the lost land of Marajó

If the TV show Lost, prehistoric times, and the 1970’s had a baby, it would be Marajó.

After a three-hour boat ride, we arrived on the world’s largest freshwater island. Roughly the size of Switzerland, it also boasts a seat directly on the equator and a city (Anajás) with the most cases of malaria in all of Brazil.

Luckily, I didn’t stay in Anajás, but in Soure, the largest of the three fairly easily-accessible towns on the island. Still, the pools of stagnant water screamed dengue as I rode into town. One boat, a van, a tiny wooden boat, and a taxi ride later I had arrived at my destination, a surprisingly well-maintained hotel in the middle of nowhere. The hotel reminded me of the Others’ settlement in Lost, a little manicured oasis with clipped lawns and thatch-roofed rooms in the midst of jungly chaos.

My friends and I rented bikes and rode to the beach. We rode down pot-holed, dusty red, unpaved roads, past dilapidated buildings being taken over by the jungle, and Volkswagen vans puttering alongside us.  The bright, primary colors and antiquated technology screamed the 70s. The houses were little more than cement block shacks, most outfitted with TVs but no windows or indoor bathrooms. Some had signs boasting ‘we sell beer: 50 cents.’ I thought ‘this looks like Honduras.’ I’ve never been to Honduras.

The first part of the bike ride was liberating and new and fun, as I haven’t been on a bike in 15 years, and then we hit the ‘highway,’ which is just a fancy word for the paved road. We rode, and we rode, past over-sized palm tree fields and dragonflies hitting us in the face, past strangely small buffalo and horses grazing beside the road, and a lot of other creatures we couldn’t see, but could only hear jumping around in the jungle. The odd sizing and suffocating greenery made me feel like I was in prehistoric times, like a T-Rex might come crashing through the trees at any moment. I started feeling like I was in The Giver, riding my bike forever and ever, not knowing when I could stop. My ass was aching from all those potholes and I was getting blisters on my hands. The equatorial sun beat down on me. The road became quieter and I started hearing louder crashes in the jungle. I started thinking that the road would never become a beach, that we had taken a wrong turn somehow. I thought about what we would do if one of us got seriously injured on that road, mauled by a buffalo or bitten by a snake. Then I saw it ahead, like a mirage: the beach.

We threw our bikes down, sweating and relieved, and headed toward our only option for refreshment, the rickety beach cantina. We gulped down coconut water while the owner put on American club music for us and we finally took a look at our surroundings: a pristine and near-deserted beach. The sand was the color of caramel and the water was brown, but had the tide and vastness of an ocean: the river and the Atlantic’s meeting place. Because of the dips in the sand, there were many natural pools of warm, calm water. It was surreal; such a perfect place just for us.

The next day we went to another beach that we called ‘the city beach,’ because it was shitty and full of people. We walked a strangely long way through the jungle on a makeshift bridge of rotting wooden boards to reach this ‘beach.’ I put ‘beach’ in quotes because there was no beach: the water reached straight to the jungle because it was high tide. There were trees growing out of the sand, and mud and sand intermingled in the water. Children were everywhere, yelling and doing flips.

Because of the steep dips in the sand, as the tide started going out, nearby sandbars, and then islands, started appearing. I decided to get tipsy on 3% beer and swim out to one. This was a lofty goal, because I normally won’t go any deeper than two feet into the ocean for fear of sharks and other large and/or bitey things. I’d already been told by the locals and Lonely Planet that stingrays abound in the water, that they settle in the mud and people step on them. They say to shuffle your feet to scare them away, but the mud is so deep and porous that it’s impossible.

So I did what any girl would do: used a boy as a stingray buffer. I recruited a local 16-year-old boy to swim ahead of me by threatening his manliness (‘you’re not scared, are you??). I swam for my life, inhaling gulps of brown water and thinking about how parasites were probably making themselves comfortable in the cut on my knee. I felt like the people in the book The Beach, swimming to the Thai island, reaching that point of no return, the idea of sharks lurking in their minds. I finally flopped up onto the island, panting and proud.




Belém: everything is relative

While in Belém I pictured my friend, Ana, living there. I met her in the U.S. while she was on her Science without Borders study abroad program where I went to grad school. She’s the only person I know from Belém, so when I found out I’d be going there for a Literature and Linguistics conference, I was curious to see her backdrop.

On arriving in Belém, I was hit hard by the heat. Belém is 1 degree south of the equator, and even though it’s not even South America’s summer right now, the humidity feels like you’re breathing water. A minute after walking outside your skin is slick with the water in the air, then the water from your own body as you start to sweat profusely and NEVER STOP. I was in a constant state of dehydration, even though I always had a water bottle with me. I understood why Ana always looks sweaty in her pictures.

