Monthly Archives: November 2014

Brazil Unravelled

The Power of Life

While I was checking out pictures I’ve taken while leading a work group to Brazil I was once again amazed at the power of life in plants we saw to grow and to thrive.  It is not necessary to go to the jungle to see the “elan vital” or life force that is the fountain of growth. So it is that my pictures show banana and palm trees splendid in their green dress. More interesting yet to a visitor from a climate such as ours are the flowering bushes and trees. I recall seeing a sidewalk sprinkled with the pink and red flowers fallen from the kapok tree while the tree still had more to shed.

Since the kapok tree says so much about the power of life in nature, I must tell you more about it. Doris and I were only weeks in Brazil when we saw these gorgeous trees in bloom—but they bloomed without a leaf. The branches were bare except for the immense covering of flowers. They say the absence of leaves gives easy access for bats to enjoy the abundant nectar of the flowers. The tree is also a source of honey for bees. The seeds from the tree are easily scattered so that the kapok tree is one of the first to grow in an open area. The tree is known also as the “silk cotton tree” for in its pods is the light material that in days past filled life preservers.

And the orchids that many Brazilians love, grow and bloom with so little care—they are so beautiful. I have a couple of dozen orchids but nothing like the plants I’ve seen in Brazil. There an orchid may have an incredible two or three dozen blooms of a type that is hard to encounter here. All colours in remarkable combinations! Friends at one time showed me the orchids blooming in their small back yard. The lady had tied pieces of orchids to the trunk and branches of a tree but then gave them little or no care. And they bloomed! I recall visiting with a poor family in the interior of the State of Sao Paulo. Their life was on a subsistence level but she had lovely orchids growing on the trees in what was basically a barren yard. The life and beauty of flowers adds another dimension to anyone’s life.

The road to our seminary years ago wound down through jungle-covered hills. The caretaker for the property must have thought the trail needed beautifying for he planted poinsettia bushes every few yards along the way. Where would he get so many bushes? ( Remember the poinsettia really is a bush.) So very simple a solution! He broke off branches from other bushes, made a hole in the soil large enough to shove in the branch and then tamped it tight with the heel of his boot. Voila—new thriving flowering bushes all along the roadway. When we moved to the city of Sao Paulo there was just such a bush in our front yard. It not only stood eight feet tall but had those red leaves that we call flowers, each petal at least a foot long. And we just took it all for granted because we lived in Brazil.

In the back yard of that same home was a Joboticaba tree that is about the size of a large apple tree. When it has no leaves little fuzzy flowers appear on the trunk and branches so that later a purple fruit the size of a grape or plum appear. Strange to see this exotic tree loaded with a fruit that makes good preserves. Here is how you might eat one—bite it open, suck out the white inside, spit out the white centre with seeds and also discard the skin. It is a delicious fruit but the skin is bitter. Yes, we loved the Joboticaba tree in our yard but took its strange fruitfulness for granted.

I could go on and tell you about the papaya trees we had in the interior that produced a huge fruit that might weigh fifteen pounds. What a delicious fruit! And the avocados. the mangoes and the oh-so-sweet pineapples. But whether fruit or flower, the vibrant life exhibited reminds me of a life that each of us possess. We may have some DNA in common with trees but we each have a life force that reaches further for it reaches for the stars. This LIFE goes beyond what the artist or the artisan possess. This inner hankering is a divine push that will not be satisfied outside of surrender and worship of the Eternal One.

So the next time you bite into an apple, think about the life that brought it into being and would at the same time encourage you to touch that which is Eternal.

Brazil Unravelled

A First Ride in a Police Vehicle

A while ago I wrote a few notes of our time in Brazil under the title, “Doris and Interesting Incidents.” Perhaps now it fits to give you in detail one such story. It is about the birth of our 2nd child, our son Vernon.

I want you first to have some of the setting in mind for this story. After a year in language school we moved to the interior of the State of Sao Paulo, the city of Sao Jose do Rio Preto. Our home was a small two bedroom house about three yards from the busy street of Jorge Tibirica. You’ve noted that many towns and streets I’ve mentioned are named after men of political fame or were Christian saints. At night a guard would walk that street and others of the neighborhood all the while blowing his whistle to scare off would-be robbers. You’ve probably concluded as we did that his whistle allowed thieves to lay low till he passed on. Still we paid, for who knows who he might link up with if we didn’t. Right behind us on what might be called an over-sized alley lived the Menzies family. We became really good friends.

