Tag Archive for 'Joelle Hann'

Life in the Straw Village

Basic Luxury in Kajuraho

It’s been an interesting process of getting used to living outside in India.

HI Kaj straw huts

The huts are exactly the same

“Living” means: sleeping, changing, writing, reading, resting, bathing, and answering nature’s calls IN STRAW HUTS. We have real flush toilets (as opposed to squat toilets), buckets for “showering,” and outside sinks (which makes for chilly teeth brushing in the pre-dawn hours when we stumble off to meditation).

HI Kaj wash sinks

There was never any soap at the sinks

“Outside” means: we have the illusion of privacy as well as some real shelter. That illusion is worth a lot.

But the huts are not warm. And many leak. We’ve had several loud and violent storms to test out their waterproofness—and mudproofness and damproofness. I’d give them about 50/50.

Huts inside

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

 

You know a lot about your “eco hut”—and yourself— after two days of torrential rain in an area that is not supposed to have rain as the clay earth sluices down the paths and makes a mud dam in front of your hut.

 

HI Kaj straw village doorway

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

And the huts definitely do not protect us from the sounds of neighbors. Who knew that SO many people snore so loudly?

For us middle class Westerners, this way of living is a practice of austerity.

But as we’ve been reminded, for locals in Allahabad and Kajuraho, the way we are living is luxurious.

HI Kaj baths and toilets

Toilets and showers

I will admit that this is a step up from tent camping. I am writing this from inside my hut, for example, sitting at a metal table with a blue plastic tablecloth stretched over it. We have metal cots off the ground, and clothes lines, plus lawn-green carpeting to protect us from mud and dust.

And one thing I know: I can get attached to anything. Anything at all.

I got attached to the readily available WiFi in Kajuraho. Even the cold, cold nights, bathing outside from a bucket of was bearable if I had WiFi to make Facebook updates and write blog entries (only slightly kidding).

HI Kaj bucket bath vertical

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

That disappeared in Kajuraho. But the bucket baths and cold temperatures remained. Wah-wa.

In Kajuraho, I got attached to hut 7 where I weathered the interminable storms. Hut 7 almost flooded in the mud sluice, was crowded with 2 women from Duluth, another from Chicago, and me. It was damp and damp and damp. And damp. Then musty. My bed was both sloped downwards and tilted to the side like a permanent Tilt-a-Whirl.

HI Kaj bucket bath close up

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

And yet I felt anxiety when I had to move into hut 49.

(Now the question is: what do I care whether I’m in straw hut 7 or straw hut 49?! They are exactly the same, just positioned slightly differently towards the bathrooms. Still I got fixated for a few hours on how much worse hut 49 was going to be. I had established my patterns and I didn’t want to budge. This is the stuff I came to India to deal with?!?! Answer: yes.)

But after two or three days in hut 49, I had completely forgotten about the charms of hut 7.

So it goes.

HI Kaj campus flowers and tree

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

 

Most of us have gotten comfortable with this quasi-camping set up.

Temperatures are getting warmer now and days are brighter. I don’t have to wear every single piece of clothing I brought to India when I go to bed. I don’t have to wait for a warm patch in the day to bathe (or just skip it for a few days until bathing is urgent).

I don’t mind doing laundry by hand. And every time I shower now, I’m sure to wash some undies. Life has become easier.

HI Kaj Silvie laundry

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

And there are some surprise boons. After all that rain, the desert campus has sprung into bloom. Ceramic pots of marigolds, cosmos, and asters line the paths and decorate the huts. The trees are sparkling green.

Birds have arrived in abundance: green parrots, eagles, sparrows, a large swallow-like bird, peacocks, neelkanth, and many many others that sing and chirp and whir. In fact, a pair of sparrows just flew into my hut!

HI Kaj garden cosmos

After the rains

At night the jackals howl their mysteriously poignant songs arching back and forth across the hills. The farmers answer them with their ghostly shrieks meant to scare away nilgai—the large antelope/deer/horse-like creature that tramples crops (the male is actually blue colored).

 

HI Kaj guest services hut

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Most of us have forgotten our discomfort in the straw village, our Western privileges, proving that you really can get used to anything.

Even basic luxury can be luxurious.

HI Kaj Sherry Sivlie lunch in town

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

And now some people don’t want to go back to their easy showers and toilets, central heating and A/C.

You really can get attached to anything.

HI Kaj kunda at tree

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree

Letter from the Kumbha Mela

Published on Yoga City NYC, February 2013. The Kumbha Mela explained.

Thousands and thousands of people crossing makeshift pontoon bridges over the Ganges river became a familiar sight during my 10 day visit to Allahabad, India

The men carried walking sticks or pushed bicycles, while many women, dressed in dazzling saris, lead small children or elderly relatives. They walked in silence with a steady, quiet focus, their belongings bundled on their heads and backs because they were headed to the Kumbha Mela.

