Working it Out

Nights here for me are for sleeping.

The days: for sweating.

I sweat because it’s hot and I sweat because nothing seems to be simple in Brazil when it comes to its institutions or when I have to fill something our or submit something as a foreigner.

I left Rio on a Monday. It was 91 degrees when I checked out of the hostel at 8:00 am. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone I’d met.

That doesn’t mean I won’t remember them forever. I will.

I wrote them down.

Moira had left two days before in the early morning. She woke me up at 6 am and hugged me. I couldn’t fall back asleep for some time.

As I left the hostel, I forgot to bring the honey and tea I’d bought back when I was battling that sinus infection. No one reminded me to grab them because no one knew I was leaving.

That’s life in a hostel. You’ll see someone everyday for a month, and one day  they’re gone. This isn’t rude or abnormal, it’s just the way it is.

I adore that.

My adoration for the hostel lifestyle quickly evaporated when I climbed into the Uber and realized that this was the first time I was alone in Brazil, traveling from one location to another without a travel buddy.

For some this would be an exhilarating experience.

For me, it was a fact—an isolating fact.

Sometimes, I’m not as fearless as I think I am, or will be. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter if I’m scared, if I’m frightened, if I  don’t live up to my expectations in imagined moments that become reality without warning.

We can act in fear, in anxiety, in despair. We can put one foot in front of the other as our heart races. Our heart races due to the fact—the bold fact—that we are alone, and nobody is going to hold our hand or support us, no matter what pickle or deep depression we find ourselves in.

We create another Entity—maybe it’s God, maybe it’s us. And with the support of that Entity, we drag ourselves to the airport or to work each morning or to the classroom or to the court room or to the jail cell or to the hospital room.

We do it alone with the Entity, because it’s no one else’s responsibility.

If strangers or friends or family—if people—can help us: that’s a blessing.

If they can’t or won’t: that’s life.

I remember dragging my suitcases—all three of them—through the airport.

I carry too much weight.

When you carry too much weight through life, life usually penalizes you with patterns of abuse or self loathing or loneliness or the destruction of your most cherished relationships—a personal pattern of mine.

When you carry too much weight during a domestic flight in Brazil, Brazil charges excess baggage fees—annoying, yes, but slightly more kind than life.

My airline dictated that I pay 1/2 of the current day’s ticket fare to São Paulo for every excess kilo.

So, for example, if someone is 2 kilos over, they pay the price of another entire plane ticket as it is priced for that day. Say someone originally paid 80 reais two months earlier for their ticket. If they are 4 kilos over, they must purchase the equivalent of two more plane tickets at 105 reais, that day’s ticket fare, to board the plane with their luggage.

That’s just an example, but you get the idea.

It adds up.

I was 23 kilos over the limit that Monday.

The ticket price to São Paulo that day was well over 50 reais more than what I had originally paid.

I remember thinking that I would pay over 800 reais in baggage fees, or 250 American dollars.

Fulbright scholars don’t exactly roll around in cash, dear reader. We often have to scrounge and scrape like everyone else, despite what other people might tell you. Moving to a different country and getting paid once every three months is not what one would describe as financially liberating. Don’t get it twisted, the grant is healthy and the Fulbright Organization takes care of its people, but it does not offer its scholars a lavish lifestyle. Some scholars might achieve that with funds they’ve previously accumulated prior to their grant, and other scholars come from wealth. However, the majority of us are not blessed in these ways.

I digress.

The airline employee told me I was in excess, wrote something in chicken scratch on a piece of paper, handed it to me, and pointed to what could have been any one of several different women across the room at a counter. The employee, a young woman with soft pink lipstick, a blue and white fitted dress, and a set of wing’s with my airline’s name pinned to her breast pocket spoke a series of sentences.

The only sentence I could discern: “Pay that woman over there.”

I walked over to the women, and showed them the paper.

“I’m in excess,” I said sheepishly.

One of the women nodded and walked behind the counter and took my slip. She looked at me and then at the paper, and then at me again.

“You’re an American,” she said in Portuguese.

“I am,” I said.

“Your president—he’s nuts! Did you vote for him?”

“He is. I did not,” I said and put my hands up in the air in fine Ricky Bobby fashion. “I don’t know what to do about him, but four years can’t be too long. . .”

I could sense that she was interpreting me as cute, innocent, possibly endearing—maybe even squeezable. Her eyes sort of lit up the way stars do when the sun has just set, sort of a faint glow in the background of the fading brightness, almost undetectable.

“I see that you are 6 kilos in excess. 140 reais, please.”

She winked.

I handed her the money in sheer, silky surprise. She had deducted 17 kilos from the bill and acted as if she hadn’t.

She’d saved me too much money.

I thanked her and quickly left, even though she had said several things to me that I didn’t understand. I was so touched by her kindness that it sent me buzzing  upstairs to security.

Once I got there, a security guard asked me for my boarding pass. I pulled out my phone, he scanned it, and a red light flashed.

He shook his head: “No, that isn’t it.”

. . .Road block.

I told him this was the only pass I had and asked him if he spoke English. He shrugged in an apologetic way: no. I was holding up the line, and people began to pass me—then they started to flood past me. I tried to speak with the guard in Portuguese, but he couldn’t understand me. The people passing by created a larger and larger space between me and the guard.

Then some beautiful middle aged Brazilian man came up to me: just some random guy, his hair salt and pepper, his eyes green.

“I will translate,” he said in English.

He bridged the gap the crowd had created between me and the guard, and suddenly they were speaking together rapidly. The man turned to me.

“You have to go downstairs and get a new boarding pass, your seat has been given away. You have to get a new one. Then come up here again. No problems. Have a nice trip!”

And he was gone with the crowd.

I felt like crying. Nothing was working and everyone was helping me.

I went back downstairs, showed several women my phone and my slips and my passport. They redirected me to the woman with the pink lipstick who originally told me I was in excess. She smiled and began issuing me a new pass.

“You finally returned!”

