FOREWORD: The below post is a cut-and-paste mix-and-match of different e-mails written on different days to different friends. What I found interesting when piecing together this collage was the contrasting emotions that I wrote within twenty-four hours of each other, the same ones that are now mashed together. It’s silly, and hopefully entertaining, how my world sometimes cracks in two. Welcome to the happy sad rollercoaster of Me, Bob & Surly.
Let me start by saying I like your long e-mail policy. It keeps things real, allows the details to unfold, makes the messages special because each one is a show of dedication, as delayed as they may be sometimes. Your news was welcome and re-read several times throughout the week when I needed to distract myself with a life not my own. Even in tropical Rio loneliness can sit inside your chest. But my aloneness was temporary though, as always. Just solitary beach days before meeting someone with whom to talk. Then all sunshine….
…I hope your sense of time is at least half as whacked as mine, because if not, you might be upset with me for being incommunicado. Life happened again. I’m in Rio de Janeiro and it’s just as amazing and cosmopolitan as it looks in photos, only in person the interesting grit and realness that is Photoshopped out is always present, just a crazy character away or few blocks off the main streets where the favela begins. Even on Ipanema beach, where I’ve spent more than a sunny afternoon with Brazilians, you can see the poor neighborhoods that climb the mountains across the bay.
Today on Ipanema I was trying to make sense of the poverty that contrasted against high rises and expensive hotels, sometimes just buildings away. Nothing conclusive though. I might be desensitized to poverty after sharing homes with so many poor that seem happier than most people I know. A happy desensitization. The old thinking that I should feel guilty or compassionate or humbled by their situation doesn’t really apply anymore. Sometimes I feel sorrier for the richer half, not because poverty has some innate nobility in it. It doesn’t—few people choose to be poor. It just seems that with less clutter, without as many material distractions, people tend to focus on what is truly important: family, friends, significant others. The best things in life really are free. The above are some meditations, but mostly I thought if your dice threw poor and you were born into a shantytown what luck to have such a breathe-taking view….
…I’ve been hanging out more than pedaling lately. I knew that this would happen the closer I got to the Brazilian coastline. All the places I want to visit and know on more than a passing-through level are within an easy week’s ride from each other. This means from here to Argentina my bike schedule may be ride a week, rest a week, ride a week. Before arriving to Rio I was in one of the most well-preserved and historically important colonial towns in the Americas, a little gem called Ouro Preto. My week there fell on an annual festival of free concerts and cocktail parties (wine!), cultural events and student parties. (A Brazilian frat party is the same as an American one, only the girls are prettier and the men more interesting).
By the time I left Ouro Preto I was constantly running into Brazilians I knew on the street. The local hole-in-the-wall’s bartender greeted me by name. I’m proud I etched my name into the town’s history, as beer-soaked as it was. It felt nice to belong, to have people. My Argentine and Brazilian Couchsurfing hosts were amazing too. The Brazilian man emitted a happiness rare in people. The way he talked, the way he moved, the way he sang when he cooked, the way he remembered how to make a newspaper kite as if he were still a child, everything—it was all done with a radiant joy. When I cross the half-century mark I hope I’m as upbeat as him.
One reason I didn’t respond earlier was because I wanted to write with details about a visit. I had a job offer on the table with a study abroad company. My job would have been to work with American students in Brazil, just as I did in Costa Rica for two summers. The salary was negotiated and accepted. Everything was going to plan. When I wrote to confirm my arrival date, nothing. Several days later when I received an update the position had given to a local Brazilian…Not the best introduction back into the work world…I’m trying to not see this as bad news, but I am disappointed. Remember that quote, “Live and react to every experience as if you chose it.” That’s where I’m at now. This experience is what it is and I accept full responsibility. I’m not giving up on my Brazilian life yet. I suppose this means I have infinite options now, not just Floripa….
