With his chubby fingers he adjusted the oil stained brim of the yellow and green hat. Soaking wet from the rain, his hat bore not only the colors of the gas company he worked, but the also the Brazil flag. Brazilians are very proud of their country and show it in color. He understood my words but was searching for his own. Looking through me rather than at me, I should have taken this as a clue.
I pulled into this out of the way posto (gas station) to get some shelter from the pelting rain that hammered me for the past hour. Too lazy to stop to put on the rain gear, I had hoped I’d simply ride through the storm and the precipitation would stop. But with the daylight all but gone, it was time for me to make a decision: stop for the night or continuing on to Maceio.
My early departure from the cobblestone streets of Salvador this morning was delayed by the attention attracted by my motorcycle in front of my hotel, the Solar do Carma. First, was Jorge, the taxi driver friend of Felipe, the owner of the pousada I stayed at while in Aratuba. I hadn’t met him, but he spotted my bike and asked if I stayed at Zimbo Tropical. Even in a city of millions, it’s hard for this gringo to fade into the background. Then I answered questions from guests of the hotel. Stefano, the Italian owner of the hotel offered advice for sites to see on my way north. This well spent time ate into my travel time and combined with slower (and safer) speeds for on and off rain showers, I was still 100km from Maceió.
An hour after leaving the gas station I started playing games in my head. Most of my thoughts were angry yet funny about my pudgy gas station attendant. Dodging potholes while climbing hills and winding around curves designated by fading road signs as dangerous, I imagined the guy never had been on the road. “Diretio. Directo.” Straitng and direct, he told me that road was to Maceió. “Bom estrada.” Good road. Well the road was filled with curves, the potholes were impossible to see as the rain beating on my faceshield made it impossible to see. Oncoming headlights created starlike refractions and glare adding to my frustration. Continued attemts to wipe it clean were fruitless.
The stench of burned and rotted sugarcane waterlogged by the rain was the only thing that pierced through this rain. I tried to borrow truck headlights, but riding to close meant that the chance of seeing and avoiding a pothole were dramatically reduced. Plus, the road was littered with wet and soggy fragmens of sugar cane: kind of like banana skins to motorcycel riders. Come around a corner and your front tire hits one of these and you’re down. You wouldn’t know what hit you.
Then I played the kilometer counting game. How many have I done? How much more? What time would I be out of this wet riding gear. Ahhh. Yes. I did zip in the gore tex rain liner into the jacket of my BMW riding suit. I opted against the pants. I changed to my all weather Held gloves, too. With a built in squegge on the index finger of the left hand, at least I could give a clean swipe in my attempts to see through the rain. Most of the time I would have to open the faceshield. Like pins and needles the rain bulleted my face. It was the only way I could see with oncoming headlights. And seeing was hardly the result.
The day had started out nice. Puffy white clouds hung low over Salvador as I made my way north along the coast – littoral norte. When I the river at the border of Bahia and Sergipe, I once again spotted a primitive palm and cane housing settlement on the side of the road. I had seen may of these farmworker “camps” in Northern Peru, and sometimes in Bolivia. I decided to stop to grab a quick self-commentary on the video and grab a few photos. But again, I attract attention and a slender man wearing a red shirt and red baseball cap stood smiling at me at the side of the road. I walked over and introduced myself. This stop turned out to be another contributing factor to my tense back-tightening, night-riding and rain-pelting ride into Maceió.
I was invited into one of these homes. There is no electricity. No plumbing. This is as bare bones, basic and poor as I’ve seen in South America. About ten by eight feet, there is room for two cots built out of palm and cane. Out the back is a small dirt hole with a home made fire pit which included a tin can and its cover perforated with holes as a “burner” where a simple pot could sit to boil water for rice or to cook beans. Hanging over the leg of one of the cots inside were three pairs of plastic 2 liter soft-drink bottles filled with water and tied together with rope which makes it easier to carry the bottles. Several plastic shopping bags tied hung throughout the hut, each containing suppies and stapls for life in this farmer worker community. Tacked to the cane that made the roof was plastic sheeting that would perhaps help make rainy nights for drier sleeping.
Later I spotted the other communities proudly flying the flag of their socialist worker party. But look at this photo closely and you’ll see power lines flying above the cane and palm huts. The electricity goes over these communities but never inside.
Noticing the sweat beading on my face, the lady of the house suggested I unzip my jacket, or simly take it off as she gestured to sit down on one of the cots. Next I was offered a papaya. It was presented to me with pride and offered with a glass of water. I declined the water, but because they told me it was customary to share the fruit, I obliged. The others crowded into the tiny bungalow were given small slices, which they at with their hands and teeth. But I was handed a complete half with a spoon. After eating about a third of this, I handed it back to the woman.
The man was proud to show me a cable that I recognized would be for an electric guitar or similar instrument. Turns out he plays guitar, sings and performs at these encampments throughout the state. He further explains to me that this camp is made up of 140 families. And he’s lived there all his life. The red cap and shirt display a simple logo that apparently has been provided by supporters of the social reform movement that has spread through Venezuela and Bolivia and even parts of Peru. I am presented with one of the red caps before I leave.
I’m touched and with a gesture that I have learned through my travels in Brazil, I form a fist in my right hand and with it hit my chest close to my heart two times and point back at the family. Hugs and heart touching. With seemingly nothing, these folks have everything they need. Or do they. The kids smiled, played and cried like any others. They were all smiling. And apparantly honored to have a guest in their home. As I left a small crowd had gathered. I felt a little funny, but I handed the man a business card and showed him the internet address. And asked if he’d seen the internet. He nodded. I told him that the pictures I took today would one day be visible for the world to see. He smiled. And told me to show my hat to any of the other communities I’d see. And that the next time I’m on the border of Bahia and Sergipe to be sure to stop. I could stay if I’d like. And as I continued it was easy to spot these farm worker communities; all proudly flying the socialist flag of the united farm workers.
But as I rode slowly and jerkily in the incessant rain, I could feel my Avon tires lose traction then grab as I rode over the muddy remnants of the endless trucks that pull out of dirt tracks every couple hundred meters along the sugar cane fields, leaving dirt that turns to slippery mud in the rain along this road. I was cold, tense and feeling stupid to put myself in this situation.
After the sugar cane is harvested the land plowed and replanted. The sugar cane is not used for sweet sugary products. It is harvested and used to convert into ethanol to power the vehicles manufactured and sold in Brasil.
But as I continued riding the windy, potholed and slippery road through the sugar cane fields to Maceió, I only could think how I wanted to be in dry clothes after a hot shower and drinking a cold beer. As for my friends back at the border, I think and I wonder. And I worry.