The Brazilian Beetle

While Renato worked on his hydroelectric project, I got myself a job at the American School of Rio de Janeiro in the headmaster’s office. The school sat on a steep hill across from the Rocinha favela (slum) and for a few months I got to work via bus–until Renato surprised me one day with a white Beetle bearing the license plates LB1111 (it hangs in our California garage today–the plate, not the car).

I found my own parking spot that no one else seemed to covet under a jaboticaba tree and soon discovered why not. In high season the cherry-shaped fruit rained down on my car and left near-indelible purple splotches all over it. Brazilian drivers passing me would chortle and call out “Caught you, estrangeira! (foreigner!)

I wondered why no one on the school staff thought to mention the perils of jaboticaba but realized it was a sort of rite of passage for the new hire. Even the American members of the faculty had kept mum. But I couldn’t keep a grudge because it was my turn next to watch a newbie park his/her car in that spot.

Then there were the spirit offerings under trees that intrigued me. I learned to distinguish which entity the various settings were for: a bowl of manioc grain with a chicken leg on top, accompanied by an opened bottle of Coca Cola was meant for Yemanja, the Virgin Mary; the manioc and a bottle of beer, for Oxala, Jesus; and the manioc with cachaca–cane liquor, for Exu, the devil. If one went into the woods there were more offerings and mystical messages etched in ribbons tied around trees. They were most potent if done by running water. All this, of course, induced me to research the spirit beliefs¬†of many Brazilians when Renato and I returned to live in Califoria, which led to The Snake Woman of Ipanema, a novel of that world.