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That’s So Brazil

Post #13: Bye for now, Brazil

What we know is this: all things in life come to an end. I leave Florianópolis today with mixed feelings—excitement at seeing my loved ones in Toronto, sadness at stepping off this “island of magic”—and a full heart.

It is said that Floripa either embraces or expels people. It was my good fortune to have the city embrace me in a tight grip, to offer me endless adventures, and to place a cast of delightful characters along my path. I marvelled at, and at times felt undeserving of, all the warmth and welcome I received.

Perhaps not all of it was luck. Learning Portuguese gave me a ticket to the local residents’ lives, to their hopes and fears and frustrations with their own country. While my initial goal of “sounding like a native” proved overambitious, I was able tBabel 1o understand and make myself understood, to share laughter and tears with my friends, and even to tell a few bad jokes.

Taking social risks also helped. I cast wide nets online, invited people for coffee after fleeting exchanges in stores or on hikes, and approached a local musician after his set—a gambit that culminated in a private concert on my back porch. Just about all my overtures were met with interest and several led to friendships.

There were challenges, to be sure. I learned that “venha jantar com a gente, quando quiser!” did not mean an actual dinner invitation was forthcoming. Along similar lines, the cultural tic of leaving plans to the very last minute, and then cancelling said plans due to a father’s birthday or a sick dog, caused me all manner of frustration. In time I came, if not to love this aspect of Brazilian culture, to roll with it and tease my friends about their flakiness.

Like all great trips, this one was above all a journey of self-discovery. I discovered that I could deal with bank machines that sometimes accepted my credit cards and sometimes did not, a public transport system that often left hour-long gaps between buses, and engarrafamentos that made Toronto’s traffic look like an Indy 500 race, without my customary first-world impatience. I discovered that I don’t need much material comfort to be happy. Living in a 12’ x 12’ apartment, washing clothes by hand withoDream 1ut hot water, shooing away the occasional cockroach—none of this put a dent in my mood.

Above all, I learned that age does not place hard limits on what a person can dream and do. (Well, that’s not quite true. I can confidently state that I will never ride a surf board amid Floripa’s crashing waves.)

Through all my adventures, I never lost sight of my husband and children, who understood my need for this trip and cheered me through it. I also drew strength from my two Brazilian friends in Toronto, whose support blasted through the miles between us.

I plan to come back someday, possibly with my family. But I will not attempt to repeat an experience that, by its very nature, can only happen once. And that shines all the more brightly for having a finish line.

 

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That’s So Brazil

Go northeast, young traveller

You’ll love it up there, my friends told me when I announced I would be visiting Brazil’s fabled nordeste region for ten days. It’s the focal point of Afro-Brazilian culture, they said. The locals are so friendly. The colours, the food, the music—you’ll love every minute.

When people set the bar so high, it always makes me nervous. I’ve gone to enough disappointing concerts and movies and theatre performances to know that “you’ll love it” doesn’t mean that I’ll love it.

Salvador illustration 1And so it was with Salvador, the “jewel of the northeast.” It was everything my friends had promised. And more. And less. The people were indeed friendly, but it was hard to roll with the chumminess of the cab driver who kept calling me bonita while casting me sidelong glances. The city was indeed colourful, but the colour seemed interwoven with its poverty: the candy-hued façades in need of a good scrubbing, the print dresses of the sweaty women serving aracajé in miniature kiosks, the bangles and tote bags of the street vendors who began their pitch with various versions of “I live in a favela and have eight children…”

And another thing: a paper map of Salvador looks like a bad hair day, with nothing but knots and tangles. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the buses took the shortest route from A to B. But for reasons unknown to anyone but the city planners, buses take detours in every neighbourhood along the way. Thanks to these excursions, travelling from the home of the friend who was hosting me to the famous Pelourinho district took close to two hours and left me slick with sweat. No biggie for a visitor, but for the people who count on the bus every day of the tropical year, it can’t be a fun time.

After the confusion of Salvador, the tidy coastal village of Praia do Forte came as a welcome pit stop. I stayed in a bright-orange hostel with hammocks outside every room, felt the scrape of chicla fish against my shins as I snorkeled in coral reefs, and kept running into a sparsely toothed guitarist with a National Geographic face. He finally invited me for a beer and told me that his cell phone had recently stopped working. “I could have gotten angry, which would have meant SnorkellingI had two problems: no cell phone and a bad mood,” he said. “Instead I chose to stay happy, so I only have one problem.” Note to self: remember this convo the next time I’m on the phone with Bell Canada.

My final stop was João Pessoa, a small state capital that boasts the easternmost point in the country: closer to continental Africa than to the far west of Brazil. My host friend and I walked along the city’s placid beaches and ate caranjuego while watching the sun set along the Paraíba river, a forró singer-guitarist completing the postcard moment.

But where were my mountains? My rocks, my trails, my crashing waves and lagoons? What made Florianópolis so special to me—the wild mix of mountains and water  wherever the eye chose to roam—didn’t exist here in the nordeste.

When I took a cab back from the Floripa airport to my hill-flanked street, it felt like coming home.

 

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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