26 May 2009

ALEGRIA! ALEGRIA! (Happiness! Happiness!) Part 1

Alegria! Alegria!

Losing contact:
        When I left Brazil in 1969, I wrote to people there for a while, but (at least at that time) Brazilians weren’t great letter writers and many people took months to respond or didn’t respond at all. Or, perhaps our letters were lost in the mail. Eventually my teaching job, graduate school, art work, volunteer work, a new love who turned into my first husband, and my hectic lifestyle all took over and I lost touch completely with the wonderful people I had worked with in Glória.
        After I had internet service at home, 15 years ago or so, I occasionally searched for the town of Glória, with no luck. I knew it might take a while for information technology to catch up in the sertão.
        About 5 years ago, I finally found a web site called Sou de Glória (I’m from Glória). There were many virtual postcards on the site, including one showing the cell tower that served the town. I knew then, that Glória was no longer the underdeveloped town in the middle of the hinterland. Other photos showed a town so much larger than it was in 1969. The only thing I recognized was the church. I posted a notice on that web site stating that I would like to contact old friends from Glória, but all I received were spam messages from Brazilian businesses.
        In late 2008, I found a notice about a poet and professor from Glória, Jorge Henrique, who was going to present his epic poem on the anniversary of the founding of Glória. It included an email address. I sent him a message asking if he knew some of the people I wished to contact, and if so, requested he give them my email address.
        Although I heard back from him and saw that he was following my blog, I didn’t hear from anyone else.

Last week, everything changed:
        On May 17th, Jorge Henrique ----obrigada, obrigada (thank you, thank you) ---wrote a short article about my blog and posted it on the official web site of N.S. da Glória and also on the web site of the colégio there.

Dona Guiomar and her family.
I heard from Celia, top left and
Alcione, in front. (See disclaimer
at bottom about poor photo quality.)

        Within a few days, I heard from Alcione the youngest daughter of Dona Guiomar ---a great and progressive woman who was the elementary school director when I left Glória in 1969. Alcione, was six when I left Brazil. She sent me news of her mother, older sisters and brother. Also Alcione planned to be in Glória on the weekend of May 22nd and intended to see who she could find that I knew back when. A few days later I heard from her eldest sister Celia who was about 13 when I left Brazil. She told me her father had died c. 1974. Her mother is now 81 and is doing well.

Idalécinho (middle) at about age 16
with his parents, sisters, brothers,
and cat.

        Also, I received an email from Idalécio, who I knew as Idalécinho, one of my former students. After I replied to him, he kindly wrote back with more news of residents of Glória.
       I actually cried reading his email. First, sadly, some of the people I knew had died, including his parents, a friend who had worked at the bank and taught at the ginásio, and Dona Nininha who had treated Brunie and me like daughters. A few days later, I heard from Nadja, one of Dona Nininha's daughters.

        I also cried from joy to hear wonderful news of my former students.
(©2009, C.J. Peiffer)

Read the rest of this story in

Please excuse my very bad photography.
The photo of Dona Guiomar and Idalecinho
and their families are so bad that I was almost
embarrassed to show them. Below you can see the
photos as I scanned them from 40-year-old slides.
In comparison, the ones I enhanced above aren't so awful.

(Original slides.
Left Dona Guiomar & family.
Right: Idalecinho and family.)


Overland, a former student,
is now a meteorologist in Sergipe.

Alegria! Alegria!

Making contact:
        In my post Alegria! Alegria! Part 1, I explained that I had been trying to contact my former students from my work as a teacher in the Peace Corp in Brazil. After many years of trying, I finally was contacted by several people I knew when I lived there.

        Sadly I learned a few people had died. 
        But I was so thrilled to learn of the lives of my former students that I actually cried with joy when I read about their successes.

        When I left Glória, 40 years ago, I was proud to be a part of the first ginásio  (high school) in the town. It had been established only a few years earlier. When I arrived, no one had graduated yet, but would soon. As proud as I was to be teaching these wonderful students ---I am a firm believer that education can open doors for everyone ---I admit I worried that there would be no opportunities for high school graduates in Glória.
        The town had no industry. Except for local farms and small businesses that served the town (bars, bakeries, a fabric shop, cabinet makers, etc.) there were several government agencies. DNOCS was a federal agency fighting droughts. ANCARSE provided a home economist and an agronomist to help farmers and homemakers and to teach students practical skills at one-room schools in the interior. Also there was a Brazilian Legion of Assistance that was in Glória to create chicken cooperatives. Most of the people working in these agencies were not from Glória. They had come from the capital city Aracajú and most would move back there or to another larger city if the opportunity arose.
        There was also a branch of the Bank of Brazil which had an all-male work force. Most of the bankers were also from other cities, with only two local employees with low-level jobs. And most of the men had submitted requests to move to larger cities when there were openings for them.
        Opportunities for women were almost non-existant, except for teaching. But there wasn’t a need for more than a few teachers, and most teaching jobs were part-time.
        Those who wanted to continue their educations would have to live in Aracajú or another larger city to attend a colégio, which was somewhat like the last two years of high school in the U.S. That meant staying with relatives or paying room and board in addition to tuition. Some students’ families already struggled to pay for tuition, uniforms, books and other supplies for the ginásio. The good thing was that if students completed courses at a colégio, university tuition would be free.
        I feared it would take decades for any progress in the town to permit the graduates to branch into new fields or to build better lives for themselves, their families, and their community.

