Brazilian Sketches




by Rudyard Kipling

HAVE you no Bananas, simple townsmen all?
“Nay, but we have them certainly.
“We buy them off the barrows, with the vegetable-marrows
“And the cabbage of our own country,
“(From the costers of our own
country.)”Those are not Bananas, simple townsmen all.

(Plantains from Canaryward maybe!)
For the true are red and gold, and they fill no steamer’s hold,
But flourish in a rare country,
(That men go far to see.)Their stiff fronds point the nooning down, simple townsmen all,
Or rear against the breezes off the sea;
Or duck and loom again, through the curtains of the rain
That the loaded hills let free—
(Bellying ’twixt the uplands and the sea.)Little birds inhabit there, simple townsmen all—
Jewelled things no bigger than a bee;
And the opal butterflies plane and settle, flare and rise,
Through the low-arched greenery,
(That is malachite and jade of the sea.)The red earth works and whispers there, simple towns men all,
Day and night in rank fecundity,
That the Blossom and the Snake lie open and awake, As it was by Eden Tree,
(When the First Moon silvered through the Tree) . . .But you must go to business, simple townsmen all,
By ’bus and train and tram and tube must flee!
For your Pharpars and Abanas do not include Bananas
(And Jordan is a distant stream to drink of, simple townsmen),
Which leaves the more for me! 




In sane countries there is no hurry, not even for Port Doctors and Police. Thus, though we entered Rio harbour by early afternoon, it was not till the edge of dusk that we sidled into the wharf, and the whole city and the coasts alongside her chose that moment to light up in constellations and cloud-stars of unbridled electricity.

An Evening Drive

Then men came aboard, ready—as men are the world over—to show a stranger the place that they loved. In two minutes the shadowy lines of the crowded wharves vanished, and the car was sweeping down a blazing perspective, chequered strongly with double lines of tree-foliage and flanked with lit and packed clubs, shops and cafes. This world of light gave of a sudden, between the shoulders of gigantic buildings, on to even vaster spaces of single-way avenues, between trees, with the harbour on one side, fringed by electric lights that raced forward, it seemed for ever, and renewed themselves in strings of pearl flung round invisible corners; while, above everything, one saw and felt the outlines of forested mountains.

All the world was with us in cars, all filled with bare-headed folk, all going at top speed, but none more swiftly than certain devils of motor-buses, whose workaday tones I later mistook for the thunder of an aeroplane outside my eighth-floor window. Somewhere to our right rose a hill up which the lavish lights climbed and broke, on half indicated twists of road. One knew enough from old novels to be aware that this must be San Theresa, the quarter where the virtuous clerk, and the lover exiled by Fate, used to live while they were making their fortunes. It is to-day, as it always has been, a place of pleasant residences. It looks out at the very jaws of the harbour mouth—two smooth crocodile teeth of stripped rock that many eyes must have watched barring the way home in the days when men died between noon and dusk. There were glimpses of pink and white houses here, with plumes of palm upspringing, or, more intimate still, friezes of quiet banana-fronds behind ivory walls. But we kept to the water-front with the multitude who were taking the air.

The night was reasonably—that is to say, tropically—warm. Hats, coats, hurry, Time, and other trifles had been dropped on the far side the Line. The only trouble that remained was lest this dream-city of shell-white palaces, intensely lighted green foliage, arrogant statuary, silvered waters, and brooding mountains, would vanish if one dared look aside. But it held on, as one enormous loop of road slid into the next; still skirting the water, still lit by the insolent, all-powerful lights, but—one must pay something to the Gods—perfumed throughout by the flying cars. (Note here, the Brazilian as a driver can paralyse any Place de la Concorde taxi-man. But jealous Southerners say that an Argentine “all out” gives him points. For me he more than suffices.)

The Mountain that Runs

Presently, the current of traffic turned aside from the Bay, tore through a ringing tunnel where everyone tooted all the time, and broke out on a stretch of Mulzenberg beach—the rollers from the full South Atlantic aligned under the stars, and crumbling along ivory sands up to the electric footlights.

Here all who were not on wheels were walking by myriads along a mosaic pavement flush with the sea. Facing the beach were costly detached dwellings whose owners had gone amok in every order, detail, trimming, devilment attribute and curio of what is called “architecture” that their minds or purses could compass. And since the buildings were like nothing on this earth, they exactly fitted the inexplicable scene beneath the high heavens regarding them.

