The Snake Woman of Ipanema

The Rio de Janeiro thing

The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few days ago that in the Ipanema neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, the Lagoa Rodrigo Freitas, a man-made lake, was experiencing a horrendous fish die-off. Raw sewage and an overabundance of trash were blamed for this, but as far as Renato and I knew, the die-off occurred every year when we lived in a house across from the lake decades ago. Lack of oxygen was faulted, but whatever the cause, the overwhelming stink haunted our days and nights until the pitiful belly-up victims were hauled away. We remembered that view fondly.

All the residents along Avenida Epitacio Pessoa considered the annual olfactory punishment a reasonable tradeoff for the view of Corcovado, the Christ on a Cross on its mountaintop beyond the lake, the walking paths around the lake, and the vicinity of Ipanema Beach a few blocks behind us.

But the famed beach of Copacabana is now in crisis with the same fish die-off and tons of sludge and sewage, as well as all the waterfronts up to Guanabara Bay on the city’s opposite side. Anyone who dares to dip a toe there is courting serious disease. The Olympic regatta is being planned in those waters in 2016. How are they going to manage that?

The Snake Woman of Ipanema

Into the woods…

…in Brazil, that is.

We lived in the Ipanema neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, the preference of most foreigners, but of course Americans always got it in the neck. The locals dubbed it, sarcastically, the American Slum. Wealthy enclave or not, there were these nightly offerings known as despachos on street corners.

The bowl of ground manioc with a piece of blue cloth on top together with an opened bottle of Coca Cola was a petition to Yemanjå, the Virgin Mary. Manioc paired with a piece of chicken and a bottle of beer was meant for Oxalå, or Jesus. With a bottle of cachaça, it was a call to Exü, the devil.

But street corners were not ideal for their purpose. When Renato and I went for a walk in the woods out of town we encountered despachos under trees by a creek. The trees bore colored strips of cloth. The confluence of tree, running water, and tree was best, we were told.

All of it set my imagination on fire. When we came back to live in California, I set to researching for a book, and Renato on his trips back to Brazil bought me reference works in Portuguese on various sects of magic so that The Snake Woman of Ipanema would be utterly authentic.

Each night all over Brazil thousands of spirit rituals — terreiros — burn to spirit deities. The Quimbanda sect is the scariest, and of course I had to include that in Snake Woman.

chinese ancient doors

Old China time

A neighbor — a very fine artist — invited me along with two Chinese ladies to lunch. One was a 26-year-old Phd candidate at UCBerkeley, the other an older lady who is an architect and who has lived in the United States since 1980. And she was from Shanghai, my hometown.

We started off in high interest on all sides and it seemed we had so much to talk about. The architect, a widow, lived alone but led a lively life in a dance club, where she had met my artist neighbor. Her son lived part of the year in Shanghai where he ran a business. The young lady expected to return to China next month — in Fukien province. Which brought out from me a desire to tell her how I felt about the horrific consumerism in China by billionaires in wildlife ivory and rhino horns.

She did not know about these depredations as I sought to inform her of what was happening. Obviously, she had no influence in that realm of wealth but I hoped she would bring back an awareness to her countrymen.

We talked of many other things; they laughed when I admitted that most of the Shanghai dialect I could remember was swear words. I told them how I used to quarrel with the rickshaw puller and tell him things whose meaning I didn’t understand. It was customary to get pretty hot when bargaining over the fare.

To the Phd student returning to China, I gave a copy of The Year of the Rat, my historical novel covering 1948-1949, the years just before and after the communist takeover and subsequent dealings with the populace. Does she know that 20 million Chinese, many for perceived sins against the regime, were executed? That “capitalists” as defined by the communist manifesto, leaped off tall buildings by the hundreds rather than be imprisoned and tortured? (Rich irony considering that Chinese billionaires are now rampant in their “communist” economy); that schoolchildren were told to turn in their parents if they heard them speak against the regime?

If she didn’t know these things then, she does now, unless she considers me biased. And what do I hope to achieve with the narrative of facts? Very little. What difference would it make to her way of life? Her life will be unchanged as she proceeds to implement her advanced degree in economics in her career.


Love motels

Actually, I didn’t know what subject title to select for this theme: Cultures or Romance or Marketing. I read a story in the paper the other day about short-term rentals in Rio de Janeiro for, um, couples to couple, and was reminded of an episode in Rio of an evening.

The Little Theatre was having a party on the rooftop of a building overlooking the beach, and we were all enjoying Chopp beer with our potluck dinner. The day’s heat had cooled to a salubrious temperature and there was a happy feeling of completion. I had produced “Table Manners” by Alan Ayckbourn to a full house of the city’s English-speaking expatriates, and we had the next season ahead to plan for.

