Friday, June 18, 2010

Another Trip

It feels a little funny blogging here (the home for my introspective travel essays about the proverbial stranger in a strange land on an island in Brazil) about my new job writing for Yale Medicine Publications. I work in New England, in an office, at a desk from 9 to 5. I pack a lunch and eat it in the park, slipping out of my shoes and sitting tentatively on a park bench in the hope that the crease won’t fade from my starched slacks. Haven’t I become the antithesis of Another Island? I don’t think so.

I’m happy. Finally fulfilling a goal that I once believed was unfairly eluding me, I’m writing full-time. (And eating a lot of my words as I sit at a desk in an office from 9 to 5 in my starched slacks – a prospect that I’m sure I’d have called a death sentence in past writing, in a past life). And in a major plot twist, I’m writing about science. But all of my writing is travel writing, the journey from New York to Floripa in 2007 just a leg of the trip, and here begins another.

I arrived in New Haven on a Thursday and had to cover my first story that Saturday. Naturally, I was terrified, so it seemed only fitting that my assignment took place in a tiny dark room full of hundred-year-old jarred brains: The Cushing Center, two floors below Yale medical library, is a mini-museum for the Cushing collection.

Yale inherited in 1939 a collection of brains and brain tumors – 650 of them – in jars, when Harvey Cushing, Yale professor of neuroscience and in fact The Inventor of Modern Neurosurgery, passed away. He kept the tumors and the brains of each of his patients, not trusting them to anyone but himself after a nurse had misplaced a specimen early in Cushing’s career. On his death, Cushing left this collection to Yale under the condition that they would find a home for it. Until the Center opened two weeks ago, the brains stayed in the basement of the medical school for more than 70 years, where medical students – in a med school rite of passage – broke in to view them. The students signed a poster that read “Leave only your name. Take only memories,” making them members of The Brain Society.

Cushing was also a gifted artist. He left skillful surgical illustrations, drawings from his travels, and – my favorite part of the exhibit – stunning black and white photographs of his patients. About 10,000 glass plate negatives in all were piled in the basement with the brains.

The images depict late-19th and early 20th century men, women and children, many with visible brain tumors. Shaved or partially shaved heads reveal bulging skulls or indentations from where skulls had been cut away to relieve the pressure of the tumor. The expressions on the faces – sometimes those of laughing children, or fearful adults – reveal only humanity. In most of the images, patients splay a hand across their chest or next to their face. The hands were examined as a means of brain tumor diagnosis. An overwhelming number of those tumors beneath the protruding skulls of the photographs were successfully removed, restoring the lives of the women, men and children pictured, and those tumors are now in jars along shelves of the Cushing Center.

When Cushing first started practicing, the mortality rate for brain surgery was 30-50%. He brought that rate down below ten. His techniques are used in modern operating rooms today. And now, pieces of his surgeries, performed a hundred years ago, can be seen in a tiny dark room beneath the library.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No. 8: Homecoming

I recently found myself in the passenger seat of a big ole pickup truck, riding slowly down a dirt road, headlights off, Bluegrass on the radio, and a Bud in my hand. When I lived in the South – 14 years ago – I was vaguely aware of this aspect of my culture: that country roads are somehow exempt from traffic laws about alcohol, headlights and speed limits. But that culture had never been a part of my Southern reality. I come from the well-paved suburbs of Atlanta far from any dirt road, and my daddy never had a pickup truck, nor dreamed of having one, and he rarely drank beer. I listened to Top 40 not Bluegrass, and when I started drinking, Bud was never my preference. Pickup trucks, Bluegrass, and American beer, in my mind, were the stuff of red necks.

Still in the 14 years that I lived outside of my native South, when I longed for “home,” it was these contrived, cliché symbols of country life, not in any way representative of my own youth in the South, that I sought. The first summer I spent in New York rather than Georgia, homesick, I took a liking to Bluegrass and insisted on playing it on the tape player at my Manhattan summer job all summer long. Years later, with a band of hipsters in tow, I shamelessly insisted that we go to a bar in Brooklyn that was playing Bluegrass, and I made each one square dance with me as if I personally owned the rights to the steps. The last, and only, time I had square danced was as a requirement in my 7th-grade P.E. class, and, like all my classmates, I complained about it fervently. When I longed for the South though, as an adult in New York, I longed for country roads and boiled peanuts from roadside fruit stands while the only produce I had grown up on had always come from the grocery store.

