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