“This is called Copacabana,” said my companions. “It has not been developed very long. No. It is not the City. It is only one of the suburbs. The City is several miles away. There is more of this ahead, but—”

They turned back at leisure so that one could get the impression of the milky-mouthed rollers coming in, the movement of the gay multitudes along the sand, the throb of the packed cars—radiator to tank—the overhang of the mountains that one could but guess at, and the goblin-like houses that posed in the glare. It was apiece with the unreality of it all that some of the cars should be filled with joyous, singing people in fancy-dress. “That is because Carnival will be here in a week. They are getting ready for it. But look!, If you watch the shape of that mountain with the light above, you will see that, at first, we leave it behind.” Upon which the mountain stood still; we making thirty-five knots. “Now it will run alongside us.” The obedient thing started off and did so at once. “Now it will finish by going on ahead. Then it will wait for us at the end of the next bay.” This, too, came to pass, and the mountain halted in just that place, showing no signs of fatigue. Men have been burned at the stake for making much smaller magics.

The First Dawn

The ride ended opposite stage-green lighted foliage, in a marble hotel that faced the serene waters where one dully lighted tramp was kicking herself out to sea. But the traffic beneath the windows went on till that glassy dead time after day-break when there is neither land nor sea-breeze, and the trees get what they can of rest. In this suspension of pulse and movement, the City swam up with the divinely-heated dawn—enormous, opulent, spotless, and, in spite of her new-sought modernity, ancient and set. The lights on a moored battleship’s gangway switched off; a North American pattern ferry-boat plying to suburbs across the water laid out faint furrows on the flat blue floor; fussy Government launches put from a fortified island close by, and fled round a flat point of land which had once been a red hill, but was now turning into an esplanade; a sailing ship began to fiddle with her gear, and a last trail of mist smoked off to let the eye choose what it would of Rio Bay.

There may be lovelier waters somewhere, but neither Sydney nor Cape Town, which I have always held supreme in their kinds, can compare to these for size—which after all does not matter so much—for indescribable diversity, colour, amplitude and splendour of setting. A range of vertical cloud-topped mountains walled it in on one edge, thirty or forty miles away. They were evidently attending to the work of an ordinary monsoon. Mountains do not wrap themselves in cloud-blankets of that particular breadth and thickness for a few hours’ shower. Peaks stabbed up out of the smother, waked distant thunder growls, and vanished again. Certain gigantic cliff-faces pushed forward like cattle through mist, stood at gaze, and flung back again behind the veil. Somewhere over yonder would be Petropolis, a pleasure-city where Ambassadors and Administrators live to-day, but whither in the past everyone who could escaped from the fever every evening by train. The passengers on the steamer said that the fare there now was almost five shillings—cheap enough for a place obviously in communication with the Gods, and, as obviously overlooking their private pleasure-grounds.

Almost directly beneath the hotel window a little squadron of grave and silent fishermen in log-canoes slid up and took positions which one felt had been apportioned to their several families when the Pope first gave The Brazils to the Portugals. Have you ever noticed that, in every proper seaboard town, there is always this same unchanging assembly at dawn; and that it vanishes when the day’s life begins, as those too shadowy Shapes in the crystal ball vanish when the Visioa comes?

Along the immaculate embankment where the ‘buses were seeking their prey strolled a family—Papa, Mama, and some children in gay dressing-gowns. Another family sauntered through a little park. They joined forces and went on past a tarring-machine and a crane to some steps that led to the water. Never having noticed many English households bathing off, say, the Embankment, this interested me strangely; as did the gentleman in a bathing-suit on a motor-bike; and the two girls so wet from their dip somewhere further down the road, that they were very justly put on either running-board of the family car, where they clung like heraldic supporters and discoursed in their damp dressing gowns across it.

Then one recalled that in sane climates one bathes always and often, and anywhere that the water is safe; which accounts for the mass cleanliness of the local crowds. And it was pleasant to see once more how rain is detestable to properly born and brought-up people. A sprinkle of it sends them to cover as would a Maxim; and I watched with joy a whole family about to bathe defeated by a light shower, scuttling to refuge under the trees.

