July 01-08, 2017: Belo Horizonte, MG, Brazil; Ouro Preto, MG, Brazil; & Viçosa, MG, Brazil
It’s winter in South America.
A group of friends I made during my rompings in Scranton visited the first week of July. We went to Belo Horizonte and watched sketchy, skillful Brazilians dance American soul music one cold night. I remember the small group of people dancing in formation, dazzling—and the larger stationary crowd circling around them, watching.
The dancers were dressed elaborately or barely. There was an older man in his 50s or 60s—sequined bell bottom pants and a white jacket that flared at the sleeves—swinging his arms and legs wildly to the music. There was a small, dark compact woman leading the best of the dancers. She was wearing a tight white crop top and shiny black pants, snug as skin. Her hair was relaxed and fell at her shoulders. One of her shining silver hoop hearings detached and fell to the concrete as she shimmied back and forth.
Everyone’s eyes were scanning, blinking back the cold, and scanning again. Men approached women, women backed away. A quiet conversation in English here, a loud explanation in Portuguese that I or she or they had boyfriends there.
“There are more observers than participants, more people watching than doing.”
And so I cut the cold night short.
We ate barbeque then açaí at an ice-cream shop near a playground in the safe part of the neighborhood. Someone broke the swing set before the Uber came, and I remember the soft fright on the edges of the young woman’s face at the açaí counter as she served the loud, dancing Americans their unappetizing mixtures of ice-cream and berry.
My friends ate chicken hearts and tropeiro that week. They took all the same buses I take, walked the same streets I walk, drank the cachaça I avoid. Their mouths fell at the sight of the mountains over Ouro Preto the same way my mouth had fallen that first time. I felt like I was meeting them for the first time, that I didn’t know them. And when I saw them off on the night bus back to the big city, I felt that I didn’t know myself.
July 09-15, 2017: Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil & Arraial do Cabo, RJ, Brazil
The Fulbright Organization scheduled the mid-year Latin American conference in Rio de Janeiro, in a hotel in Copacabana.
(I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of returning to Rio. The city had frightened me those three initial weeks in January: the lurking invisible danger, the thorny panic those two consecutive afternoons Moira had gone out in broad daylight to run the lagoa while I stayed in bed, sipping pedialyte.)
I arrived and the city was suddenly different, prepossessing and welcoming. For the first time, I realized that my Portuguese had grown extensively from January to July and I was proud: confident. I was relaxed, fingering my taser in my left pocket in the front seat of the taxi, talking with the driver without pause or misunderstanding, my colleague sitting in the back with the luggage.
I met American Fulbrighters from Argentina (funny, flirty and willing to talk about sex), from Uruguay (level-headed and calm), from Panama (serious and beautiful), from Costa Rica (reserved with hearty laughs), Guatemala (southern and sweet).
It was refreshing, you know? To be around people of the same mold, who had fallen and cracked in a similar way that I had.
It was emotional, too. A female Fulbrighter stationed in Brazil had organized a women’s talk on a Wednesday afternoon. There I confessed how angry I was at the type of treatment I had received from many men abroad. The constant way they shut down my Portuguese with English, never letting the conversation flow in Portuguese but instead always trying to speak English with me, even if my Portuguese was obviously better than their English. The way they sidled up to me in crowds, trying to touch and caress me, the way they thought I owed them something, the way they superimposed their fantasies onto me. The way they told me to relax when I dodged an unwanted kiss or responded in annoyance to a ridiculous question. I was angry, and I hadn’t even known it.
I suggested we arm ourselves against the other more brutal types of treatment many of us had experienced, too.
“We need to be armed—what other alternative is there?”
I left the talk feeling embarrassed and drained and hateful. So I folded all that up in a little emotional napkin with the hotel’s emblem on it and I swallowed it with some seltzer water and a sip of someone else’s craft beer.
