31 December 2008


In response to a writing prompt on Mama's Losin' It
“Describe a New Year's where you would have been better off just staying home."

I’m not sure if I should have stayed home that New Year’s Eve, but I surely could have used a bit of moderation and a whole lot of common sense.

Right after college, I joined the Peace Corps. I lived in a very small town in the midst of the Brazilian hinterland. Although the townspeople were having their own New Year’s Eve parties, I opted to take a three hour bus ride to the state capital for a hot shower, some night life, and to pick up my living allowance check. That New Year’s Eve, I was welcoming the year 1968.

The Peace Corps Volunteers who were stationed in the capital knew the best restaurants and night spots and were often invited by Brazilians to private social clubs.

Left to right: PC Volunteer Terry, Brazilian friend Marcus, PC Volunteer Bonnie(?), Brazilian electrical worker Eudes (?), another PC Volunteer David (?). Question marks indicate I am not positive the names are correct.*

One restaurant we particularly liked, Yara, was located in the park near the cathedral. A walkway passed under the second floor of the building where the night life transpired, but at lunchtime we sat at outdoor tables under umbrellas and palm trees and ate the closest thing we could find to American food ---ham and cheese sandwiches, fresh-squeezed orange juice or Coca Cola ---and topped off the meal with coconut ice cream.
I loved Brazilian food, but the locals ate almost the same thing every day. Breakfast was bread, fruit and coffee. It was a cattle region, so lunch ---black beans and rice ---was almost always served with beef, but sometimes with pork, chicken, or fish. Dinner was soup and bread. It was nice to eat something different when I visited the big city.
Terry, one of the Volunteers who lived in the capital, had a crush on me. A Brazilian guy named Marcus, who was trying to perfect his English ---he already spoke it quite well ---seemed to follow Terry wherever he went, like a shadow. On New Year’s Eve, the three of us visited the night club above our favorite eating place and later attended parties at a few other clubs.
South of the equator, we were experiencing summer in January ---and we were only ten degrees from the equator ---so it was quite hot. We danced to samba and bossa nova music and perspired buckets, so of course we had to replenish our fluids.
Although my parents didn’t drink at all, this was soon after I graduated from college, so one could say I had been “in training” for a few years. We started the evening imbibing Brahma Chopp ---Brazilian beer that came in liter bottles, slightly smaller than a quart. I drank three bottles of cerveja over several hours. Close to midnight, we started on champagne.
As the night wore on and the crowds grew, my mini dress was soon soaked from my arm pits to the hem. Finally we opted to leave the club at about 2:00 in the morning.
We decided the best place to cool off would be at the beach ---several miles outside of town. Luckily Terry had borrowed the only Peace Corps vehicle in the state, a jeep.
I look back now and think how senseless I was ---alone with two men, at the deserted beach, without benefit of bathing suits. We went skinny dipping, of course. Hey, we just wanted to cool off.
I may have been stupid, but I was also lucky. The guys didn’t take advantage of the situation ---or of me. Terry and Marcus turned their backs until I disrobed and entered the ocean up to my neck. They did the same when I exited the water.
In the cool water, the rhythmic waves, a refreshing breeze, I should have sobered up. However, my mouth and tongue seemed numb, as if I’d had a shot of Novocain.
Eventually, Terry and Marcus dropped me off at my pensão. I don’t remember being falling-down drunk, but then I don’t remember much between the beach and my room, except that I wanted to sleep for a week.
In bed, when I shut my eyes, the room spun and I felt like I was going to throw up. With eyes open, I sat on the edge of the bed until I felt better. But when I reclined and closed my eyes again, my stomach was on a roller coaster. I remained dizzy and sick to my stomach for at least an hour.
Finally, I put my suitcase between my back and the wall with the stingy pillow under my neck. Propped up, I sat with my eyes open as the dawn lightened the tiny room, until I simply passed out.

Surprisingly, I didn’t wake with the mother of all hangovers that afternoon, but I was famished and very thirsty. After walking to a restaurant for churrasco (charbroiled steak) with beans, rice, two bottles of water, and strong Brazilian coffee, I felt fine.

        However, for the next six months, I couldn’t stand the thought of alcohol. When I was finally able to partake again, I never felt like drinking more than a small glass of beer.

