Sunday, May 1, 2016

Serra do Ibitipoca: the trip

After my mom's death in March of 2014, I decided to explore the outside world again, and went on a trip to Minas Gerais where I visited a State Park at Serra do Ibitipoca.

I took a bus that could roll downhill any minute. But locals seem not to be aware of the danger. I focused on the scenic drive.
Then I got to the village of Conceicao do Ibitipoca.
Many homes would look like this.
But it is actually dominated by this kind.
Beautiful expensive hotels for my pocket. So I stayed at an apartment with three bedrooms and more beds than I could count. The only thing that they didn't have and probably the one that I needed most besides cell phone signal was the internet connection.
But the park was a few kilometers away.
I stopped by a cafe to charge myself with caffeine.  As any touristic place, everything looks upscale, but it is in truth just overcharged.
Then, I took the road.
 Three kilometers of uphill walk. I understand now why there is a bus to the park entrance.

Well, by the time I arrived at the entrance, I was already on top of the mountain.
I saw I gigantic wall with stream of dark water running at its feet.

I took a trail to the lake.

Mirror Lake says the sign.

Found a waterfall, a stream, but I am still to find a lake, a mirrorlike one.
And then it became flat.


Sometimes pretty.
Definitely thirsty. 
I wished this were amber ale while drinking straight from the stream.

Then, I changed direction. Steps to the top?


Walking down to find the stream running through the rock wall.

Then I followed the stream.

I also dunk my feet into the cold water.



On the Mango Trail

My  morning run included a free fresh breakfast along the way. Aromatic, creamy, luscious, ripened on the tree mangoes.  

Sometimes too far up in tall trees. My option was to find a fresher one on the ground.

Not a hard task.

My hardest task was to get the fibers off my teeth (yes, the indigenous mangoes are small and full of fibers) and walk up the hill until I reached a faucet conveniently located at the front garden of a neighborhood church.

Of course, my run would stop at the first mango tree, and from then on, an arduous pilgrimage from one tree to another, until I was full and satisfied. Or no ripe mangoes left on those trees. (Hey, they don't ripened all at once.)

On some bad days, I would also get some guavas.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Expat Back to Her Hometown

My old prejudice against small towns is slowly fading away. Having returned to my hometown (and my home country) almost thirty years after I vowed to myself never to be back to this mediocre place, it's quite an adventure of its own. I had first to swallow my own pride and recognize that my town (and my country) never missed me or needed me, but now, I was in a position where it was adamant that I returned home: I was tired, hurt, impoverished, disheartened, famished, with a beaten up soul and a sick body, and nowhere else to run. I consider myself a "prodigal child," the ungrateful daughter of a wealthy father (the land I was born in).
As many of you know, I am an ex-expat, living the adventures of returning to my birth country, and making discoveries for the first time about the wonderful place I was raised in. It's been over six years now. And every day, I unveil little secrets never revealed to me before with the eyes of a local.
Today, crossing the street of my little town with a friend who is also an ex-expat, he said "Look at this sun! Only in Brazil we have 360 days of sunny weather. Somewhere else has only 36 days like this." We truly appreciate sweltering days like it was today - no matter how much sweat or mosquitoes at night.
My region is not scenic, touristy or even of any historical interest. It is plain boring, town with square blocks with square houses , and the flat land countryside alternating coffee farms, sugar cane plantation, and pasture. There is nothing we can call it "locally made", "authentic," or "typical". No local culture, arts or crafts, music, cuisine, fauna or flora. It seems like there is nothing left worthy of appreciation.
But, when the town is ugly and the countryside is unattractive, two things of the utmost importance are left to soothe our souls: The sensory experience of nature and the ordinary every day life with our friends, family and neighbors.
I get inspired by early morning fragrance of jasmine from my garden, pumped up by home roasted freshly brewed cup of coffee, recharged by shiny hot sun at 11 o'clock, refreshed by a gust of wind in my hair at 4, not to mention, the starry starry nights just above my head.
While I lived abroad, my life had been chopped up. I had long years as young and single, regardless of my age and marital condition. It felt to me that my life had been segmented and only allowed to live as such. Returning to my community, I get to participate of all types of social events, such as births, birthdays, weddings, funerals. I have the privilege of meeting the whole extended family not only of mine but somebody else's. My neighbors are the most precious friends, who is always there of cheer me up or to help me, to watch for my safety and well being. And I do the same for them, in an endless circle of courteous exchange. Life is much more holistic in its breadth.
Small towns have limited number of people, and therefore, the number possible friends is also small. Yet, we get to deepen our friendships by spending a lot of time with them. With no traffic to fight, short distances, few working hours, long weekends, and nothing else to do, but to spend time with people we love at every day basis.
That I call it a real life, where people are more important than place. In my old days, it used to be the opposite. Place meant everything to me. Living in San Francisco Bay Area, surely, I felt lucky, but never truly happy.
As an ex-expat, I can only say that it was my eyes as such that allowed me to see how much roots mean to me today. Without those roots, I would still be wandering in search for something that was always here.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Animal Kingdom III

Every morning at 5, I open the window and Kristen's kitten comes in. She loves her. Her name is Annie, after a Japanese anime's character.

