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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Garanhuns, Brazil

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, October 11, 2002
From the Field
Paul Knox Paul


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Images from Brazil

Presidential candidate for the Worker's Party, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is greeted by supporters during a visit to a center for young AIDS victims in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP

Brazilian supporters of Workers' Party presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wave a flag celebrating the polls' closure on Oct. 6. Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP

Garanhuns, a district in northeastern Brazil where I spent a couple of days this month, is a place where you would no sooner discard the edible parts of a goat than prance naked down the main street at high noon. Hence the dish known as buchada, which is a goat's stomach filled with diced liver, heart and assorted other bits — well spiced, sewn shut and simmered until tender.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who led the field in Brazil's first-round presidential election on Oct. 6, was born near Garanhuns, and I was told that a properly done up buchada is something he enjoys. It's a dish well known in the agreste — the dry farming country Lula left with his family at age 7, beginning a journey that took him to the pinnacle of Brazilian public life.

Buchada is normally Sunday fare at the Churrascaria Galinha Caipira, a restaurant in Garanhuns whose name might be rendered in English as 'Country Chicken Grill' — or 'Bumpkins' Barbecued Broilers', if you were feeling condescending. But Maria, the proprietor, rose to the occasion and rustled up a couple of well-stuffed specimens for a midweek visitor who wasn't likely to be back for a good long while.

I beg the forgiveness of our vegetarian readers, but the buchada was delicious, as were the chicken and the goat steak, served with beans and rice and farinha — the coarse manioc meal that tastes like sand to the uninitiated but is a staple of Brazilian cuisine. All of it was seasoned with election chatter from my lunch companions, who were mostly local politicos. The place was simple and cheerful, Maria kept the beer coming and for a couple of hours there was no reason to think about much of anything, other than the talk at hand and the agreeable nature of a job where you get paid to travel thousands of miles from home and make new friends.

My guide in Garanhuns was Jose Moura, a cousin of Lula's who is the local organizer for his Workers' Party, and who also owns a construction company. The election has complicated Mr. Moura's life somewhat, but happily so, as it allows him to drive out-of-towners around in his truck and introduce them to his acquaintances. He makes a good living in Garanhuns, but his daughter, who is studying history, told me she'll have to leave if she wants a career other than school teaching. The district of 120,000 people is home to dairy and corn processing plants, but most people seemed to think the prospects for young people were slim. Mr. Moura hopes Lula will get the chance to help out his home turf; he says labour and other costs are so low that public investment in the northeast would produce much higher growth rates than in the south.

It's a pity, for Garanhuns is an agreeable place, perched on a ridge in hill country where both palms and cactus grow, and it is renowned for its temperate climate. Mr. Moura took me to see the farm where Lula spent his early years — now in of the municipality of Caetes, which was split off from Garanhuns some years ago. I was struck by the beauty of the spot, but it was clear there are firm limits to the number of people the land will support. Without credit — chronically scarce in rural South America — the dusty soil yields little more than subsistence crops of beans, corn and manioc.

Yet progress has been possible, at least on the level of household economics. We called on Lula's aunt and uncle and found them still farming, with bean pods spread out to dry in the front yard, but living in a house they'd been able to double in size, with a living and dining room and a television sitting on a shelf unit full of knick-knacks. Years ago, however, it was bare feet and battery-operated radios here, and hunger in the years of no rain. Many families, like Lula's, packed up their bittersweet memories and headed south to Sao Paulo. There they joined other migrants, including immigrants from Europe and the Middle East, to form a proletarian army that laid the industrial foundation of modern Brazil. There were plenty of other nordestinos for company, and country-music radio helped take the edge off the longing for home.

I left Garanhuns the way I arrived, driving back out to Recife on the Atlantic coast. There was another story to look into there, and then I had to get down south to Sao Paulo by election day. If I'd kept pushing inland, the agreste would have given way to the drier sertao — wild cow country with a cherished place in Brazil's national consciousness. Another of Lula's cousins got me to promise that the next time I came we would drive and see some of the sertao's stark beauty. A friend of Mr. Moura's, a landowner and real-estate dealer named Antonio Vaz, told me that if I went far enough west I would get to a place called Petrolina, where prosperity has arrived thanks to exports of grapes and mangoes grown under irrigation.

Will I? Some day, I guess, I'll have to acknowledge that each of my visits to these unheralded corners of the earth is probably the last. I can't do that yet. I'll be back, I tell myself — to sample another buchada, to trade a few more stories, to chase another idea down another promising road, under a vast and beckoning sky.

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