the art of running away

I’ve had two ideas plaguing me the past couple of months. The first is that travel is more about running away from what you had than running toward something specific. Before coming to Brazil, I read Wanderlust: A Love Affair with 5 Continents by Elizabeth Eaves, and it both terrified me and broke my heart. I don’t want to be her when I grow up, living a seemingly glamorous, travel-inundated youth to wake up at 34, living nowhere I like, surrounded by unhealthy relationships, career-less, jaded to everything and moving back in with my parents.

Yet, I see myself in her, using travel as an escape. Before moving here I worked as a polysomnographic technician, which is just a fancy name for putting electrodes all over dirty people’s heads and watching them sleep. I worked my way through grad school that way, but then started working there full-time after graduation. It was killing me slowly. The boredom, the patients, the night hours, the lack of all interest on my part. I had few friends and a quickly souring relationship. In that kind of situation, how could I not put stock in Brazil as a fix-all? I can’t count the number of times I thought if only I were in Brazil, everything would be better. Of course, that’s not true, and makes me wonder when I’ll stop chasing something so elusive as happiness when nothing external will ever grant that.

Which brings me to the other idea that’s been everywhere lately. I’ve met a lot of people in the last month and a half, and many of them have told me of a place they just felt like they fit, their favorite place in the world. Whether it’s Mexico, Japan, Spain, or somewhere in between, these people have found where they feel they belong, and everything is about getting back there. A huge part of me wants to find my place like that. I’ve lived a lot of places and have never felt that sense of belonging. A piece of me suspects that that’s my primary motivator for traveling so feverishly this year. I’ve sensed for years that Brazil would be that place, and where I’ve been so far hasn’t been. But on the other hand, would that place make me as happy as it seems it has others?

Until I find out for sure, I guess I’ll keep wandering.

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Brazilian travel itinerary

This weekend I’ve been trying to organize my travel, decide where I’d most like to go, how much it will cost, and how I can make it happen. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

April 28-31: Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais

I’ll be traveling to BH with a friend from my program, where we’ll meet up with two others, bop around the city for the night, and then head to Ouro Preto for Easter. Ouro Preto is famous for being a well-preserved colonial Portuguese town, and in the early hours of Easter morning people decorate the streets with elaborate designs using colored sawdust.

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April 5-7: Caldas Novas, Goias

Caldas Novas are thermal springs, in which I plan on parking my ass for the weekend and not doing a whole lot of moving.

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April 19-21: Araraquara, Sao Paulo

I’ll be visiting a friend for a weekend before we head to Belem, Para.

April 21-26: Belem, Para

I’ll be attending an Amazonian Linguistics and Literature conference, which will be interesting, and more importantly, a good excuse to travel to the other side of the country. I guess I should get my yellow fever and typhoid shots.

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April 26-29: Marajo, Para

A few of us attending the conference have plans to visit Marajo, the world’s largest freshwater island. It sits at the mouth of the Amazon River and is apparently the size of Switzerland. This picture makes it look nice in an indigenous way, but the others I’ve seen look a little scary, so we’ll see how it goes. I hope I don’t get dengue. Or malaria. Or have one of those fish swim up my pee hole.

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July 5 and surrounding dates: Rio de Janeiro

Two friends are running a half marathon in Rio on the 5th, and I said I’d accompany them and sip caipirinhas on the beach while they run because I’m just that supportive.

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July 14-21ish: Olinda, Pernambuco

A friend is coming to visit me from the States and our first stop is Olinda. We plan on taking intensive Portuguese lessons, walking around this beautiful old colonial town, and beaching, of course.

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July 21-28ish: Maceio, Alagoas

It’s one of my goals in life to go to a beach with see-through water (1. because it’s beautiful, 2. I can see sharks better), so I sincerely hope the water is this clear in person.

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sometime in August: Brasilia

My program is having a mid-year get-together. I’m excited to go, though everyone I’ve talked to gets weird vibes from Brasilia. Even though it’s shaped like an airplane, has alien buildings, and is in the middle of the desert, I still think it might be cool. Hell, that’s reason enough right there.

