Two things automatically happen with me whenever I go to Brazil. Being right-handed, I cut food with my right hand and hold a fork in my right as well. But once in Brazil I switch, cut with right, fork it in with the left. It comes without thinking. It’s the custom there, probably brought over from Europe centuries ago.
The other thing is that once behind the steering wheel of a car, it takes only a few seconds to remember how to drive a stick shift. For several dozen years at home my cars have had automatic transmissions, but most cars in Brazil and other South American countries have stick shifts. I never asked why but I suppose it’s because they’re more economical. Automatics use more gas.
The first time I drove a stick shift car in Brazil was almost a disaster. I’d once driven stick shifts as a teenager but for decades had driven only cars with automatic transmissions. And when that moment of truth came in Brazil, I was lost, almost literally.
This was in December 1978 when I was investigating the first Crab Island case. I had rented a Volkswagen Beatle (the original version) and my interpreter Angela Hadade drove it. We went from São Luís to Pinheiro, taking her younger sister Cristina (at right in photo with Angela, they stand next to the Beatle) along as company (i.e., chaperone; in those days my female interpreters in Brazil always brought a friend or relative along).
We had a number of interviews in Pinheiro and a day or two later we drove to villages in the interior, heading southeast to São Bento and beyond toward São Vicente Ferrer. After stopping at two or three places we were undecided which way to go to get back. I chose a road and Angela took us down it. But the road soon became just a pair of tire tracks and then just a footpath. A few minutes later, it practically disappeared.
By then we were deep into the tropical forest and it had been a long time since we’d seen any signs of civilization. Angela (who is a civil engineer with a degree from Georgia Tech) was getting more and more upset, but I kept insisting we keep going instead of turning back.
The footpath got really rough. We had to go ever so slowly, and all at once we came to a halt. The car got hung up on a huge hump of earth and stalled. That did it. Angela jumped out, shouting: “DRIVE IT YOURSELF!”
Reluctantly I got behind the wheel and, after experimenting for a minute or so, figured out how to shift into first gear. That was all I needed…
I must have driven in first gear for a couple of kilometers before figuring out second gear, then third and so on. Quite a lesson. I’ve never forgotten it.
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THE 'CITY' BUILT BY FIREFLIES
One of my more delightful memories of Brazil (one of many) is of a day in September 1988 when Jean Alencar and I stopped at a farm near Catuana in the state of Ceará. Jean (say Zjay-AWN) is a lawyer and UFO investigator from Fortaleza, the state capital.
Jean had taken me to see a farmer named João Siqueira. Two nights earlier, João, his wife Raimunda and their grandson José had seen a “ball of fire” moving around in the trees just beyond a lagoon a hundred meters behind their house. We learned about that only after arriving, although the family had had previous sightings.
What they'd seen two night earlier was nothing new to them and they’d seen such lights on average about once a week for years, and apparently such “fireballs” had been coming around for many decades.
“My father, Manoel Duarte Siqueira, said others saw it before I was born,” said João, who was eighty-one and still spry. “Old men told him the carnaúba trees looked like they were on fire during the night but when they went out there the next morning nothing was burned. (For similar "fireball" sightings in the United States, click here.)
“The night before last it stayed about a minute and then disappeared. It went out just like the lights of a car. It was low near the lagoon.”
Siqueira's grandson José was nine at the time and José thought the way I talked, as Jean translated for me, was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard. He was a nice, intelligent kid and he stayed with us all through the interview.
We’d arrived late in the afternoon and only an hour or so later the sun went down. As it got dark, José and I happened to wander to the edge of the lagoon, trying to carry on a conversation. I glanced down at the mud in front of me... and saw something marvelous.
Fireflies by the hundreds were gathered in the mud all along the water’s edge, flickering and glowing. It was like flying high in a jetliner at night and looking down on a city stretched along a coast far below.
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YOU GO YOUR WAY AND I’LL…
Jean Alencar and another of my UFO investigator friends, Reginaldo Athayde, figured in one of my more exasperating moments in Brazil. Athayde owns a pharmacy in Fortaleza.
In September 1988, the three of us drove from Fortaleza to Parnarama (see map above), nearly five hundred miles to the southwest, to look into reports that UFOs had killed four hunters in October 1981. The deaths had been reported in magazines and newspapers in Brazil and the United States, and possibly elsewhere, but we had to find out for ourselves what really happened.