While there are small Melas every year throughout India, the one near Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet, is the most important and the most auspicious. This grand gathering happens only once every 12 years, with a Maha—or great— Kumbha Mela every 144 years (the last one was 2001).

Kumbha Mela

And of course, it is the largest. When I arrived, staying on the campus of theHimalayan Institute about a mile downstream from the main site, a million people had already taken up residence.

More problematic, it’s also the loudest, with countless PA systems blasting mantras, lectures, and “swa-has” for miles around, at all hours of the day and night. I got used to falling asleep to two or three of them chanting at top volume and completely at cross-purposes.

The incessant din added a very real challenge to my daily meditation practice. The banks of the Ganges were very noisy. Numbers swelled again on the auspicious bathing day of February 10th, that coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginnings.

In one day, 10 million people flooded the grounds. Over the month or so of the Mela, 100 million people were expected to visit, living in the makeshift tentcamps, or curled up at the side of the dusty dirt tracks, running shops, serving food to wandering sadhus, and policing the 8 square kilometer area.

For such an enormous “pop-up city” it was impressively peaceful. Saints, families, villagers poor and rich mingled. We never felt in danger, even in such huge throngs. In fact, our biggest hassle was Indian pilgrims taking photos of us Westerners, and even that was done in a very friendly way.

I had come to experience the energies of the crowds and the practices of the sages. But as I reckoned with my jet lag, the noise of the fair, and the exhaustingly huge gathering of people, I wondered what everyone was really coming for, and what it means to be a pilgrim.

Kumbha means “pot” and “mela” means fair: the story is that the demi gods, running out of the elixir of happiness, or amrit, joined with their enemies, the water demons, to churn the ocean and produce more of the heavenly nectar.

But when the nectar at last rose from the sea, the gods stole the amrit for themselves alone. A battle ensued until Vishnu intervened, whisking the valuable pot of nectar away. It took 12 days for Vishnu to escape—hence the 12 year lapse betweenMelas—hotly pursued by both angry parties.

The pilgrims crossing into the Kumbha Mela grounds were not concerned to hear the myth again—they already knew it. They might seek out a sage or take in a dance performance; but their main purpose was to bathe in the Ganges and be purified by her inexhaustible living waters.

And not just anywhere, but as close as possible to the Sangam—the confluence of three holy rivers, where auspicious energy is most concentrated at this time.

The Ganges, the mother and spiritual source, could not only wash away transgressions and karmic impediments, but also replenish the divine grace in our lives. The Yamuna river, representing worldly prosperity, helps to keep our home, work, and social lives to progress harmoniously.

Lastly, the mythical Saraswati river, important in Vedic times, but since disappeared underground, represents the  fortification of intuition and inner knowledge.

In other words, to bathe at the Sangam was like getting an extremely powerful recharge.

For Westerners, the massive number of people was undeniably exciting. Some in our group braved the highly toxic E. coli levels and dipped themselves in theSangam. Others just dipped their mala beads or sprinkled some of the holy water over their heads.

But the moment of highest spiritual buzz for me came outside of the official Melagrounds. On February 10th, the auspicious bathing day, senior teachers at the Himalayan Institute conducted a fire ceremony on campus, repeating a Durgamantra to help mitigate the fear and anger in ourselves—and in the world.

As we offered the samagri—the offering—to the sacred fire we chanted together in common purpose,  propitiating the forces of transformation and new growth, planting seeds of change. It was not an empty ritual; I could feel the energy we were creating.

One important element of meditation or spiritual practice is trustful surrender to the mysterious forces at work in our world. And feeling that palpably around me was worth all the effort of getting to India, the disturbance of the loud nights, the hot, dusty and exhausting Mela, and my initial bewilderment over what it meant to be a pilgrim. I felt fortified, and that, I believe, was the whole point.

Ganga Carnaval: Kumbha Mela by Night

Wrote this way back in February… and then lost access to the Internet for a good long while… Enjoy!

The night before the massive influx of pilgrims to the Kumbha Mela, Ali, Stewart, Cathy and I snuck off campus.  Feb 1oth was going to be an “auspicious bathing day”—a very special day to take a dip in the Ganges—under a new moon, a time to let go of the past—habits, events, troubles—and inaugurate new beginnings.

In fact, ten MILLION people were expected. One million were already on site. We wanted to go into the Kumba at night, to see a different Mela.

We wanted to go before the swelling masses became impassable. Not to mention potentially hazardous. (post script: one of the makeshift pontoon bridges across the Ganges collapsed, and some pilgrims did die…)

We also wanted to escape what has come to feel like a very pleasant and highly scheduled summer camp on the HI Allahabad campus.

