Brazilian Sketches



São Paulo and a Coffee Estate

by Rudyard Kipling

A City and a Silence

There is a scandalous legend, beloved by her rivals, that the city of San Paulo stands where she does because she was the first halt where travellers could shake and dry themselves after coming through the dripping cloud-belt on the coast. They were a turbulent and exploratory breed in those days, and scattered far and wide in search of slaves, minerals, and every sort of death. When they became aware of their own virtues, which was quite early, they dubbed themselves Paulistas, and looked down on the rest of the world. At present they merely claim to lead the country in mind and material, and talk about Brazil rather as Birmingham. Manchester, and similar hamlets talk about England. What is much worse, they back their words by their deeds.

San Paulo the Magnificent

One reaches the City by car across open country laid out for development leagues before one lifts the grey and cream outlines of, as it were, several immense Madrids breaking half the horizon. One understands without being told that here is a metropolis. Transport needs made it originally, and it stood still awhile as a sort of easy-going out span and distributing centre, and had a joyous private history of its own. Then came Coffee, who is King of these parts, and San Paulo swelled to a city, and offered the planters the delights of “life.” Next, tentatively, manufactures began, and a great immigration of Latins; and, last, the War which, as supplies were cut off, forced Brazil to develop its own resources in earnest. San Paulo took the lead here, and since then has swept on and on into the country, where there is no visible reason that it should stop. The gentle grades and rises round about are made for the builder; sand and brick-earth can be had everywhere; the course of the residential and manufacturing quarters was all planned out long ago; the palaces of houses sit down in their blazing, perfumed gardens; the factories do not scrimp their acreage, nor the great railway that feeds them its sidings; nor the suburbs their playgrounds; and the Municipality has the largest views on the making of parks and promenades.

It takes a few acres of warm, moist earth, assorted palms, a handful of orchids, and any hot-house plants that are growing by the wayside, deals them out in front of a forty-mile view, adds a concrete platform or so, and, before ten years, the whole is a dream of languishing beauty. But civilised man, like the savage, must have his friends, enemies, and drinks all within easy palavering reach; so San Paulo’s business-quarter is compacted round one lavish, palm-embroidered garden opposite the Municipal theatre and the Clubs, where it is periodically pulled down and built up more loftily. For the moment, the world believes that steel girders and stone facings mean some sort of magic. The Clubs, who know better, have nothing whatever to learn in luxury, detail, and equipment from any quarter. They mix memories of Bombay and Calcutta with their own special arrangements, and (unless one wholly mistakes the atmosphere) have the large, easy acceptances of Johannesburg in the old days. One feels at San Paulo, as one used to feel on the Rand—that it makes no particular odds whether any member at a given time happens to be rich or poor; and that the community would not be an easy one to stampede into panic if a bottom dropped out of a market. The greatest of South Africans once observed—when a little war was knocking every stock out of sight—”I do like to see men sitting on top of their money instead of gibbering underneath it.” San Paulo certainly gave the impression of sitting where it should—largely, easily, and contentedly. But it does not walk about more than it must.

Cars and lorries move everywhere, like electrons in the physics primers, across grids of trams; every tram decorated on each side with a frieze of agglutinated passengers. Traffic—most of the inner streets are one-way—is regulated by policemen with truncheons and note-books (this last a weakness of the Latin all the world over); by superior policemen with larger notebooks and a fistful of reins, sitting on the wisest and stillest horses ever foaled; and super-policemen, with ledgers, I think, in charge of green and red light-towers. Having done all this, they permit traffic to overtake on either side indifferently, and are astonished that the accident-rate does not go down. But, for steadying influences, you get the reactionary mule, and, in the suburbs, the occasional, wholly unimpassioned bullock-cart which even the lorry respects.