When you’re in excess here in Brazil, you are told so by one person, you pay another, and then you return to the person who sent you away to pay and they give you a new boarding pass.

“Would you mind taking an earlier flight?” she said to me as she handed me the new pass.

I looked down at the slip, I had been reassigned to another plane that was boarding then, right then!

“What I mean is, you have to take an earlier flight,”she added nonchalantly. “Your bags are too heavy to go on the original flight. I cancelled your original seat while you were paying the excess fees.”

“I’m back!” I said to the guard breathlessly. “I have it now! It works! I gotta go!”

He smiled and scanned the pass slowly. The green light flashed.

I didn’t take my shoes off at security. I didn’t remove my laptop from my backpack or the taser I carry from my purse, no one asked me to.

I got on that early plane to São Paulo with an enormous blanket, 13 shirts on my torso, thick yoga pants and 4 other pairs of jeans tied to my waist. Carrying these items didn’t do much to reduce the excess weight, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. I don’t know why I thought carrying all those extras clothes all the way to the airport would help.

6 kilos in excess was all I was going to pay when it came down to it. The entire affair was out of my control and in my favor.

The plane took off and I received a tiny coffee, a large ham sandwich, and a cup of water for free. I was excited, agitated, nervous. I was hot, sweating. I watched the rest of Fargo, I had started the movie the night before Moira left because I was sad and dark movies and the mid-west comfort me oddly enough.

I felt almost normal, almost cool, as the credits floated up the screen and out of sight.

I spent two hours racing around that airport with an obscene amount of clothing sweat-stuck to my body—sweating, SWEATING—centimeters (because we are in Brasil) away from tears.

I was in the air for a total of 37 minutes.


When I shut my laptop as the plane landed, I realized that my grant had finally begun. I was going to meet all the other English teachers. I was going to stay at one of the finest hotels in Brazil, the Pestana: the location of the 2017 Fulbright ETA/researcher orientation.

When I walked through the doors it was hot.

You see, air conditioning is very uncommon in Brazil. Melting is much more common. Banks, some hospitals, maybe the suites in a few swanky hotels with a view have air conditioning.

I would later spend 3 hours in the air conditioned bathroom of my hotel room: showering with hot water, shaving all of the hair off my body, moisturizing, painting my nails, putting tooth paste on all of my pimples, leisurely pooping—you know, the things girls do in private that I couldn’t do in a hostel in a co-ed bathroom with 3 toilets and 3 showers shared by 14 people over the course of 20 days.

I arrived at the Pestana around noon. They wouldn’t offer any of us teachers a room until 2 pm.

I saw my co-teacher sprawled across the lobby couch. I recognized her from her Facebook photos. In person she looked even more beautiful and quite exhausted. Her airline had lost all of her checked luggage in México.

We went for a light meal: salad and passion fruit juice.

São Paulo is much cooler than Rio, and so we sat outside, speaking in English. I learned quickly that my co is a professional teacher, a proud Mexican-American, and very sassy. I remember going to the bathroom after the meal and sighing with relief as I washed my face. I had wanted a partner I could respect and look up to, and I had gotten that. It didn’t hurt that she was sarcastic and blunt—I had no fear of offending her.

She’s strong.


The group of scholars who won the Fulbright grant this year is diverse: latinos, white Americans, black Americans, Indian Americans, people aged 21-35, researchers, people that speak little to zero Portuguese, people that speak perfect Portuguese, gay people, straight people, single people, people in long distance relationships, newly engaged people, married couples, people from the west coast, people from the east coast, muslims, christians, atheists, people from the mid-west, several people who reside in Kentucky, people from Idaho!

We were all there with the same title: Fulbright scholar.

Many of the people made me laugh out loud. Some people made me think hard and differently about the current political situation in the United States, about our self-segregation. I built up huge crushes on certain guys in a matter of days. I sat in meetings from 8 am to 5 pm for three days in a row. I dressed my best and was constantly complimented. My peers and colleagues hugged me as if they already knew me, and, during those brief hugs, I forgot I was a foreigner.

But we were all foreigners all the time, and we had to sit through a security briefing designed for foreigners. A female security agent from the State Department spoke with us about general safety in South America.

She communicated that Brazil is rated “Critical” in regards to crime.

“Critical” is the most acute type of crime a country can have.

Think of it this way: “Critical” is the most severe assessment the United States can give another country when our government officials/personalle travel through it.

Murder and other types of violence are relatively rampant, but, mostly, “crimes of opportunity” make Brazil a critical country: some guy stealing your purse, some 11 year old pick pocket, a nameless, faceless credit card thief: these people are a dime a dozen in Brazil, just as they are everywhere else.

“Don’t tell anyone anything they don’t need to know,” the agent said. “Give them whatever they want because they’ll hurt you, even if they don’t necessarily want to hurt you,” she said with a grave tone.”Don’t fight back; don’t refuse them what they ask,” she said. “That’s how you get shot.”

I wiped some sweat off my forehead as she said this, and turned to another Fulbright I had met up with in Rio the week before. My eyes were wide in genuine fear, and she was making a theatrical face, her eyes big, her hand placed above her brow, shielding her eyes from the agent.

I tried to suppress my laughter.

I made friends at the orientation, you know. That’s not common either. You don’t just make friends that you actually like and miss in such a small space of time. They were American, which may be why I was able to get to know them, call them friends. Or maybe it’s because we’re Fulbrights, or foreigners. . .I’m not sure.

Interestingly enough, I wasn’t approached by any Brazilian women in Rio or in São Paulo, at least not in person. I was approached by many American women at the orientation.

As I left the Pestana, I hoped I would make female Brazilian friends in my host city.

I hoped for that very much.


When my co and I arrived in Viçosa, a small city in the state of Minas Gerais, I was greeted by a driver and a student from the university I’ll be teaching in.

The student was tan, tall, skinny, with dark angular features and a big smile. He was talkative, friendly, informative, inquisitive,  very pretty brown eyes. His English was impressive.

