to do in any other circumstances. He told me he was the son of a single mother and he never heard from his father. In fact, he had two brothers which he had never met. He was basically in search of his own identity and it was very important for him to find out where he came from. At the age of seven or so, his mother gave him away to a family from Sao Paulo because she didn’t have the means to raise him. During his youth he was angry and could not find room for forgiveness but that changed as he matured. I was thrilled with his story and was very curious to find out how it would unfold.

In a way I sympathized with his situation because our stories had some similarities. I was also born in the northeast and because of some family problems, my parents got separated. At the age of eight I went to Sao Paulo with my mother and siblings. I also had a hard time dealing with the psychological aspects of my parent’s separation. For some time I blamed my father for not trying to work things out and thought he could have prevented all the suffering we went through as a result of that separation. Many years had passed when I finally recognized that going to Sao Paulo was one of the key elements needed for my personal and professional growth.

After driving almost five hours since we left Teofilo Otoni, we were finally approaching Vitoria da Conquista. Soon I would be on a bus headed for my hometown, I thought. However, Tony tried to convince me to go with him all the way to Pernambuco. He was feeling very uneasy about the prospect of not finding his mother and having to come back all by himself. Initially I thought he was joking, but then I realized that he really meant it. “You’ve got to be joking. This is my vacation man, I have the intention of spending it with my relatives”, I said. But he did not seem to give up so easily and used many arguments to convince me to go with him. He guaranteed he would cover all of the costs If I could just spend a couple of days up there with him. Then he would drive me to Itororo after two days. I was not convinced that he would do all this driving and spend just a couple of days up there, especially if he ended up finding his mother. “Worst comes to worst and I get held up there I will put you on a bus to Itororo by tomorrow night, how is that?” he said. There was a battle going on inside me. I did not feel like going the rest of the way with him but faced with such a strong pressure I ended up saying yes almost against my will. However, I did take into consideration whether or not he would meet the conditions he proposed as I did not have extra cash to cover this unforeseen expense.

By the time we stopped for lunch, it was almost two pm. He was so afraid that if we stopped in Conquista for lunch I would bail out and not enter his car to continue the trip. We all stopped at some barbecue place in a town called Feira de Santana. At that point I was more familiar with everybody as we had continuously swapped cars during the trip and had the chance to get to know one another. They were all professionals based in Sao Paulo who traveled like this every year to visit their families in the northern states of Brazil.

At eleven pm I finally arrived in Petrolina, Pernambuco. I was exhausted from the trip. All I cared about was taking a shower and going to bed. First we need to find a hotel to spend the night. The next morning I would go with Tony to help him find his mothers whereabouts. “Excuse me. Do you know any good hotels in this area?” Tony asked a person who was passing by. We ended up checking in to a Hotel called Grande Rio which was considered an above average hotel. I was dead tired. Soon after we checked in, I took a shower and crashed. The next day we were up by eight in the morning. We had breakfast and checked out of the hotel. I was really shocked when I found out how much one night for two people cost. I could not believe Tony spent all that money when all we needed was to take a shower and sleep. But I could not interfere with his decision. He knew what he was doing.

It was about nine thirty by the time we left the hotel. Now the challenge was to locate Dona Maria, Tony’s mother. I could not stop thinking that my vacation was being placed on hold until this was over. Tony was relying on an address that one of his relatives gave him before leaving Sao Paulo. He was confident that the address was the key to finding his mother. It was the address of a lady that lived in Petrolina who had had some kind of connection with Dona Maria for a long time. As soon as I left the hotel with Tony we followed the only lead we had. It took us a while to find the address considering we were not familiar with the place. We finally located it. It was a very simple house located in the suburbs of Petrolina. I parked the car as I was the one doing the driving. Tony got off and walked towards the front entrance while I waited for him. Five minutes later he came back very excited. “That lady thinks she knows where my mom is but she has not heard from her for about six months or so” he said. The house owner, an obese lady in her mid fifties named Silvia, invited us in for a coffee. She was very curious about this unexpected visit from a son who had not seen his mother for so long. She was very cooperative and decided to help us out by volunteering one of her sons to guide us to the place. I found out that the place was about sixty miles away. We were going to head south on a winding dirt road for approximately two hours.

It was October 20th and I was feeling quite uneasy with the prospect of spending my birthday in the middle of nowhere among strangers. Maybe it did not really have anything to do with my birthday. The fact is that I had built a high expectation to be with my relatives. “If it was not for that incident I would have been there by now”, I thought. I tried not to show I was upset about that and just hoped for the best. I just decided to give Tony a break for I realized he genuinely needed my help. Otherwise, he would not have insisted so much for me to come with him. Half an hour later I left Silvia’s house in the company of Tony and Valdo, Silvia’s son. We headed out on a dirt road south of Petrolina.

