Red Dirt Diary #6

Photo: N. Grinnell

Caity Peterson
by Caity Peterson



A Multidão

Apart from Ester, José, Tiago, and Sombra, there is no lack for other characters here at the fazenda. Caio is one of them. He is a young, slick-faced, nut-brown ranch hand, one of those men that would be paunchy if he led a city life but is instead lean and powerful from a job that requires constant exercise. He usually wears one of a series of soccer jerseys paired with typical gaucho bombacha pants, a knife at his hip. He is equipped with the cleverest tongue of all the ranch hands.

“I’m so stressed,” he says.

“Really, Caio? Why?”

“No! Well, I mean, that’s what everyone else always says. I’m so stressed, they always say. I don’t know what they mean, but hey, I don’t want to be left out now do I?”

It’s true: I can’t think of a person less afflicted by modern-day anxieties. He is not ambitious, and all the happier for it, content to be the next in line for head ranch hand, content to spend the day in the saddle and not worry about anything else. I can’t find much to criticize in his approach to life.

Tio Breno is another. He used to be a hand here as well, but then became too old to work. With no family to care for him, Fernando (the fazendeiro, the owner of all this vast territory) told him he could keep his room in the dormitory. He is so small and wizened I can’t even estimate his age, cloaked as he is in a big cotton beanie and sweaters that are too large for him. He speaks mostly in gruff, one-word sentences that I often struggle to understand. But we manage to communicate in a strange exchange of gestures and yes-or-no answers to my hesitant questions.

On weekends when Gabriela the cook or César the handyman aren’t around to bring him his meals, the task falls to me. “Boa noite, Tio Breno,” I’ll call as I enter the barn. “Pronto para jantar?” Are you ready for your dinner? Grumbles and indistinct noises as Tio Breno rises from his bed, then chases the kittens away from his spot at the table.

“Do you want me to bring you anything else, Tio Breno? Some more water?”

“Não, obrigado,” I manage to make out. No thanks.

“Here you are then, don’t forget your medicines.”

“’Brigado, ‘brigado.” Thanks, thanks.

Tio Breno doesn’t take breakfast, but when I arrive with his morning pills his bright red thermos is set out on the table, waiting for me. No breakfast, only mate to drink while sitting under the shade tree. From there he watches the day pass by. Listens to the gauchos talk and joke when they come to rest after lunch. Watches them practice with their lassos in the pens next to the barn. Laughs gravely at the antics of the smaller dogs that stay home at the barn rather than going out to work with the gauchos like the big dogs.

“Shall I fill your thermos for you, Tio Breno?”

“Yes please, hot water. Don’t let it boil.”

“No, Tio Breno. I won’t. I’ll be right back.”

He makes his way, somehow, excruciatingly slowly, to his post under the tree, bracing one leg with a handmade crutch that looks too tall for him. Wearing Havaiana flip flops, like any good Brazilian.

Leonides is the head ranch hand. I know it’s him coming before I see him, as he elects always to wear a set of noisy spurs on days when he is in the saddle. Leonides has several claims to infamy. The first comes from the time when a car ran over one of the ranch dogs. The poor creature was thrashing in pain and obviously about to die. Leonides leapt from his horse, snatched his knife from the sheath at his hip, took two big strides towards the animal and promptly, coolly, cut its throat. Same as he would do for a pig or a steer on its way to the kitchen, I imagine. It was a dreadfully brutal sort of mercy, but merciful it was, nonetheless. Legend has it that this same dog later turned up at the fazenda looking good as new, which earned her the morbid nickname “Morte” – a benevolent incarnation of Death. No doubt it was merely a similar-looking dog, or even a relative of the first, but things have a way of becoming larger than life in this setting.

The second claim comes from Leonides’s reputation as a womanizer, a fact which has kept hunger for gossip on the fazenda satisfied for some time. Word around the dormitory is that Leonides’s former wife was driven crazy after learning of his affair with a much younger woman, a girl really, whom he apparently met and courted on the internet. Eyes widen, heads shake slowly, tongues cluck softly at this detail. Sofia began neglecting her duties as ranch cook. Started behaving erratically. Started torturing the animals and even killed one of the dogs with a shovel. This last act broke the camel’s back, as they say, causing Fernando to relieve Sofia of her duties and banish Leonides from the small ranch house that is usually reserved for the head ranch hand and his family. The dog was a favorite of many of the hands, after all. Such things couldn’t be tolerated.

Then there is Arthur, my friend and helpmeet. He is the person I most count on to make my project work. He knows the history of the experiment, has good relations with all the fazenda staff, is strong and never complains about early hours, heavy lifting, dreary food, or lousy weather. He does complain when one of the ranch dogs eats the top half of his good work boot, but he does so with righteous sarcasm. He shuttles my other helpers back and forth to the bus station. He cooks chicken and rice for us on the weekends. He looks for supplies and equipment that I need from the city and brings them to me the next time he comes to the fazenda. He is also smart, and the work passes faster when we work together. He has innumerable stories, sharp English that can catch my jokes and a good reference base in American pop culture (has watched every episode of Friends, he says, something we have in common). A passing singing voice and an unending knowledge of insect taxonomy complete his list of virtues. His favorite bug is the lacewing, and he has a lacewing tattoo on his calf to prove it.

It has been a good exercise for me, this project, in asking for help. Apart from Arthur’s regular assistance, I have also begged a week or more of time from Alejo, Natascha, Eduardo, Vinicius, João, Bárbara, Giovanna, and Natália. Andre makes phone calls for me when I’m worried I won’t understand something important, and is constantly thinking of ways to make my work more efficient. Professor Hugo of Agrometeorology lent me the pressure bomb, and Ana from the Soil Science department lent me a sampling shovel.

The populace of the small towns and cities surrounding the fazenda – Ijuí, Jóia, Augusto Pestana, Santiago, none less than 2 hour’s drive away – is replete with kind souls of the sort not found outside of very rural areas. Because not more than a week would pass before some part of my extensive equipment would break that couldn’t be fixed with tape or a screwdriver, I visited these towns regularly.

In Ijuí, the venerable Seu Valter fixed my pressure regulator in his backyard refrigerator repair shop while his son served me tereré (iced mate with sweet lime juice), and then declined to charge me. Bruno, a very German-looking fellow with bright blue eyes who works for the gas company, swapped out my empty nitrogen tank for me after work hours. Carlos Renner and his son-in-law, Rafael, let me store the tank in the warehouse at their hydraulics shop in Ijuí. They chatted pleasantly with what must have been an exotic visitor for them, an American girl, all the way out here. “Come back any time,” Carlos shouted after my receding truck. “Call us if you ever need any help in Ijuí.” Jaír, another German-looking fellow with blue eyes but who works at Fritz Batteries, showed me where to find a welder in Augusto Pestana to repair the lid of the pressure bomb, and afterwards Mrs. Fritz and her family invited me to lunch in their kitchen above the shop. I surprised them by accepting and showing up an hour later to share their meal of sausage, rice, and pineapple juice. Drove back to the fazenda, windows down, singing along enthusiastically to my out-of-place American music and feeling like the world was good.