Wednesday, November 21, 2007
I leave at 7:14 every morning. I need 3 full minutes to slide open and shut the gate of PVC pipes and thin wire and careen down the steep, tropically damp cobblestone hill – past the banana trees, the nesting Brazilian blue crows and the one-eyed stray dalmatian-mut – to catch the bus at 7:17.
This morning, standing before my warped dime store mirror at 7:10, I found myself still wrapped in a damp towel without any idea of what to wear. But my pulse did not rise. Six months ago it would have taken off so fast, 4-letter words would have spewed from my mouth giving me a headache that would last the rest of the day. And finally, I’d say, “Screw it. I guess I’m just gonna be late. Again!”
In New York, not being dressed at four minutes till “time-to-go” would have been a perfectly valid excuse to leave my 20-odd expectant Hunter College freshmen waiting at their desks. This excuse was as legitimate as “death in the family” or the deliciously indisputable “train problems.” It was perfectly fine to be late when I had “nothing to wear!”
Yet this morning, I just put on clothes. And I still had two of the four minutes remaining, so I strolled down the hill a little ahead of schedule. It was all so easy.
In New York, leaving the house required emptying the entire contents of my closet onto the bed and lamenting my utter lack of clothing as the pile of “I cannot leave the house in that” reached ever closer to my 18 ft ceiling. But, alas, there was always one more train following shortly behind the one I’d just missed. And because of that, how many hours of my life – and how many other finite resources – had I thrown away without a second thought? It just seemed there was always one more of everything.
In Florianópolis, starting with the buses, the finite nature of things seems obvious. Against a landscape of oceans and mountains that seem never to come to an end, I can see the end of things. And something tells me, there’s an end to things everywhere. Even in the United States.
In the four months that I’ve been living in this half-constructed house on a hill with its precarious plumbing and electricity, its “charming” way of wobbling and tilting when someone comes in, I have seen proof that water and electricity are not “a given.” Sometimes I turn the faucet and water comes out; other times, it does not. Sometimes I flip a switch, and the room is lit; other times, it is not, and still other times, it is half-lit.
The other day as I was making my supermarket rounds, each one I visited was out of the item I usually buy from them. No tuna at Bom Jesus (even Jesus’s 5 loaves and 2 fish apparently have their limits); no mayonnaise at Chico’s, no tomato sauce at Bom Paladar. When I told my roommates that I couldn’t believe the coincidence, they were not fazed.
“When we were kids, the stores were out of milk more often than not. You’d hear from somebody that there was going to be milk at the supermarket on Thursday, and you’d get in line at six in the morning. The line would wrap around the store, and they’d only have one case of milk.”
The only time I had seen such a line was when the new Cabbage Patch Kids arrived at Richway just in time for Christmas in 1983.
The image of my friends, socioeconomic peers, waiting in line for a carton of milk – I hate to sound naïve (although pampered, spoiled American might be a more accurate evaluation, in which case I do prefer naïve), but I could scarcely believe it had happened in my lifetime. It sounded like the stuff of the Great Depression; it sounded Biblical.
The owner of a local café told me all the businesses in her shopping center had already received letters from the city warning of water and power shortages throughout the upcoming high season. There will be no choice then but to close the stores during this time, meaning that sometimes even income is not a given.
In Brazil, stores close. Buses don’t run all night. Things shut off. Things shut down. It is not a 24-hour world that bends around my every whim, and for that, I have had to learn to bend. And it is a stretch that these rigid joints have been needing for a long time.
Besides the obvious appreciation that has stirred up in me for the limited resources that I do have, I have a new outlook on perhaps one of our most precious resources: Time. In these moments in which something I need – water, light, a bus, a boat, a carton of milk – is all gone, I have been required to do something that was rarely, if ever, expected of me in the United States: wait.