I liked him immediately.

During the four hour car ride, I shared with him some of my more devious behaviors—like my tendency to take things from hotels. . .

He laughed.

“You’re one of my crew,” he said and wagged his finger at me.

I remember talking softly to him as my co slept in the car.

He interrupted me.

“I like the tone of your voice,” he said. “It brings peace.”

He speaks to me frequently in Portuguese now, and I don’t understand much of what he says. But I love that he says it to me in Portuguese, as if he assumes that one day I’ll understand.

He took me up to my apartment in downtown Viçosa, centro, for the first time. He is very close to my roommate. When I got to the apartment, she hugged me. She had baked mini pizzas for me (friggin delicious). She’s very pretty: big dark eyes, milky skin, long light brown hair. She has a sly sense of humor. She’s sweet and soft, but she’ll call you out subtly among a large group for something you forgot you mentioned to her, like snatching towels and a pillow from a hotel.

She took me to buy an oscillating fan (a necessity); she took me to the grocery store. She tells me everything I need to know. She invites me everywhere.

She includes me, and she doesn’t yet know me.

That’s how Brazilians are: they scoop you up and carry you everywhere you need to go and give you the love that a normal US citizen takes years and years to create within an inter-american friendship.

Brazilians are also quite hilarious. They like to laugh. They like to elevate the pitch of their voice when something cute or beautiful appears. They like to lean on one another at parties, nuzzle each other, twirl each other’s hair around their finger.

They love to eat.

My host professor took my co and I to lunch the day after we arrived. She was generous, funny, down to earth. Mind you this woman is one of the most famous scholars in Brazil. She is famosíssima in the academic world here. She has been the first to study an array of topics regarding teachers and their beliefs and emotions.

Another teacher from the university joined us. She was hilarious too. My host prof gave her a gift at the table, a little Frida Kahlo pillow. I realized then that they were super amigas, very good friends. Gift giving is very important in this culture, as is friendship.

We went to the other professor’s sister’s house. A big, beautiful house in Viçosa. White walls, semi oval shaped windows with stained glass, black and white art from the northeast on the walls. There was a jabuticaba tree in her backyard.

I remember looking at the tree, looking down at its roots, and looking up again to see both of my middle aged professors nearly at the top of the tree in a matter of seconds, picking the fruit.

Brazilians are quick and the fruit is delicious.

Later that night I got violently ill in my immaculate bathroom. I was nauseous for hours, and then, quite suddenly, I vomited all of my lunch and all of the fruit and immediately felt better.

Not every day can be perfect.

Sometimes a little vom balances things out.


I have violent nightmares each night.

I’m on another planet and its denizens want to eat me or steal all of my reais—a fully developed but abnormally small child clings to my body, choking me, it won’t let go—I see my love in the Shire happy with another woman who is less judgmental and sweeter, more natural around the young and the old—I’m running from a tall blue Gumbi like monster in a grocery store without an exit, all the signs in Portuguese.

I wake up in a sleep sweat.

I calm myself down and swim out to the sea of sleep again.

I wake up and it’s hot again.


The last few days here have been filled bureaucracy. Christina and I have to register with the Federal Police.That’s a bureaucratic bull ring, by God. There’s a ton of dodging and flapping a red cape and standing still for hours to achieve something quite senseless, like the death of the bull.

Imagine the back and forth at the airport and multiply that by 15 as you dub over everyone’s speech with rapid fire Portuguese.

If our roommates and professors didn’t help us with these processes, we would be lost.

I repeat: LOST.

There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, no one in Viçosa speaks English in public unless they are are a student of languages who happens to physically be with me or my co. Even then, it’s not exactly good fortune to find an English speaker, or to hear it off-campus.

When English is spoken in public, it’s excruciating.

Everyone stares as if I’m an alien, because I am.

I have never felt uncomfortable speaking my native language until now.

Today, in 2017, it is very important to remember that millions of people in the USA feel scared and targeted and freakish when they speak their native tongue.

It would be nice if our would accepted whatever language someone chooses to speak, or the only language someone can speak, as normal.

Still, the days and nights pass here despite the language barrier.

I’m meeting new female Brazilians every day that are so kind, and so loving, and so willing to dance and joke and offer me a glass of water and a bed whenever I need it.

It’s astonishing to say that I am not homesick.

I miss certain aspects of the States, sure.

The expensive ease of customer service, the cold, my ex who adores the cold and who always inhaled sharply, dramatically when the frozen popsicles I call my feet touched his, my family, my friends.

It’s crazy to think that I do not long for my bed.

I have a bed here. It’s very comfortable. The whirring fan next to it lulls me to sleep.

I do not long for the trees of New Hampshire or south Jersey. At least not yet.

The trees on my university’s campus are numerous and perfectly aligned.

The people are happy here, and they work hard to accommodate me when they don’t have to. The students arrive next month, after Carnaval, and I’ll finally start teaching.

I need that start. I need to work. I need to feel like I’m making this work, like I’m helping someone else, because maybe then I won’t feel so helpless.

I was very successful in the United States for a person of my age and means, and that’s both easy and hard to achieve. The United States of America is a country where, generally, everything works and no one helps you.

But here, in Brazil, in this tropical country filled with the scariest, funniest, most diverse, most hopeful, most hospitable people I have encountered in my 23 years of life, nothing works and everyone helps.

Today, during the three hours it took to pay one bill for the federal police, one of my new Brazilian girlfriends said something in good natured exasperation:

“Welcome to Brazil, ladies, where nothing works when you need it to.”

But Brazil is working for me, and, soon, I’ll be overwhelmingly proud to work for Brazil.

 

 

Christ the Redeemer and the Party Scene in Paradise

I saw Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

I saw Him from car windows, while walking around lagoons, in crowds, at night while waiting for Ubers to scoop me up and take me home.

He was always above me, looking down on me, on Rio—protecting us, protecting me, protecting Moira.