Doris was pregnant when we moved from Campinas and language school to Rio Preto. There the weather was always warm with winter coming on an August weekend. The heat was difficult for Doris; then add on becoming fluent in Portuguese. Doris also taught Ross, a missionary’s son, the course outlined for a Canadian of six grade level. And of course there were responsibilities related to the planting of a new church. On top of this was the inconvenience of not having a vehicle—one that might be necessary to get my wife to the hospital on time.

It happened that our friends the Menzies had a vehicle for he was a travelling salesman. And they kindly offered the use of their car when Doris was ready to give birth. So in the wee small hours of the night she suggested to me that we must get going. Since Doris is a nurse, she didn’t want to get to the hospital one minute earlier than needed. So I was out of bed, dressed quickly, climbed over the back wall of our yard and clapped at the door of the Menzies. Clapped yes for clapping in Brazil takes the place of knocking at a door. Mr. Menzies gave me the key and went with me to the car. There we discovered not just one flat tire but two. I’m feeling quite desperate by then and I could only imagine how Doris felt. No telephones and no taxis. The only thing to do was to try to flag down some wanderer on the street at four in the morning.

I was only minutes waiting anxiously at the gate when I saw a vehicle coming up the street. When I understand it was a police paddy wagon I didn’t know if that was good or bad. I flagged it down, explained the situation and they opened up the door to put Doris and me in the back. They were more than glad to take us to the hospital. What did we do with our daughter? We left her with our friends, the Menzies.

Just 2 hours later Vernon was born—a ten pound lad. He was way bigger than any other baby in the nursery and he could be heard way down the hall. He had a husky build with a chest deeper than it was wide–a good start on being able to care for himself out in coffee-country. But what sticks in Doris’ mind is that during the birth, they did not even give her an aspirin.

We took our boy home wrapped in a baby blanket for Doris had no clothes for him except what Monica had outgrown. So right away she had to get sewing. Our son grew quickly and soon people thought he and our daughter were twins. We named him Vernon after a good friend from seminary days. That Vernon was a medical doctor who decided he was going to be a missionary and went to seminary for he thought he ought to know something about the Christ he represented.

As I chatted with Doris about this blog she said something I’ve always believed, “That police wagon was a miracle wasn’t it?” Yes, I certainly believe the Eternal One had his angels working overtime that night to provide Doris a ride to hospital.  There are more details that I might share with you over coffee some day. That would be a more appropriate place and time than this blog.

Brazil Unravelled

Putting Down Roots in Rio Preto (a continuation)

The street on which we lived had cobblestone and many of the other streets in town were the same. Asphalt paving was scarce for Brazilians imported most of their petroleum products. Fear of the foreign oil companies developing Brazilian resources was palpable. The cry by leftist politicians and most newspapers was, “O Oleo e Nosso,” that is, “The Oil is Ours.” All that has changed and now Brazil is energy independent, but not back in the late 50s. I mention this to explain why a street from our home to the edge of town was just dirt and why this was important then.

Imagine us carrying our little daughter Monica and pushing a carriage with our baby Vernon up a dirt street to a rented hall where we held religious services. The wheels of that carriage were mostly invisible in the soft dirt…sweating work in the constant hot weather. Of course the street was worse when it rained.  Then the dirt turned to a slippery red gumbo. I could say more about wet dirt roads but it would add little to this posting.

Now a story about something that didn’t happen. The protestant churches in town were organizing unity services with each congregation distributing invitations in a part of Rio Preto. Since we were just beginning to plant a church, I alone had the job of daily dropping off flyers in the homes in our area. All went well all week as far as I knew. But one family was thoroughly upset at me for leaving propaganda every day at their gate. Two of the young men from that family decided to stay home from work, wait for me to come by and give me a good thrashing—something that would teach me a lesson.

Well, it never occured because a friend of theirs from down the street had happened to drop in for a visit at the very time I was going by. What difference did that make? Well this lady, Dna. Zenaide was host every week to film strips that we showed in her yard. Those film strips drew a lot of attention for folks had no electricity, no TV and few radios. Those same film strips may have contributed to this family’s hostility. Anyway, the fellows who had decided to beat me up were embarrassed to administer this important lesson in front of Dna. Zenaide.