I had seen this phenomenon before in New York, a city of displaced people. I knew Brazilians, raised like me on American rock and pop, who only took a liking to Bossa Nova music after they left their country. I had Middle Eastern Muslim students who, dressed in head coverings and long dresses, told me they never covered their heads back home. And in my 11th year in New York, I, a vegetarian who mostly prefers Asian food and always skips dessert, hosted a dinner party of shrimp ‘n’ grits and peach cobbler with nothing but country playing on the stereo.

During my 6-year marriage to a Brazilian, who always kept one of our collective feet in New York and the other planted in Brazil, I accepted what seemed to me a bitter reality that my Southern lineage ended with me; that my children, should I one day have them, would not be from the South, and their vague notion of what Southern meant would be tied not to me but to maternal grandparents who would not live nearby. Once, seated at a corner table at a Starbucks in the Bronx, thinking about these very facts, I cried when Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” came on the radio. I wondered how it was I had gotten so far off the road that he claimed always led back to Georgia.

And now, so many years after I’d accepted that I had to give up the South, I find myself, not too far from home, on a dirt road in Georgia. A few miles into this Sunday night drive, my companion stopped beside a field of sunflowers and waded out into the middle to pick three for me. With his large hands, creased and worn from hard work, his wide fingers, flattened out it seemed from numerous whacks with a hammer, he pointed out for me where the seeds were and how to remove and eat them. We climbed back into the truck, and I laid the enormous flowers out across the back seat with the care of a mother laying an infant down to nap. This was the fourth time I had gone out with this man, and for reasons unrelated to trucks, sunflowers, and endless dirt roads, I knew by this night that he was not the guy for me. Maybe I knew that if his wading out into a moonlit field of sunflowers for me didn’t do it, nothing would. Still, in honor of this lovely country night that I had wanted for 14 years, that I had once feared I’d missed forever, when his rugged hand reached across the arm rest, between the twin bottles of Bud, I willingly let mine fall into it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

No. 7

Recently I had the opportunity to indulge a curiosity I had had since I was 19 and studying Eastern Religions at Hunter College in New York. I visited with a friend the Hindu ashram where he meditates every Saturday. It seems ridiculous that it took me so long, but the prospect of indulging a curiosity in New York just always seemed so…. indulgent. A pity since New York is a veritable playground of curiosities, but really, who had the time? In New York, I was always too busy.

It was in my 11th year there that I finally saw New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker though it had been in my plans since I was a child. But I’m sure we can all generate pages-long lists of things we’ve “been meaning to do,” but have always been too busy for.

But busy is good, right? Busy is a virtue. I’ve found it, in fact, to be the only acceptable alternative to “fine” when answering the question, “How are you?”

“Busy. So busy.”

If you are busy, your life is valid and important. For those who have too much free time on their hands, we say things like, “You need to get a life.” We ought to simply answer the question, “How are you?” with “Valid. Important. You?”

When I left the US, I said I wanted to live in a place where you didn’t have to book 3 weeks in advance to have a quick 30-minute cocktail with your best friend between yoga and book club, a place where you could call your friends at 7 pm and have an actual chance at meeting them for dinner tonight, a place where people did have too much time on their hands.

In those final busy days in New York, I touted my idealistic views of the new life I was seeking. I’d meet a friend for a quick coffee and tell her why I was leaving New York and heading back to Brazil. “I want a culture that values spontaneity!” I gloated. “I choose to live in a place that puts quality time with friends ahead of quantity of hours worked!” But even as I heard the words come out of my mouth, I wondered if my utopia of free time and spontaneity really existed anywhere in this world.

I was trying to go back to a Brazil that I wasn’t sure could still be found on any map. The last time I had lived in Brazil was at a one-of-kind moment in time: I had been 22; had no credit card debt; was in that glorious moment of pre-student loan repayment so aptly, so spiritually called Grace; life was cheap in Brazil; the Dollar and the Real were one-to-one; I had a savings account and no adult responsibilities that would require me to bleed it. But now, as a full-fledged grown-up, were spontaneity and free time commodities my age and bank account would still afford me?

