I have a long post saved up inside of me that I haven’t written, probably because the topic felt so overwhelming I didn’t know where to start. I have wanted to travel for several years. The desire was stored up inside me while work took center stage. For years, I was singularly focused on work, whether it was Quirkyalone, my other book and magazine To-Do List, and my street fashion community website stylemob.com. At long last I decided to take the leap, but to be honest, I was petrified. Petrified and elated.
Though I could have traveled with a friend of a friend, I had an intuition that I should embrace my 35th birthday as a single woman and travel to Brazil alone. For some women, maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal. And for the 23-year-old me, who traveled alone in Europe for two months without a second thought, heading off to South America with only a backpack as a companion might have been cake. But not now. Adulthood has a way of calcifying our fears and making them more rigid. The more days I spend in front of this here computer, the one I use to type to you now, the more fearful I am of adventures that take me away from it. This had to stop. And it did.
There’s a quote I discovered in Paul Theroux’s book The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, a travelogue of the author’s journey by train from Boston to the southern tip of Argentina, that feels like a self-conscious, but very apt, rallying cry for how it felt to take off as a thirty-something woman traveling alone in South America. I discovered it when a fellow-traveler friend, a gay man from Malaysia, showed me the book he was reading for travel inspiration. The introduction began: “Self-dramatization is inevitable in any travel book; most travelers, however dreary and plonkingly pedestrian, see themselves as solitary and heroic adventurers.” Aha, I thought. That is me. I feel like a solitary and heroic adventurer, the woman that another young hostel dweller, traveling with her boyfriend, gasped, at. “Really, you are traveling alone! Scary!”
On the plane ride as we were about to take off from San Francisco to DC (then Sao Paolo, then Salvador), I wrote in my journal: “I am about to take off on my first flight of a 30-hour journey to Brazil! Wow, all the planning, deliberation, obsession, guidebook-gazing, and shopping (bikinis!) columinates. Shall I not crash, shall I enjly myself, shall I feel good in my body and be glad to be alive, shall my mind be broken open (and maybe even my heart) by being in a totally next context. Hurrah! I’m really so proud of myself for traveling alone again after all the resistance to going by myself. I feel triumphant in this moment.”
That feeling of euphoria was not constant. I looked back at that passage in my journal with wistful and mystified eyes when I was feeling bored, lonely, and worst of all, vulnerable. The worst moment came in Salvador when suddenly my ATM card stopped working after it had worked all week, and I had only 40 reais (roughly 20 American dollars) and 40 American dollars in my room. I learned some big traveling lessons. Always keep 200 dollars with you, even if you are afraid of being robbed, that risk is better than the risk of being without cash. Call your bank when you leave the country. And trust. Have faith. You (I) are strong enough to get through it. For those four hours, when I was traversing the city on foot in flip flops and a downpour, and fell hard enough to skin my knee and twist my ankle, I really thought I might cut my trip short by two weeks and come home to San Francisco to spend the rest of my time off from work organizing my files. Seriously! That seemed like a safer bet than traveling alone. A French friend from my pousada (guesthouse) spent the last two hours helping me through my money crisis, telling me not to give up. If I was to give up now, I would miss out. And those American banks, they are big brother, he scoffed! Other people helped steady me, and when I finally got on Skype to Bank of America, we did sort out the situation, and my heartbeat started to calm down. Oh how I jumped up and down in a convenience store, and hugged a new Brazilian friend Ana and her sister when the money finally started to shoot out. It’s so odd, how technology-dependent we are in this age of globalization. Traveler’s cheques are just over.
But on to the good stuff. Why was traveling alone so uniquely satisfying? If you were to look at my pictures, you would think I was traveling with a huge group. I met so many people. After a rough first week in Salvador, which of the three places I visited, did feel the most edgy and dangerous, I met SO many people. Being alone did make me feel risky, but in a way that felt vital and rich, that I grew addicted to as time grew on. I almost couldn’t even imagine having a permanent companion on the trip by the end. It seemed boring, like I wouldn’t be able to jump off in some many divergent adventures. My Portuguese also became much stronger by the end of my trip and I was able to talk with people in full conversations, which helped a lot. My hope did come true–my heart was broken open by the warmth and generosity of Brazilians, in particular, cariocas (Rio residents) I met through the Rent-a-Friend group on couchsurfing.com, and three fantastic bohemian types I met randomly at an outdoor concert (outdoor music and dancing is totally legion in Rio–it’s so easy to meet people there).
I gave a short reading at Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival, a week ago for ReadyMade magazine. I was still in that breathless, yet relaxed and open state that we are all in when we come back from a trip. I wanted to perform that moment in time, so I read some observations from my trip that I recorded that Saturday morning at a cafe. I will share those with you here. . .
