Reminiscences of my 60 years in South America
Trevor Stephenson 1915 - 2015
Arranged by Tony Morrison



Trevor's Tropical Troubles began in 1943 with a severe illness when he was in Parnahyba - Parnaiba in the northeast of Brazil. He had some very close to death moments including adventures with a Guaraná cocktail. Guaraná is an extract from the fruit of a tree native to the Amazon and has long been used in tribal rituals

Sixty nine years later when he was ninety seven years old I asked Trevor if he had been unwell since those days and he replied 'Never'. Is the secret in Guaraná or in that final kiss... read on ....I wonder.....

Schoolboy to Apprentice 1931-1936
Maranham 1936-41
Parnahyba 1937 -1943
Homeward Bound 1938
Tropical Troubles 1942
Para 1938/1939 1943 /1945
Amazonian Interlude 1941
Manaus 1941-1942
War time diary 1942
Back to Brazil 1943
Iquitos 1945-1946
Brazil for the second time 1947
On a coffee fazenda 1952 -1953
São Paulo Alpargatas 1953 - 1957
Crossing the Continent 1956
Lima 1957 -1963
Working for myself 1964-1990
Tropical Troubles
'Am I in Heaven?'


Advice...Beware of the local girls ...

One thing everyone likes is giving advice to others, When it became known that I would be going to live in North Brasil, friends, relations and even almost complete strangers vied with each other to warn me of all the terrible tropical diseases I was sure to encounter unless I took the greatest precautions "Always boil the water", "Never eat native food", "Always wipe your knife and fork before using them". They also advised " Never go out without a hat," " Only take a drink after sundown", " Beware of the local girlsl" etc.

In 1943 I was in Parnahyba. One evening during dinner, I broke out into a cold sweat and all interest in food deserted me. I knew that I had finally succumbed to the perils of the tropics. 1n bed I pored over the pages of my Home Doctor coming finally to the conclusion that the mosquitoes had got me at last and that 1 had a serious bout of malaria. It hardly seemed worthwhile calling a doctor that night for such a clear cut illness so instead I sent the house boy to the chemist for some malaria pills. He returned with four large blue pills and instructions that I should take two immediately and two first thing in the morning.Next day, feeling anything but bright, I decided the time had come to call a doctor.

He was a youngish man

He confided in me that be had just graduated and that I was his first patient and even more thrilling, a foreign patient. He was certainly most business like. First he peered into my eyes, then he tapped my knees with a little hammer, thumped my chest and back and took my temperature.

Finding that it was 40 something, he rubbed his hands with enthusiasm and said "Aha! You are really sick." Then he ordered me to open my mouth and he peered long and earnestly inside it. Then be gave his opinion that I needed to have my tonsils out. I told him that they had been removed when I was about 10 years old. This rather shook him but he quickly rallied and shone a torch down my throat. He advised me that there were a lot of ragged ends which would be better trimmed. Patiently I reminded him that I had no pain in my throat but that I felt sick. In that case, be said, there was nothing for it but to go into hospital for observation.

Is he dead ? ...

Now there were few paved roads in Parmahyba and only three or four private cars. As I didn't feel up to walking the 1/2 mile to the local hospital two strong men were hurriedly pressed into service. Putting me in a hammock slung from a pole carried on the shoulders of the two men, we set off. The journey could have been smoother. The man in front was very tall whilst the man behind was very small. As a result I was jerked backwards and forwards as they walked. Naturally our procession through the town gave rise to much comment. Every now and then, somebody more curious than the rest, would lift the cover which shaded me from the hot sun and exclaim "Is he dead?" If I groaned, which was fairly often, he would leap back as though stung and exclaim to all and sundry that I was obviously dying fast.

At the entrance to the Hospital I was dumped unceremoniously on to the floor whilst a hurried discussion went on amongst two Sisters of Mercy as to whether there was room for me. Finally another sister came down the stairs, lifted up the cover over my face, then exclaimed "Oh you are lucky! A man has just died upstairs. You can have his bed."

