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That’s So Brazil

Post #11: Mother aya’s embrace

Conoisseurs of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic herb used by indigenous Amazonians, insist that the plant is not a drug. They say it’s a medicine—one that allows you to meet your own soul and transcend deep hurts, like a parent who molested you—and should only be taken as part of a sacred ritAyahuasca herbual. Some people call the herb “mother aya” and say things like “mother aya will give you not what you want, but what you need” or “mother aya has wide, caring arms and never judges.”

One of my friends here, a regular user, told me that the plant changed her life. Despite living with fibromyalgia and relying on a government pension to survive, she laughs easily and radiates peace of mind. If aya had anything to do with this, I wanted in.

Just one snag: aya induces violent vomiting in many people who take it, and the thought of a group retching session put my hypertrophied sense of revulsion in overdrive. On the other hand, I was here in Floripa to live large, so when my friend invited me to an ayahuasca ceremony, I clutched my stomach and said yes.

I was the only non-Brazilian among the 13 participants at the ceremony, which began at 10 pm in a dim hostel room with floral sheets draped to the ceiling. The leader, Jean, a diminutive man whose dreadlocks roped down his back like the roots of an ancient tree, put a tambor xamânico between his legs and began singing and drumming about Brazilian slaves, about empowerment, about preparing to enter aya’s force field.

Os pretos velhos vão chegando, chegando devagar…

About an hour into the ceremony, Jean called each of us in turn to receive our first dose of ayahuasca tea, then told us to sit or lie down and “begin the work.” As he continued chanting and drumming, I felt the brew seep into my cells. Pleasing geometric shapes danced in front of my eyes, and when Jean spoke of the need to embrace the impermanence of things—not my strong suit at the best of times—the tears started flowing. And then, for a few brieAyahuasca 4f minutes, everything seemed right with the world.

We all had plastic buckets in front of us, and every once in a while someone would lean over to fazer limpeza, or “do a cleansing.” When the nausea hit me—with hardly a second of warning—there was nothing to do but join the fray.

We drank our second dose of aya shortly before sunrise. More geometric shapes, more nausea, another flicker of serenity, and then it was over.

As the rising sun poured through the window, Jean encouraged us to share our experiences. “The work was very strong for me,” many people said, and went on to talk about communing with dusty old relatives and even with people from former lives. I felt a little jealous, as I hadn’t met my mother or my maker or had life’s secrets whispered into my ear.

Before everyone left, another participant took me aside and told me that, even if the earth hadn’t moved for me, traces of the medicine would stay in my body and give me fresh insights for the next week or so. As things turned out, he wasn’t wrong. Thanks, mother aya.

 

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That’s So Brazil

Post #10: The Marvellous City

Don’t do it. That’s the gist of the advice I got from my friends about going to Rio de Janeiro. It’s a bad time to visit, they said. The violence is out of control. Just don’t do it.

I told them I had to go. Spending five months in Brazil without seeing Rio seemed a little perverse to me—like, I don’t know, going to Agra and skipping the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Sistine Chapel without looking up. In order to know Brazil, I felt, I had to have at least a taste of the cidade maravilhosa. Rio 5

My friends intensified their admonitions. One kept sending me links to alarmist news stories: The drug lords have the police under a vice grip! The violence in Rio is worse than in Iraq! The federal government has called the army to step in! Another warned me that the airport taxis had formed a de facto mafia devoted to bilking tourists, and that favela gangs were known to shoot at each other across the linha vermelha highway into town.

These warnings got me spooked enough that I decided to spend just two days and one night in Rio. Any more time, I figured, and my odds of survival would drop to negligible levels.

My taxi-fearing friend was so concerned for my welfare that she arranged Rio 4for a driver called Marcos, recommended by her former employer, to pick me up at the airport. As we sped along the linha vermelha, the rising sun bringing the favelas into focus, I got ready to duck so I could dodge the bullets, but the street gangs were apparently taking a breakfast break.

After dropping my suitcase off at the Lemon Spirit hostel—yes, I still do hostels; it’s a good excuse to act half my age—I began walking. I walked around the nearby lagoon, then down to the ocean and along the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. And back again.