Still, I pressed on.

It only took me a few days here to realize that my next-door-neighbor’s porch was the meeting place for a handful of young people on my street. Every day when I’d head out for my run, they’d be there chatting, drinking mate, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. So it really did exist! This was The Scene I had imagined myself in months ago, back in cold New York when I’d made the decision to come here.

“Have a good run!” They’d call after me as I set out. “Stop by when you get back.” It was a dream come true. Except that as I ran off down the road, sinking into my thoughts, I felt not the excitement of a dream realized but rather disdain. Disdain for those friendly neighbors gathered on the porch on a weekday afternoon. Doesn’t the Devil find work for idle hands, I wondered to myself. I’d better watch out for those people.

On many weekdays, another neighbor, Big Carlos, speeds by on his bike, and each time, he calls out to me in greeting, “This is the good life, isn’t it?” I politely answer, “Uh huh!” But even as I say it, I feel like a charlatan, like any moment he could discover that I’m faking, that I don’t understand that this is the good life. Behind my enthusiastic “Uh huh!,” I wonder, is it? Is this good?

On another weekday, I was staring out the window while washing dishes when a car slowed down in front of the house and the driver, a hippy grad student, said, “C’mon Sonya, let’s go to the beach.” And without a thought, I said, “Sorry,” and shook my head.

Wasn’t this what I had wanted? Unscheduled chats with neighbors on the porch? Spontaneous Tuesday afternoon trips to the beach? It had always just been a question of whether this life really existed. And now it does! Yet all I could say was “sorry.”

I confess my first month here – before I had filled my schedule with private students, translations and workouts at the gym – was long and lonely. I had as much time as I wanted to pick up the phone at 7pm and make spontaneous plans for tonight. But for some reason, this scenario was no longer at all appealing to me. All this free time had left me completely empty.

But when students and other work began to trickle in, I found myself sometimes wishing that I had gone to the beach more. Why had it been so hard for me to use the free time that I had literally crossed continents to attain? Honestly, I did have a class later that day, but I didn’t need to consult my schedule to know I didn’t want to go to the beach with her. I knew exactly why I hadn’t dried my hands, run outside and jumped in the car. I didn’t want to go to the beach with people who had nothing else to do on a Tuesday afternoon. I had thought they were losers.

In fact, I thought that my availability to go to the beach with them made me a loser. Insignificant. No one. And that my being busy, having that one little class that afternoon to prevent me from going to the beach, made me Someone. I judged Big Carlos speeding down the street on his bike; I judged the kids on the porch next door drinking mate at all hours of the afternoon. And my being busy somehow made me superior to them, gave me the right to mutter haughtily, Humph, some people have to work for a living.

Somewhere between those wide open days when I first came here and my busier today, when I started to feel my window of time closing in on me, I started to learn how to enjoy my free time. In the days when all I had was free time, I felt too guilty to spend it in any other way than looking for ways to get rid of it. I can’t go to the beach, I thought. I should be online looking for more work. But as work started to trickle into the wide-open spaces in my schedule, I felt a greater urgency to take advantage of what time remained. If I found myself done with all my students before dark, I’d hike the trail by my house or go into town and have a coffee at a sidewalk café watching others spend their free time.

It was around this time, that a friend mentioned that he meditated at a Hindu ashram. I couldn’t mask my intrigue. So when he asked me if I wanted to go, I knew I had to permit myself to indulge that old curiosity. If moving from New York City to this jungle hadn’t taught me to let myself live a little, I’d need a lot more than a day in prayer at an ashram to save me.

I was a bit nervous at first. I must have asked him a hundred times if he was sure it was okay to bring a friend. If he was sure I wouldn’t be seen as an interloper. I was starting to imagine something akin to Eyes Wide Shut. Would they ask me for a password? When they discovered I wasn’t one of them, would I be subjected to an inquisition carried out by men in masks and capes? But my friend assured me that I was being silly, and that he couldn’t think of a place that would be warmer or more welcoming, so I went.