The city wakes at reasonable hours. Men were fleeing to business in their private cars about eight o’clock, after the ‘buses and trams had gone on ahead with their employees; and the hotel was alert and willing when half-alive English housemaids would have been filling black corridors with icy draughts and sooty-smelling fluff. All of which proved the rightness of real life, and sent one in haste to the Botanical Gardens before waves of impending hospitality should descend and wash out private engagements.

The Lily and the Forest

The basest of us have an ideal! Mine, cherished since extreme youth, was to see the Victoria Regia lily at home, and, if possible, that bird with the very long toes (Jacara might have been its name) represented in the same picture-book as walking on its leaves. The taxi-driver, except that his manners were an example to Princes, was not helpful. He knew the Gardens, but lilies—not so well, Senor. And he drove and drove for ever through the early morning freshness. After he had finished with the merely opulent or beautiful houses and villas, he spun us through miles of humbler quarters, where people come out and stand at their doors, and one notices how they live and do up their hair. One saw what could be done with little houses, in that light, by distempering them blue, yellow, rose, and magenta; or, when they are unrelieved drab, how splashes of blood-red, purple, or gold-flowering shrubs or trees pull everything into beauty and effect. Then one began to understand the common sense of the goblin-houses on Copacabana beach the night before, and (which may be the secret of the Latin) that in real sunshine you must over-play and over-act.

But always, on one side or the other, some great mountain forested from chin to toe, stooped down upon us; and when we had run under the flank of the tallest that shuttered off every breath of air, we found the Gardens—utterly empty, utterly still, and lovely beyond the power of telling.

All things were in their places that should have been, and growing naturally in their own atmosphere—the fruits, flowers, trees, and smells that awake rememberance, sorrow, or delight, in all parts of the earth, from the twinkly-leaved mango, which in my early beliefs was inhabited after dark by “Things,” down to jack-fruit—that durian which reeks like a corpse, but makes those who have once tasted eager as ghouls to eat again. Through the dark arches of the trees, and from under the blossomed cornices of overhanging thickets, floated forth, rarely, butterflies as big as bats, but made of tinted moonshine. They set a lustre upon the glory of the day, and then, like visiting souls, signalled and wafted upwards. People catch them, snip their wings into crazy-quilt patterns, and stick them under glass ash-trays for sale to tourists, of whom, Allah, forgive me!—I was one, and an offender.

Adding to these were all the air-seeking palms and the air-stifling bamboos from everywhere; and growing as weeds, bananas, of which one’s ayah used to tell that, if you got up very early and found a single new frond, neither split by wind nor dried by sun, you could wish a wish and the Gods would grant it. But that variety is not included in this collection. Nevertheless, Providence arranged my business generously enough. The great Lily lived in a pond, and was all that the books had said. Five to six feet across were her pads, and turned up at the edges in three-inch rims. The blossom—one had only to wish for anything in that land and it was given—her blossom is the size of an effective hat-box, and dwarfs half an hotel apartment. As to the bird Jacara, next morn I found two of him in cages, for sale, over against the Fish-Market, were they sell miracles. And their toes were exactly as long as they had been drawn in my own picture-book.

There was more sense in my visit to the Victoria Regia than appears; for the Gardens cried aloud—just like politicians—that they could produce everything man requires between certain degrees of latitude. Put in slip or seed, and it would thrive continuously. To which the dense green of the mountain-wall, where sloths hang up within two miles of the capital of Brazil, made answer: “—But if you cease even for a month to fight my creepers and undergrowth, they will wipe out all your fine works, and in a half year you will go out under mel” One had forgotten how easily man lives with ancient Earth at Fifty North; and one had to recall that, in tropical forests, there is no spot, unless he hacks it out with an axe, where he can turn aside from his path or his field and cast himself down at ease in Her lap. As we went home in the still forenoon, and saw the steamers coming and going, it looked as though ocean might be easier to handle than trees. Later, several Brazilians confirmed this opinion. So it would appear that the Land, like the Sun and the gay-painted houses, over-plays and over-acts its part in the immense, florid drama of this World-by-Itself.

But before dealing with these trifles, we must consider a little city, three hundred miles down the coast, of nine hundred thousand people, which is called San Paulo, where, among other things, there is a power and light factory reported as “rather worth looking at.” The cities of Brazil have, like many an English town, jumped direct from oil and candles to electricity, but electricity in a climate already supercharged with all sorts of it, differs a little from the meek steam-generated stuff which works vacuum-cleaners and toast-racks elsewhere. We will go and see.