The enormous suburbs, growing day and night, begin with faultless paving and die out, five miles away, in ravines and gullies and sloughs of red earth. But, what would you have? Labour is needed for other things; and, in a great many places, even material is scarce. A road to be of any use here must be a couple of hundred miles long; and the weather will wrench and wash out every unprotected yard of it, as anyone who has met a six-inch deep torrent whirling down paved streets after an hour’s gentle shower can see for himself. The innumerable cars of the place do their best to combat the conditions. They have very high clearances; are gauged to the width of the tram-lines, which in the suburbs are often the only usable parts of the road; they give and sway like baskets; dive and hammer like tanks; and their horse-power allows them to shrug themselves out of a foot or so of red “gumbo” soil, and still survive. Otherwise their entrances are bad and clumsily designed; they wear nickel-plated corsets in front and behind; their low-snouted, rustic hoods cramp the view, and they carry a raffle of oilcloth curtains with talc windows which have to be dug out from beneath the seat and fixed on clips and studs like washing on a line. Their many-ironed crinoline-like tops are practically fixtures; and their gears are almost as noisy as the advertisements that recommend them.

A Cup of Coffee

One realised these things on a trip from an up-country station to a coffee plantation—a small place of half a million bushes, whose headquarters were only four miles from everywhere. Here, man had visibly held down Nature. As far as the eye could reach, the evenly-spaced twelve-foot trees and their reddening berries covered the rolling downs. They blocked out every breath of air that might be stirring in the long straight rides, and seemed to mop up all sound. It was like burrowing through deep soft fur. We saw nobody except one Italian woman—a dot at first, overtaken between parallel lines of brush produced to infinity. They told me the coffee trees are portioned out, so many thousand to each family, who, in their own time and by their own arrangements, keep them in order. This done, at the stated seasons, the people are free to cultivate land on their own, and to raise what stock suits them. There was a village of labourers somewhere near, but we saw and heard no trace in the dense covert and silence of it all.

The Still House

Then we came to silence more profound—the utter quiet of an old, low-roofed, deep-verandahed house, sitting with its hands folded among its lawns, terraces, bathing-ponds, statues and flaming-flowered trees. Yes, this was the heart of things—Headquarters of Administration. The heart began to beat. Children’s voices, startlingly distinct, lifted themselves from behind hedges and tinted walls, and there appeared a watchful cohort of infantry, ranging from two to quite four feet high. It reconnoitred and dispersed, and its outcries, comparing experiences, echoed in sheds and warehouses behind the walls. Then came swift, low-voiced, easy hospitality and kindness that dated, one felt, from—who knows how long ago?—when the house was new.

The place had suffered changes and modernisation of course—was probably crowded with electric gadgets—possibly electric refrigerators which are standard fittings in San Paulo’s self-contained flats—but its deep breathing spirit, through all the low-lighted rooms, opening one out of another, drew from unaltering generations. One wanted to know about this house. Who had lived here in the old days? And particularly, who lived here now of nights? Obviously, one could not get much information in the course of a call for a cup of coffee. The House? Oh, the House was named so and so. It had belonged—always—to so-and-so. It made coffee, of course.

It had made coffee for close on a hundred years. And before that, there had, of course, been a house there. “The same?” “But why not?” There was rich choice of early owners to fall back upon. The land might have been part of Joseph de Anchieta’s concession or personal conquest in 1560; or Joao Remalho’s in 1520; or some sworded and armoured de Souza of about the same epoch. One could look that up for oneself afterwards; but what one felt at the time, above the cups and cigarettes, was the maddening certainty that any old servitor in the immense kitchens probably knew the whole run of the succession (and its women-folk) as well as the very roof-beams did. But it was all locked up—in no way so important as our coffee’s flavour and blend. Of that coffee, it needs only be said that I discovered that I had never before tasted coffee. One can drink the magic stuff in big cups, each better than the last, and sleep blessedly afterwards. And it mightily helps to bring out the flavour of Brazilian cigarettes, which, like the coffee, are by themselves. But the House itself, the heavy-lidded, still House stood behind and above me, all the while, muttering that in the old days—for generations—a man was Master, King, and Judge here without appeal. What could reach him across the coffee except by his leave? Here he could bring his bride; here, if he chose, she would stay for ever. But now, the brides go to Rio, and Paris, and change their mothers’ old, flat-cut, silky Brazilian diamonds for hard-hearted modern stones. Somewhere near here (but I should not be shown it) the owners could bury their dead. Up these endless avenues of unbetraying trees friends and fellow-revellers rode and (again, I should not be shown it) there was a place, the House remembered it well, where disputes might be settled with sword or pistol in the cool dawnings. Who could judge a man—any more than the old bandeiras could be judged? Here—here—here—the House insisted—if one had eyes to see, one would find the heart of Old Brazil—its continuity, its reserves, its courtesies and its force.

