31 March 2015

Where is this Place?

 For the last several weeks, I wake up with two sizzling questions:  Where am I? and What day is this? There's a sense that just moments ago I was somewhere far, far away from wherever I am, a distant space and time.

A slightly less intense inquiry blinks on-and-off behind those questions:  What language do they speak here? 

I would attribute the disorientation to "jet lag" (the temporary disruption of the body's normal biological rhythms after high-speed air travel through several time zones) except that it commenced before I stepped onto a plane.  In the days leading up to the Brazilian Adventure my excitement was less of the "Oh, I just can't wait" variety than a bubbling "What's ahead?!" kind of feeling. I hadn't been out of the U.S. since I was 16 and I'd never been to Brazil/South America. 

My hosts in the locales on my itinerary were either people I'd never met or people I hadn't seen for decades. Everything I read or heard about Brazil suggested a culture very different from northern Mississippi. Crossing the Equator meant seasonal climate would be "the opposite" of here. Months of Portuguese language study made clear the indisputable differences between Portuguese and English.

I was pleasantly disoriented by the time I began to pack my suitcase.

The trip included lots of movement between places: by car from Holly Springs to the Memphis airport; by plane from Memphis to Chicago and from there to São Paulo; private car from SP to Rio Claro.  I traveled from Rio Claro to the rodoviario in Campinas by ônibus and by car from there to the airport to catch a plane to Rio de Janeiro....  

I often dozed en route. Amidst the unending stream and swirl of stimulation, I fell into deep, untroubled sleep whenever an opportunity presented. Upon awakening, almost always with the aforementioned questions in the forefront of my attention, an automatic sensory analysis commenced -- looking, sniffing, listening to orient myself in space and time.

On the planes, I greatly enjoyed the little monitors on the back of each seat that offered a quick and easy graphic display of where I was, including altitude and velocity.

I woke from a nap on the flight to Rio de Janeiro and looked out the window. It looked like Oakland CA at first glance. For a couple of seconds, even the sensory analysis failed to clear up my disorientation.

Once on the ground and in a taxi on my way to my hosts' home, I experienced the greatest disorientation of the entire trip. Rio is an intense city. Traffic was congested -- as it apparently always is in Rio -- and the entire scene was in motion:  throngs and queues of people, buses/trucks/bicycles/motorcycles/cars...., signs and storefronts and vendor stalls and traffic cops, colors and aromas and sounds!!!  

I'd been told it took 10 minutes to travel by taxi from airport to Rua João Afonso and that it would cost no more than 35$R. To facilitate transport, I'd printed out two copies of the directions and carried an old-school, flip-top spare cell phone on loan from my friend in Rio Claro (my newish smart phone required a SIM card to function in Brazil and I didn't purchase one). 

The cheapest taxi I could find after a quick survey wanted 55$R for the trip. I consented and got in. Language was the first hurdle. The accent of cariocas -- the affectionate nickname for residents of Rio -- is very different. Think English as spoken in the Deep South versus Boston and you have some idea of what I faced. As the taxi crawled through traffic that managed to be simultaneously sluggish and treacherous, the driver and I successfully found our way to a primitive shared language. He informed me that, given the traffic, it would take close to two hours to reach my destination using the directions given. He knew as shortcut...

I grew increasingly concerned as I struggled (and failed) to spot street names that matched those in the directions I clutched. Attempts to reach my host by telephone were also unsuccessful. As my imagination began to meander toward "hopelessly lost in Rio de Janeiro", I decided to call my hosts in Rio Claro, over 500 km away, and ask them to try to reach my host in Rio de Janeiro. 

The strategy worked. My host telephoned, I handed the cell to the driver and, between them, they mapped a course and I reached my destination safely. 

The situation was "I don't know where I am, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know anyone here, and I don't speak the language" to the nth...

In a way, it's not a unique situation. To some degree, the description applies metaphorically a lot of the time.


23 March 2015


Everyone is taking such good care of me.On the one hand, I perceived the uber protection as preventing direct engagement with the real Brazil.  Now, sitting in the UniMart watching the flow, people meeting and greeting, I think the attentiveness is part of the culture.