Valdo, our guide, was 18 years old. He was soft spoken and had a very thin mustache. He seemed to be quite familiar with the area. His father was a truck driver and periodically he would ride with him. We drove for about one hour and I noticed Tony was getting very anxious as we approached the area where his mother supposedly lived. Valdo reported to us about the drought conditions the region had gone through in recent years. I learned that the year of nineteen eighty three happened to be one of the worst droughts in the history of northeast Brazil. Many people and animals died as a result of extensive periods of dry conditions. Tony expressed concern on his face and his silence was a confirmation that he was familiar with the situation. The scenario of poverty and misery was intensified drastically by a combination of factors: environment natural conditions and lack of interest on the part of politicians and the private sector. I was aware of the situation in the region from media sources but the experience of being there to witness all of it was a thrilling experience for me.

I saw the suffering stamped on people’s faces as we passed by open bed trucks loaded with peasants being carried away to hospitals and shelters in nearby towns. I did not have a good feeling about finding Tony’s mother in “good spirits” at that point but I hoped I was wrong. We had been driving through a region called the Polygon of Drought for about two hours. The car was covered with some red dust which was lifted by other vehicles coming in our direction. That left a trail of dust that rushed onto our direction as we kept driving. I could not believe my eyes. The combination of intense heat, dust and very dry vegetation gave me the impression I was driving on a desert. We were on top of a hill when Valdo asked us to stop the car. “I need to go” he said. Everyone got out to stretch their legs and relieve themselves. There was no gas station, rest area or anyplace we could go for that matter. The restroom was wherever place our eyes could reach. Good thing we had plenty of water bottles in the car. “How far do we still have to go?” I asked. “Not far at all, we are five to ten minutes away” Valdo responded. “Do you see that house on that hill on the other side? Asked Valdo. “That is Dona Maria’s.” Tony seemed very excited with the news. Soon after we all got in the car and started going down the hill. Valdo spotted Dona Maria from a distance and pointed her out to us. We could barely see her because it was still quite far away. I estimated about a quarter mile. As we approached, Tony asked Valdo, “Are you sure it is her?” ” I am positive“ he said. Tony rehearsed a little drama and asked Valdo not to reveal to her who he was. “I wonder if she will be able to guess who I am.“ said Tony.

As the car got closer, I was able to have a better visual of the scene. I saw this tiny lady in her late sixties, weary faced and dressed in ragged clothes. She looked visibly uncomfortable with our impending presence. There was a man with her who appeared to be a lot younger than her. She was scooping some water from a pit and dumping it into a drum sitting on a garden cart. The water looked very muddy and I wondered if they used that for drinking and cooking. We got off the car and Valdo greeted the couple. “Good morning Dona Maria, It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” said Valdo. He also looked at the man and nodded. Apparently, Valdo did not appear to know the man by the way he greeted him. “Hello Valdo. We are still here, suffering”. She did not make any eye contact while she spoke. She looked embarrassed and visibly uncomfortable. Then Valdo asked her, Dona Maria do you recognize these men and pointed to us. “No, I do not” she responded point blank. “Are you sure? Take a good look at them.” said Valdo. Then she made an effort to look at us and took a guess. “Are they health inspectors?” She asked. Valdo insisted on intensifying the drama a little further. “Dona Maria, one of these two men is Antonio, your oldest son.” She was in shock. She dropped the dish she was holding and then let out a very nervous laugh. She held her cheeks with both hands in a display of deep surprise. She looked at both of us and initially appeared confused but then she recognized her little boy on the face of Tony as he removed his sunglasses. They both looked silly for a brief moment and appeared not to know what to do next. Then Tony approached her and they hugged intensely. Tony could not contain himself and sobbed silently. I confess that I was emotionally touched by that scene. This was not just an encounter of a mother and a son. It marked the end of twenty three years of separation between them. It was something very special for them and for me a lesson of love.

After a few moments of quick updates I followed them back to Dona Maria’s house by foot. It was a tiny shack on top of the hill made of mud. She shared the modest house with Joao, the man I met when I first arrived. The little hut had only two tiny rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom. There was no furniture besides a wood stove in the kitchen and a poorly handcrafted bed in the other room. I was really shocked to see how they lived. How could they manage to survive in such a precarious place? I thought of the contrast of life style between Dona Maria and Tony. He lived a very comfortable life, drove nice cars, and ate in the best restaurants, while his mother was nearly starved to death. I kept those thoughts to myself and did not dare ask him why he waited so long. At the same time I had great respect for him for taking on such a courageous act to come in search of this missing link of his identity while he still could.

