So you think you want to go to Brazil, lassie?

Recently I went on a month long vacation to Salvador, Brazil. What happened was not at all what I had expected. In the next five Catches I’ll describe some of the things which we encountered on our trip. First, the question of water.

Digging for water

Digging for water

After travelling for about 24 hours from Vancouver, my friend and I get to Salvador, on the northeast coast of Brazil. We’ve rented a lovely casa in a working class neighbourhood; however, when we arrive, we discover that the house has no water. Well, maybe a dribble. No casa is that lovely without water.
Because my friend, T., spent twenty-five years running a charitable organization in Salvador, she not only speaks Portuguese, but she knows a lot of people who can help. They arrive.
The possibilities canvassed as to the cause of the water problem are: the landlord hasn’t paid his bill; he doesn’t have water tanks on the roof; he’s illegally hooked into the city’s water supply and so doesn’t have enough water to get to the tanks on the roof, if there are tanks on the roof; the pipes are blocked/corroded/have air pockets…
So we decide to call the landlord, who lives in New York. The difficulty is that the phone doesn’t work. We call him on my ipad using Skype. He doesn’t have a clue what could be wrong.
As a result of the call, more people go off in all directions.
It’s very hot and I’m grimy from the trip. I stand under the shower as water drips from the faucet. I might as well be standing under a broken eavestrough after a rainstorm.
We set about finding a new place to live. T. can’t read Portuguese as well as she can speak it, so we don’t quite know what the internet ads say. We look at the pictures. T.’s friend, nicknamed Trouper, helps with the responses, but his eyes are weak and he can’t see what he’s typing. So he writes out the message to put on these websites, and I type it in; but I can’t read his handwriting.
This becomes the template for handling all our subsequent problems in Brazil.
As we are looking for a new place, workers arrive to do something about the water; someone comes to fix the phone. And I discover I’ve forgotten half my power cord for my computer. With a traveler’s early ignorance and confidence, I’m certain we can find a replacement cord.
Trouper falls in with my plan. Although we don’t speak the same language, we set out in his car. Along the main highway into town there are malls. We go from one to another, looking for Apple products and the power cord. The malls glisten with high end stores, oh so many pairs of shoes, and purses. Such incongruity with our neighbourhood. In one of the streets where we are staying, what looks like a speed bump on the road ahead is actually the pile up of garbage. The beaches have been fouled. The poverty is gagging. And we are currently in a mall choked with toys for the rich. Something is deeply wrong here.
Travelling in maniacal traffic, heading for yet another mall, I put the orphan half of my computer cord around my neck, so Trouper will understand I’m going to hang myself unless we stop this search, and go back to our desert casa. Which we do.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, which is Sunday, the house is crawling with men, each of whom is carrying a tool box. I say to T., “This looks promising.”
She says, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Digging for water at night

Digging for water at night

They climb on the roof. They take off the roof tiles. They take apart the taps. They decide there’s air in the pipes. They use a bicycle pump to pump out the lines. This seems to be what T. described as jeito: the good-willed energy and ability to repair stranded cars with two wires and a pocket knife, or, in this instance, climb onto a high roof with neither rope nor ladder. To my surprise, the bike pump clears the air in the lines, but it doesn’t much help.
The only way I manage to cope with the frustrations which beset us is to think: actually, I’m in India. I was there once, and I quickly learned that you cannot control any situation, or exert your will, in India; one must surrender. So eventually I do. I smile a lopsided smile as my laptop dies.
One thing about being in India is that, after a while, events take on an absorbing teeter-totter quality. Whenever anyone says “good news!” I adopt T.’s mantra: “maybe yes, maybe no.”
Sharing a computer, even with a very dear friend, is tricky business, especially if neither of you has had shower. T. is generous; I am nervous.
And even though I thought I’d been paying attention, I don’t quite know how a decision was made (note the passive voice) that the real problem (not corroded pipes or an unpaid water bill) the real problem is that the water pipe belonging to the house is too small. So on Monday we have to hurry back from the beach because more, and different, men are coming. Using picks and shovels, they are going to dig up the street. Without getting permission from anyone.
The road in front of our house is wide enough for one parked car and one moving car; the position of the hole is almost half way across. In other words, it’s smack in the centre of traffic. After five hours, the diggers quit work to come back the next day. And the next. Eventually we learn they can’t actually find where the pipe emerges from under the sidewalk to connect to the city’s water line. There are as many holes in the road as days which had passed: four.
We’re not able to find another place to rent. We’re staying. Trouper holds the garden hose as we “bathe” outside, in the walled-in front of the house.
While we’re in the market today, we get a phone message that they found the water connection. “What good news,” we say. Maybe yes, maybe no. When we get home it’s maybe no. After replacing the connection, we have only slightly more than a dribble of water into the house.
But gradually — no doubt because I have become Mother Theresa — I feel lighter.
I’ll close now, wishing you well, from Salvador, India.