Light and Dark

1463926_10151801442536853_955077282_nThe past few weeks have been a blur of sunshine, palm trees, green waves and blue sky. However, as I have moved up the coast, I have encountered Brazil’s darkness too. Like most humans, I love to go to the beach, to feel wet sand under my feet and to wade around in clean, salty water, the waves lapping around me. Naturally, I wanted to experience the famous Brazilian beach culture – sipping fresh coconut juice in a skimpy bikini under a palm tree while watching children in only shorts play soccer on the sand. I can’t keep count of how many beaches I have visited. And indeed, these cliches are true – the beaches are incredibly beautiful, as are the people, with their taut bodies and coffee-colored skin.

Of course, Brazil is also known for much darker things, and it is the contrast and coexistence of the light and the dark that is so striking. Stories of being robbed at knife-point abound and indeed, these incidences have happened to most of the travelers I have encountered. The divide between the rich and poor is staggering – of course, everyone knows this about Brazil, but it’s not until you see it with your own eyes that you can feel just how fucked up and unjust this society is. Days ago, I was staying near the beach in a nice suburb of Recife in the north of the country, walking along the (shark infested) shoreline and seeing sleek new apartment buildings stacked along the boulevard contrasted with the sad state of affairs a mere twenty minute bus ride away. In the center of the city, the once grand colonial buildings are crumbling, their bright blues, pinks and yellows fading. People addicted to crack walk around expressionless like zombies. Street vendors hustle as the street dogs scavenge amongst the desolation. Exploring a Brazilian city can feel as if you are moving between two countries.

But I hear that there are much worse places in other parts of the country. Places that would be too dangerous to enter. Places too sad to even think about as people die of hunger, drug addiction, violence. It’s not news, and indeed, these tragedies happen all over the world, but  here, in the midst of a deeply schizophrenic culture that is so strikingly divided along class and race lines, the reality is hard to face.

And in the midst of all this beauty, danger, sadness and celebration I have a kind of meltdown involving tears and snot. Some deep-seated emotional issues were triggered and  I was overcome with feelings of vulnerability. And then, looking around and seeing so many terrible sights – children on crack, people missing limbs and rows of teeth, prostitutes and maybe the saddest sight of all – the workers toiling and hustling all day and all night just so they can get by, living day-to-day as the concept of ‘getting ahead’ doesn’t exist – I catch myself.

There’s a kind of culture shock coinciding with my own internal upheaval. Brazil is the setting and I am but one minuscule character in this ongoing drama. But there’s no need to lose perspective and indeed, I have to feel grateful for all that I have. Tomorrow is another day: the sun will rise, and regardless of the state of my physical or emotional wellbeing, it will also set. The drums will keep beating.

We’ll Always Have Rio

taniarioSometimes I think the travel gods hate me. Of course, there are a million things that can go wrong when one travels to the other side of the world. And, in typical dutiful worrier fashion, I had considered many of the usual suspects: missed or delayed flights, lost baggage, theft and so on. It never occurred to me that I would find myself high in the sky above Rio de Janeiro vomiting out of my nose like an inebriated teenager as the plane came in for landing.

I had started to feel queasy about halfway through the second leg of my 24 hour flight. I thought it was probably motion sickness or some of the airplane food disagreeing with me. But, close to landing, as I got up to run to the bathroom, and vomited exorcist style along the aisle and clogging the drain in the bathroom sink, it occurred to me that this could be more than a bit of motion sickness. Apparently, Emirates airline were too busy finding supermodels to work as stewards and overlooked the important role that barf bags can play in customer service. (Note to Emirates: while I did enjoy having Penelope Cruz yell at me  to get out of the bathroom,  and then physically pull open the bathroom door and drag me out as we were landing, I also would’ve been just as happy to have sat discreetly in my seat with aforementioned available-on-every-other-airline-in-the-world bag).

And so, white as a ghost, vomit in my hair, and surprised by the lack of queues and security at the airport, I embrace my companion in the sparse arrivals lounge. The heat is overwhelming and thank god (the nice god) I don’t have to think much as a taxi whisks us into the city center to an old colonial house up a winding hill that is protected by a million different fences and barred windows.

After resting, I change into my pretty white dress (symbolizing peace and renewal) bought especially for the occasion of going to the beach to ask the goddess of the sea for luck. We headed to Copacabana for this purpose, but also to enjoy spectacular fireworks with thousands of others. At the time of leaving the guesthouse, I was feeling weak but well enough to have this unique New Year’s Eve experience. The subway was crowded with throngs of people headed in the same direction. After a few stops, I felt as if I was going to give a repeat performance of what happened in the plane. I dragged my friend out of the carriage at the next stop and he proceeded to hold my hair back as I vomited on the platform. And white dress. The security guard was so surprisingly nice and got me some water and asked if I was OK. I was determined we would make it to the beach. And we did. Incredible showers of neon colored fireworks bedazzled us as we counted in the new year surrounded by throngs of revelers. The incredible explosions of rainbows across the sky was surreal and entrancing – the cold spray of champagne against my feverish skin brought me back to reality.

Somehow, we navigated the sea of people to make it back safely. Back in the relative comfort and quiet of our little cave on the hill, my illness took a turn for the worse when it became apparent that I had bought with me from Korea this evil intestinal virus of a souvenir. And two days later, I was better but I had meanly given it to my friend. At this point, it’s fair to say that the travel gods both hated and loved me – to travel with a doctor is to have access to a plethora of medication, and to travel with a kind and caring doctor, as I am lucky enough to do, is to heal quickly.

The other travelers staying at the guesthouse also showed me kindness by asking how I was and offering me tea, juice and apples. They entertained me with their travellers’ tales and I wasn’t too surprised to hear that the night we were on the beach to see fireworks, there was a shoot-out not far from our spot in the sand involving the police and a man who tried to strangle his wife. Welcome to Rio.