Wild flying over south of Brazil
PLATEAUS OF PARANA’
Arturo Freitas struck me as a nice man devoted to his wife and two children. On being introduced to him I thought him dashing the way a bush pilot ought to be.
We took off in his single-engine Cessna at eight next morning. Freitas lived in the city of Curitiba, as did I, in the State of Parana’ in the south of Brazil. My stay in Curitiba was a brief stop on my way farther south, to Argentina. Freitas’ livelihood reposed in his airplane, which was for hire to the surveyors who were preparing to build a hydroelectric dam upon the Parana’ River. His takeoff was steep, probably because the airport was so close to downtown. A tall building seemed to brush the Cessna’s wheels, which did not of course retract, while my toes tried to do it for them. No one in the plane said anything. Freitas in his white silk scarf, fluffed in the neck of his shirt, looked too professional to be making fatal errors.
The terrain of Parana’ ascends in a series of plateaus, tablelands of green extending for miles before the next step up. A vast part of it is richly forested. “Coffee plantations and pine trees,” murmured Freitas to me. The two men in the rear seats made sounds of interest. “Lots of water, too,” they said.
Freitas explained that the pine trees of Parana’ produced those large nuts peculiar to the region. They were, indeed, different from the pine nuts I was accustomed to. Each nut was nearly three inches long. The meat had to be boiled in its shell and was chewy though not especially rich in taste. Still, the animals of Parana’ must have less work to do gathering food than their kin to the north.
The engineers in the rear seats were with an American company. The thin one was named Ted, the short one named Milton. They unrolled one of the maps they had brought along and began to study it. Freitas did something with the controls and opened a newspaper, the ESTADO DE PARANA’. I gazed at the endless vista of green and glintings of water and thought, Here were riches that Brazil had not yet built cities on. I hoped they never would be.
After five minutes I could differentiate between coffee shrubs and pine trees. I even saw a ground animal of some kind moving between them. After five more minutes the trees separated from their masses and became individual. Somehow the ground appeared closer to us and the trees below rushed past instead of rolling in calm monotony.
I glanced at the instrument panel. When Freitas had set the automatic pilot the altimeter read 2,500 meters. Now the needle pointed at 500. I cleared my throat. Freitas did not look up from his newspaper. Ted and Milton were huddled over their map and discussing the tests they planned to perform at the dam site. I slapped the newspaper away from Freitas’ face and said, proud of my calm, “Why are we so close to the ground?”
He looked out the window, threw down the newspaper and grabbed the controls. We zoomed up. “Muito bem para a senhora,” he hollered. “You saved our lives!”
I should hope so, I thought. Then I caught the tiny smile he threw over his shoulder at Ted and Milton. No, dammit it, the smile was a smirk. I felt my eyes narrow. I turned to look at Ted and Milton, who wore confused expressions.
“What happened there?” asked Milton.
“Ask Freitas,” I said.
Neither asked him anything. But now Freitas slanted a wing and did a sidewise swoop. Then he swooped back the other way. On every upswing on his side my body lay flat against the door on my side. My stomach did loops contrary to the direction he was swiping the air. Mentally I dared him to crack another smirk.
“Uh, what’s going on?” Ted asked.
“Calling a taxi,” Freitas answered.
“Really.” My voice was the coldest I could make it sound. I refused to ask what he meant.
Ted asked. “You mean, what you’re doing is called calling a taxi?” He chuckled.
“Umuarama Airport doesn’t have a radio. This is how they know they need to call a taxi for us.”
Freitas zoomed around, began his descent, and brought his wheels close to the red earth of Parana’. His landing speed was too fast, though none of us passengers mentioned it. Near the end of the little runway he applied the brakes. The Cessna’s rear tipped up and the front stubbed its nose in the earth. Clods of dirt flew up and hit the windshield. Slowly, the little plane righted itself. The stillness astonished me. My ears thought they were under water.
Freitas got out, jumped to the ground, and went forward to inspect the damage. I jumped down and went around aft and returned my breakfast to Mother Earth.
He looked thoughtful as he began unloading the engineers’ gear. The damage wasn’t bad, he said. Just a slightly bent propeller. The airport mechanic would hammer it out and we’d be on our way back late in the afternoon. Of what day? I forebore to ask.
The taxi, a 1980 Pontiac, arrived. The backseat wasn’t there; that is, in its place was a huge coffee-bean sack filled with--what? Freitas said over his shoulder, pine cones of course, heh heh. They certainly felt like pine cones. Undoubtedly wide-open ones. By the time we arrived at the village of Umuarama I had bonded with one particular specimen wedged inside my right buttock.
Ted and Milton and I limped into the Hotel Principe, the Prince Hotel, and asked at the little bar for something to drink. Freitas got a beer then went back to the airport to see to his propeller. He hired a ride from the hotel’s proprietor.
The engineers asked if I wanted to go along to the site of the coffer dam. Sure, I said. But I’m riding in front.
The countryside was all coffee plantation. Most of the beans had turned red, in handsome contrast to the glossy green leaves. Released from Freitas’ presence, one of the engineers allowed himself a small groan as we bounced over a deep rut. This made us laugh helplessly.
