Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon

It’s been painful, but I’ve finally broken in. I didn’t know what was breaking—or what needed to be broken—but it happened in the Amazon. I guessed that something was up, but the roar was so deafening I could barely make out what was happening. The change was confirmed the moment I set foot back in Rio de Janeiro. Here, where life is clearly cultured and (more or less) civilized, I could finally see, feel, and hear that I had been through something big. Something had to give—and something gave.

I traveled in the Amazon solo for almost 3 weeks. Since then, I’ve been spending long stretches of time in Rio—alone, too. Like, days at a time. This is not normal for me. I like to have people around, know that I can call someone, meet up for a beer, coffee, yoga class, chit chat whathaveyou.

In New York, I’m a text pro. I love getting and sending little messages, little reminders that people are out there, that *I’m* out there. Of course I have email and Facebook here, but most of my friends have been leaving me alone—not quite able to get over the *idea* that I am so far away. Communication with my normal life has been limited.

Traveling only in Portuguese—very intermediate level Portuguese, I have to tell you—meant there was a lot I couldn’t say. There was a lot I couldn’t understand, either. Eventually, painfully, I got used to expecting that I wouldn’t understand most of what was said to me. Or that I could say anything close to what I meant to express. No nuance, subtlety, or humor. I would go for a very long time, it seemed, saying things like, “How much does this cost?” “Where does the bus to X stop?” “Can I see the menu?” It’s not enough to make a person feel like a full member of society.

It was hard to get used to feeling like an imbecile, an outsider. Several places I traveled had no tourists at all, certainly no one who spoke English. I felt almost mute, my capacity for complex thought and speech dulled to the point of absurdity.

I was spending more and more time in silence. My cheekbones began to ache from spending too long in the same position.

Brazilians were patient with me. They were even fascinated that I would try to learn their language. Without exception, they think that their language is very difficult to learn. Conjugating the verbs is mind-scrambling. Learning the gender of nouns (and their adjectives and articles) is akin to learning to type on the QWERTY keyboard—at some point you just have to dive in blind and make lots and lots of mistakes. It’s impossible to memorize.

Brazilians also have a lot of different words for everything, a lot of slang and informal expressions. So whatever you learned in language school really might not be relevant on the street.

I’ve had the Portuguese-is-very-hard-to-learn conversation with almost every single person I’ve met in Brazil from friends to strangers to some passing dude at the bar, in Rio to Santarem to Mossoro and beyond. But I wouldn’t say it was harder then French, and certainly not harder than Russian or Japanese.

It’s just that living in another language is hard. Not just saying hello and thank you, but having a complete life in another language.

Negotiating every day life and the intricacies of travel in a very strong and wild place was even harder, I think. It was tough, like grating an old dry root with a rusty knife. It was work. And it seemed to yield so little. Sometimes I could tell that people had decided before I opened my mouth that they couldn’t understand me. And that didn’t help.

sweaty and silent in the Amazon

Sometimes people were incredulous that I spoke at all, like the middle-aged Carioca (someone from Rio) I met on a guided hike in the Amazon who exclaimed, “Ela fala!!” (she speaks!) when I greeted her and her husband with a general “bom dia.” (Although so few Americans speak any other language but English that it’s easy to understand her surprise.)

Everyone without exception—from fellow traveler to waiter to hotel proprietor to tour guide to ferry captain to river-dweller said my Portuguese was really good. But judging from how isolated I felt inside my language-skills, I did not agree.

Every day there came a moment when I needed to stop trying. I needed to let all the fun/exasperation of learning and the effort of communicating slip past me in a gentle burble of crescendoing and decrescendoing cadences. It can be a very sing-songy language.

I would crawl into my hammock and turn on my iPhone to read e-books by John McPhee. (My “Nook” and its entire library of travel reading was stolen in Ilha de Marajo, probably by someone who thought it was a much sexier iPad.) I’d block out everything else. Portuguese became background noise, like the wind in the trees, peppered with occasional guffaws of laughter and the clinking of ice cubes in caipirinhas.

Reading in my native tongue gave my overworked brain a moment to normalize. It was deeply gratifying. I felt human there. It turns out that I’m very attached to being able to communicate. To other people.

Of course, I’ve always talked to myself as most people do (though I try to be aware of this and not move my lips). And as someone who writes, I’m always making mental notes. But this was a much, much deeper level of conversation-with-self that I was comfortable with.

This was myself divided into the person who spoke, listened, acted, and responded, and the person who commented on how weird this all was. The person who commented was getting a much bigger role these days. I mean, isn’t it absurd to say that you “drink a bath” when what you mean is you “take a shower”?

Or how about when something doesn’t work, you say, “nao combina” or “nao da”—it doesn’t combine, it doesn’t give. Or that “vipee” means an exclusive section (of a boat or a club or a bus)–a Portuguese-ification  of “V.I.P.” But V.I.P.—very important person— does not, can not, exist in Portuguese. You just have to know this.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t know the words, didn’t have the vocabulary, or couldn’t conjugate. It was that I had no idea where people were coming from. I was oriented in the wrong direction, without a clue. I was mystified, baffled, blind-folded.

And then there were the experiences—the hotel manager in Santarem who went out of his way to get a taxi for me, and then grabbed my ass as I got into it; the drunk university students from Sao Paulo who had noisy sex on the small boat we our NGO group was traveling on; the native boy who broke his shin bone playing soccer in the dusk in a remote community on the Rio Ararpiuns—on a Sunday when all the radio operators were off having dinner with their families.