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I’m trying to get outside the country at some point, but I don’t know yet if/when that might happen. I also am done with work the last week of November, but my visa is valid until mid-February, so I plan on staying and backpacking around for a while until my funds run out.

Any suggestions?

zombies in Curitiba

After a dark period of not leaving my apartment, showering, or changing my clothes for three days, I decided I needed to get out of Rio Preto or I was going to spiral into a deep depression. I talked to a friend living in Curitiba, in the state of Parana, and booked a flight.

I saw approximately 3.5 hot men in the Campinas airport during my layover and my spirits were immediately lifted. Also, during the beginning of my four-hour layover there, I spotted a Minnesota Vikings hat with an owner who wasn’t speaking Portuguese. I asked the hat owner and friend where they were from, and they said Sweden. I got some overpriced Pao de Quejo and cafe and they invited me to sit down with them while we ate. The boys told me they were coming from Rio de Janeiro, heading to Florianopolis, and that they were five days into a year-long trek around the world. Side note: How do people get money to do these things? I met an Australian couple in a hostel in Sao Paulo who were doing the same thing. Either they’re trust fund babies or really good at not spending money. If it’s the latter I want to know their secret. Anyway, we chatted for an hour, then they were off. They shook my hand as they left and didn’t ask me for my name so they could add me on facebook, two refreshing things that haven’t happened in a while.

Upon arrival in Curitiba I was freezing. I had no idea Curitiba was a good 30 degrees colder than Rio Preto, and I’d packed lots of sundresses and tank tops. I went to a brecho (thrift store) the next day and bought a jean jacket that could’ve been the exact one I had in the late 90s.

I instantly felt like I fit in Curitiba, and briefly lamented the Fulbright gods that hadn’t placed me there. The weather sucks, about like I imagine it would in Seattle, but the city has so many cool things that it’s worth it. It has the feel of a city without being claustrophobic, a charmingly dilapidated historical downtown area, pedestrian streets, enough cobblestone to break an ankle, loud, underground bars and clubs, American-style cafes where you can sit for hours reading (! I almost cried with joy), dark beer, sebos (used book stores), brechos, and zombies. There were an unusual number of janked out homeless-ers stumbling around. And not the kind of homeless that are homeless because of a turn of bad luck but they’ll get back on their feet, the kind that are drugged out of their minds on tainted crack and will mug you with a dirty kitchen knife in broad daylight. Which brings me to a Brazil observation: no one here will help you. One of the biggest safety differences I feel between here and the U.S. isn’t the fact that you’re more likely to get stolen from here, it’s the fact that no one will lift a finger to stop the thief or help you out. Which makes me lose a little faith in humanity.

I went to a club that was the most perfect venue to get your freak on, in my opinion: underground, bass loud enough to give you heart palpitations, tasty drinks, quarters close enough they encourage frotting, and an epileptic’s nightmare-worth of strobe lights. But they were oddly playing the worst music from the year I was in 8th grade. Which is cute and funny for about 2 minutes, but my friend and I quickly headed onto the next bar. We still aren’t sure if that music is cool in Brazil, or if the others there were equally confused.

We went to Brooklyn Cafe, a coffee shop American-style with owners who used to live in Brooklyn. I feel like a sell-out having my favorite coffee shop so far in Brazil be an Americanish one, but it is. You can get good food, coffee, dark beer, and wifi and sit in a corner working or reading for hours. I’ve tried in vain to find a workspace like that in Rio Preto. Here’s to hoping there’s one to find.