Before entering the temple, I saw many framed portraits and images inside, of people, beings and deities who I could not identify, but as the worshippers approached the room, I could see the pause these images gave them. As if struck by them, they stood at the threshold in what I can only describe as a vibrant, reverent silence. Then, one by one, as they entered the room, before finding a seat, each worshipper knelt before the altar and bowed.

I waited for my friend to pay his respects to God so that I could take a seat next to him. I watched as he – a man in his late 30s, tall and broad shouldered, lowered himself to his knees; his hips rocking back on his heels, he bent at the waist and continued to bend until his face was on the floor before him. Then he rocked forward slightly until the crown of his head was pressed into the carpet.

And there he stayed for at least as long as it took me to catch my breath. Now it was I who stood at the door and watched in what I can only describe as a vibrant, reverent silence. Of all the images in the room, this was the one that moved me.

I tell you that he was a man, of strong build, and older than me because I do not want you to imagine, as I certainly would have, one of the hippies on my block that goes to the beach on Tuesdays. After all, isn’t this the type of Westerner that frequents Hindu temples? No, he is a businessman; he works at a desk and carries a laptop; he wears khakis and uses a Bluetooth. He would not be out of place rushing around Manhattan at a quarter to nine a.m. He is serious, important. Busy. And now, in his khaki pants and pressed shirt, he is on his knees on the floor, his clean-shaven face on the carpet. Watching him, I begin to feel physically tired. His posture of total surrender looks so relieving. What a relief it would be to just stop. Stop pretending to be busy. Stop thinking I am better than someone else. Stop being important, valid, Someone. How nice it would be to fall on my knees, lay my face on the floor and admit that I am nothing. I only wonder if I would ever get up.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

No. 6

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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

No. 5 (as seen in Mandala Literary Journal, University of Georgia Press, 2009)

Florianópolis is made up of a network of nature trails that connect the beaches, mountains, and lakes of the island. They are different, though, from the trails found in any state park because of the villages that quite suddenly pop up along them. There are no signs reading “Smallville 100m” warning of their existence. So you’re walking along a rocky path through dense jungle, hearing the crunch of gravel under your feet and the chatter of monkeys in the trees when suddenly you hear the clatter of a cue ball making the first break shot. You’ve stumbled upon a pool hall. Soon roosters are crossing your path, a horse, a cow. Then there’s a string of houses, modest in size and construction materials while outspoken in color. There’s a grocerette, a church, a first-aid post, a video store. On the door of a dance hall is a poster that invites “the community” to a dance that night.

These villages are referred to as “communities,” and it’s not surprising that the poster advertising the dance doesn’t necessarily say outsiders aren’t welcome, but it certainly doesn’t encourage their attendance. While it’s clear how to reach these communities on foot, how does one reach the people who comprise them?

Anyone who knows me knows that the reason I travel – the reason I “hike these trails” – is not to hear the chatter of the monkeys in the trees; it’s to hear the chatter of the villagers, then to chatter with them, and, eventually, I hope to be accepted as one of them.

I wasn’t aware of this obsession, until my older sister articulated it in another city in another country. I had rented a house in the historic center of Savannah, Georgia, for a month in the summer of 2005, and I came to feel I knew the area and the faces in it as well as I knew my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Towards the end of my stay, my sister came to visit, and while we were out one day, a tourist asked me for directions.

Once the tourist was out of earshot, I said to my sister, elated, “Did you see that?! She asked directions, and I knew!!!”

My sister shook her head at me, rolling her eyes. “God, Sonya, wherever you go, you want to pass for a local.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” I thought. But I hadn’t passed for a local; the only person who mistook me as someone who might be able to give directions was another tourist.

At the café where I had had coffee on every single one of my 30 mornings in Savannah, the guy at the counter – who had served me on all 30 of those mornings – asked me (the day before I left!), “So, when are you going back?”

I was exasperated. What tourist stays in the same tiny town for 30 days?!

“Where?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “wherever you’re visiting from.”
Why didn’t he think I had moved to town to teach at the college right next door? What was so positively foreign about me? I was a native of Georgia! My people had been in Georgia for 300 years, dammit! I could even resurrect my accent when necessary. Did I really seem so out of place, y’all?

