By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 6, 2010; B08
WHERE THE ROAD ENDS
A Home in the Brazilian Rainforest
By Binka le Breton
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 285 pp. $25.99
Twenty-one years ago Binka and Robin le Breton left a comfortable life in suburban Washington -- she was a concert pianist, he an economist with the World Bank -- and went to southeastern Brazil to start anew: "We'd educated our children, paid our mortgage, and found a country where it never snowed. Still in our forties, we had time and energy on our side. It was now or never." They bought an "isolated farm in the mountains" of the state of Minas Gerais; called it Iracambi, "the Tupi Indian name for Land of Milk and Honey"; and moved into the old farmhouse, which "had been empty for several months and looked forlorn."
Both of them British, they'd lived all over the world and were accustomed to trying circumstances, but Binka's feelings about moving into the rainforest were "decidedly mixed." She assumed that this change in their lives was yet another passing experience and that soon enough they would be back in the comforts of the developed Western world. She knew that having a farm of his own had been her husband's dream for as long as she'd known him, and she assumed that this adventure would get it out of his system.
That was 1989. Now it's 2010, and there they are, still at Iracambi, surrounded by (mostly) friendly natives "of mixed blood: European, African, and South American Indian," conducting their daily business in Portuguese, a "difficult language, and even educated Brazilians don't always speak it properly." They've added significantly to their acreage, established a thriving dairy farm and built what certainly sounds like a lovely house. They've also established the Iracambi Atlantic Rainforest Research and Conservation Center(iracambi.com, which provides educational opportunities for Brazilian children as well as research programs for people from all around the world.
How all this came to pass is told in "Where the Road Ends," an engaging if somewhat suspect book. On the one hand, the le Bretons obviously are terrific people who do exemplary work, but on the other hand, this memoir contains frequent and extended passages of dialogue. Though no memoirist can (or should) be expected to include only those conversations that can be documented down to the last syllable, one can't help wondering whether le Breton possesses a photographic memory or, in the likely event that she does not, how much is accurately remembered and how much is sheer invention. My own suspicion is that a significant amount of it is the latter. It's possible to enjoy and learn from le Breton's story while remaining skeptical about the dialogue, but this does undermine the book's credibility.
The farm the le Bretons call Iracambi "wasn't large by Brazilian standards, where some properties are larger than small countries in Europe; it was supposed to be somewhere around five hundred acres, though it hadn't ever been properly surveyed." It "didn't currently produce anything, but Robin was convinced it had potential, largely because of its abundant water." It came complete with a 30ish inhabitant named Albertinho, who occupied a more modest house on the property and quickly became an absolutely invaluable right-hand aide, a "man of parts" and a "born fixer." His skills were matched by his loyalty, and in time he lured numerous others to work on the farm as its operations grew more sophisticated and widespread.
The real marvel, though, was and remains Robin, who appears to have limitless resourcefulness and energy. Throughout the couple's two decades at Iracambi, he has kept elderly motor vehicles of various descriptions running, designed and built a "Mexican-style hacienda with thick earthen walls," operated a consulting business that takes him to various countries and keeps the couple solvent, taken a vigorous role in local efforts to preserve the rainforest and come to the aid of any neighbor in need of help, no matter how disruptive to his own schedule. Though from time to time his enthusiasm and can-do spirit leave his wife nonplussed, she clearly loves him, and with good reason.
For Binka, life in the rainforest has been a challenge. Early on she "discovered . . . that I was missing my music," and "even when my piano finally arrived I found I couldn't play without an audience, and it was only later that I settled into my new career as a writer." ("Where the Road Ends" is her fifth book.) At first, she felt a little guilty that she had none of the skills of a Brazilian farmer's wife:
"Farm wives looked after the pigs and chickens, grew wonderful vegetables, cooked hearty meals, made jams and preserves, bottle-fed orphan calves, helped in the coffee fields, raised large families, and still found time to crochet dishcloths. And what about me? I hated chickens. I forgot to water the vegetables, burned the jam, was a distracted cook, and doubted if I could even lay hands on a needle and thread. And I had absolutely no ambitions in the field of crochet dishcloths. No, as a farm wife I wasn't up to par."
She proved, though, to be both a good sport and an apt student. By the time Robin began making occasional consulting forays to bring in money, she knew enough to run the farm on her own. She attended an "insemination course" taught by a smart young woman whose "passion in life was cattle: cattle breeding, calf rearing, animal health, pasture rotation, dairy management -- anything and everything to do with cows," and at the end of the course she passed muster "with a big grin on my face." Robin, by contrast, revealed a squeamish side and wanted nothing to do with it.
Still, after barely a year at Iracambi, she "was suffering from a monstrous case of the blues." She tried to shake it, but couldn't: "Sometimes I found life at Iracambi wrenchingly difficult. I missed giving concerts, I missed my friends, I was lonely and frustrated, and I felt that life was passing me by. And, although I knew we could use the money, I couldn't help being resentful that Robin was the one who got to go to exciting places and I was the one who stayed back to mind the store." She deeply disliked Brazil's macho culture and the difficulty of getting anything done: "We were trying to lead a twentieth-century life in a nineteenth-century environment, and while Robin was accustomed to the leaden pace of the developing world, I found it hard to adapt to. I was used to being in a situation where if you worked hard you could change things. Here we worked hard and things didn't change. I kept asking myself if we were having fun yet."
What she needed, she came to realize, was a friend, and miraculously she soon found one: Luiza Gardner, who had come to Brazil with the Peace Corps in the 1970s, returned to the States when her hitch was up but "found she was missing Brazil" and came back. She "kept busy by creating finely detailed paintings of birds and flowers and giving English lessons -- resulting in a small but significant group of young Brazilians in town who spoke with the courtly tones of the Deep South." She proved to be exactly the friend Binka needed, she contributed beautiful painted tiles to the house-in-progress, and Binka could talk to her in English -- a welcome escape from the pressure of making herself understood, and understanding others, in Portuguese.
So now she's fully settled in at Iracambi, apparently for the duration. What she and her husband have done is entirely remarkable, an act of transformation at which the rest of us can only marvel. Having some experience at living in a Latin American country with a different language and different culture, I take my hat off to them.