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Book Review: “Journey on the Estrada Real” by Glenn Alan Cheney.

Just about two months into my 1500-mile walk across Finland (research for my book “Notes for the Aurora Society” )I came to a crossroads. No, not a literal fork in the road but rather a forced choice-point in life where the cognitive dissonance in my soul demanded a solution.

I had come to a research station deep in the boreal forest where a boisterous woman with a loose eye and jarring laugh was heading up a government-funded wetland restoration project. Ecological restoration is my passion. The “job” I had given myself on my walk however was one of impassioned observer only- not that of a participant. However, there I was, not wanting to walk on but instead stay and help this woman restore these wetlands. I did walk on of course and over the coming days found a resolution to a question that plagued me most of my adult life – participant or observer?

And so, for me the most profound point of Glenn Alan Cheney’s “Journey on the Estrada Real – Encounters in the Mountains of Brazil” doesn’t come until page 167 when, falling away from a community party in the town of Serro, Cheney observes of himself:

“I’m over here, everyone else is over there…for the last 30 years or so, I’ve been sitting off to the side…essentially talking to myself by outing thoughts on paper…I will always be on the outside, looking in, observing, writing about it, a sad detachment that began in youth and evolved into a profession.”

Cheney is a kindred spirit.

But I think I struggle more than he might.

Brazil’s Estrada Real – Royal Road – climbs from the port of Praia dos Mineiros on the Atlantic, over the Serro do Mar, to Diamantina, a place “where creeks were exposing diamonds to daylight.” The Portuguese Crown ordered the road (the oldest European road in the western hemisphere) built in 1697 to control trade with the interior. Much as colonial British laws did in North America, the Portuguese action was intended to keep Brazil from developing its own industrial capacity by making the interior dependent on European imports. The Americas existed for one reason – to make Europe rich.

This lovely little book is an eye-opener to a place and a trail and a people I had no idea existed. The world of the Estrada Real is a fascinating one. As Brazil pushes its way in to the 21st Century and finds itself not only a regional powerhouse but a growing player on the world stage, this cradle of Brazilian culture – strung out along a highway built well before Benjamin Franklin was born – finds itself under great pressure to change – and to stay the same. And so, Cheney set out by foot about halfway up the approximately 400 mile road in the town of Mariana. He proceeded 200 miles on foot to Diamantina to document how these global forces are both effecting and being dealt with by the people and communities who live on the road. How is this part of the world handling the age of the internet, GMOs, corporate domination, global warming and extractive industry (although the extraction is nothing new – Cheney visited some of the dark precious metal mines worked by slaves whose lives valued little). Given that these stark global forces are questions many of us struggle with these days, it’s fascinating to grasp how these rural Brazilians deal and how we might deal if we were in their place – and given the current economic situation, many more of us are in this situation than were when Cheney made the trip just a few short years ago.

Cheney is uniquely suited to both make this journey and write this book. Married to a Brazilian and capable in Portuguese, Cheney had at one time spent several years banana farming in these same mountains of Brazil. That background opens new doors on his ability to translate this culture for those of us who have never been to Brazil or seek to know more about the place.

Be it a teenager who goes out his way to scoop up and depot in the trash can a plastic bottle on a street in Catas Altas or the drivers who thoughtlessly toss trash out of their windows and into the streets of Sao Goncalo do Rio das Pedras, Cheney masterfully captures the economic and social struggle playing out in these communities. And he does it with many beautifully crafted descriptions:

“And she has a current husband, a toothless old man who keeps on taking snuff from a tin in his pocket”

“Viscous yellow-gray smoke hemorrhages from a short, fat smokestack and blends into the low-lying clouds”

“She no longer eats compete meals, living instead by nibbling cheese and crackers. She never drinks water. Her coffee is Nescafe instant.”

Wonderful.

I have two complaints about “Journey on the Estrada Real”. First is the lack of maps. I’m a stickler for good maps and having a detail of where the author is going day by day at the front of every chapter is invaluable – a failing I note in my own book.

The other complaint is a general pet-peeve of mine about current travel literature. That is the constant and offensive use of the present tense. I’m talking about such gunk as “I stop to check my map” instead of “I STOPPED to check my map.” Nearly every work of travel literature I pick up these days from the Smithsonian magazine to National Geographic to books like Cheney’s attempts to hoodwink the reader with the ridiculously unattainable proposition that I’m right there with the traveler. It is distracting and off-putting. The trip happened in the past, write it as such. I as a reader want to know what happened not get jerked along on some fantasy that I am actually there.

In the end, Cheney’s “observer”, while skilled in his reportage, is a little unconvincing. Why? I just don’t think he is as firm in that role as he thinks he is. It is because Cheney cares. Just a few pages after his ‘I’m just an observer” epiphany, Cheney comes to a village that lacks in many simple comforts and economic activities. Upon finding an industrious woman in this village, Cheney offers up a litany of solutions and things he’s like to do to help that woman meet her goals and grow the local economy. Every single one of those solutions is closely within his grasp – simple and inexpensive. A thousand dollars and a public wash machine, de decides. His “observer” knows what it will take to improve life there. My “participant” wanted him to act. But, I wondered, would I appreciate such an intrusion?

Well. …yes. I would love for some rich Russian or Arab to come to my high desert community and drop me enough to finish my landscaping and to bury the power and telephone lines and close unused roads and build sidewalks and…

And I’d love to see Glen Alan Cheney take up just a thousand dollars and a wash machine and go…

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