In the sertão the culture is simple. Subsistence is the life. You’re a success if you stay with it. Failure means migration South or to the coast to better yourself. Twenty or so bus companies are its agent. They cover most of the country. The onibus is the king of the road, but swathing through an unpaved, gash of ochre is something else. We ride flat out, pitching and rolling, across a boundless plain. The vegetation is vestigial, caatinga, scrub sprouting tough little thorny shrubs. Through the open roof I see unbelievable blue skies, flicked with black cloudlets that mock the promise of rain.
The passengers look as though they had slept in sacks of maize: sand-blasted eyelids, chronic coughs, encrusted sores. The journey to everywhere and nowhere is the end of the line, I think. The bus is a cloud of dust that deflects the fierce sun. Smoke from the exhaust is its comet’s tail. We pass anthills large as dolmens, and antlered cactuses, nature’s barbed wire. Vultures punctuate fences at the approach of a settlement, a huddle of huts in a wraith of dead trees, hogs devouring their own excrement, listless cattle maddened by flies.
This communion with dirt tracks is good for the soul. Taste the red earth on the tongue and you know where you are. The merciless beauty is more real than the self, it absorbs you. You have to roll with the solar ball of heat, and the terrain. Six and six.
Rare sightings of leather-clad cow-boys, slouching on their mules. Let them pass. ‘You don’t have a choice. Forwards and onwards.’ Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Through the Brazilian wilderness’ is trotting through my head. His heightened tone becomes mine. He promises me, if not the earth, the scrubforest nurtured by the dry-lands. In my rage for expression I grasp at straws. ‘Be staunch,’ he tells me. ‘Let your hands be cut to pieces all the better to write bloody and unbowed about the sertão.’
* * *
An accident stops our hurtle. Jeronimo, the husky black driver, is a Roosevelt man, ‘Over, under, through, but never around.’ When he rides over a hollow mound, the bus slumps into the hole, and a wheel flies off. ‘Everybody out,’ says Jeronimo, with amused fatalism, He’s a slow mover himself.
The passengers wait for him. But as the bus begins to subside, they descend.
Jeronimo looks as though he’s going down with his ship. But at the last minute, crawling through the roof, he waves to his lanky white assistant to bowl out the spare. But jacking up proves out of the question. The bus is a gigantic amputee, three wheels spinning airborne.
A passing truck gives Jeronimo a lift to the nearest town. My fellow travelers have vanished. Where to is a mystery. There is nowhere to go. Only the mate and a wiry peasant remain. I find shade from the direct sun under a spreading tree. Looking up, there are red flame-like leaves amongst the gray-green foliage. It’s a flamboyant, the evergreen pride of the sertão. The dry heat is agreeable compared to the humidity on the coast. I sit on a white milestone by the roadside smoking my pipe. As the afternoon passes, I become aware of the birds in the flamboyant fluttering to life, pecking at the bark. Then towards dusk their song bejewels the air, threading beads of exuberance. This is the place to be. The evening air is fresh and sweet as newlybaked biscuit. I taste aromatic flowers in the scrub, thinking of Pedrinho, and watch the stars flicker in the darkening sky.
* * *
Night-fall in the sertão. A light tells me there is a hut nearby. By day it would have looked like just another giant anthill. At the door a still figure, a sun-dried old man. The door shuts. The light disappears. Then I notice the wiry peasant. He has been replenishing his water flask in the sertãnejo’s hut. He rolls up under a bus seat and settles for the night. I have a hip-flask of cachaca. But prefer to eat my last remaining manioc cakes with the mouth watering aromatic leaves.
Towards midnight Jeronimo returns on the back of a mule. ‘Bad news. The breakdown team have broken down.’ His mate curses, and joins the wiry peasant inside the bus. Suddenly the old sertânejo is standing by us, shy in the headlights. He is inviting Jeronimo and me into his hut.
The spry white-haired woman at the stove smiles welcome. Nothing is said. A candle glows in the bottle of coconut pulp on the table. The wattled walls are skillfully woven. Hanging from the bamboo ceiling an evil-eyed carranca is vigilant. An upright orange crate serves as a cupboard: half-empty bottles, jars of nuts on the shelf, a sack of grain on the interior. Patchwork fabrics cover a cot, the sleeping quarters. A patina of wax or grease overlays all surfaces in the room, a form of protection against wear and tear perhaps. Insect wings are stuck in it. A barrel of water stands in pride of place.
