Boa Vista, a remote city in northern Brazil, received considerable attention in Evelyn Waugh’s 1934 travel book Ninety-Two Days, as it was the furthest point reached on his trip from neighboring British Guiana. The city is again receiving attention as a mecca for refugees from the chaos of nearby Venezuela. According to a story in the New York Times:
The population of Boa Vista…ballooned over the past few years as some 50,000 Venezuelans resettled here. They now make up roughly 10 percent of the population. At first, residents responded with generosity, establishing soup kitchens and organizing clothes drives. By last year however, local residents in Pacaraima, the border town, and Boa Vista, the state capital, which is 130 miles from the border, felt overwhelmed. “Boa Vista was transformed,” said Mayor Teresa Surita. “This has started generating tremendous instability.”
On a recent morning, squatters who took over the Simón Bolivar plaza, one of the city’s largest, were preparing meals on small wood burning stoves. Some napped in hammocks while others stared blankly, having nowhere to go and nothing to do. The mood was grim. A stomach bug had spread through the camp, leading to bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Adding to their discomfort, neighboring residents, in an act of defiance, had burned a row of bushes near the plaza that the Venezuelans had been using to defecate.
As she watched smoke billowing across the campsite, Ana García, 56, said she could scarcely believe her new reality in Brazil. She was a homeowner who ate well and lived comfortably on a social worker’s salary in the Venezuelan city of Maturín. But as her paycheck became worthless last year because of soaring inflation, she quit her job of more than a decade, hoping to get a payout large enough to go abroad. Instead, she walked away with an amount that was so little it only enabled her to buy a small bag of rice, half a chicken and a banana. As food became increasingly scarce, Ms. García set out on a nearly 600-mile journey with her 18-year-old daughter, hitchhiking most of the way. The first night she slept in the plaza, Ms. García said, she broke down in tears before crawling under a black tarp she now shares with her daughter.
Waugh also found himself to be a refugee in Boa Vista. He arrived from the wilds of British Guiana in the hope of finding the bright lights of a big city in Boa Vista, as well as access on a river boat to the even more civilized city of Manaos further to the south. Instead he found no available boat passage and a ramshackle city lacking any vestige of charm. He describes Boa Vista in in Chapter 5 of the book, which contains some of its funniest passages. In this quoted text he recounts Boa Vista’s history:
…It was a melancholy record. The most patriotic of Brazilians can find little to say in favour of the inhabitants of Amazonas; they are mostly descended from convicts, loosed there after their term of imprisonment…They are naturally homicidal by inclination, and every man, however poor, carries arms; only the universal apathy keeps them from frequent bloodshed. There were no shootings while I was there; in fact there had not been one for several months, but I lived all the time in an atmosphere that was novel to me, where murder was always in the air…There was rarely a conviction for murder. The two most sensational trials of late both resulted in acquittals…The [second] case was the more remarkable. Two respected citizens, a Dr Zany and a Mr Homero Cruz, were sitting on a verahdah talking, when a political opponent rode up and shot Dr Zany. His plea of innocence, when brought to trial, was that the whole thing had been a mistake; he had meant to kill Mr Cruz. The judges accepted the defence and brought in a verdict of death from misadventure… (Penguin, 1983, pp. 90-91).
When a long-awaited boat operated for the local Boundary Commissioner arrived, Waugh requested passage for himself back to Manaos, but the Commissioner:
flatly refused to have me in his boat. I cannot hold it against him. Everyone in the district is a potential fugitive from justice and he knew nothing of me except my dishevelled appearance and my suspicious anxiety to get away from Boa Vista. (Idem, p. 99)
Despairing of securing passage to Manaos, Waugh painstakingly put together supplies and horseback transport for a return trip via British Guiana. According to his Diaries, Waugh was in Boa Vista for a total of 14 days (4-18 February 1933), and it was while there that he conceived of the short story that bccame “The Man Who Liked Dickens” which, in turn, became the ending of A Handful of Dust. When he wrote up the trip in Ninety-Two Days, he managed to turn what was probably an extended period of tedium and anxiety into something full of humor and even a bit of satire.