Family Travel Bronze Winner: Cocô-da-Bahia

by Eleanor Stanford

An American family with three young kids moves to Salvador, Brazil in search of adventure

I stepped out of the Luis Carlos Magalhães airport, sleepless and disoriented, into what I imagined as my new life, and flopped down on the pile of suitcases to nurse the baby. My husband rifled through our documents. Our two older sons knelt on the sidewalk, exhausted, and rested their heads on another suitcase.
Across the median, the coconut palms greeted us with a coy wave.
In my semi-delirious state, the trees seemed highly symbolic. They seemed to mean something guileless and slightly smug, to stand for everything I wanted, adventure and gritty third-world beauty and good weather. They seemed to nod their heads and say, yes, it was worth it, giving up a house and a good job, leaving playgroups and a pension, breaking your parents’ hearts.
Inevitable, they whispered, in their feathery green tongue.
Palmy (adj): triumphant. Ex: I sat on the beach under the big yellow umbrella, sipping the water from a cold coconut, nursing my three-month old, watching my two older sons dig in the sand, warmth spreading across our skin, feeling palmy.
What secret did we discover to end up here?
Palmy: The word is imbued with the sense of balmy–as in both pleasantly warm, and touched in the head.

In Pennsylvania, our friends looked at us with disbelief, and maybe a bit of wistful envy, when we told them we were leaving. Once we arrived, though, it did not seem at all out of the ordinary. We met other American families who had chosen the same life: a small salary but ample vacations; no family nearby, no dishwasher or air-conditioning or reliable Internet connection, but weekends at the beach; sun-browned children who are unfazed by the rough waves and chatter as effortlessly in Portuguese as in English.

Palm (1): “flat of the hand,” c.1300, from O.Fr. palme, from L. palma “palm of the hand,” from Proto-Indo-European*pela- “to spread out, flat.” Skt. panih “hand, hoof.”
We lived between the dunes–the wild mato–and a potholed highway. Behind us, the mato spread itself out like a hand: undulate and empty. The wolf-fruit was dying. A horse put down its head to graze on roadside trash and scorched grass.
The coconut palms, at least, appeared indifferent. They spread their graceful fingers, shielding the lagoon of Abaeté, its wide black eye. Their trunks were stout and tough, marked with rings of leaf scars.

Once, on the median of the highway, I saw a man at the top of a coconut palm, easily fifty feet up, clinging to the trunk. How did he get up there? And why? How would he possibly get down?
There were shorter trees, coconuts that were much more accessible; if you were tall enough, you could practically just reach up and hack one off with a machete.
But I was only driving past, and glimpsed him briefly out of the corner of my eye. Shirtless, a red bandana tied around his head, his dark skin glistening in the sun.

The nut has a husk, which can be woven into strong twine or rope, and is used for padding mattresses, upholstery and life-preservers.
The shell, hard and fine-grained, may be carved into drinking cups, dippers, scoops, smoking pipe bowls, and collecting cups for rubber latex.
Coconut, somewhere or other, is a folk remedy for: abscesses, alopecia, amenorrhea, asthma, bronchitis, bruises, burns, colds, constipation, cough, debility, dropsy, dysentery, earache, fever, gingivitis, gonorrhea, jaundice, nausea, scabies, scurvy, sore throat, swelling, syphilis, toothache, tuberculosis, tumors, typhoid, venereal diseases, and wounds.

Is what draws me the usefulness, or the infinite shapeshifting?

I wanted to see myself as this easily adaptable, this inexhaustibly useful. Perhaps this was some of my motivation for moving there. There was an undeniable excitement in selling all our furniture, in seeing how much we could do without. Our children were getting older; soon, I could see, they’d be sunk into school and friends, Little League and Cub Scouts. Having grown up in that same affluent suburb, I knew what we’d be up against: kids who had all the latest toys and video games, who played on traveling soccer teams and took expensive violin lessons. Stuff we couldn’t have afforded even if we’d wanted it for them.
Plus, I’d begun to feel that I’d lost the ability to surprise myself. Look, I seemed to say, as I boxed up the dishes, as I unloaded box after box at Goodwill: I may be getting older, but that doesn’t mean my future is completely scripted. I can still do something unexpected. I padded the breakables with old newspaper and dishtowels. Salvador floated just beyond my reach, a small life-preserver, tossed out into the Atlantic. This move, I thought, would be balm and medicine, poultice for my wounds and bruises.

The man at the coconut stand called me amiga. He had a big round belly and didn’t wear a shirt and was always cheerful.
When his wife was working there, she told me she was afraid of being held up. They take everything and run into the mato, she said, gesturing to the stretch of wild dunes behind the stand.
Her teeth were crooked, and some were missing.
I get so thirsty, she said. I’m sick of coconut water.

Palm (2): to conceal in or about the hand, as in sleight-of-hand tricks.

The two-lane highway that stretches north out of the city of Salvador along the coast is called the Estrada de Côco, Coconut Road. It was built in the late 1960s. According to the guidebooks, the beaches of the Coconut Road are known for their calm, warm waters. Sometimes on the weekends we drove north to Itacimirrim or Jacuipe or Praia do Forte, past the big box stores, the long narrow sandbars, palm trees single-file along the shore, silhouetted against the cloudless sky.
Past the turn-off for Arembepe, where Janis and Jimi stopped in the sixties, soon after the road was built, when this place could be made to signify something obscure and vaguely mystical–to Americans maybe–although what it signifies to the locals, if anything, is blunter, tarnished and pragmatic as the machete leaning against the wall.
Past the mysterious chemical plant with Arabic lettering on the sign.
Past the unmarked spot on the road where several months ago, bandits pulled over a government deputado on the road here near Camaçarí, while he was giving a radio interview on his cellphone, and shot him in the head.
His wife’s screams from the passenger seat reverberating on the airwaves.

