Where the Road Ends: A Home in the Brazilian Rainforestby Binka Le Breton
The colorful story of one couple's journey across the world to build their dream home in the heart of the Amazon
In 1989, as their mid-life crises approached, concert pianist Binka Le Breton and her husband Robin, an agricultural economist, decided to uproot themselves from their home in Washington, D.C. and start a/i>/b>/b>/i>/b>/i>
The colorful story of one couple's journey across the world to build their dream home in the heart of the Amazon
In 1989, as their mid-life crises approached, concert pianist Binka Le Breton and her husband Robin, an agricultural economist, decided to uproot themselves from their home in Washington, D.C. and start a new life in Brazil.
Where the Road Ends is their story of building a house, a rainforest research center, and a new dream. Since then, they've learned how to work with the trees, the animals, the weather, the local community, and each other. Their technology now ranges from the oxcart to the Internet, and in 2000 they opened a rainforest conservation and research center that is visited by foreign researchers and Brazilian school children.
From meeting their resident cowboy, Albertinho, to beheading snakes, to chauffeuring a local wedding--the adventures described here are unparalleled. This delightful memoir takes the armchair traveler deep into another world where matters of providing food and shelter can never be taken for granted. Binka and Robin have embarked on an adventure that many readers only dream about--transplanting themselves in a different country and learning (often the hard way) what it takes to survive and flourish.
This book reveals all the enchantment of the rainforest, as well as its mysteries and dangers. The author and her agricultural economist husband moved to Brazil twenty years ago to take over an abandoned farm in a beautiful but remote locale. Le Breton's story the challenges and joys they faced adapting to the community and working to realize their dream of bringing environmental awakening to the region through the establishment of the Iracambi Rainforest Research Center. Her tale has everything, from bandits to insane elections to horribly delayed projects to the artificial insemination of the cows. The cast of characters, colorful in the extreme, includes a squatter cowboy who can fix almost anything, neighbors involved in vendettas, homeless bridegrooms, and women who take sewing seminars in the farmhouse kitchen hoping to make money from the new skills, in spite of the prevailing attitude that a woman's place was in the home. In spite of myriad setbacks, there is tremendous goodwill. "Most Brazilians spent their salary the day they received it, and most shopkeepers put up their prices accordingly. If you were quick off the mark you might find an item in the supermarket going at last week's price, but the supermarket staff tended to be quicker than you were." Le Breton's can-do attitude and successful gerry-rigging makes her an entertaining MacGyver of the jungle.
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Where the Road Ends
A Home in the Brazilian Rainforest
By Binka Le Breton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Binka Le Breton
All rights reserved.
Where Minas Begins
Minas begins where the road ends. — São Paulo saying
It wasn't easy to find. Promised lands never are. Ours was a seven-hour drive from Rio de Janeiro on a twisty potholed road through exuberant jungle, past towering granite mountains toward an empty land that stretched into the blue distance. It was a major highway that ran from Buenos Aires on the distant windy pampas to the Amazon river in the north, winding up and down through patches of forest and steep grassy hillsides, past sleepy towns and broad muddy rivers, on and on into the mountains of Minas Gerais.
Five hours into the journey, past the town of Muriaé, we pulled off the asphalt and onto a steep rutted road that led sharply up into the mountains. The elderly Land Rover that had brought us thousands of miles groaned as it picked up speed. Swerving to avoid a horse-drawn cart on a particularly nasty bend, Robin pumped the brakes but the car refused to slow. "Shit!" he muttered as he shot around a blind corner. "The fucking brakes have gone. Just as well we're here, really. ..."
Here? I thought to myself. That depends on where here is.
