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When E.J. Levy arrived in northern Brazil on a fellowship from Yale at the age of 21, she was hoping to help save the Amazon rain forest; she didn’t realize she would soon have to save herself.
Amazons: A Love Story recounts an idealistic young woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of the magnificent rain forest and exotic city of Salvador. This elegant and sharp-eyed memoir explores the interaction of the many forces fueling deforestation—examining the ecological, economic, social, and ...
When E.J. Levy arrived in northern Brazil on a fellowship from Yale at the age of 21, she was hoping to help save the Amazon rain forest; she didn’t realize she would soon have to save herself.
Amazons: A Love Story recounts an idealistic young woman’s coming of age against the backdrop of the magnificent rain forest and exotic city of Salvador. This elegant and sharp-eyed memoir explores the interaction of the many forces fueling deforestation—examining the ecological, economic, social, and spiritual costs of ill-conceived development—with the myriad ones that shape young women’s maturation.
Sent to Salvador (often called the “soul of Brazil” for its rich Afro-Brazilian culture), a city far from the rain forest, Levy befriends two young Brazilians, Nel, a brilliant economics student who is estranged from her family for mysterious reasons, and Isa, a gorgeous gold digger. When the university closes due to a strike, none of them can guess what will come of their ambitions. Levy’s course of study changes: she takes up capoeira, enters cooking school (making foods praised in Brazilian literature as almost magical elixirs), gains fluency in Portuguese and the ways of street life, and learns other, more painful lessons—she is raped, and her best friend becomes a prostitute.
When Levy finally reaches the Amazon, her courage—and her safety—are further tested: on a barefoot hike through the jungle one night to collect tadpoles, she encounters fist-sized spiders, swimming snakes, and crocodiles. When allergies to the antimalarial drugs meant to protect her prove life-threatening, she discovers that sometimes the greatest threat we face is ourselves. Eventually, her work as a “cartographer of loss,” charting deforestation, leads her to realize that our relationships to nature and to our bodies are linked, that we must transcend the logic of commodification if we are to save both wilderness and ourselves.
The Amazon is a perennially fascinating subject, alluring and frightening, a site of cultural projection and commercial ambition, of fantasies and violence. Amazons offers an intimate look at urgent global issues that affect us all, including the too-often abstract question of rain forest loss. Levy illuminates the burgeoning sex-tourism trade in Brazil, renewed environmental threats, global warming, and the consequences of putting a price on nature. Accounts of the region have most often been by and about men, but Amazons offers a fresh approach, interweaving a personal feminist narrative with an urgent ecological one. In the tradition of Terry Tempest Williams, this timely, compelling, and eloquent memoir will appeal to those interested in literary nonfiction, travel writing, and women’s and environmental issues.
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The map of Salvador that I look at now is unrecognizable, in black and white; Xeroxed from some tourist brochure, it covers two pages, 8 1/2 by 11 inches each. I will tape it together in the middle, trying to make a whole, but even then the image will be wrong.
It bears the names of the neighborhoods I visited and those I was afraid to, not because they were dangerous but because I was afraid then and thought that if I held still I might protect myself. I thought I'd be safe if I didn't make a move. And I didn't know, in any case, what move to make.
The map in front of me has names of neighborhoods and streets printed in bold uppercase type: Barra, Vitoria, Canela lie to the left (which is south, on this disoriented map). To the right-hand side, on the northern edge of the peninsula on which Salvador sits, are Ribeira and Bonfim; the city center lies suspended between these, in the curve of the Bay of All Saints, due west; at the bottom of the page, to the east and the interior lie Campinas, Fazenda Grande.
The original map was candy colored, bright and promising. Even in this secondhand Xerox, I can see it was meant to be cheerful, its directions clear. It is decorated with cartoon figures—giant smiling angelfish and sailboats decorate the coastal waters; each beach is marked by an umbrella, beneath which reclines a bikini-clad, long-haired blond. Capoeira schools are indicated by dancing dark-skinned men; terreiros—the sanctuaries of the cult of candomblé—by black women, their heads wrapped in turbaned scarves, bodies encased in bells of cloth, layer on layer of white cotton and lace.
I am not sure what is supposed to be indicated by the black matrons seated by a pot of boiling dendê, palm oil. That this is a black neighborhood? Or is she merely decorative in the mapmaker's mind? A splash of local color? Picturesque as poverty is said to be by those who needn't suffer it or sympathize. There are buildings depicted, too, in miniature, caricatures of modern hotels and the lovely confections of the baroque that distinguish the old city neighborhoods of Pelourinho and Bonfim, which perch atop a cliff above the center of town, overlooking the harbor.