I thought that when I finally went to the monument on Corcovado mountain, I would have some profound experience, some larger than life vision: angels climbing up and down some golden ladder, me climbing up and down the ladder, angels wrestling  me for hours and hours on the ladder to see how badly I actually wanted to bridge the gap—how badly I actually wanted the blessing—my hip dislocated, my prayers answered.

When we visited the statue, everyone there treated Him like a tourist attraction. Selfies with arms outstretched—Him, still in the background.

There were black mats nailed to the concrete ground for the purpose of lying down and taking pictures of Christ.

Many people were taking pictures of the view of Rio from the mountain, including me.

He hadn’t seemed like a tourist attraction from below, from the ground. Looking up at Him, He seemed like something I could worship—not something I would see months later in the background of my selfie.

But I lied down; I took the pictures.

I was puzzled. Wasn’t this supposed to be like Mecca?

Was it less than I had imagined because I wasn’t religious? Was it because I was silly? Was it less because my imagination has always been more?

It was cool up there on the mountain: misty, cloudy. It was the first time I had felt cool outside in Rio de Janeiro. The clouds obscured the monument. When I glimpsed Him between all that white mist, He looked serious, concentrated—His mouth turned slightly downward in dissatisfaction.

Sad. Christ had always been hard to see, easy to miss—even though Homeboy is huge, and even though He has always been a monument in my life.

I constantly overlooked him. I still overlook him.

At that moment, that moment of seeing His dissatisfaction, and feeling my own acute dissatisfaction, I realized I wasn’t going to have much of a reaction at Corcovado mountain on January 31st, 2017: my 23rd birthday.

Eventually, I wandered into the small chapel inside of the statue. It was nothing special, probably the way Christ would have liked it. On the left side of the room, there was a small painting of Him on the cross. There were two sets of three rows of four velvet upholstered stools on either side of the room. There was an oscillating fan whirring in the space between the two sections.

I watched a young girl kneel before one of the stools, she put her elbows on the velvet and prayed. Another middle aged woman was crying. Adult men were walking in, dipping their fingers in the deep basins attached to the wall, making the sign of the cross on their bodies—their heads bowed in silence.

I bypassed the basins and stepped inside.

I closed my eyes.

I saw in a succession of three quick flashes—like an old black and white movie skipping from scene to scene on a projector—myself in a bed with white sheets in a room in a state I knew to be Washington, the outline of a small child in the doorway, the smell of coffee, a man’s voice far, far away.

Then: blackness.

Then: a thin cross.

I opened my eyes.

Bed—child in the doorway/smell of coffee/man’s voice—blackness/thin cross.

Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was my vision.

I shrugged, and we left the monument to eat something delicious in celebration of my birthday.

“I’m moving to Washington state when I get back to the US,” I told Moira in the tram on the way down the mountain. “Christ told me.”

“Nice,” she said with an understanding smile. “Nice.”

▽▽▽

We went to Paradise a few days later: Arraial do Cabo. A friend of ours, Ricardo from São Paulo—we met him in the hostel in Rio—invited us there. He insisted it was the most beautiful place he had ever been. He’d lived there for a month.

“It’s safe, it’s clean, it has the most beautiful beaches you will ever see,” he said in English, his Brazilianaccent strong.

It’s about three hours away from the city of Rio by bus. We were to meet Ricardo at the bus station in Arraial and lodge in a hostel of his recommendation for two nights, even though we had already paid to stay in our Rio hostel for that time frame. In addition to the hostel fees, we’d pay fees for a night-boat party and a 7 hour day-boat trip up and down the coast, plus transportation and food.

I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to spend the money. I didn’t want to be in the sun. I didn’t want to party. I didn’t want to be a tourist—to be on vacation any longer.  But, my travel partner, my best friend, wanted to go, and badly. How could I deny her the trip when I’d be here in Brazil for far longer than her?

Easily.

About a week into Rio I began feeling very anxious. I hated having to go and see things in the heat, having to interact in the heat. Every day a brick language barrier flew up before me, miles high. Eating was a struggle. Moving around was a struggle.

 All the sweat—the showers I had to take 3 times a day just to feel clean. I just wanted to lie in an air conditioned room, read books, write, watch movies.

Usually I like to run 5-6 miles a day. But in this heat, forget it.

F*&#ing forget it.

I got a migraine and a silent, prissy attitude when I tried to run in Rio last week.

But denying Moira wasn’t so easy in the end.

I love my friend.

She’s a great friend. She doesn’t have one judgmental cell in her body.

I remember at Pedra do Sal, Moira and I were speaking in English, and a young black guy with dreads down his back suddenly appeared before us and said in an aggressive, serious way:

“No, não. Yes, sim. When you are in Brasil, speak Portuguese,” he said, shaking his long black finger at us gravely before disappearing back into the crowd. He looked angry.

I thought he was xenophobic, rude, hateful.

Moira suggested something else: “Maybe he was warning us. Maybe he thought we would be safer if we didn’t speak English, didn’t make ourselves targets. Maybe he was looking out for us. I thought he seemed concerned—it’s dangerous here.”

I thought that going to Arraial to meet a man we had known for a week in Brazil was dangerous.

But, the physical location and the hostel were legitimate.

“It’ll be amazing!” Moira urged.

And so, we went to Arraial.

The town itself was small, calm. It reminded me of my home beach town in Jersey: crowded in the summer, silent in the winter, summer rentals everywhere, trees on the sidewalks bending in toward the streets, creating shade. Arraial is a peaceful shore town, just like any other. There are tons of young people, tons of families.

When we arrived at the A Coroa Hostel in Arraial, it was impressive.

Beautiful decorations.

FullSizeRender 12.jpg

FullSizeRender 13.jpg

It was also spacious. It had three levels, with hammocks on each. Their breakfast actually included ham AND cheese, in addition to bread—that’s living large, people.

The hostel was run by a group of Argentinians. Spanish was the main language of the owners and the guests.

Tell you what, reader, I am RUSTY with the Español.

