It is dawn as we set off from the fazenda on our first exploratory walk. We walk from the house across the meadow, an uneven meadow of long grass with all sorts of trip hazards – unexpected holes and bumps and clumps. The horse at the end looks at us with mild curiosity. On our right, as we emerge from the bumpy meadow, is a rubber tree plantation. I’ve never seen rubber trees before. I know that rubber comes from trees, and I know that you have to cut the tree to get the rubbery sap out, but I had never really thought about how that works. And here we have it: rows of tall, straight trees, each with a little black plastic flowerpot tied to its trunk, and the white rubber slowly descending from the scratches on the trunk. When I say slowly, I mean too slowly to actually see. We know it is moving, but it seems to be still. The white gum – oh, it looks like glue, of course! – caught in suspended animation. A frozen drip poised over the pot, like a tiny stalactite. A butoh-esque dance of infinitesimally small movements. The sun has now risen, and is slanting through the tress, creating beautiful striped patterns on the forest floor – a floor that is covered in lacy skeleton leaves, tiny broken twiglets that look like Twiglets, and mottled rubber tree nuts.
Onwards, past the sugar cane. Lots of sugar cane. More sugar cane. Once, I am told, there used to be lots of different crops on this farm. Oranges and clementines. Avocados and mangos and passion fruit and limes. Tomatoes and corn. Before that, coffee. Of course, coffee – the whole of Sao Paulo was one big coffee plantation once upon a time. Now, sugar cane has taken over. Not just because sugar is big business – cana is also the basis for bio-fuel, which is very popular in Brazil. Many cars can swap between regular petrol and ‘álcool’ as it is called. So this is now what is grown. The old farmers in the local bars tut-tut. Bad for the biodiversity, they say, all this sugar cane. Also, instead of the big plantation owners renting out areas to be farmed by locals, the fashion now is for the cane to be harvested by transient workers brought in just for that job.
And on we trek, now on a path near a river that flooded earlier this year, hence the muddy straggle of mushy grasses and battered bushes across and to each side of the path. We pass tall, grand trees, young and strong. We pass ancient, strange shaped, intertwined trees. One is growing almost horizontally across our path, its gnarled grey limbs covered in moss. We call it the Lizard Tree. We scramble down to the river, and here is another sideways tree, growing right across the river. We call it the Ponte de Macacos – the Monkey Bridge. The temptation is too strong to resist, so in we go. The current is ferocious, so we have to cling to the monkey bridge, or to the Tarzan-ish strands of stringy foliage dangling down into the water, for quite a while before we get to grips with how to work against the pull of the water.
Home for breakfast, and a discussion on what we want to do and where we want to do it. Already on the cards: a performance-installation at Pedro’s bar in the local village, Cachoeirinha, that evening (Friday). A trip to the Santo Expedito festival at the local church on Saturday evening. Creating a version of Paraladosanjos’ Strange Fruits installation, using silks hung from a high tree. Meeting local men and women to talk to them about their lives. A trip to the ‘represa’ – the local reservoir, a key geographic feature of the area. This is already a lot, but now we’ve really seen where we are, there’s a lot more we want to fit in.
What has emerged, following on from the morning walk, includes: a desire to do some form of ensemble performance piece in the rubber trees; a performance to camera piece at the Ponte de Macacos, which should include rigging over the water and filming from above and below; an ‘Indian in the forest’ solo performance to camera amongst the rubber trees, reflecting on colonialism and the rubber wars; sound recording of birds and other wildlife at dawn; a desire to work with the extraordinary ploughed fields of red earth, perhaps using Butoh-esque minimal movement; a decision that as the sugar cane is so important to the region, we really ought to do something in the cane fields. It emerges in conversation that a lot of us find the sugar cane fields a little ominous…
For the rest of the day, we work solo or in small groups – walking, thinking, recording, photographing, filming. Some go off in search of people to interview about their life here, including tracking down a woman called Rita who has made the lovely cheese that we had for breakfast. Some are more focused on making sound recordings in the fields and amongst the rubber trees. In the afternoon, I travel with Marilia (from Paraladosanjos) and Renata (our producer and community gatekeeper here – although she is also a talented performer and is thus also part of the artistic team) to Pedro’s bar to make plans for the evening.