What I saw was… people. Clusters of people going about their daily lives. Couples. People with children. Joggers. Dog walkers. Even some folks with their cell phones out. (My friends had told me that nobody in Rio would think of using a cell phone on the street because it’s as sure as gone.) How could this be? How could these horrible people risk exposing their children and pets to the crossfire? And did they want to have their cell phones ripped out of their hands?Rio 2

The next day I booked a guided tour. “Everyone turn left! See that monastery on the hill? In 1647…” is not my idea of a good time, but on this very hot day, an air-conditioned bus seemed the only reasonable way to see the city’s landmarks. Just as I’d feared, the guide kept throwing touristy facts at us, but even her nattering couldn’t take away from the grandeur of the Cristo Redentor, the heart-stopping views from the Pão de Açucar peak, or the loveliness of the Selarón Steps.

It may have been blind luck that prevented me from getting my purse snatched or my throat slit, but I tend to believe Marcos, who told me, on the way back to the airport, that the media make a sport of exaggerating Rio’s dangers. If you want to know what things are really like, he said, talk to a local.

Edited to add: When I wrote this blog post I wasn’t aware of the recent assassination of councillor and activist Marielle Franco in Rio. Just wanted to acknowledge this great loss to Brazilians.

#solotravel #riodejaneiro #lemonspirit

That’s So Brazil

Post #9: The World’s Greatest Party

I’m talking about Carnaval, of course. The official day falls right before Ash Wednesday, but the revelry starts a week earlier, with each new day upping the ante.

To mark the official start of my personal Carnaval season, my friend Ya Ya's caipirinhaYa Ya made me a caipirinha with cachaça rum, limes, and acerolas from her garden. It wasn’t quite noon yet, and I only drink before noon during long layovers at airports, but hey, this was Carnaval. Que comecem os trabalhos, as people say around here. Let the work begin.

Take your pick: desfiles (parades), samba school competitions, masked balls, special events such as “drink and draw” parties, and street food at every corner. Unless you spend all week in a cave, you’ll see beer cans piling up on sidewalks, joints being passed around under palm trees, and men relieving themselves in parking lots.

If you think this sounds a little de trop, you’re not alone. Several Brazilians have told they hate the debauchery of Carnaval, an admission sometimes preceded by an embarrassed “I know this may sound very un-Brazilian, but…” One man told me he viewed Carnaval as a ruse to distract people from the serious problems facing Brazil. Instead of fighting for a better country, he said, people spent weeks or months practicing their Carnaval dance moves and planning their costumes, with hardly a pause to take their heads out of the sand.

No doubt he had a point, but the energy in the air was hard to resist. Most nights I headed down to Praça da Lagoa, the main square in my part of town. On a tarpaulin-covered stage, rock and samba groups banged away and people massed around them, singinSujos 6g and dancing and waving their raised arms like windshield wipers.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, but I wasn’t going to miss the bloco dos sujos (block of dirties), a traditional Floripa street party where men dress like women, women dress like men, and “Carnaval rock” music (apparently a genre) blares from all sides. From my perch on the steps of a cathedral, I watched the pom-pommed breasts and shimmering tutus and dyed-popcorn booths lose their sharp edges and become pure colour.

But all is not well in Carnaval land: the bane of cultural appropriation has come to town. A sententious video I found on YouTube exhorted people to avoid cross-gender, indigenous, gypsy, Afro-Brazilian, and “sexy nurse” costumes unless they belonged to those groups. (Which begs the question: how do you determine if you’re a sexy nurse?) When a famous Brazilian actress, Paolla Oliveira, appeared at a Carnaval ball in full Indian regalia, she had to dodge a barrage of cyber-tomatoes. As someone who lands squarely on the “culturaCultural appropriationl appreciation” side of the debate—and who loved Oliveira in the soap opera O Profeta—I found this regretful.

Fortunately, most revelers in my midst did not let political correctness trump good old-fashioned fun. On the final evening in the praça, men jiggled their falsies, sexy nurses let their real (and likely enhanced) wares hang out, and Afro-Brazilian bangles swung proudly from ears, necks and wrists of all colours.

Before heading home I rode my bicycle along a few side streets, where I passed by a string of men doing their business in bushes. Long live Carnaval.

 

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That’s So Brazil

Post #8: Age is but a… oh, never mind

The other day I was standing in a long line at the bank when I suddenly remembered: as someone over 60, I was entitled to hop over to the caixa preferencial, which had a much shorter queue. A sign above the teller’s booth served as a helpful reminder: “This line is for old people—anyone as old as 60 or even older.”

Old age 1“Coming right up,” I felt like saying. “Just hang on while I retrieve my walker and pop in my hearing aid.”

Along similar lines, the Brazilian novel I’ve been reading recently brought a new character into the story, a “very old man” with wrinkles criss-crossing his face, cocker-spaniel pouches under his eyes, and the weight of the world on his rounded back. A couple of pages later the author let it be known that the man was 60.