        I am so happy that I was wrong.

        My former student Idalécio told me he is a chemical engineer and a professor. Other former students are a meteorologist, a bank manager, a federal police officer, a lawyer, a doctor, a secretary of agriculture, and a social worker. Several are teachers.
Idalécio at about age 16 in a detail of a larger photo (see below ) is now an chemical engineer and a professor.

        Wow! I feel like a proud parent who wants to brag about her children. But, of course, 40 years have passed and none of my former students are children. In fact, some are older than I am. I had just turned 22 when I arrived and not quite 24 when I left Glória. Some adults who had never before had the opportunity to attend high school, were my students. The oldest was 44. The youngest was 12 and would be 52 now.
        I am so proud that I played even the tiniest part in their educations. Apparently, at least for some, the doors of opportunity were opened. I’m sure it took much hard work and sacrifice for many of them to continue learning and to achieve success in their chosen fields, but they did.
        Knowing this, is the best gift I have received in many years.


When I wanted to take a final photo of Glória
before leaving in 1969, Idalecinho posed on a
bench in the praça in front of the church.
(©2009, C.J. Peiffer)

17 May 2009


more material goods. Brazilian women began to realize that with fewer children, everyone in the family could have a better life.)

        Below is another photo taken in front of our house. I am leaning against the utility pole with letters just delivered by the postman.  A group of neighbors seemed to have gathered to see what was going on.  I think the boy in the hat was our landlord's younger brother and the landlord's wife is leaning against the door frame just left of the utility pole. Between the postman and me is Nadja, a neighbor girl and student at the ginásio.

        And finally, there I am on the back of a donkey. My riding a donkey is about as ridiculous as Michael Dukakis riding a tank, but I don't think I actually rode it, I just posed with it. 
        Occasionally Brunie and I did ride horses or mules. A large family from the interior (mentioned above) would invite us to lunch (the large meal of the day) on a Sunday.  They sent two of their smaller boys on two horses or mules and we would ride back with them sitting behind us. Then we'd ride home with the boys again, and thn they'd fo home on the horses.
        I think this was taken outside of town at the dam which had been built by DNOCS, the National Department of Works Against Droughts.
        In this photo, Linda, a Volunteer from Brunie's group is on the left. She lived in another town in Sergipe (Propría, I think) and was visiting us for a few days. (Linda is featured in a previous post.)
       Gugu, the boy who delivered water to our house is beside her with his shirt open. An unknown person is hidden behind me. In the water is Overland, one of my students.
        Overland (pronounced Oh-ver-láwn-dee) was named for a truck his father saw in an American movie. He was the oldest child. The next child was a girl, so they named her Maryland and then didn't have a name ending in "land" for the next child, so called him Joséland. Their father was known as Zé de Shell (Zé is short for José) because he had, at one time, worked for Shell Oil. He ran the town's generator which gave the town electricity from 6-10 pm before full-time electricity came to Glória.
        On at least one occasion, Overland loaned me his horse.
        In the morning, Overland often rode the horse to his family's farm several miles outside of town to get milk. He would stop at our house for Brunie to make hot chocolate to share with him.

for the photos and the memories
(text, ©2009, C.J. Peiffer)

08 May 2009

TETHER THE SUN - a trip to Machu Picchu

        Although this isn't strictly a story about my Peace Corps experiences, it belongs on this blog because I traveled to Peru on my way home from Brazil along with Don and Sharyn, Volunteers from my Peace Corps training group. At the Lima airport, waiting for our plane to Cuzco, we ran into friends of Don's from college who were serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia. In Pisac, we also encountered Van, another Volunteer from our own group, along with his cousin who had flown to South America to travel with him. During much of our trip, Peace Corps was definitely on our minds as we had just completed two years in Brazil.

*          *          *          *          *
Sharyn trying a flute at the market in Pisac.
        If I had to recommend one place to visit in South America, it would be Machu Picchu in Peru.
        In July 1969, after exploring the museums in Lima, Don, Sharyn, and I took the one-hour flight to Cuzco (also spelled Cusco) where we spent several days acclimating ourselves to altitudes exceeding two miles. We hired a guide with an automobile to take us to spectacular Inca sights near Cuzco and spent one day shopping in nearby Pisac before moving on to the acclaimed ruins at Machu Picchu.
        Experts have never determined exactly when Machu Picchu was built or why it had been abandoned or why the city was founded in such an inaccessible location with little arable land.
        There are no paved access roads to Machu Picchu and the river at the base of the mountain is too shallow for navigation.  Experienced backpackers may chose strenuous hikes along ancient Inca footpaths, but most tourists opt for traveling by train. Trips of three to four hours leave daily from Cuzco. Local trains are reportedly dangerous for foreigners who may be robbed. Yet tourist trains deprive one of experiencing the local culture. Don, Sharyn, and I took the tourist train because we were unaware of the other.

