Just Merveilleux

Life at № 42

The time before

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The first part of the flight, Oklahoma (where my father had a position at a University since two years earlier) to Florida was Pan Am. The second was in a Varig aeroplane. The flight attendants, which in those days we called stewardesses, wore navy blue suits with unusually large silky bows around their necks. My parents had warned me that when we felt the plane do a 180 degree turn, that meant we were arriving. I was also supposed to look down because at the precise moment of the turn I’d be able to see the lighthouse and the (my grandparents’) beach house.

Coming out of the passenger area was a shock in every possible way. The air was different, the smells were different, the temperature was different. I’d never seen so many dark people, all in one place. My grandmother and aunt were waiting right outside the gate. People looked at them and at us. Especially at them. Blond women women weren’t a common occurrence in the area. As we walked to the car we were surrounded by a swarm of children. All screaming auntie, uncle um trocado por favor (change please), and putting out their hands. I was overwhelmed. Scared to death, to be precise. In the narrative of my mind it was the moment immediately before the natives eat you. I screamed. My aunt lifted me into her arms laughing and explained that I was using the wrong word. I’d screamed me ajude which means assist me, when I should have screamed socorro, which is the correct word when people are in urgent distress. One of the children pointed at my grandmother and said “look, she has blue eyes.” Another asked if she was from the television. The first thing you see when you leave the airport is a bamboo lined avenue. Absolutely stunning.

But the beauty is short lived. On the other side of the bamboo is a shantytown called Itinga and the road into Salvador. The first thing I noticed was the people walking the streets all seemed to be wearing t-shirts with vote for this or that candidate written on them- and flip-flops, no closed shoes in sight. Free campaign t-shirts played a major role in dressing people back in the days of the military government. I  stared out the window in great apprehension, desperately hoping wherever we were going had nothing to do with what I was seeing.

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Once I could see the ocean the landscape was more bearable, but the streets looked no less strange and crowded, dangerous even. Every time we stopped at a light the car was mobbed by little black children, just like the ones at the airport. The older ones would squirt (dirty) water on the windshield and then clean it off hoping for a few coins in return. Not long after seeing the ocean it seemed there were less and less buildings. And suddenly we arrived at huge gates set into a tall wall. My grandmother’s chauffeur honked and almost immediately the gates were opened by a man from the inside. A driveway led to a house in the distance. There was hibiscus everywhere, and coconut trees. A Flamboyant (delonix regia) by the tennis court looked like it was literally on fire. When we got out of the car I pulled my small travel bag out with me but my grandmother shook her head and said no, no, Claudio does that. I found this moderately confusing and wondered which things of mine he was going to carry and at which times. As soon as we entered the house my grandmother told us to go say hello to the people in the kitchen. From the living room I could hear (much) laughter and talking. As I walked in large black women all exclaimed the many things people tell children. Look how big he is, look how handsome, I held you when you were just a baby, do you remember me, I used to take care of you. There was hugging and kissing and dishevelling of my hair. Apart from the occasional flash I didn’t really remember any of them, but pretended to out of politeness.

There were platters of food everywhere you looked in that kitchen and huge pots smoking on the stove. A giant contraption with six burners connected to an orange gas bottle (health and safety regulations weren’t really a thing in the third world.) The windows were high up on the wall and opened with pull-chains. So high up on the wall you couldn’t see out of them. My grandmother would later explain to me this was the custom because kitchen staff is very easily distracted, “you don’t want them wasting time looking out of windows.” That may sound bad, but was much better than my other grandmother who once told me that of course she believed everyone was equal as she even “let them sleep inside the house.”

In the dining room there were two tables, both covered in white lace tablecloths. One had piles of plates, cutlery and white linen napkins, the other was reserved for food. Drinks were served by a very friendly man who kept asking people what they wanted. I wanted Coca-Cola. Unlike in the United States where it came in cans, it came in glass bottles. Glass bottles in crates of 24. To buy Coca-Cola you had to take your crate (engradado) of empty bottles to exchange for a crate of full bottles. This was the time before free trade. A time of much self-reliance. Juice in a box? Didn’t exist. If you wanted juice, fruit was going to have to be involved. Everything was made locally, and much of it was awful.

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More and more people arrived. All acting as if they knew me. I was still an only child then, used to spending much time on my own so I found it all very odd. But I did like the feeling it gave me. It seemed like I was something special. Something important. Someone. They say our personalities are formed by the time we’re seven. I suppose that year explains a lot in mine.

