Humiliation, Perspiration, and Redemption in Rio de Janeiro

The Florida friends my mother and I visited have been married for 30 some years. They’re artists. He surfs. She writes. They’re the most spiritual people I know. They understand—in the grittiest, harshest, cruelest, deepest way—the cruciality of Christ and His components.

As I left them, I hugged her, asked her to pray that I find faith in the Lord again. I lost it awhile back.

For me, losing faith doesn’t necessarily mean that you stop believing in the existence of God. I’ve cast fishing nets into the deepest waters of my heart, and I have never dragged up the dense, poisonous, resilient creature of disbelief—despite what I have told others. No, for me, losing faith isn’t rejecting God’s existence, it’s rejecting the importance of God’s existence.

My friend said she’d pray.

Boarding the plane from Florida to Houston five days ago I didn’t have one anxious thought in my head, not one anxious feeling in my heart.

When I sat down, my space was cramped. (I like my space) I was tucked into a window seat. (I hate being tucked) I sprawl! The attendant soon announced that the cabin doors had been sealed. Soon the engine rumbled. Soon the plane was shaking, making a sound like a giant microwave, set to high for one concentrated minute: that whirring sonic radiating heat. Soon, all the dangers a woman faces in a city, in North America, in South America, in the world, began to race through my mind. “This is a one way flight,” I thought to myself. My heart was in the base of my throat—fluttering—considering a quick flight away from me and the plane.

Suddenly, I was in the air and realized there was a beautiful Indian woman sitting next to me. She laid her head down on her tray and shut her eyes. Outside the window and below, lights flickered and sparkled, some moved with the plane: tiny cars. The woman’s thick black hair spilled onto my lap when I realized it.

It: I had loved and been loved. And that was everything and the residual too. If my heart left me, if I died—I had loved and been loved. I had lived the adventure. And isn’t loving the adventure? Isn’t that why we’re ripped from the dark peace of nothingness into this world?

I woke up from that first flight with my head on Indian beauty’s shoulder. Somehow my hair had come undone as I slept.

When I boarded the second plane, the ten hour stretch to Brazil from Houston, my heart was serious about abandoning me. It was fighting its way to my lips from the back of my mouth, ready for take off.

I didn’t have a thought to match the anxiety. I felt I was going to die; I didn’t think it.

The calm, confident version of myself appeared in my mind. She cares for me, is healthy for me, hopes and roots for me, writes poetry with me, picks me out among the crowd— from the sea. She detects, files, and deletes my fears with the precision of a machine. She’s my girl.

(“you’re panicking,” said my girl. “breathe deeply and

try to relax.”

“I’m not panicking,” I said. “death doesn’t

mean shit to me. this is coming from some

place that I don’t understand.”)

In the height of this, my first panic attack, United airlines texted me. My flight was delayed for “maintenance”.

I don’t mind, I thought. (My heart on my tongue!) Maintain that bastard! Maintain it! It has to float for ten hours (shivering, quivering heart!)!

Had I loved enough? Would I see him again? Would I forgive myself if someone hurt me? Had I written enough? Had I written it all down? Would my daughters read it? Would anyone read it? Had I written it down?

“Hush,” said my girl. “Have faith in God

who smuggled you into life

who will smuggle you out of death.

Have faith in the Xanax

you smuggled

and dream yourself to Rio.”

One small white pill later, I woke up from some shimmering haze.  Everything was unfiltered turquoise, including my mood.

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The light, the windows through which the light floated, the movies playing silently on the screens of the turquoise strangers who occupied the same turquoise space in the sky as I did, my hands, the seats, my blanket: e v e r t h i n g, turquoise. I closed my eyes again–swimming through some calm turquoise ocean to my love on our little island. There he was, I reached out and he touched—”Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be landing soon in Rio de Janeiro, it’s 78 degrees and cloudy. . Please come see us again!”

My turquoise haze seemed to pixelate to normalcy and nausea set in.

The airport was this masterpiece of people. Everyone looked like they came from all over the globe and everyone was speaking Portuguese. There was a black man whizzing around on an airport cart carrying one very large person and one very old person. He was recreating the sound of a car horn with his mouth: “Beep! Beep, beep!”

Airport security personnel were rolling past me in roller skates. Men who wanted to saran wrap my baggage, people looking to flag you down a taxi, lost Americans navigating the airport to no avail, their luggage stacked on huge, rolling metal carts.

