17 January 2009

Welcome to 2009 and all the destruction that it brings!

**My intention with this blog is to give visual/written blurps of my saunters, gallops and sometimes belly-flops as I venture through a life as a North American woman living in a lovely colonial, tropical, in-the-middle-of-Paradise town in Southeastern Brasil (yes, that is how it is spelled in Portuguese) and who is addicted to food, cultures unlike her own, how food plays into those cultures, documentation through words and photography along the way, and run-on sentences and their under-appreciation. Though I had planned to inaugurate this blog with colorful photos of my town Paraty, witty commentary and tantalizing recipes for local foods, other events pushed themselves, literally, to the forefront of my life and where I was to direct my attention. Instead, I will start off by saying that normally this blog will contain more culinary connections to life here, as food is much more than just sustenance to me and I know there are many out there that agree with me. For now, I will dedicate more time tomorrow to the food and today I will give you an introduction to myself and my situation. Bon appetite!**

Normally the first few weeks of the New Year are filled with resolutions and new beginnings and a cleaning out of the old dust that needed to go from the previous year. Well, I guess you can say Mother Nature was impatient with us here and made a move to speed up the process.

A flash flood hit Paraty on Saturday morning around 2am after excessive rain in the mountains above us engorged the river Perequê-Açú that stems from there and runs through the entire area before dumping its almost black, mineral-laden mud into the ocean at the sea entrance to town. By 4:30am, the water had risen 8 meters (26 feet) over its capacity and covered-over the whole area forcing 1000 residents to flee their homes. The equivalent of a year's worth of rain filled the river in one night! The force of the water destroyed a section of highway that goes to the mountains, broke water lines and washed out a reservoir that collects the city's water from waterfalls in the mountains. As of today, one week later after the town was inundated with water, there is ironically still no public water for the 15 thousand residents other than what people have collected in special water barrels that each house/apartment building has for its own use, what they buy bottled or from water companies who export the life source by truck to paying customers. Another 10-15 thousand tourists were not included in that figure, though most have left. It's a bit desperate because in order to clean-up mud, wash clothes, take showers, etc, you need water and that means that people are siphoning river water with buckets and hoses and therefore only recycling the dirty water. No one seems to know when public water will return. My husband Maico and I have been making trips out to waterfalls to take “showers” which sounds like it would be a tropical delight but trying to wash my nether regions with soap in front of others who have the same idea as us makes it a bit tricky and not at all “Blue Lagoon”-like. Well, like my mom said, if we don’t get to bathe as often at least we'll all smell the same! Somehow, that is comforting.

The river is a lifeline here with houses, hotels, boats, etc. lining its banks and draws tourists from all over the world to see the colonial beauty that grew-up around it over the past 400 years. Up until about 15 years ago however, most of the buildings were concentrated near the port which the Portuguese built when gold, liquor and sugar were still being exported from there and pirates were waiting outside of the bay to pick-off the loot on their way out to the open Atlantic. Some very smart, long-term thinking Portuguese engineers built the town slightly under the sea level but on top of stones that angled down and could utilize gravity to wash any high tide water (and street garbage) out to sea. That is why when the flood hit that area was barely touched despite sitting sandwiched between the river and the ocean. Most everyone else felt the effects of living near a river in boroughs that were thrown together out of necessity to house people since the population has more than doubled in those 15 years, and with zero planning for what would happen if the river overflowed. There also has never been public preparedness on what to do during a flood, or after. Welcome to the Brasil, says every Brasilian I talk to!

I woke up that morning to the yelling of my neighbors and looked outside in their parking garage to see that water had half covered their car tires (that's the last photo and the water would eventually cover their car grills). It didn't quite register what was happening though until I looked in our outdoor corridor and saw that it was completely filled. More and more voices could be heard from the street as word reached us that the river had flooded and was taking everything in its path out to the ocean.

Normally in disaster situations I keep my head about me and put my Aries leadership skills in high gear to get through the situation without panicking. Though when I saw water streaming into my kitchen from under the front door with the appearance of Ohio River water (in other words, water from a busted sewage pipe- which it probably was since the sewage drains broke open too), I kind of lost it. I have never literally been shaken from fear that much in my life, though I have never felt that vulnerable to merciless forces before. Unfortunately, I happened to live in the way of a disturbance in the forces of nature and nothing was going to cut me slack just because I didn't want to die just yet.

In order to move into this studio apartment the size of a child-size shoe box, we recently had to buy a bed, standing pantry, wardrobe, etc. and since most apartments here do not come furnished we also had to purchase a fridge and stove. Basically, we're broke for the next few months but I finally had an in-house internet connection with plans of starting this weblog and getting caught-up on a lot of things that I had neglected over the past few months, so I welcomed the lack-of-funds-forced time at home.
I had just returned to Brasil 4 months ago after spending 4 and a half months back home in Cincinnati, Ohio and San Francisco, CA to get documents to be able to get married to Maico Almeida dos Santos, the Brasilian I met here in Paraty while traveling through here in December, 2007. We both spent too many hours and even more money getting my paperwork in order and finally made it official on 4 September, 2008 (though it was not that simple and I will elaborate in an upcoming blog). We moved into a new place together just a month ago and had everything in livable order as of a week before the flood hit. Basically, we were starting fresh and with high hopes for the future. That is why when I yanked electrical plugs out of the wall, pulled books off shelves, shoved every important document into a backpack, and put the TV and everything possible as high as possible, all I could think about was that we were going to lose it all.

I thankfully got a hold of a friend who lived in an apartment on a second floor on the other side of the river who kept calling me to say we had to come there immediately because the water was rising higher and soon we couldn't cross through the torrents on the streets and over a pedestrian bridge to her place. Maico and I did as much as we could at home until the water was up past our ankles. We then pushed open the front door (breaking a hinge in the process from the pressure smashing against the door on the other side), put our bags on our heads, and waded through knee deep water outside to get to the street where we sunk into the mud and even more water up to our waists. The river current was in overdrive and almost took me with it as we struggled to make it across a road maybe 25 feet wide, banging our feet and legs against unknown submerged concrete objects along the way. We made it to the bridge and climbed high enough to see trees, other debris and an upside-down speed boat go flying underneath us with the noise of what I always imagined an avalanche would sound like. Five minutes after we safely, though shakily, were secure on the other side and behind the gate of my friend's apartment, it was obvious that we made it with no time to spare. We saw two, 15-person wooden boats snap free from their lines and sail down the river and a horse lose its life to the forces of the water.

So one week later and we're slowly recovering and keeping our spirits up despite the water shortage. We're taking our vitamins and since I’ve cleaned more with bleach and antibacterial detergent in the past week than I have in the past few years, I think we’re keeping the germs at bay. Unfortunately, though most of the mud has been scrapped away, the residue left behind is a brown powdery dust that gives the town a Wild West feel.

Sadly too, we are officially at the height of summer and a busy tourist season. Many people make a major chunk of their yearly income in only 3-4 months so to lose most of our tourists now is quite a blow to the local economy. The streets are skimpy on visitors and the energy is deflated. I don't blame the tourists though because I wouldn't want to go to a waterless, flood-ravaged town on my vacation either.

Nothing is permanent however, and we will rebound and continue to move forward. Maybe today I'll even go down to the new "beach" that has appeared after so much mud collected where the river meets the ocean and get a little sun and relax. After all, I DO live in paradise, right?!

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