In one of those odd twists of fate, I’ve come across someone from that world, something that hasn’t happened since I first moved to Spain- and it all came flooding back.

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32 comments on “The time before

  1. acflory
    February 19, 2017

    I like this, Pinky. Is there more?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arkenaten
    February 19, 2017

    Engrossing. Perhaps you should consider a separate blog and call it Memoires or something?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Was life in SA not sort of like that in the old days?

      Like

      • Arkenaten
        February 19, 2017

        In many respects it was … and worse too, as it was ingrained in law.
        I arrived in ’79 and this was when the midden was soon to hit the windmill. I recall being chastised by my first landlady for tidying my room and making my own bed!
        ”It’s the maids’ job.”
        After being brought up believing such chores were my responsibility it seemed like a dream come true to have someone run after me, even though it was not an easy habit to break at the beginning.
        I even had sandwiches made for me to take to work every day!
        But I must confess, as easy as it was it never sat well with me.
        I was truly so naive in those days.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It messes with the mind and a sense of parameters.

        Like

      • Arkenaten
        February 19, 2017

        Indeed. In those first few years it was like two, entirely separate worlds operating side by side …. and ”ne’er the twain shall meet”.
        One Christmas Eve, Celeste and I were shopping in Johannesburg when a pregnant black lady’s water broke on the pavement right outside Woolworths and she went into labour soon after.
        An ambulance was called, but they sent a ”White” ambulance. Oh dear … this is still very much Apartheid South Africa.
        They helped the woman inside that ambulance, but did not take her to hospital. It waited until a ”Native ” ambulance was sent for. It arrived about ten minutes later ( I know we waited to see what happened) and the lady was transferred, and afterwards driven to (presumably) Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto,
        It was surreal watching this take place.

        And there are a host of such tales…
        *Shakes head*

        Like

  3. Carmen
    February 19, 2017

    Enchanting.

    It’s odd, the things can trigger your sensory memories, eh? You look like you were a delightful little boy. 🙂 (bit of an imp, perhaps?)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. inspiredbythedivine1
    February 19, 2017

    Good stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Ruis
    February 19, 2017

    There is a concept in economics that says the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. That shows how corrupt we are toward our fellow man. But, there is also truth in that saying. If you did pick up your room and did all those things for yourself, there would be no need for a maid and the maid would lose her job. As long as there is dignity in the work and the relationship between worker and employer is honest, there is no harm done. That honesty involves paying living wages and providing for those who serve when they are in distress, which many people did and do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “If you did pick up your room and did all those things for yourself, there would be no need for a maid and the maid would lose her job.”

      That is of course what all the people in my family and their circle tell themselves. But what if the maid’s parents had been paid enough for her to get an education instead of starting to work as a teenager? What if the maid’s husband was paid enough so she could start her own small business? The Brazilian model is as close to feudalism as you can get.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. john zande
    February 19, 2017

    Can’t say I have any great inclination to travel north. There’s just too much to see and explore down here.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cara
    February 19, 2017

    A friend’s husband grew up in Indonesia…she says when they go there to visit his parents (they live here in Brooklyn, NY) it’s like another world…the driver takes them anywhere they want, the cook will make dinner, the maid cleans & does laundry, gardener is planting and pruning the yard, and her husband’s parents (according to her) aren’t that wealthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You just zeroed in on the most interesting point. Those systems are so profoundly exploitative being part of the “elite” is mostly a matter of not being indentured.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cara
        February 19, 2017

        And my friend loves going to the mall while visiting her in-laws, because she takes a servant along to carry all her shit, but she bitches that “there’s nothing to do there BUT go to the mall”

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hariod Brawn
    February 20, 2017

    Autobiography!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Helen Devries
    February 20, 2017

    I had knew people living in apartheid South Africa: they took to having servants like ducks to water, proclaiming that they looked after them very well – which I imagine they did. Didn’t occur to them to have less servants and put the money saved to help to educate the children of those they had, or to help a wife or husband of one of their servants start a business.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. belasbrightideas
    February 21, 2017

    And this is why it’s imperative to take children traveling to distant shores. Which we did. Now they do, on their own. One World. One People.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. metan
    February 21, 2017

    Love to hear people’s memories, especially when they are prompted by something unexpected. Had you sat down intending to wring out some childhood recollections it wouldn’t have come out the same. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on February 19, 2017 by in life, thinking aloud and tagged , , .
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