Night friends at Sangam

Why not? says Ali

We set off at 5pm aftert signing out at the Himalayan Institute’s main gate, knowing that we would miss dinner. We walked the mile up the Ganges over uneven goat paths and piles of trash.

For the first time, my feet did not hurt in spite of my blisters. It was exciting to be out of the herd. We reached the first and second gates into the Mela in a buoyant mood.

Night gates at sunset

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

We didn’t have to go far to encounter something spectacular: a steady line of pilgrims coming across the first bridge. They were  hunched under bags of bedding striving forward with their walking sticks.

It was sunset, and the sight of all those scarved heads and sandaled feet crossing the river at dusk with such purpose was pretty impressive.

It gave us all a deep feeling for the importance of the pilgrimage, the scale of it in people’s lives. There’s no way that other huge festivals—such as Burning Man or Brazil’s Carnaval—could have such a massive feeling of sweet purpose.

Night pilgrims bridge better

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Past the second gate and down a side road we entered the main grounds of the Mela. People were walking, bathing, attending talks, but most were cooking over wood fires.

Those who weren’t already encamped in a tent camp, simply slept bundled up person to person on the side of the road. The sheer number of people was astounding, and the vibe—so different from a few days before, in the afternoon—was of purposeful excitement.

Night cooking by river

The air was burning with smoke

We walked pretty easily through the masses of people streaming past us, no jostling, no harassment, except for the very gentle delight of every single Indian (it seemed) to have their photos taken. Or to take photos of us, the impossibly light skinned people.

“Single photo! Single photo!” shrieked the children we passed, waving madly at us. “Tata! Tata!” (tata = goodbye)

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

We didn’t go into any of the makeshift palaces that lit up the main streets  like Las Vegas, but we window-shopped.

In one, an allegorical play was underway (we understood nothing, but the costumes were fab).

In another much more modest one, a man with long wooden earrings was dancing a very feminine dance on a stage lined with male  musicians.

Night Mela spectacle

KM spectacles

In yet another, a group of very pale Westerners sat around a ceremonial fire (kund) with zombie expressions on their faces throwing offerings of herbs and flowers into the flames. We looked, but we didn’t taste.

Ali was eager for snacks since we’d missed dinner back on campus. Truth be told, we were eating so much (3 very good meals a day) that I was not hungry at all.

But the snack stand was interesting. Ali bought dried and spiced chick-pea sticks mixed with dried peas, served in little cones of Indian newspaper. Yummy.

Night snacks

Night snacks

Finally, our eyes were streaming from the fire smoke and the wandering around began to be painful. We were coughing and a wee bit concerned to get back to campus not too late after our agreed-on time.

For a disorienting 1o minutes we argued about directions and took a few wrong turns (to some dark and smelly corners of the Mela)—but then Stewart expertly guided us back to the road we needed.

We arrived back—smokey and tired, but exhilerated—just before 10pm. And it seemed that back in the Mela many of the more energetic and vocal camps were just getting their kirtans started.

The chanting, singing, preaching, and “swa-ha”s went on all night, as usual. They were loud and fervent and clashing and wonderfully chaotic.

Ah, KM, so much to offer, so hard to decipher.

Night sunset fishing nets

Sunset downstream from the Mela

Flowing with the Kumbha Mela

I always understood that I was coming on a pilgrimage when I signed up to come to the 2013 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. I just didn’t know what part of this trip was going to be pilgrimage. Or even, perhaps, what a pilgrimage was.

Women in saris KM

On the road to the Kumbha Mela

I fantasized about meeting holy teachers who had descended from their reclusive, Himalayan caves—I had read about this in a newspaper article.

I dreamed of unexpected—but very enlightening—encounters with humanity on the dusty road to the great festival: After all, Parahamsa Yogananda famously met an incarnation of his teacher’s teacher at a Kumbha Mela in the early 20th century.

At the very least, I thought, the Himalayan Institute in Allahabad would invite some sages with whom they had personal connections to the campus for talks and maybe blessings, too. This was a long-awaited spiritual gathering  of up to 100 million people, and I was traveling from so far away, after so much preparation—something had to happen.

On the KM road

On the road

I’ve been in Allahabad for 2 1/2 days now. On the first day, we were hauled (literally) up the Ganges on wooden boats til we reached the most auspicious place, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, as well as the mysterious Saraswati river that you can’t actually locate on any map.

Small, strong men rowed, punted (with long bamboo poles), and pulled us with string. The boat traveled against the current, under makeshift pontoon bridges,  dodging garbage and sand bars, until we reached the sangam, the meeting of the waters. There, we blessed ourselves by scooping up handfuls of the highly toxic river (E.coli levels at 100x what’s acceptable), saying a prayer, then sprinkling the auspiscious water over our heads—and liberally dousing with hand sanitizer afterwards.

It seemed like cruel labor for the men until we were informed that their previous cargo had been SAND (sand from the Ganges is highly prized by cement factories).