This morning, she didn't come.

After the sun was up, Kristen and I went to look for her. She was quiet on top of the roof where she usually hides.

But today was different. She was hurt.

Last night, Kristen heard her kitten fighting with a dog, which is not unusual.

This time, I don't know which dog got her. Probably was not the puppy who plays with her, but a bigger dog.

A few days ago, I saw one of our labs lifting another cat by her neck and shaking her like crazy. Luckily, she was able to get rid of him and climbed up to the roof. She had already an injured leg from a previous incident that I didn't witness.

I took Annie home, laid her down on the floor. She was breathing heavily. Kristen who is usually very tough and rarely cries, started to sob.

Later, I took Annie to the vet to find out that her lungs had been pierced. She is still there and we don't know what is going to happen to her.

Kristen had many pets. All of them got killed. Either by a car or by other dogs. Including bunnies.It may total 6 pets, at least, without considering others that belong to the family and not solely to her.

When she wanted to adopt a kitten, we talked about the risks. Our dogs are very fierce. One of them is a natural hunter and won't leave anything alive. I find all kinds of small animais killed around our house, including very large lizzards, snakes, rabbits, opossums, armadillos, and of course, more visiting cats.

We have six guard dogs on our farm, some of them nearly retirement. Because of their age, one or another gets sick often, including my father's 8 year old prodigal cat that returned home after 2 years of voluntary leave. I go more often to the vet clinic than to my hair salon. That means, I am spending more on them than on me. Serious. The prodigal cat came back home with his black hair resembling a bad hair salon discoloration. I took him to the vet. He said that "it was shedding old hair and soon it would be back to black." It has been several months and he happily displays his burnt brown coat from waist bellow. Not "back to black" as Amy Whinehouse would sing.

I don't really complain. They make me feel safe on the farm. They are loyal, except during the night, that they go out hunting, to return at 8 am next morning. One has bitten me by mistake, thinking that I was another dog. One pincher likes to spend her time down the road near the restaurant where she can find attractive small males. I am well served with all these dogs (and cats).

But their are integral part of our farming lives. We have to have them for our own security, for companionship, and of course, for unconditional love on both parts.

Note: I have previously written "Animal Kingdom I" and "Animal Kingdom II.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lychee Greed

If there is one fruit that brings out that is worst in us, that´s lychee. The unattractive rough outer skin hides the succulent white pecaminous flesh that, at first bite, an explosion of fragrant clear juice overtakes our mouth. Perhaps, that´s how god´s ambrosia was like.
The fruit is deceiving. It looks like a large seed for it´s woody rind. However, the reddish pink, the color of the sexiest lipstick, tells us the opposite. It lures us into unclothing it. The skin comes off easily, as if it was eager to be bare naked. Stark white. Yet, not opaque, nor transparent, it´s semi-translucent. It resembles a newborn insect larvae. Almost alive. It could move.
The fragrance is not of a fruit. Rather, it´s a subtle aroma of tiny wildflower after the rain.
The silken pulp slips easily into our mouths, needing only light chewing, to be soon melted.
We just can´t have enough of it. That´s when we start to get into trouble.
November is the month where the first fruits start to ripen on our two trees. For no reason, people that haven´t been visiting me start to show up "just to see how you are doing," while their eyes look up the bunches on the tree top.

The first time I started to feel jealous was three years ago, when some visitors, unceremoniously, picked green-still fruit and chewed on it, while spitting the skin off to the ground.
See, I like to save all the fruits when they are at their peak stage of ripening, so I can fully enjoy it.
But not many people are like that. If the visitors come in groups, they spread around the orchard, and pick the green fruits that hang low, some others reach them with a pole, while the remaining people throw anything at arm´s reach in attempt to get the fruits. As soon as I know it, it´s a riot in my backyard.
My neighbor´s granddaughter came up to me, even before I had eaten my first fully ripe lychees, and asked for some fruits. They don´t even know its name, calling it "the little fruit", as if it was insignificant, so to make the request seem equally inoccuous.
A lady drove in alone one afternoon saying "Just thinking about lychee my mouth started to water. I couldn´t stop craving it. I came to see if they ripened..." I replied "they are still underripe. Take some though. Whenever it gets ripe, I´ll let you know. I can deliver. As the time came, I stuffed a bag with 3 lb and charged as if was half of it. She was a bit hesitant to pay, as she was expecting it for free. But for a lady that never drives for she says is so afraid, she had a herculean self-motivation to do so for such a little ugly fruit.