All in all, spending time with a good friend and visiting a new place with things that interest me was extremely refreshing and exactly what I needed. I left with a backpack full of old new books and clothes and a better outlook on my time here. Even the cold was welcome after sweating non-stop for the last month. I hope to visit again someday. My trip made me cherish my Brazil friends and motivated me to travel whenever I can, so I’ve made plans to visit Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto over Easter weekend.

a rocky start in São José do Rio Preto

I decided I was in no rush to leave Sao Paulo in my hungover and sleep deprived state, so I skipped my flight to Sao Jose do Rio Preto and slept instead. The next day I grudgingly took a 6-hour bus ride there. My Brazil honeymoon phase was already over, and I was exhausted from being bopped around, meeting new people and places, and being ripped from them just as soon as I got comfortable. I left Sao Paulo in a bad mood and landed in Rio Preto in an even worse one, as I waited in the dark, sketchy bus station for my ride. It finally hit me that again, I had nothing. Nowhere to stay that night, nowhere to live, no bearings, no phone, no way to get around.

The first week consisted of waking up at 6:30am when the east-facing curtainless windows blasted their sunbeams in my face in the room I was staying in on the college campus where I work. My second night there, two Spanish-only-speaking girls showed up and shared the room with me. I felt like I was at camp again. Of course, I’m the only gringa who knows Portuguese and not Spanish, so our communication was limited and laborious. Lucky for me, they were linked in to the Spanish-speaking network at the college, so a friend of theirs who had already been in Rio Preto for a year helped us do all the boring necessary stuff, like register with the Federal Police and get CPFs, our social security numbers here in Brazil.

I was completely frustrated to not have internet, not know the bus routes to get anywhere, not have an apartment, and not know anyone to ask anything to. Those problems ate away at my first week here, and my already weakened spirit. I found an apartment and things got a little better. A friend visited me from a nearby town and that helped too.

I’ve now been in Rio Preto for three weeks and I still feel down about it. I’ve started work, which is thankfully going just fine, but I only work part-time as part of my grant agreement, so I have plenty of time to myself. Yet there’s little external stimulation here. It’s unfortunately been slow-going meeting people. One good friend would change a lot. For now I’ve decided that studying Portuguese and traveling will be how I enjoy my time, so last weekend I decided to visit Curitiba.

luggage-less and oriented in São Paulo

I arrived in Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo via bus from Itanhaem, a beach town in the same state. I accidentally got off at Osasco bus station instead of Barra Funda, a mistake that was overshadowed by the discovery that my suitcase with a year’s worth of my life in it was not under the bus where I had put it. I talked harshly at the bus driver in broken Portuguese and he shrugged and that was the end of it.

I was in a stupor as I walked to the Metro to take an extra-long subway ride, thanks to my bus station mix-up, to the hostel. Either an idiot had taken my luggage-checked bag by accident, or, more likely, someone had ganked it. All I had in my backpack with me was a pair of pants, all my heavy books, my laptop and my passport (thank God, or I really would have been freaking out).

At the hostel I met cool people from all over the world, as you do in hostels, and tried to sort out my bag problem. I had a Brazilian friend of mine call the bus company, but I wasn’t counting on their help. The next day I walked to the hotel my company put all 30 of us bolsistas up in for orientation in the same clothes I had worn for the previous 3 days.

That week was a rush: meeting 30 Americans from all over the country, learning their names, where they were going to be living in Brazil, where they were from, what they studied, then forgetting and asking all over again. The first night there I received an email from an address I didn’t know, saying in Portuguese that the sender had a bag filled with ‘children’s clothes’ and had found my email address on some documents inside. My bag! (Assuming it was indeed my diminutive clothing that was confused for children’s clothes). I jumped up and down and squealed a little and drank a beer from the minifridge to celebrate. It turned out someone had mistaken my 45-pound bag for their beach bag and had taken it home. With the help of my program director and the accidental thief, it arrived at my hotel room safe and sound with everything in it.