        Forty years later, I’d still rather knock back a tumbler of ice water than nurse a flute of expensive champagne.

A year later, 1/1/69, on New Year's Day, Marcus and I on a boat off the coast for the annual New Year's procession, the blessing of the waters.*

(story and starred* photos ©2008, C.J. Peiffer)

13 December 2008


In response to a writing prompt "worst dentist experience ever" posted on 12/10/08 on Mama's Losin it blog:

        The Peace Corps dentist in Salvador (a large, modern Brazilian city) informed me I had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. He gave me the name of a local dental surgeon.
        I had nightmarish visions of a dentist, who wasn’t really a dentist ---just like the one at my Peace Corps site in Glória ---pulling my teeth with pliers, without benefit of an anesthetic. I have no idea what his real name was, but in Glória, everyone called him Zé Dentista.

Salvador, Bahia (c. 1968) ----my favorite Brazilian city.
The structure in the distant right is a municipal elevator that carries passengers
between the upper and lower cities.

        I arrived at the real dentist’s office, which seemed much like the ones I visited at home. The female dentist asked me where I was from. “The United States,” I replied.
        “Where in the United States?”
        “What city?”
        “Ah! I earned my dental degree from the University of Pittsburgh,” she told me in perfect English, gesturing toward her diploma on the wall.
        I was happy that she had earned a dental degree from anywhere. I was also thrilled to see that the batch of tools on her tray didn't include a pair of pliers.
        Next, I visited the anesthesiologist. He had studied at Duke University. At least I wasn’t dealing with quacks.
        On the day of the extraction, I traveled to the dentist’s office by bus. I had never had a tooth pulled before, nor did I ever have a general anesthetic, so I didn’t know what to expect. Within seconds of sitting in the reclining dental chair, I was out cold. I woke to discover that, in order to open my mouth wider, the dentist had snipped and later stitched, the little section of gum above my top front teeth. Otherwise the extractions had gone well.
        It was only then that the trouble began.

        The dentist asked who was going to take me home. Still dopey, it took a few seconds for me to answer that I planned on returning alone, by bus.
        “You can’t take a bus. You need to call someone.”
        Who could I call? The other Volunteers didn’t have cars. Even if they did, none had phones. The regional Peace Corps director was on vacation. The assistant director was driving the only Peace Corps vehicle, a jeep, to visit Volunteers in the interior that day. His wife, who was traveling with him, had given me a key to their apartment.
        “I can take a cab.”
        “Where are you staying?”
        “With my boss and his wife. At their apartment.”
        “On what floor is it?”
        “The fourth.”
        “Is there an elevator?”
        I paused, thinking, then answered with a sheepish, “No.”
        While the dentist was in deep discussion with her assistant, I dozed off. When she woke me, she had arranged for her assistant, a diminutive man, to accompany me to the apartment.
        The two of them pulled me from the dentist's chair. The assistant put his arm around my waist, grabbed my purse into which the dentist had dropped a bottle of pain killers, and escorted me toward the exit. I exceeded his height by six inches and probably outweighed him by twenty-five pounds. Rather than hold me up, he had to hold me back so I wouldn’t topple down the stairs.
        On the sidewalk, we must have been a sight, the tiny dark Brazilian with a tall fair foreigner. Everyone surely thought the poor man was escorting his inebriated floozy home. He leaned me against a utility pole, steadying me with one hand on my shoulder while he tried to flag a taxi. Many cabs passed us, but finally one stopped. 

        My next problem was that I didn’t know the address of the apartment. Finally, we figured out, by the bus I would have taken, what direction to travel. Once we found the bus stop where I would have exited, I directed the driver to the apartment building. I insisted on paying the cabbie, but I couldn’t locate my money in my purse. The assistant paid the driver with bills from his own pocket.