You’d think after taking it for 12 years, studying it in college, and living in Mexico for a month, I’d have a handle on it.

The truth is, I’ve let it go. I can understand it very well, but I respond in Portuguese.

I’ll have to live in a Spanish speaking country for awhile to remedy that. . .

Our first afternoon at A Coroa, we went for a ten minute walk to a beautiful beach with transparent water. No trash. Not heavily crowded. Rather than the several different peddlers you’d normally see every two minutes or so at Ipanema/Copacabana beach in Rio, you saw one woman dressed as a bumble bee selling water every half hour.

There was also the Argentinian empanada woman that day on the beach. She had a small baby at home. Her husband stayed with the child all day. She cooked hundreds of empanadas each morning, and sold them all on foot in the streets and on the beaches by the time noon rolled around. She would replenish her stock before 5 pm. She visited A Coroa regularly around 7 pm to sell the remainder.

I never swam in the water at that particular beach.

Ricardo went for a dip and came back, his eyes wide.

“Be very careful, there’s a LOT of  água-viva—I don’t know how you say in English,” he said and paused. “AH! Jellyfish! Watch out for them. Take care.”

FullSizeRender 15.jpg

I laughed.

F*&k that. I’ll wait to swim during tonight’s boat party, I thought.

▽▽▽

Let me give you a scenario completely fabricated by yours truly, with no real basis in reality, that will give you a good idea of the difference between American drinkers and Brazilian drinkers. Imagine American Kanye West: drunk, off his Lexapro, high on several different substances. What does Kanye do? Well, he probably cancels his tour in the middle of a performance.

Now, the Brazilian version of Kanye West: drunk, off his Lexapro, high on several different substances, not only finishes his tour successfully and with grace, but he extends it for free and performs day and night without pause.

Brazilian Kanye doesn’t cancel the party, he prolongs the party.

Brazilians don’t stop and they don’t slop.

It’s a neverending festa.

The boat party was P o p p i n with a capital P—before the boat ever even left the dock.

When we came upon the boat, the bass from the speakers was vibrating throughout the marina, and young shirtless men were loading huge styrofoam trunks of ice, crates of beer, and bottles of liquor onto the boat.

They were helping young beautiful Brazilian and Argentinian women onto the boat.

These women were tan, thin, petite, their hair long, their smiles wide, their flat stomachs and toned thighs almost completely exposed. In Brazil, women of all shapes and sizes are content with their bodies. They showcase everything because everyone and everything is beautiful.

And then I was on the boat, the stars were stretched out above me, the sun had been asleep for hours. I was drunk. I remember being on the roof of the boat, looking up at the sky, my head tilted back. I was laughing.

The music was loud and American. EDM. We were tucked into some lagoon, hidden—out of sight. I could smell liquor, hear shouts, splashes, laughter. I could smell marijuana.

I was too happy to be in Brazil, celebrating life this way.

The Argentinian women had come around, throwing glitter on everything and everyone, including me, including Ricardo.

IMG_1962.JPG

FullSizeRender 16.jpg

I was so happy that I didn’t even mind the pitch black bathroom below, overflowing with piss—salt water and urine sloshing around on the floor, sliding out from underneath the lower cabin door.

There was a water slide on the boat, for slipping into the sea. I advised Moira to pee in the sea after a trip down the slide. She wouldn’t need toilet paper—something the bathroom didn’t have anyway.

You know, I was a little disappointed with the boat’s owner. He was wearing a speedo and indulged in far too much alcohol for someone responsible for steering the boat back to the marina. He kept trying to thrust—literally thrust—himself onto Moira.

He had a dark head of hair, his body was tan and smooth and completely hairless. Rather than a bulge in the middle of his speedo, he sported a small fold. His quads and biceps were too large for the rest of his body. . .

“Save her!” my Chilean and Argentinian friends kept saying to me.

Moira was having trouble detaching herself from his grip.

I intercepted him. “Hey, she has a boyfriend,” I said to the captain in Portuguese, my hand on his wrist.

This line almost always works in the US, because men often respect the idea of a man more than a physical woman by herself.

“So?” he said. “I have a girlfriend.” He tried attaching his mouth to hers.

Moira clearly was not feeling this guy. Her body language, her face—she was totally repulsed.

“Listen,” I said sternly. “She’s not interested. You’re scaring her.” I shook my pointer finger at him.

He backed off.

But, he tried again and again several times later that night.

None of the male friends we made on the boat would help.

“Good thing you stepped in!” a young Brazilian woman said.

“She has to do it herself,” one of the Chilean boys said to me. “We can’t say anything to him. He owns the boat and he’s drunk.”

“He’s also Brazilian!” an Argentinian boy chimed.

Social codes. 

I met a petite blonde Argentinian girl as the night ended. She asked me immediately what my sexual orientation was.

“Are you heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbiana?” she asked with deliberation, her Spanish quick and curt. “I must know!”

“Hmpf, bisexual,” I said in a Portuguese accent.

Her smile was mischievous.

Now, some facts: I have only ever been severely attracted to men; I have only been with men; I have only consciously fantasized about men.

But, I was drunk in Brazilian paradise.

To whom would I have to answer? To whom would I have to prove my sexuality? Who would I have to defend myself against?

Gay men and women know the answer to that question more than I ever will.

I can’t deny that I’m curious to know what it’s like to love a woman.

That small Argentinian put her arm around my waist as the boat docked.

I took down her number and mentioned my interaction with her on the boat to Moira in front of Ricardo.

“I knew it!” he said. He shook his finger at me, grinning: “I have a, how you say, gaydar!”

Moira and I looked at each other and laughed out loud.

I didn’t correct him. What did I care if someone thought I was gay or straight? What shame was their in wanting one anatomy over the other?

For all of you out there attracted to men, women in Brazil—no matter what country they come from in the world—are the most gorgeous I have ever seen. The physical appearance of these women alone is a spectacular, air tight argument for lesbianism!