The hour of Rio had chimed.

When Moira and I first arrived at our hostel, I immediately asked the receptionist in Portuguese if he spoke English.

“Of course,” he said with a smile.

There was a skinny, but muscular black man on his laptop sitting in a seat under the front window. He looked at us and all of my bags and laughed. He said something to the receptionist in Portuguese, and the receptionist nodded his head. The black man began to speak in perfect, British English.

“Hello, I’m Richard, I’m the chef here. Tonight I’m making curried chicken for dinner. It’s very cheap and it’s going to be delicious. Let me help you with your bags.”

WILD CARD! The people in Brazil, foreigners and nationals alike, are surprising wildcards.

Richard is interesting. He’s from London, but lived in Manchester until he moved to Brazil to “take it easy.” He worked a prestigious managerial position for Manchester United’s club kitchen. He doesn’t drink liquor. He loves to cook. His mother’s name was Olivia, called Olive. He told me it wasn’t until she died that he realized her name was Olivia—it was only then that everyone said her full name, O-liv-i-a. He sleeps above me.

There’s Luciano. A 30 some old Brazilian from the country side who sleeps in the Itacoa dorm with us. His daughter, Olivia, is 7, she lives in Massachusetts with her mother. He’s friendly, insists on ordering our drinks for us, paying for us, reminding us that we can’t be left alone.

Ricardo has a daughter who’s 18. I’m not sure what her name is. He’s shorter, bald, energetic, incredibly friendly, generous, loud, and open minded. He loves to party. He showed us the finest beaches, took us out for drinks in Lapa (the party district), gave us coxhinas to try for the first time.

Leandro is 31, Argentinian. He used to be a lawyer. He left his long time girlfriend and the law awhile back to travel. According to him,  “the best country in the world” is Brazil.

Luciano speaks English to Ricardo when us girls are included in the conversation. Ricardo speaks Portuguese to both Luciano and Leandro when we’re included in the conversation and even when we’re not. Leandro speaks English to me and to Ricardo when he has exhausted his Portuguese. They all speak English well.

I’m trying to speak Portuguese to my friends, without much luck. We instantly revert to English. If not, we’d lose Moira, and I would be in a constant process of disorientation and understanding. Part of me would rather be disoriented until I’m oriented. I feel this strange sense of guilt speaking English.

We’ve been to the grocery store, to the market, to the beaches, in Ubers. Portuguese conversation happens in these places: when people are brushing past you in the aisles, when they put their hand on your shoulder while perusing the shelves to ask you your opinion of the pasta, when some adorable Brazilian child puts their hands on your shopping cart’s railing, and their mother scream at them and apologize to you in lengthy form.

A crowd always produces conversation here, and everywhere you go there’s a crowd. A man came up to me in the grocery and started talking about cheap mangoes and their ability to walk up and down the aisles. We, and forty other people were crowded around the produce section. I said: “That sounds good, seems like a good price for walking mangoes”. He smiled in confused good humor and walked away, muttering. 

Some Brazilians will smile at you upon the realization that you are not a native speaker, or a person who cannot speak Portuguese very well, like me. They will do their best to throw in English words they’ve heard over and over again in movies. They will slow their speech to accommodate you.

Others will take no notice of your inability to communicate, to understand. They speak with you like they would everyone else.

Some look annoyed, agitated, when it clicks that I’m a white tourist with a weak grip on their language. They become short with me. They say things to their friends or coworkers, and their friends or coworkers will stare at me. 

I understand very little and somehow I’ve managed to eat and get myself from A-Z in Rio. It’s an embarrassing, humiliating, exhilarating experience. I feel that heat of embarrassment and this discomfort in my shoulders, a tingling in my fingers, and I shrug it off. You can find me adjusting my shoulders if you look long enough, trying to shake off the awkwardness and discomfort I feel every day.

Some days it’s easy to do. Other days I fall asleep to the scent of flowers and sweat and wish that I was a different person, who could handle this city and its people with more grace and intelligence, with more humor and a sense of shamelessness.

We’ve made friends here who want to hang all the time. I like to hang, to listen, to laugh with them. But, really, I just want to write and walk around a garden by myself. I want to listen without being engaged, without having to do anything. This is a quality I’ve always had. Like this lone orchid I saw at the Jardim Botântico, I feel most beautiful when I’m alone and quiet, lost in my own thoughts, feeling like a photograph and a painting all at once: something real, something imagined. 