So I’m once again pushing my ear to the universe. In any city between Rio and Florianopolis I’ll be on the lookout for work. If nothing comes up, I plan to rent an apartment somewhere while doing Spanish/English and Portuguese/English translations online. I have a few contacts already. I’m guessing I’ll have a place by October, exactly when the weather starts getting warmer in the south. You should visit then….
…Yesterday I visited the Santa Marta community where the painting project was underway. I learned that the two Dutch guys abandoned the project and no one has any money, and even less desire, to continue it. It was a great idea that never climbed the mountain. The actual art covered fewer buildings than the photos portrayed thanks to tricky angles, bubble lenses. The people that live in the art epicenter, in the plaza with an official municipal plaque, lead normal lives, hanging clothes on their colorfully striped balconies, people watching out of windows where two colors intersect, etc. I didn’t bring my camera because I was hesitant to flash expensive gear in the favela. Big mistake. It was a perfectly safe, healthy environment full of laughter and children where everyone knows everyone. The homemade kites that hovered above the multi-layered neighborhood were especially interesting. The patches in the hillside where huge boulders made construction impossible were covered with kids, three to teens, letting more and more string float upward. I could have spent the entire day there clicking photos.
When talking to residents about the Dutch guys’ disappearance one asked if I had taken the tram to the mountaintop view. He gave directions, wished me luck, told me the photos ops were incredible—which they were. One vertical climb and three tram stations later, I was at the highest point of the favela, near a fenced-in soccer field, the same place where Michael Jackson visited when he shot his “They Don’t Care About Us” video. The wind was cold. The downtown skyscrapers were below me; above Christ the Redeemer observed the city with a stone stare. Beautiful. I toured the mountain ridge, walking as far as I deemed safe, then waited on a bench for the tram to carry me back.
Then I got up and searched for a route down through the favela. I wanted to see it up-close. Through the steep maze of concrete alleyways and unfinished brick homes, I descended. It looked like an Arabian bazaar, without the street vendors. Every so often I’d hit a dead-end and have to climb back up to a different route. There were kids playing, kites flying, a few bars situated in small plazas that barely let light in, and music everywhere, not blaring annoyingly like reggeaton in Bolivia, just a light soundtrack that morphed from samba to MPB to funky depending on how high on the hill I was. A crazy hidden world, especially after glittery Ipanema.
Middle-class cariocas would never have done what I did. Most think every favela is a war zone. Santa Marta had a heavy police presence and an overall family feel. It’s a community actually. I should stop calling it a favela. More than once I had to ask groups of young men directions to the plaza. At first I was nervously on guard approaching them, thinking I was in a bad spot, but every time they smiled helpfully and walked me to the next half-hidden staircase. I now recommend that cariocas check out Santa Marta. None of the ones I’ve met have ever visited.
A Couchsurfing story: I’ve been staying with two Brazilian girls in an apartment. We went out a few times, cooked meals together, and generally get along great. (Tonight we’re going to a samba school party). My original plan was to stay just three days. When the third day arrived, I asked if I should contact other Couchsurfers for a place. They said no, of course not, stay, stay, you’re welcome here. Two more days passed. Later, at the beach I received a text politely asking me to leave because they needed their space. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was clean and respected their home, but obviously overstayed my time. How embarrassing. When I returned that night everything was fine, I told them I understood, that I’d leave the next morning. So, my first experience being booted from a CS home was a civilized affair. From now on I’m going to make sure stay dates are better communicated.
…I’m leaving next Monday to bike down the coast toward a historic port city called Paraty. I just wrote a Couchsurfer whose “couch” is a 52 foot sailboat in the bay. We’ll see. Also, the author of the book I mentioned on my blog, Hundred Days Between Sea and Sky, lives in Paraty. I already contacted him via the e-mail listed on his official site asking if I could meet him and see his boats. Hopefully he’ll respond between now and my arrival….
…I’m responding to some other friends’ e-mails now too and will cut and paste parts for a blog update. Every e-mail is free game. I hope you don’t mind. It just doesn’t make sense to write the same stories over and over and over, despite the slight differences that would make for an interesting a literary experiment….