All these things largely stayed inside since I had a hard time discussing them in my fumbling Portuguese.

I’m good at coping—excellent at it (my therapist would agree!)—and so I got by. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was meeting people anyway, I was having experiences. I was (more or less) safe. I wouldn’t be traveling in the Amazon for that long, after all. It was likely I would spend most of the rest of my life in English, my language.

But the silence inside me grew.

So did my knowledge of John McPhee’s oeuvre.

So did my risk-taking.

I said more, right or wrong, and hoped for the best. I started to care much less about being thoughtful, about having meaningful conversations. To communicate a few basic opinions about the medicinal trees on our hike became exciting. A couple of comments on Brazilian food or politics made me feel positively human.

(Though sometimes after being silent for a very long while, words in any language came out wrong, like I’d forgotten how to speak.)

What took so long to change was being comfortable living in this internal world of my own commentary—without anyone to share it with immediately and get relief from the absurdity and frustrations of so many situations.

Living alone with myself, deeply alone, with only my own company, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, relating my trials and triumphs to myself. This was work that was scouring my insides.

The enormity of what I was experiencing the in Amazon far outstripped the capacity of email or Facebook as modes of expression. Plus,  the Internet didn’t work during the rain storms, and there were rainstorms every day. The winds kicked out phone lines, cash machines—anything that relied on a signal, for hours and days at a time. The one day I wrote a long blog post I felt fantastic for the entire day. Ecstatic. Tremendously relieved. Otherwise, I was alone in my travels, alone in my language, alone in myself. Together in myself, alone.

Until I wasn’t. And that’s what changed today, when I noticed that I’d spent the entire day alone, and most of yesterday and the day before that. And for the first time, I felt quite content. I didn’t feel on the fringes, I didn’t feel cast out. My Portuguese has improved a lot, that’s true. People who I’d only spoken English to before I left for the Amazon now speak to me in Portuguese—with all my mistakes, but so be it.

Today, too, I went to a traveler’s clinic in Rio to get my cranky gut checked out. I did the entire visit in Portuguese, even though there were many many words I didn’t know. Somehow I just open my eyes really wide and let all the sounds rush into my face. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what it feels like: I make my face porous and I try really hard not to think. Then, I understand.

But it hasn’t improved *that* much. I’m still very far from fluent. And some days I just  feel very lazy about all this effort. I don’t even try to speak Portuguese without a gringo accent. I don’t even get worked up about the darned verbs.

But most of all—more than this—is that I now understand what had to change.

For years now, my life has been increasingly focused on the external—on other people, the demands of my job (in which I take care of other people’s books and projects), relationships (focused on other people), socializing (other people), the worry about being included or not being included (others).

Drawn so far outside of myself, I could not hear the internal conversation very well. I had kept a journal since I was 14, but in the last year or two that had begun to be less and less of a priority. I’d lost the itch for this private conversation. It used to be critical to my sense of well-being. Living, traveling and roughing it in the Amazon in Portuguese threw me back in touch with this long-neglected creature, this space of reflection and companionship.

I have to say, it feels really great! I suffered so much while traveling but the  contentedness now is so sweet that all the turmoil seems worth it.

And while I *could* go to the adorable and much-beloved local botequim next door, Bar do Gomes, tonight and have adventurous (and very imperfect) conversations, I’m staying in writing this. And feeling fine. Even knowing that tomorrow all the things I need to do require more solitude as well.

My reluctance to go deep inside appears to be over. Maybe I had thought, like my poetry, it wasn’t there anymore. That there was no there there. The there was the there of my youth. I hadn’t realized it had gone missing. Or that if missing, it could come back. It feels like I’m back to where I started from: in that place of deep listening that the poets know.

Here’s what Katy Poole, a Jyotish practitioner (Vedic science of the stars) wrote today on Facebook—so beautiful because it applies perfectly:

“Today the Moon is transiting Shravana, the Listening Stars. The tree full of ears. The inner voice. The prophetic vision. The revelation. Open your ears. And listen.”

My ruling planet is Shravana. I’ve been away a long time.

7 Responses to “Sweaty and Silent in the Amazon”


  1. 1 Carolyn Lengel

    That was beautiful.

    I know just what you mean about the struggle to be understood and to understand (and to let go of the desire for correctness that shuts me up entirely) in another language–maybe someday I’ll get to the porousness and listening. Or not. Anyway, a lovely post!

  2. 2 admin

    Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it and could relate. I had a good time writing it—it kept surprising me. And what a relief to say all those things!

  3. 3 Kim Sevcik

    So beautiful Joelle. Thanks for sharing these thoughts with Your Public – I dare say we all need to hear them. It resonated on so many levels for me. The need to affirm my existence/define myself via the external. I’m impressed and inspired at what you are doing and by what you are learning.

  4. 4 admin

    xoxoxoxoxoox

  5. 5 Erica Appel

    That was very moving and interesting. I have not had time to myself in so many years that it’s hard to relate. It made me WANT to have time to myself, however.

    I can really relate to your language issues. I know the frustration of trying to speak a foreign language, spending time in that country, and feeling like you can’t be truly part of it because of the language barrier. I like the way you finally decided to just let it go.

    Sounds like a very meaningful adventure you’re having.

  6. 6 admin

    Thanks, Erica!

  7. 7 Tim Main

    This is a powerful piece. I thought I should be silent, but I just had to tell you how much I liked it. What a wonderful, personalized insight to the nature of language and the value of silence all wrapped up in a great travel story!

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