Archive Page 2 of 26



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.

Words I Learned in the Amazon

A Brief Lexicon of Rivers and Jungles

a tempestade = storm

a trovão = thunder

o raio = lightning

demora = wait, delay, lateness

a rede = hammock

a corda = rope (to hang the hammock if necessary)

o bicho = insect (also animal, which is super confusing)

a picada = bug bite or sting

a coceira = itch

queimar = to burn

o repelente = bug spray

o urubu = vulture (many, many vultures)

o rei dos urubus = king of the vultures (you just wish these were eagles, would be so much cooler)

a furmiga = ant (terrors of the Amazon, and you’re always stepping in them)

a borboleta = butterfly

a mariposa = moth

a bruxa = obscenely enormous moth (also, witch)

o jacaré = alligator or cayman

o peixe-boi = manatee (endangered)

a preguiça = sloth (the animal)

a lagoa = lagoon

o igarapé = “canoe path” (usually through shallow water over a submerged jungle)

o orla fluvial = riverfront promenade (where you catch your boat or eat your crazy soup or fish by moonlight or make out with your girlfriend/boyfriend, or park your car and turn your stereo up to 1,000 decibels)

carimbó = Amazon music and dance 

o barco = small boat

a navio = bigger boat, ship

a recreo = very, very slow boat (the passenger bus of the Amazon)

os chinelos = flip flops (national shoe, see earlier post and this today)

o chapéu = hat (necessary for gringos, straw ones keep off the sun and the jungle rain)

a biquini = bikini

o sunga = men’s swim trunks (actually pretty attractive, not Speedos and not Bermuda shorts)

fazer xixi = to pee

chateada = annoyed

o tacacá = crazy soup that numbs your mouth (but one of the only Amazon dishes that contains greens)

jumbu = the greens that numb your mouth (known as the “toothache plant”)

tucunaré = delicious fresh-water fish, served whole, grilled or in sauce (tomato, coconut, or butter)

surubim = delicious fish

tambaqui = delicious fish

dourada = delicious fish, usually fried

filhote = delicious fish (served in fillets, naturally)

pirarucu = delicious and enormous fish (fatty like salmon, though a white fish– super tasty!)

mandioc = cassava

aipim = cassava

tapioca = cassava

tucupi = gelatinous cassava

farinha = flour of cassava

farofa = toasted flour of cassava

! ! ! ! ! ! !

In the Amazon, the Insects Love Me

In the Amazon, the Insects Love Me

I’ve been in the Amazon two weeks now—it’s a wild place. Rough, tough, with an edge of violence. Even its insects are aggressive. I’ve been suffering from all kinds of insect attacks—and mosquitoes are only the beginning.

My first day on Ilha de Marajó, where the police ride water buffalo (no kidding), I went without bug repellent—July is the low season for mosquitoes, and they weren’t bothering me particularly. I ate dinner at a beach shack blasting telenovelas (soap operas) the only restaurant open near my isolated pousada. I even stayed outside reading into the evening without any kind of protection. I had some lofty idea about building up antibodies by allowing a few critters to gnaw at me for a while.

Needless to say, within a few hours my pale, North American limbs were dotted with red spots every centimeter. They would have made a perfect poster for DEET: “Don’t mess with the Amazon, kids, or this could happen to you!”

I was soon taking tumeric (to counter inflammation) and applying tea-tree oil to the bites (a strategy recommended by Carmen, an Italian woman I met in Belém) making me smell like a cross between a curry and a dentist’s office.

Then I arrived in Santarém, a small river city on the Amazon about equidistant from Belém and Manaus. I stayed in the cheapest recommended hotel near the busy waterfront, Hotel Brasil. My room had a cheap lock on the door, and its polyester sheets looked like they had not seen the laundry in months. The mattress had about the same comfort as an old chewy pancake.

The room had a window and a fan, but somehow still no air. The next day, after hardly sleeping for the heat and the mosquitoes, the back of my left arm had an odd bumpy texture. I felt along it with my right hand. What was this?? Then I looked—completely chewed up. Gross. I suspected the mattress. For sure, it was a breeding ground. Fleas? Or some Amazonian species of noxious bug?