Parnarama is a small town and we talked to quite a few people, but no one knew anything about the deaths. We couldn’t confirm that any hunter had even been attacked, let alone killed, but we did pick up a number of interesting reports of sightings and encounters.
Parnarama is on the west bank of the Paraíba River eighty kilometers south of Teresina, capital of the state of Piaui. The ferry across the river takes about fiveminutes and can carry only one vehicle at a time (see photo at right).
The three of us stayed in Teresina the night before and the night after our trip to Parnarama. On the second night in Teresina we decided to go to a restaurant that they knew about, but they weren’t sure how to get there.
We were in a car that I had rented and I was driving. Athayde was in the front seat with me and Jean was in the back. They were debating, in Portuguese, which way we should go. I understand some Portuguese but my ear that night wasn’t as attuned as I would have liked. Only Jean spoke English although Athayde understood some, and I understood some Portuguese but couldn’t speak it.
“Direito!” one would say, meaning “turn right,” but the other would argue, “Direto!” meaning “go straight.” The first is pronounced ‘dee-RAY-to” and the other “dee-RET-to” but being hungry and a tired after a long day in Parnarama, I guess I wasn’t concentrating.
I thought they were saying exactly the same thing and I couldn’t understand why they were arguing about it. Uncertain which way to go, I was getting very annoyed before I realized what they were saying. And they couldn't understand why I was getting so huffy about it.
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THE ITCHY SIDE OF A NIGHT VIGIL
Never sleep on a sand dune. I did... and sand fleas convinced me it was a bad idea. That was on a visit to a farm in Ceará. I don’t remember what year because I have visited the farm three times since 1986.
The farm is four or five kilometers from the small town of Paraipaba, which is itself about two hours west of Fortaleza by car. Manoel and Adelaide Juca (with me below) own the farm and live there. The Atlantic Ocean is about three kilometers away. Both Manoel and Adelaide were about five feet tall, thin and wiry.
Adelaide saw humor in almost everything and laughed a lot. Manoel had several UFO sightings over the years, including one in which he spotted three human-like entities.
That happened late one night in 1974 when he and a friend named Francisco went surf fishing. As they were walking along the beach, Manoel happened to glance back. He saw three "men" and a vehicle the size of a jeep about forty meters away. The three strangers were about twenty meters from the surf and they would run side by side into the surf and then back to the vehicle. "I couldn't imagine what they were doing," Manoel said. "I think they were taking a rope to measure something."
Manoel and his friend were frightened but they ducked down and continued watching. The entities, clearly dripping wet, ran back and forth from the vehicle into the ocean five times. Then they climbed into the vehicle, quickly drove into the ocean and simply disappeared under the water. At no time did Manoel or Francisco hear any sound. Too frightened to stay, they left themselves.
Manoel also kept track of UFO sightings in the Paraipaba area. This is mainly why Jean Alencar, my UFO investigator friend from Fortaleza, and I visited the farm. Jean had known Manoel and Adelaide for many years.
The farm is near the equator and in that part of the world the sun sets almost abruptly between five-thirty and six o'clock every evening of the year. Several times after dark I was surprised to see many satellites shooting across the sky, like a half dozen in just a few minutes, seeming to go in all directions. Since each kept going straight at the same velocity and didn’t make any turns or stops, I had to conclude they were not UFOs.
Back to the sand dunes. One time Manoel, Jean, another man and I decided to carry out an overnight vigil, hoping to see a UFO. We trekked from Manoel’s house to the beach. To get there we had to pass through a swampy area (below, Manoel, on the right, and I carry our shoes) where, I was warned, there were “bad bees.” That meant the famous killer bees but we never saw one.
Our destination was the enormous Sahara-type sand dunes that exist along the Atlantic coast in that area. Before we reached the dunes, we cut a dozen large fronds from palm trees and carried them with us.
Once we picked out a spot atop a dune, we stuck the fronds into the sand and built a windbreak. The wind coming off the ocean was fierce at times, and the flying sand stung.
It also got quite cool during the night. Once we had burrowed into the sand with the windbreak at our backs, we watched the sky and chatted for a couple of hours. We saw a lot of stars, several satellites and an occasional airliner, but nothing else. Eventually we all fell asleep.
In the morning I found myself itching all over. I never saw anything but Manoel said it was sand fleas. When I was able to strip down later, I discovered they had somehow gotten inside my clothing and bitten me dozens of times between my waist and my knees. It took a week to get rid of the welts.
(For a guide to pronouncing unfamiliar Brazilian names, click here.)