I was allotted a male nurse to look after me. He was a mestiço who not only wore a filthy uniform but was addicted to smoking foul smelling cigars and spitting out of the window. I took a violent dislike to him and promptly demanded a female nurse. The Mother Superior appeared very shocked and added that this was not only highly irregular but also immoral! I replied that I could not possibly be expected to get better without a female nurse to cool my fevered brow with her soft hand. As this didn't convince her, I groaned, rolled my eyes, hung out my tongue and panted for breath.


The Mother Superior rushed off and shortly afterwards returned with a young novice of about 18 years old with long black hair and signs of possessing a most interesting figure beneath the covering of her Mother Hubbard uniform. Meanwhile the doctor, all excited at having a foreigner for a patient, was busy taking blood samples, asking numerous personal questions and listening to my interior on his stethoscope. He prescribed four different types of injection and enough pills to make me rattle inside! The only result of all this was that I became violently sick. By this time the doctor had given up the idea of trimming jagged edges in my throat having decided that must have a stomach infection and suggested opening me up for a look, a suggestion which I refused to agree to.

He now stopped the very greasy soup and fried eggs which I was given for lunch and had reluctantly eaten and ordered a diet of fruit juices. There was an almost immediate improvement in my condition and I started to take an interest in my nurse. She told me she had been abandoned by her husband and was working in the Hospital in order to provide for her baby. I taught her English. She taught me Portuguese and then I explained what the Braille System was. I was not mistaken.......... She had a wonderful figure and full of vitality.

An improvement ...

Though I now felt much better, my temperature remained at 40 C. The doctor now decided that a more drastic treatment was called for. An old iron bath was wheeled into the room and filled with water to a temperature of 40C. I was then put into the bath and, after a short while, the plug was pulled and the water flowed by means of a hose out of the window and into the street. The idea was that my temperature would flow out with the water. My temperature remained at 40C!

The doctor now decided to freeze my temperature down. I was stripped and huge blocks of ice were placed all around me and then I was wrapped in blankets. Within seconds, I turned a pale shade of blue and my teeth set up an uncontrolable chattering. Frantically the doctor tore away the blankets, hurled the blocks of ice out of the window and started slapping and rubbing me all over, My temperature remained at 40C!

The devils within

That evening the black male night nurse confided to me that I had been bewitched and in order to get well, the devils in me would have to be exorcised. He told me that he knew how to do it . Without more ado, he rushed out of the room returning a few minutes later with some green leaves in his hand. He then proceeded to bum them over a candle. Afterwards he smeared the ashes on my face and arms and on the soles of my feet. After saying some prayers, he placed his thumb into my navel, leapt on to the bed doing a sort of cartwheel over me. He had pressed his thumb with such force into my tummy that I let out a shriek of pain. He clapped his hands with delight saying that the devils had now departed. My temperature remained at 40C!

It was obvious that I had the medical profession in the shape of the doctor pretty well baffled. However, the doctor was not yet beaten. He announced that I was one of those special people whose normal temperature was 40C and therefore I was cured. It only remained for me to get back my strength and go home. Next day he ordered me to get dressed and go for a walk around the square in front of the hospital. The sun was blazing down as I staggered dutifully outside. I had not gone more than some 100 yards when my legs crumpled beneath me and I sank down on the hot sand. Willing hands carried me back to the hospital and on to my bed. The doctor was urgently called but before he arrived I had fallen into unconsciousness.

A burning candle

Many hours later I awoke. A lighted candle stood at the end of the bed."Why is the candle alight?", I asked the night nurse. "We always put a lighted candle at the head of a bed of a dying person. Now go back to sleep." The answer worried me for I didn't feel like dying just then. I waited until the night nurse had dozed off. Then I silently got out of bed and holding an ice bag on my head, I crept downstairs. The sister on night duty was young and this was the first time she had been on the night shift. Her head was bent over as she counted her beads.

