Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Last of the Bombas

It's the 12th of July, which means that São João was over two weeks ago, which means that all the local vendas (places to buy anything, often just candy and cigarettes) have finally run out of bombas, which means I can finally enjoy relative peace and quiet here in the city. Bombas, literally 'bombs', are home-made firecrackers of varying size. They consist of a wooden match wrapped in gunpowder and paper, and vary in size from






which has to be imagined with the accompanying echo through the narrow streets of my neighborhood. This year I heard one of the larger (but not largest) explosions followed by some kid in front of my house yelling "Bomba de mil!" which presumably means a bomba with 1000 milligrams of gunpowder, although that's just a guess.

At any rate, all those bombas going off was extremely distracting and made me wish they had fireworks that crackled and whistled and flew in the air and did other things than just explode with varying degrees of noise. And even more than that, made me wish that they would go away, which as I said they finally have.

So why am I waxing melancholic, and fondly remembering a holiday that happened over two weeks ago? Not because of the bombas, but you figured that out already. I'm remembering my favorite part of São João, which is the foguerias.

A fogueira is a bonfire. Every year, along with the Forro music and the peanuts and the corn they make bonfires across the northeast of Brazil. These are invariably log-cabin style affairs (built with criss-crossed logs) with a bunch of sticks in the center. When São João rolls around, you can see them for sale by the dozen by the side of the road.

The thing about bonfires is that they bring me quite suddenly back to my childhood. I always loved making fires as a kid, and although I was never a boy scout, I got quite good at it. I used to take great pride in starting a fire with a single match (I never learned to make a fire without matches). So when the bonfire gets set up I immediately want to get involved. Or take over.

The funny and often frustrating thing for me is that despite their rural roots, the Brazilians I know have no idea how to start a fire. They always want to get it going with plastic bags. This infuriates my bleeding-heart liberal New England pseudo-ecological soul, so I fight tooth and nail for them not to put plastic bags on the fire. This year someone threw some diesel oil on the fogueira before I showed up, and in spite of this and a large quantity of plastic bags, they couldn't get the thing going.

The problem was that it had rained a lot before São João, and all the wood was wet. All the kindling was wet, and even all the paper was damp. When I stepped in, hero and veteran of many campfires past, the tools at my disposal were feeble at best- a few sheets of a limp glossy brochure, some damp twigs.

My fire building theory is simple: to make a big fire, first you have to make a little fire. And to make a little fire, first you have to make a teeny tiny fire. Despite the popularity of the log-cabin style of firebuilding, I go in for the miniature teepee approach to get the ball rolling. Ideally this miniature teepee should have a heart of a couple sheets of dry newsprint and tinder-dry pine twigs, but I had to make do with what I had at hand.

I don't know if my brothers-in-law think I'm incompetent, or that they are disinclined to the lone-wolf approach to problem solving, but they never want to let me do anything by myself. They used to drive me nuts whenever there was a project that required manual labor and they would come over and take the shovel away from me. What, I'd think, you think that just because I'm a gringo I'm incapable of shoveling? This is probably unfair to them, but it used to drive me nuts. I ran into the same problem with the fire. Despite my repeated requests that they leave the fire building to me, without the use of plastics, they huddled around loudly debating various schemes for lighting the bonfire. You need to cut the bottom off of a bottle of bleach, one of them kept saying. I have no idea why that would have helped, if bleach-bottle bottoms are particularly flammable or have some other fire-building dynamic quality unknown to me, but he was a loud advocate of the theory.

One Match Pfohl one of my older brothers called me once, after I successfully started the largest bonfire of my life with, quite honestly not a single match, but a single flick of my trusty bic. Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to prove myself to my brothers-in-law, such was not to be this particular evening. Despite the careful culling of the tiniest and most flameworthy kindling and the delicate crumpling of the glossy brochure, the stupid little teepee just didn't want to catch. I was reduced to a cursing, match-lighting, red-faced gringo fool in front of my in-laws, who overrode my protests and attempted a plastic-assisted ignition further up on the pile. Luckily for me, their bags flamed out without result and on the seventh or eighth try, I got my teepee lit. Let's belatedly bask in it's glow:


What TV is to my wife, fires are to me, and I can spend hours basking in their glow and tending to their needs- adding firewood, optimizing air flow, consolidating under-performing fuel and chasing off plastic-wielding in-laws. No matter that there is no plot and no characters- there is no inane dialog and no commercials. Just a nice hot bed of coals, skin dry and tight on my face, and the rest of the world can go to hell.

After I had asserted my manliness by getting the stupid fire burning and building a nice big bed of coals, we were all able to enjoy another ritual of São João - fire-roasted corn on the cob.

I remember my dad trying this when we were kids- telling us how the Indians would cook corn right in the coals, and I remember he tried it once or twice with the corn still in the husk. It made an impression on me although I can't remember the final product. I also remember thinking that my oldest brother-in-law was crazy the first time I saw him stick a shucked ear of corn directly into the coals- dude, you're supposed to let it roast in the husk!

Maybe it can work the way my dad tried to do it, but I've tried, and let me tell you, it doesn't compare to sticking that baby right into the coals all naked and husk-free. Don't be alarmed by how it looks when it's done:

This corn was delicious. The corn I tried cooking in the husk: well, maybe I wasn't patient enough, but it was raw and tasted terrible.

When I was a kid, I thought I had the best birthday in the world: June 25. Six months to the day from Christmas, which meant presents every six months. Now, I live somewhere where my birthday arrives on the ressaca (hangover) of São João, celebrated on the 23rd and 24th of June. Oh well- I'm not a kid anymore so it doesn't really matter. This particular birthday was my 39th, and very much over-shadowed (at least in my mind) by next year's looming inevitability. That's all I have to say about it.


AkuTyger said...

I do miss Sao Joao. I haven't been to one in several years because I always find a better deal to travel by leaving before it. Maybe next year...

Pedra said...

I was at my girlfriend´s sister´s house and they were lighting up charcoal to bbq on with plastic bags. I could not believe it! Now I know that it is a cultural phenomenon and not just one person´s bad judgement! I have noticed a dramatic decrease in the number of bombas going off, but I still hear them now and again. I still think it is some kind of drug trafficking signal! Hope all is well :) -Cheryl

A.L.R. said...

Ohhhh....if only my bairro was out of bombas. There are still buckets of those silly things on every store front and shop corner. I have little doubt that the neighborhood kids will continue their parade of destruction up until the next Sao Joao massacre.

Ahhh, yes. And I too appreciate a good fire.

markuza said...

Akutyger- yeah, I'm hoping to take advantage and get back to the States for the next Sao Joao... provided flights haven't doubled in price.

Pedra- yeah it is a cultural phenomenon- I wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the relative lack of newspaper. And those bombs you think are signals- aren't those the bapadabapapap - BOOM! kind rather than just the BANG! - those, the first kind, never go away entirely...

A.L.R. - Hey, it's the lion's den guy!! Maybe you should start a fire and throw all the remaining bombas on it. You can be sure I _won't_ be sending the darling kids from here your way to take care of the surplus...