Left: This train carries locals along the Urubamba River valley (not the tourist train.)

Right: Don (left) and Sharyn (middle) and I traveled together in Peru after completing our two-years as Peace Corps Volunteers in Brazil. At the market in Pisac, we ran into Van (middle back) who was also in our Peace Corps group, along with his cousin (right) who joined him to travel through South America.

        A few miles from Cuzco found us on zigzagging tracks designed to navigate steep hillsides. We traveled on one grade forward, then moved backward up the next, traversing five switchbacks out of the Cuzco Valley before descending toward Machu Picchu, lower in elevation than Cuzco by 3,000 feet. We were soon traveling beside the sacred Urubamba River in awe of the steep slopes on both sides which had been cultivated on stepped terraces built hundreds of years ago.
        Machu Picchu is referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas.” Arriving at the foot of the mountain we understood why it had long eluded explorers. Two thousand feet above us, the ruins were invisible. When Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered them in 1911, the magnitude of his find escaped him at first. The ruins nestled on a saddle between Machu Picchu (Quechua for “old peak”) and the higher Huayna Picchu (“young peak”), had been so overgrown with jungle vegetation, that even from the summit only a few huts were visible. The following year Bingham returned. Without a road, workers transporting provisions found access to the site nearly impossible. (FYI: Indiana Jones was loosely based on Hiram Bingham.  Find more info HERE.)
        Although tourists used to be carried up the mountainside on mules, we boarded vans to make the steep ascent. Our driver whipped around hairpin curves making each forbidding turn a frightening memory until we encountered the Turista Hotel below the ancient ruins. The cool ancient air from the summit was so clear we could see far-distant, well-defined Andean peaks. The July day (winter south of the equator) was sunny, but crisp. I wore a turtle-neck under a sweater, feeling chilled in the shade and slightly too warm in the sun.
        We passed up an opportunity to join an expedition set to hike extremely steep steps to the Huayna peak. The climb takes about an hour and is supposed to provide a spectacular view.
        We ventured into the archaic ruins. The stone structures were generally intact much as they had been hundreds of years ago, except for their straw roofs which had rotted with time. 
        For hours, we wandered among the ruins, in and out of huts and between them on narrow paths, up and down hundreds of stone stairways. We examined what Bingham had called “the most beautiful wall in America” in the Temple of the Sun. We were astounded by aqueducts carved into the rocks which created a crude form of plumbing as well as an irrigation system.

        Everywhere we found perfect photo opportunities. A trapezoidal opening framed a mountain crest in the distance. A cylindrical observatory was silhouetted against the cerulean-blue sky. A llama posed proudly in the brilliant sun. Precise gray stonework contrasted with the acid-green grass between huts. A Peruvian child in a scarlet cap peaked through a trapezoid-shaped hole. Lush blue-green foliage on nearby mountains created a perfect backdrop. My snapshots of the ruins are some of the best photographs I have ever taken.
        There were more than one hundred tourists roaming in and out of the roofless stone temples and shrines, across plazas and open courtyards, climbing terraces, admiring steps carved into the natural rocks. Yet a silence prevailed, with visitors talking in hushed tones, or not speaking at all, as if in a cathedral. The effect was breathtaking, peaceful, arcane ---almost magical.
        Most visitors returned to Cuzco the same day, but we decided to spend the night. Before sunset, we climbed vertical steps to examine Inti Huantana, a carved stone standing sentinel on a high altar-like plateau, resembling a sundial casting a long, abstract shadow on the late afternoon. Scholars believe it was used by Inca priests as a mystical hitching post to tether the sun. An old man in traditional garb played his handmade flute below us. With those eerie tones as a backdrop, I could almost imagine a priest, arms raised upward, chanting an Inca invocation.
        Before retiring to our rooms at the Turista Hotel, we requested a predawn wake-up call so that we could experience the sun rising over the Andes Mountains.
        The morning air was cold and tentative, with clouds hovering in the early stillness. After climbing the trail behind the hotel, we sat on the summit to obtain a bird’s-eye-view of the ruins. The sun inched its way over the tops of distant peaks, slowly turning the stony grayness to yellow-gold while dissolving the mist. Watching the morning awake, I sat transfixed, gradually warmed by the sun, sensing a peaceful connection with the ancient past and engraving the haunting images of Machu Picchu on my mind.

Machu Picchu at dawn.
        After additional explorations of two square miles of ruins, we braved the hairpin curves downward. Despite our reckless driver, we arrived safely at the train for our return trip to Cuzco.
        Perhaps the Inca gods were with us.

(text and photos: © 2009 C.J. Peiffer)