In the mornings at that hotel, I woke early to sit in the breakfast room that looked out over the beach. I had hazy conversations with other members of the conference and sipped coffee, trying halfheartedly to drown out the sound of the south Atlantic waves with the voices of my colleagues. I was thirsty and homesick again.
A friend and fellow colleague of mine lives in a demilitarized favela in Rio. It’s a lovely, warm, winding place: a safe place. The community has an impeccable view of Rio and a mild, friendly neighborhood drunk. He wears reading glasses and is never seen carrying bottles of alcohol but somehow never stops smelling of that fiery liquid.
(You can see so much of community’s personality by examining its city view and the behavior of its local drunk—whether it’s expansive and calm or obscured and aggressive.)
Some of us went to a beach town, Arraial do Cabo, after the conference ended. We stayed in a big house with big beds and a big dining table. There were 17 of us and we cooked and cleaned and danced and smoked, and I fell in love with multiple people at once, as I always seem to do.
I impressed a small group of people with my herbal tea, and the amount of shea butter and coconut oil I had brought along. I always pack too much.
We went on a boat tour the second to last day. We stopped at an old beach, once home to the indigenous population, now an indigenous graveyard and tourist attraction. We made sand castles. As I dug deep, the tiny rocks and shell splinters lodged underneath my fake fibra nails. Blood lightly stained the tips of my fingers. I spoke loudly in English, in a deep mock man’s voice, about the importance of public security and flood insurance as I built the castle’s moat. A young Brazilian boy watched intently.
“You want to try?” I asked in Portuguese.
“No, no,” he said with a smile and took a step back.
That old house in Arraial had two levels with a porch attached to the master bedroom. There were also spiral steps that led to a two tiered enclosed landing, but the wind was too strong on the last tier and the bulb was broken on the first, so we smoked and talked about language and music and sex outside of the master bedroom. Not all of us smoked, but we all listened. It was like that every night, a ritual of English conversation, and we were licking it up and saving it for later: for when we arrived in our host sites and English would transform into a tool and subject of study, not the spoken language.
We returned to Rio that Monday, the 17th. I hung with friends in the favela until 10:30 PM (statistically, my chances of being mugged or assaulted increase dramatically after 11 PM. I’m always outtie 3,000 before 11). I said goodbye and waited on the corner for the van to take me down the steep hill my friend’s house sits atop. A woman came out of the corner shop after switching off its lights and locking its doors. She stood beside me.
“I hope the van comes, soon. It’s getting late,” I said nervously.
“I’m waiting for a moto-taxi,” she said. “I live pretty far and I need him to drop me off at the metro where I can take the train then the bus. Then I have to walk. Ugh!” Her hair had blonde highlights. She was slender and tan. She had a small scar under her left eye, on her cheek bone. Her eyes were dark and slightly slanted, some beautiful indigenous lineage, maybe. She was wearing a short-sleeved light blue-collared shirt.
“I hear you,” I said. “I live pretty far, too—in the United States.”
She paused and looked at me, and then we both erupted in laughter.
“You beat me,” she said. “You’ve got longer to go than me.”
Then the van pulled up and her moto-man came, and I didn’t think to ask her name. As I descended the hill I glanced behind me to see her laughing still on the back of a motorcycle. We locked eyes, I waved, she grinned and her cyclist sped ahead of the van and out of sight. I felt like I was watching an old friend race away into the hot night.
I never saw her again.
July 18-July 24, 2017: Montevideo, Montevideo, Uruguay & Colonia del Sacramento, Colonia Uruguay
I arrived in Uruguay on a Tuesday in July, alone.
Before I went to Montevideo, everyone said how safe it was, raved actually.
“You can walk around with your phone—at night!”
“Nothing ever happens there.”
“There’s only 3 million people, and half of them live in Montevideo.”
“It’s all maté and good, cold manners.”
Portuguese had murdered and buried Spanish deep within my brain, so that every time I spoke in Uruguay, whoever I was speaking to simply assumed that I was Brazilian—the accent so thick and Portuguese.
