Dusk was falling, that swift folding of day into darkness that characterizes the tropics. As the light condensed and dwindled I contemplated my ill planning. The fact that I would be arriving at my destination late into the night, with no bookings, no connections and no means of letting anyone know where I was seemed optimistic beyond belief. I had figured the bus trip from Rio to Ouro Preto to be around six hours but here I was with another four hours still to go. A thread of anxiety started its twist into my stomach as the bus wound ever onwards into the dense blackness of night.
The man sitting next to me on this endless journey was short and balding with a neatly trimmed beard. He wore a cable-knit cardigan and grey Velcro shoes… strange how banal details like this can be recalled… it certainly wasn’t as if I fancied him. But he was a friendly enough companion to share the view from the front seat of the bus, revealing the nuances of the landscape along the way and, as the journey progressed, more personal details of his life. He was a policeman in Rio. He was making the trip to visit his recently widowed mother. He grew up in Ouro Preto and would be there for a few days over the fiesta of Nossa Senhora do Rosário. His name was Cynlio.
It was close to midnight when the bus finally rolled into the town square. Rain falling in buckets, the pitchest black of unwelcoming nights. My querulous enquiries to the bus driver in stumbling Portuguese—the whereabouts of a hotel, an information centre, a phone booth—were all met with a blank stare of incomprehension. Cynlio popped into my one-way conversation in his pidgin Portu-English, gently informing me there would be “no thing open now, no hotel until amanhã de manhã.” In other words, tomorrow morning. But he had a ‘good’ solution. I could stay at his mother’s house, with my own room at the front. I would be safe and she would not mind …
We are talking 1982 here, a time when Brazil was not known for its safety. No TripAdvisor, or Airbnb, no cell phones. No internet. A policeman in these parts could be a good guy or just as easily a bad guy.
I often think about the fall lines of life, the invisible tightropes that divide moments of calamity and serendipity. This was such a moment. Accepting the invitation of a bed from a stranger—would I get the axe murderer, or had I found myself a fabulous guide? It could have gone either way.
Cynlio’s ancient mother was up waiting for him when we arrived, drenched to the skin at her doorstep. She seemed initially rather put out to see her beloved son with a blonde stranger in tow. But explanations were made, smiles were shared, and welcomes provided. I was led through the tiny hall to the front room and the smallest of rough beds, shown the humblest of bathrooms and left to change out of my cold wet clothes. On re-entering the living room, Cynlio declared we needed to go out right away to meet his friends.
Only a policeman would know where the after-hours joints were open in this kind of a town. And a few paces from Cynlio’s mother’s doorway took us to another nondescript entrance, and with a couple of coded knocks we were let inside a buzzing bar. Cynlio’s old schoolfriends crowded around, welcoming him back to the fold, regaling him with the stories of their lives over round after round of cachaça shots. If you haven’t come across cachaça, it is created from sugar cane, is clear as water and with the kick of eighty per cent proof alcohol. In these parts of the world it was (and probably still is) the local panacea of choice. When life dishes up endless hardship and disappointment, cachaça delivers a necessary sense of fortitude, and paints a euphoric glow around its jagged edges.
It was around 4 a.m. when we all rolled out of the bar, the men drunk as fish. Their capacity for alcohol was extraordinary. Pasqual, the tall, elegant crooner of the group, announced there would be a feast in honor of my arrival and that we must all reconvene at his home at 2 p.m. the next day.
I retired safely to my little bed in the front room with its raggedy sheets and thin holy blanket. Around noon I woke with a hangover to beat all hangovers—cachaça’s warm hand of friendship is very short-lived. For breakfast—strong black coffee and another round of cachaça for all three of us, Cynlio’s mother included. I was starting to get the gist, no hair of the dog round here, more like the full skin to keep everyone floating in a slightly glazed state, no matter the hour.
I had thought the whole idea of a feast was one of those drunken moments everyone would forget in the clear light of a new day. But no, we were off, hurrying not to be late, Pasqual was a very good cook …
Pasqual’s house was, in fact, a bit of a shack set on the side of a hill a ways out of town. I remember ripening coffee beans hanging down the banks, and masses of wild orchids. It had stopped raining but the air was still heavy and the sky dark and threatening. In the freshness of day the group made a motley bunch—apart from Pasqual, the rest looked like street people, roughly dressed vagabonds in short order: the tall, morose, skinny man; the coal-black man with hard miner’s hands and rope muscles of arms and legs; the short fat man; a younger skinny kid who looked like he had come out of the army (camo attire noted); and of course our host, lean and tawny-skinned, with a near perfect grasp of English, and a voice smooth as butter, Pasqual. Out came a bottle of cachaça, drinks were poured and plans laid.
