- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2010

WHERE THE ROAD ENDS: A HOME IN THE BRAZILIAN RAINFOREST
By Binka Le Breton
Thomas Dunne/St.Martin’s, $25.99 304 pages

Among armchair travelers, there is a fascination in reading about couples who suddenly decide, at the age 40 or 50,

to bag everything and start a wholly new life in foreign parts. Think Peter Mayle in Provence, Frances Mayes in Tuscany.

“A Home in the Brazilian Rainforest” is about one such British couple, only with a tropical twist. Binka and Robin Le Breton leave a comfortable life in Washington, D.C., to buy an isolated farm in the mountains of Minas Gerais, Brazil, a seven-hour drive from Rio. He, an economist at the World Bank, and she, a professional concert pianist, are full of expectations of the life that awaits them, based on the novels of Jorge Amado. They decide to call their farm Iracambi, “the Tupi Indian name for Land of Milk and Honey.”


Nothing in their upbringing could have prepared them for this rugged adventure. Mr. Le Breton had been brought up in Kenya, where “the house was full of flowers, and every afternoon his parents drank tea upon a silver tray with scones and butter,” carried by servants wearing long gowns. Mrs. Le Breton was raised in England, with antiques at a home where silver and brass were polished until they gleamed; in the background, someone was usually playing music.

Mr. Le Breton, like the resourceful father of “The Swiss Family Robinson,” may have come from privilege, but he is also inventive and infused with a “can-do” spirit. In the two decades that they have been in the jungle, he has designed and built a house with thick earthen walls, restored ancient cars, established a successful dairy farm and saved a corner of the Brazilian rain forest. If that is not enough, he also runs a consulting business that enables him to travel to exciting places and supplement the family income.

For Mrs. Le Breton, life in the tropics has been more of a challenge. She initially misses giving concerts and being with her friends and resents the Brazilian macho culture of waging a daily battle against mud, dust and spider webs. Heavy rains leave green mildew on the bathroom walls; food left out grows fungus overnight. At one point, she asks herself “if we were having any fun yet.” She teaches herself Portuguese and is told it is “muito esquisito.” (“Accustomed to Spanish, I took it as a compliment; I’d thought it was good, if not exactly exquisite.” It was only later, by chance, she finds out the true meaning of the word: weird.)

The couple grapple with inflation, which varies from 10 percent to 80 percent a month (Brazilians customarily spend their salary the day they get it); the cowboy mentality of the “pistoleiros” (“Shoot first and talk afterward”); the fright when Mr. Le Breton is knocked over by a cow, suffers a concussion and is told he needs brain surgery in a burg called Muriae. Despite all this, there is something to be said for their new life. In Washington, Mrs. LeBreton was used to seeing luxurious houses empty all day long as couples worked to pay off the mortgages in neighborhoods where no one knew one another.

In Iracambi, life may not be as materially comfortable - but it has, as the Brazilians would say, more soul. Neighbors regularly drop by with a bag of beans, a handful of manioc roots or green leaves to make a salad. One of the most interesting chapters in the book (though, lamentably, lacking in detail) discusses “Where Farm and Forest Meet.” It lays out the mentality and challenges of preserving forest among a people who do not feel the need for conservation - There is such an abundance of resources, why bother? - and whose rural population views the trees as a source of charcoal.

Together, the Le Bretons plant 100,000 trees and inaugurate the Iracambi Atlantic Rainforest Research and Conservation Center, educating Brazilian schoolchildren and providing research programs for others all over the world. Having lived in Brazil for six years, I know firsthand those splendid shades of vivid greens, of witnessing an astounding variety of wildlife: watching hummingbirds the size of a human thumb, finding a tiny lemon frog perched on a yellow flower and the next minute coming across a white toad the size of a soccer ball. Who can forget the sight of a flock of red macaws flying against a rose-colored sky at sunrise, the trio of wild parakeets flitting around one’s head, the bands of curious monkeys, endless valleys stretching on and on, or the unmistakable tracks of a puma, imprinted in soft sand, next to a turquoise waterfall?

The author does not dwell on these natural marvels, once so common in Brazil. Instead, she captures the human element, the spirit, sayings, superstitions and “simpatia” of the Brazilian people who populate her locale. Their friends and neighbors - Albertinho, Luiza, Fia - are all truthfully portrayed and come to life on the page. The most captivating of these is Gabetto, a gentleman from an old Portuguese family “who had the soul of a Forest Indian.”

She knows the calls of birds and monkeys, and which plants were used by Puri Indians to cure insect bites. She enthralls the locals with stories of the early explorers and travelers. One wishes the author had incorporated some of this rich lore into her narrative, which instead consists of a stream of verbatim dialogue, that at times threatens to bog down the book. Photographs would have been welcome, too.

Nonetheless, there is a courage and vitality to this story, which captures a frontier spirit and individualism that is refreshing. Mr. and Mrs. Le Bretons’ corner of Brazil is one of ox carts and the Internet - making “Where the Road Ends” an original book to read and an inspiring experience to those who dream of changing their own lives.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices,” recently published by the Library of America.