“Palm oil” was used earlier in the punning sense of “bribe” (1620s) than in the literal sense of “oil from the fruit of the West African palm” (1705).

It’s not a bribe, exactly, when you slip the police officer at the checkpoint twenty reais. His hand is large and hot, the skin the translucent orange of the palm oil in the enormous vats the women use to fry acarajé on the side of the road, their hoop skirts and headdresses an impossibly white glare.
There’s always a jeitinho, a little way around the rules.

The jeitinho is both one of the most endearing and most infuriating aspects of Brazilian culture. Working at an international school, it seemed we were often caught inevitably in tension with the jeitinho system. Teachers–both American and Brazilian–tried to hold the (mostly Brazilian) students to strict deadlines. But the students were largely unconcerned. They were accustomed to the Brazilian system, in which the goal was to earn a passing grade of sixty percent, and if they didn’t, to take a make-up test or hand in an extra project and slide by.
Soon after school started in August, I talked with the seniors about college applications. Of those planning to attend school in the States, only one or two had taken the SATs or drawn up a preliminary list of schools. Their counterparts in the U.S., I told them, students interested in going to big name schools, had been focused on college since ninth grade.
A few took notes on what I told them they needed to do: choosing schools, working on their essays, registering for standardized tests.
“But Miss,” one boy said, leaning back and smiling genially at me. “Why would I want to go to university in the States if I’m planning to live in Brazil anyway, and here, at UFBA for example, I could end up making friends with the son of a minister or businessman in class?”

They appear impenetrable, regal and untouched, but coconut palms are also vulnerable to disease. Eye-rot; leafburn; heart rot. Bitten leaf spot, gray leaf blight. Damping off.
For some reason, I thought that Ezra, at five, would have a harder time with the move than Ruben. He could remember more. He had the words to talk about it.
But Ruben, at three, seemed to be having more difficulty adjusting. He acted out. He yelled or hit or kicked when things didn’t go his way.  Pimentado, is how our nanny Dete described him. Spicy. It’s true. I wanted to respond to him, and felt my mouth burning.
At least once a day I said something to him that I later regretted. The anger came on slyly, like the sting of biting into a malagueta pepper, and like that heat, its trace stayed on my tongue, the shame scalding.
I tried to remind myself that Ruben was still a literal being, unshrouded by the protective film of metaphor, his displacement amplified without a sense of passing time. He talked constantly about things and people we’d left behind in the States, asking again and again when we could go back.
Ezra, unlike Ruben, didn’t talk about the home we’d left in Pennsylvania. He sat on the veranda, quietly tracing the words in his Portuguese notebook. Sometimes he wrote letters to his grandparents which he sealed without letting me read them.

Unopened flowers are protected by a sheath, often used to fashion shoes, caps, a kind of pressed helmet for soldiers.
During World War II, coconut water was used in emergencies instead of sterile glucose solution, and put directly into the patient’s veins.

When my boys got sick, I punctured the flat macheted surface with a knife tip, upended the coconuts into a glass jar. My sons lay in bed, pale, drooping flowers, weakly sipping the sweet water from a  straw.

Palm (4): to touch or soothe with the palm of the hand.

I did wonder in these moments if we had been too cavalier about the dangers of bringing young children to a third world country.  Kids get sick anywhere, I reminded myself. We have good health insurance here, access to care as good as in the States.
I tried to push from my mind the fact that we were on the edge of the mato, where dengue mosquitoes bred in shallow pools. Or that we’d failed to find a doctor who’d take us who was less than a forty-five minute drive away through terrifying traffic.
I stroked my sons’ heads and told them it would be ok. But I longed for the gentle, authoritative reassurance of my mother-in-law, who was a pediatrician. I wished I had my own mother to comfort me.

The stiff midribs make cooking skewers, arrows, brooms, brushes, for fish traps, and short-lived torches.
The roots are (as Borges says of the roots of language) irrational and of a magical nature. Visible above the ground, a tangle of thick braids.
They provide a dye, a mouthwash, a medicine for dysentery, and frayed out, toothbrushes; scorched, they are used as coffee substitute.

I liked to say, I live in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. When an old friend found me on Facebook, or I called a college in the States for my work as a guidance counselor.  I imagined the impressed pause, the unexpected jolt of it, and what it must have signified to the other person. Something exotic, worldly, warm.  The complex rhythm of the batuque drums. Palm trees on the beach.

The coconut palm is useful as an ornamental; its only drawback being the heavy nuts which may cause injury to man, beast, or rooftop when they hit, falling.
Palms were planted all around the condominium where we lived.  They leaned above the benches on the hill overlooking the soccer field. In the late afternoons, the mothers sat on the benches while the younger children played at our feet, poking ant hills with sticks.
There were dangers lurking everywhere, if you allowed yourself to think about it: the fire ants that left raised welts on your toes. Cupim, relatives of termites that burrowed into the soccer field, that bit and drew blood, left their head sharp-toothed in your flesh.
Dengue. Meningitis. Robberies at gunpoint.
There was the feeling of falling, or an imminent fall, a slight dizziness, as though I were perched on a edge of a great gulf, looking down.
Below, on the field, the older children kicked the soccer ball, calling to each other in Portuguese.Do you trust it? the mothers would say, looking up at the pendulous green coconuts. I don’t trust it.


Eleanor Stanford is the author of The Book of Sleep, published in 2008 by Carnegie Mellon Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. From 2009-2010, she lived in Salvador, Brazil with her family, where she worked as a guidance counselor at an international school. She currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she teaches college writing. She has three sons.

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