With insults and injuries such as these, I can’t be blamed for being a wee bit twitchy about my age. I turned 61 a few weeks ago, but damned if I was going to let anyone know. Not here in Brazil, where people “refresh” their cheeks and breasts and butts as one might rearrange the furniture in a living room. Brazil cosmetic surgery

For most of my midlife years, the guess-my-age game has given me a reliable ego boost. “You’re really 52? I would have guessed mid-forties.” “Fifty-seven? No way.” As recently as two years ago, I was propositioned by a handsome Italian man on the boardwalk in Cannes. I put a quick end to his nocturnal aspirations,  but still… ego boost.

In the past couple of years, though, something has changed. I look in the mirror and don’t see it—I have no frown lines or turkey chin, and my body hasn’t gone all sausagey on me—but clearly the rest of the world does. People are no longer shocked when they learn my age, and on my third day in Brazil one person actually guessed higher.

After that I stopped playing. I have no interest in seeing people’s un-shocked faces. Now, if someone asks me how old I am—and Brazilians often do—I just smile and say, “A gente pode mudar de assunto?” Can we change the subject?

Let’s face it, youth is a currency, and I don’t have quite as much coin as I might like. Before meeting Brazilian cyber-buddies IRL for the first time, I’m tempted to give them fair warning. You know, truth in advertising. “Hey, just letting you know that I’m 61, even though I feel like 25, both physically and mentally.” I actually wrote this to one young dude I was planning to meet for English-Portuguese conversation exchange. He never showed up.

To be fair, I’m meeting a ton of people who don’t give a fig about my age. (If anything, Brazilians seem less concerned about age-gapped friendships than people back home.) I’m making friends of all ages, just as I’d hoped. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t peeved at this “betrayal of the flesh.” I have worlds of energy inside me. I’m ready to rock, roll, and samba. Why didn’t my epidermis get the memo? Ω

Edited to add: Today a woman in a second-hand clothing store asked me if I was 50 yet. She also told me that I speak better Portuguese than many Brazilians, so she’s clearly not a reliable source, but I’ll take what I can get. Ego off life support—for now.

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That’s So Brazil

Post #7: A Wave from Brazil

Everyone has to be somewhere, and right now I’m in Brazil. On December 17, after 11 months of anticipation, fear, and sanity questioning, I plunked myself in a plane bound for São Paulo, with a return flight booked for five months later.

I spent the first few days in the megalopolis with friends of friends, a middle-aged couple called Zuleid and Rubens. The days went by in a blur of food, conversation, more food, visits to cultural landmarks, and still more food. Zuleid, a self-confessed fruit freak, had juicy BrazBrazilian fruit 3ilian fruits all over the house and I got to try them all: maracujá, guaraná, cupuaçu, goiaba, abacaxi, their tastes as exotic as their names.

After studying Brazilian Portuguese in a disorganized manner for 11 months, with never more than an hour of conversation at a stretch, I was now thrown into an all-Portuguese environment. I had not only to listen, but to answer. By the end of each day my brain cells were crying, but there’s nothing like total immersion to bring you up to speed.

On December 21 I bade my hosts goodbye and moved on to Florianópolis, the city I’ll be calling home for the next five months. That’s when the reality of this venture hit me. Meals were no longer materializing on the table. Steaming coffee was no longer within arm’s reach. The adaptor I had bought in Toronto was the wrong size, and if I didn’t find another one in a hurry my cell phone and computer would run out of power within hours. Three hardware stores later I was approaching panic, when a nice man with a workshop and hacksaw fashioned the requisite item for me.

The Airbnb room I had rented measured less than 50 square feet, and I was well and truly on my own. I ached for my family. Never mind that I had chosen to take this solo trip at age 60—to experience, for probably the last time before I died, the type of cultural immersion that had rocked my world in Japan. I still ached for them.

But the mountains! The ocean! You’re never far from either in this city, known to Brazilians as the “island of magic.” While Florianopolis (handily shortened toFloripa map 2 Floripa) is a state capital and has close to half a million people, it’s more a collection of small towns than a standard city, thanks to said mountains. With forty-two gracefully curved beaches, a salt-water lagoon, sand dunes, one of Brazil’s largest universities, restaurants to suit every palate, flashy bars, and old fishing villages dating from colonial days, the island has enough variety to sustain a lifetime of exploration.

But I wouldn’t get to enjoy any of it unless I pushed myself. Unless I risked falling flat on my face. Well, I had plenty of experience in that department. Face-plants it would be, then.