On the water taxi in Floripa, I’ve seen ladies from The Community share their supermarket purchases with everyone on the boat but me. I am not sad that they don’t offer their bag of Ruffles for me to dig my hand into; I am just a little embarrassed that when trying to pass for a local, the only one I seem to fool is myself.

Language has always been my way of trying to reach out to people in the hope that they would take my extended hand and pull me in – whether it’s a Southern accent in Savannah, though mine faded long ago, or Portuguese in Brazil. When I am the outsider, I try to express through language that I embrace and respect the local people and culture in the hope they will embrace me, too. As one of their own.

As a result, my insistence on learning Portuguese, and not speaking a word, a syllable, an utterance of English with any Brazilian person became such a point of pride with me the first time I was in Brazil, at age 23 in 1999, that it threatened to grow into a monster that might have scared off even the toughest, most stoic villager.

When I lived in Brazil for the first time, I adhered to a strict rule that I myself had invented: No English outside of the English schools where I taught. For this reason, I didn’t socialize with the other English teachers, who, coming from all over the world, might have been really interesting and worth knowing. And when students invited me to do things outside of class, I answered, “I’d love to, but, just so you know, we won’t be speaking English.” What an abrasive response to an earnest invitation! It’s no wonder some of those invitations never evolved past the stage of offhand suggestion. I’m just lucky that some of those people, like Renata – first a student, later a dear friend – gave me a chance and didn’t withdraw the invitation.

Once my Portuguese had reached a level that allowed me to build relationships in the language, it was offensive to me when Brazilian strangers would approach and immediately, presumptuously, start speaking English. The sound of my mother tongue inspired real anger in me, and, on many occasions, my response certainly showed it.

Once in a bar a very cute guy sat next to me and asked my friend and I where we were from. The girl with me said, “I’m from Curitiba, and she’s from the US.” Mr. Cute turned to me and said in English, “Oh? What’s your name?” My response? “Eu falo Português.” He politely excused himself from our table and I, the cold b@#$% who was too proud even to say her name if it wasn’t solicited in Portuguese, sat alone for the rest of the night. As we say in Portuguese, Bem feito. It serves you right!

Was it so hard for me to imagine that maybe these friendly Brazilians, who had worked just as hard to learn English as I had to learn Portuguese, were proud that they spoke another language, too? Imagine that.

At the time I figured I was offended by Brazilians’ assumption that someone who looks like me must not know how to speak Portuguese – devestating to a WASP who wants to be a local in Latin America. Their words said, “Hi! What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?” but my ears heard, “I assume you don’t speak Portuguese, so I will stoop to your level and speak English with you, the dumb American.”

But now I wonder if there wasn’t more to it than that. Was it that the stranger, with his use of my mother tongue, had gotten too close? Instead of a hand shake, he had caressed the small of my back. Maybe he was just trying to embrace me.

I wonder now how many doors I closed with my refusal to bend – thinking I was bending so much – my refusal to speak my own language, always insisting on speaking “theirs.”

I love language like a prized object. I have favorite words like someone may have a favorite sweater, words that remind me of a fond memory the way photographs trigger such memories for others. As a baby, when I cried, my father didn’t shake my favorite toys before my eyes; he repeated my favorite words. Bunny. Turtle. Puppy.

For someone who has such a sensual relationship with her mother tongue, why was I so resistant against it? Sure, I don’t want to be the ugly American who wanders into every store in Rio de Janeiro, expects the staff to speak English, and just picks up something and says, “How much?” But why, in intimate situations, with people who wanted to be my friend, was I so resistant to the language that was most intimately connected to me? Maybe I wanted to connect with them. Maybe I believed I was connecting with them. But couldn’t Portuguese just as easily have been a wall I was building around myself, an armor I wore when among those who were foreign to me, a way of not revealing my true self? A way of sheilding my, ultimately English-speaking, heart?

I started to think about all this because, several months ago, I had the opportunity to hike a trail I had never hiked before with two people I had never spent time with before. One was my roommate’s brother, André, and the other, Daniel, a friend of a friend of a friend visiting Floripa for the weekend. A group of us had gathered on the beach – mostly my roommate’s family – when Daniel decided to hike the nearby trail. I didn’t know him, but I volunteered to go in order to escape a Sunday afternoon with someone else’s family.