Then Margrit, our PR person, suddenly fainted, and no one knew what to do. One didn’t call 911 in Brazil, and all we knew to do was feel for her neck pulse and listen to her heartbeat. She was breathing and seemed quite stable, according to our unschooled opinion, so several of the men picked her up and carried her down to a room in the building. The property owner had rented us the rooftop for our party.

The room was startling. Mirrors lined the ceiling and the foot of the room. The bedcover was scarlet satin. But we settled Margrit in the bed and covered her in the scarlet spread. One of us volunteered to stay with her when she woke up, foreseeing her bewilderment on finding herself in that room.

When I think back to that episode I marvel at our insouciance. What if Margrit had had a serious attack of some kind? What if she was in serious danger of dying? We must have quaffed too much Chopp for we took her faint in pretty good cheer.

In any case, Margrit woke up, looked at her surroundings, and burst out laughing!

Big elephant mother and small baby

The Humane Scorecard

The Humane Society sends me an eye-opening magazine called The Humane Scorecard. In it every single member of Congress is reported on his or her voting record on animal rights.The spreadsheet is impressive, headlining Horse Boring, Primates as Pets, Horse Slaughter, Hen Housing, Animal Fighting, to Agricultural Subsidies and the Farm Bill I and II.

It goes on to cover the Sportsmen’s Act and Endangered Species, and there, the non-surprise is the “Nay” vote from, as far as I can see, a Republican majority. Senator Tom Cruz’s (Texas) vote is missing from all except The Farm Bill (Nay) and the Sportsman’s Act (Aye).

Rep. Tom Cotton (Arkansas) of the Letter to Iran fame, does not vote until the Ag Subsidies (Nay) and all the rest. His single “Aye” goes to Farm Bill I.

There is news that various governments are banning the trade in ivory and that the United States is allocating a large fund to stop poaching. Apparently, the impetus is concern that the illegal trade is funding the terrorists. If that is what it takes to stop the killings and not that elephants would become extinct, it is still action, finally.

By the way, there was an item in the San Francisco Chronicle today excerpted from the National Post, Toronto, that I quote:

“A front-page photo shows Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his family waving to supporters after he announced that he would run for president in 2016. For Canadians, Cruz’s chief point of interest is the fact he was born in Calgary, and had joint U.S.-Canadian citizenship until he renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2014. Now, there’s no question that he is a red-blooded, God-fearing, family-oriented, dyed-in-the-wool Texas conservative. But he has as much chance of becoming president as most other people born in Canada, which is to say pretty much zero.”

chinese ancient doors

Shanghai story

About once a month, Sister Maureen, the Loretto School principal, would take me out of class to accompany her downtown on her errands. I was always glad to oblige – as if I had a choice – especially if she interrupted a class on English grammar.

Carrying her umbrella, I went with her on the tram up Avenue Joffre in the French settlement to the International settlement where all the businesses bided. First, we went to the utility company to pay a bill, then on to shopping. Added to the umbrella were parcels and I juggled them all very nicely, except once, when the crook of the umbrella caught itself onto the boarding rail of the tram. Fortunately the tram was not moving though it was about to. Exhibiting swift, sleight of hand while dropping all the parcels, I unhooked before I was carried away. Sister Maureen was only amused and said something about my providing constant entertainment. Perhaps that was why she maintained her monthly dates with me and not with any other student.

I think now that taking a student with her held another purpose. It must not have been seemly for a nun to be seen traveling alone, although as I recall, Sister Maureen would have dispelled any notions of impropriety because she was tough looking and well along middle age. She had a gruff manner that did not in the least intimidate one. Getting her to laugh was rewarding. It was hard giving up school when the commies took over Shanghai. Is it any wonder I wrote those novels about it all?

Mojo at six weeks

“Mojo’s Way” Redux

The piece about Mojo ran 2300 words, an unwieldy length for most cat magazines, which prefer 800 words or less. I proposed that they publish in increments and was not surprised that the offer was turned down. One magazine wanted to buy all rights, for $50. I mean, what era are they living in?

I went overseas to the UK and then to Australia, where I found a most friendly cat magazine, Ozzicat. They publish both online and in paper, and length did not matter. I am glad for the little guy, because that pussycat deserves wide exposure.

On a sunny day yesterday Loaner and Mojo and I lay on the grass again and I took a few pictures. Come to think of it, I should post at least one on this site. Look for it. I found a chip of wood of the right size and heft and said to Mojo “Zummm!” and he became alert. From our fetch games inside the house this signals the start of our fetch-and-catch game. So we were off, throwing and chasing, only it didn’t occur to him to carry it back in his mouth to me. It was not his purple yarn ball and didn’t taste right. But at 2:00 a.m. he jumped up on my bed and chirruped. That was my cue, and I groped and found — the wood chip. I had stashed it behind a flowerpot on the deck and didn’t think he cared.

For her part Loaner watched benignly, automatically giving off a Pssst! whenever he cannoned into her. All is well with the troops.