My Brazilian Internship (Part 3) – Sertão

The Sertão region
Sertão is Portuguese for “outback” or “backcountry”, the semi-arid region of Northeastern Brazil. This desert-like region comprises 9 different Brazilian states, including the Bahia which is where we were working for the summer. Because the region is so close to the equator, it does experience some humid tropical areas, but it is mostly known for having little to no rain fall with consistent temperatures throughout the year.

Topography and vegetation of most of Sertão region
Topography and vegetation of most of Sertão region

The vegetation of this region is mostly what is known as Caatinga, or shrubland, thorny trees, thorny brush, cacti, thick-stemmed plants, and arid-adapted grasses. Unfortunately, this region has been stricken with drought for the past 5 decades, a proven negative affect from climate change, therefore the government has wanted to combat and reduce the negative impact of this. Programs like water storage cisterns, generation of dams, and irrigation systems have been put in place but have not shown significant or sustainable farm income generation. That is where Adapta Sertão enters the scene in 2006 as an agricultural cooperative that serves to train and aid agricultural and farm workers with the most proven advanced and sustainable methods, while also monitoring data like productivity and the weather in order to improve or introduce methods that benefit the constituents. 

(Source: Adapta Sertão website)

The most memorable farm visits out of 120 farms
Jaciene’s farm
Jaciene was one of my favorite smallholder agricultural workers I met, and the most memorable to me. I could tell she was a leader in her small rural community considering she allowed agricultural cooperatives to hold workshops at her residence, and she was gracious enough to make 5 of us lunch one day. DELICOUS!

Side note: Lunch in this region almost always consisted of chicken (with so much flavor and an orang-ey broth), rice, salad or some kind of veggies, and purê de macaxeira or mashed yucca (of different variations). The different yucca that they had was mandioca and aipim, and I fell in love because in Colombia they eat a lot of yucca too, but never like this. They tend to mash it with some of the broth from the chicken, so it is so delicious. Helen would always ask for pimenta, the spicy pepper from the region that most Brazilians do not eat. It was readily available for some reason, which made me happy when I wanted to add it here and there, but it made Los Angeles-native Helen extremely happy because she uses it for every meal (which is funny because most Guatemalans don’t eat a lot of spice, but she grew up with a lot of Mexican/SoCal influence). Did I mention EVERYTHING we ate was fresh from a local garden, or a happy chicken that roamed free and reached proper maturity? It was.

Mashed yucca example of what we ate.
Mashed yucca example of what we ate.
The spicy
The spicy “pimenta” aka peppers

Jaciene has beautiful, deep, green eyes, and takes pride in her home garden for being all natural. She supports the movement while still working on her own garden with regular maintenance on her property. She is an inspiration.

Jaciene being interviewed by Laise for our survey to collect data
Jaciene being interviewed by Laise for our survey to collect data

Laise’s mãe’s farm
Our co-worker Laise’s mom has a farm that we loved to visit. We hung out with her family and talked and asked about their farm. They had chickens, turtles, goats, donkeys, and cows and all sorts of plants growing. They cultivated cacti like many others in the region in order to cheaply and easily feed their livestock something that also provided them with a lot of water they needed, killing two birds with one stone if you will. The animals loved eating any kind of cactus without the needles of course.

Laise's nieces riding the donkeys on the property
Laise’s nieces riding the donkeys on the property

We got to ride the donkey and play with her nieces, which was more fun than we could handle. The farm was about a 20 minute motorcycle drive outside of Pintadas. Helen joked around with Laise that she would stay with her mom if she moved to Brazil and try to start a living for herself there.

Left to right: Laise's sister Barbara, Laise, and Laise's fiance
Left to right: Laise’s sister Barbara, Laise, and Laise’s fiance

Nereide’s farm
Nereide (neh-re-gee) is a very interesting woman. Her back story only adds to her uniqueness. She was a nun from the city (Sao Paulo, I think) who came as a young woman doing mission work in the sertão region. She fell in love with her current husband, they got married, purchased land, and have had their farm even after 4 kids. They had recently purchased a larger piece of land she showed us, just outside of Pintadas. It would take about a 10 minute walk from her house. They were cultivating a lot of cactus on the new land and still weren’t sure how they wanted to build on it at the time.