With that crisis behind me, I started to enjoy Sao Paulo. My entry into the city was so tainted by my initial experiences that I hadn’t relaxed or grown to like it there. I started to look around when I walked around during the day, and started to go out at night. I went to a hipster bar that played Grimes and felt like I was at home. I had delicious palm heart pizza from a horribly overpriced pizza place. I ate quiche and drank mango juice in a little cafe. I got brainwashed at the Portuguese language museum. I broke into the hotel pool and swam in the icy water at 3am. I started to remember things about my fellow orientees, started becoming friends with some of them. Started enjoying the quicker pace of life, the variety of people on the street, the vastness of the city. Then, just as soon as I got comfortable, I was on a bus to Sao Jose do Rio Preto, a place I had never been and my home for a year.

first stop: Itanhaém

mom Itanhaem

A friend and I decided to start our year in Brazil with a week at the beach to get rid of our gringo-pasty skin. Out of all the amazing beaches that exist in Brazil, we chose Itanhaem, Sao Paulo, a place not even Paulistas have ever heard of. We chose it because of its proximity to both Curitiba, where my friend was going to be, and Sao Paulo city, where I was flying into.

After a direct 11-hour flight from Chicago to Sao Paulo, I took a bus to Barra Funda bus station, then another 4-hour bus to Itanhaem, where I met up with my friend and took a last bus to the beach house we rented for the week.

Every morning I tiptoed over broken pottery to the beach 20 feet out my front door. The beach was surprisingly empty for the middle of Carnaval. People dug voodoo holes in the sand at night. The weather was in the mid-80s and the water was warm. I was scared of sharks, so I drank cachaca before getting in. It rained every afternoon like clockwork. We hung a hammock on the upstairs patio and I liked to read there, overlooking the ocean. We tracked pounds of sand into the house, washed our clothes by hand for the first time ever (harder than you think), and made strong Brazilian coffee daily with this old-school contraption they have here.

There were so many fat people on the beach wearing speedos and thong bikinis and owning it. I bought thong bikini bottoms, felt naked and then sexy, and ultimately burned my ass to a crisp. I bought green corn and coconuts and espanholas from beach vendors, spilled the sugariness all over myself, and got bitten by bugs. I slept with the windows and doors open so I could hear the ocean as I fell asleep. I had no internet and no phone for the first time in my adult life. I used a lanhouse (internet cafe) for the first time. I drank shitty beer at lanchonetes and bummed cigarettes off locals. I woke up every day at noon and did it all over again. I started to feel like I was in some kind of weird time warp, like in Groundhog Day.

By the end of our time there, we had thoroughly enjoyed our week and were more than ready to move on to our next destination: Sao Paulo.

French travel article and trail magic

A couple months ago I wrote this article for a website’s travel writing contest. I got an email today from one of the founders of the website saying that she loved my article and would be putting it on the website on March 19th (find it here then: http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/stars-in-provence). She went on to ask me if I’d write something for the website about Brazil, since they don’t have much about it on there yet. She also said she had a few good contacts for teaching and traveling, and would I like her to pass my name along to them. I of course agreed to both. I love the support offered by the travel community. My friend Laura once told me about ‘trail magic’ on the Appalachian Trail, where what you need is provided for by people’s unexpected kindness. That idea extends to a broader field than just the Appalachian Trail, and I’m grateful.
Here’s the article:

Stars in Provence

On that New Year’s Eve, I climbed the winding stone stairs to my friends’ French apartment in a building older than America. I felt like an oversized Alice in Wonderland as I climbed further through a small stone opening leading out onto their balcony. The stars illuminated the surrounding terra cotta roofs and intricate ironwork encasing others’ balconies and windows. From this vantage point, the logic of the twisting maze of cobblestone streets and stone buildings almost made sense, though getting lost and finding new specialty shops and family-owned cafes was a daily treat. Night blanketed Aix-en-Provence, and not a soul moved but me.

Walking through Aix-en-Provence is like walking through a movie set. Black-cloaked people with liquid eyes and angular features pass, an air of ease and power to their step, all swishing coats and clicking boots. Women wear delicate heels on the crumbling cobblestone streets without getting stuck between the cracks, a feat I attempted once and failed.