 

going up Ganges

 

Still, nothing happened. But no worries, I thought, tomorrow we are going into the Kumbha Mela for real, finally reaching a destination that I have been thinking about for 3 years. With 8 square miles and countless sadhus prominently dressed in orange robes, something was bound to happen.

I set out with Stewart, my new Glaswegian friend. We were so deep in conversation about the pilgrimage itself that we hardly noticed the piles of fine white sand that our feet were kicking up. Soon our mouths were full of sand, and any exposed skin slathering in sunscreen was covered, too. I noticed local women were holding the ends of their saris over their mouths.

KM road

Kumbha Mela road is dusty, muddy, and hot

It was the tremendous noise that stopped our conversation. Singers, chanters, proclaimers and lecturers projected at top volume through cheap loudspeakers. Meanwhile rickshaws, motorcyles, bicycles, and Mercedes Benz jeeps (full of sadhus in orange robes) honked and whistled and rang on either side of us. We couldn’t hear anything else.

We caught up with other people from the Himalayan Institute at a fork in the road: now we would go down into the mele, and maybe cross a pontoon bridge to the Kumbha Mela grounds on the other side of the Ganges.

Bike on road to KM

Anyway, anyhow

We added Ali and Mangesh from London, also Selina an English nurse transplanted to America to our two-some, and together headed down towards the sangam, the confluence. This time from the land.

Along the way, we browsed bangle shops, haggled for malas (since Mangesh speaks Hindi), took photos and generally wondered what was going on inside all the tent camps that lined the makeshift road. That’s where, supposedly, the sages held court.

Often, as we took our pictures, a small crowd would gather to take photos of us. It seemed fair, although it was weird. Or a sage would stop and, with a kindly expression, stand a little too close and stare at us with unblinking eyes.

Baba

A baba

After a packed lunch of potato chips, pakoras, and (fake) mango juice-boxes we  visited the bathing areas that faced the sangam. Here,  whole families and villages were bathing in the holy river, the Ma Ganga. Selina was excited to immerse herself, but I wasn’t interested in getting closer to the bacteria.

Ganges bathing KM

Bathing in the Ganges

Mangesh did buy a boat of flowers and sent it out into the waters. (It flowed right back in, and Ali made fun of him.)

Girl selling at Ganges

Flower boats

And then we had to admit that we were hot, still hungry, tired, and ready to go back to the campus. Which seemed a long ways away at that point. We were done and we still hadn’t really encountered that thing that was supposed to happen.

We were just tourists wandering in a fair ground, surrounded by thousands of people elaborately wrapped in gorgeous colors, or lining the roads trying desperately to eke out a living.

KM palace

Entrance to a sadhu’s tent camp

The language barrier made it so that we would never really understand whose tent camp we were passing, which ones to go in, and which ones to avoid. They all looked as if they could swallow us up whole, exotic as we were with our very pale skin. Even Mangesh, who is Indian, couldn’t understand what we were seeing.

Tired from the dust, the noise, the heat, and the more-or-less aimless wandering in search of the fulfillment of Our Pilgrimage, we turned back.

“Are you feeling the auspicious energy, or anything?” asked Ali, former IT guy for a London investment bank.

“Not really,” I said. “I mostly feel tired.”

There were some silent, tired nods around our little group.

At last, we picked a tent camp at random and stopped in. The less digestively-challenged of us  accepted the free meal being offered, sitting back to back on the ground with Indian pilgrims who presumably did know why they were here and what they were supposed to be doing.

On the way back, I suggested a rickshaw. Mangesh haggled a price and we dove in—Selina, Ali, Mangesh and me. We picked up Stewart who had booked it on ahead of us. He looked very pleased when we pulled up.

Stewart and Ali KM

Stewart and Ali in the rickshaw

“The Ganges is inside you,” said a senior Himalayan Institute teacher. “Don’t get caught up in whether you immerse yourself or not. Notice her qualities, how the river flows, how constant and abundant she is. This is what you want to connect to. The vitality, the power.”

“There are so many political factions at the Kumbha Mela,” said another teacher later over chai, “And in India politics and religions are completely mixed together, no separation. There are serious lobbyists working the Kumbha Mela. It’s all over our heads. Sure, there are some very accomplished holy teachers in there, but the chances of us figuring out who’s who are slim. Even so, we’re all here at an auspicious time, doing our own practice, and that’s the benefit. The Mela is not the benefit, it’s your own practice.”

The rickshaw ride back was wonderful. Back on campus, we bathed from buckets in straw huts equipped with clean water. I didn’t care how simple it was—the water, the quiet, and the afternoon breeze felt as “authentic” and “auspicious” as anything ever had.

The circus wasn’t the point: the point was—as it always is— all within.

JH Selina Mangesh

Selina, JH, Mangesh

 

…and this just in: One More Book!

