Leaving Rio: Why I Had to Go


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

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

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.

Leaving Rio-Why I had to go Author Joelle Hann 3.jpg

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

Daniel, philosophical after finding a match in his feijao

I didn’t realize when I went to Brazil how profoundly this particular tristezais 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 PãoD’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

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 hang down at head-height

Wires hang down at head-height

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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!

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!

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




I can’t resist a challenge, and as I meet the challenge of living in New York, I become more and more settled here. I live in Brooklyn now, in an old Italian house, in a Dominican neighborhood. I’ve got an authentic New York State driver’s license, a dot.com job, a boyfriend, and a new immigration visa.Of course, it’s at this time that I’ve also begun to be wracked with homesickness. I ache to see the west coast. I yearn for long summer nights, late salmon barbecues on the beach, ocean kayaking and the smell of budlea, lilac and pine sweet on the night air. It could be the time of year: Canada is gorgeous in the summer. Or, perhaps it is time to go home?

It started a few weeks ago, when, sick in bed with a cold, I snuggled down with The New Yorker to read Jonathan Raban’s article, “Sailing into the Sublime, the Infidelity of Travel.” I opened it up, excited to see my part of the world represented. After my initial elation, and to my own astonishment, on opening up the magazine, I burst into jealous tears. It became intolerable that anyone else could be sailing up the west coast of Canada. It seemed especially unfair that miserable me-sick, and too poor as a recent graduate student to buy a ticket west-had to suffer the smelly, roasting, concrete-jungle summer in New York while this Englishman enjoyed himself on my islands.

I mopped up my tears, and took a look at what he had to say.

The tides between the islands, deep fogs, dense forest, magnetically green ocean, the imposing mountains that tower over narrow waterways, and eccentric people living in isolated communities, if you could call them that, filled Raban’s article. He watched this landscape from his boat. Concurrently, he relayed the early European explorers’ history of the area from their journals and ships’ logs. Raban was ‘discovering’ the coast, too; being filled with awe and desire as the sailors had, 300 years earlier.

I loved the coast with the same dazzled incomprehension, dwarfed with awe. But I have to admit, it was not until I’d been away from it myself, between the ages of 17 and 18-first year of university-that I learned how much I loved it. I have to try to explain why exactly it casts such a spell on me. It is beautiful, that goes without saying. But it also has some uncanny power, that Raban was trying to describe, as were Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver in the late 1700s.

The following incident might illuminate some of the coast’s illusive power. One cold, rainy winter weekend in 1995, I took a ferry from Vancouver to Galiano Island, an hour’s journey from the city, where I’d rented a tiny, mildewy cabin, and settled in for a weekend of solitary work. That night, a storm blew in. The lighthouse just across the waters, on Mayne Island, boomed out its sonorous warning, long after I’d let the fire die, put up the dishes and gone to bed. I woke up suddenly in the backroom. After a loud boom, all the windows in the front had snapped open in the fierce winds. I could hear the narrowed waters of Active Pass heaving and spraying up against the sandstone cliffs below. I ran out into the dark cabin with only the passing beam of the lighthouse to light the room. I fumbled with the lamps. The wind held the windows fast against me. Drawing them back into their frames proved a struggle. I fought the wind for them. After an hour I had the place secured, though I still worried that one of the tall fir trees would come crashing through the roof. Then, I put on my raingear and walked out into the storm.

When I’d turned 25, a close friend had given me a photograph of myself. It was a photograph she had taken the Christmas before, at the beach when we had been walking and throwing stones at the seagulls. We’d been talking-examining our general conviction that, as Wordsworth said, the world was too much with us. When we got to the playground by the holly trees, in the snug cove of Vancouver’s Maple Bay, we had both dropped our bags and jumped on the swings. I was trying to pull myself up onto the metal rings when she got our her camera.In the picture, I have my right hand just barely on one ring, my fingers strain to hold it. My right foot clears the sand below and my left arm hangs at my side for balance. The photograph is black and white, and around me stand the prickly holly trees which lend the shot a rim of darkness. That dark is echoed in my dark jacket, my jeans and shoes. What stands out are my pale hands, my pale face, with a smile on it, and the strip of sand below, also pale. Around the edges my friend had written the first five lines of a poem I’d recently written:

God’s mouth dark on my hair
hope blows around me on the sand
I am a girl lighting fires near the sea
Mum’s mouth a porthole underwater
an engine-room that seized.

She gave me this photograph for my 25th birthday. I had been miserably depressed and yet here my lighted face looked hopeful and open. “You can put this on the back of your first book,” she’d said. It looked as though in brooding over our problems, I had either solved them, found the joke in them, or discovered a higher path out of our habitual melancholy. It was quite a gift.