I look at Avenida Sete de Setembro that runs north and south along the edge of the spit of land that is Salvador, from the city center—o centro—to the Porto da Barra, past the San Antonio fort to the farol, named for the lighthouse there, and I picture the street, the heat, the sudden interruptible shade of trees, the bus, the stench of exhaust, the school for English, the hotel where I stayed those first few days, the apartment I rented on Rua João Pondé, which later I would share with Nelci, neither of us realizing—till it was far too late—just how much it would cost us.
It was the third of January 1984 when I flew down to Brazil. That morning, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul international airport, I had hugged my parents hurriedly good-bye at the gate where I would board my plane to Miami, where I would in turn board a plane to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. As I hugged my mother, I could see over her shoulder the pale brightness of a Minnesota January day framed by the massive windows that lined the concourse walls; I could see beyond her to the runway covered with plump planes. I did not cry, though I wanted to. I was twenty-one, too old to cry.
What I remember of the airport at Miami is a jumble. I remember the ebbing day, the darkness of the runway, the fear potent, haunting, ever present, that I would miss my connection. I was young then, young even for my age, and I was afraid of failing to make connections.
In those days, I wanted to belong and did not, to anyone, least of all to myself, and this was painful to me. I had had, since I was fifteen, a steady stream of boyfriends and friends but outside my parents I had loved no one, a fact I contemplated often with the extravagant despair of self-despairing youth.
Perhaps as I sat in the Miami airport, looking around at all the people I did not know, many of them speaking Portuguese, a language I was not yet fluent in, I told myself that I loved no one, as if hoping to be proven wrong. I believed then that I hadn't a clue what it meant to love, because in truth I had not yet been deeply moved by a person as I could be by a painting, a film, a strain of music; I had yet to meet anyone as lovely as a landscape or a work of art.
In the absence of love, I cleaved fervently to justice, to an almost Calvinistic conception of right and wrong, the conviction that one must do right even without hope of success or salvation; mine, a hopeless ardor.
I was the child of what was genteelly known in late twentieth-century America as a "mixed marriage"—the union of Protestant and Jew—and this shaped my sensibility, surely if obscurely, informing, I suspect, the salvific impulse that for years fueled my desire to save the Amazon. My parents had been raised in religious homes—among Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Methodists—but they relinquished their respective faiths before they met and married. My mother converted to Orthodox Judaism for the sake of my father's mother, but they gave up on religious observance. Still the brooding shadows of their gods remained. Although my parents sacrificed the confidence of those who believe that they are chosen or saved, we lived with an oppressive sense of divine judgment. Their youngest child, I was especially susceptible. From an early age, I was on the look out for vocations, wrongs to right. At eighteen, when I first read about the disappearing rain forest, I thought at last I'd found it—my calling.
In those days, I did not want to lose my way, as I do now, but find it. I did not know then—in my twenties, as I'd learn in my thirties—how to appreciate the pleasures of an airport with its promiscuous crush of humanity, its placelessness, its promising dislocation, inviting you to believe that wherever you may have been or be you might begin anew elsewhere, transformed by this simple trinity: a gate, a gangplank, a ticket.
I was halfway through my junior year at Yale that January when I set out for Brazil to spend a year studying the environmental consequences of development projects in the Amazon. As a sophomore, I had applied for and been awarded a generous fellowship from the Rotary Foundation International, which offered fellowships to students, scholars, and journalists to fund international research. These grants typically went to graduate students, not undergrads, and on the East Coast, where I'd applied, competition was fierce. I had been lucky to get the money and I knew it. I wanted to make good use of my time.
In my application, I had proposed to work at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, deep in the jungle, one of the premier institutions for the study of tropical moist forests. I was well versed in the literature, a student of economics and Latin American studies with a specialization in twentieth-century Brazilian economic development.
I wanted to be a part of the team of researchers whose work and names I had come to know from reading journals. I wanted to be among the biologists and zoologists and economists who seemed to me then heroic in their efforts to halt the devastation of the vast tracts of forest and rivers and communities known as the Amazon. I was ambitious of saving part of the disappearing world.