This just in! Got a note this morning from surfer yogi dude, Jaimal Yogis, that his new book will be out January 8th.

Yogis’s 2009 book Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea took a koan-ic approach to the chillest sport ever, as he searched for enlightenment on the waves.

In his new book, The Fear Project, Yogis hopes to answer this question (click to watch):

Jaimal Yogis Fear

Since I don’t have the book in my hands—but I can vouch for Yogis as a writer—I’m giving you the marketing copy below (you know, the stuff you’d read on Amazon or Library Journal).

Great gift for your the surfer yogi in your family?

This provocative, entertaining story follows Yogis as he navigated his own fears, from the monsters under his childhood bed to his personal quest to surf bigger and more difficult waves, culminating in northern California Mavericks—huge, crushing (and sometimes deadly) waves in the dead of winter. The Fear Project explores the complicated spectrum of why we feel afraid: fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, fear of being alone, fear of being trapped in the wrong job, fear of not being able to realize our dreams, fear of pain, and ultimately, fear of our own mortality.

Yogis embarks on a memorable journey as he seeks answers from neuroscientists, meditation teachers, psychologists, and elite athletes. As he learns how to identify and overcome his own fears, he shares the secret to unlocking a sense of renewed possibility and a more rewarding life.

The Fear Project is a captivating look at the age-old lesson that by recognizing our fears and embracing them—instead of running away—we can harness fear’s powerful energy to find true happiness and fulfillment.

Leaving Rio: Why I Had to Go

Leaving Rio

Now that my time in Rio is coming to an end people are asking me whether I really want to go. “Don’t you want to stay longer? Overstay your visa! You could teach English!”

It’s been 2 ½ months—June, July, and half of August. I’ve lived in two apartments in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa perched on a steep, cobblestoned hill in Rio de Janeiro. I also traveled in the Amazon for three weeks. Many people would not want the adventure to end. But I do.

I came to Brazil to change my perspective. I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed in New York. I needed to know that life was more than just work. After fifteen years of surviving in the Big Apple, many of my ideas about well-being revolved around working. But my life, organized to the minute — so that I could include personal projects and a social life, as well as my job as an editor — has been feeling wrong for some time. It felt like I’d gotten off at the wrong station. It was time to get on a different train.

View from Santa Teresa over downtown to Guanabara Bay

I knew Brazil—especially Rio—could help me with this. The most important thing in Rio is one’s connections to other people; it’s about having fun (with people) and enjoying life (with other people). It’s definitely not about work. Sunday nights are bigger party nights than Saturdays: people celebrate hard on their last free night before Monday. And, while people seemed to be constantly hustling up work, no one I met in Rio had a steady job.

Brazil is famous for being the land of alegria. Nothing is a problem. Don’t have a friend? No problem: go to the corner bar and within the hour you’ll have a few. They’ll make your evening fun, they’ll invite you to eat at their house, and when you meet on the street afterwards they’ll greet you with impossibly warm and open smiles. You’ll feel like family.

Don’t know your way around the city? No problem. Cariocas will instruct you on the best places to go and anyone overhearing the conversation will give their opinions. Can’t speak Portuguese? No problem. People will band together to communicate with you. No stress! Don’t worry!

This “no stress” attitude means that plans are unnecessary. Three hours late for a dinner party? No problem. Forget to call your friends? No problem. Stuck in traffic? No problem. Land of happiness, land of alegria. I even saw a woman walking down my street with a T-shirt that said “NO stress” (in English) yesterday.

I just met this guy

And once you connect with people the warmth is genuine. Brazilians will stick around to help you solve whatever problem you’re having (bus didn’t stop for you, can’t find a street, don’t understand something etc). They will lend you money no questions asked, give you a ride far out of their way, make you food at any time of the day or night, let you cut in line.

In fact, friends of friends will be assigned to pick you up at the airport or entertain you for an afternoon if your one friend in Brazil is not available. They don’t mind extending this exceptional hospitality. Most Americans (and Canadians) would find it absurd and imposing; they would resent it.. But Brazilians like it. They become instant family. And they remember you like a dear friend. Next time they see you, they will give you a warm kiss on each cheek and stop whatever they are doing to speak few tender words. There’s never a rush. They’re never too busy to talk.

This (along with the music, the dance, and the hilarious commentary on day-to-day life) is what Brazil does exceptionally well. And it’s this I wanted more of. Brazil has helped open me up to a whole different way of living, with more ginga (swing in your game), more sensuality (I like the extra bum exposure on the beach, and the men’s bikini, the sunga) and a less Puritan morality. More alegria, less worry. As a chronic worrier, all this has helped me a lot over time.