A municipal garden in Salvador (c. 1968)

        Imagine helping a drunk up three flights of stairs. We took a few steps, then I leaned on the bannister for a few minutes before we climbed a few more. I slumped on each landing and had to be coaxed to my feet to continue the ascent. It was hot and we both dripped with perspiration in the airless stairwell.
        Leaning against the apartment's door frame, I dug into my purse for the key. I found money to reimburse the unfortunate man for the taxi fare. He looked like he had just run a marathon. I more than doubled the amount so he could take a cab back to the office. I slipped into the apartment, sinking to a chair immediately inside the door. 
        In Brazil in 1968, it was unacceptable for an unmarried woman to be alone with a man without a chaperone, so as soon as he had me safely seated, the assistant quickly closed the door. When I heard him scurrying down the stairs, my exhaustion swept over me and I burst into tears.
        A few hours later, my hosts arrived home to find me asleep in the guest room. By that time, my face had swollen; each cheek looked like I was storing a guava in it. Then I remembered the dentist had suggested ice packs, but I had forgotten.
        After three days, I could actually laugh about the incident, but when I laughed, the stitches above my top teeth felt like they were pulling the insides of my nose through my gums. I still couldn’t stand looking at my enormous face in the mirror.
        A week later, when I returned to Glória, a nosey neighbor asked me how much it cost to have my teeth pulled. The Peace Corps had paid, so I didn’t know. I would have guessed several hundred dollars, but not wanting her to think I was a rich American, I told her the procedure cost only ten dollars per tooth, still a large sum in Glória.
        “Oh, my God of Heaven,” she exclaimed. “What is wrong with you, girl? Zé Dentista would have given you a shot of whiskey and pulled out all four of your wisdom teeth for a dollar.”
        At least I hadn’t abandoned all of my wisdom in the dental chair in Salvador. 

(Story and photos: ©2008 C.J. Peiffer)

Several days after my tooth extractions I look mean
enough to bite steel ---well, if I had my teeth
back maybe I could have. (1968)

I just realized that this was a "selfie" way before selfies.
I used my reflection in the lens to take this on the balcony of
the apartment where I was staying.

        In this post, I mentioned that Salvador was my favorite Brazilian city.  But the last time I had seen it was in 1969. 
        In 2011 I traveled to Brazil for the first time since then.  I had served in the state of Sergipe.  Aracajú, the capital city there, has grown and developed over the intervening 42 years. It is filled with modern buildings, beautiful parks and beaches.  It is kept clean and beautiful. I had expected the same in Salvador, but was disappointed. 
        Once we hit the outskirts of Salvador, our bus sat in traffic for nearly an hour.  We had to put our names on a waiting list for a taxi at the bus station. On the way to our hotel, we realized that the city had changed. There was litter and graffiti everywhere.  Homeless people and stray dogs filled the streets. The gorgeous colonial churches and other buildings had been allowed to deteriorate. On some, trees and other plants grew from steeples, paint peeled, walls crumbled, My friend Bob who was in the Peace Corps with me and who still lives in Salvador told me there are funds specifically set aside to restore and maintain those old buildings, but it disappears into the pockets of corrupt politicians.  
        What a shame.
        But, even so, Salvador has its charms.  It is a diverse city. It has a combination of colonial and modern architecture.  There is much African influence which one can feel as well as see.  It's almost as if women walking in the streets are swaying their hips to a samba or to an African rhythm. People are friendly and helpful. There is much to do and see there. The city has character.
        Now, I would say Aracajú is my favorite city.  Rio is more beautiful (for its natural beauty) and Salvador is more interesting, and Iguaçu is a pleasant town with a mild climate, but nothing is better than the wonderful people of Sergipe ---and their beautiful city makes the area even more appealing.

12 December 2008


From Innocents Abroad, 1869

        “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Although we usually think of Mark Twain as a novelist, during his lifetime Twain was known mostly as a travel writer for his many books on travel, including: Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator.

10 December 2008


My first sighting of the Brazilian town of Glória, 
barely visible on the horizon.
Note: Although the following is true, some names have been changed. (I couldn't remember the names of all the Brazilians in the story.)
      At the festa, I studied my neighbors swaying to the rhythm of the Brazilian beat. I heard the music, but I didn’t internalize the samba the way the Brazilians did as they moved fervently around the dance floor.
      I had been in Brazil only a few weeks. My Portuguese was still flawed and I could understand only those who slowed their speech to half-speed. I already understood that while Brazilians led unhurried lives, they were also an impulsive and passionate people. From stoic German and Swedish stock, I hadn’t yet learned how to let loose in a culture famous for Carnaval, its annual national pressure valve.
Brunie (in light blue shirt) and I (in straw hat)
purchase fruit and vegetables at Glória's weekly market.
      Brunie, on the other hand, with her Hispanic background, dark hair and eyes, nearly perfect Portuguese, outgoing personality, and more than a year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fit in perfectly. So that I could be successful in my assigned Peace Corps work, Brunie had been tutoring me in how to survive the harsh conditions of Brazil’s northeast.

