5.09 / September 2010

The Eskimo and I

The Eskimos of Brazil are causing problems. They must have felt their bones were too dense for the air, their skin too thick, because one night they visited the Puerto Alegre Zoo with swords of carved bone and lifted the only polar bear in Brazil from his cement hole. They brought him home, they showed him ice. They let him swim in the ocean. But most Brazilians simply don’t like the Eskimos. They steal the women—the dark-skinned girls with flowers in their hair. I came to Brazil to look for the Eskimos, but I only made it to Curitiba, hours north and miles inland.

There are no Eskimos in Curitiba just Germans and garbage collectors.   It was July, winter, people wore neon down jackets with flip-flops. They stared at their breath in the morning air, sifting their hands through it like flour, something solid. On Sunday night the garbage collectors came out with their long metal carts, their feet that turned sideways when they walked.

Remnants of the afternoon remained. A man and his frog stuffed animal lounged together on a bench across from the ice-cream store.   The frog was as big as the man, and as I passed, the man carefully leaned his head on the frog’s shoulder as if to rest. An off-duty clown with his wig on the table. And the mimes.   The mines that tried to break up a street fight without leaving character, their bodies moving between two drunk men like something desperate and dying.

Then there were the things that just appeared. Two prostitutes on our street.   One in pink, the other wearing black. A peep show place on the corner, lit red and full of men with wet eyes. An Indian man waiting at the front desk, flipping through a magazine. The pay by the hour hotel was filled.   Some of the people in the lobby seemed to twitch. One of them suddenly stood up when I walked by.

In Curitiba, we stayed at Hotel Cervantes, the same block as the pay by the hour. The night watchman wrote in a journal between midnight and six. His thoughts pressed between the lined pages of a children’s school notebook. In the room behind him, where I ate breakfast alone in the mornings, a T.V. buzzed with the image of a python eating a small deer-like animal.

Our first night in Curitiba we could not sleep, even with our ears stuffed with tissue, the cheap earplugs we bought at the corner store, each other’s drained voices. I asked if we could fly to Puerto Alegre to see the Eskimos but he did not respond.   I reminded him of the man and the frog on the bench outside the ice cream store but he only offered me a cursory glance. He didn’t care about things like someone sharing their life with a frog.

In the morning, I turned over to the colder side of my pillow.   On the table beside my bed, a snail crawled up the curved point of my ear plug, its gelatinous body seemed so strange against the chemical orange, the lifeless foam.


I first learned about the Eskimos from a man named Fulton Phillipson, a Canadian academic who specializes in issues affecting minority groups. His article, Brazilian Eskimos: An Endangered Species, is based on a United Nations survey of threatened minority groups. Besides the Eskimos, the U.N. lists five groups world-wide that face extinction: Welsh Jews in Argentina, Tibetan Monks in Malawi, Swiss Anabaptists in Mexico and Argentinean Jews in Wales.

When I found the article I held it to my chest. For weeks, I kept it folded in my pocket like something that glowed for me. Initially, I understood my attraction to the Eskimos in relation to my own feelings of displacement.   As a child, I moved every three years—once my family moved four times in a single year within the same city. I knew towns and their people as temporary objects of my life, something that I would later have to leave and discard to the back of memory. I was a displaced child without anything to blame: no war, no famine, no political upheaval—just parents who mistakenly thought it would be good for their child to have a change of scenery. When I thought of the Eskimos, I felt an absence inside of me being filled.

I worked for a radio station. That summer my boyfriend of three years and I were planning a trip to Brazil, a sort of last jaunt before we both headed off to graduate school, something to seal the relationship, grow closer. To make the most of my trip, I thought it would be smart of me to pitch a story to the editors on some aspect of Brazilian culture. While trolling the internet news wires for stories I came across the article on Eskimos. An except from the piece states:

The United Nations human rights commission says Brazil ´s Eskimo community faces extinction as a result of government policies which have neglected its culture, religion and traditions. There are an estimated 5,000 Brazilians of Eskimo descent, whose ancestors came from Canada and Greenland in the mid 19th century. They were generally seamen and hunters from whaling ships who settled in southern Brazil and Uruguay. Two of Brazil ´s best-known southerners, President Getulio Vargas, and footballer, Ronaldo Gaucho, have Eskimo blood. Vargas, kept a collection of harpoons in his office, and Ronaldo Gaucho runs an NGO which looks after Eskimo street children in Porto Alegre – the Tropical Igloo Project.

