Monthly Archives: September 2014

Black Shoe Polish and Our Children

The Black Shoe Polish and our Children

Were our children trying to become Brazilians when we found our son Vernon plastered with black shoe polish? It is hard to guess what our two children were thinking. As parents and adults we rather imagine that we know what goes on in a child’s mind. But by and large we really have no idea. You might try looking back to your own childhood and remember some of the strange things you did and try to explain what you were thinking. I doubt it can be done. So Doris and I have never figured out what Monica and Vernon had in mind when we found them playing in the black shoe polish.

They really weren’t playing in it for obviously to us at least they had a purpose. That purpose seemed to be to change Vernon from a little blond-haired white two year old into a Brazilian. But it would have been a Brazilian much darker than the average person we’d met there in the little village in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo. Oh yes, there were children just as light skinned as ours and one of those families attended our little church. But that is another story that I shall have to put off till I share it with you over a cup of coffee.

Brazilians are proud to have a little European blood and that of course started with the Portuguese immigration. And they are proud to have mixed in some Indian blood from the indigenous tribes. Add to that the darker colour of the Africans who were brought over as slaves. So the mixture of skin shade is a coffee colour if a person roasts and brews that coffee different ways or adds milk.  And we assume that our two children felt just a bit out of place among the deeper hued children with whom they played.

But it probably was not Vernon’s idea about being black for he was just in the two year age range.  I doubt that at that age he had any great philosophical ideas about colour. So it must have been Monica who was almost four that decided to make him black, black with shoe polish.

If the maid we had at that time was doing her job she might have stopped the shoe polish from blacking Vernon’s legs, arms and other parts of his body. But we can’t blame her for she might have been working in the house while we found our children out in the car port. In any case we came home to find our little boy mostly black. We were amused…perhaps at least a little bit. Well, it was funny enough for me to go get my camera and take a picture of the two of them.

But there the fun ended for that black shoe polish had to come off of our children’s tender skin. Doris says that without doubt one scrubbing with soap and water would not have done the job. Some of that black probably stayed around for many a bath and many a day. But I don’t think that colour made much difference to our children or those with whom they played. They fit right in. We were not concerned for Monica’s safety when she would disappear in the morning and not come back till supper time. When we’d ask here where she’d been she might say, “Playing with so and so at such and such a place.” We had no idea where she had gone but assumed all was well.

The way I see it is that the folks in the village knew what was going on with the strange Canadians as much as we ourselves did. People kept close track of us. I recall another missionary couple, Murdo and Isabel saying that when they left their parrot with neighbours while they’d be away that the parrot would be arriving back at their house about the same time as they arrived home from the bus.

It was about then when Vernon was developing his vocabulary that he had difficulty pronouncing Monica’s name. He would say it as Mokada. In a year or so he got it right but once in a while for fun I still address our daughter as Mokada. It seems that Portuguese is an easier language to pick up than English so our children spoke it well, probably without the foreign accent that we must have had.

Whether it is language, home or country, children seem to adapt and do it so well. Were our children thinking about adapting when Vernon was slathered in black shoe polish? We’ll never know, but it is one little episode in Brazil that our family will not forget though our children may have tried to put it out of mind.


The Most Beautiful City in the World

I had promised my readers that I would not provide them with a tourist’s view of Brazil. That would exclude Rio de Janeiro. But as I looked at pictures I have of Rio, something rose up within and declared that I was not telling the whole story. And a partial story can be a lie. So I will plop you down in a few of the marvelous sights in Rio, though the time line for that experience was before some of my readers were born.

Rio is famous as a city kissed by the sun. Its gorgeous wide beaches take the shape of scallops and made dramatic with the punctuation of mountains. The best known is Copacabana, then perhaps Ipanema that is highlighted in the samba lyrics, “The girl from Ipanema.” Those beaches go on and on and on. At one time Rio was an important port for the shipment of gold, gemstones and coffee to the old world. The port, on which much of Rio sits, is named the Bay of Guanabara and it is said to be large enough to anchor all the warships of the world.

I will pick you up by taxi at your hotel that is a block or so away from the beach but just as nice as others right on the Atlantic. Those on the beach are about double the price. We leave the beach area and head towards the center of the city but part way there veer to the right, pass the Red Beach and arrive in the neighbourhood of Urca; it is bordered on three sides by water. There we will visit the Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1,300 metre piece of granite guarding the mouth of the Baia de Guanabara. The cable car takes us part way up to the mountain known as the Morro da Urca. There we take another car to Sugarloaf Mountain.  The panoramic view of beaches, city, mountains, Guanabara Bay and the ocean takes a person’s breath away

There is a small park on the top of Sugarloaf with palm trees, a few monkeys and different birds. Now look South toward Copacabana and you will see beaches, one following the other until they fade into the distance. Then look a bit to the right. There you will see the spine of mountains that divides the city on the beaches from the city on Guanabara Bay. On one of the high peaks is situated the famous statue of Christ the redeemer. If you wait a bit you may see helicopters lifting up and circling O Cristo Redentor carrying tourist for a fantastic view of the statue and the city.

