There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
–For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
-from Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop
Last night I was reading the book reviews in Tin House and came across a review of Elizabeth Bishop’s Brazil, a book commission by Life Magazine while Bishop was in Brazil. I couldn’t believe it when the reviewer said that Bishop intended to stop over briefly in Brazil but ended up getting sick from the “exotic fruit of the Brazilian cashew tree.” Her face swelled up so badly that she could not see. She was nursed back to health by Lota de Macedo Soares, an architect she had met the U.S. The two fell in love and Bishop ended up spending 15 years in Brazil writing and translating poetry.
There are so many things about this story that are amazing to me, the first of course being that Bishop was poisoned by the cashew fruit. In Brazil this fruit is called caju. It difficult to find the actual fruit, but the juice, sweet, mild, slightly chalky, and delicious is available everywhere. If you order a hamburger, it is likely to be topped with an egg and served with a glass of suco de caju. I drink gallons of the stuff when I’m there. If you buy it in the grocery store, the box shows a picture of the fruit which is actually a false fruit that grows off the bottom of a cashew nut, which of course is not really a nut, but rather a seed. It’s a complicated plant. I hadn’t ever seen an actual caju fruit in the flesh, but I am such an avid consumer of the juice that when I was in Brazil this past December my husband made a point to find one for me. It wasn’t easy. During the torrential rains of the Brazilian summer, the fragile water-logged caju doesn’t ship well so stores don’t carry it. But in Rio, on New Year’s Eve, he finally found one.
It was red and wrapped in plastic and didn’t look very tasty. But we sliced open the stem to see the raw nut/seed and THANK GOD we didn’t taste that part because–and for some reason inexplicable to me, not one of the four highly educated Brazilian folks in the room mentioned this at any time during the fruit handling–the shell surrounding the cashew nut is coated with a toxic resin. Similar to the urushiol oil found on poison ivy! So that is why cashews are so expensive. They have to be shipped from tropical climates and, oh yeah, by the way, washed with a special process to remove the toxic rash-inducing oils.
I can imagine poor Elizabeth Bishop wondering at the curious caju fruit with its soggy sweet pulp and the squat little nut capped on the top. Naturally she may have wanted to pry open the nut and take a taste of a raw cashew. And two days later, her face is swollen like a watermelon (a safer fruit choice for the next trip) and she can’t open her eyes to see. I didn’t have it so bad, I only broke out in a rash on my arms, neck and one ear. But man was that ear huge for a few days. The worst part of the whole ordeal was not knowing why I was itchy all over. It was only after I got back home and was trying to explain to someone what caju was when I discovered its darker side.
I digress. I wanted to write about travel, not poison masquerading as fruit. Bishop’s story is such a great travel story. She intended to stay a week but ended up living in Brazil for 15 years. That is why travel can be difficult, because we can’t control everything, actually, we can barely control anything. Nothing is what you expect it to be or what other people tell you it is. Many things (ahem, caju) make absolutely no sense. Which sometimes is good. It is good to learn to let things go, enjoy the unexpected, itch your giant ear and go on your merry way.
Bishop asks “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” There were moments this past trip when this very thought crossed my mind. It rained. A lot. I was sick and wasn’t getting better. It felt like we spent days in the car. I missed my mom. I was upset with myself for feeling out of place and mad at my body for letting a little bacteria throw me so far off course. When I came home I had this lingering sense of ick, like I was doomed to never enjoy another trip.
I had failed at vacation.
But then I read Bishop’s story and I read the blog of my friend Kate who is travelling through South America and I looked through my pictures and I felt better. I have a lot of great memories to take away from my trip. I am getting to know the country of my husband more intimately: I did pizza and movie night with my nephews, I learned enough Portuguese to really talk to my mothers-in-law, I found pictures of my husband as a baby, I learned to drive a stick and how to order pizza so it tastes like pizza (pouco queijo, bem passado), and tried to absorb the vastness of the mountains as our little car screamed by blasting brazilian cowboy music, the only cds we could find.
My only regret is that I didn’t know Elizabeth Bishop owned a house in Ouro Preto. Next time, I’ve got to check it out.