When I stepped onto the bus shuttle from the airport to downtown, blocking the aisle with my enormous checked bag, I asked a Uruguayan man for directions in Spanish with an unintentional Brazilian accent. He told me that I was “really railing against the stereotype that Brazilians pack heavy.”
I was flattered.
The house I’m staying in is old, with high ceilings and drafts and an abundance of plants and tall windows. My host makes me coffee in the morning and hangs my laundry to dry. He is kind, speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. He’s a musician. His son is 6 or 7 and speaks to his father in rapid Spanish but will only address me in short, clipped English.
“¿Como estás, chico—que estás haciendo?”
His mother doesn’t seem to live with them. But his father did mention that his current Scandinavian girlfriend was the most interesting person he’d ever met on his many tours. He has three post cards from Scandinavia pinned to a coarse mess material that hangs on his wall “to remember”.
My host has friends over much of the time, one of them a Brazilian man I’d like to marry. His hair is like my sister’s when she was little, and he reminds me of a someone I used to know but can’t remember. He realized I wasn’t Brazilian immediately, and when I told him I come from the great state of New Jersey: the biggest, richest, most cultured state in all of the United States, he became hysterical.
“This one,” he said to my host, his friend. He pointed at me, shaking his head, laughing. “This one. . .”
My first day in Montevideo, I biked around the city for 10 hours. I met up with an American Fulbright, Joel, stationed there. We ate asado, tossed around the idea that the only shared identity among American youth today is capitalism, and walked around a bit—him showing me the historical parts of at the area we found ourselves in. His Spanish was excellent, and I was astounded I understood anything at all after all this time and so little practice.
By the time I got back to the house, my ass was bruised so badly from the bike I rode that I couldn’t sit properly.
It was a good day.
I grew lonely that week. It only took 48 hours to recenter after spending two weeks surrounded by people, something I find draining in an acute way, and I had two weeks to kill in Uruguay.
I decided to go to a historical town, about 2.5 hours from Montevideo, called Colonia del Sacramento. It was cold and eerie and beautiful. I saw one other woman alone, and I followed behind her for a bit and then veered off the third time she looked back at me, her face mixed with curiosity and budding annoyance.
I had made plans with another Fulbright stationed in Colonia, Connor, who was famous at the conference in Rio for his work editing Wikipedia pages. Wikipedia Connor, they called him. Somehow we hadn’t met, but he was kind enough to pencil me, a stranger, into his day in Colonia. We would meet later for dinner.
I got to Colonia around 8:00 AM and realized about 5 hours later that everything that could be done without wifi had been done. I had seen the lighthouse, the parks, the beach, the old streets, I had shopped around, drank a few coffees, gotten the jitters, walked more, tried to break into the cultural center closed for construction, and shooed away a dog.
I walked and walked and walked some more until I saw my phone was near death, until I couldn’t feel my fingers.
Suddenly I looked up from google maps and saw a sign sporting an enormous painted pot leaf.
I looked through the window behind the sign into what looked to be a weed shop. I saw a young man charging something on a computer and went inside.
There were weed brochures everywhere, weed posters, weed magazines, plants in big incubators with monitoring thermometers sticking out of their soil, glass pipes resting on shelves within glass encasings.
“I have kind of a weird question,” I said in Spanish, my eyes scanning the room in wonder.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Can I charge my phone here for a little?”
I was amazed at the transparency of the store’s product. Everything weed completely exposed in a UNESCO site. Completely unheard of in Brazil.
“Is this completely legal? To sell marijuana here?” I asked quietly, as I stared through the glass cases.
“Uhm, no,” he said. “You can buy it in small quantities at pharmacies and dispensories for personal and medical use, and you can grow your own. But we don’t sell the plant to foreigners,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“I just want to charge my phone,” I said with a small smile.
Then, suddenly, she was there.
She was wearing crocs with wool socks and skinny jeans. Her light blue crew neck sweater looked freshly pressed. Her perscription glasses were DG, and she was Asian. She was carrying a backpack and her smile was wide.