     The town of Glória had no running water, no phone service, and not one television. Electricity was generated four hours each night. Glória compensated for its inconveniences with the warmth of her citizens and the unpredictable experiences each new day delivered, be they exotic, tragic or humorous.

Not a great photo of Linda,
but the only one I have.     

      That weekend, Brunie and I were visited by Linda. Although stationed in another interior town, she and Brunie had been in the same Peace Corps training group. Linda was short, had reddish-brown hair, and freckles.
      On Saturday evening, clad in our best dresses, we set out to partake of Glória’s night life. The town sported two social clubs run by local political parties. While Brazilians from one political group would not attend a festa sponsored by another, to avoid any semblance of favoritism, we needed to attend events at both clubs.
      Festas were held in long, narrow pastel buildings lined with small tables in front of a dance floor. Soft drinks, alcohol, boiled peanuts, and hard-cooked eggs were served. Many months later, I would introduce potato chips to Glória. 
      Combos dominated by guitars and accordions played numbers lasting until the musicians tired of the musical selection. Thus, if a woman accepted an invitation to dance, she could be stuck with a partner for as long as half an hour.
     Male partygoers swaggered in baggy pants and loose, straight-bottomed shirts. The men shook hands hardily, ogled the women, smoked, drank beer and cachaça, a strong rum made from sugar cane.
      Single girls in semiformal dresses, glamorous make-up, and immaculate hairdos, exchanged hugs and cheek-to-cheek kisses. They whispered about single men behind blood-red fingernails. The few married women in attendance wore less flashy attire. Brunie, Linda and I were over twenty-one and unmarried. In Glória, that made us spinsters.
      I had already met many of the citizens I most needed to know in Glória: vendors, bankers, town officials, postal workers, priests, teachers and students. At the festa, everyone I met for the first time said, "Much pleasure in knowing you," followed by a lengthy, mumbled name such as José Carlos Fernando Oliveira da Silva Vilas Boas. I forgot each name almost as soon as it was uttered, for it seemed that everyone in town wanted to meet the new americana. That both thrilled and embarrassed me.
      Brunie and Linda danced while I excused myself from a married man who had been clutching me to his chest. I retreated to our table where José Paulo, Veralucia, and Bruno, soon to be my English students, asked the usual questions. Was I liking it here? Was Linda my sister? Why did I leave home? How much money did my father earn? I pretended I didn’t understand questions I didn’t want to answer.
      José Augusto invited me to dance. A shy dark man in his mid-twenties, he politely kept his distance as he expertly maneuvered me around the floor. He explained that he had enrolled in the high school as soon as it had been established three years earlier. He was proud to be a member of the first class which would graduate the following year. He supported himself through his work as a tailor.
      Later, I joined my neighbor and her family, crowded around a small table. Seu Francisco worked a farm while Dona Maria minded their grocery store. Six of their nine children had survived infancy.
      When the younger children fussed, the family went home, leaving their handsome, fourteen-year-old nephew at the table. Eduardo was visiting from a small town close to the state capital, 126 kilometers from Glória. Unlike most Brazilian men, he was tall and fair.
      “Are you liking it here?”
      In my fractured Portuguese, I answered, “Yes, Eduardo. I like very much.”
      "Are you Brunie’s sister?"
      "Não. She a friend. We work together. We are voluntários da paz."
      "Then she is your colega."
      "Sim. She is colleague."
      "Who is the woman dancing with Gilberto? Aunt Maria says she is an americana too? Is she your sister?"
      "Não. I meet her here.”
      "Do you think she would dance with me?"
      I shrugged. "You must ask her.”
      Eduardo moseyed onto the dance floor. When a new tune began, the boy clutched Linda close to him, timing his steps to the bossa nova.
      More high school students visited my table to practice their English. They informed me many men didn’t ask me to dance because they thought I was in mourning. My black dress, so elegant at home, sent the Brazilian message that a family member had recently died. When Linda and Eduardo joined me, the students ran off to flirt and dance.
      Eduardo asked a lot of questions about the United States. Suddenly, he leaned across the table, seizing Linda’s hand. He asked, "Will you be my namorada?"
      Only the boy’s solemn expression kept me from laughing.
      Linda winced. "Oh, uh, but... I can’t be your girlfriend. I am much too old for you. Besides, you don't even know me."        
      "But I love all Americans.” Gesturing toward the dance floor, he said, “I like very much Dona Brunie." Nodding toward me, he continued, "And now that I have met her, I like Dona Carolina.”      
        He grabbed Linda’s other hand and looked into her startled blue eyes, adding, “And, oh, I like you so very much, Dona.... uh, Dona.... What's your name?"