It was not until I had reached the front door that she looked up. I gave her a wan smile, lifted the ice-bag as though raising my hat and mumbled "I'm going home to England." Her jaw dropped open and for some seconds no sound came forth. Then she let out a wild shriek and promptly lost all interest in the proceedings as she slumped to the floor. Sisters, nurses and even the night watchman came rushing towards her. The place became full of people milling around, fetching glasses of water, telephoning for the doctor, saying prayers and generally getting in everyone's way. In the confusion I was not noticed so I sat in a corner watching in a detached sort of way. Then I, too, became the centre of attraction but all I could say was "I'm not going to die here. I prefer to die in England."

The doctor now had to admit defeat. Next morning, the Booth Manager was sent for and told that I could no longer remain in hospital as they didn't want a foreigner dying in their place. I was duly flown to Belém do Pará where I was diagnosed as having paratyphoid. Expert treatment followed, my temperature went down to 36.5 C and I was greatly relieved to discover that I was not a rare bird with a 'normal' temperature of 40C!

When the doctor in Parnahyba decided that I must not die in his hospital, the Booth Manager decided that he too was not going to allow me to die in his Agency. Accordingly, I was put on a Panair do Brasil plane for Belém do Pará. How I was taken to the airport and put on the plane I do not know. All I remember was a doctor giving me an injection before I left Parnahyba and another doctor coming off to the plane when we made a stop at Sao Luiz to give me yet another injection. Upon arrival at Val de Caes airport in Belém, I was helped to a seat in the airport and I remained there until after all the passengers had gone.

'A bright young thing'

The crew of the plane were about to leave when one of the hostesses [cabin crew]saw me and asked if anyone was coming to collect me. I mumbled that I didn't expect so and that I wanted to go home to Liverpool She was a bright young thing and connecting Liverpool with the Booth Line, suggested that I go with all the crew in their station wagon to the city. In front of the Booth office, but on the far side of the road, I got off and started to cross the road. What I didn't see was a tram coming. Fortunately the driver saw me in time and slammed on the brakes. Some instinct caused me to stop inches away from the side of the tram and I fell down. There was little traffic in those days. Some kind person picked me up and took me to the office.

I had long straggly hair, a beard and I was painfully thin. I was not recognized and the staff thought I was a ship wrecked sailor. When I made my identity known, I was taken to see the General Manager, Atahualpa Purcell. He asked me what was the matter. I answered that I didn't feel very well . The firm's doctor arrived within minutes, took one look at me and said "Hospital". The firm's car was in front of the office, I was bundled inside and with Atahualpa and the doctor we set off for the Beneficencia Portuguesa. There a bed on the ground floor was quickly prepared for me. Then came a number of tests after which the doctor told Atahualpa that I was suffering from paratyphoid, that it was far advanced and as I had not had proper treatment, I only had a little time left before dying since nothing further could be done for me.


A cable was sent to my parents giving them the sad news and advising that they would be duly informed of my death! Now my 'guiding angel' in the shape of Dona Naih, the wife of Julian Clissold, the Booth manager in Sao Luis when I first arrived from England and who looked after me like a mother, heard about my illness and came to the hospital. She was determined that I should not die. At the time Booths were attending to United States troop transport ships which called at Belém on route to Africa as the Americans had the use of a large air base in the city. Dona Naih told Atahualpa, in no uncertain tones, that he must obtain the services of one of the American doctors at the base.

The doctor came, examined me and agreed with the firm's doctor that there was little hope. However, he said that there were a number of new drugs called ."sulfa" and "penicillin". He suggested that they could not make things any worse and might, just might, prove effective.