Within a week of arrival I had an invitation to a beach and to a bar, where a local Samba band stole my heart. “Nas coisas do amor, temos que cuidar, mas não cuidar demais,” the lead singer crooned. In matters of love, we have to be careful, but not too careful.

She might as well have been singing about travel.

#solotravel  #sixtyplus  #portuguese  #florianópolis  #brazil  #brasil

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #6: The Spanish cure

The fear came without warning. I woke up one morning and there it was, darting around like a squirrel in my head. How will my husband manage while I’m gone? Never mind that: how will *I* manage without him? When I get mugged in Brazil, will my attackers be carrying a knife or a gun? Fantasies that normally gave me an anticipatory thrill, like scoring a B&B on the fly or getting lost in a maze of Gothic streets, filled me with dread. Maybe I just didn’t have the heart for this anymore.

Squirrel

The next day was the same, and the day after that even worse. Deep breathing didn’t help. Meditation didn’t help. (Not that I gave it more than two minutes.) I tried to recapture the mounting excitement that had marked the previous weeks, but the squirrel wouldn’t leave.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Until recently, this Brazil thing had been no more than a pleasant abstraction, a notion to toss around at summer barbecues. But then I started taking steps: getting my yellow fever vaccine, gathering documentation for my visa, settling on the city where I would live. This was no longer a barbecue topic. This was a leap into the unknown, into disruption, into chaos.

A week into the squirrel thing, I had to go to Barcelona for work. Determined to regain some confidence, I tacked on a couple of days of touring at the end of the trip. When I arrived in a nearby town called Girona, I resolved to speak only Spanish to the locals, Spanish words 2even though my Spanish was more than rusty and everything I said came out as Spantuguese. As it turned out, I still knew enough of the language to fend off an old man (you know, someone in his sixties) who insisted on showing me “the great view” from his apartment.

Back in Barcelona, I spent the last night of the trip in a hostel, where I shared a room with four other people. “One of my roommates is snoring like a jack-hammer,” I texted my husband at 4 a.m. “Next time, your own room!” he texted back. At that moment I agreed with him, but I’ve since changed my mind. There’s nothing like staying in a hostel to make you feel young.

I’m happy to report that the squirrel is gone. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. Either way, this trip to Spain has shown me that Brazil isn’t too big for me.

#Brazil #Spain #solotravel

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #5: There’s no cure for this. But what’s the alternative?

I’ve been reading a slim Portuguese volume called As Mentiras Que Os Homens Contam—The Lies Men Tell—and it’s charming the pants off me. The chapters are mercifully short, and I read a new one every night before bed. Savor it, like a good Riesling. I chuckle, I guffaw. This is a seriously funny book.

On this particular night, in paragraph two of my latest chapter, I run into a word I haven’t seen before: caixão. I know that caixa means box and that the ão suffix makes things bigger, so caixão must mean big box. A few lines later I get it. Caixão means, ah, ah, what’s that word again? It’s the box you put dead people in before burying them. You know the one, right? It’s called, ah, ah… Damn it, why can’t I think of the word? Memory leak 2

A torrent of related terms floods my mind: hearse, procession, gravestone, undertaker, pushing up daisies… But not that word.

I try to picture myself at a funeral—maybe that will jog my memory. Well. The funeral that jumps to my mind is my own mother’s, twenty-nine years ago. I had to choose the box myself. I remember standing in the funeral parlour, the reality of having no more parents just beginning to sink in, while the funeral director showed me samples of mahogany and cherrywood. It was not a fun time. No wonder I’ve blocked out the word.

But I haven’t blocked it out. I remember it in French—cercueil—and I now know it in Portuguese. Just not in English. I call up its distinctive hexagonal shape and imagine myself opening it, hoping to find its name inside. Nada.

Pink coffinThis wouldn’t have happened to me at thirty. Or forty. Or fifty-nine. There’s no escaping it: it’s the beginning of the big biochemical blowout, the synaptic switch-off, the slide into vacant-eyed oblivion. By the time I get to Brazil I’ll probably have no words left, just chin hairs and missing teeth.

What am I doing, trying to learn another language when I can’t even remember my own? I should just invest in a rocking chair—a model that comes with knitting needles and a lapdog—and call it a day.

But no, I can’t do that. I’m enjoying Portuguese too much. And if I give up on my sputtering synapses, I may as well buy a nice little plot and bury myself in my own… ah, ah… it’s coming, it’s coming… my own coffin!