The bar is an unassuming place, on the corner opposite the church – which is quite an ordinary Catholic church, other than that it has an enormous blue neon cross on its steeple. We’ve considered pinning down the priest to ask if we can project onto the side of the church, but once we are there, decide that even though the road isn’t terribly busy, it is rather wide, so best to keep everything together at Pedro’s. The bar has concrete benches outside, stencilled with dedications, such as ‘Oferta Armando Ferrari e Familia’. On the dull green exterior wall, another stencil: ‘Nao Entre Sem Camisa’ (no entry without a shirt). Inside, an ancient mushroom-beige and chrome fridge, a bar with a map of Sao Paulo pinned up behind it, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary bearing a little electric light (the Catholic Church is holding on here, defying the Evangelist movement sweeping Brazil’s countryside). There’s a stack of yellow chairs, and photocopied signs, ‘Ele’ and ‘Ela’, pointing out the toilets. Pedro is wearing a polo shirt that has seen better days, shorts, and a baseball cap. On his feet, Blundstone style workman boots. Everyone wears boots here – cowboy boots are popular. I’ve been kitted out with a pair in tan hide. This is snake country, so traipsing around in Havaianas is not recommended. One of Pedro’s regular customers, a rather smartly dressed man called Vino (crisp blue shirt, white fedora, belted grey trousers) tells us gleefully about all the snakes. There are the cascavéis (rattlesnakes), which mostly avoid people, other than one nasty one that ‘will stand up and run after you’. He talks knowledgeably about the three types of urutu. There’s the urutu de papa amarelo (yellow-throat), the cruzero which is black and white like a crossword puzzle, and the dorado, which is golden. I can’t remember which is the most dangerous, they all sound vile. Gosh, I think, I’ve been in Brazil almost three months and haven’t seen any snakes… then start touching wood and crossing myself to chase the thought away. No snakes, please – not in my last few days.
As if all this talk of rattlesnakes is not enough, there are also – apparently – the anacondas – great big things that run off with puppies (and probably small children given half the chance). Why are there anacondas here when they are not native to these parts? Well, says Vino, replying to his own question: someone brought them in to eat the baby capivaras. This is all too much. Capivaras are lovely docile creatures, a little bit like Moomins, although brown rather than white. Why would anyone want them killed? Apparently they harbour leeches, which get passed on to farm animals, so they are not liked by the locals. The men in the bar seem to be enjoying our distress – city girls, hey ho! Some of these caipira (hillbilly) men really do look like cowboys – one is in a brown leather hat that matches his boots, and like the other men in the bar he sports a belt that has a kind of Leatherman knife pouch attached to it. Who knows what the knives are for. Cutting cane, spearing snakes?
As we stand outside the bar, a sugar cane truck goes by. It is an enormous double-barrelled thing, triple-barrelled if you count the cab, its sides a dark blue metal pitted with rows of tiny holes. A Juggernaut – it is ancient, primeval, eternal. It roars as it passes us. In its wake, an enormous cloud of dust. Later, at dusk, I’m standing on the edge of a ploughed field of big red earth clods next to a road that is little more than a dirt track. One of the sugar cane trucks comes thundering by. The dust cloud this time is all enveloping. The smoke is a thick rusty red, and I’m inside it. I stand coughing. I wait for the dust to clear, and wait, and wait. I can’t see my companions. All I can see are the rear lights of the truck as it moves on ever deeper into the sugar cane plantation, two great animal eyes, penetrating the thick fog of smoke and dust, but that’s all. It feels like forever, but I suppose it is only takes a few minutes for the air to clear enough to see. The rusty haze stays on the horizon, providing an enigmatic veil for the setting sun. My companions are now black silhouettes against the extraordinary reds and rusts and oranges of the tropical twilight sky.
Later in the evening, we return to Pedro’s bar, driving towards a moon so big and full it looks like a theatrical prop – as if someone has hung a massive great electric lantern in the sky. It is hard not to stare and stare and stare, like rabbits. Or like the owls who keep scuttling out of the sugar cane gangways and flying straight across our path. There are lots of different sorts of birds in these parts. There are Urubu, vultures, who sit in pairs on high branches. There are the Quero-quero, who lay their eggs in nests set in the grass, and circle around squawking to frighten people off who walk across the meadow. There is the João de Barro bird who builds his nest out of clay, then imprisons his wife in it. But for now, it’s owls, owls, owls all the way.
