Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Sometimes when I buy my ticket for the water taxi, the ticket lady asks me, “round-trip?”
Round-trip tickets are for tourists. And yes, I know there is no hiding my foreignness; even before I speak, with aspirated “t”s and weighty “r”s, my otherness is in my clothes, my choice of backpack; it’s in my posture, my gaze. I can identify what it is about Brazilians that’s different from me, but in ten years tangled up with this country and its people, I have never been able to emulate it.
Still it surprises me when the ticket lady sometimes asks me if I’d like a return ticket because other times, she not only sells me a one-way without any questions, she calls out to the captain, “This one gets off at Pier 3” even though we have never actually ridden the boat together.
Does this mean that sometimes she forgets she has ever seen me before? In New York, I’d believe it, but here I am always impressed by how I only have to tell a person my name, or any other detail about myself, once, and that person will never forget. So I can only assume that this ticket lady with her long glossy black hair, her lisp, round face, and thick round glasses – who looks like my mother in the 70s – takes it upon herself from time to time to put me in my place, to remind me that I am not one of them, that I am obviously and indisguisably different, to remind me that I am not fooling anyone, that she knows I am just passing through, that she knows that sooner or later, maybe next week, maybe next decade, I will buy my return ticket off this coast and never come back.
Sure, it’s disheartening at first to be so blatantly reminded that I am an outsider, but in the end, I don’t mind. She’s right, I am not from here, and ultimately, my trip to this place will indeed be a round one.
And besides, can I blame her? I also marvel at how different she and her neighbors are from me. It’s what occupies my mind most on every boat trip out to my coastal neighborhood. I shamelessly stare at the other passengers as if they were on display in a museum. What usually impresses me is their roughness – a tiny, shriveled old woman, easily in her 90s, eating a tough roll in much the same way that a coyote might use his teeth to tear apart the carcass of a bird. Now I am not talking about manners here. That’s all relative; what’s polite in my country is often highly offensive here, and vice-versa. I am talking about a rugged durability I see in my new neighbors that I have never detected in my countrymen. I watch the old woman – skin browned from the South American sun, she is wrinkled literally from her hairline to the tips of her toes that hang over her worn sandals – and I try to picture my grandmothers eating a roll like that. Neither of them are particularly refined, well-mannered women. They are both “good country people” like their Brazilian counterparts here on this boat. Still, I am certain that my grandmothers, my friends’ grandmothers, could not pulverize a stale dinner roll in this way.
I see this ruggedness in the way the women muscle their groceries onto the boat; the way boys of 3, 4 years old sit on their haunches on the steps of the boat; little girls – as dainty and vain as they may be, decked out in pink ruffles, laden down with baby dolls – they’ve got a scratch in their voices, a grit in their hair, a gravity in their gaze. At each stop on the boat, it is the job of the male (of any age and any attire) closest to the boat’s exit to heave himself out onto the ledge of the boat (while still in motion), swing one leg over onto the pier, pull the rope towards the pier, then take the hands of the passengers as they exit. I have seen men in suits and dress shoes perform this dance with the rustic grace of an old sea dog.
When I step aboard, I sit as far from the exit as I can. Just in case no men embark, I don’t want a boat full of Brazilians looking to me in a few minutes to wrestle this ship to shore.
And from my seat in the corner, I, just like the ticket lady, muse about how different my fellow passengers are from me. I don’t wonder at their rugged looks and brusque mannerisms alone, but also their lifestyles as I imagine them. On that coast where cars can’t go, theirs, unlike the life I left in America, is a life devoid of “convenience as a virtue,” “convenience as a basic human right.” There is no running out to the corner store at 6am for a carton of milk when you’ve just tipped an empty one over your fresh cup of coffee. There is, in fact, no corner at all. From my house on the coast, just before the road ends and turns into dirt trail, I can see satellite dishes dotting their virgin forest. So at first I imagine coastal dwellers surfing the web and watching American movies just like me. But, walking this dirt trail, you’ll find that for every two big houses equipped with a satellite dish, there’s a handful of wooden cabins wedged in between them. On cinderblock stilts, you can see that there are no cables of any sort running to and from these little dwellings – no TV or Internet, refrigerators run on gas, and lights go out with the sun.
Who are these people, so different from me? I wonder as the boat carries us to our respective homes one mile and a whole world apart.
On a recent weekend, Daniel was in town, and I took him on the two-hour walk to the end of the trail. We were in tourist mode with knapsacks full of water bottles, cameras and trail mix. Our choice of footwear – hiking boots – showed that the trail, for us, was a Saturday afternoon activity, not a functional byway, as it is for coastal residents who actually need it to get from point A to point B. As we walked, locals hollered out unsolicited information. Not much further. Watch out, we just saw a snake up ahead. Information that would only need to be given to Strangers, people not from these parts, people not like them.
Hours later, after we had finally finished the trail and caught the last boat back towards town – my house being a little over halfway to town – tired, I rested my head on the seatback and let my gaze fall wherever it would. It was 9:30 on a Saturday night, and the boat was filled mostly with young people who had taken advantage of this last chance to get into town and hit the bars and clubs. I assumed this was what they did every Saturday night and wondered how they usually got home. The bus would only be running for another hour, and even so, just like a taxi or the ever-popular hitchhiking, it would only carry them halfway, then they’d have to hike the trail – sleepless, buzzed, in strappy shoes and in the dark. Did they carry headlamps, sneakers and insect repellant in their purses? Or would they stay downtown till the first boat back at dawn? Whatever their plan, it was probably quite practical and followed by many young people every Saturday night – and a plan that I, a stranger to their world, would never have cooked up.
My gaze fell on two couples in their early 20s. They had boarded the boat together; the girls might have been sisters on, what appeared to be, a double date. They got on the boat wordlessly, and, as if performing a choreographed dance, they found seats, and all four, without any shifting or squirming, assumed comfortable positions that would allow the girls to sink into the arms of their boyfriends. The two boys exchanged a few words from time to time, while the two girls let their heads fall lazily on their companions’ chests. Even in their “it’s late and I’m tired but I still want to go out tonight” trance, the girls had this toughness that I’ve seen in so many of their neighbors. But this night, it wasn’t our differences that drew me to them.
They were so easily entwined with their boyfriends, positioned in a way they had clearly been many times before. They got on the boat, and naturally, effortlessly sought the arms of their boyfriends. Their affectionate tanglings on this boat in the jungle reminded me of me sitting on the manicured quad at University of Georgia, a quintessential American state university, with some boyfriend. That semester, just to fulfill a language requirement, I was hearing my first words of Portuguese – a language that, at the time, I could only attribute to the people in outdated images in a textbook. Their embrace took me back even further, to sitting on a blanket at Briscoe Park with my high school sweetheart, 15, 16 years ago. A time when I had never even considered Brazil or the possibility of the dissolved marriage that would get me here.
I wanted the embrace, the companionship, of another then as I do now. As does every passenger on this boat that chugs along this coastal stretch of virgin jungle somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. As this tiny ferry carries us, my weight shifting into Daniel, I continue to watch the tough island girls nestled in the arms of their boyfriends, and I forget what it was about them that made them so different from me. We all, by nature, seek arms to encircle us. Whether we inhabit the island of Floripa or the island of Manhattan, we all inhabit bodies that were made to come together. No matter what else divides us.