Observation no. 1: Brazilian men really are that good-looking. The women are hot, yes, but it’s the men who bloew me away, simply because I’m used to being surrounded by gorgeous women in San Francisco.Not only are they hot, their eyes are hungry. My (male) classmates in my Portuguese class in downtown San Francisco¬¨‚Ä† warned me about Brazilian mocos–boys. They told me that it was not uncommon for Brazilian guys, when they meet you at a bar or even on the beach, to ask you to ficar (or make out) within fifteen minutes of meeting. Ficar is a Brazilian Portuguese word with diverse meanings: it can mean to stay, to be located, and to make out/have sex.¬¨‚Ä† They thought I would be alarmed by this, but to be honest, I was intrigued. I’ve lived with the ultra-passivity of San Francisco men for 12 years where people won’t even approach you, they’ll scurry home instead to write a missed connections ad on craigslist. What a refreshing cultural contrast for an attractive guy to ask you to make out within fifteen minutes.
A copy of SoSingular discovered at a bookstore in Ipanema. The clerk even knew the book!!! Yeah! He said he was a quirkyalone before he got into a relationship, but now, not so much. I told him he could still be quirkytogether.
Observation number 2: There’s a reason that a Brazilian version of Quirkyalone has been published. They call it SoSingular. Brazil still has a ways to go with the acceptance of women in the workplace, but it’s a country with an emerging middle class and more and more women workers. When I met women, particular in Rio, they sounded so quirkyalone to me. . . there were plenty of women without children, plenty of single people, and plenty of people complaining about how hard it was to get people to commit, especially in a place where sex happens awfully quickly. At the same time, Brazilians seem to understand something about the centrality of pleasure that we Americans just do not get. Whether it’s beach volleyball or singing along with musica popular brasileira in a bar, they know how to enjoy themselves–felicidade is such a common word. Happiness. That, I think, can also translate into joy in being single–and bringing sensuality into the single state, whether that means hooking up or just enjoying flirtation and eye-fucking in the everyday. When I returned home, I realized that enjoying life–and having fun–are not insignificant personal missions.
Observation number 3: Barack Obama is massively popular in Brazil. So many people brought him up in conversation and so quickly. They didn’t even seem to know McCain’s name—he was a non-starter, nothing to talk about, a continuation of the Bush regime. They did like Hillary, some noting that she was smart and attractive like one of their television presentadors! Funny, we never got to consider Hillary’s attractiveness—all the noise about her drowned that out. But Barack. He is more than a better choice to Bush, he’s a transformational choice, an inspiration and to black Brazilians in particular. Black people make up 40% of the Brazilian population, but there are very few black politicians on the national stage. If Barack is elected, he means change not just for the US and for our foreign policy, but even for domestic politics in Brazil. As one guy put it, Obama is an inspiration, because If the United States can change, so can we. One person I met asked, Where is the Brazilian Barack Obama?
Observation 4: Skinny jeaans don’t have to be skin-tight. Brazil inspired me to buy my first pair of skinny jeans and I have to say, I am kinda thrilled. I thought that you had to be a beanpole to wear them, but that’s just not true. It took a different world to shake me up enough to try them on. I feel like I have been missing out for five years. Brazilian women’s fashion–with lots of bright colors and short dresses–is through the roof. I heart their style.
Observation number four: I feel like a vampire on Brazilian’s happiness—their felicidade. I want it. I’m jealous of it. I miss the sense of connection of Brazil. I’ve already sought out a Brazilian café in Daly City on a strip of used car lots where I can get bowls of acai and passionfruit juice and speak Portuguese with the woman who works there.¬¨‚Ä† I miss the music, the constant eye-candy, the hungry eyes of hot men, the omni-present possibility of a makeout session, the musical sound of Portuguese, the abacaxi juice, the acai, the sense of spirit after a capoeira class, the beachside bars and constant coconut water. The words for fruit: abacaxi, maracaju, morango—I just like the way they sound. Fun things happened all the time because people were so open and friendly. A cab driver was surprised that a friend and I had never tried his favorite beer. So he stopped at a convenience store and bought us one. Maybe he was just trying to run up the meter, my friend suggested. But hey, the cab ride was still much cheaper than what we would have paid in the states, and only $1.50 above the price he quoted us for the trip.
The landing back in the United States—and in San Francisco—has been hard. It’s been hard to return to my job and to the news. It’s been a week of panic and complaint, with a sense of constricting possibilities. I feel depressed, honestly, and I want to go back to Brazil, where on average, people are more likely to say tudo bem—everything is well,¬¨‚Ä† and boa tarde, good afternoon, than hi, and what’s up and it’s ok.
Even the expressions they use to communicate in a superficial, everyday way, are more positive, the sense of warmth between people feels palpable. They have a shared culture of musica popular brasileira, songs that everyone knows, and sign along in bars when guitarists play. Right now I am scheming to go back. I feel a responsibility to bring more warmth to my own country, to be more cheerful and friendly, to be a more welcoming host to foreigners. I now have so much more empathy for anyone who is traveling alone in a new city and feel responsible to¬ take people in on the couchsurfing website. To be a little less engrossed with my own life and be a better host.
But part of me just wants to go back to Brazil.
UPDATE: Many years after writing this blog post, I’m still going back to Brazil and now you can come with me! I’m leading the Body-Positive Adventure in Brazil (aka a Wet Women Retreat) to bring together my transformative work with women in a transformative holiday in Brazil. Get all the details here–we’ll see you in Florianopolis!