But, alas, it’s the Adam’s apple, the angle of the shoulders, and the larger, stronger hands of men that make my tongue go numb momentarily. . .that make my stomach flutter after a look or between whispers.

My numb tongue, that flutter in my stomach: it’s a malady I can’t cure.

I wouldn’t want to.

▽▽▽

FullSizeRender 11.jpg

The next day, our last in Arraial, we went cruising down the coast. I could go on and on about the trip: the natural beauty, the huge água-viva of the deep, the muscles we bought from a sea farm and grilled on the boat—we drenched them in lime juice before devouring them, the dancing, the snorkeling, the blue and muddy colored fish I observed through the goggles below me in the sea, the calm I felt when I heard my own breathing through that tube, the crackling and popping of the tiny shrimp and sea life I couldn’t see in the coral beneath the boat, the three men that jumped from such heights into cool, jelly fish infested water, the feeling of being on the bow of the boat as we careened up and down the backside of huge rolling waves.

No, I won’t go on and on.

I’ll just mention briefly the little white house on the northern cliffs that faced the sea, its sweet silent seclusion.

IMG_2048.JPG

I’ll mention the lonely light house on the southern cliffs.

FullSizeRender 14.jpg

I’ll mention the sea cave I couldn’t photograph. I jumped off the boat in the middle of a tumultuous ocean to swim there.

For a moment, as I was swimming to the cave, I rolled over on my back. I let the sea carry me. I looked beyond the boat to the eastern island. Clouds and thick mist rolled over the peaks of the hills. The sky was gray.

I have never felt more exhilarated to be alive in my life.

The sea cave was dark. The air wasn’t dank, but fresh. Chico, another passenger on the trip, was hiding in the dark, pretending to be some unseen sea monster. His low growl was hysterical. He looked like Fabio.

The Brazilians brave enough to jump in and visit the sea cave were freezing: their lips purple—their limbs shaking—as we swam back to the boat.

“I HAVE NEVER BEEN MORE COLD IN MY LIFE,” a young woman said between chattering teeth as she climbed aboard.

The water couldn’t have been colder than 65 degrees.

But Moira and I were fine. We’re North Americans. The water was refreshing. I looked out over the hills as the sun set into a purple sea.

My travel buddy had been right, it was amazing.

▽▽▽

I write all of this in bed at my Rio hostel.

I’ve been sick since day 4 here in Brazil.

It’s now day 14.

First, the sickness came in the form of some nasty sinus infection, the kind that produces a thick-stinging-bright-green-blood streaked mucus in the back of your throat that you must force out or swallow.

Then it came in the form of fatigue.

Then it came in the form of diarrhea—loss of appetite quickly followed.

Then, today: a fever.

None of these symptoms have left me yet. They linger! LINGER.

Last night I face-timed my mother.

“Olivia, you don’t look good!” she said. “You need to rest!”

For some reason, I couldn’t stop laughing. 

Travel is not paradise. Neither is Brazil. It’s a beautiful country, but it’s not paradise. I’m not living abroad effortlessly.

I get sick and tired and annoyed abroad.

I have to budget abroad.

I had to exhaust the supply of cliff bars and fruit snacks that my mother bought me in the States before I even thought of spending money at the grocery store to obtain the five food groups.

It’s not always some fantastical journey of self discovery and fun when you travel in South America. It’s not perfect. Sometimes you don’t see God as easily as you thought you would.

Sometimes it’s not spiritual.

Sometimes it’s just spirits.

It’s hot and dangerous and uncomfortable at the same time that it’s exhilarating: the mist over the hills, the blue fish under the sea, the fever, the expensive Brazilian Tylenol, the sunburn, the homesickness, the yearning for your old love, the excitement of being alive in another country.

There’s no running away from your problems, dear reader.

There’s no paradise on Earth.

There’s just the sea and a few visions of a future that could be destined or imagined.

Or both.

▽▽▽

Unbeautiful Abroad: Carioca Men and the Samba Blossom

There’s a social phenomenon here in Rio that occurs every Monday: Roda de Samba da Pedra do Sal. Roda means ring, or circle. Pedra do Sal translates to Rock Salt.

The samba ring is located in the rock salt, a concentrated area of two or three blocks in what is known here in Rio as “Little Africa”. This meeting place is very near to a sea port and the square of Centro’s Saúde neighborhood.

Pedra do Sal used to be a slave market in Brazil’s early days.

“It’s a little embarrassing to admit,” said our Uber driver on the way there.

“It’s okay,” I said. “There were many, many slave markets in the United States—we’re embarrassed too.”

Pedra do Sal grew into a communal space for the oppressed African population, freed and escaped slaves alike. Certain Africans came together and infused their specific native African music with everyone else’s specific native African music. They did this in a new world and, thereby, created a new music, authentically Brazilian.

They created samba.

“It’s good that you’re going there, it is our history. You should see it. I have been there many times,” the driver said thoughtfully.

He looked at me through the rearview mirror as he spoke.

I’d like to say the size of the crowd was surprising when we arrived. It wasn’t. The south zone of Rio, where I’ve been living, is crowded, always. It’s like a packed outdoor concert everywhere you go.

When you imagine me here, imagine me in the context of a large crowd, weeding through people, laughing and sweating.

Some context: I speak Portuguese conversationally and logistically. What I mean by that is this: I can converse pretty profoundly with a Portuguese speaker. I can share my thoughts and dreams and beliefs. I can even make jokes. I can ask questions and understand, for the most part, someone else’s thoughts and dreams and beliefs. But this communication has to be one on one, face to face, without distraction or white noise. That’s conversational. I can ask for directions, opinions, for advice. Again, one on one, face to face. That’s logistic. Emergency Portuguese, as I like to call it.

But, in truth, much of the context of what people are saying is lost, and when people speak quickly or with slang, I smile and continue walking. When people talk amongst themselves, I’m lost. When people deny me items at the grocery store or the pharmacy, I don’t understand their explanations.

Still, between me and Moira, I speak the most Portuguese. This means that I order the food. I ask the questions. I make the phone-calls. I translate. I lead the way.