I felt somewhat relieved that Tony was able to locate his mother so quickly but the day was coming to an end and I needed to head back to Petrolina so I could get on a bus to Vitoria da Conquista. I was unsure how I was going to go back. It was apparent that Tony needed time alone with his mother to mend things up. They surely had plenty of things to talk about. My best bet was to ride back in one of those open bed trucks with Valdo. However, I found out that the next transportation would not come until the morning of next day. That meant I was trapped there and my trip back to Vitoria was delayed another day. Tony felt really bad about it and in an apologetic tone tried to fix things up. I realized that not even he knew how this thing was going to turn out. Valdo and I ended up spending the night with some of his relatives at a farm five kilometers away from Dona Maria’s home.

It was nine in the morning of October 21th when I finally took the transportation to Petrolina. It was an indescribable experience to ride on top of that open bed truck along with another thirty or forty people. Every five to ten minutes a cloud of red dust approached us and rushed into our faces and lungs as the cars would periodically come towards us. Sitting on a wooden bench was not fun either. As the truck hit any depression on the road, I was lifted from my seat continuously until my bottom started to get really sore. That was one of the worst commutes I ever had. I was really relieved once we arrived in the city of Petrolina. By the time I arrived back at Valdo’s house, it was about one pm. All I had in mind was to find that bus station and take off but I was covered with dust head to toe and needed to take a shower as well as eat something before I went anywhere. Silvia was kind enough to let me in to take a shower and eat some lunch.

It was eleven pm when I finally took the bus headed to Conquista, Bahia. I was feeling quite tired and slept through the whole trip. I arrived at about seven in the morning and then I bought another ticket to Itororo, my final destination. I arrived at eleven am on October 22nd. I got off the bus, took a few steps and breathed deeply. I felt that I had just landed in paradise. Being back in my hometown was one of the best presents I’ve ever had for my birthday. I spent some exciting moments with my uncles and cousins for the next twenty days while I was in Itororo; however, that is a different story for another occasion.

I met with Tony about a month later in Sao Paulo. He had a hard time convincing his mother to come and live with him and his wife. She only accepted the offer because she needed to seek health treatment but he had to assure her he would take her back as soon as she was recovered from her health condition. I learned from Tony a year later that he granted her wish to be taken back to home (I called it ground zero of misery), as she could not adapt to life in the big city. He kept giving her continuous support to make sure she lived a decent life and visited her whenever he could.

Despite all of the shortcomings, the unplanned visit to the Drought Polygon added value to my life. I got a better understanding of the region and the struggle the local peasants go through during the drought periods. Despite the fact that I was drawn into that adventure literally against my will, I recognize it was a good opportunity and the only one for me to come in close contact with elements I would never be able to otherwise. The dust on my face, the smell of death, intense heat and lifeless landscape were some of the elements which invaded all of my senses and left images imprinted on my brain in such a way that the media and the books could never do.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

About "Sister Flowers", An Essay Written by Maya Angelou

Mrs. Flowers was a very important reference in the life of the narrator Maya Angelou. She was portrayed by Maya as being a person who was kind, respectful, highly educated and a source of inspiration. She was a well to do, elegant and highly sofisticated person who had the ability to touch the lives of people that belonged to her community. I dare say that Mrs. Flowers was one of the main people responsible for allowing Maya to flourish and reach higher ground. Mrs. Flowers had an unimaginable power over Maya and over time became a great influence in her life. She was highly supportive and helped Maya to break the walls which may have prevented her from growing as a human being. Maya lived a decent working, middle class life but was going through a moment of vulnerability when she first met with Mrs. Flowers. It is evident that despite being a good student and having some financial support she was going through very difficult psychological problems. Mrs. Flowers was instrumental in her life and appeared at a time of despair. She taught Maya great lessons, as Maya was totally open for absorbing her teachings. Maya really needed a helping hand and Mrs. Flowers provided the extra push necessary for Maya to grow. A few passages in the text, such as, “I met…,the lady who threw my first life lines” and “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be”, really validate the importance that she had and represented for Maya. These statements translate all the emotions of a person who saw in Mrs. Flowers a living picture of high standards and kindness. I really enjoyed reading this essay. As a reader, I could visualize Maya’s struggle in her teenage years and ultimately reaching maturity and becoming nothing else but a personification of what Mrs. Flowers represented to her.


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