 

But there’s another side to this wonderful carinho (tender warmth). And it’s this other side that really bothered me this time in Brazil. The other side of alegria is tristeza—sadness—and there is plenty of crying going on in Brazil, especially in Rio. For good reason, because things aren’t safe, there’s very little accountability (from organizations or individuals), and when things go wrong there’s no recourse.

You have to apply a jeito—a work-around—to deal with the multiple maddening problems that come up in a day, for issues as small as buying a certain kind of hook to hang your hammock to rather larger ones like what to do when your house is on fire.

Here’s a minor but good example: when my Carioca friend discovered a match-stick in his feijão (stewed black beans) he didn’t complain to the waiter. What was the point? he said, it wouldn’t change anything. He had lived in New York for ten years and knew what I was thinking. But he did make a little chorinho—a little sob story—for extra beans. And the waiter brought them, kindly, as if he was doing Daniel a personal favor. In Brazil, you have to know how to play the game.

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

I didn’t realize when I went to Brazil how profoundly this particular tristeza is a part of the culture. I didn’t realize how deep it ran. This tristeza is erratic by nature and so it put me up against my own need for order. The casual attitude towards important things put me up against my tendency to worry, and the general lack of accountability made me scared for my day-to-day safety. I found it hard to roll with things— to be enrolando, “in the rolling,” as Cariocas are—even after a couple of months in Brazil.

I felt this keenly on my last day in Rio when I finally went up the Pão D’Acúcar, the Sugarloaf, a 1,300 foot rock accessed by a cable car that can take 65 people at a time up to a spectacular viewing area.

The thing I really noticed other than the breathtaking view was that I felt safe. I wasn’t afraid that the cables would snap, that someone would fall out of the bondinho (cable car) or off the top of the rocks. It felt like a first world experience. And this was a tremendous relief. I worried about safety constantly as I walked through the city streets of Rio.

View of Rio from Sugarloaf

Most of the time in Brazil, I was not so much afraid of being robbed as I was afraid to do simple things such as walk on the sidewalk. In Santa Teresa, the sidewalk was so narrow that every few feet I had to step off into traffic. There were also unavoidable obstacles like poles in the middle of the sidewalk that had to be sidestepped, and parked cars, or mounds of uncollected garbage. (Not to mention the ever-present clumps of dog poop.)

Wires hung down dangerously from telephone and power lines over the sidewalk. They dangled at head-height and were hard to see in the bright sun and the dark rain.

Wires hang down at head-height

The traffic coming around every corner was fast, erratic, and fearless. Motorbikes avoiding the tram tracks would come within inches of the sidewalk (that you might just be about to step off to avoid a pole, for example). Buses routinely came so close that they ripped off the rear-view mirrors of parked cars. Cars played chicken with pedestrians—not out of malice, out of habit.

City buses shook so violently I was afraid I’d bite my own tongue, my teeth chattering around in my head uncontrollably. The buses clogged the streets and competed with each other for degrees of recklessness. One driver told a friend who got on with her 5-year old daughter to hold on—and before he had even closed the door, the bus was careening down the cobblestones at top speed like the apocalypse was coming.

And it’s not like the roads, tracks, or cars are well-maintained. A tragic example is what happened to Santa Teresa’s beloved bonde (streetcar) last year. A charming last vestige of old-time Rio, the signature yellow, single-car train connected the various areas of the hilly, colonial neighborhood and crossed the old aqueduct down in the city proper, ending up in the beautiful Jardim Bôtanico, the city’s famous botanical gardens. On August 27, 2011, the bonde lost control on its way down to Lapa, smashing into a pole, killing the conductor and 5 passengers and injuring 51 other people.

Beloved Santa Teresa, facing Cine Santa, the adorable cinema; also see the bonde tracks, narrow sidewalks, and racing van

The extra tragic part is that it was avoidable. Everyone knew the bonde and its tracks needed maintenance. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before something bad happened. There was a lot of talk about it. But as political discussions continued, people continued to ride, overloading the tram as usual. Nothing was done. Then— the worst thing possible happened. Now people are dead and there’s no more bonde.

So I adjust the motto of Brazil as land of alegria. I’ve come to call it land of “alegria now, chorinho later.” This lack of accountability and action, this disposition of “oh well” proves itself to be charming and relaxed in the moment, but dangerous and reckless in the long-term. Engage any Brazilian (at the corner bar, of course, that’s where things get worked out) in this subject and they will agree, nodding and saying, e uma locura, it’s a madness. (But you’ll see those same people doing the alegria thing themselves soon enough.)

Another maddening aspect of Brazilian culture is a lack of respect for other people, especially when it comes to public space. This is pretty puzzling for a culture that puts so much emphasis on relationships, family, and social ease.

