Cliff Sanderlin

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Despite the wonderful experience and memories of my years in NE Brazil between 1968 and 1971, my introduction to Brazil was not as rosey. Students around the world were protesting American imperialism and the war in Viet Nam. Police were attacking protestors at the infamous Democratic presidential convention in Chicago literally as a couple dozen other trainees and I were on our way to Brazil to finish our training that had begun in Brattleboro, Vermont.

The 15-hour bus ride that six of us took to our training site in the interior of the Northeastern Brazil state of Paraiba was...eventful. While a new highway was being built between the "sertao" "(hinterland) town of Cajazeiras and the coastal capital of Joao Pessoa, the detours were narrow, winding gravel roads. The bus was old and underpowered. But that didn't deter the driver from attempting to pass an equally decrepit bus from a competing bus company. Even at full throttle, our rattletrap could not overtake the other, but our driver's honor was obviously on the line. For several miles, the two buses roared neck and neck through the dark, up and down hills, around curves obscured by brush, a roaring wall of pug-nosed buses filling the entire road.

Bob Filliman, riding beside me, kept saying, "Oh my God, we're all gonna die! We're all gonna die." Impressed by the jaunty image of rebel leader Che Gueverra, I was naively sporting a black beret and short dark beard. Little did I know that Brazilians had been thoroughly indoctrinated to fear and loathe Castro and Che, so-called "Fidelistas" thanks to an American-sponsored propaganda blitz that included posters everywhere showing Russian Army tanks rolling into Prague, and other warnings about "communismo." Suddenly, I found myself in a stark police station being questioned under a bare light bulb. Bob, my bus-mate, was hauled in as well. Our Portuguese had not jelled yet and our passports had gone ahead inside our luggage in a Peace Corps Jeep wagon. Just as the police were preparing to lock us up for the night, our American PC training coordinator Hank Atha, clearly shaken, found us. He explained the situation and promised to bring our passports in the morning, so we went on unscathed but a little wiser, perhaps.

Living with a subsistence farmer family consisting of a widow and several children, in the interior of NE Brazil, I felt really lucky to experience life with a "real family" and learn about Brazil from its "roots." I still feel sorry for PC Volunteers who spend their whole time living alone or with other Americans, and not getting to know the people of the country. After three months at my site in Sao Jose de Piranhas, I recruited a great partner to share the work. Mavis Pitter (Knight) turned out to be a sturdy rough-and-ready redhead from rural California who rode her horse bareback while I insisted on a saddle. What a shame that Brazil stopped being available to Peace Corps Volunteers. It was a wonderful place to be at such an important time of our lives. Whether or not you're in the Peace Corps, I urge you to visit Brazil and spend as much time as possible with people, away from hotels and in rural areas, as far as you can get from the major cities.

Since leaving Brazil in 1971 and a stint in Oregon (my home state) and Northern California, I've had a career mostly in Seattle. I've worked mostly in nonprofit organizations and at the University of Washington, in public relations and fundraising. I have two burly grown sons who make me look like a shrimp, and a wonderful wife of 25 years, Heather Marks. Heather, who never had a chance to serve in the Peace Corps, recently got her Masters in Social Work. We live in Edmonds, Washington. Mavis lives in western Montana where she was designing and building houses the last time I checked. Dona Benvinda, the widow from whom I rented a room, passed away about four years ago, and I still correspond with one of her daughters, Francisquinha, who still lives in Sao Jose de Piranhas.

There's lots to share, and I'd love to hear from others who served in Brazil, love Brazil, and/or want to speak some Portuguese. So email me at [email protected]!

March 13, 2008

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