“Oh, do you know The American?”
Now I knew many Americans (obviously I was one myself) but within days arriving in the town of Bragança in the State of Pará, Brazil it seemed everyone was only concerned about one in particular.
I gleaned a bit about him, a draft dodging blue-blood (New Englander?) with a half-built “American style” house out in the jungle, but what glommed onto my imagination was that no one seemed to know his name or where exactly he lived except “deep in the jungle…on the other end of town”.
Not entirely convinced The American was real, but knowing that the uncertainly would always naw at my gut if I left Bragança without finding out for myself, I convinced E. Smith to come with me to find out.
Knowing that we would have to head farther than we had ever ventured, E. Smith convinced a local friend to loan us several bicycles. Our noble quest inspiring enough that he agreed to let us ride them far across town “as long as you are back by sundown”.
With no other direction other than “across town” and “into the jungle” we set out and stopped every few kilometers to ask a stranger where “The American” lived, our fair skin and heavily accented Portuguese justification enough to be seeking out our own. Using this social radar we slowly began to triangulate our prey. I remember this part of the trip through the snap shots I stopped to take along the way. A small market of dusty stalls, a long low bridge leading to the overgrown wetlands, the paved road giving way to gravel which taped off into dirt that withered into a path that died in front a small wooden house demarcating the end of civilization and beginning of the true jungle.
We stopped and as we dismounted our bikes three children, stair steps of about six, eight, and thirteen, came out of the house to greet us. We asked if they knew how to get to the house of The American. In the breath before they answered I knew that this would make or break our journey. If they laughed and said they had no idea what we were talking about we’d gone too far try and retrace our steps and try a different path.
Instead they pointed to a small stream at the side of the house. “Follow that stream. It will lead you to an open field and there you will find the home of The American,” they said. Excited arranged to leave our bikes with them and set off on foot, taking off our shoes and rolling up our pant legs when the stream became too deep.
Too committed to turn back we trudged on carrying our satchels and shoes until the water began the rise and jungle began to press against us and when finally we had to face the possibility that the children had played a trick on us the jungle gave way and opened up to a wide, lush clearing.
Resting in the center was a structure built with the sensibilities, if not the knowledge, of Northern American homebuilding. Instead of the wide, thin bricks common in that part of the Brazil the home was made entirely out of small, ornamental bricks like those seen in thousands of cul-de-sacs across the USA. Only there was no framing, no wood studs, no interior walls, and no outer wall at all on the side facing us. Instead the entire house stood open on one side like giant doll house. A woman hunched over, cooking at a stove, in what clearly was intended to be the kitchen.
When we called to her she greeted us warmly and said we must be there to meet her husband. Reading our confused faces she said, “he’s The American. You’re not the first to come all the way out here to meet him. He’s out tilling the far field”. She pointed the way and we dutifully trudged off.
When we cleared a small ridge we saw a man with pale skin and a mangy beard pushing a anemic gas powered tiller. It wasn’t until he spotted us, stopped the tiller, and walked over that we realized how tall he was. Well over six-and-a-half feet his gaunt frame and haggled face lent him a wraith-like appearance.
After a brief conversation—yes, he came initially to dodge the draft, he only had money to build half the house, he fell in love with a Brazilian woman and stayed—we realized we had little in common aside from our accents, thanked him for his time, and headed home.
As we retrieved our bikes from the children and began pedaling back, I reflected on how strange it was, for someone with only enough money for half a house, to build from left to right instead of from the bottom up.