But I’ve spent hours and hours walking around downtown, Centro, looking for Rio’s impressive colonial churches and in all this time ambulating, it’s been normal for Brazilians to walk out in front of me and stand exactly in my way. They don’t have to do this. Then, they refuse to move as I am trying to figure out how to get around them. This happens not with malevolence, but with absolute indifference to my presence. I see other Brazilians on the sidewalk throw out their hands and say, “Poha!” Shit! with a gesture that’s says, ‘what the hell are you doing? Can’t you see I’m here?’ Even though they probably do the same thing themselves.

Igreja de Nossa Senora da Gloria do Outeiro 1714-1729

If you go to a shop and want to buy something, you will have to make your presence known. Even if you are standing at the counter. Even if you are the only customer there. Even if there are 10 people behind the counter, you will need to say, loudly, firmly, “bom dia,” good day, and then bark your order. It doesn’t feel right. But their main objective is not to serve you. You have to remind people that in order to buy the Band-Aids, you need to give them money. And they are the only ones who can take it from you.

They are also famous for playing boom-boxes, speakers, car stereos, or telenovelas (soap operas, a national passion) so loud that you can’t think straight, and they’ll do it right into their neighbor’s houses without a second thought to how it’s affecting anyone else. It’s enough to make otherwise patient adults—not to mention parents of young children—lose their minds.

But here’s the other thing: no one complains. Brazilians are so reluctant to give offense that they won’t say, “Yo, asshole, turn the motherfucking stereo off, it’s 3 a.m..” Or even, “would you mind turning down the music?”

Without protest or complaint, or even an ‘excuse me,’ Brazilians will shove and squeeze you out of the way as you are getting off airplanes, boats, buses and other forms of mass transportation. And then if anyone gets hurt in the process—if the delivery guy barrelling down the sidewalk with his huge cart overloaded with crates of beer or boxes of diapers gashes your thigh, for example, as he presses forward at a dangerous speed, or knocks over your 2-year old or your frail mother—he is terribly, terribly sorry, genuinely hurt and concerned on your behalf. It’s as if he had nothing to do with the situation.

Alegria now, chorinho later.” Everything is in the moment, at the moment. Worry about consequences later.

my friend Arjan — just a friend

I noticed this fleeting urgency in my interactions with men. If a guy thought I was attractive, within an hour he would be trying to get me into a dark corner to make out. If I refused but gave him my info, he would inundate me with come-ons and invitations for the first few days, but if I happened to be busy right that moment (taking a Portuguese class or meeting up with another friend, for example) he would just give up. As far as I could tell, there was no such thing as a period of seduction or, even a period of dating. It was now or never; all or nothing. I found all these rituals startling, bordering on predatory, but for Cariocas they seemed normal: like if the guy didn’t try to kiss you at the end of a couple of rounds of forró (a country dance) then something was wrong.

Although the dating rituals were perplexing (I couldn’t see how anything more than a quick hook-up was possible in Rio), they were harmless. Things got scary when this lack of patience—fortitude, perseverance, or even focus— extended into services on which public safety depended.

One night, I came home from Bar do Gomes, my local and charming boteco (bar) around 1:30am and to my surprise,  I saw that the house next door was on fire. Helena, the woman I was renting from, was urgently calling the fire department. Her son, Rafael, and his friends were running out into the street, trying to get into the burning house. It was under renovation and no one lived there.

The boys managed to break in and douse the fire with bottled water. Then they found a n unconscious man, a worker on the house (one who had routinely played horrible radio stations at top volume, disturbing all of us). Helena drove off to get the house’s owner.

Neighbors had spilled out into the street and started a rumor that the man had snuck into the house to kill himself. At great personal risk, the boys dragged the half-unconscious guy into the street.  They shook him by his arms and legs, trying to rouse him from a smoke-induced coma.

A long time had passed without any sign of the police or fire department. It was about 40 minutes later when the police arrived—slowly, and clearly annoyed to have been roused from sleep. They sauntered over to the comatose man and yanked him up from the cobblestones where they boys had laid him. The boys rushed in to protest. The policeman, aggravated, pulled his gun.

Helena, having arrived back with the owner’s lover, appeared in the street, shouting, “Amigos de Rafael, sai da rua! Sai! Vai na casa!” Friends of Rafael get out of the street! Get back into the house!

She could see the situation spinning out of control. She’d rather that the police kill this already half-dead man than pull the trigger on one of her sons’s friends—who had gotten too involved by challenging the police. I thought I was going to witness the kind of stupid murder we all saw in the movie, “City of God,” about the out-of-control drug trade and police corruption in Rio.

the fire dept finally arrives

Meanwhile a sluggish and reluctant fire truck appeared at the end of the street. It has been almost an hour since Helena had called. The station was only 10 minutes away. The truck turned in where cars were clustered on the sidewalk. The L-shaped street had another entrance—as the firefighters must have known—very close by and it was free of parked vehicles. But instead the firefighters waited for the neighbors to move their cars, slowly, one by one.

