An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.

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Wash Day

There must have been dryers somewhere in South America. Gas or electric, I would have taken either. During my eight years in Brazil, washday usually involved a washboard built into a sink, a hard, square, giant bar of soap and a clothesline. I never stayed anywhere with a dryer, no less a washing machine.

That meant that during the rainy season, washday could last several days as clothes hanging on the line outside were repeatedly rained on in the late afternoon, delaying the drying process; and, having no machine to perform a spin cycle, you got as much water out of your clothes as …

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Grapes of Wrath

My first trip to Argentina was with Kiyo and Rosa. Kiyo would become my advisor and friend during my term in South America.  He and his wife invited me to join them on the journey to the Argentine state of Misiones, where they would visit and counsel a scattered group of Nikkei, in this rural province in Argentina as well as the southern section of Paraguay.

Our route would take us by car from São Paulo to the city of Posadas in northeastern Argentina, staying in the home of a Japanese national who was taking a six-month leave of absence …

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Hot. Muggy. Sweaty. The Whole Nine Yards

The air was stifling.

Outside, the rain cooled the air to the low-90's. But the moisture raised the humidity to 100%. It was after midnight and I struggled to find a comfortable position in my cot. I had no blankets because of the heat. Only the sheet between me and the mattress.

There was no breeze.

I was in Belém do Pará in the heart of the Amazon. The setting was a boarding house north of the city. Called a "pensionato," it was a place created for the high-school-aged children of immigrant Japanese farmers working throughout the Amazon basin. These …

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Chased by a Storm

This is perhaps my most memorable experience in the Amazonian state of Pará - riding with teammates on the rear bed of Jon Nishi's Mitsubishi pickup truck.

We had spent the day on the river having embarked from the small town of Abaetetuba, nestled along the Amazon tributary of Rio Tocantins. Now it was time to begin our trip back to the Japanese farming colony of Tomé Açu (Toe-may ah-su) in northern Brazil.

The truck had an extended cab, which seated six people inside while three of us sat outside with our team luggage in the truck bed. Being on …

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Not All Jungle

A far cry from its perception as a jungle outpost, Belém is a modern port city on the Amazon River. On this day in Belém, I was instructed, "Stand in front of me. Let me look at you."

These were the directions of my friend Rick, a Sansei from Pasadena, California and a ten-year veteran of work in the Amazon. We were about to embark on a trip through the famous Ver-O-Peso open air market in Belém. He wanted to make sure that I didn't look like a tourist.

Me, look like a tourist? I remember feeling mildly offended as …

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adventures amazon argentina Belém Brazil culture grapes immigrants Misiones pará sansei sao paulo south america travel weather