Turn now towards the city so that your back is to the ocean and there before you once again are the bays scalloped along Guanabara Bay with white sand but now also with the roads built on the sand dredged from the Bay. Those multi-lane highways provide a link from the beaches to the business centre of the city. There to the right is the Santos Dumont airport jutting out into the water. We watch and are amazed at an old two-engine prop plane taking off. It was old even back in the fifties and no doubt is  DC-3 or a Curtis Commander leaving the runway at the edge of the water to fly over the bay. It is strange to see a plane pass way below us as it heads out over the ocean. That route lets it avoid having to lift quickly over the surrounding mountains. Our family was once on one of those planes and that opens up a story I will share over coffee with you…sometime.

You will not tire of gazing over this city that is so different than any other in the world. Just look a little more North and you will see the city of Niteroi on the other side of the bay.  The way to get there used to be by ferry boat though now there is a bridge across. Niteroi has always been considered the poor cousin of Rio.

There are a couple of dozen beaches of note in the Rio area but I want to tell you about the one our family used to visit. We lived in the suburb of Meier and worked there at planting a church. When we wished to visit a beach we travelled up over the spine of mountains and then descended to the beach called the Barra de Tijuca. That beach is 18 kilometres long and we considered it Rio’s best. At that time it would be practically deserted so Doris and I with Monica and Vernon would have huge sections of white sand all to ourselves. We often spent a day at the beach and our children loved it. So what better place to spend a Christmas day than at this lovely place of sand, ocean and fantasy? We did that in 1962. Doris prepared lunch and we spread a blanket on the sand for our dinner table.

The Barra ended at the North end in rock jutting out into the Atlantic. But just this side there was a fresh water stream flowing out into the salt water. I discovered that oyster grew in the brackish water on those rocks and that provided me with an idea. I swam across the little river with each of the children on my back, one at a time. With a tire iron, we pried the oysters from the rocks, cracked them open and ate them. Nothing fresher. Doris was happy to watch from the other side and if any of us wanted more fresh oysters they were for sale along the road away from the beach. They were offered to us with a section of lemon.

All that is changed now. Hundreds of new churches now minister in Rio, many reaching up the hillsides to the poor in those terrible slums. About the beach we used to visit, hotels now line the water’s edge and extend blocks away towards the mountains. I suppose the waves may still be stronger, the wind more brisk and the waters cooler than the other Rio beaches. I pause and see that beach for a moment as I write. Our family is there once more; our children are playing in the surf or building castles in the sand. But this I know–neither our family nor Rio will ever return to what once it was. Still the city of Rio will always be what it has been–the most beautiful city in the world.

A labourer on a coffee plantation explaining to me something of his poverty. He said, “There are three things we must have to survive. We must have food, clothing and medicines but one is always lacking. You see, working on a coffee farm we earn only enough to buy two. It was slaves that originally did the back-breaking work on the coffee farms; however those we knew during the late fifties in the interior were only a slight cut above slavery.

The workers, “colonos” lived in row housing with no electricity, no running water and no indoor toilets. It was a hard life for the workers, the mothers and their children. There were some “colonos”who would get a share of the coffee production in trade for labour. In those cases the women and children often worked in the fields, everyone doing their best to put rice and beans on the table.

It was on one such farm we met a lovely family. Four girls, all in their teens worked with the dad but in the fields with the mother helping as she could. They did not pick the coffee beans from the bushes when they were in the red stage though that produced a better tasking coffee. But picking required more hard work. If the rough farm clothing of these young ladies were switched to our Sunday best they would fit right into our society. Dark hair, light skin and pretty Latin faces made them stand out. And since most Brazilians have a bit or a lot of Latin blood, they had an artistic bent. The four girls sang with lovely harmony.

The coffee bushes were about 8 feet tall and planted in rows. The workers would clean the leaves and loose dirt from under the trees using wide hoes. Then the harvest was to simply knock the dried coffee beans to the ground and from there to scoop them up to be winnowed by hand. Then the beans were placed on large brick drying floors. Later the bags of beans were taken to a machine—“a maquina de beneficio” that would remove the bean husks and prepare them for roasting or export.

Coffee growing was much different now than in the late 50s when we moved to the interior of the State of Sao Paulo. We were in the middle of huge coffee plantations, some with a million bushes. At that time the work was back breaking and now much of the production is mechanized.