She later told Doris that the plan was not just to beat me up but to kill me. Whatever the purpose they had, I believe God had sent his angels to arrange circumstances so that it never happened. I often wonder if God’s angels are not involved behind the scenes in our lives, bringing blessings untold.

You’ve gathered we had no vehicle at this time in Rio Preto. And since there was no bus service how did we get around? If we had suitcases added to our two children, we rented a charrete which is a two-wheeled open buggy. That may seem primitive but we did not mind too much for a person makes do with what they have. And the rest of the time? Well we got around using “shank’s horses.” Let me explain this Irish expression that I picked up from my dad. A shank is the part of the leg between the knee and the ankle. So our legs were the horses that took us where we wanted to go. Mentioning that I remember the long hike—the four of us–down to the city market that took the place of grocery stores.

The most important of our memories are of the friends we made in Rio Preto. Many of them fashioned new lives based on a living faith in the love of the Eternal Father. We came to know a girl not quite a young teen when she came with her family to see the film strips I’ve mentioned. Her name is Vanilda and as she grew her beautiful voice matured along with her so that when she sang, a person would be enchanted. Nostalgia wells up in my mind clutching at my throat when I recall not only Vanilda but the wonderful people we came to know and love in Rio Preto.

Putting Down Roots in Rio Preto

Putting Down Roots in Rio Preto

The first title for this post was “Surviving in Rio Preto”. But Doris and I, together with our daughter Monica, did much better than that. We were just out of language school and struggling with the language but we found our place and made friends. Those memories were both difficult and joyful. You know how it is with young people—they feel they have the world by the tail.

Rio Preto (Black River) was a city of perhaps thirty thousand and the hub for much of the interior of the State of Sao Paulo. There were many strange twists and turns for a young Canadian couple trying to adapt to a new culture. One incident began with an invitation by a Lutheran couple to visit them in the State of Parana to the South.

We thought it a good idea to take this holiday for soon our only other missionary couple was leaving, not to return. Our daughter Monica went with us but Vernon was a baby, not yet walking. So Maria and Jose offered to keep him while we were away. Doris felt that since they had three healthy boys that this might work really well.

Their home was very humble with no ceiling but in a way that worked well for there was a good bit of smoke from the primitive brick stove. That smoke could escape through the loose fitting tile roof. The walls of the home were dark from smoke that curled up from the stove. The rough floor was made of burnt bricks laid in cement. Jose was a big husky man and he made his living carrying 50 kilo sacks of coffee from truck to warehouse and then warehouse to trucks. After we left that city we found out that a sack had fallen on him and killed him. We felt sorry for he was a good gentle man. Maria was a typical Brazilian in many ways, having fine featured framed with black hair. I remember her generally wearing a shapeless dress that was as clean as possible. She always seemed cheerful, apparently having adapted to living in poverty.

Part of the instructions that Doris gave Maria was that our baby Vernon should get a certain dose of vitamins once a day in his bottle. When we returned from our travels Maria handed us a bill from the local pharmacy for he had received vitamins in every bottle. I guess he was husky enough to stand the overdose. Maria after that time referred to herself as Vernon’s black momma although she was not black. What wonderful, wonderful people that we shall meet some day.

The toughest part of those first months in Rio Preto was related to Portuguese for it is a difficult language. Sometime over coffee I’ll explain for you some the complications associated with verb conjugations. When I prepared a “palestra” I would write it out word for word using a dictionary. That was good news in a way but bad when I chose the wrong word from the list Then I would take it to a neighbour lady, Dna Laura who had been at one time a language teacher. Then I would write it out again and read it word for word. Most sermons that are read are not interesting but mine must have been different for I made enough mistakes that the listeners must have stifled many a laugh. I recall misreading the word for “way” and explained that the listeners should take the “truck” to heaven. Could have been worse I suppose.

As I would go door to door distributing invitations to the rented hall, I found it impossible to find the words to answer the questions that so many had. Quite frustrating. It takes a number of years to really become fluent in another language. They say after the third language, the next comes easier and I am sure in my case it was true.

While in Rio Preto both of our children came down with the chicken pox; then I caught it from them. Monica and Vernon were sick, sick with it but they did not develop any complications. They were covered with pox from the top of their heads to the soles of their feet. A picture of them at that time sitting or laying on the couch shows them looking so forlorn. We felt so sorry for them. Those pox left scars, some visible years later.

(Have patience. It’s to be continued next week.)