The moon leads us onwards, and we keep a look out for Saci, who apparently lives in the sugar cane fields. He is a one-legged black or mulatto boy who smokes a pipe and wears a magical red cap that enables him to disappear and reappear wherever he wishes. He is not really malicious, but he is a prankster and trickster: if your cream curdles, or your rice burns, that’ll be Saci’s work. He hides children’s toys, teases dogs, and sets the chickens loose. He’s a shapeshifter, and sometimes changes himself into a dust-whirl, or into a matitapere bird.
As we drive along the deserted tracks, Renata tells us these stories, and tells us her own stories of living on the farm with her small children; and before that, her memory of walking these dirt tracks heavily pregnant, determined to get herself home to the farm at night from the village. A brave and feisty young woman who had lived in Sao Paulo and Paris, amongst other cities, and who had never felt at all afraid to walk anywhere alone by night, but now had to brace herself against the hoots and howls and rustlings of these spooky dirt tracks through the cane fields.
We arrive at Pedro’s and it turns out the whole village is there to greet us. Renata, Raquel and I set up our installation. There are lace tablecloths to go onto the tables, fishing nets, rocks and stones, and walking sticks brought from Bonete (the isolated fishing community on Ilhabela that was our last stop). We buy cahchaça to put on the tables – or try to. Pedro doesn’t want to take money from us. His bar has never been as busy. There are old people here, he says, that he hasn’t seen in decades. A posse of grannies has got here early and they are occupying the two tables at the front, where the films will be projected onto a handy stone wall. They get through a lot of ice-cream tubs throughout the evening. There are also young women with babies, including a new-born wrapped in a lemon-yellow blanket; couples standing holding hands on the edge of the space; and gaggles of teenage girls in jeans and crop tops eyeing up young men in the inevitable football shirts and shorts. Everyone is here, including a sad-eyed droopy-eared dog who hangs around hopefully.
We’ve decided on Friday night because Saturday night is a feast day, with an evening mass and a procession planned. The church is our only rival for entertainment in these parts. There is no cinema, no theatre, no community centres other than this bar and the football club next to it. So we are it – the entertainment. Renata introduces us. She is well-known and well-loved in these parts, and she gets a rousing welcome. She tells everyone how honoured she is to be working with Marcos and Marilia and everyone else from the Paraladosanjos company. I’m worried that she’s singing our praises a little too loudly and raising expectations – but I needn’t have worried. They love everything we present to them – video projections, physical theatre scenes, interactive performance moments. No one has told them that this is cutting edge, multi-discipline performance – they see people who have come to share stories from other places with them, and they appreciate this greatly. They join in, clap, laugh, and give us a rousing ovation at the end.
Afterwards, we open up the floor to anyone who wants to share something with us, and for the next two hours the house is alive with poems and songs – ranging from traditional countryside ditties sung by trios of old men accompanying themselves on cavaquinho or 10-string ‘viola’, to would-be Beyoncés warbling the latest hit from the US charts. There’s dancing too – including a clapping and stamping country dance called the Catira, done by two lines of men in cowboy hats and sturdy boots. Somehow, as I’ve been announced as a dancer and choreographer, I get an invite to join in. An honorary cowboy. Luckily I’m wearing my tan hide boots. Once people learn that I’m from England, I get a whole stream of people coming up to me to congratulate me on the Queen’s 90th birthday, which apparently was the day before, 21st April – an anniversary I’d missed, but which they hadn’t.
Pedro is too busy serving people to perform his poems that night, but when we go back on the next night, after mass at the church and the Santo Expedito procession (a petition for hopeless cases and lost causes), he doesn’t take much persuading to give us a few renditions of his spoken-word versions of the local ballads, a lot of which circle around sugar cane plantation stories, and particularly about the the making and drinking of cachaça – the Brazilian national alcoholic drink, which is made from sugar cane. As we had discovered in other countryside parts, the caipirinha cocktail is viewed as an abominable city-dwellers’ aberration. Cachaça is to be drunk neat and pure, not messed up with the addition of chopped limes and sugar and crushed ice and the like. When Pedro recites his lyrics, he gazes ahead in a kind of trance, speaking in a steady rhythmical voice, as his wife Isobel looks on with a supportive smile. As we stand at the bar listening, people come in to be served, but he ignores them until he is done. At one point a rather agitated old vagabond comes in – skin like a walnut shell, no teeth, torn shirt, battered boots. He doesn’t look too happy about having to wait for his Brahma beer, but he just about manages to hold out until Pedro has finished his recitation.
