bid adieu to your ennui

This past week I’ve spent a lot of time in my head, thinking hard thoughts I’ve been neglecting.

Between the semester ending, Brazil protesting nationally, my closest (only?) friends here leaving (which naturally leads to too much drinking at sad despedida parties, which naturally makes me regret my life the following day), planning to move apartments, a Brazilian fucking with my head (there’s always got to be one, doesn’t there?), and preparing for a month-long travel stint, I’ve been fraying at the seams.

But there’s a light. There has to be. I’m forcing a turning point because I can’t stand it otherwise.

So cue the old, good habits I used to have before moving here. Meditation, reading lots of good books, writing, using my time wisely, planning for the future. These are all things that keep me sane in the US, which I’ve all but lost sight of here. So I move forward.

Next Wednesday I begin a month of travel that involves stops in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Olinda and Maceio, both cities in the northeast of Brazil. The first leg will be full of friends I’ve made here, the second with my best and oldest friend from home. I look forward to being refreshed by days on the beach, close to no schedule, and time with people I feel comfortable around. Brazilian beaches truly are beautiful, and in no short supply. My friend from home is bringing some American things for me, and that makes me happier than I ever thought material possessions would. My desire for macaroni and cheese and long pants outweighs my disappointment at that.

This trip will bring me to the beginning of a new semester. Some changes will take place, which is what I’m clinging to in thinking about my future here. There’s no saying how long the strike at the university where I work will last, but I’m willing to bet there will be lots of make up work to do right when I get back, a welcome thought after a month of trying to entertain myself sans work. I’ll be going to Brasilia that month too, as part of my work program here. Brasilia seemed so far away at orientation when I first arrived in Sao Paulo, but it’s creeped up on us. It’s a good marker that time is passing. I’ve chosen to move from my apartment because I live too far from campus. That will be a welcome change that will save me two hours a day, as that’s the time I’m now wasting on a bus to get to and from school. I’m looking forward to meeting the new foreign students, auditing another Portuguese class, and maybe a translation one too. I have a half-price student bus pass to Sao Paulo, my favorite city here, where a few good friends are moving in August. I have a few job ideas for the coming year. So things are looking up. Right?

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a portrait of brazil, by a homesick pessimist

I was at the bus stop one day when I saw an old woman who was walking her dog fall hard and hit her face on the pavement. I watched to make sure she got up, but she didn’t right away. The five people waiting with me at bus stop all saw, then turned back to their conversations. I ran across the street to help the woman up and ask if she was ok. People stepped over us as they passed us on the sidewalk.

Then there are the countless stories of friends or friends of friends who were robbed or beaten on the streets while Brazilians went about their merry ways, blatantly ignoring the violence right before them. I would call it the bystander effect, a term borrowed from psychology to describe the phenomenon of many people seeing something bad happening but assuming someone else will help, but I don’t think Brazilians even care enough to hope someone else will do something. I’m left to assume they won’t lift a finger to help you if you’re in trouble. I don’t want to test that theory.

Continuing on this lack of a sense of community consciousness, people are oblivious to their surroundings. They block sidewalks and stand in the middle of paths and can’t be bothered to move for anyone, even after increasingly less polite ‘excuse me”s. They just push past one another like cattle.

When I first heard that Brazilian men were more aggressive here, I thought, ‘Great, I like a man who knows what he wants.’ But, aggressive was a euphemism for grabby and chauvinistic. It works like this: if you’re a girl between the ages of 14 and 45 and you meet a guy at a party, a bar, or a get-together, and he will grab your arm a little too hard, pull you towards him, and try to kiss you by saying ‘beijo,’ or pointing at his mouth, or just putting his face on yours. Then he’ll run away. And if you happen to progress past this and think he’s interested in you because he’s so kind or flattering, whether obviously to get in your pants or done more skillfully by a true snake to foster trust and the idea of something real, think again. He’ll do anything he needs to do to use you for sex or to fill his temporary loneliness or boredom, then he’ll disappear, leaving way too many gringas I know confused and hurt.

And the women aren’t any better. They allow men to use them this way, allow themselves to be pushed around, used for sex, and cheated on. They’re the ones who play coy, telling guys they’re virgins and playing the ‘rule of three’–letting a guy try to kiss you three times before you give in, to show you’re not a slut. If a guy back home tried to kiss me after I already rejected him, I’d slap him in the face and think he was a creep. But it’s all expected here, this tangled, backwards game, this sloppy, uninterpretable dance.

This is a land of poor education, where stereotypes and old wives’ tales abound. You catch colds in weather colder than 80 degrees and should only drink hot beverages when you’re sick. Students aren’t prepared for college by public school, where 85% of English teachers are not proficient in English. Right now the students at the college I teach at are on strike, along with other branches of the same school, because they want cheaper and more plentiful food in the cafeteria, more tax-funded housing and more ‘scholarships’ for expenses other than college (because college is free), just for being poor and in school. There’s no such thing as work-study, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships. God forbid they should work for money to pay for a dime of school-related costs. So they’re spending their time sitting around in tents on campus, wasting their already spotty education.