In this spirit–the spirit of transcending something–even as I walked in the midst of it, I opened the door of the cabin, marched determinedly against the wind. I marched to the hairpin turn in the road and towards the Bluffs Provincial Park, about a mile away, which overlooked Active Pass. Sure of my direction, I ignored the trail and began to stride diagonally up the slope softened with decades of pine-needles and tree-rot. When I reached the top, scratched by unseen branches, having tripped more than a few times and having landed on my wet palms, having cut them, I felt some kind of weird calm. Below, hundreds of feet down, the waters of Active Pass hurled themselves onto the rocky beach. Sheet lightening was moving off towards Vancouver Island, striking purple and white onto the ocean. On me the rain fell with hail-like force as I sat under a short fir tree, one I wagered would stand through any wind; I was inside the storm. I slipped, like the moon that dipped beneath the horizon, into a space of supernatural calm. I had transgressed my need for safety from the elements. I was in another place altogether, somewhere hard to map, at the heart of that storm.

* * *

It’s November in New York now. That spell of homesickness from the summer has passed. New Yorkers have long returned from their summer vacations, and the crowds of tourists have thinned out. I’ve returned to graduate school, to teaching freshman composition, and I continue to waitress, off the books, in a Soho bistro. American Thanksgiving is not too far away. New York is at its best in the fall.

Access to the best of New York has been somewhat limited for me, given my budget, but waitressing has its perks. The owner of my restaurant opened a new French bistro in the meatpacking district last week. He invited staff from all three of his other restaurants, to come for a pre-opening drink with some of his A list celebrities and special friends. I met up with three other waitresses there and we sat together on the red leather banquette, under pseudo Parisian tiled columns.The two hours we spent there represent something I love about this city. In the glow of the golden light, watching the bustle of bartenders in white shirts with rolled up sleeves and slicked back hair, under signs and long scratched mirrors advertising French drinks and food, the place seemed to woo and reward us for the many hours we’d spent serving food and drinks till 3 and 4 in the morning. It was spinning a fantastical, seductive romance in which I, too, the student, waitress, nobody, could feel as rich and lovely as the model, actress or writer sitting to my left. Judy Davis, Tim Burton, and Matt Dillon were all sitting at banquettes close by.

When I walked dizzily to the bar to get my next free drink, a woman tapped me on the arm. She introduced herself, “Hi, my name is Alice–you were my waitress once.”

I readied myself for what was coming. It would be something like hearing my own voice on a tape recorder, I felt sure: unsettling.

“I have to tell you, I never remember my server,” she beamed, “but you were so cool, so chill–my sister and I both agreed you were the best server I’ve ever had; I recognized you right away, you were great.” Relieved, I smiled. We toasted each other and I slipped away with my fresh drink.

The friend who gave me the photograph for my birthday has commented on how much happier I seem in New York. It’s true that I love being here for these kinds of fabulous moments, under the charmed lights, to eat the sparkling food and drink the champagne, to be remembered, to be recognized. Although the values of my socialist, Canadian upbringing chastise me, I enjoy this glamor. I enjoy the materiality and the make-believe of it. I am seduced, I let myself be carried away in the dream of loveliness, of deserving, a peculiarly American sense of righteousness. Even at the fringes of this privilege (the real celebrities ate a full complementary dinner in the restaurant; the invited staff shared drinks in the bar) I feel wonderful. Charmed.

The east wasn’t always charming. Careless of, the west’s power—taking its raw, fearsome beauty, for granted—I had argued and cajoled and pestered my parents until they had agreed that I could attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, 3,000 kilometers from home. It was what we westerners called, “back east.” In other words, far away and totally foreign. At seventeen, that’s what I’d wanted.

My residence room at Queen’s had been made of industrial, pre-fabricated brick, a monstrosity popularly known as the “Death Star.” From the first moment I detested the place. But I moved in determined to find some elusive freedom. As the semester rolled on my luck didn’t improve. I didn’t meet anyone I liked or trusted. On Halloween I went to see Aliens at the campus cinema. Then, being, naturally, lonely, I mustered up my courage and called an acquaintance from the payphone outside the theater.A blustery autumn wind was kicking leaves up in the city park I hurriedly crossed to get to his house. Kevin was drinking rum and coke. I drank too much. In no time I was seeing double, forming formless words which fell out of my mouth into the nothing air.

No one was home but me and him. Paralyzed by alcohol, lost in a haze of longing for somewhere which felt like home, I let his rough and groping hands travel all over me. I let him have sex with my highly intoxicated, teenage body while my mind left to walk along Pacific shore and drive my old red Datsun through the forested roads.