The UN report says the Eskimos ´ situation has worsened as successive governments have basically ignored them. “In some ways, Brazil ´s Indian and black communities have been better treated by the federal, state and municipal governments which have finally recognized that they owe a debt to these people for the previous mistreatment. It is to be hoped that urgent action will be taken to rescue Brazil ´s Eskimo culture before it is too late.”

Southern Brazil is absurd in its diversity. Five million immigrants settled among its cooler states between 1875 and 1960—mostly from Italy, Germany, Spain, Japan, Poland and the Middle East. Today the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan resides in Sao Paulo.

When the Eskimos arrived they didn’t buy new clothes. They wore their seal skin coats, their polar bear boots. They hung out in Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon, lounging in the humid sun, in the thick salty air as the fur on their clothes turned yellow, turned rancid like butter. The Brazilians knew all about this. They saw the Eskimos wearing their tick filled fur, they noticed the tropical insects going mad with excitement.

In the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin, describes seeing “a small Eskimeau, as the French call these inhabitants of the frozen northern lands, walking down the main street of the German settlement of Fluchtinghafen hand in hand with a German lady, considerably larger than him in height, girth and volume, followed by a troupe of children bearing the physiogenic characteristics of both races. It was strange indeed to see a young Rhine maiden with coiled flaxen hair, a snub nose and the eyes of a Chinese coolie. Her brother, in comparison, had a yellow buttery complexion, coarse black fibre-like hair, a straight nose and eyes as cold and blue as a Bavarian lake.”

I ran a LexisNexis search and saw that no one had yet covered the Eskimos in any major newspaper or magazine—it was my story.   I pitched the idea,arguing that the story could run as an eco-justice piece because the Eskimos experienced a kind of degradation brought on by their environment.

They lent me an old recorder and said to go ahead with the story.


Nick and I arrived in Brazil, in the warm, crowded streets of Rio de Janiero in June. We moved from hotel to hotel. We visited El Christo with his arms spread, toured a slum, went on a ferry ride, we mentioned the possibility of paragliding. Days passed. The hotel elevators descended. We had nothing to say to each other.

I felt at once a dislodging. It could have been any day, everyday, but it was our first night. We were eating plato freito at a restaurant that looked over a harbor. The waitresses lit candles, waiting for the approach of evening. The plates of beans, fried fish and rice came late. When I looked up from my plate, it was as if seeing him for the first time. His familiar nose seemed raw and porous, the eyes were empty vats, the body suddenly repulsive. It was as if for the last several years I had been living in a dim room and suddenly the light had changed. But it wasn’t physical, it was just manifested that way, in the same way the opposite can occur and beauty can become magnified through conversations and time.

“I hate beans,” I said, pushing them away from my rice.

“How can you hate beans?” He already knew that I hated beans. “You’re so weird.”

He said that frequently. It was a way of ending things. A way of avoiding differences.

“Let’s fly to Curitiba,” he said.

“That wasn’t the plan,” I replied and turned to follow this gaze across the room but found nothing.  “We were supposed to take a bus from Rio to Puerto Alegre and stop at Curitiba on the way. Then we can fly from Puerto Alegre to Sao Paulo on the way back.”

“The bus ride is 30 hours. I am not taking a bus.”

“You said you would.   I am not getting on a Brazilian plane more than once.”

I am afraid of flying. The two weeks before Nick and I left for Brazil my fear became so acute that I grew physically ill. I stayed up late at night and read about deadly plane crashes. I read news clips about blind spots over the Amazon, places where there’s no radar.   I fed my fear, swallowing images and statistics until my throat swelled, my body ached.   During this time, a private jet carrying a reporter for the New York Times crashed into a commercial Brazilian airliner flying from Manuas to Brasilia. A wing on the Brazilian flight cracked and the plane plummeted into the green below. Everyone died on the Brazilian plane but no one died in the private jet. I learned that flocks of migratory birds frequently crash into planes along Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The birds fly through the window and impale the pilots. I think what bothers me most is that when the plane begins to fall you have to wait for your death.

“Well do you know of any travel agents in the area?” I asked, giving in.

“There is one by our hotel. We can go there.”