So there I was with my lumpy arms and my red Dalmatian legs strolling along the river-front of Santarém. Ah, life in the Amazon was good. I ate my packet of fried bananas (they were stale), bought from a grumpy lady in a headscarf, and drank a fresh coconut juice from a woman who could hardly interrupt her gossiping to attend to me. Wasn’t traveling great! This was the life!

Just then a Peruvian clown, also staying at Hotel Brasil, recognized me. He came over. He was so poor that he hesitated to pay the R$2 ($1 US) for a fresh coconut juice.

We walked out onto a floating dock where locals were fishing under the full moon, throwing the silver fish into the middle of the dock.

“How old do you think I am?” he asked. Juan Carlos had traveled from Lima to the Brazilian Amazon, selling bracelets and earrings to make money along the way. He hung them on a black cloth stretched over a wooden frame. He also juggled plastic pins at traffic intersections while drivers waited for the light to turn. Both earned him a few reals, pennies really. Brasil, a nation on the rise, has become expensive.

“Uh… 40.” I said, sort of annoyed at his question.

“Nossa!” he exclaimed, “Not that old! I’m 38!” But pretty close, I thought. Life on the road hadn’t been super kind to Juan Carlos.

“No family, no place to call home?” I asked. With his dreads and slightly swollen face, he looked a bit worse for wear. He seemed to be sharing a room at Hotel Brasil with a hippie chick with a grim expression and dreadlocks held back under a bandana. She also sold jewelry. She never looked happy—or trustworthy. Perhaps she needed better drugs. Juan Carlos said she stole from him in Parantins, at the Boi Bumba festival. The room they split cost $15 US. Not a whole lot to squabble over.

The next day, I joined the NGO Saude é Alegria (health and happiness) for a 4-day boat-tour of remote communities on the Rio Ararpiuns. We crossed the Amazon and the Tapajós rivers to reach the arching Ararpiuns. I was now living completely in Portuguese. People kept saying how good my Portuguese was, but I could not communicate complex ideas and I couldn’t jump into conversations. It was very challenging. I was living in the realm of “the gist of things” with the vocabulary of a 7-year-old.

But even more challenging was trying to understand the mameluco —the river dwellers who are descendants of native people and escaped African slaves (caboclos are descendants of native people and Europeans, specific to the Amazon). Even the people from São Paulo (Paulistas) had trouble understanding them.

But everyone understood my bug bites. The bites drew comments. The weirdest of the bites happened near the village of Arimum. We were on a forest walk to look at medicinal trees. The next day I watched an enormous, bulbous blister grow on my left knee. It was like a bug had pitched camp and inflated its own command center there.

The blister was so weird and ugly that it even weirded-out the mameluco who’ve lived in the Amazon—with its birds, animals, fish and insects–for thousands of years. There was no medicinal tree, apparently, for me.

After much discussion, the local medicine woman and the head guy agreed that I had been bitten by a forest insect that lived in wet areas (everywhere, basically) called “taxí” (ta-shee). The bug’s tactic was to leave a trail of urine (“xixí”–shee-shee) so acidic that it literally burned the skin. What wasn’t blistering was angry and red, as though slashed with a hot iron.

It was gross, but it was fascinating. The locals and my NGO companions kept asking to look at it, staring with bulging eyes and mouths agape. Then they would invariably shake their heads, “Nossa Senhora!”

After two days of commentary, Nelso, the nice kind of head guy of the village of Atodí, who wore a knock-off Nike shirt, jean shorts, and bare feet, recommended gently puncturing it. He took a spiny needle from a nearby Amazonian tree. They were practically spitting out sharp needles.

“Is it clean?” I asked dubiously. Although this might not have been the right question. Maybe I should have asked, is it poison-free?

“Sure, sure it’s clean,” he said. “It’s from the forest.” In my book, this doesn’t count as clean. He wiped it on the ground. “Don’t worry.”

I sat on a concrete slab outside the newly constructed eco-tourism bathroom, and he knelt beside me with the forest needle and a ribbon of toilet paper. He punctured the bulb and gently squeezed the liquid out onto the absorbent paper. It didn’t hurt but the blister also didn’t want to drain. Command center was not about to evacuate.

