Troubles and Joy On the Road to Santa Theresa

Jim Lacheman (foreground) on the back roads of Brazil.

by John Robinson

“Push! Come on, puuusssssh; keep…. it.…moving.”  Thomas, Jim, and I strain at the bumper of the “Bandierante,” our truck. If we can just get it over this little rise we’ve got it made. For the last two days we’ve been traveling in a vehicle with a non-functional charging system and therefore a consistently dead battery. Unable to find a mechanic to successfully diagnose the problem in the small towns through which we’ve passed, we’ve been charging the battery on the fly by jump starting it from other vehicles as we go.

We press on to the town of Santa Theresa, where the German expat Thomas assures us there is a mechanic who can fix the problem: “German Bosch trained!” he proudly assert. “It’s the diode!” he exclaims in that thick accent, every time the subject arises. He pronounces it like “coyote” and Jim and I find this funny beyond reason.

This part of Brazil, Espirito Santos, was colonized by European immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, during the colonial period, the Botocudo Indians held the Portuguese at bay in this mountainous, verdant region. By the time the Italian, German, and Swiss immigrants arrived, the native people had moved westward, and the Europeans settled in this beautiful part of the world for the long term. Like immigrants throughout history, these folks were looking for opportunity, a new lease on life, escape from relatives, that sort of thing. The new land suited them well.

“It must be over 1000 meters high…” Jim remarks, nodding toward one of the many soaring spires of black granite found in this province. Such monoliths jut from the Mata Atlantica, the lush forest that once covered all the coastal parts of southern Brazil, and lend an other worldliness to the scene. Along with the granite spires and Mata are expansive coffee fincas- plantations- with occasional rows of banana plants sown like embroidery within the greater quilt of coffee plants.

We’ve come here on a goodwill mission and to fly paragliders. “Voo livre” -free flight in Portueguese- is popular in this big country; world class paragliding sites abound. Earlier today we found ourselves flying at a stunning place called Biaxu Guandu with several ever-ebullient Brazilian pilots as well as a Swiss and Polish one too.

My headlamp shines with a feeble glow up under the rear of the truck -so much for the hope of no more roadside meditations- as I tighten the wire securing the muffler. Steve, our enthusiastic Brit driver reminds me that this one is a bonus; the truck will run fine without its muffler. Nevertheless, we’ll try to hang on to it if we can. That task completed, I crawl out from beneath the vehicle and brush my hands on my pants. Meanwhile, Thomas is engaged in an animated conversation –he’s the only one of us possessing a working knowledge of Portuguese- with a weathered-faced coffee farmer who is perched on his diesel tractor pulled up next to the Bandierante. The tractor shakes with internal combustion, and from it jumper cables run like umbilical cords to the truck, our battery thirstily taking on juice.

Underway again, we laugh at the ridiculousness of our transportation situation. “It’s the story of my life,” I wail with all the drama I can muster. The closer we get to Santa Theresa, the stronger are the echos of Europe, and as we finally pull into town it is easy to imagine that we are in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Ahhh, it’s good to be here. Shouldering our dusty packs, we shuffle into the guesthouse just off the cobbled main street. Steve has stayed here before and is acquainted with Merita, the proprietor. She immobilizes him with a smile and a hug fit for a long-lost son. This is Brazil; reservedness need not apply.

Our new friends are taking us on a nighttime tour of the town, padding the stone streets and crossing the neat, moonlit village square. We slip into one of the 100-year-old saloons, whose floor is laid with black and white tiles which are cracked and unevenly settled and deeply worn from a century of devoted passage thereon. The walls are dark wooden panels between masonry columns that stand stoically at intervals. The place breathes with the colorful history of the people who have lived their lives in the comfortable dolce vita of towns like this one. I sit and admire the walls plastered with decades-old notices, and I sip my passion fruit juice, suco de maracuja. I leave to my more intrepid companions the potent cachaca, the famed Brazilian sugar-cane rum.

The streets are silent as we head back to the pousada. We pass the unmistakably Italian Igreja Matriz, an old church complete with cupola and roundels. Tomorrow we’ll get the truck fixed, visit the hummingbird museum, and let our hosts show us the local paragliding sites. The day after that we’ll head to the Swiss-settled town of Santa Leopoldina, one of the earliest European colonies of Espirito Santos.

But that’s tomorrow. Tonight I dream of endless roads through colorfully shaded lands, a rich heritage, and the smiles and laughter of the kind and generous Brazilians.

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