I looked out the window towards the ocean. Along the dock were rows of fish gleaming like pearls. I watched as the fisherman stepped off their boats for the first time after months at sea. And I began to imagine what it felt like when they stepped onto the land, breathed in the unfamiliar air of cement. I imagined that this excitement dwindled quickly into fear and an inexplicable yearning to go back to sea, to where they had been for so long, alone and at peace.


I remember each hotel in Brazil by the sheets. The one’s that had patches of mold on them. The one’s that were so damp they were alive and all night we tried not to move because when we did the smell of rot rose from them and stuck to our nostrils. The sheets with hair on them, the sheets with coffee stains, urine stains, stains that made shapes like clouds. Hotel San Marco in Rio de Janeiro had the cleanest sheets but they were still thread-bare. If you pressed them flat and tight against the mattress, you could make out the tropical flower pattern below.

In the basement of Hotel San Marco was a room filled with blue light.   We entered through two glass doors and I was hit by the viscosity of the air, sharp with lime. Along the right wall was a bar, I remember the yellow Christmas lights hanging in a curve above bottles of Cachaisa, the man on the barstool sitting perfectly still—poised though no one else was in the room. “You get a free Caipirinha with your stay,” he said. He was bald but for the four fingers of hair that curved over his skull. “I make the best Caipirinha’s in all of Rio.” His face was half-cast in blue light, half in shadow. Music played from a dusty speaker nailed to the wall. He talked about the Caipirinhas in a way that was desperate, as if he knew they weren’t the best but that he loved them. I saw this too in the careful way he squeezed the limes, how he lifted each one to his nose before he sliced it.   We drank the Caipirinhas slowly. They were warm and overly sweet. He served them to us in cheap plastic cups and talked about the mundane. I thought about how this would be a good place for an Eskimo to work. The air-conditioning, the blue light, a place away from the sun and the salt.


Jabaquara Beach, Paratay. One hour south of Rio by bus. I have my first Eskimo spotting. He is sitting in fold-out chair of red and gold stripes. Everything around him is sun-faded. The colors are those that don’t exist in the north. Think: salt stained orange awnings, glass bottles of CocaCola, single cigarettes.   The Eskimo is sitting alone at a plastic table without shade. He is wearing burgundy swim trunks and smoking despite the sweat running down his face, collecting in the curve above his lip, his collarbone. I thought if I smelled his neck it would overwhelm me with salt and bourbon. He must drink bourbon. He is an Eskimo of class, reading the news of the world.

Nick is wading into the ocean, we have to take turns, he tells me, because you can’t trust the Brazilians. Jabaquara is a muddy bay and you can wade into the ocean for miles before you sink. I see Nick in the distance, he is nearly a quarter mile out but the water is not yet past his calves. A few others walk in the water near him, Christ-like figures.

The Eskimo digs his feet into the sand, probably feeling the foreignness of the shells, the earth—his toes digging and searching for the coolness below.   I am on my belly looking up, his body rises and merges with the sky, a figure of history, of disparity.   I put on my sunglasses and lay my head on my towel to watch him. Once Nick has turned into a mirage in the distance I go up to the Eskimo, I can only hope he’ll welcome my pale skin.

Bon dia Senor.   Falla ingles?

Sim, eu falla ingles.

That was all it took, those single words that fell from his mouth to my ear. I absorbed them like warm Cachaisa and he became my Eskimo.

He gives me the cigarette behind his ear. It is moist with sweat but still firm.   I run the cigarette under my nose and breathe. Bourbon. As we sit and smoke there is no breeze and everything is still and the sky seems eternal. We smoke and I can tell our breath is the same breath. We let our bodies sink in the chair and our legs stretch to take in the sun.   Most of the tables are empty. Some are filled with families eating fried bananas, children with sand on their face.

“Was it hard when you came here?” I ask.

“It has always been hard.   Tristeza nao tem fim,” he says, crossing one leg over the other. “Sadness has no end.”

I can see he is an Eskimo of few words.  I thank him and we share an Eskimo kiss, our noses rub, slippery from the sunscreen.

Nick and I went through the main plaza in the early evening. We found hundreds of people surrounding a stage where J.M. Coetzee read about the death of a cow. We sat down on the sidewalk and listened. About half way through the reading I grew ill and spent the remainder of the reading in a Porto Potty. I could hear Coetzee’s voice as the blood drained from my head and my insides turned to water. I felt like I was shitting out my insides, like my stomach would come out of me, followed my lungs and my heart. I began to sympathize with the animals of Coetzee’s memoir, the way they have their throats slit, their skin pulled off, even when they are still struggling to breathe. I pressed my hands against the plastic walls to help support my body. The air was hot, thick with days of sewage rotting in the heat. I looked up and the light coming through the plastic walls was yellow, bright, and for a moment my body felt separate from me. I felt I were elsewhere, and in a sick way, I enjoyed this. The relief that comes after pain.