After several minutes, a small crowd was gathering. “It will fill up again,” Nelso said, touching the tender red areas carefully. “But puncture it again and it will drain completely the second time.” He shook my hand to say goodbye without looking me in the eye. I wasn’t sure if this was local custom– habitual shyness–or if he was completely disgusted.

I returned to Santarém and the bug infested hotel—this time armed with a hammock that I strung up between the walls. Before bed I slathered on anti-bacterial cream and hosed myself down with bug spray. Then I slept with the windows open and a thin sarong completely pulled up, even over my head, in spite of the heat. The last frontier might just possibly be my face. No way was I going to wake up looking like Elephant Man.

After surviving the mosquitoes, fleas or miscellaneous jungle-bugs, Peruvian clowns, and taxí, I decided to head to Alter do Chão, a little beach town, for a few days of R & R.

There I met up with Ana who I’d met on the NGO adventure. She’d encountered Marcos, a lonely Paulista, at our pousada. Together we hired Raimundo and his boat to go an hour across the Rio Tapajós to visit Dona Rosalinda.

Dona Rosalinda is a different kind of river dweller—she lives in the river not alongside it. Her house is on stilts. Part of the year is it almost underwater (though in recent years, it has been partially submerged as the water levels have risen. She copes by lifting everything–sofas, beds, tables– up onto temporary wooden beams).

Raimundo’s boat pulled up to Dona Rosalinda’s door, and—braless and almost toothless after a whole life spent there raising 10 children—she came out to help us tie the boat. Her 9-year-old granddaughter, Eloise, dressed in a pink dress and pigtails, bounced along behind her.

We weren’t there for 10 minutes before Dona Rosalinda noticed my damaged left leg. “O que isso?” What’s this? She said looking a bit horrified. Ana, taking pity on my Portuguese, explained: It was the work of a forest bug that left a trail of piss that burned her leg….

Dona Rosalinda went to get a needle and rubbing alcohol. In a scene that was starting to feel familiar, we gathered around my grotesque knee and the commentary began.

“Never seen anything like it!” exclaimed Dona Rosalinda.

“Didn’t know it was possible!” said Raimundo.

“What a sight!” said Marcos.

Dona Rosalinda handed me the needle. I punctured the bulb. It had, as Nelso said, risen up again, though not as far. As before, it didn’t want to drain. Big tears of liquid formed and slowly dropped down my leg.

Dona Rosalinda asked to take a turn with the needle. She leaned in close, and with a shaky hand, stabbed away. I got the feeling she enjoyed it.

We stood around for a long time, watching the blister’s water plop down my leg. Then we got in the canoe and Eloise piloted us through the half-submerged forest (sometimes called the Enchanted Forest) crashing into spiny trees and thwacking us with low-hanging branches.

“Cuidad, Eloise! Tem pessoas atras!” said Raimundo was was paddling at the back. “Careful of the people behind you!”

The canoe, with 5 people on board, sat low in the water. Ana was afraid that a jacaré (cayman) would swim up into our laps. Marcos was afraid of swimming snakes, cobras in the water. We saw a sloth descending a tree, quite quickly for a sloth, and several birds, large and small, bright blue, black, and bright yellow. Eloise talked nonstop. It began to rain.

Dona Rosalinda invited us to stay for lunch since it was now pouring. She threw 5 small fish on her makeshift barbecue—metal skewers over bricks—including a piranha that she fed to the dog, Poeta. Eloise made instant rice in a small dark kitchen. Dessert was guava paste in condensed milk on toothpicks. After, we sat in the living room that was plastered with glossy posters of Virgin Mary festivals. Arrangements of plastic flowers sat on piles of disorderly clothes and trinkets. We drank extremely sweet coffee.

When the rain cleared, we said goodbye and Raimundo took us back over the Tapajõs. The river was very windy and choppy. For an hour we sped along slapping the water with spine-jamming bumps. We were sprayed every few minutes by the struggling river—completely soaked. My blister was draining the whole time, mingling its infected waters with the river’s.

But it was a great day—surprising, interesting, fun, unusual. We’d seen dolphins, an eagle, two kinds of monkeys in the trees along the river. I was surprised that people could live that way, literally in the river, for generations. The colors were intense and beautiful. Eloise was confident and charming. There were hugs all around as we left. Dona Rosalinda cried.