Later, after he’d left the house and gone to his girlfriend’s, I wondered where I had been at all. Here, in this messy bedroom of another teenager? Or at home, in the woods? If I had stayed in the room with Kevin, would any of what had just happened, have happened? I wasn’t sure. My nostalgia for home meant that I couldn’t see where I was, and this was dangerous. When I returned to the actual coast, in my physical body, eight months later, I could see that it was gorgeous. It was sublime. It offered freedom that the east had taken away. I could not believe that in all my childhood, I had never truly seen what was around me.

Ironically, I still associate the east with a kind of sexualness–eating and drinking, splashing around in the civilly sexualized bars and restaurants of New York. This kind of sexual engagement with my life makes me want to stay here, not flee. Great food and drink, beautiful spaces, bright, funny, diverse friends and lovers are the fabric of rich living. With the occasional professional kudo thrown in life here seems full of potential. That is the east’s–well, New York’s–charm, that it promises so much.

Clearly, the west coast could never make me feel this way. The west promises nothing. The west is raw, fertile, fibrous, base, consuming and destroying in unregulated, uncivilized proportions. It was luck and force of will which had taken me to the heart of that storm on Galiano Island.

When I look in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I find several predictable definitions for infidel: namely, “unfaithful, unbelieving”. For infidelity: “lack of faith, disbelief in religious matters or a particular religion; unfaithfulness or disloyalty to a friend, superior, especially lack of sexual faithfulness to a partner”.

It’s clear why I would leave the west. And why I would stay on beyond the time it has taken to graduate from an MFA program. I needed a way to surface from the centrifugal suction of depression, to escape from nature’s heady appetite. I need civilization-not civilization as a moral kind of order, but engagement, culture. Like a nineteenth century explorer invited to court, I traded the power of the wild for the power of human ideas and constructions. The price of my defection comes in the form of the tag, infidel. To be unfaithful to the coast makes me a non-believer in its raw ecstatic religion, and non-complying with its sexualized cloying. This seems fine to me. A price worth paying, indeed a price that needs to be paid. I sell my soul.

In New York, it’s virtually impossible to walk as slowly and ponderously as we had in Vancouver. It seems that everyone here could be depressed but everyone is just toobusy to stop and think about it. That is also something I enjoy about life here. The need to be hyper-alert. Somedays I feel like Alex, the main character in Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, whose eyes were clamped open while violent and repulsive images, bright lights and noise assaulted him. All around me here are humans handling human life, evidence of our ingeniousness and our cruelty. Everywhere people are running. Here the unspoken motto seems to be, ‘be aggressive and survive’. We–us strangers–are bonded by our understanding that this is what we will do to survive. I will do it and so will you.

In contrast, the morning after the storm on Galiano, after I’d cleaned up the fallen branches and blown scrub from around the cabin and chopped some more wood for my next visit, I’d hitch-hiked to the ferry. I found that ferry service had been moved an old dock on the island’s west side. We hitched rides over there. The air was electric with anticipation. All foot-passengers were talking to each other, comparing the damage, the shortages, the urgency with which we had to leave. We were smiling at each other shyly, as though we were all about to reveal some intimate secrets. We had all been awake in the night. I knew the excitement and yearning we had been feeling. Someone might have been swept away or crushed, or might have succumbed to the seduction of the storm. This kind of intimacy displaced our aggression, fears and excitements. We bonded against the storm, cradled safely in our puny, makeshift society. The land had brought us together in just the way that New York City drives us apart, living out our aggressions, fired through with our fears, ambitions and desires.

The west is not innocent, not passive, not a parcel of natural resources that yields to our demands for wood and water. It’s rather female, in my characterization of it here, the voracious, powerful, unyielding, hungry female. My draw into the bosom of the beyond-human, is homoerotic, violent, instinctual, a breaking into or allowing myself to be drawn back in to a highly charged union. I flee this because I want to be a distinct part of the fabric of culture as it exists, no matter what the price.

Interesting that my draw to what is socially feared is where I find depression, isolation, and ecstatic solitariness. My draw to that which has been sanctioned is where I find intellectual stimulation, society and physical danger.Last night my ex-boyfriend called from Canada. I was sitting on the couch in my newly repainted living room, fiddling with this essay. He asked me how long I would remain in New York, if I had reasons to stay here beyond graduate school. I said I would be staying. He seemed surprised. I thought of Jonathan Raban’s article, now filed away in my filing cabinet. I would not throw it out, just as I could not turn away from my need for Canada and the west coast. I remain faithful, even as I am continually committing the gravest and sometimes most risky infidelity by choosing to live here. But for now, these images and these places exist in my imagination, powerful and seductive, the places I turn to for solace and fierceness of a different order. I am bound to return to these actual places. Right now I return there in my mind only, and this relationship-by-proxy is what I am calling home.