After days of sickness, we took a bus back to Rio where I we boarded a flight to Curitiba. We went to the opera house whose plastic pipes curved like thousands of swan neck’s to form a hollow, glowing dome. At an internet cafe I looked up the address for the Tropical Igloo Project, deciding that I would go onto Puerto Alegre without him. When nothing came up, I thought maybe the Eskimos didn’t have enough funding for a website and I checked instead to see if there might be any communities of Eskimos in Sao Paulo or Curitiba, but again I couldn’t find anything. I found a phone book and looked under but my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to be sure what I was seeing.

That evening we went to a restaurant, modern and shiny and serving organic food. We were approached by a German with a bagpipe. He was fascinated that we were Americans. “Do you want to come watch me later?” he asked. “I have a band.” I asked him about the Eskimos and he laughed. “Are all Americans so stupid?”

The next day I called the United Nations. The woman on the line said she didn’t know what I was talking about. I handed the article to Nick. When he finished reading, he looked at me. “Humphry Bogart never starred in a movie about Eskimos called Stranger from the North,” he said. “The Battle of Sheep’s Bottom wasn’t a real war.”

An old woman came into the cafe, selling roses. She prodded herself between us. Nick kept reading.

“Oh,” he said. “Look here. The publication date is April 1st 2007. It’s definitely a joke. No wonder you never got that job as a fact checker,” he said and returned to his email.

That evening, I lost Nick in a crowd of people, I didn’t look for him as I would normally do, I didn’t stand on a bench and search the streets, but I walked alone in the cool air. I walked towards the ocean, towards Jabaquara. Here, I felt calm. My imagination could extend, could breathe, as if the vastness of physical space replaced my own limited corporality.   As I walked, I knew that the Eskimos were a wanting of my imagination, a story I needed to believe.

On the beach, women formed groups with their thick brown legs, wet skin, the wraps that bunched at their thighs. I gazed upon the exotic and I tried to darken my skin like their skin. I wanted to attract the Eskimo. I lathered on coconut oil and drank warm water from a bottle.

It’s his usual time for a cigarette, and the Eskimo and I, we find a spot under the shade of a palm tree. He is taller than anyone on the beach and while he sits in the shade of the palm, I sit under the shade of him. We talk about our day and then we go for a swim. The water is warmer than the air and the floor is a deep muck filled with broken shells. He sticks a toe in the water and swishes it around in a circle. He walks a few feet and then stops.

“I don’t know how to swim,” he says.

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.”

I wave him towards me, into deeper water, and when we’re at about twenty inches I tell him to get on his stomach. He looks at me with those sad Eskimo eyes, so I go ahead, I go first, and he follows. First I teach him how to hold his breath underwater.   I plug my nose and stick my head under. “See, it’s easy,” I say, reemerging.   He tries the same but only manages to dip his nose and mouth under. He lets his eyes bob above the water’s surface as if he could see something down there he needed to study and understand from above.

“Alright, that’s pretty good. Now move your arms in front of you like you’re trying to dig through deep snow.”

He keeps his head above the water and moves his body along its surface, and soon enough, the Eskimo and I are swimming. We paddle, getting into deeper and deeper water, until finally the Eskimo sinks. I dive under to find him, to rescue him. But he’s on his stomach snooping around in the muck.   He lifts his head and looks at me, our eyes peer at each other through the grains of sand, the passing seaweed, and we stay like that for a moment, suspended in the silence of water. Our bodies look soft and I get that feeling of lightness one often feels underwater, like your body is spilling and draining into the world around you. I let my body relax, expand, and I imagine the Eskimo is doing the same, our bodies mingling in the space between us.

The headline was all over the news: Brazil’s Worst Airline Crash. A TAM airliner landing at Sao Paulo in route from Puerto Alegre skidded off the runway in wet weather, shot over a busy road and hit a fuel depot. The plane and the building exploded on impact. After the accident all that could be seen from the flames was the plane’s tail, slightly bent to the right. They say the bodies burned at 2,000 degrees.