It's hard to beat the bushes in Brazil

I'VE done a bit of traveling over the years, and when I do it's hard to say which fascinates me most: the flora, the fauna, or the humans. My traveling has not consisted of touring about in groups, taking cruises, or staying in fancy hotels. Instead, I usually have picked a place, gone there, and settled in for awhile. I've gotten to know the people, tried to learn the language, and spent a lot of time checking out the differences between that place and home -- on every level, especially from flora down to the tiniest fauna.

It's the flora that usually grab my attention first. I remember when I arrived in Brazil sometime in the middle '60s, how amazed I was that certain bushes there sported flowers of two different colors! And when I moved into my little house, my first explorations of the back yard revealed still more wonders.

The first thing I noticed were the little orange trees -- at least that's what I thought they were. But when I picked one of the round, very orangey-looking fruits, cut it open, and took a bite, my mouth puckered up in true lemon style. I had tasted what the Brazilians call ``limao,'' a kind of cross between a lemon and an orange. Right beside the limao tree was a seedless raspberry bush. That's right, and this was no Burpee hybrid -- the thing was growing wild.

When I got out my spade and hoe to start my garden, I dug up wild potatoes of several varieties, having no idea what they were until a Brazilian friend set me straight. They were tasty, too.

At the rear of the yard I had my first encounter with a banana tree. I didn't believe it when another native pal told me I could cut it down with a kitchen knife. I didn't really want to cut it down, but some months later, when it started to get out of hand (they spread, you know, and drop their huge leaves all over the place), I couldn't wait to grab my vegetable slicer and get to it. It was true. It sliced through in a jiffy just like a piece of celery.

As I remember the banana tree, I also remember all the different kinds of bananas in Brazil. Here at home, a banana is a banana. Some might be a little bigger than others, but that's about it. In Brazil, however, you have ``banana maca,'' ``banana nica,'' and others whose names I've forgotten. They range in size from the tiniest ``finger'' bananas to very large ones, and each has a different taste.

I had known that a cashew nut wasn't a nut at all, but a protuberance growing from the end of a larger fruit. However, I never knew anybody actually ate cashew fruit until I lived in Brazil. There were too many different kinds of fruit in Brazil for me to catch up with, but I did get into all the different ways the Brazilians use one of my favorite vegetables -- corn. Here we judge fresh corn by the tenderness and sweetness of its kernel, but in Brazil it's common practice to eat field corn -- the tough stuff the animals like to eat. It's good for humans, too, but you have to cook it in a pressure cooker. The first time I ate it I was surprised at how good the flavor was, and how tough it wasn't. Corn is ground into meal, too, and used in interesting ways, from the popular ``polenta'' (cornmeal mush to us), to a specially toasted flour call ``farofa'' which is combined with cooked vegetables to make a savory dish.

So much for flora. In the fauna department I admit I was absolutely floored by the bugs. I had already been fascinated in Mexico by the parasol ants as they trotted along in a line holding bits of leaves over their heads, but I had a couple of encounters with mini-fauna in Brazil that I won't ever forget.

The first of these concerned the smelly spiders. Now, when I say ``smelly,'' I'm not referring to something mildly unpleasant or even quite unpleasant. The spiders I'm talking about, when injured or surprised, gave off fumes that would send you running as if you had found yourself sitting on top of a skunk. I was digging in the garden one day when I had the misfortune of disturbing a nest of these delightful creatures. Before you could snap your fingers I had bolted the hundred yards or so into the house, closed all the windows and doors, and I could still smell it!

If you think I'm making this up, I probably shouldn't tell you about the talking ants. But as long as I'm on the subject of Brazil's startling bugs, I might as well. In my kitchen, I had a cupboard in which I kept noodles. These noodles came wrapped in a kind of butcher's paper. One afternoon, as I was getting ready to make dinner, I opened the noodle cupboard and heard a strange little sound. I reached for the noodles anyway, and when I opened the package, hundreds of big black ants panicked and started scrambling around. I panicked, too. I grabbed the package, closed it up fast, and started to twist it. The squeaking got louder and louder -- chkchkchKCHKCHKKKKKKKK!!!!! Right away I knew it was the ants, and I felt awful for squeezing them and making them scream, so I threw the whole thing outside. Later I found out I hadn't been dreaming; these little critters really do talk, by rubbing their antennae together. And then there were the giant flying cockroaches (no kidding) -- but I'll leave that for another time.

So what's left? Only the humans, who were warm and wonderful, patient at my attempts to speak Portuguese, fun-loving and loyal. I miss them, but I probably won't go back. This year I'm studying Japanese and getting ready to acquaint myself at some point with another totally new world of flora and fauna -- and humans.

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