There is no perfume more enticing than the aroma of coffee is being roasted. In the small village where we lived. When coffee roasting was in progress the tantalizing smell would be wafted over our home. Nothing would trigger a desire for that dark demi-tasse cup, the “cafezinho” more than that smell. In Brazil a cup of coffee is dark and strong. That reminds me of what Brazilians say when they taste our Canadian coffee. “One has to drink a gallon of water to get a cup of coffee.”

Coffee production in Brazil was called “the wave that passes.” The reason is that growing coffee depletes the soil so when the coffee cycle is finished another type of farming takes over. Now those same coffee fields may be producing sugar cane, citrus fruits or beef cattle. Growing coffee came not only at a cost to the land but to the workers in those fields.

Since we lived in midst of huge coffee plantations with workers barely being paid a living wage, they would move from one plantation to another to earn just a few more centavos. So it was common to see a truck loaded with belongings travelling the dirt roads taking a family somewhere. Occasionally we would see a donkey and a cart piled high with all of a family’s earthly goods. The aroma of roasting coffee in the air did more than make us want a cup. It reminded us of the desperate people trying to scratch out a living and raise their family.

Now you can understand why there was room for one more Canadian family doing their little bit to give a helping hand. There was room for us and many more.


Travelling Light

When the bus pulled up to the station, my colleague Murdo and I moved quickly to toss our small suitcases through an open window onto empty seats. We did not want to travel on the interior roads without a seat for if we had to stand in the aisle we would be bent over all that trip. You see, the roof of any of those primitive buses was so low we’d not been able to stand erect. The small hand-lettered piece of cardboard on the windshield had the name of the interior town or village where it would next stop. With that in mind we boarded the bus with the idea of buying tickets from the driver. He was not there, perhaps off to a bar nearby to have a cafezinho or lunch.
We took a number of trips on one of those buses in the early part of 1956, not quite a year after we landed at the Sao Paulo Congonhas airport. Murdo and I were checking out the neediest places to set up our missionary efforts. It was not just that we travelled light so that we could get a suitcase through a small bus window, for Doris and I were just out of seminary. We owned little more than a few suitcases of clothes. As I think back over those days with a small daughter not two years old and another on the way, travelling light seemed natural, normal for the kind of work in which we’d be involved. The plan was to work with some of the poorest people in the interior of the State of Sao Paulo. And that is exactly where we ended up—in a small village surrounded by millions of coffee bushes and poor, poor people. However that is another story that I’ll share with you over a cup of coffee.
Now back to the buses used in the interior. They were nothing like the modern ones you’d find in Brazil for some buses now may have a stewardess plying the passengers with cafezinhos, um sandwiche or a pillow. Back then the buses in the interior, I imagine were made by some handyman on a truck chassis. They had hard seats crowded together so that there was hardly room for one’s feet let alone the suitcases we carried. At times chickens or goats along with bigger luggage would be carried on the bus’s roof.
On one occasion we were stopped from further travel on the red dirt roads by a stream that had no bridge. Apparently the bridge had been carried away with the high water of a heavy rain. But having no bridge did not stop us for long. The driver descended from behind his steering wheel, opened up the door at the back of the bus and pulled out some sturdy planks. Those he placed on the firm footings that were still there and so he made his own bridge. After the crossing the planks were returned to the bus. That little episode was repeated again on that trip.
During all of our time in the interior, we travelled light. When we moved to the little village of Neves Paulista, it was to house not yet finished. We had been able to buy a property that had a hall that could be adapted for religious services and a lean-to behind it. We hired bricklayers and carpenters but they did not have the place finished before we moved in. The floor was just rough bricks, there was no kitchen and the bath did not have running water. Since there were no shelves anywhere, I took the rough boards from the few packing cases we had and made them serve another function…shelving. It was a lot like camping but in this case we were far from anyone who spoke English.
Neves Paulista had electricity so we planned to put a pump in the dug well to push water up to a reservoir above the bathroom. But the well was some 25 feet deep or more. The solution? Doris used the windlass at the well to let me down to the water level to do the installation. The windlass was normally used to draw up a pail of water, one at a time for use in our home. I suppose I must have inspected the rope on the windlass to make sure it would carry my weight for I am not sure what might have happened if it had broken.
No doubt we all have thought about travelling light as we pass our time in this world. That seems to make sense as we begin to clean out our house or hold a yard sale to get rid of junk. There comes the time when we begin to downsize—giving away a few things, throwing other stuff out or making a donation to some charity. I’ve finally moved a tape recorder with dozens of tapes, a high-fi player with a huge box of records out to the garage. The next step for that stuff is the dump.
Travelling light makes sense for our time in this world is so short. I tell myself that it would be better to focus on treasures that go beyond this world to the eternal one. Arriving at the end of life’s road, travelling light here might well mean that you and I have been wise in the treasures that will not pass away.