“Goin’ ta...” Ted’s teeth clicked as we went over another rut, “Mississippi...Goin’ ta” click “see Miz Liza.” Milton clapped his knees in rhythm. “GOIN’ TA MISSISSIPPI!” we bawled in unison. The taxi driver looked puzzled then laughed a bit, perhaps to forestall an attack by these crazed Americans.
At the coffer dam site I got out and stretched. Ted and Milton were slower to touch earth. I noticed Parana’s red dust covered their face and clothes. My hands were dyed red in the sweaty lines of the palms. So were my sandals and feet.
The solitary trailer parked in the dirt may have been left behind in a flash flood, but a man was emerging from it. He came toward us, his hands clenching and unclenching.
“Hi Gene,” called Milton.
The man did not answer. He made a straight line for me. He seemed to be weeping.
“For me? You guys are princes.”
Again the engineers looked confused. “What do you mean, for you?” Understanding illuminated their faces. “No, Gene. Hold on. Wait up!”
Gene was upon me. He smelled of year-old sweat and old beans, of sour grass, and coffee grounds. I had toured a barn or two in my time, but Gene impressed me. Buried in my neck, his beard was painful.
Ted and Milton pried him off me and took him away behind the trailer. When the three returned, Gene’s face was a red that the earth of Parana’ could not match. The engineers were wiping their eyes and hiding their mouths with parts of their handkerchiefs.
Ted said, “Apologize to Lucy, now.”
Before Gene could speak, I said, “It’s okay, Gene. I’m sorry you were disappointed.”
He nodded, and that was that.
They went off, loaded with surveying equipment from Gene’s trailer, and I wandered through coffee groves fifty yards from the dirt road. The taxi driver leaned back in the Pontiac and dozed. I dared to pick one red bean, for luck. Then I sat in a bit of shade and took out my journal. I wrote “Day Trip” and thought of having Buenos Aires to look forward to still. There would be good wine and cantinas in the city’s Italian sector where a flamenco dancer might wander in and do a show. Male or female, I didn’t care. I wanted to have slow afternoon teas and pastries in the British style, their legacy to Buenos Aires. I did not have the physical stamina for terrain as rough as Tierra del Fuego and high altitudes in narrow-gauge trains. I knew how to have a good time with wine and fine meals and conversations with friends I hoped to make. I could manage Spanish and had proven I could learn enough Portuguese to sustain my brief stay in Brazil. I was glad I had taken the plunge with my six-month leave of absence from work. My one-third expense of the flight with Freitas was the occasional splurge I made up for in other ways.
Bees buzzed about in the noontime heat and a few tried to drink the drops of perspiration on my face. I let them be and wrote languidly, a word here, a word there, in no hurry in the whole world.
When the men returned we all, including Gene, piled
into the Pontiac with the core samples Gene had obtained over time. I had a firm hold on my stake on the front seat. Back at Umuarama--which in Indian means Meeting Place of Friends, according to Gene--we washed up then went into the dining room and sat down to lunch. The proprietor served us himself. The meal was typical Brazilian country fare, black beans with salted pork and linguisa, fried cornmeal cakes, a dish of thin-sliced kale, and rice.
Although famished, I had a little rice and some kale and a spoonful of beans. The men had beer with their meal; I asked for mineral water. No one spoke. Gene must have felt compelled to fill the gap, for he suddenly said to me, “Eat lots of beans. Then you’ll fly without fuel!”
Ted and Milton choked on their beer, but Gene--the whole concept of this man left rusting in isolation--moved me. Was it the money he needed? Did he have no family? I asked him how long he had been here and how long more he had to stay.
“Six months. And six more until my contract is up.”
“That’s awful. Or don’t you mind it?”
“Nah.” He picked up a bottle and drank down half of it. “I can’t live in the States anymore. Two weeks, and I get edgy.”
“That is a fact,” Milton said. “He gets stinking, doesn’t even know when the company pours him onto the plane.” He must have thought he had said too much for silence fell over the table once more.
The noise of a plane overhead deafened us for a few moments as it zoomed low over the hotel.
“He got the propeller fixed,” someone remarked.
“And of course he’s letting us know,” I said.
As we said goodbye to Gene he told me in confidential tones that he really liked Umuarama. It helped him save money and kept him out of trouble.
At the airport Freitas, hands on hips and ankles crossed, was leaning against a wheel strut as though posing for a photograph. I noticed his white silk scarf had been retied and was clean of red dust. The rest of him was as dusty as we. We climbed inside and soon Freitas took off.
I stared down at the panorama rolling below us and thought there were different versions of the French Foreign Legion for men like Gene. Perhaps I should send him books, yet I didn’t believe he liked reading. And what kind of books, anyway? He just wanted to be lost; Brazil certainly afforded that if you knew where to go. Millions of Brazilians clung to the coastal cities and wouldn’t have dreamed of going into the interior.
No one spoke until we were close to Curitiba, then Freitas asked the men in the backseat if anyone wanted a flying lesson; he could teach landing techniques in an airport surrounded by city buildings. He didn’t ask me.
“How do you give a flying lesson to people sitting in the back?” Ted asked.
“One of you could change places with the Senhora.”
Polite demurrals from Ted and Milton. When we had come to a stop on the ground, I opened my door and jumped out. Freitas called, behind me, “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
I didn’t answer and I didn’t look back.