“All our coffee goes North in steamers to be blended for the European markets—Mocha is not a real coffee, but only a way of drying it. Yes!—When coffee is up, play is good at the Clubs. Our Government is trying to regulate and steady the price of coffee—keeps it in big warehouses—you have seen them down the line.” So the talk went round the table where our charioteer, stately as the rest, took his cigarette and his coffee; and the House and its furniture bore down on all with the weight of unutterable memories.

There used to be a farmhouse not far from Cape Town, which, in the old days, was best left untenanted for a certain six weeks every year, because Visitors then arrived who needed the rooms, and, if you did not turn out, they evicted you. But, if you were not Dutch by race, they continued their diversions strictly in the Fourth Dimension, and you were not aware of them. I found myself taking great comfort in this thought, while I speculated what one night alone in this house would be like.

Then I was shown what happens to the mounds of grey-green, tasteless berries, and how they are mixed together beneath great roofs whose piers and timberings are of priceless hard woods scarcely worth the naming. “Oh, yes. That is so-and-so wood; but I don’t know when it was put up. Our woods are a little difficult to get. They do not grow in blocks all of one kind, but here and there, on tree of one sort. So they have to be found one by one and when they are cut they have to be hauled through the forest, which is generally on a steep hill.” I had seen that much down the line and outside San Paulo which, during the war, fell back on firewood hacked and dragged out of the sides of precipitous and rotten-boned hills. The scars are healed over now by second-growth stuff, and look like smudges against the taller forest; but they say that the price of that fuel by the time it was delivered made even San Paulo wince. It had to be got, and the factories and the railways somehow or other kept going. “It taught us a good deal—the war did. And it gave San Paulo its chance.” Followed a general discussion on coffee, which showed that producers of staples love each other about as much as other specialists do. There were lands that grew coffee, certainly—yes, Kenya was one of them—but the output of each country lacked some subtlety of aroma or colour which—excellent though many brands undoubtedly were—just fell short of—And one was allowed to draw one’s own inferences.

So have I heard, in the old days, Assam and Tirhoot tea-planters talk of eylon and vice versa, or critics bursting to explain to an uncurious public why A’s work is so good and B’s so very vile. There recurred to me the remark of an unguarded English tobacconist: “In our business everything boils down to a few big names for trade-marks and the rest is adulteration. We call it ‘blending.”‘ The drink they gave me at the House had nothing whatever to do with anything outside Brazil.

Behind the warehouses lay vast, well-tended orchards, where, none the less, wastage of uncounted fruits rotted on the hot ground. “What can you do? They grow by the million. We send great numbers away. There are more left over—always. Yes, it was weeded a short time since. But, now you see!” The rampant vegetation was up and fighting already round the tree boles, with that terrifying minute suggestion—it is lower than a whimper—of earth sucking through moist lips. “And what would happen if you stopped cultivating for one year?” A slow sweep of the hand across the green leaves and grasping tendrils said it all.

A Motor in the Wet

The roar of our cars was a grateful return to the ordinaries of life. The House as we left it under the skirts of a low cloud, became (swiftly as a gipsy changes from a dark fortune-teller to a woman in a big hat) “just an old coffee fazenda—rather worth looking at,” and the clamour of the little children kept her in that humble attitude. Then, rain fell, as it does in the Tropics; and the red dirt tracks turned at once into ice. Our driver had brought his tyre-chains with him, but it was quite wetting enough to hang up a few of the inadequate side-curtains, and we returned, unchained, yawing—not merely skidding but skating—two foot at a slide—till we fetched up in some rut.

Where two plantation rides crossed on rising ground, we saw a big brute of a loaded lorry, hardly held to her marks by a bull-necked negro driver, cramped at the disobedient wheel. She bucked up out of a background of wet coffee bush; cleared herself against the stormy skyline exactly like a schooner topping a big sea, fell off the wind, luffed up into it again, and dived over the crest in a spatter of red foam.

We ourselves reached the railway station, and all the luxuries of modern travel, by grace of repeated miracles, in a toboggan which badly needed bailing.