I was telling the two guys some story as we walked in single file along the narrow trail. André and I had gotten a little ahead of Daniel, so Daniel yelled, in English, although no one had been speaking English, “Wait! What did you say?” And I felt that old anger creep in, stiffen my shoulders and heat the back of my neck and the tips of my ears. He had also been flirting with me shamelessly, and I thought about giving him a helpful hint that Portuguese was a lot bigger turn-on to me than English, but instead I just repeated myself, as he had requested, and I did so in Portuguese.

Dear Daniel is apparently as stubborn as I am because although I didn’t give him much encouragement on the trail that day, he pressed on. And almost always in English. Over some weeks, as our conversations ventured beyond the banal “What did you do today?” my defenses began to weaken. Finally I just asked him, “I speak Portuguese, you know. Why do you insist on speaking English with me?”

He didn’t hesitate. He said, “To reach you.”

And that was when he did. Just when I was about to build a wall around me again, he slid a note through a crack. I don’t know what changed, what made me read it, but fortunately, it was written in a language that I was beginning to understand. And maybe this time around in Brazil I would finally learn how to make a real connection.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No. 4

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.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No. 3 (or "Say My Name")

In Atlanta, New York and Rio, there was always a part of me that wished I could hop on the stool at the counter of the local luncheonette located at some town’s only intersection, hearing the bells tinkling on the door behind me, and in front of me, the short order cook asking, “The usual?”

My happiest years in New York were the last few when I became a “regular” at my local haunts. The host at the Mexican restaurant, when he passed me on the street, would ask, “Where have you guys been,” if my then-husband and I hadn’t been into the restaurant in a while. And I was putty in the hands of the guy at the bodega when he started to call me mami; feminism schmeminism! – I was just thrilled to no longer be anonymous. When the Polish teen at the café got to the point that she was confirming my order – small green tea; two bags, right? – rather than asking for it, I thought I might just stay in Brooklyn forever. It was the traffic and the bright lights that had drawn me to New York, yet I came to like it most when it became quaint.

But nothing could have prepared me for the in-your-face quaintness of Florianópolis.

On the watertaxi, a stranger named Claudia struck up a conversation with me about the advantages and disadvantages of living in a place that’s only accessible by boat.
I said, “Well, I’ve only lived here about –
“Five weeks,” she said, cutting me off.
I couldn’t decide if we had met before, or if, perhaps, she had “a gift.” (I’m getting a strong five weeks vibe from you.)
“Do you live on Servidão Valagão?” I asked her.
“No, I work there. I saw you and the brunette [my roommate Lú] when you first got here. Do you two really go running every day?”

Another time, crossing the street, I ignored a stray “hello, girl!” because – who do I know in this town? Who would be saying hello to me? But when it got closer and louder, I turned.
“I bet you don’t even recognize me!” It was an older man, a grandpa type, with deep blue eyes, and crisp shirt and white pants.
Indeed I did not recognize him, but he sure was happy to see me. “Uhh – ”
“I see you found your way into town.”
It was the ragged fisherman who had told me I should take the bus instead of the watertaxi into town a few days before as I waited on the pier in the wintery darkness of 6am. (I live on the coast of a lagoon where the pavement ends, but I did not know at this time that buses came so far into my neck of the jungle.)

When you get on the watertaxi in town, you have to tell the captain where you plan to get off if he doesn’t already know you and your stop. After a couple weeks, I thought I had seen the whole rotation of captains, and I no longer needed to tell them my stop; as soon as I stepped aboard, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “Pier 3?” One day, though, there was a captain I was certain I hadn’t seen yet, so as I put my hand in his to step aboard the rocking boat, I opened my mouth to say –

And he cut me off, “Pier 3,” he said without a question mark.

Had I seen him before? Had I spoken to him before? Apparently I’d put my hand in his and told him my stop, but there was no record of this exchange in my memory. New Yorkers do not use valuable headspace to record every face they see. Space – of any kind – is far too precious. We’ve got appointments to catalog. Hell, in New York, I had to plan three weeks out just to sit down to dinner with my dearest friends; I wasn’t going to allocate perfectly good real estate in my brain to the faces of every employee of the MTA. But here, a face is never forgotten.