From this point on I lapsed into a coma. For how long I do not know. I was told later that Dona Naih came daily to see me. However, my family were not given any more news and my father, fearing the worst, went to the Booth Line Office in Liverpool to speak to the Manager who said he had no news but promised to cable Pará to know when I had died! One Sunday morning, I had the sensation that I was lying on a beach with my feet in the warm sea. With every wave the water covered more of my body, my legs, my thighs, then my stomach. Angels began singing and I felt my body was floating,. Then one of the angels took my hand, I opened my eyes. A nun was standing at my bedside.

"Am I in Heaven?"

I asked. She seemed very surprised and told me I was In bed In hospital. So I said "I heard the angels singing." She hesitated a little, then in a soft voice said "The singing which you heard was the nuns singing at the choral mass." The Hospital Chapel was next to my room. From that moment I began to get better.

I was terribly thin and weak. My last meal was the greasy soup in Parnahyba many weeks, I don't know how many, ago. I drank Guarana and after a few days I was allowed a chicken soup known as canga. I was determined to get better quickly so I began getting out of bed and walking, first one step, then two. After a while I could walk to the end of the bed and back.

The food was all right but I wanted milk. I have always drunk pints and pints of milk. I told the doctor I needed milk. He was emphatic. Milk was the last thing I could drink. I persisted and finally he agreed I might have with breakfast a tiny amount of milk, about the quantity to turn black coffee slightly brownish. Next morning there was the tiny jar of milk, I wanted MORE. Placing the jug inside the wardrobe, I rang the bell. A nun came. I told her the doctor had prescribed milk but it had not come with my breakfast. She darted out and returned with another jug of milk. This too, I placed inside the wardrobe. Then I rang the bell again. Another nun came. "Where is my milk?", I demanded. "Sorry. I'll bring jug.for you." That made 3 jugs.


I could not well ring the bell again so I waited until I saw a servant passing. "Please bring me a jug of milk." She obediently brought me another jug. But I was still not satisfied. Another servant passed. Again I requested a jug of milk. Now I had 5 jugs of milk. Then, by good fortune, I noticed that the breakfast trolley was parked in front of the door of my room. Carefully I got out of bed, crept to the door and looked out both ways. No one was about and on the trolley were 3 more jugs of milk. Quickly I raised each one to my lips and drank the contents. I heard footsteps. Rapidly back to bed. Then I drank the milk from the jugs in the wardrobe. I was satisfied. The doctor came in the afternoon. I had no pain nor fever so he allowed me to have a small glass of milk from then on. My problem, however, was how to get rid of the five jugs. The servant who came to remove my tray was young and not very intelligent. I told her that I
took a long time to drink my milk so when my tray was removed, I still had a jug in my hand. Would she please take them all away. She made nocomment nor showed any surprise.

I was now getting very hungry. When visitors asked me what I would like to read, I always asked for cookery books and magazines. Dona Naih brought me a large writing book and into this I wrote down all those recipes which appealed to me as well as tearing out others from magazines. I still possess the book. Lunch consisted of chicken soup, then a boiled chicken drumstick with local vegetables followed by fruit: pineapple, papaya or custard apples, known locally as Beribar. To drink: I had Guarana. There was little meat on the drumsticks and I craved more but there was no more. One lunch-time I happened to look across the corridor. Tbe man in the opposite room had just been given his lunch. I went to the door of my room and looked out. No one was to be seen. I darted across the corridor and into the room opposite. Without saying anything, I snatched the drumstick off the man's plate and ran back to my room. The man let out a piercing scream which brought nuns, servants and even the watchman running to the man's room.

A madman ...