This is incredibly exhausting for a closet introvert like myself. I wonder how people like me do this sort of travel without a support system directly behind them. How do they remain calm without physical support?

Don’t misunderstand me. I could do all of this alone. I’m confident in that. But, how sweet to turn to a friend when something funny, or scary, or strange happens—to murmur something in English and be understood! How sweet to be able to rest on the comfort a friend from home inherently offers you.

I turned to Moira and smiled. We were there, experiencing samba in the same space in which it was created! The smell of fried food and beer was fierce. Laughter, shouts, and songs were floating above the mass of people.

Bom, boom, bom, bom, boom, bom. BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM, BOOM, BOM, BOM. 

The drums seemed to be everywhere, but I couldn’t see a single instrument.

“Whaddya want?” I said to Moira.

She looked around, thought for a moment. “Heineken!”

We bought some beers and continued onward. There was a huge circus type tent with blue and white stripes over the area where the samba players gathered and played old African rhythms infused with the sounds of modern Brazilian life in 2017.

The area was set up like a makeshift arena. There were flat smooth rocks that created an inclination, and wide flat stone steps that ran alongside the large flat stones—up and away to darkness. Everything came down to the center of the space, a ring where the people were most concentrated, where the sound of samba blossomed.

People stood and stepped and sat on the stones. They were lined up against the wall the steps ran along, backs flat against its uneven surface.  I remember thinking that I needed to have my back against that wall to feel normal in this crowd.

I like to watch others, to observe others, to converse with myself. I saw an open space on the steps and I led Moira there. We settled and waited.

There was a woman selling magic brownies next to us. People filed past us up the steps.

“Don’t worry,” I told her before we left the hostel for Pedra do Sal. “We’ll meet loads of  people tonight.”

But there was no way we could have possibly acquainted ourselves with all of those people!

People selling beers, people selling salty barbecue, people dancing—pouring out onto the streets in uniform dance—the bass strong. Young brown men and women were carrying huge shallow wooden trays of chewing gum, a thick leather strap fastened around their necks. They were resting the back of the tray on their solar plexus. They draped their hands over the front edges of the tray. They were shouting out their products’ names mindlessly. They were walking up and down the stone steps, their heads somewhere else as they attempted to sell small white squares to freshen the breath of an enormous group of people, multicolored, here at Pedra do Sal.

Moira and I dressed for this occasion. We heard it was a sight to see. We both looked beautiful.

Early in the night, a middle aged black man found his way next to me. We talked, he soon realized I was a foreigner. We talked a bit about my country; we talked a bit about Brazil. He spoke to Moira for a few minutes. Soon he became flirtatious with me, and I became cold. In no time, a group of younger Brazilian boys began congregating next to Moira. I made social moves to freeze out the older man.

One of the young men began speaking to Moira. He had grayish blue eyes, the edges of his facial hair, closest to his under lip, along with his eyebrows, were stained blonde from the sun. He was handsome. I could tell he knew he was handsome.

Moira looked at me and laughed with surprise, discomfort, exhilaration.

“She doesn’t speak Portuguese,” I said in a friendly way.

“Oh,” he said. “What does she speak?”

“Ingles,” I said.

He looked very pleased. He smiled at her in a sentimental way, as if he knew her well.

“I speak English,” he said with a sly grin. He had his elbow on the wall next to her. He was leaning on it, and into her personal space.

I continued to look out at the crowd as my friend made a new friend. I was included in their conversation, in a polite mandatory way. None of the men in that particular group had any real interest in me as a potential date for the night, and so no real interest in me at all. They didn’t speak to me very much.

The boys talked amongst themselves off and on, laughing, speaking Portuguese closely together. They were eyeing Moira.

I made eye contact with one of them, and held the gaze. I was asking him what exactly they were talking about with my gaze.

“We are talking about your friend,” he said. “We are talking about how beautiful she is,” he explained. “—You are beautiful too,” he added politely.

This is normal in Rio, my being overlooked.

I’m not offended.

I’m not ugly here; I’m just unbeautiful.

This is also generally true in the United States. I’m not your signature “hot girl.” Men don’t lust after me/chase after me/become obsessed with me. If they do, they do it quietly and when we know each other well. For example, in both of the long term relationships I’ve had as an adult woman—I had no idea either of the men looked at me in a sexual way, or any way, until 6 months after knowing them.

Don’t get it twisted. I’m not downplaying my physical appearance. I’m not fishing for praise. I’m not throwing a pity party in Rio.

I’m telling the truth.

There was a time, briefly, in high school, when I weighed 35 pounds less than I do now. I’m not naturally thin or petite. My family used to call me Flat Stanley. They thought I had an exercise disorder. My friend Edward called me an emaciated Holocaust survivor.

I was running 6-7 miles a day, and, in addition, burning upwards of 1,000 calories at the gym 5/7 days of the week. I ate a ton because I burned a ton. My hair was deliciously long, and men chased after me. I was addicted to a type of attention that I had never had from the opposite sex before that point.

Now, I’m 35 pounds heavier, my hair is short, and I notice a distinct difference in the way men approach me, speak to me, love me—mainly because it’s uncommon for me to be approached, to be spoken to in a way that indicates attraction, to be loved.

I miss my obsessive exercise.

People sometimes see old photographs of me from that time.

“Look how skinny you were, Liv!”

“Look at how long your hair was. It looked so good!”

“How different you look now! That’s another person!”

I miss feeling so thin that I could turn sideways and flatten out into invisibility.

Oh, Stanley. Where did you go?

It’s strange. Everyone told me before I came to Brazil that I was going to fall in love here. That I was going to marry a Brazilian man. That Brazilian men were going to love me.

Up until that night at Pedra do Sal, young Brazilian men in Rio did speak to me directly, but out of curiosity and platonic friendliness. And of course, to speak to Moira through me.

