Cliff Sanderlin

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Despite the wonderful memories of my years in NE Brazil between 1968 and 1971, my introduction to the country was not all roses. Students around the world (including me) were protesting American imperialism and the war in Viet Nam. I had no intention of going to SE Asia to kill people, and luckily was accepted in the Peace Corps shortly after graduating from college. Police were attacking protestors at the infamous Democratic presidential convention in Chicago literally as I and a couple dozen other trainees were on a plane to Brazil. Six of us guys were to take the rural cooperative organizing and agriculture part of our training that had begun with six weeks of Portuguese immersion in Brattleboro, Vermont.

The 15-hour bus ride to our training site in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Paraiba was not smooth in any way. 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 and seemed to have no springs left as it clattered over washboard roads and potholes. 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 fingering his rosary beads and saying, "Oh my God, we're all gonna die! We're all gonna die." His prayers seemed to work as we didn't meet any oncoming cars during the race.

Impressed by the jaunty image of rebel leader Che Gueverra while still in college, 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 the so-called "Fidelistas," thanks to an American-sponsored propaganda blitz with posters everywhere showing Russian Army tanks rolling into Prague, and dire 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 yet jelled and our passports had gone ahead with our luggage in a Peace Corps Jeep. 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. As I was getting settled into my little town of Sao Jose de Piranhas, I learned that Brazil was in an upheavel and that the president had suspended the Constitution, so we were in a period of censorship. People were afraid to say anything about their government, especially to an Americano.

After moving in with a family consisting of a hard-working widow--Dona Benvinda--and several equally hard-working children four miles outside of Sao Jose de Piranhas, I felt pretty well insulated from the happenings in the capitol or anywhere else beyond the horizon. I quickly realized how lucky I was to experience life with a houseful of Portuguese tutors, and learn about Brazil from its rural roots. After three months at my site, I recruited a great partner to share the work, since there had been a male-female team there previously and people kept asking why I didn't have a partner. Mavis Pitter (Knight) turned out to be a rough-and-ready redhead from rural Northern California who arrived with six "sack dresses" (like flour sacks of muted colors with holes cut for arms) and rode her horse bareback and fast. We made a great team, I think. She was up for anything any time, and I was available to get her out of trouble and smooth things over. Brazilian men had never encountered a woman of her unabashed spunk.

Since leaving Brazil in 1971 and a stint in Oregon (my home state) and Northern California, I've had a career in Seattle since 1977. I've worked mostly in nonprofit organizations and at the University of Washington, in public relations and fundraising. I have two sturdy grown sons and a wonderful wife of 25 years, Heather Marks. Heather, who never served in the Peace Corps, recently got her Masters in Social Work. We live in Edmonds, Washington, and are saving up for a visit to Brazil before we're too old to travel. Mavis now lives in western Montana where she was designing and building gorgeous, rustic homes the last time I checked. Dona Benvinda, my surrogate mother, passed away about four years ago. I still correspond with one of her daughters, Francisquinha, in Sao Jose de Piranhas. She's my last link in Brazil to the magical time I lived in the little brick house with her beautiful family.

I'd love to hear from others who love Brazil and/or who want to speak some Brazilian Portuguese"bater papo" over a caipirinha and bowl of feijoada. -- Cliff

March 13, 2008

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