One of the many great places that I have had the good fortune of visiting is the Brazilian Nordeste (northeast). This dry, scrubby, beautiful land with poverty-stricken people offers a stark contrast to the lush rainforest of the Amazon and the rainy chunk of southern Brazil where wealth prospers and European descendants of German, Italian and Polish stock sometimes reminisce about how their lives would be if they had successfully separated from the rest of Brazil.
Equator of Bust
I was on a mission to make it as close to the equator as possible and sample the exotic fruits and females of the region. Yet to my surprise, a stale piece of aracaje (something like a Cajun hushpuppy with shrimp and spice inside) had other plans for my digestive system. I was on the road in a Brazilian charter bus when I decided to eat this little piece of Bahian culture at a truck stop that was offered to me by a happy woman of African descent in a traditional white Bahian dress. Bahia was home to the largest slave port in the Western Hemisphere once upon a time and it stills holds true to its ethnic and cultural roots in many ways.
Singing and Saving Souls
By the time I had reached the state of Piaui, I knew something was terribly wrong with my belly. It started to churn and flip like a wooden roller coaster and I knew I had to find a bathroom and fast. It was exactly at this moment that I also realized that the vast majority of all the passengers on the bus were singing evangelical Christians and the bus had a flat tire in the hottest strip of desert I had ever been in. There was no toilet paper in the bus’ tiny bathroom. I did what I could while they sang about their Savior.
The illness slowly drained my electrolytes and body fat as I made my way to the final stop on my destination, Sao Luis de Maranhão. None of the hotels in town had air conditioning and the average low for that time of year was about 90 degrees with 85% humidity. It was a cleansing experience to say the least. I finally landed in the historic district in an old hotel that had paint coming off the walls and a fan! A glorious, blessed fan!
My 15 Minutes of Fame
After two days of constant sweating, lemon water and diarrhea, I decided to take a walk downtown. I was immediately asked to go on the set for a movie the city was making to promote tourism. I had the pleasure of holding a non-alcoholic blue drink and chatting with two blonde-haired, blue-eyed Belgians sitting at my table. I don’t know what ratings the film got nor how much it grossed.
After three days, several of the best pills a doctor could give me and ten pounds of weight loss, I decided that I should probably get back to Rio to a hospital or Brazilian archaeologists would be showing my bones to their students in a few centuries.
Blessed Green Salvation!
I packed up my backpack and walked sluggishly into the lobby when a tan, indigenous man stopped me to ask how I was doing. I said that I was not feeling well and had a terrible stomach problem. He told me in Portuguese to follow him and, having nothing left to lose, I did just that.
We walked for about two miles to an open air market with hanging pieces of rotting meat and more herbs than you could shake a stick at. The man picked three large bunches of different green leaves from friendly vendors in the market, mixed them with some lime peel and began to boil them in a tea pot in a woman’s pretzel stand.
In about 15 minutes he filled two liter bottles up with the boiling liquid and told me to drink it as fast as I could. I gulped it down in a matter of minutes and by the time I had arrived at the airport 45 minutes later my stomach was on the mend. The medicine man had cured me. But what about those happy people in the countryside that I saw living practically in cardboard boxes, trying to farm marginal land with little rain or irrigation?
Your Call to Action
Their cure is not so quick nor simple. The answer to helping people with few resources is both economic and environmental. They need options that offer a decent living without destroying the environment around them. Heifer International offers solutions for people in such situations. They develop partnerships with local organizations in several countries, train people in animal husbandry and donate farm animals to the people so they can sustain and feed themselves while causing minimal environmental damage. The really cool thing about Heifer is that you can donate a cow, chickens, sheep or pigs and know that your donation has a direct positive impact on people’s lives.
These were, without a doubt, the poorest people I had ever seen, but only in an economic sense for their spirits were full with joy and humility. I would love to hear your thoughts about ways that we can help create decent livelihoods for poor people and respect the environment at the same time!