“Hi!” she said in enthusiastic native English.
“Hello,” he replied flatly with a thick accent.
“I’m from California! This type of store is so common there! I just wanted to stop in, and say hello!”
“Okay,” he said.
“Can I buy some marijuana?”
“We do not sell to foreigners.” His English sounded like an Argentine’s I had met in Rio back in January.
He turned to me.
“Where did you say you were from?” he asked in Spanish.
“I didn’t. I live in Brazil, but I’m American,” I said without looking at him. I was grinning and waving to my fellow.
What. Cosmic. Luck. That this endearing comparison should come walking through the door. She was just standing there, looking around, beaming.
“Well,” she said loudly, “Thanks anyway! Have a great day! Bye now!”
I waved. “Tchau!”
And then she was gone. Her adorable voice and her crocs—gone with the cold Uruguayan breeze! I smiled after her, and then at him.
“I watched this documentary on the Discovery Channel when I was a teenager,” I began. “Apparently pot was an aquatic plant once, made it’s way to the surface and was eventually consumed by cows grazing along the Californian coast. Blasted cows in California, hmphf! Imagine. . .I think the same thing happened in Argentina, too. I’m actually heading there tomorrow. Beautiful men, beautiful Spanish. Very excited. Hey—,” I leaned in a little closer over the counter toward him, “you’re not Uruguayan, are you?”
He studied me. “I’m Argentine,” he said and paused. “Would you like to smoke?”
You can see the stars clearly in Colonia. They were almost out and shining by the time I met up with Connor. We talked politely and then intensely, and when I curled up in his spare bunkbed later that night I felt as safe and as alone as I’ve ever felt in South America.
I dreamt of my two lost exes and slippery floors and woke up before the sun to catch a ferry to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
July 25, 2017: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires reminded me of New York City. When I stepped off the ferry that brought me across the 8 miles of Atlantic Ocean from Uruguay, I felt like I exhaled for the first time in 6 months.
There were Starbucks everywhere; many a McDonalds; grand theaters turned bookstores, old movie theaters playing Israeli movies (I caught Between Two Worlds with several other middle-aged/elderly women), cafés with wifi where you are expected to work on your laptop or write in your journal; museums; libraries upon libraries; and, of course, an efficient and relatively clean subway system.
I sat in Café Tortoni the entire morning, where Borges and Einstein had spent countless pesos on coffee and chatter.
I walked for 12 hours and took the subte in between just to feel like I was in NYC again. I quite enjoyed the B line, it has the most musicians and the cleanest entrances and exits that I observed that day. . .
The loveliest part about Buenos Aires, without doubt, is the Spanish. After every question in Spanish that I asked correctly and every clear response I gave, I realized I missed Spanish and the way it felt on my tongue and the back of my throat, how it felt rolling off the roof of my mouth.
A vendor in Colonia told me I had no American accent in either language: Portuguese or Spanish. She congratulated me. No one tries to overpower me with my own language, with English, in Uruguay. The men that I pass here look directly at me and tell me I’m beautiful without stopping. No one bothers me. You can hear seagulls in the morning and crickets at night.
But where is my fish market behind the hospital—the creperia down the block?
Where is my single screen movie theater across the street—the track around the university lake and the bakery along the busy avenue that serves me and the Portuguese girls and the young man from Belgium who speaks in English with the Colombian who walks his dog on Thursdays?
Where are the white candles I light when I’m nervous—the pink camel printed sheets I treasure and clean each week?
Where is my kitchen drawer filled with spices and loose tea and the teeny ants that munch on the sugar granules I never wipe away?
And where is my sister and my brother and my mother and Mark? And where are my uncles and aunts and grandparents and cousins—the new dog and the old dog and my two female friends from childhood? And where is Jamie and my father?
Where is the woman I met at the top of a hill only to lose her at its bottom?
And where am I and where are You and where is North and where is South and how can I exist here when I was born there?