Since piling our stuff into the back of the car six months earlier in Washington, D.C., my husband and I had headed west and south to West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, and then turned south to Mexico and beyond, on a journey to a new life. It had been a time out of time — to leave behind our past and ready ourselves for what lay ahead. There had been lots of adventures. Hiking up a volcano in Guatemala, we had watched in awe as the mountainside suddenly split open like a ripe tomato, sending streams of molten lava pouring toward us. We'd been stranded for weeks in Costa Rica waiting for a spare engine part to arrive from Europe, and we'd watched, entranced, the magical green quetzal birds flying dreamlike through cloud forests. We'd shivered as iron gates clanged shut behind us ("for your safety, señores") inside a filthy hotel in Panama City, we'd sunbathed on pink sandy beaches beside dark brown rivers in the empty spaces of the Grand Savanna in Venezuela, we'd dug the car out of bottomless mud in the northern Amazon, we'd been bitten to distraction by small pium flies and enormous man-eating mosquitoes, and we'd toasted the sunset with the local moonshine while floating down the Rio Negro on a barge after the road ran out.
But it hadn't been just another tourist trip. For us there would be no safe return to the family home, no more fighting the traffic en route to the office, no more comfortable evenings telling travelers' tales to our friends. No more weekends off. This was the beginning of the rest of our lives.
I guess you could call it a midlife crisis. When I stopped to think rationally, I knew it was madness. But to Robin it was the ful-fillment of a lifelong ambition. Ever since he was a child living on a farm halfway up a mountain in Kenya, he had dreamed of getting his own patch of land and making something of it. "I've done enough parachuting in and out of other people's lives," he told me. "I want to stop talking and start doing."
For years he'd worked in international development, jetting from continent to continent helping hungry people feed themselves. Green from graduate school, he'd started working with an agency of the British government. At the job interview they asked where he played on the cricket field, whereas in an interview for a student visa to the United States he'd been asked if he'd ever been a communist.
Agricultural economists were a rare breed in the early seventies, and the Commonwealth Development Corporation decided to send him to an area of Ethiopia so remote that there was no written language. They hoped his wife was a "good trooper," and felt sure that household goods could be taken in by oxcart. When, for some reason, that idea fell through, they sent us to Jakarta, where the economy was in ruins and we never did have a car that ran properly. Robin worked with a colleague from the International Monetary Fund who recommended a move to Washington, but when it was time to leave Jakarta, Robin was offered a posting in Zaire. He spoke good French, he had tropical experience, and the call of Africa was strong. He bought a Range Rover, duty free, and made plans to drive it across the Sahara — until the coup d'état in Zaire, when he was told to stay in London. But he couldn't keep his car without paying duty, so he got a cheap flight to Washington and found a position with the World Bank. It was a grand way for us to see the world and raise our two kids, and they'd quickly become accustomed to moving from one language and one capital city to another. I once overheard our daughter Juliet, at age three, telling a friend, "My daddy goes round in taxis visiting governments."
While Robin had been visiting governments I had been playing concerts — classical music on whatever grand piano I could find. It didn't pay much but I loved it and did it well.
We'd moved from London to Nairobi, to Jakarta to Washington to New Delhi. But Robin never lost sight of his dream. Like recurring malaria it kept surfacing and shifting — in New Delhi it was a palace in Rajasthan, in Nairobi a game ranch in the desert, in Washington a cattle ranch in the Rockies. We'd done a spell in Brazil, too, and that was when things had finally come to a head. We'd educated our children, paid our mortgage, and found a country where it never snowed. Still in our forties, we had time and energy on our side. It was now or never.
Our new home was in the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. Somewhat larger than France, extending from the borders of Rio de Janeiro all the way to Brasília on the high savanna, Minas was settled in the eighteenth century when the first gold strikes were made. Intrepid adventurers streamed across the mountains from Rio and São Paulo to make and lose their fortunes, leaving a legacy of elegant little colonial towns adorned with baroque churches richly ornamented with gold leaf. Minas became an important state, and remains so to this day, long after the gold has been mined out.
A few years earlier, when we'd been living in the decaying port city of Recife, we'd been attracted by the sound of Minas. Forest; mountains; tough, feisty people; hearty farmhouse cooking. Minas seemed a good place to chase a dream.