The miner was dispatched to get firewood. The tall morose chap was sent for his guitar, the army kid was told to find alcohol (by what means I shall never know as no one in this renegade bunch appeared to have a bean between them) and the short fat one headed off to find the women—who I was told would help clean up and be great for the dancing and “after.” I didn’t enquire further.
Two ancient fowls were caught from the yard and dispatched out of sight. While this was happening the crew gradually reassembled with their contributions; the women, we were told, would all be there around 6 p.m. By 4 p.m. the fire was lit, and the new bottle of cachaça opened and emptied. Outside, on a wooden block near the fire, Pasqual chopped onions and garlic. The chicken was cut into large chunks and all the blood from both birds sat in a dirty old enamel jug. Throughout proceedings this jug was repeatedly raised and toasted to us, his audience. “Here lies the soul of my dish,” Pasqual proclaimed. “Today I make my famous frango ao molho pardo.” At this stage things weren’t looking either impressive or appetizing. I started wondering how I was going to get out of this meal in order to avoid chronic food poisoning.
But it was time to start cooking. A vast iron pot was set on the fire, some oil went in and the chunks of bird browned, onions and garlic added, along with freshly picked bay leaves and oregano, a chili or two and some black peppercorns. As soon as everything started to sizzle hard, lots of water was added to the pot along with a small handful of salt. Once it all came to the boil, the jug of blood was mixed with a little vinegar and a little cornmeal and stirred into the stew. The embers were loosened to drop the heat and this huge pot left to simmer slowly for the next couple of hours, while we went on to drink some more cachaça. By this stage, four buxom women had arrived—tightly topped and highly made up, they were a lot older than they would have liked me believe. The guitar came out and the melancholy in its strummer’s face fell away as if he was in the arms of a lover; the young boy was dispatched for another alcohol raid, and Pasqual turned his attention to the rest of our meal. Heading into the small makeshift kitchen inside his shack he retrieved a large jar of polenta. Water was boiled in another giant heavy iron pot over a gas burner inside; the polenta rained in and swirled to a simmer, then was left to plop for another hour or so. Back outside it was now completely dark, the sky was clear and everyone was getting very drunk. The heartwarming scent of the stew drifted on a soft breeze of jasmine. The effect was transporting, a fleeting moment when nothing could be bad in the world.
It was around 8 p.m. when our feast was finally declared “pronto agora.” A pile of tin plates was assembled by the fire with a rough collection of forks and spoons, a table quickly constructed with an old door, more blocks of wood pulled up as seats and some candles lit to break the darkness. The now creamy polenta was ladled onto the plates, and this most fragrant of deep brown chicken stews spooned on top. In their hours of slow cooking over the fire those two bony old birds had sacrificed every inch of their flavor to the pot, their scraggly flesh was now rendered succulently tender, and the blood, which I had looked at with such horror, had filled out every corner of the sauce with a deep dark richness. The subtle tonings of herbs, the hint of chili and the smoky flavor of the fire brought everything together in the most perfect balance. From so little Pasqual had created a truly magnificent dish. Against the creaminess of the polenta it was just soooo good. For about ten minutes there was silence but for the chirp of crickets, as each of us disappeared into a private reverie of gustatory bliss.
I felt like I had stumbled into my own Steinbeck novel. Here in this wild place, eating the best chicken stew in the world with a bunch of vagabonds hard on their luck. In that humble stew, beyond the pleasures of taste, there was so much else to savor. Its essence held so many of the things it takes to make a good life—resourcefulness, pride and care, a connectedness to nature, and the pleasures of a meal shared together around the table—most of the means to transform a life of raw poverty and grinding hardship.
The power of friendship and camaraderie, music and laughter, a day and a night of good times created out of little more than two tough old fowls and a crapped-out guitar. I guess you have to give the cachaça some credit as well.
A few days later I got back to Rio feeling less than ordinary, and wearing a wild rash. The doctor looked me over. “Ahh,” he mused, “you have been bitten by our devil drink cachaça… You are a very lucky girl that it didn’t kill you.”
On the right side of the fall line, but precariously close to the precipice.
An excerpt from A Fork in the Road published by Lonely Planet.