A LESSON

Morinho's house sat, like a hat on a head, on top of a seamstress's shop. An open balcony overlooked the narrow street below. A place from which to engage in early morning greetings or view the firework sunsets. Leaning against the dusty whitewashed fence pillar that supported the only barrier between us and a direct plummet to the street below, I watched the early evening action. A car parked in front of the small neighbourly police station at a diagonal from us. The driver got out and scampered quickly off towards the central plaza. Then a police car drove up the street, pulling up in the middle of the road, just behind the car which had just arrived there. The policeman was a beefy sort in plain clothes. A detective? Just at that moment Morinho walked from the kitchen to take in the opening scenes of the sunset.

The policeman seemed somewhat agitated, pacing up and down and looking in the window of the car, which was obviously parked in the usual police car park. Without warning he reversed his car and then drove it to position its bumper bar at the back of the "offending" car. He revved, screeched and buffeted that car from its position into an awkward position in the middle of the road. With a final push he had managed to dislodge the other car completely and position his vehicle into that same position. I was aghast at the scene. Morinho stood firm and watched.

Morinho was known as the unofficial town mayor and was widely respected as an "important" man. I never managed to understand his position completely, but I knew he had power.

From around the corner came the scampering car owner, who came to a sudden and stunned slow as he saw what had happened to his car. The perpetrator was just exiting from his vehicle. The car owner inspected his dented bumper bar and a scrape down the back end and suddenly broke into a barrage of gestures and questioning. A crowd was gathering. A sleepy town opening an eyelid.

Ah; conflict! The policeman in a complete chair of power, physically shoved the upset owner. Police in Brazil had a dubious record. Death squads had also been a part of their chequered repertoire in recent years. The common person was powerless.

I turned to Morinho and suggested he step in. Surely he could do something for this helpless man. He looked at me hard, but only for a moment. He stayed put. At this point, I fumed and went off, down the stairs, to meddle in the middle of the congregating crowd. I showed an intent interest, studying the face of the policeman and car owner alike. There was no doubt who would win this debate. I felt angry. I looked up to the balcony and caught Morinho's attention. Nothing to do!? I wanted to say something, to show my inward disregard for the policeman's attitude. My lack of Portuguese disarmed me. The policeman turned his back and entered the station. As quickly as it had begun, the crowd dispersed, the powerless left belittled.

Dinner that night was silent. That scene of official corruption, of oppression, had disturbed me. After dinner I lay on my one centimetre "mattress", put on walkman headphones and took in the doctrines of peace and love as espoused by Bob Marley.

Next morning, as we again merged with the balcony outdoors to greet friends and acquaintances from the street, I released my anxiety at Morinho's non-intervention the previous afternoon. He looked at me sternly, but relaxed. He explained, in his soft low voice, that he could have, indeed, rushed down and pushed and shoved with words of power and possibly ignited the situation into something more than had eventuated. He knew of the policeman involved.

His way was more calculated. He would go down, that afternoon, and pay a casual visit to the Commissioner of Police. A close friend. He would describe the injustice committed, submit the plate numbers of both cars involved (which he'd taken down whilst I'd been down there "mixing it" with everyone). He said that the probable result would be a suspension to the man involved. This was the punishment which would really cut at the bone. No work, no pay, equalled hard times. Brazil had economic woes to cope with and no income would compound an individual's problems. A befitting punishment. Morinho smiled at me and put his hand on my shoulder. He knew I had now seen by the telltale expression on my face. Lesson learnt.

I remembered being in the middle of the fracas. How disempowering it was not to be able to speak Portuguese. I clambered over thoughts relating to tribal Aborigine languages and the problems of indifferent languages such as English. Was it any wonder that such cynicism existed on both sides of that coin. I recalled that the Andean Indian language of Quechwa (Kechwa) had twelve different words for sunrise. Sunrise with colour; sunrise with clouds; winter sunrise, windy sunrise, etc. The limiting nature of words. The power and beauty of language.