But something had gone wrong. The fellowship office's command of geography was sadly lacking and someone in the Foundation headquarters near Chicago had succeeded in sending me to Salvador, Bahia, a coastal tourist capital some 1,600 miles southeast of the rain forest I had come to study. I'd booked a hotel in Salvador and figured I'd spend maybe a week there, maybe less, getting my bearings, boning up on Portuguese, getting my money, before I arranged a transfer and headed north to the Amazon.
If you'd asked me that day who I was, I would have said that I was a student of economics with a specialization in twentieth-century Brazilian economic development. If you'd asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said an artist, a writer—in the museums my parents had taken us to as kids, I had seen Franz Marc's Blue Horses and Calder's whimsical mobiles, Hans Hoffman's nearly edible colors and the haunting luminosity of Rothko's squares, and they'd made me long for something, as if the paintings were speaking to me in a private language we understood; I sensed, as poet Patti Smith would later write, "that to be an artist was to see what others could not"; I wanted to see as clearly. But I knew better: that kind of thing was beyond people like me.
People Like Me—children of the burgeoning American middle class, born of working-class parents, who had themselves been born of immigrants who'd bet on education as the ticket up and out of wherever they were, ghettos or farms—were educated in public schools at a time when Shakespeare and calculus were still taught there, not yet thought too elite for the masses, when metal detectors were not yet a commonplace at the doors (when we did not yet see ourselves, or our young, as dangerous, suspect); we expected ourselves to go to college, to move up and move on. We expected to become lawyers, doctors, professors, psychologists, critics; we talked about and analyzed what other people made; we joined the Foreign Service and worked for the USIA, bringing artists in to tour foreign countries and building amity among nations; we gave papers and luncheons and joined the Rotary Club. We read books; we did not write them. We went to museums to see paintings; we did not paint them.
People Like Me believed it was important to know what was what (reading the newspaper was a moral issue, the New York Times was like high mass); we believed it was important to know what one was, to know one's nature and to master it. To know what you could and could not do. To be realistic. To have perspective.
We took to heart that Delphic exhortation: know thyself. But for us the phrase was inflected by Calvinism, some vague strain of doubt in our election. Know Yourself for us meant know your limitations (I thought the two synonymous). Know them and accept. Know your nature and develop it.
It was full-blown summer when I arrived in Salvador and the city was ablaze with sunlight in the dead heat of a tropical January day. In the course of the flight from Minneapolis—at the forty-fifth parallel north—the plane had passed through the Tropic of Cancer, crossing the equator north of the Amazon, heading for the Tropic of Capricorn. Those twin imaginary lines—the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn—demarcate the torrid zone, better known as the tropics, a term that seems suggestive now, portentous, deriving as it does from the ancient Greek tropikos, "pertaining to a turn." For the tropic effects a turn: as literary tropes turn words from their literal meaning to some other sense, as, heliotropic, plants turn toward the sun, turn towards that scalding light.
We had crossed into the country by night, had been awakened when we reached Belem, in order to fill out Customs cards, and had flown on in darkness. Waking, I looked out the window to my left and was moved to find a world softly lit. I still remember how the ground looked below me as dawn came on: the felty animal-hide brown of the countryside, which is known in Brazil as o interior—the interior—the camel-colored hills, sloping gently, as if muscles lay beneath them, recumbent, relaxed. To the east, a crack of yellow sun spread over the curved edge of the earth, sending out long bright beams of light; bands of yellow, orange, rose striated the sky at the horizon, which was blue-black with ocean.
As we approached Salvador, losing altitude, the rectangle of my window framed green, deeper than any I'd ever seen before. It was a green that seemed to suck in light, nearing black except where sunlight picked out trees. It was the dense tropical knotted green of forest canopy, clotted like clouds, quivering with palms as we approached the coastline and Salvador.
A month earlier, I had written to Senor Pinheiro, my Rotary contact in Salvador, to let him know the date of my arrival, my flight number and time, hoping he might offer to have someone meet me. But I had not heard back—mail was slow, sometimes lost, and he might well have considered it an imposition, I thought—and so as we touched down, I was prepared to hail a cab. I had a Fodor's guide in my backpack, and had all but memorized the tiny map of Salvador, which showed Avenida Sete de Setembro where my hotel was.
The word for destination and destiny are one and the same in Portuguese: destino.