Before I brushed off middle aged black guy, he told me that people no longer come to Pedra do Sal for samba—”Well, some people do,” and he pointed to the bottom of the arena, the samba blossom.

People were crowded around the blossom—they were the blossom, moving as a unit to the beat around some invisible samba center. It looked like they were partaking in some ancient ritual. That was what I wish I had done—where I wish I had been that night.

I wish I had been the blossom.

“But most,” middle aged black guy continued to say “come to Pedra do Sal to talk and to drink.”

I looked over to see Gabriel, the blue eyed Carioca Casanova, attacking Moira’s face with his mouth. When he came up for air, I tugged on Moira’s arm.

“Are you okay?” I said. “I can tell him to stop if you don’t like it.”

Gabriel was introducing Moira to his friends as the “love of my life.”

She shrugged. “I’m okay.”

Hey. If homegirl is cool with it, I’m cool with it.

Some people are comfortable with different things. Equality and understanding is about both men and women respecting a woman’s preferences.

Soon Gabriel and his friends disappeared, and three handsome younger black men replaced them. I spoke with one in Portuguese, Wallace, for a bit. Then he turned his attention to Moira.

“She doesn’t speak very much Portuguese, only English” I said.

“I speak some English,” Wallace said with a smile.

Soon they were communicating in broken English and shattered Portuguese and they had moved farther away from me.

I looked over at one of Wallace’s friends beside me. He was observing the people in the same way that I was. He had a beer in his hand, and I could tell he was studying the drums, the rhythm.

“You know, I always start my week off here,” he said without looking at me. “Start the week off right: with music.”

His name was Thiago, or James in the US. His skin was light and he identified as black. His father dipped out the same way mine had.

“That’s common here,” he said. “A fatherless Brazil is the real Brazil.”

He looked 25. He was 33. He was ten years old and had a father that seemed more like a stranger than a family member when I was born.

He had quit his office job to pursue music.

Our histories were the same. The two real differences: he was undoubtly black and undoubtably a Brazilian man.

I was an American woman and since I was little, my family had always reminded me, encouraged me, that I didn’t look black, that I looked nothing like my black father, and everything like my white mother.

“You know,” he said deep into the conversation about our heritages, “I can tell your mother is quite beautiful.”

He surprised me with his subtlety. He flirted intelligently.

“Subtlety,” I had said to him early on. “Subtlety indicates intelligence and self control, the best qualities in a human being.”

Self control.

I receive immense pleasure from self control. Controlling my breathing when I run, controlling my diet during that time as a teenager when a strong gust of wind could have blown me down, controlling who touches me—abstinence.

Some Brazilian men in the city of Rio de Janeiro—the majority that approach Moira for her beauty and me for my services as a translator—are not subtle.

They do not practice self control.

They are aggressive and pushy, and this is very hard for me to process and to accept without a hardened look and a standoffish demeanor, without feeling very annoyed.

Carioca sexism is blatant. It’s not like in the United States, where sexism is insidious and permeates the social soil, where our actions, love lives, education, and dreams are grown.

In the USA, a woman will question her sanity, if she is “crazy” or not, when a man practices indirect, passive aggressive sexism: the American norm.

Here in Rio, men will kiss and touch you outright. It’s easy to identify sexism here. Men will tell you exactly what they think of your body and your face right off the bat—that is, if it’s pleasing to them.

I wondered, then, why this wasn’t happening to me.

If kissing and touching here is normal behavior for beautiful women to experience, why was I not being kissed and touched—or even acknowledged—if not that I am unattractive or not attractive enough?

Because, deep down near my brainstem, I know I’m beautiful, sexy—unforgettable.

I consulted a Carioca female pen pal I had made online.

“What’s the deal?” I asked her. “Am I not attractive here or?”

“You probably don’t look/sound vulnerable enough to be kissed or fondled,” she explained.

I wonder if this hard exterior of mine comes from a place of fear.

I wonder if I fear men? I also wonder if I have come to believe in my heart that men, after a conversation, or a look, expect things from women that women have never offered.

There was this one tall white, Brazilian boy, leading his girlfriend by the hand up the stairs of Pedra do Sal, who looked at me with such unfettered sexual lust and entitlement, that I had to avert his gaze. It was too heavy a gaze to hold. I’ll never forget that look.

He disappeared, too.

The men here, they come and go, talking of Michelangelo. . .

Just before our Uber came, Thiago gave me his number and kissed me twice on each cheek—excessive in the states, conservative in Rio.

Wallace attacked Moira’s face.

And then an Uber whisked us away, and the night of samba ended just as it began.

☀☀☀

“My friend awaits a message from your friend,” Wallace said in a text to Moira a few days later.

I never messaged Thiago.

I won’t.

I’m going to São Paulo next week, and moving to Minas a week afterward. I’m not here to meet men or to fall in love with a Brazilian for the three weeks time I’ll be in Rio.

I do wonder why people expect this of me.

☀☀☀

I turned 23 that night at Pedra do Sal.

I couldn’t help but think of my father, and where he had been on his 23rd birthday—where one of our African relatives had been on their 23rd birthday hundreds of years ago.

I told the Uber driver that it was my birthday, and he held his hand out to me as he drove.

“WOW! Parabéns!”

“Thank you, thank you,” I said with a devious grin.

I could feel his eyes on our backs as we walked to the hostel door. He put the car in park, waited for the hostel doors to open.

I knew he was waiting to make sure we got into the building safely.

I knew that he would not have waited for us to enter the hostel had we been two young men.

I looked behind my shoulder back at the driver as Moira and I walked through the doorway.

He looked back at me with a gaze as if to say:

“Congratulations! Congratulations to you for being young and beautiful here in Brazil.”

When I fell asleep that night, I did not feel my beauty or my youth deserved verbal recognition, or some congratulatory remark. These things were not accomplishments. I didn’t work to achieve my birth date or my facial structure.

I fell head first into sleep knowing that the only thing I deserved recognition for was my resilience, my ability to be unbeautiful abroad with a devious grin.

☀☀☀