But I was even more surprised when I got back to the pousada (inn) in Alter do Chão that evening to see that the reluctant blister was almost completely dry. Then I realized why: my knees were burned. I’d been sitting in the wind and the sun on the open boat, not feeling the heat because we were wet the whole time.

Perfect, I thought. A perfect end to an ugly mess. Now both knees were equally red, pulsing with discomfort. Que mais? What next?

I Wanted to Know What Would Happen if I Spent My Last Centavo…

HSBC, “the world’s bank”: EXCEPT WHEN THEY’RE CLOSED.

I wanted to know what would happen if I spent my last centavo. I’m the kind of person who likes to be prepared. Having not even a cent to my name is anathema to me. I wanted to test my limits.
Uh-oh!!!
(In fact, I’d tried to get money out on the weekend but the HSBC machine at the Santos Dumont airport was not dispensing money.)
I’d been living on my last R$50 ($25US) since Saturday, and by Monday was down to R$4 ($2US).
That included R$1 that I pinched from my  friend Vinicius. Things were getting tight.
Still, I stayed at home, ate lunch there and went to the Canadian Consulate in the afternoon to return some poor sod’s driver’s licence and beat up wallet—the remains of a mugging in my neighborhood over the weekend.
I then spent R$2.75 getting the bus from Copacabana to Ipanema.
I was down to R$1 and 20 centavos. That’s sixty cents, folks.
Throwing the rest of my caution to the wind, I asked the pipoca man (popcorn guy) if he’d sell me a half portion, usually R$2, for my spare change. He did—in fact, he gave me a full portion.
I was looking forward to a more robust snack once I’d gone to the bank.
So there I was for about 4 blocks with not a scrap of money on me. Not even one centavo. Liberty? Wasn’t sure.
Then, as if fate decided to inject some incontrovertible certainty into the situation, my sandal snap broke with a sudden snap and crash, twisting my ankle and wrenching my back.
I was now limping to the HSBC bank. How I was going to get my shoe fixed before leaving for the Amazon, two days away?? But first, to fix my shoe, I needed money.
A pack of young Australians at the bank were having bank-card issues.
Probably didn’t pre-authorize their cards before they left home, I thought smugly as I dipped my white card into the machine. I had.
Then the machine spat out a slip at me. Then another. No money, just a grubby little dirty yellow slip telling me to ‘call my institution.’
The guard behind the now-locked glass doors of the closed-to-the-public (but not actually closed) bank told me to wait a second and try again.
That sounded cockamamie: there was clearly a problem. That damned airport ATM: Not only had it not given me any cash, it has also locked up my card in some incomprehensible security maneuver.
Unlike the Australians, I didn’t have an international cell phone to call my US bank. But I did have some Portuguese. The guard got an official looking woman to come talk to me.
Me speaking in the Portuguese of a 7-year old: My card doesn’t work, I’m totally out of money, and the free phone here in the lobby won’t connect to international call centers.
Official-looking Bank Lady: Your card doesn’t work? We can’t do anything until tomorrow at 10 a.m. We are closed.
Me: I can’t wait til tomorrow. I have not even one penny on me.
Official-looking Bank Lady: We do not serve anyone after we are closed.
Me: All I need is to use the phone.
Now distinctly a Bureaucratic Bank Lady: You can use the phones on the street.
Me: I did.  They didn’t accept the collect call that the bank operator told me to make.
BBL, handing me a pamphlet through the glass door: Call this number.
Me: I can’t! I have no money!
BBL: I cannot help you. It’s after hours.
Me, getting irate: YOU are here!! Those people behind you are there! You are surrounded by phones!  You want me to sleep on the street waiting for you to come back tomorrow to make a one minute phone call???
BBL: You can still use your [blocked!!] card at shops.
Me: I don’t think so! That’s the nature of a *blocked* card!
BBL: Well I cannot open the door to the public now.
Me: But all I need is a phone. I don’t even know if I can get back to my house to make the call myself! You are supposed to be MY bank!
BBL: Wait a second here.
—-long minutes pass. Then another Official-looking Bank Lady comes out. We go through the same thing all over again. To no avail.
I leave with no money.
The next stop is a yoga class where the owner, Coaracy Nunes, cheerfully hears me out and says: Don’t worry, darling, it’s all happening for a reason, maybe not so obvious right now. You don’t have to pay for class. No worries! Just roll with things, it’s gonna be fine. Don’t take it personally. These things happen! This is Brazil!
Class helps me focus on something other than how I wanted to strangle BBL. But how am I going to get home?
After, I meet up with Marcus, a fellow Canadian I met at a dinner party last week. He was going to give me his apartment keys–and a free apartment in the Flamengo neighborhood for July.
Breathlessly (and some what ravenously) I told him what had happened at the bank.  I’m still hobbling along in my broken sandal.
I even tried, I told him, even after the bank incident to buy a snack at a lanchonette (open-air snack stand) but of course AS I ALREADY KNEW, my card wouldn’t work.
Marcus showed me his one room apartment, with one burner, one window and one saggy couch-bed. Then he took pity on me and we went out for a beer and some aipim fries (like yucca) and frango de passarinho, a plate of small pieces of fried chicken. We talked a lot. We’d overlapped at college. We had lots of stories about Brazil.
When the choppe (draft beer) was drunk, he paid the bill and put R$20 in my pocket. That meant I could take a taxi when I reached my subway stop and wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill to Santa Teresa late at night in my broken shoe.
I’d arrived at yoga with nothing except massive frustration and a dose of fear. I’d all but forgotten my challenge to the powers-that-be: let’s see what happens when me, little miss organized, walks into a no-security-net situation.
And in fact, I already had everything I needed: near-strangers willing to help out, fill my belly and my pockets, as needed. Even give their apartments.
Okay, universe, that was a good one. You got me.

