Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the meadow, we can build a mudman...

Christmas on the Amazon was challenging.  Part of the difficulty is the distance from family.  Some of it is the oppressive heat and humidity (hard to sing carols about sleigh bells when it is 96 degrees and 100% humidity).  Some of it was that there was no playing of carols in every store, car, and mall - mostly because there was no car.  Or mall.  Or shops. 

And some of it was the lack of trappings - no evergreens, no decorations, no fake snow, no smell of pumpkin spiced latte wafting from the cups of yoga moms...

A few of the problems we anticipated.  We knew there was no way to buy presents (7 hours from the nearest city makes it a daunting prospect to leave for a shopping jaunt) and that we would have to make do as best we could.  I once caught my mom buying something at the store a month before Christmas on one of our once-every-six-month trips into the city.

But what probably surprised us most was the fact that as kids, we simply didn’t know what we wanted.  With no TV or newspapers, and radio only once a day, the idea of the “must-have” toy simply did not exist. 

Another thing we did not expect was that making the Christmas tree thing happen would be so difficult.

The Amazon rainforest is a deciduous forest.  It is ever-green, but only because the trees all drop their leaves at different times during the year.  There are no conifers anywhere.  But we have to decorate a Christmas tree!  We didn’t buy a plastic one – it seemed wrong, somehow, and there was no other option. 

Plastic Christmas trees on the Amazon were a big deal.  The gaudier, the better, of course, but the price was prohibitive for most families.  Essentially, a fake tree cost more than 2 months’ salary, and only the really wealthy could afford to survive that long without literally putting the money where their mouths are.  A family that owned a fake Christmas tree would display it very prominently.  And not just at Christmas – this type of decoration should be displayed all of the time.

But we didn't have one, and were left with the dilemma of not having a tree, and not having ornaments, and having a hard time conjuring up a Christmas Spirit.  So we improvised.  The açaí tree (yes, that açaí) was a palm tree that had many uses.  The berries were harvested, then the skins of the berries pressed through several layers of mesh basketry to produce a drink that the Brasilians loved.  We thought it tasted remarkably like rotted sawdust in water.  Foul stuff, açaí– and it has inexplicably hit the American market.  People are crazy over it.  No accounting for taste…
 
The tree also has an area near the top that provides a variety of the “palmito” – palm hearts  - that we love.  I chopped down one tree, and ate the stringiest, toughest heart of palm I had ever tried.

That first Christmas we were in Brasil, we introduced a new use for the açaí – the açaí as Christmas tree.  Palm leaves branching out gracefully from the trunk, perfect place to hang ornaments… Ornaments!  Gotta make ornaments! 

Mom came up with a recipe for some dough ornaments, some that we could bake hard and shellac and hang on the tree.  So I went out to the edge of the jungle to find a small açaí (they grow to be about 30 feet tall) and came back with one that was perfect.  Mom was finishing up the ornaments – dough cut out to make trees, candy canes, sleighs, and Christmas balls.  They had been baked rock-hard and shellacked, and were glistening, just waiting to be put on the tree.  We hung them with care, and sang some carols. And felt homesick.

The next morning, when we woke up, the tree was completely brown and drooped.  The ornaments had melted in the 100% humidity and were lying in small shellac-encrusted piles on the floor.  The morning was spent cleaning up, scraping up the goo, and carrying out the residues of the previous day. 

And then we re-created the scene.  We baked the dough harder, longer, got a better açaí tree and put it in water again.  Sang some carols.  Went to bed. 
 
For a synopsis of the next day, re-read the previous paragraph.

After four days of not learning from our mistakes, we even immortalized the moment in song: 

Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
            They were so green for one day
            But now they’re brown, and brown to stay
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us

Not exactly tannenbaum, but it had to do.

So this Christmas, when the temperatures in New Orleans are expected to push against the 80-degree mark, I am finding myself thinking fondly back to a time when we made our own carols, made our own ornaments, and even cut down our own tree.... over and over again.   
 
And humming a few bars of another tune:
 
Fog horns blow, are ya listnin'?
In the rain, mud is glistnin'
a beautiful sight, we're havin' tonight
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland
 
...In the meadow we can build a mudman
and pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say 'Are you married,' we'll say, 'No, Man...'
'But you can do the job while you're in town'
 
Later on, we'll get together
as we huddle under the umbrella
to face unafraid, the plans that we've made
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland.

In the memory of that long ago Christmas, I wish you and yours a safe and joyful, if muddy, Christmas season, filled with the love of family and friends, and all of the joy of the season.. 
 

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