We packed our teenage kids into the car and drove south for three days to see for ourselves. It was a ten-hour drive from the state border to Muriaé, the town where we'd chosen to set up our base camp. (It took me several tries before I learned to pronounce it properly: Moo-ree-aye-eh, with an accent on the last vowel.) We stayed in an old farmhouse belonging to a local landowner whose name, improbably, was Lenin. He received us with traditional Minas hospitality, fed us enormous meals, and introduced us to the county farm agent who took us up into the backcountry to look at some properties. The first was hidden deep in the forest, where there wasn't an acre of flat land, and the caretaker looked like a bandido. The second was an attractive little coffee farm, not far from Muriaé. The third was high in the mountains, isolated, wild, and absolutely magnificent.
Back at Lenin's we held a family conference. Seventeen-year-old Juliet was already thinking horses. Always the practical one of the family, she was in favor of the coffee farm. "It's convenient for the town and it doesn't require a huge investment," she announced. "The house is fine and it's got some good pasture. Plus you know all about growing coffee, Dad, at least that's what you've always told us." Her elder brother disagreed strongly. "I think we should go for the one in the mountains," he declared. "I mean, if you have to choose between a nice little coffee farm and a piece of land that is magnificent, romantic, and totally impractical, why hesitate?"
"For crying out loud, Gus," said Juliet. "It may be magnificent and romantic and all that. But just think a minute. There's nothing there. It's been abandoned. How can anyone possibly make a living out of it?"
"That's my point," said Gus. "There's nothing there. Mountains, forest, rivers, but no working farm. So Dad can set it up just the way he wants. The stuff of dreams."
We held a secret ballot, and it came out tied. We sat up half the night arguing and then we took a second vote. This time the decision was unanimous: in favor of the isolated farm in the mountains.
The price was right; we could trade it for our family house in Washington and still have something left over. The farm came with resident cowboy Albertinho, who had been squatting there for several years in the absence of the owner, and scraped a living by planting and hunting, occasionally getting a day's work at coffee harvest. He suggested we buy a few cows and offered to look after them. We closed the deal, told him we'd be back within the year, and flew to the States to spend our last year in Washington, settle Juliet into college, and say goodbye to our past.
For six months Robin and I had been living outside time — traveling between two worlds as we made our way south. Now, suddenly, our journey was almost over, and our destination lay ahead of us in the misty mountains. We'd named it Iracambi, the Tupi Indian name for Land of Milk and Honey. Like Muriaé, the accent was on the last vowel, Ee-ra-cam-bee, as Robin patiently explained to our friends who couldn't get their tongues around the name.
The narrow track headed abruptly off up a rocky pass. Bone-shakingly corrugated and dusty in the dry season, at the first drop of rain it would become a morass of thick red mud. An occasional ancient truck ground its way up the mountain, coating us in fine red dust, but most of the traffic was horse powered — with the exception of the occasional oxcart, groaning and swaying on solid wooden wheels. Twisting and turning crazily, the road to Iracambi ran between steep slopes planted with coffee, past small, square homesteads painted white and blue, and through patches of dark forest clinging to the hilltops and eroded, overgrazed cattle pastures until it came finally to the next village: two cobbled streets of low buildings, an impressive church on a hill, a bar, and a bus stop. The village was called Rosário da Limeira, which means the Rosary of Lime Trees, but you wouldn't have known it since there were no signs anywhere, and no lime trees, either. After the village the road wandered off toward the peaks, dropping finally down into a broad green valley flanked by forested mountains. A lazy brown river meandered through the grassy fields where a small herd of cattle were grazing placidly. This was our new home, and suddenly our new life was beginning. Caught between excitement and panic, I gave Robin a small smile, and he squeezed my hand.
Around the next bend the road was barred by a sagging wooden gate, and there, sitting on a gray horse, was a bandy-legged man with a drooping mustache and a battered straw hat. It was Albertinho.
He opened the gate with a flourish. "I heard a car," he said matter-of-factly, "So I figured it must be you." Wheeling on his horse, he galloped ahead of us, past a patch of sugarcane and a few straggling coffee bushes to the dilapidated mud house that he shared with his wife, Maria, their three children, a skinny dog, a caged canary, and a small spotted pig.