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“You know, I think it’s time to get out of bed!” Luciano says to us. I’m writing this blog. Moira is laughing at some off beat youtube video. We’re hiding from the heat, and I’m hiding from the world.

I tried Lapa night life, you know. It’s astounding. Hundreds of people on the streets, and hundreds more pouring out onto the streets every minute. Everything pulsates. There’s food, drink, singing, music, and young people everywhere. Hundreds of young, tatted, pierced Brazilians, just getting their drink on.

Leandro was so drunk he forgot his smart phone on the table of a bar where we were drinking. I scooped it and returned it to him as we left. He looked out from his drooping eyes at me, through this numb, drunken haze, and thanked me with a smile that you can use anywhere in the world to say “much appreciated”.

Alcohol and smoke makes me sick now, especially in this ungodly heat. It is HOT here. It’s in the high 90’s every day, and feels like 105. It’s humid. There’s rarely a breeze.

I take one sip of beer, or vodka mixed with coconut water in an actual coconut, and I’m whisked away on this psychedelic nausea trip that puts me on a tightrope of an Olympic balancing act between feeling good and feeling faint.

No, I’m not a fan of drinking. I don’t think I have been for quite some time. This lonely frog, etched into a tree trunk at the Jardim  brought me more satisfaction and fascination than alcohol ever has. Look at him!

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One night I was up late, writing downstairs in the hostel. I heard circus music and clapping. I climbed up and out onto the window’s ledge. There were no bars, no screen. There were five or six young people. Juggling, riding a unicycle. One girl was jumping onto moving cars, swinging from the hook line of a tow truck. She swung and jumped, landing on her feet like a cat. They were screaming, shouting, dancing carelessly to music pumping out of a boom box.

People don’t live in Rio de Janeiro. They preform in Rio de Janeiro.

Everything is a show, everything is a scene from some young, secret, unconscious playwright. That’s the culture, and there’s always a commentary. Everyone wants to be seen, no matter how ugly, fat, plain, or stunning they might be. Everyone wants to be scantily clad at the beach. Everyone wants to be stared at and admired. When I spent the day at the Jardim Botânico, even I, a person who prides herself on being unseen, felt this acute need to be photographed.

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As the days pass, I have more and more opportunities to see Rio from a car window. Sugarloaf mountain, the rampant graffiti everywhere bursting with color. Christ the Redeemer. I always see Christ the Redeemer.

On our first day here, we were traveling home from the Jardim, and this lighting storm was raging outside. The rain crashed down on the car we were in, and lightening crackled and struck around that enormous statue of Christ, as if He Himself in statue form was orchestrating the storm.

I felt I was on pilgrimage at that moment—that the only real reason I had come to this city, to Rio de Janeiro, was to see Christ. I’ve come to Mecca to circle the Kaaba, to touch it.

Have you ever felt so far from Christ, but so lucky to be within distance to see Him atop a mountain? It’s like seeing the most famous person in the world in a crowd across the street. You know him and you’ll never know him.

Part of me believes I’ll climb that mountain in the heat of the day, the sweat beads rolling down my body, soaking every square inch of my skin. Finally, I’ll reach the top, and I’ll fall to my knees.

I’ll say, “I’m sorry.”

My girl will say, “I’m sorry.”

He’ll say, “I’m the Redeemer. You are redeemed.”

I’ll touch that statue, I’ll touch His feet, and I’ll be able to speak perfect Portuguese. I’ll descend. And when I return to the city and speak with ease to everyone I see, I won’t rave about the miracles of Christ or the will of God.

I’ll say I climbed a mountain and a friend welcomed me to another world, that this sort of thing happens every day, that I was redeemed. Then, I’ll walk up the spiral steps of the hostel to my cool dark room, and rest awhile in a temporary bed.

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3 thoughts on “Humiliation, Perspiration, and Redemption in Rio de Janeiro

  1. Oh you beautiful soul. You beautiful glorious silly soul. You write and bring me deeply into your adventure, and I’m thankful for that. But I watch you from afar, and I don’t see you in that plane or that uber or that bar by yourself. I see your Companion so close, so in love with you…… much much love to you, my friend🐥🐥🐥

    Liked by 1 person

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