10 Things You Can Do in Flip Flops (if you’re Brazilian)

It’s winter here in Rio de Janeiro and just shy of beach weather. Temperatures are in the 70s and quite a bit of rain, interrupted by the gloriously tropical sunny days that Brazil is known for.

The classic flip flop, no bells and whistles

But in Rio you don’t have to be heading to the beach to wear flip flops. In fact, flip flops might just be the national shoe.

I have been amazed at what Brazilians can do in these flimsy strips of rubber.

I’m living in an old part of the city that has colonial-era houses and cobblestone streets. Cobblestones could more accurately be named “hobblestones” : not easy to walk on, and even harder in the rain. But even so, Brazilians in flip flops regularly pass me on these streets.

And I’m wearing sturdy Dansko sandals.

Here are some other things they do in flip flops:

Run for the bus (ever tried this? Very difficult. Toe cramps!)

Do dances that require fast and nimble foot work—like samba and forro.

Climb ladders and scaffolding.

Lug heavy things up steep hills.

Chase thieves.

Go to work (as in, office work).

Walk with canes.

Hustle themselves and their small children (who are also wearing small flip flops) onto a careening form of public transit.

Ride motorbikes.

And, the wedge flip flop really ups the ante. (The white shoes above are modest compared with the enormous platforms I’ve seen on women in Rio–like these brown ones.)
Apparently, Brazilians are in good company: versions of the sandal with the toe-strap date back to Egyptians and Romans, some made from papyrus and palm leaves. According to the site PecheBlu:
Styles varied with the differing placement of the toe strap, as subsequent civilizations preferred using different toes. The Greeks for example made use of the big toe; the Romans, the second toe; and the Mesapotanians, the third toe. These distinctive, physical entities were recognised and captured in Egyptian statues, and this was thought to represent the celebration of other cultures.
Interesting factoid: Havaianas, the famous Brazilian brand, was established in 1962, inspired by Japanese sandals called the Zori, made of ‘rice straw’ soles and fabric bands. This explains the “textured rice pattern” on the soles of all Havaianas… Check your pair.
And guaranteed your legs will be completely sore after a week charging around in only flip flops!

Read more travel writing here!

Read more of my travel writing!  

How I moved to New York City after growing up on a rural island in Canada (posted on joellehann.com/journalism)

– All you need to know about Montreal´s underground art scene (published on Fodors.com)

–My family´s relationship to curry stems back to my mother´s childhood in India (published on The Paupered Chef.com)

 –São Paulo´s little film school that is changing how film is taught (published on Janera.com)

A chair made of “medicinal” vines. Pisaq, Peru.