Albertinho looked about thirty. Like most of the inhabitants of these mountains he was of mixed blood: European, African, and South American Indian. Short and slender but tough as a whiplash, he habitually wore a fierce expression — occasionally lightened by a smile of rare sweetness. Maria was several years younger. Dressed in a faded T-shirt, knee-length skirt, and flip-flops, she had pulled her wavy brown hair into a knot and was standing at the window, cradling a baby. She leaned out, smiling a welcome, and I noticed that her front teeth were missing. Albertinho muttered something, and Maria disappeared into the house, returning with a flask of strong sweet coffee. We climbed stiffly out of the car and stood in the sunshine while two small girls gazed at us from a safe distance, and the skinny dog scratched itself vigorously on the front step. I took a grateful sip of the coffee. It was hot and black and tasted wonderful.
Everything looked clean and well cared for. Flowering plants in rusting cans were hanging on the veranda, and an old-fashioned rose bush was planted outside the front door. The family's washing was draped over a barbed-wire fence. The pig was rooting in a mud wallow, a couple of scrawny hens were perched in a basket in an orange tree, and Albertinho's gray horse was tied to a hitching post outside the front door.
"Obrigado," said Robin, accepting another glass of coffee from Maria. "Thank you." He turned to Albertinho. "I think, Albertinho, we'd better get over to the house and get settled in before dark."
"Ah eh," said Albertinho. "That's right."
Albertinho and Maria led the way across a decrepit wooden bridge, alongside a swamp, and up a small overgrown path to the farmhouse. Like all the local houses it was tucked into a fold in the hills, near a spring and half hidden from view. Crouched in an abandoned cane field, it had been empty for several months and looked forlorn. It needed chickens and a pig and a collection of small children playing outside; it needed washing on the line and a horse tethered to the fence.
Its cracking plaster was covered with several layers of whitewash, tinted blue, but the paint on its wooden shutters had long since baked off in the sun. The house was built up on solid stone supports to keep the termites at bay, and four concrete steps led to the front door, held shut by a piece of wire twisted around a nail. Maria unwound the wire and pushed the door open. We trooped in behind her, hesitating a minute to let our eyes get accustomed to the gloom, and then blinking as she unlatched the wooden shutters to let the light stream in. The house was bare and dusty, but it felt friendly enough, and the floorboards were solid. Still, the rafters were festooned with spiderwebs, there were no ceilings, and the underside of the roof tiles was encrusted with years' worth of accumulated soot from the wood fire. Maria saw my face and flashed me a brief smile. "Don't worry," she said, "I'll have it cleaned up in no time."
"That's right," added Albertinho, stepping through the doorway. "Maria will sweep the place out, and you don't need to trouble yourself about the vampire bats. I've already cleared them out."
"Thank you, Albertinho," I said, repressing a shudder, and braced myself to inspect the rest of the house.
It didn't take long. There wasn't much to see — six little rooms, and the smoke-stained kitchen, painted in faded pink. The kitchen door led to a small veranda with a large concrete sink into which water flowed directly from the spring, through an ancient hose. A precarious mud structure in the back had once been used as a grain store and chicken house, and outside the front door there was a gnarled gourd tree half choked with flowering vines. I walked into the late afternoon sunshine to join Robin outside.
Iridescent hummingbirds flashed past the scarlet hibiscus flowers, and a flock of green parrots flew overhead, chattering noisily. The banana leaves rustled in the breeze, and I jumped as a cricket started up right beside me, sounding exactly like a ringing phone. I leaned against the tree and studied the house. The paintwork was faded, and some of the roof tiles were cracked, but it was solidly built, and it would do fine for now. Robin already had great plans for the house he would build, although he'd warned me it might be several months before we could get started. "Need to lick the farm into shape first," he told me. "Shouldn't take long." I closed my eyes and thought back to our house in Washington, with its antique furniture, polished floors, modern kitchen, and shady backyard, and I laughed aloud.
Maria thrust the baby into the arms of one of her very small daughters, cut a bunch of twigs, tied them together with grass, and made a broom. Soon clouds of dust were flying around the house and cinders were rattling onto the wooden floor. Maria's little girl gazed at us shyly, cradling the baby, and the skinny dog settled itself on the front doorstep with a proprietorial air.
Excerpted from Where the Road Ends by Binka Le Breton. Copyright © 2010 Binka Le Breton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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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