Cachoeirinha is one of many small towns in Brazil with the same name – it means small waterfall, and there are a lot of those. This one is in the Itápolis region of Sao Paulo, in between Guariroba and Nova América. We’ve driven here from nearby Ribeirão Preto, a dry and sunny city with a high altitude, built on the crater of an extinguished volcano. Near to where we are staying, on the Fazenda Sao Francisco, is a represa, or reservoir. As we drive up to where we need to park before descending through the paths to the water, we pass a number of deserted buildings – apparently from the days when there was a quarry here. As we scramble down the steep paths, we see the reservoir – a great wide lake banked by red earth. It is only when we are in the water – which is warm on the surface and surprisingly cold below – that I’m told that I’m swimming in a bottomless lake – or at least, a lake so deep no-one knows the exact depth. Apparently below me is a kind of Atlantis. The quarrymen were digging through the rock in the valley when they hit an underground lake. The water from the lake below the rock gushed up, covering the buildings and machinery and tools. People fled for their lives, and the water carried on rising – 300, 400, 500 metres. The abandoned quarry is forever buried – some say it is now kilometres rather than metres below. It’s an odd story to contemplate, whilst swimming in silence through cold, dark waters, as the setting sun casts beams out across the water from behind the trees. On the shore, a group of teenage boys pack up their fishing gear and the remains of their barbecue and head off. The only creature remaining on the shore is the black labrador that belongs to our host on the farm, Roberto, who is currently diving deep below the surface to enjoy the silence and stillness of the depths below. The dog, Nietzche, has had a swim but is now on dry land – and looking rather mournfully out to the ripples that mark out where his master is in the water.
This is such a beautiful part of the world – but there is something haunted about it. A sense of things below the surface, waiting. As we climb back up the slopes from the water, parting the long grasses as we go, I stop for a moment to take a photo of the reservoir on my phone. Let’s not stop, says my companion Lorenzo. Oh, are we in a hurry to get back, I say. It’s just best not to stand still at this time of the day, he replies. Apparently this is the ‘snake hour’. The river, too, which we return to, creating some pretty amazing performance to camera, some of which is filmed underwater. There are stories here too – of floods, of a suicide. A stone sculpture that Roberto had made in the environment a year earlier is still standing, although the stones are a little bit dislodged. The pull of the river current is just as strong as it was the previous day, but now I’m learning how to move through it. It is a very odd sensation, swimming at full strength and basically getting nowhere. I follow Renata, who knows which side to move to, and back from, to make her way upriver. We always swim this side of the Ponte de Macacos, she says, never the other side. I take her word for it.
On our last morning, we get up early to return to the cane fields. Marilia is dressed as a bride – we’ve been creating a series of images across Sao Paulo’s beaches and countryside of the ‘bride of nature’, exploring the juxtaposing of the wild and the tamed, nature and high society. We are dressed in our red evening wear for an improvised performance and photo shoot, with fascinators and feathers and gloves – although we’ve eschewed the high heels in favour of cowboy boots. Because – yes, you’ve guessed – of the snakes. It is also because the snakes that we have the dogs with us – the trusty labradors, Nietzsche and Florabella. The dogs go in before us, running up and down the narrow strips of earth between the rows of cane. Then it’s our turn. As we enter, it gets darker. The cane is taller than us and forms a criss-crossed canopy above us. Some of the canes are green and full of sap, some are brown and dry. We snap them off and taste them. They are nothing like as sweet as I’m expecting them to be – probably because they have some more growing to do before they are harvested. It’s a relief to emerge out of the gloom and into the sunshine. In my head, I’m reliving horrible moments from Latin American novels and films. Sugar Cane Alley. Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It is hard to stand in a sugar cane field and not feel the weight of centuries of colonial oppression, slavery and abuse. It is hard not to think of curses or dooms. And snakes. It is hard not to think of snakes. Somehow, miraculously, I leave the fazenda two days before my flight back to Europe without seeing one snake. I give thanks to Saci, and to the labradors – and in fact, to the snakes for leaving me alone.