(Story and photos: ©2008, C.J. Peiffer)

I recently visited a web site for the town of Glória. To see how the town had changed, I viewed the virtual postcards on the site. The first one to pop up was a photo of the town's cell tower. Despite its underdevelopment in the late 1960's, Glória has now entered the 21st Century.

23 March 2008


Glória's Independence Day parade (September 7th)
marches around the town square a few weeks after
I arrived (1967). In the pile near the center of the
photo are the concrete poles which will be used for
the full-time electricity set to be completed in
about 16 months.

        Most Americans, used to being connected to the rest of the world twenty-four hours each day via wireless phone, television, and computer, may find it inconceivable for anyone to give up the most basic of creature comforts. Yet there are thousands of Americans willing to sacrifice such conveniences for an experience of a lifetime. Currently, over 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers work in 78 countries to teach children, protect the environment, start new businesses, and provide health services.
        I had no time to lament about living without television or phone service during my Peace Corps experience. Life became so exciting, I eventually stopped griping about the varmints in my home: mice, roaches, bats, scorpions, and snakes.
        Well, I admit to never getting used to the snakes.
        Living in a rural town in Northeast Brazil kept me fully occupied. Yet, I enjoyed traveling, learning to speak Portuguese, and experiencing an exotic culture. With the lack of conveniences, it seemed like a two-year camping trip.
        But there were difficult moments when I asked myself why I had ever joined the Peace Corps. I realize now that, in my youthful naiveté, I wanted to change the world. Instead, it was I who changed.
        Mystery writer and former Peace Corps Volunteer Kinky Friedman wrote that he had never seen the United States so clearly as when he stood by a lake in Borneo. I experienced a similar sensation in Brazil. Seeing the United States from a global point of view uncovered flaws I hadn't recognized at home. At the same time, my own country and its opportunities were seen and appreciated in a new light.
        In Brazil, I taught high school and worked on community development projects in Nossa Senhora da Glória, a village in the state of Sergipe. Everyone called the town Glória, which means "Heaven" in Portuguese. How a place with no running water, no sewage system, and electricity only four hours each night could be called "Heaven," may seem inconceivable. Nevertheless, I grew to love the town. It changed my vision of the world and, more importantly, how I perceived myself.
        Brazilians freely shared their lives, their sorrows, and their joys. Those with barely enough to feed their families showed me their appreciation with gifts of homegrown eggs and vegetables. They corrected my Portuguese, forgave my mistakes, and treated me like a daughter. While inspiring me to unrestrained celebration during Carnaval, they helped me survive the poorest of conditions with a smile, a hug, and the faith that tomorrow would be better.
        The ads say that the Peace Corps is the "toughest job you'll ever love." Despite my successes in the intervening years as a teacher, an artist, and a writer, I still consider my Peace Corps service as the best thing I ever did. It wasn't easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.

Glória, a few days before I left for home (1969).
One of my students wanted to be in the photo
---he is sitting on the left. Slightly less than
2 years had passed between the photo at the top
and this one.

(Story and photos: ©2008 C. J. Peiffer)

A photo by Lohan Lima (taken in 2007) of the same Praça da Bandeira as that pictured in my 2 photographs, can be viewed at panoramio.com by clinking HERE.