In New York, the few times it’s required of us, waiting is strenuous exercise. To properly wait for a subway train, one must: 1.) sit on a bench, sigh loudly while taking three quick looks at the clock on your cell phone screen; 2.) stand and pace to the very edge of the platform; 3.) inhale deeply; 4.) hold all the air in behind tightly pursed lips while bending at the waist as far as possible so that you can see three stations down the tunnel; 5.) upon not seeing the train, exhale loudly while returning to an upright position; 6.) glance at your neighbors and shake your head to show them that you are very special and do not have time for this. The more experienced may add toe-tapping and tongue-clicking at intervals throughout the routine. 7.) If no one has taken your place on the bench, return and repeat. (And if someone has taken your spot, shake that head and purse those lips again.) 8.) When the train does arrive, jockey for a position on the platform in hopes that the doors will open right in front of you because the train will certainly be full and only have room for so many of the waiting passengers.
I have noticed that the locals here in Floripa do not wait as “aggressively” as my fellow North Americans. I remember folks getting punched and trampled in line during the Cabbage Patch Craze, yet I suspect this didn’t happen in the milk lines in Brazil.
The first time I missed the boat home, I was exasperated to learn that “ten minutes” late for one boat meant “fifty minutes early” for the next. In this time, I could’ve walked home. Hell, I could’ve swum. But I had an armful of groceries, so I sighed heavily and said, “Shit!” (in Portuguese of course, so then it’s not a bad word). But when I looked around me, I noticed no one else was perturbed to have a fifty-minute wait in front of them, and I was immediately embarrassed by my melodramatic show. Embarrassed to have shown that I thought for one second the boat schedule had anything at all do with me, that my sigh and slur would cause all the locals to suddenly realize the grave mistake the boat had made in leaving without me. They were going to regret this! They were going to pay!
So, as “when in Rome” has always been my Golden Rule of Travel, I decided to wait their way.
(Naturally, it’s easier to wait when we already know the boat will arrive in exactly 50 minutes – unlike a New York City subway that has no timetable we know of – it’s easier when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As a girlfriend of mine used to say, “You can always tell when the train’s coming because the tracks turn gold.” Surely, for me, that arriving train was indeed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.)
I sat on a bench on the pier, hands folded in my lap, and I waited. For the first few minutes, my gaze naturally gravitated to the clock on the pier until I realized that my gaze was not controlling the speed at which time was passing (once again, I had to accept the possibility that I might just not be the center of the universe after all!), so my gaze sought out better views.
Yes, I understand that it’s also easier to wait on a pier in the sun with a view of mountains and the sea than to wait on a platform in a tunnel underground with a view of rats and graffiti testaments of what some “hoe” named Lisa did with some guy named Chad. But still, what if all that time I spent pacing through the tunnels of New York, I had spent just sitting and breathing instead?
Because since I’ve started to wait like the locals, I rarely check the time on my cell phone. In the time that used to be filled with such ticks, I stand still. And in not watching the time, there somehow seems to be so much more of it. There are so many things to notice.
The other morning, the bus stalled in a little traffic at the peak of a mountain. This would’ve been a good time to check my watch, but on this day, that didn’t enter my mind.
I leaned against the window and stared out. What’s called “a rain throttle” in Brazilian Portuguese had just begun – it’s a fast, very hard rain, the kind of raindrops that could hurt a person; they feel like a belly flop on your bare arms. Observing the world through one of these rains is like looking through a magnifying glass, only it doesn’t just increase the size of things, it intensifies colors, smells and sounds, too. The leaves on the banana trees were three times their usual size and three times as green. They pressed against the windows of the bus as if pressing through the screen of a 3D movie, as if the world outside the bus just wasn’t big enough to contain them, their colors and their size. Everything around me seemed enormous.
The moment itself seemed huge, something I could get inside and roll around in, like a gerbil in a plastic ball, rather than a flaming hoop to be jumped through. There we were stopped in traffic; the minutes remaining till my morning class were, somewhere, ticking away, yet this very minute seemed infinite.