–Brazil´s influential international literary festival, F.L.I.P. is worth knowing about (published in Poets & Writers magazine)

 

Enjoy, armchair travelers!

Sign of the Times? OM Yoga to Close After 15 Years

On Sunday, yoga doyenne (and former Cyndi Lauper choreographer) Cyndi Lee gave the closing remarks at last weekend’s Yoga Journal 3rd conference in New York.

By Monday—the day after the conference—she announced, via email to long-time students, that the studio had lost its lease and would be closing by the end of June.(Read the announcement on the studio’s Web site.)

Lee, who established OM in 1997 on 14th street, said the landlord at 826 Broadway, OM’s home above The Strand bookstore for about 7 years, didn’t give her an option to renew. According to an interview on Well+Good:

She gave us 90 days notice and rented it to someone else. She just didn’t want a yoga studio there anymore.

According to some long-time NYC yogis, OM had begun to lose its fire a little while ago. Once-loyal students had already moved on to other studios or classes that seemed eager to move with the changing trends of yoga.

Still, the pioneer studio had nurtured beloved NYC teachers such as Margi Young, Christy Clark, Lippy Orem, Joe Miller, and Brian Liem, and gave others such as Brooklyn maverick Jonathan FitzGordon his start.

It also was one of the first to explicitly bring yoga asana practice and Buddhist meditation techniques together. Lee frequently hosted her Tibetan teacher, and held workshops by David Nichtern, music producer and senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage (and Lee’s husband), and her step-son, Ethan Nicthern, author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence and founder of the popular Interdependence Project.

Teachers and students recite the dedication of merit at the end of (most!) classes, offering their work to the greater good of all beings.

OM's "Earth" studio

OM is not completely going away—it’s transforming its teachings and services into more of a “homeless” or online-based studio. Lee and her senior teachers will continue to give workshops and trainings, although there are speculations that some may branch off altogether.

For now, enjoy the last 2 months of this breezy and popular studio that trained a lot of eager new teachers, brought teachers as diverse as Judith Lasater and Meredith Monk to students, and gave a very chill American spin to a practice that can be be altogether too many things to too many people.

Get Real: Controversial Writer talks about “The Science of Yoga”

New York Times senior science writer, William J. Broad came under fire in early January for his article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. In it, he recounted shocking stories and studies of yoga-related injuries. The article enraged parts of the yoga community who felt it scared newcomers and discredited yoga.

As provocative as the article was, Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga, is solidly researched—and fascinating. He reviews 150 years of studies, giving readers a very good idea of the scientifically measured benefits (healing, inspiration, sexual power) and the dangers (physical injury, group thinking) of yoga asana practice.

I had the chance to interview WJB about the whole experience.

YN: Were you surprised by the response to the NYTimes article?The Science of Yoga by William Broad

WJB: I was surprised by lots of things. On the one hand there was lots of email about, “if you think that’s bad, let me tell you my horror story.” Spinal infarcts, vertigo, that kind of thing. But I also got extremely un-yogic responses like the bitter invective from a 30-year veteran yoga teacher who said, “Go fuck yourself,” and a yogini in L.A. who said, “You are a jerk, you don’t know anything about yoga.”

YN: Do you attribute this to the growing pains of what you call Yoga 2.0, “the modern variety” of yoga, especially in the West?

WJB: I hope that’s what it is! That’s part of my naive optimism. Science demonstrates lots of benefits of yoga—neuro-transmitters that help your mood, help your sex life and so on. The science also clearly demonstrates that yoga as we know it contains alluring myths such as, that yoga helps you lose weight, or it’s the only exercise you need, etc. This just isn’t true.

I hope the outcry is part of the process of starting a conversation. And I’m hopeful that there’s a growing realization that yoga can be better. Which for some people is a contradiction. They think, yoga is ancient and what can be better than that? But the science says that there are issues and it can be better.

