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.



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