"A madman with long hair and a beard came and stole my chicken." Everyone reckoned that the patient had suddenly had a fit and a doctor was hurriedly called. But the Mother Superior put two and two together. "Which patient has long hair and a beard?" It could only be me. She came into my room. I was lying in bed a cherubic look upon my face "Did you go into the opposite room and take a piece of chicken off that patient's plate. " Me! Why I cannot even walk more than a few steps and then only with help"

She looked at me closely "Are you sure it wasn't you?" I didn't want to lie but how to convince the Mother Superior. "Why think it was me? What would I want with more chicken. I have had mine and that was quite sufficient." She looked on my plate. There was a fleshless bone. She went to the wardrobe and opened the door. She found nothing. Eventually she went out. Then I removed the chicken drumstick from under my pillow, ate the meat and threw the bone out of the window.

The nun who held my hand

When I came out of my coma, was young and quite pretty, She was very taken by my conviction that I had been snatched from Heaven by the angels and often came to my room, sat on the bed and talked with me, mostly on religious themes. Later we got to talk on more mundane things and I told her that when she held my hand, I felt better. We got along very well until, one day, the Mother Superior came in to my room and ticked the nun off. [ed:was angry]

I was now much better so I asked my nun friend if she could arrange for a barber to cut my hair and beard. This was a great improvement. I was anxious to leave hospital but needed more exercise. On Sundays, the doctor made his rounds at 9 am. At 9.30 the nuns celebrated their choral mass which lasted till almost 11I am. No visitors were allowed in the morning. Thus I was alone and not likely to be disturbed for at least an hour.

One Sunday, as soon as the doctor had gone, I got dressed. The windows of my room were like large double doors reaching from the floor to the ceiling. These were kept open for the fresh air. A low railing prevented one from falling out. Outside was the hospital vegetable garden which provided vegetables for the whole hospital. I had noticed that at the far end of the garden there was a simple wooden gate. It was not locked for in those days things were very safe. I left the pillow in such a position that a cursory glance would appear that I was asleep. I climbed out of the window, walked across the garden, opened the gate and I was free outside. No one, so far as I could guess, had seen me.

I caught the first tram to the Ver-o-Peso Dock where the fishing boats tied up and sold their wares. A man was selling empanadas de camarao, a kind of pastry filled with cooked shrimps. The fact that no one with any sense would eat anything off the street, let alone shrimp pasties, did not worry me. I bought one, ate it and caught a tram back to the hospital. It took but a few minutes to cross the garden, climb back through the window, undress and get into bed before any nuns should come around. I had my lunch but then became violently sick. For two days I suffered and the doctor couldn't understand why! Finally came the day when I was discharged. The doctor told me that from now on "You will eat to live and not live to eat. You have a new stomach lining. Look after it."

Back at the office

I resumed normal routine. Then a week later arrived the Norwegian ship on which I had travelled from New York to Belém earlier in the year. The Captain told me he was throwing a cocktail party on board and I was invited. I warned him that I had only recently come out of hospital and would be unable to drink any alcohol. "Don't worry. I'll get the steward to make up up a drink of Guaraná which will look just like the rum cocktails we will be drinking.

A number of very attractive nurses from the US base were present. Drinks flowed and we all had a good time. I was drinking my Guarana. Then one of the nurses took my empty glass and was going to fill it with Rum Punch. I told her I wasn't allowed to drink alcohol but, as everyone seemed to be having such a happy time, I decided that a glass of Guaraná with a dash of Rum Punch would not affect me. It was delicious so next time round, I decided to have 1/2 Guaraná and 1/2 Rum Punch. This tasted better still. It ended up by my having several pure undiluted Rum Punches. The result was inevitable. Back to hospital.

The sin, the blush and a kiss

The same pretty nurse came to see. The first thing she said was "Last time you were here, I saw you from an upstairs window crossing the garden, opening the gate and going outside. I waited to see if and when you would return. I decided not to say anything as I knew that if I told the Mother Superior you would be in great trouble as well as with your firm so I kept quiet. But this time, none of your tricks." I kissed her. She blushed and said "You shouldn't have done that. That is a sin." I replied "Sister. You are so sweet and without you I would never have recovered. It was the power that flowed from your hand into my veins that cured me." She blushed, blessed me and wished me well.

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