Another surprising aspect of the feedback has been the depth of the reform movement. I had no idea. People using props, Iyengar teachers tailoring poses to people rather than the other way around. There are dozens of groups, schools, and styles that are working hard to provide this evolutionary agenda. That delighted me.

YN: So the reform movement would be more in the direction of Yoga 3.0 or 4.0.

WJB: Of course, those are arbitrary numbers. Yoga is this thing that’s being born all around us.

YN: What were some of your favorite “me too” stories from the letters you received?

WJB: Some of them moved me almost to tears. Two people who stand out are former studio owners, who say, ”Woah, you ain’t kidding. Do we have things to tell you,” such as a lifetime of surgery and therapy on their own spines. In one case, one of them had been working with celebrity yogis, creating curriculums. She was forming very visible programs and was very much in the mainstream.

YN: Speaking of reform, have you heard of International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)?

WJB: I talk about IAYT in the chapter on healing. For 3 years I was a member. I’d send them my membership fee and they’d send me a credential with gold fancy lettering. I’ve seen them hanging in yoga studios—I hope they stop that practice because it’s just about the $75, not about having an actual diploma.

To their credit—because what I want is for yoga to become more professional—they are trying to create standards and schools with standardized curriculum. That’s great! I’m hoping for yoga doctors, myself. I think it’s an outrage that we spend 10s of billion dollars on fix-this, fix-that pills when anyone who does yoga seriously knows it’s a better way. Yoga done right is grown up. It says, “I take responsibility for myself and I have control over what I do” in a way that popping pills doesn’t.

So, I applaud them but on the other hand they did send me three fake diplomas

YN: So you think they don’t go far enough.

WJB: There’s a lot of guru worship out there and cultish schools finely dividing themselves into factions and sticking to what they think is the truth. That’s why science is so powerful because it looks at what is real and what is not real. It can be more objective.

The Science of Yoga is the first book to look at the century and a half of science on yoga. The science can illuminate a lot of what are bogus claims and what are understated truths.

YN: It seems like you’re saying that yoga is both much better and also worse than we thought. It’s much more extreme—handle with care!

WJB: Exactly. In my own practice, I did it for stress management. But fundamentally, yoga is much more extreme than a stress management system. As a science journalist I was blown away by the mysteries of the practice.

YN: Can you give an example?

WJB: How low can the human metabolism go while maintaining a level of consciousness? Is suspended animation possible? We can actually go into a deeper hibernation that a turtle or a bear—that’s quite amazing.

How possible is continuous bliss—sexual, or whatever you want? Some people can so stir their inner fire that they enter these states of continuous ecstasy that is allied with sexual ecstasy. Possibly these are states of enlightenment.

YN: You say that you started to research in 2006—did the subject matter require more research than you expected?

WJB: I thought I was going to do it in 9 months but it took 5 years. In many cases, the science was more difficult than I thought.

The sexual chapter alone took 3 years. There was some evidence to wrestle with. Some research said that yoga makes sex hormones decline. That wasn’t intuitively right to me and had not been my experience. I put that away for a while. When I’d go back to it, I’d still think that it didn’t add up. Then some advanced yogis talked to me about continuous bliss and all kinds of stuff, and then things started falling into place. But it took time.

YN: Speaking of sexual bliss, I noticed that you refer to Tantra only as a sex cult. The Himalayan Institute, where I’ve been studying, takes pains to separate left and right-handed Tantra. You don’t do that. Was this a conscious choice?

WJB: It’s very much in their interest to separate left and right handed, isn’t it? Tantra is a muddy subject. There’s layer after layer of symbolic misrepresentation. It’s gets so convoluted and strange—it’s a deep well.

YN: It strays into the magical, for sure.

WJB: Tantra gets into magic and trickery, frauds and pretexts for having fun. And they call it spirituality. Then there are serial philanderers such as Muktananda and Swami Rama, their 60-yr old bodies humming with vitality and they’re going down on any woman who’s willing—it’s bizarre.

How can they rationalize that appalling behavior? There’s lots of literature about the hard effects of betraying that doctor-patient relationship. There are women traumatized by these swamis: he was their God and their God kept going down on them and doing these weird things!

YN: It’s hard to understand—puzzling and disappointing.

WJB: And yet it’s worth meditating on in the sense that it’s real so we don’t want to hide from it.