Another afternoon, two enthusiastic salespersons stopped in front of my house and honked. They were selling some unregistered cosmetics, taking my hand and smearing some lotion on it, and making me smell it. I thanked and told them I already had a whole bunch of cosmetics, besides, I didn´t like the parabens in it. Feeling won by my arguments, but not wanting to leave defeated, one of them said "will you then give me some lychee?" How did she know they were lychees? I said they were for sale, R$10 per kilo. They gave up and drove away. Defeated.
The lychee fruits are so coveted, yes, coveted, that I feel like I am a jealous wife of an extremely handsome man. I become very protective of it. But not only me.
A man came to do some job for my father and by seeing the tree full of attractive reddish pink fruits asked about it. My father said:"It is just a delicious fruit, that, if I gave you one, you are not going to want to stop with just one, and you will want have them all. And I can´t give you." "Dad, did you give him some?, I asked. " He answered "No." Simple as that. My father saved the man from the heartache of lychee addiction.
Why such a heavenly fruit evokes these feelings of avarice?
When the fruits are getting riper, I try to collect most of them, hidden from any visitors or neighbors, and give away as an end of the year gift for some special people in my life. Sometimes I bundle them with the branches and leaves, where the fruits hang just like grapes. I wrap them with a clear film and tie a bow. Pretty. Everybody is so exultant to receive those. I can´t say why.
I had taken a small bag to my cousin. She said "I am going to decorate our party table with these." Thinking so, I picked a bucket full of lychees and brought them over. The fruits never appeared on the table. I wonder what my other cook cousin did with those as she put the whole bag away to "cool in the refrigerator." Maybe now they lay on the warmth of her stomach.
My housekeeper, at the end of her shift, picked up two fruits, one with each fatty hand, raised them at her eye level, and called me "hey, hey". She looked through those fruits and said "I am taking these two home." Fighting my feelings of discontentment, I told her "take the whole bag home." She did, with my nylon bag and all the fruits in it. She left me with none.
As I said, this time of the year, people are very eager to see me. Shamelessly, they either ask about the fruit or just say "look, I am going to take these home," fruits that they picked while I was not watching. Some pick the fruit during their working hours! And they don't ask for permission to collect them. If they asked, I could say "no", and they don't want to take a risk. They collect them, and hide, or and while saying "bye," they unthoughtfully drop a simple bomb "I am taking these home." So it's my turn to say "only this amount? Why didn't you get some more?"
I always wait to see if they are going to ask or not. In my experience, they never take the risk, and make sure they take some home. No pride involved as lychee is concerned.
We all know there is a word game going on. What everybody wants is the fruit, and each person has his own strategy for the battle. I lose every single one of them.
The lychees are not easy to pick as many bunches are on high top of the tree. At dusk, after everybody went home, subrepticiously, I climb on it, risk my own bone integrity, and fetch for the prettiest ones, while sweating copiously. In part, ashamed for doing so in a secret as if I were stealing it. On the other hand, I think I won the cold war. First, I eat as much as I can until I become bullimic or diarrheic. Next day, I give some lychees to the very same people that took some home illegitimately. "See, I give them to you. No need to be so anxious." It´s a power game. I am so machiavellian.
I can´t wait for the end of the season, that, fortunately, lasts only two weeks. For two weeks, my nice neighbors, friends, family members, employee, and myself, become lychee triggered monsters. But by Christmas, we are all at peace again.
Note: the second and third photos (of the trees) are from 2009. Since then, the trees have become very tall and yielding very few fruits.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Church Fair in My Neighborhood

Since my family moved to this farm in 1976, I always felt enchanted with the neighborhood. Very next to where I live, ten white houses facing each other formed a little "village", occupied by the Brazilian Italian families. The little dirt road had an one-room school and a tiny memorial chapel. But the main attraction to me was on another dirt road that took to two snack bars, a church, and a garden. It was not only very quaint to my teenage view, but the idea of having access to those bars where I could buy ice cream or candies blew my mind. So I hold this place dear to my heart. A few days ago, the community members promoted a church fair, where the main star is the chicken and not the cross. Even though the neighborhood has not longer many people living, many visitors come from the nearest towns to crowd the place.