I arrived at my destino overdressed and unable to speak the language. I was in no hurry to disembark, so I lingered in my seat, as others filed past. When the aisle was mostly clear, I stood and reached up to haul down my backpack from the plane's overhead compartment. A few other passengers straggled into the aisles. I ran my hand down the front of my ankle-length khaki cotton skirt, trying to press out with my palm the wrinkles that had settled there during the flight. A portly balding man behind me told me, in plain English, that I'd be too hot dressed like that; this was not the United States.
I had aimed for fashionable and failed. I wore a lightweight, tangerine-orange cotton sweater with three-quarter length sleeves, a thin cotton T-shirt, a khaki skirt made of cotton light as leaves, and that tell-tale sign of the American traveler: tennis shoes.
The sweater I wore was by a French designer, the only designer clothing I owned, and I'd bought it especially for the trip; the skirt, by an American designer, I'd borrowed from my mother. I took off the sweater, tied its sleeves around my throat so the sweater dangled like a shawl down my back, in a fashion that had not been fashionable for years, a sort of preppy, tennis-pro casual I had disdained when it had been popular years before when I was in high school. I smiled at the man who smiled at me in amusement.
We filed to the front of the plane and walked down a metal stairway to the tarmac. The hand railing too hot to hold. The heat was palpable through the rubber soles of my white tennis shoes as I stepped onto the runway. I pushed through the oppressive heat as if it were some liquid substance, some medium other than air, stunning as a vacuum, sucking the breath out of me. It seemed too hot to breathe.
I felt light-headed as I scanned the bank of bodies waiting beneath the cement canopy of the single-story building that served as airport terminal here. Palm fronds waved hysterically from the edges of the tarmac. I still hoped that Senor Pinheiro would show, but even if he did, I had no photo, no way to know it was he; I had not the least idea who he was or what he looked like or if he'd got my letter at all and if he had whether he would meet me. I squinted at signs, at faces, at the limp hands dangling at people's sides, at those who squealed and ran out to embrace some friend or family member. I looked for signs bearing my name. Saw none did.
I filed through the waiting crowd into the open, single-story concrete structure, where I would gather my luggage, pass through customs, and hail a cab. After I found my bags—this was not difficult, they were flame orange, matched my sorry sweater—I heaved my suitcases onto a table as a uniformed guard directed me to, and opened them. I looked around nervously as another guard went through my bags. I saw people waving, nodding, but no one waved to me.
My bags done, rebuckled, I hauled them down from the table and started across the marble lobby to the front door, which was really just a missing section of wall through which I could see the white haze of daylight in the parking lot beyond. Then a handsome, well-dressed man in a white suit waved to me. He raised his right hand like he was taking a pledge, dropped it—a desultory (do I imagine it?) disappointed wave.
At the time, I was impressed that Pinheiro could pick me out of the crowd. But I realize now that I couldn't have been hard to miss in my ankle-length khaki skirt, my sensible unfashionable white tennis shoes, my carefully curled hair gone flat. Besides, he had a picture of me in the file.
He greeted me with a smile and a flurry of Portuguese I could not understand. I let loose a flurry of my own corrupted grade-school French, resorting in a pinch to any language foreign.
—Je m'appelle, I began, and faltered, then, worse yet, butchering his native tongue, I announced, hand extended with crude American formality, Estou Ellen, which would translate, had I bothered to think it through, as, I am (temporarily) Ellen.
—Desculpe, I said. Não falo portugues muito bem, explaining the obvious—that I did not speak the language well.
—Claro, he said dryly—clearly—and he lifted my suitcase from my hand.
Pinheiro checked his watch, plainly nonplused. He wore a white linen suit, a sky-blue shirt; his thick black hair waved back from his temples and brow; he had a tanned, shapely, clean-shaven face. He was handsome, fortyish, younger than I'd expected, younger I would learn than the other Rotarians, whose generosity had brought me here. He was an editor at one of the region's oldest and respected newspapers, A Tarde. A busy man. He was not a cabbie, and resented being drafted into the role; that seems clear now, though it wasn't then. I see now he had no time for girls who had not mastered his language.
He had the bored, distracted air of handsome men, who do not need to show an interest in women, especially unbeautiful ones. He did not hide his irritation, nor try to. My unfashionably long skirt was rumpled like an old Kleenex. My brightly colored sweater—meant to be attractive, au courant—succeeded only in attracting contempt.
—You'll be too hot in that, he said, as we redistributed my bags between us.
Excerpted from AMAZONS by E. J. Levy Copyright © 2012 by E. J. Levy. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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