No one else who boarded the boat told the captain their stop that day. There were about 30 of us, and there are 23 peirs along this coast. And the captain knows the face that goes with every single one of them.

It’s not that I never remembered the faces of the strangers with whom I commuted every day; it’s that in New York, everyone knows that you can’t let on. Only a certified stalker would lean over to the stranger on the bench next to him and say, “How was that pretzel I saw you eating at the corner of 57th and Lex yesterday around 2?” Yet here this is the stuff of daily conversation, and as for stalkers, they are the stuff of Hollywood movies.

And what if you knew that the guy you’d been eyeing on the 6 train for weeks was getting off at the next stop? You can’t get out of the way for him before he even stirs in his seat. Then he’d know that you knew he existed. And that would be embarrassing.

But yesterday, I was sandwiched in by the window on a full bus. The girl seated next to me, on the aisle, was talking the whole way to a guy who was standing in the aisle beside her. As we approached my stop – and I had not yet begun to stand or put my bag on my shoulder – she said to the guy, “Move over. This lady gets off at the next stop.”

I thought that I would ease right into this “simple” life – and in many ways I have, in the “a girl sure could get used to this” kind of a way – after all, I had come here to this so-called “simple” life from the “hard” life, the “mean” streets, so this should be easy, but there is nothing simple about remembering every face, every exchange.

And what’s even more difficult to swallow, is that I can’t do anything without everyone knowing. Claudia knows that I run. The fisherman knows when I’m in town and when I’m not. And every day, one student or another tells me that he saw me entering some supermarket or some café or waiting at some bus stop the day before. It’s not that I resent it. This smalltown life, this being a “regular” wherever I go – there’s not a café in town that doesn’t know how I take my coffee – is just as romantic and quaint as I had always imagined it to be. And most of the time, I love it. It sure has made this big move easier. It’s comforting to know that if I fell off the face of the earth, my absence might be noticed. Often in New York it entered my mind that if something were to happen to me, it might take a week for word to get to my parents. But what I often have a hard time with in the “high visibility” of this island, is that you can never shut it off. It is round-the-clock community – intimacy in fact – 7 days a week. Here, there is not another subway car to slip into if you see someone you know but don’t feel like making chitchat. You’d just draw more attention if you left your sunglasses and headphones on the whole time. It’s antisocial. And please, do not eat on the watertaxi unless you have enough for everyone. Seriously. I’ve seen people get on the boat with what looks like a month’s worth of produce only to give a quarter of it – in oranges, grapes and bananas – to any passenger who accepts. And they all accept.

Brazilians in general are more intimate in my opinion than North Americans. Personal space is smaller; they kiss you when they meet you and call you “flower”, they touch you when they talk to you, and they often repeat your name – in some circumstances, the sweetest word a person can hear.

In New York, in certain “cool” circles, you had to be formally introduced to a person three times before they were allowed to acknowledge that they remembered your name. Here, it’s “Good morning, Sonya,” at the gym, and “Have a good weekend, Sonya,” when I leave. It’s, “Hi, Sonya. The usual, Sonya? How are the classes going, Sonya?”

That repetition of my name – it could pierce through the darkest pair of mirrored lenses, but there is apparently a skeptical city girl in me: I lower my glasses and look out over them before I take them all the way off.

I came back to Brazil because I longed for community and intimacy. I longed for a place where I didn’t have to book dinner with friends three weeks out but could call them in the evening and ask what they were up to tonight. I longed for a place where passersby were not strangers but neighbors who called me by name. Yet these things have been the challenge here. While this intimacy usually feels like just the warm blanket I’ve been shivering for, other times I feel like the covers have been yanked right off of me and my body has been fully exposed. It’s one thing to long for an end to loneliness; it’s quite another to remember how to open up and let someone in.


The other day at the restaurant where I often have lunch, when I went to pay at the counter, I realized I had left my wallet at the table. “That’s okay,” the owner said, “You can pay after you eat. What’s your name?” I told him, and he wrote it on my bill and put it to the side with quite a few others. When I returned to the counter to pay, he pulled my bill out of the stack without asking me to repeat my name. I nodded to show him he had remembered correctly.

“You’re at home now,” he said, “We have your name.”