Because of this vast divide between the haves and the have-nots, status is everything here, and America is king. In the U.S., everyone has iPhones, iPods, and laptops, so no one is impressed by it. Here, people will pay astronomical amounts of money (money they could be spending on school costs…) for an iPhone, and people will be impressed. It’s an entire nation with the mentality of high schoolers. 30-year-olds wear Hollister or Aeropostale (yeah, Aeropostale) clothes they bought for three times the amount they cost in the U.S. It’s not about how you look in the clothes, it’s about what brand is plastered across your chest, if it’s imported from the U.S., if it has English on it, and how much you paid for it. I guess, then, that we’re partially to blame.

I’m becoming uglier in adapting to Brazil. I wordlessly bump into and push past people. I’m doubting my romantic and platonic abilities with both men and women alike. I’ve learned from the ugly looks and stares that it’s strange to approach people at parties. As a girl, the men have to come to you first. If you approach a man, you’re a desperate slut. And girls just stay with the friends they came with. I’m losing my forward attitude. I look at guys and feel disgust and I distrust. As famous as Brazilians are for their warmth, I’ve encountered nothing but a farce when it comes to forging true relationships. Sure, they’re willing to make small talk with strangers on the subway, but they have gates and electric fences around everything they own, and are unwilling to call the police when their neighbor is getting mugged. I’ll take my ‘cold’ country’s silent subway rides any day, if that’s what warmth is.

Not even all the delicious açai and mangoes or sun and beaches can make up for these glaring cultural defects. On this roller coaster of my time abroad, the valleys are abysmal and the peaks are only barely hills. I miss my friends from home that I can tell secrets to and ask advice of and get rip-roaring drunk with. I miss having manners and rules in place that I can choose to break. I miss cheap, accessible clothing and technology. I miss organization and efficiency. I miss trust and believing in people. Books are a sore replacement for human companionship, but here they’re a hell of a lot more profound and reliable.

Salvador and change

Three months ago I was sitting at my desk during my Fonética e Fonologia class feeling flattened by the heat, snubbed by a lover, and defeated about starting over. The idea of staying here in this nothing town for a year was too much for me to think about at the time, so I counted up the longest I had ever been abroad (116 days), then counted 117 days after I had arrived here (June 6th) as a more feasible short-term goal. Today is June 6th, and a lot has changed.

Last weekend I flew to Salvador, and was immediately surrounded by beautiful Baianos. I was also immediately surrounded by hagglers. Salvador is a more touristy place than I had realized, and apparently the city employs otherwise homeless people to sell little shit and bother tourists incessantly to buy it. Good idea, só que não. The first couple days were tolerable, but after a street kid hit my friend, a kid on crack spit food at me, and an amputee swung his stump onto a nearby restaurant table, I’d had enough.

Everything about Salvador only gets better, though. I went to Barra and Praia do Forte, both relaxing beaches with clear water. It was the first time I was able to swim around in the ocean without being preoccupied about sharks, and it was wonderful.

 

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Salvador being the tourist destination that it is, I heard more Americans in the streets, at the beach, and in restaurants than I have in all the rest of Brazil combined. Whenever I’m feeling homesick, all I need to do is put myself in a place where I can hear the quintessential American abroad and the feeling quickly fades. There’s only so much dumbed-down foreigner speak and ignorant questions one can handle for a year.

Something that’s apparent to me everywhere I go, and in Salvador more than other places, is that Brazil has this culture of dance. No matter what area of the country you’re in, what type of dance it is, what kind of music it’s to, or what color the people are, they dance. And I love it. In Salvador people practiced capoeira in the square and danced outside of barzinhos on cobblestoned streets. They make it look easy, until a Brazilian tries to dance with me at a bar and I feel like a 6-foot girl at a 7th grade dance.

Brazil is teaching me how not to care. Brazilians care so little; shit happens and they just shrug and move on. Cut a Brazilian in one of their famous filas? Whatever. Want a Brazilian to move out of your way? Whatever. They’ll move when they feel like it. And same goes for you: want to stand in the same place all day, taking your sweet-ass time and inconveniencing people? A Brazilian won’t stop you. They won’t even notice it. Reservation, what’s that? Class started 20 minutes ago? We’re just on time. This bus is supposed to fit 40? We can fit 100. The World Cup stadiums aren’t ready, none of the taxi drivers here speak English, and foreigners can’t buy domestic flights online? No big deal, tudo vai dar certo. While too much of this attitude impedes progress and success, a nice blending of it and my American, stressed-out-all-the-time-book-nine-months-in-advance attitude can only be a good thing.