Belém is a city of contradictions. The fanciest apartment I’ve ever been in is next to a landfill. The gentrified upscale dock area is reached via a shantytown where homeless zombies ramble around calling out things in English and pulling people’s hair.  I imagined Ana feeling homesick for this place and seeing this place as home. The cost of living there is comparable to Rio or São Paulo, but I’ve never seen such a run-down city overall. I was warned by two bus people with solemn faces to be careful and to not walk around here or there. At the same time, I’ve never been so verbally welcomed to a new place. Several times strangers on the street told us ‘Welcome to Belém’ in English.

A recurring theme for me throughout the week was that everything is relative. I was initially underwhelmed by São Paulo when I first arrived in Brazil, but then I went to Rio Preto, my city, and now I see the beauty and variety of SP. I was underwhelmed by Rio Preto, but then I visited Belém and now I see the order and money here. Even within Belém, I was surprised by the poverty at first, but throughout the week I began to see and appreciate the small beauties surrounded by the shit. The beautiful, shirtless man with shiny skin hanging clothes to dry in the sun on the roof of his house. The hippies sitting on the street weaving necklaces hooked onto their toes. The sunset and lightning over the brown river.

I’ve never eaten so much açai in such a short period of time. Belém boasts the widest array of tropical flavors (of ice cream, juice, liquor) I’ve ever seen, and it was wonderful. I tried un-sweetened açai with fish. It tasted like purple mud. I much prefer the sweetened version, which I ate whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also tried cupuaçu, tapioca (another famous Belem treat), and countless other fruit flavors at Cairu, the best ice cream place ever. Seriously. If I could replace all the Coldstones in the U.S. with Cairus, I would.

My friends and I drank jambú cachaça in a crumbly street-corner cachaçaria, which was served with soup and made our mouths feel like stars.  In my cachaca-induced state I thought of the odds of sitting on that corner in that far-flung place in Brazil with a bunch of Americans I would have never met in America. It’s funny how things work out.

Ding dong ditching and crotch waxing in Araraquara

I spent the first few days of an 11-day trip in Araraquara, Sao Paulo, where a friend of mine lives. It’s only a couple hours by car from where I currently live, so not all that much different in terms of climate or landscape, but a city isn’t just its climate and landscape.

Even though Araraquara is about half the size of my city of 400,000, I appreciated how easy it was to get around (nearly everything is within walking distance) and how safe it was (walking home at 2am was nada).

I met my friend’s friends, who were a refreshing mix of students from all over the world. I was impressed by a lot of these people’s gall to move to a country where they don’t speak the language. By the time I met them they’d all been in Brazil for at least two months and had absorbed so much. They inspired me to make a more concerted effort to study Portuguese, as we all know I’m not one to be outdone.

We went out with everyone to a ‘snooker’ bar filled with motorcycle men listening to the Linkin Park CD that came out my freshman year of high school. I ordered a drink made of vodka, cognac, beer and lime and about puked downing it. It did the job, and we ran around the streets laughing and ringing people’s doorbells at 2am like 10-year-olds. We saw a fight, which broke out into a second fight after a drunk college kid stole a homeless man’s warm, half-drunk beer that was sitting out on the sidewalk. My friend got sloppy and yelled several times at some restaurant people to bring her bread hours after their kitchen had closed, thinking maybe a jeitinho was in the making. It wasn’t, so we ate gross side-of-the-road hamburgers instead.

I told my friend I wanted to get my crotch waxed like a true Brazilian, so we went to a salon to pop my crotch-waxing cherry. I truly believe gynecologists and crotch-waxers know women better than their lovers do. There’s nothing like spreading your ass cheeks at the command of a complete stranger. The coos of ‘coitadinha’, the equivalent of ‘you poor little baby’, from my crotch-waxer didn’t help any.

Every once and a while I decide to smoke cigarettes, and this is one of those once-in-a-whiles. It’s a hard habit to break not because of the biological dependency, but the behavioral one. I love going outside to sit, breathe deeply, get a buzz and think about things. During one of these times in Araraquara I was listening to the palm trees around me rustle in the wind, and I thought back to when I was in high school and my family used to go on vacation to Florida. It was the highlight of my year because I loved the ocean beaches and the palm trees, two things non-existent in the midwest. I told my parents when I was 13 that when I grew up I would live in a place that had palm trees because they make me that happy. I used to watch the maids at the hotel we’d stay at and be so envious of them for being able to live in a place so warm and beautiful. At the end of the week when we’d drive home I would watch the last palm trees disappear from view at the Florida border.

Speaking of dreams, I made a dream board when I was just starting grad school. I printed pictures off the internet and glued them to this board that listed all of my goals. The one signifying the goal ‘go to Brazil’ was a big picture of Avenida Paulista in Sao Paulo. The other week when I was in Sao Paulo walking down Avenida Paulista I thought about that picture and felt grateful for dreams realized.