July, Part 3: Maceió, Alagoas

“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”

This is from the book State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, which I read voraciously during my week in Maceió. It was a week of giving up. I could say letting go, as that sounds more optimistic, but I’m a pessimist so I’ll go with the former.

Before coming to Brazil and during my first semester here, I had so many goals. I wanted to make a best Brazilian friend, learn Portuguese quickly and expertly, make myself at home in my city. I wanted a sexy moreno Brazilian boyfriend to teach me the words for parts of the body and show me Brazil through the eyes of a native, where life comes so much more easily.

None of these things had happened by July, and all that unhappiness followed by all that meditation and reading led me to one conclusion: I was bringing it upon myself by having unrealistic goals and standards for how people should be. This isn’t my home. People aren’t on time or even very reliable. Men lie shamelessly here. People make promises they never intend to keep. People are louder and step on your feet and stand in front of you without apologizing or moving. So I can fight it and be annoyed the rest of my year here, or just give up and accept it as an unideal reality.

Alongside this new revelation, I felt myself slipping into bohemian life while in Maceió, a lifestyle I always found alluring and very, very far from anything I would ever be. The beach was a daily destination, my skin growing dark and my hair light, dreading from lack of conditioner and caring. I didn’t know what day it was. The skin under my bracelets suddenly looked ghostly. I washed my underwear in the shower and wore dirty clothes for days and didn’t care. I thought after a month of travel I’d be exhausted by week four, but it only showed me that I was made for the beach. I made a mental pact to live on a beach in the future, no matter what it takes, but wondered if it would then lose its appeal. Maybe everything great in this world is only great because of its rarity, and therefore un-attainability.

On a tip from a Maceió-residing friend, my American friend and I watched the tide tables and headed out to the natural pools. These are clear, shallow pools formed by a sandbar two kilometers from shore. A man took us out there on a raft, the green ocean water lapping at our feet. We docked in a line of identical rafts and waded out to the sandbar. Children were playing, vendors were selling seafood, men were getting drunk. I bought a beer, then another, and my empty stomach plus the sun was a recipe for the lovely haze that came over me. We were told to avoid the ocean side of the sandbar, so we watched the waves crash against the coral, enticed by the danger. We did cartwheels and drank rum out of pineapples until, suddenly, our feet were underwater. I looked up and couldn’t see land, only waves crashing in what could’ve been 5 or 500 feet of water. I imagined what would happen if I got stranded out here, left behind by a negligent raft captain. I thought about sharks and jellyfish. I wondered if my atrophied arms could carry me back 2 kilometers against the current. I waited for the panic to set in, but it didn’t. I just headed calmly back to the raft we came in on, reveling in the warm pools as long as I could.

My last night in Maceió I found myself surrounded by Brazilian teenagers in our hostel lobby. Personal space was not a thing. My arms were touching them on either side, girlfriends were sitting on boyfriends, the temperature in the room was rising and all of them were laughing raucously at what seemed to be the funniest thing ever to happen in the history of the modern world, but was really just The Simpsons. I breathed in their soap-scented innocence and waited for the irritation that never came.





July, Part 2: Olinda, Pernambuco

The second leg of my journey led me to the northeast of the country, where I met up with my old high school friend who flew down from the states. Rio was a whirlwind and Olinda was the calm after the storm. I was left to pick up the pieces of my partied-out body and unsettled mind.

Every night before I went to bed in our quiet hostel, I would meditate. My mind quieted. I thought through some things. I prepared myself for the new semester and new experiences. I let go. I began reading a book that turned my mind toward Asia. I let that idea grow. I think I’ll go to Laos. Thailand too. Maybe India, if I’m feeling brave. I started studying Portuguese again, both on my own and in a class. I conjugated verbs and had entire mental conversations with myself over the macaroni and cheese my friend brought from the US. Never has such cheap food tasted so delicious. I sat, ate, and watched the palm trees swaying violently in the tropical storms, the deluge flooding the kitchen.

We found a cafe in the historic area of the city. Cobblestone paths and colorful houses led the way. It was if we had been teleported to a safe place, a place with water trickling over polished stones and a manicured lawn surrounding the square stepping stones leading to tables that were topped in paintings and flanked by heavy wooden chairs. It was an oasis, a reprieve from having to constantly be on my guard outside in metropolitan Recife.

As blondes, my friend and I drew more attention than we anticipated. A friendly bunch of old men stopped their dominoes game to ask if we needed directions, thinking we could be nothing but not from there. The cacophony of truck honks and sexual comments and unabashed stares was deafening. To be the object of desire in Brazil only requires that you be less than 80 and not obese, and even those criteria are muddy.

Ignoring these cries for attention, we walked up and down the beach, passing waves crashing on rocks, hippies selling their wares, and dozens of stray kittens eating an old cat lady’s food. It looked like vomit and it must have contained ketamine, because they just lethargically stared as we passed mere inches from them. Men smoked meat in shacks on strips of sand while fat women in thongs sweated on red plastic chairs. Men fished in the same water kids played in. Signs warned us to beware of sharks. I swam anyway, quickly and cowardly, on the same day a girl was killed by a shark five kilometers up the beach. I watched the video, watched the water bloom red and her being carried up the beach, leg turned into shreds of flesh, foot dangling.