There is only one chair.
The old man sits on it, his rightful throne. Crouching on the earthen floor, we make ourselves small as though to fit into a wood-print of the scene. The food is already on the table: beans, powdered manioc and peasant sausage. Jeronimo digs in, a cue for me. The sausage is tough and strongly spiced. Manioc was the staple diet of Indians before colonisation, and remains so for the poor of the Northeast. Called farinha, it is saffron coloured. The woman watches us eat, smiling proudly. No need for digestive diplomacy, it’s a delicious meal with black, silty coffee to it wash down. A cloth is laid over the remains. Nothing wasted.
Jeronimo takes a guitar from the wall, and sings the cordel of the moment:
The poorman stays poor being poor.
The so-called street he lives in
is no better than a sewer.
The muck comes up to his shin.
No one bothers with road-signs.
There’s no number on his shack.
Postmen and thieves do not mind:
it is off their beaten track.
But Jeronimo stops himself abruptly. Strums thoughtfully, before striking up a syncopated, off-key song. The tune, a flat tyre, bumps along the road of his words. He is singing about his life:
The wife who left with the children for Sao Paulo and never came back. Who could blame her. Life on the road is rough for the family. Weeks away, breakdowns, nights by the roadside. He misses the children, but what can a man do? There are consolations. Commanding the bus, the changing horizons, taking each day as it comes. The camaraderie, life lived at random. The wage packet.
His voice rises to a high-pitched plaint. The old man joins in, rattling a stone in a coconut shell. The woman, sitting on the water-barrel, is rapt, sways to the downbeat. I think she has heard the song before.
Now it’s the story of any drifter, passing through the sertão. Strangers finding peace in the boundless plains, and friends-for-life in the bus-stations. Cowmen and busmen brought together in bars, life on the road, the hospitality of giving what you haven’t got. (Rattle more insistent.) Shared music, meals and saudades.
Jeronimo pauses, neck bulging with emotion, and bellows balefully like a cow calving, The woman touches his hand, shuffles the ghost of a dance, an ageless dervish. In the middle of nowhere something is happening. Pity for how things as they are is being ritualized. Life is not quite a desert. The grasslands lost their green under the relentless sun, but have settled into scrub that surprises with occasional red flowers. Two sixes.
* * *
The spell is broken by a cowboy’s whoop outside. The chief of the breakdown crew, a white man with a hare-lip is at the door.
He barks laughter. ‘Jeronimo! It’s a small world.’ He had been his sergeant in the army.
The men try to jack up the bus by their truck’s headlights. Wrapped in a rough spun blanket, the driver’s mate rails at their ineptitude. Nobody is bothered. The chief puts his arm around Jeronimo. ‘We need a song, my friend. Tell me how life has been.’
Jeronimo slaps his guitar, and begins a Portuguese rendering of ‘Hey Jude,’ a current hit in Brazil, decades after the Beatles. The pace is funereal, the intonation close to the earth. But to make a ‘sad song’ ‘better’, he speeds it up into a dance tune. And by the time he jigs the lines about ‘pain’, and not having to ‘carry the world on your shoulders’, everybody is smiling. I produce my flask of cachaca, and it’s passed round.
The underbelly of the bus is now a gaping gap. Two mechanics, covered in red dust, hammer, exchanging jokes with the chief and Jeronimo. Their voices resonate, harsh, metal against metal. Even the disaffected mate joins in, crow-baring the axle. Loud clangor. Headlights catch the treetops, flames of amber. My torch comes in handy. I train it into the crevice.
The earth through the hole is a loam of scrub roots alive with white worms feasting on the entrails of a crushed armadillo.
‘The oldest extant mammal in South America,’ says the chief. ‘It knows how to dig deep.’ 3 and 3.
The bus is back on the road. Time to leave. Jeronimo and me pay a courtesy call to the hut. He gives the old woman a thousand cruzado note. I top it with a five dollar note, and feel foolish as she is confused by the currency. ‘You have made her seriously rich,’ jokes Jeronimo. ‘and will be embarrassed when she finds out.’
The engine starts and the wiry peasant sits up. His day has begun. All the passengers have returned, mysteriously as they vanished. Furrowing through the morning haze, Jeronimo negotiates the dirt-track like a sea captain riding the waves in a storm. He is singing quietly, to himself.