Nereide showing us the cactus on her other larger piece of land
Nereide showing us the cactus on her other larger piece of land

Her house was very peculiar to me because it was small, and virtually right next to the cows she was raising on a very small piece of land. As in 5 steps out of the back door and you can pet one of the cows at the closest part of the fence. Granted, this land was very close to the rest of town, so it was technically big compared to other properties without farms in town. Compared to all the other farms we went to in the region, it was a lot closer to town and a lot smaller than other farms. I found it a bit hard on my stomach to handle the proximity of the cow smell right outside of their back door which was also the kitchen. She cooked for us one day, and it was the best meal I must have had the whole two months there, which says a lot because almost all the meals were amazing. I couldn’t stop side-eyeing the amount of flies that flew into the kitchen which I presumed had been outside eating… well I’d rather not talk about that, you get the picture. In the end, like I said, best meal we had in sertão.

One of Nereide's cows on the fenced lot on her property. Not much bigger than what is pictured here, a few steps from the back door of her house. There were only about 6 cows.
One of Nereide’s cows on the fenced lot on her property. Not much bigger than what is pictured here, a few steps from the back door of her house. There were only about 6 cows.

Our first introduction to her farm was when we helped her pick the wilting flowers from the squash growing in part of her property (away from the cows). These flowers are delicious when you fry them, and us and her youngest daughter could not stop eating them. Who knew you could fry flowers to savor!? I regret that we never took up on her invitation to wake up at 5am and help them milk the cows.

Nereide picking up flowers form the squash plants on her land
Nereide picking up flowers form the squash plants on her land

Catching a chicken!
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of these girls or their mother whom we met at this particular farm. All they wanted to do was play, give us a lot of their food (i.e. corn), and run around. The girls tried to teach me how to catch a chicken, but I couldn’t do it. However, I was able to catch and play with little chicks on my last fews days doing fieldwork at one farm.

The young girls catching a chicken for me
The young girls catching a chicken for me

A funny story
Driving out to the field was always exhausting because we would drive at least 1 hours, most times 2 to get somewhere. I loved getting to know everyone from the rural areas. They were always kind, curious about where we came from, offered us food and beverages, and were very patient with our bad Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation. Another thing I’d love to do was EAT. We always had a wonderful lunch no matter where we went, and it was always an abundance of good, natural, organic, and wholesome food served buffet style (go-figure, because the words natural and organic and buffet are almost never used in the same sentence in the US). Except this one time.

It had been a long day of surveying and it took us longer to get to lunch that day for some reason. We were always pretty punctual about getting to eat once we were all hungry thanks to our Brazilian co-workers. I’m very happy this was the case because I have serious hangry issues. That day, we were all famished, and we couldn’t find a place to eat. We finally found a place, but we all looked in disgust. The place was empty, it looked unclean, and the buffet was miniscule. We decided to deal with it because we were that hungry. The food was definitely the worst I had ever had in Brazil, and that says a lot because I never had any bad tasting food the rest of the time I was there.

Fast forward 3 am the next morning, and I wake myself up automatically writhing with abnormal abdominal cramps. I jolted off the bed and ran to the bathroom. I will spare you the details, but it wasn’t pretty. When I finally “emptied” out with relief, I started feeling dizzy and nauseous. As I stood up from the toilet with my pijama shorts and underwear still at my ankles, and then…..black. I didn’t know what had happened except I woke up on the floor closer to the sink. I had fainted!!!! I went back to bed, rubbing my face because I think I hit myself on the sink, but then the pain went away. I wake up 4 hours later and I was feeling 100% better already but have zero appetite. I look in the mirror, and my eye is swollen and bruised!

We met up with our co-workers at the little restaurant (run by all women) to meet up with our driver and eat breakfast, so I told them the weird sickness I got early before the crack of dawn. Suddenly, our driver that day (who we always called Coco) told me he had the exact same occurrence around the same exact time that morning! We all deduced it to the restaurant we ate at the day before (the driver always eats with all of us too), but we couldn’t figure out which food made us sick because everyone pretty much ate the same thing.

This is how my eye ended up after fainting and hitting the sink that morning
This is how my eye ended up after fainting and hitting the sink that morning

For more pictures, click on this link!

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