One day we went to a beautiful and odd museum full of unlabeled old statues, armor, and nude paintings. There was an exhibit there about the Dutch in Brazil in the 1600s. What bravery, a bunch of blonde heads in a sea of palm trees and Indians, sweating as they tried to make a life for themselves. I found it eerie to imagine being in that exact spot 400 years ago. Without the buildings, it’s all just jungle, as easy to get lost in as the sea. While perusing the exhibit I saw a beautiful 18-year-old with the body of a varsity basketball player and shamelessly eye fucked him when his parents weren’t looking. He asked me for my facebook and the magic was lost.

We went to a street party one night, traditional music playing out of speakers set in a paint-chipped windowsill, people getting drunk off of cheap whiskey and light beer. People teetered in the cobblestone cracks while a crazy man harassed people and an old, toothless lady dressed in her Sunday best danced in the street for coins. A man breathed fire 15 feet into the air and walked on a cable suspended above our heads. We ooed and ahhed like a good audience while he hammed it up, pretending to fall. A girl puked while standing next to me and it splashed on my feet. An old ponytailed hippie from Iowa smelled flammable and started telling me how beautiful I was without makeup. I chatted with a guy with a google eye and kissed a stranger.

July, Part 1: Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

A 6-hour overnight bus ride to Sao Paulo took me away from my downward slide in Sao Jose do Rio Preto and started my 3.5 weeks away from home during my winter break in July.

Sao Paulo is a city that changes faces every time I go. I met up with a friend that first morning in a chic business district, which set the tone for the day. We drank fancy coffee at Coffee Lab and went to an orchestra performance, where, with our not-quite-student IDs, we got tickets for half price. We walked past bums and crackheads pissing in the street in order to enter the sublime performance hall filled with Sao Paulo’s elite dressed to the nines. We stood out in our jeans and backpacks, but a glass of Merlot quickly helped us feel more at home. Listening to the violas (because they’re my favorite) through my wine-induced haze, I felt the potential of this trip, all the good and unexpected that had already happened in that first day and all that was to come, and was reminded once again why traveling makes one feel more alive.

That night we took another overnight bus to Rio de Janeiro. Rio, the city that had been talked up since I had taken my first Portuguese lesson years ago. I figured since I’d heard nothing but stellar reviews, I was bound to be disappointed. But it was this exact lack of expectation that let me love it.

Anyone who has the ability to google ‘Rio’ can see pictures of how beautiful it is, so I won’t bore anyone with that. But it is beautiful. Go to Pao de Acucar. You’ll feel on top of the world. Lying on the beach in Ipanema, listening to the ferocious waves, watching the mountains (as if they’d move), and looking out for talented beach thieves, I had another I-made-it moment, remembering when a friend used to call me ‘garota de Ipanema’ during our Portuguese classes in the states. That all seems like a lifetime ago.

And that’s what I’ve realized: time slips away here. It’s like the opening between the hourglass halves is bigger. My lazy days in Rio passed in a pleasant haze, all my past stresses dissolving and all my plans for the future seeming irrelevant. My time was a serene blur of beaches, boys, and baladas, spent with friends from all my different lives in Brazil. It was the easiest thing in the world.

One of my favorite nights with them was spent cooking dinner together at the top of a yellow-lit, narrow spiral staircase. The food, wine, and company was all that was needed to be content in that moment. Another night we all walked to the beach in Copacabana with a bottle of cachaca and leftover wine in tow. As we sat in a circle and watched the waves creep closer and closer, we talked about fears and the future, and how grateful we were to be receiving government funding to be in Brazil, ultimately leading to our sitting on a beach in Rio in the dark. No matter how different we may seem on the surface, I’m unlikely to ever meet a group of people with interests and aspirations as similar to mine. It’s a tiny part of what makes me feel grateful for this year, my 26th spent in this crazy place.

One small thing I love about this place is that men have no qualms about kissing strangers, in the middle of the day, no alcohol involved. We in the U.S. usually need to get good and drunk for that, but we could stand to learn something, because it’s surprising and lovely. I call these my 24-hour boyfriends, and where better to have one (or two)?

Another thing men are good for in Rio is dancing. To me there is no better place to drink a too-sweet caipirinha and get sweaty than in a room filled with Brazilians dancing funk. You will find no stiff hips or wallflowers there, only beautiful cariocashh who are far too willing to breathe their Halls breath all over you, girls tipping upside-down, doing quadradinho de oito on stage.

In Lapa, the trashy club scene neighborhood of Rio, there was no dearth of places to get breathed on. People were everywhere. They unabashedly pissed in the streets, transvestites ran around grinding on drunk foreigners as they slid their hands into their money-laced pockets, unseen faces grabbed our asses as we pushed our way through the crowd. Women sold drinks with names like ‘beijo na boca’ for $2 out of the side of a run-down building. Men came around passing out tequila shots. Funk played from one set of speakers set precariously on a window sill, rap out of another. Midgets ran around ‘black’ clubs. Political correctness did not exist. We got spilled on, hissed at, shouted at, and trampled on. And we came back and did it all over again.

I learned how to relax in Rio as much as I learned how to be feisty. I yelled at a girl who deserved it, stood up for myself to a taxi driver, bargained for everything. My personality in Portuguese is starting to show. I learned how to say no as much as I learned how to say yes, which is a lesson as important as any.