Walking those streets is best during Christmastime. Dozens of wooden chalets are constructed in one day along the Cours Mirabeau. On this main street I found hand-carved cheeseboards, handmade lavender and olive soaps, and vin chaud, wintery spiced wine that I drank by the paper cup-full.

At the Cours Mirabeau’s end sits my favorite crepe shop. It’s in an underground tunnel, manned by the same gentle employees every day, and has every imaginable crepe filling: eggs, mushrooms, onions, spinach, Nutella, apricot and fig preserves. The hardest part was learning the French names for all 50-some ingredients. And of course, choosing what to order.

I began to notice not only the French that surrounded me, but also other words—names on place signs, buses, restaurants—that my French classes helped me recognize weren’t French. I learned I was living in the region of Languedoc, or Langue d’Oc, the language of Occitan. There was a distinction made by earlier peoples to distinguish linguistic areas of France by how they said “yes.” Two main regions existed: Langue d’oïl, for those who said oui to mean “yes” (which comprises all of modern-day France now that French has become standard), and Langue d’Oc, home of the lesser known Romance language, Occitan. One French boy told me only grandparents speak it anymore, and that he doesn’t understand it, a lost connection between generations that will never be repaired.

I attended my French classes with other transplants like me, where I met friends from Hungary, Scotland, Turkey, Spain, Brazil. We went to the boites, underground nightclubs encased in stone. (Because of the city’s sound regulations, all clubs exist below ground and give off the feeling of being in a particularly large wine cellar or bomb shelter.) Following the spiraling stone steps down and down, I found myself in a dark, humid sea of bobbing heads and thumping rhythm, a refuge from my quiet Au Pair life. Here I could let my mind wander, put no words to my thoughts, whether they wander in English or French. Releasing along with my energy and sweat any pent-up worries, I just danced.

On a whim I visited the nearby Mediterranean one winter night with two friends I met at a boite. We sped up narrow roads, down and around sloping hills, smelling the salt in the air as we neared our destination. We spilled out onto the beach, palm trees stoic and waving shyly to us in the breeze, the sound of the sea crashing in our ears. We ran laughing into the ocean, got our jeans wet and didn’t care, spun each other in circles, and finally fell onto the damp sand and had a staring contest with the stars.

Cours Mirabeau at night

introduction to Portuguese via a Floridian hot tub

Portuguese first landed on my radar in a hot tub in Florida. It was the last day of spring break my senior year of college, and my roommate Jess and I had checked out of our motel and decided to pool hop at hotels we couldn’t afford. We found one with a huge, immaculate pool that Jess plopped into, but I chose the hot tub because Florida isn’t hot enough. I sat down and started eavesdropping on the couple already in there. They were both young, but that was all I could figure out. He looked like a Viking and she looked like one of those Carnaval samba dancers from Rio. They were speaking a language that I could vaguely recognize words of, but it didn’t have the non-stop flow or thick consonants of Spanish, the phlegmy ‘r’ or fronted vowels of French, or the exaggerated intonation of Italian. I was starting to run out of Romance languages I knew, so I asked. The Viking answered in native English that they were speaking Portuguese. They were on their honeymoon, he and his Brazilian wife, whom he’d met on a missions trip in Brazil. She was still learning English, which meant that they spoke Portuguese at home, which made me think of what it would be like to speak a different language in my home, which made me feel scared.

The Viking left the hot tub and Jess and I started grilling the Brazilian. We wanted to know everything: what city she was from, what the weather was like, if she missed home, if she liked it here, where they were going to live. How she got so perfect-looking. She reacted like a cornered squirrel, linguistically panicking. He husband watched her sweat it out from the comfort of a pool chair.

Here in Brazil I’m the squirrel, twitchy and stuttering. I speak a different language in my home and it’s scary. But when I think of how genuinely interested Jess and I were in the nameless Brazilian and how we didn’t care that she answered our questions slowly and grammatically imperfectly, I can only hope the Brazilians making me feel cornered are equally as patient. As so far they are.