YN: Your parameters for “yoga” didn’t include much meditation and pranayama. I’m sure you know of the research studies done by Jon Kabat-Zinn (on mindfulness meditation) and Richard Miller (on yoga nidra/iRest). What was your thinking there?

WJB: Initially, I wanted to have the research to be physically-based, but then my research went over into neurological areas such as in the muse and sex chapter. There’s a hugely overlooked area in what yoga does as a powerful stimulus to creativity, for example.

It’s also because it’s the way the industry goes right now—so much of the yoga we do is physical and doesn’t tolerate any meditation or pranayama. This is not Patanjali’s 8-fold path. It may be a misrepresentative slice of what got shipped out from India.

A Letter from Brazil

Last month I talked about my very personal reasons to sponsor a needy child—in Brazil.

About two weeks ago I received my first letter from Ana Vitoria, who lives in the northeast of South America’s largest country. Cool!

I’ve always loved getting letters in the mail. In high school, I wrote to my friends regularly—and they wrote back. I even wrote to strangers I met while traveling–and they wrote back. I remember very clearly how great it was to catalog my thoughts and the events in my life. Even more thrilling to receive a response.

letter from Ana

So, I was smiling from ear to ear as I opened the white World Vision envelope postmarked “Recife, BR.”  Ana’s funny, 7-year old thoughts were penciled in crooked letters on the organization’s stationary: she has a cat named Shena. Her favorite color is pink. She likes rice pudding.

I made my way through the Portuguese first (hard to read in crooked pencil marks) and then read the translation. Fun!

I imagined her sitting down with her project worker, maybe on some porch or outdoor bench near her school, maybe the fields are green around her, or maybe they are brown and parched.

I see her answering his questions about what she might want to say to me, this stranger so many thousands of miles away in this famous city of this famous country. I imagined how my life that must seem, in her imagination, to be overflowing with luxuries.

As we head into December—a time of unrelenting indulgences with presents to buy, trips to take, parties to go to, New Year’s hopes and dreams on the horizon—I’m gearing up to write Ana a letter of my own.

I’ll be thinking about how to put my life into simple words. I’ll be thinking about all the many, many blessings that I have, all the advantages I overlook everyday. I’ll look for the words that a 7-year-old would understand, one who struggles to have enough to eat. It makes me wonder if I couldn’t do more for Ana than just send her a Christmas card.

(In some countries that World Vision sponsors, you can buy a child’s family a goat!)

And in the meantime, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be sending her a little money every month. It’s a great feeling to contribute to her well-being. Maybe you’ll contribute at the office this year, or volunteer at a local food bank, or even sponsor a child of your own?

Happy holiday month and Hari Om!

RIP Jack the Cat

Maybe it’s pre-11.11.11 vibes—you know, on Friday we shift into the long-awaited Acquarian age, according to Yogi Bhajan. Oct 28 marked the long-awaited end of one big cycle of the Mayan calendar.

Or maybe it’s just me—I’ve  spontaneously stopped eating much meat or drinking much alcohol lately, and it’s making me sensitive to, you know, broccoli, kale, and stories about animals.

Jack in good health

This story about Jack the Cat really got to me today.

Jack the Cat escaped his carrying case before being loaded onto and American Airlines flight bound for California on August 25, where his owner, Karen, was moving.

Lost in the airport for 61 days, he fell through the ceiling at JFK customs on October 25 and was rushed to pet hospital in Manhattan.

American Airlines flew Karen back to New York to attend to her cat. But he was too weak from malnutrition and dehydration to continue on. On Sunday, after Karen had flown back home, Jack was put to sleep, surrounded by Karen’s friends and supporters.

Despite measures like a feeding tube, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and one operation, veterinarians finally recommended euthanasia.

“Forty to 60 percent of his body area was affected by devitalized tissue, tissue without blood flow,” Dr. Daly said.

A Facebook page devoted to Jack, Jack the Cat Is Lost in AA Baggage at J.F.K., had more than 24,400 “likes” as of Monday morning. On Sunday, a post entitled “RIP Jack — Full Info” reported that Jack had “gone over the rainbow bridge.”

Rest in peace, furry friend.

Sniff.