The building on the left used to be a bar. It´s closed down. The house next to it is occupied by a lone widower. All the cars belong to the people working for the fair.

It´s a ghost square throughout the year. The great majority of helpers comes with a car, and only three people living in front of the church comes by walking. But, someone came on a horse today.

That´s the little chapel that holds a mass twice a month. Most of the time, it is just like this: closed.

Many men put the tents up. It is a beautiful sunny day, but sometimes it rains in this time of the year.

Women work together to chop up vegetables for 1000 kebabs (skewered beef with onion, bell pepper, and tomato).

Endless table with sliced potatoes being prepared for homemade potato chips. Wash, drain, and dry, three times.

This is where the real fun happens. I waited all year to be able to take a picture of the ovens running on high heat.

Four ovens are lit using natural wood from legally run wood farms. It´s hot all over.

500 marinated and stuffed chicken being prepared to go into the ovens.

130 chickens being loaded into each of four hot ovens.

Look at that smile! It´s for a reason.

That´s the reason for the season-ing.

Unbelievable works of art. All 500 perfectly roasted chickens.

Draining off excess fat, for a golden brown skin, tender, moist meat falling off the bones. This good!

Country people love to fry in an open air kitchen. Look at the background. That´s a real farm with plowed land.

1000 kebabs being fried in two huge metal tanks.

Deep fried skewered beef is homestyle finger food in Brazil found in many snack bars. It is rather unattractive, rustic and humble, but deadly delicious.

This roasted piglet goes into an auction. The highest bidder usually returns the item to a new auction so the fundraising goes on and on on the same goodie. (2009 photo)

Lip licking, luscious, scrumptious, crunchy, enourmous kebab.

I had gotten my stuffed roasted chicken during the day, intercepting the tray just out of the oven, left at lunch time, stopped by a nearby restaurant, bought a beer, and headed home to dive into my glutonic tantrum.

Past the binging, I got ready to go again. The event was supposed to start at 7 p.m. to go on until midnight ending with fireworks, but I, like any other good country girl, arrived at 6 p.m., just to be tuned with many of my neighbors ("we got to go early or there is no gonna be table for us. I wanna sit close to the rabbit cage", so told me my neighbor). Soon I arrived, took the remaining pictures, and quickly picked up 4 giant skewered beef (with vegetables), 4 bags of potato chips, 3 guarana sodas, sat down and ate my share, but not everything. I saved one bag of chips for rainy days (that happened to be next morning but no rain came). I got home before 7:30 p.m., planning to go back to see the people. But never did. I missed the grilled steak (churrasco), roasted pig, roasted lamb, bingo, raffle,rabbit game, and all my neighbors dressed up, women with chemically straightened hair walking awkwardly on high heels and men wearing unusual clean shirts.
Next day, my house helper told me that she arrived at 8 p.m. to find no more food to buy. Luckily, she had ordered her chicken in advance, so she saved her dinner. I felt slightly ashamed for my glutony, but nevertheless, satified with my good decision to grab the food early.

Next year, I am going to be with those smily guys to learn how to fire and control those giant wood fired ovens, besides taking the rest of the pictures I missed this year (of other roasted meats, games, and the people). And I will arrive at 6 p.m. to make sure I get my kebabs & potato chips. Of course, the roasted chicken is picked up just before lunch to get myself fueled for the evening event.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Colorau - Food Coloring from Nature

This is a red food coloring agent largely used in the Brazilian cuisine. It is known as colorau, which is extracted from urucum seeds (annatto or achiote in America).
Urucum (bixa orellana L)

Urucum tree is easy to grow. This one (and several others) is by the country road near my farm. It´s April.

It looks dangerous because of the spiky shell, but it is pretty soft as this point.

Wait until it gets to this point. You will need gloves to pick them. It´s September. It takes 5 months to mature.

Look what a jewel it hides inside.

The seeds come out easily by touch (make sure you wear gloves or you are going to have your hands like those of the Moroccan women - all tainted by handling bright colored spices).
But you don´t want to use urucum like this. The seeds are rock hard and may break your teeth. Simmer good amount of seeds in mild vegetable oil and then use a mortar and a pestle to rub the color off by adding fine cornmeal.
Sorry, no pictures of me processing the urucum. I don´t extract colorau. I get it from my neighbor.
It is said it tastes slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg, but I personally think it smells like oil and cornmeal.