Meanwhile the fire in the house had re-ignited and thicker, greedier flames were shooting out of the second story windows. Those of us on the street stood with our mouths agape. “E uma locura!” Said a girl next to me. “What are they doing!!??” I asked. “Nao sei,” someone said, “I don’t know.” No one knew. It was a warm night but I was shivering with anxiety. It wasn’t even my property but I felt extremely unprotected.

“And this guy, if he wanted to kill himself, why didn’t he do it some normal way, with a knife or a rope? “ said a woman standing next to me.

“He wanted to make a show,” said Helena. “Burning down someone else’s house. Incrível.” Incredible.

When the bombeiros finally got up in front of the burning house, they were in no rush to put out the fire. They didn’t try to prevent the boys from continuing to run in with their water bottles. There was not even a gesture towards crowd control. The firemen were very casual about arranging their gear. They were dressed in clothes from another era that looked like they should be in a museum.

The men slowly hooked up the hose on the truck and slowly turned on the water. But when they unspooled the hose and walked towards the burning house — the hose was too short.

Meanwhile, the ambulance that had arrived did not administer aid to the comatose man (who was now more conscious and looked drugged up). Instead, the man was handcuffed and left in the back of the police cruiser while the cops —about 10 of them—stood around and shot the shit.

I stood in the street, watching helplessly. I was shaking all over. I couldn’t sleep after the fire was out and the firefighters and the police with their suspect had departed.

However, even more suprising, the next night when I related the story to locals at Bar do Gomes, no one thought it was shocking. They looked at me blankly. It was as if I had a problem. Silly, gringa, I didn’t understand that this was normal.

“There is no help. If anything happens here,  I am responsible for the situation, for this house, for everyone,” Helena said the next day. “If I don’t put the fire out next door, then my house gets damaged and no one will solve that for me. If there is trouble in the street, I have to deal with it. There is no security, no safety, no guarantees. This is Brazil. It’s all a big mess.”

I imagined what it must be like owning a house in Rio. It made me very tense.

(Ten days later, one of Brazil’s biggest art collectors lost his entire personal collection in an apartment fire. It took the fire department an hour to get the ladder up.)

All of these things happened in Rio de Janeiro, a big world-class city with a lot of educated people and established infrastructure, a city that is preparing to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

So just imagine how wild, raw, and lawless other parts of Brazil can be.  In remote areas—from the Amazon to the northeast, for example—long-distance passenger buses are routinely held up and robbed, Wild West style. If someone is killed in the Amazon—in a misunderstanding, a drunken brawl, a land dispute, for example—the dead just disappear.

Kimberly and Cece

My ex-pat friends in Rio are used to living on Brazil’s shaky foundation. It seems that their passion for Brazil outweighs their frustration with the infrastructure or any fear for themselves. I applaud that. Maybe if I had moved to Brazil at the peak of my own passion I wouldn’t mind the difficulties so much, either.

Now that I’m back in North America, feeling safe, clean, protected, and more-or-less understood, I do miss that Brazilian ginga. I miss that extra spice that makes people want to stay forever in “the marvelous city.” I miss the warmth and the permissiveness and the humor of Brazilians, how there’s always a way, always a work-around, and no favor is too big or small to ask for. Rules, schedules, and protocols get to feeling very restrictive and unfriendly here in the north; they are more concerned with maintaining a cold bureaucracy than with fostering human joy. Life on a schedule, I now realize, is half a life.

Vinicius

But one thing I have left Brazil with is the knowledge that in New York I live with a lot of security, a lot of safety. I didn’t know this before. I live with the knowledge that if I need an ambulance, an ambulance will come. Fast. And first-responders will treat me no matter what my race or income. And that is a very, very nice thing.

Luke, teaching English to a bar owner who prefers to feed him triple-decker sandwiches!

So I need to wait before I got back to Brazil again. I have to wait until I again reach the point where I’ve taken my day-to-day safety for granted or begin to feel frustrated with America’s Puritan mindset, or slip back into my tendency to overwork.

I have to wait until I forget how nice it is to have very safe and clean streets, clean water,  fellow citizens who make an effort to look out for my well-being, to accommodate for me in public space, friends who make (and keep) plans, and a first-world fire-station right around the corner.

Last lunch in Rio: tchau, ridiculous and marvelous city!

 

 

 

10 Can’t-Miss Snacks in Rio de Janeiro

And now for something completely light and fluffy…. !

Here’s my post for Fodor’s travel blog from July on the snacks you *must* try when you come to Rio.

I realize my posts are running from the sublime to the ridiculous, but such is the way of beauty and commerce…

Bar food, street food, snack food, beach food—Rio de Janeiro thrives on snacks. And so will you, if you can find your way around the hundreds of sometimes baffling options. Here is my top-ten list of can’t-miss bites from mouth-watering cheeseballs to popcorn with condensed milk.   Keep reading

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?