Kissing, embracing and touching while interacting are standard features of social interaction, of course. There's more, though. Voices overlap in conversation and, most of the time, it doesn't feel like interruption. More like caress or dance. More like ensemble jazz music.

The sound of the language....  Portuguese doesn't appear on any of the Most Difficult Languages in the World to Learn lists I just consulted. That's encouraging. It is easier and easier to read it but watching TV or listening at the party the other night I comprehend very little.

Some Brasileiros show their caring by at least trying to speak English to me. Thanks but please, no, I want to learn the language, I tell them. I'll get it. I'm sure.

19 March 2015


I keep searching for an orderly, linear, articulate way to tell this story. The longer I'm here, the less likely it appears that will ever be possible. For one thing, I rarely feel like writing -- and the urge usually arises about 20 minutes after I go to bed and turn off the light.

And I haven't found a writing space here. It's rained nearly every day, preventing the smoking-with-a-cup-of-coffee arrangement I favor. I am staying in a beautiful house that is not well-lit and every surface that might serve as desk is already claimed by books and stuffed animals and laptops and CDs and framed photos and etc.

My schedule has been erratic:  few, lengthy uninterrupted stretches and I have apparently lost the knack for taking notes and compiling them later.

Celia is a friend of the family. If she calls in the next hour, I will travel with her to a nearby town. Perhaps it's Curitiba? Celia talks fast and talks a lot. I catch about 60% of her intention and much less of what she actually says. But she is generous and energetic and funny and affectionate and seems to know everyone in town. She was the first to arrive for the party Sunday and took me under her wing. Actually most of the women at the party took me under their wings; but Celia has transported me around town every day but one and introduced me to pretty much every person she's made eye contact with.

Speaking Portuguese....  So I keep reminding myself that I have only about half a semester of self-guided lessons under my belt. And less than five hours of actual conversation practice. I keep reminding myself that without this preparation, the current struggle would be even more daunting. New friends here continually encourage and compliment me. Many marvel that I've had no classes, no guidance. 

Still, very few people I've met so far speak English. Even those who admit to speaking English seem shy to attempt it with me. In the main, people speak Brazilian, rapidly. Some are better than others at adjusting their speed when I request. More tend, as in the popular joke, to just speak louder; or they emphasize or explain the simplest words of their statement -- the words I already understand clearly.

It is a beautiful language. Musical and energetic. I will speak it and speak it well. Eventually. My dream now is to return within the next 12 months for a study trip -- Portuguese AND bossa nova piano.

At the party Sunday, I was given my first samba lesson. I think I will also eventually become a good samba dancer. I was also introduced to caipirinha. Love this drink!! Later in the week I was gifted a tumbler and masher by Terazinha and Valéria from their shop here in Rio Claro. Terazinha promises to send me cachaca periodically so I'll be drinking caipirinha once I return to the States.

 Earlier this week, Celia took me in search of a piano. We ended up at Jogo Instrumentos, a music store owned by the most charming Senhor Guillerme. He spends most of the day perched with his classical guitar playing, practicing the music of Brazil while his son runs the place.

He played for us and graciously consented for me to spend some time with a digital piano that sits right in front of the front door. My playing made quite the splash:  customers drifted over, one of the clerks, Mirella, proceeded to videotape the "performance" and Sr. Guillerme pulled up a chair just a foot away. The videotape was eventually published on the store's FB page with a caption describing me as a visiting professional musician who is touring Brasil...  Such dear people. Afterwards, Mirella gave us a guided tour of the store, complete with invitation to play the instruments as we made our way; and then she treated us to a 15 minute concert of some of the music she plays in church each week.

My desire was (and is) for practice time and space but I don't think I'll find it while I'm here. There won't be a room of my own to work in...and I will survive it.

Later the same day I spent some time with a neglected baby grand at the Casarão da Cultura. In a grand hall where I could easily imagine fancy Latin ladies and gentlemen dancing in their finest attire 50 years or more ago, I played the music of Clara and Robert Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy and Bach. There was slightly more privacy tan at the music store but with the doors and windows wide open, the music drifted out onto the street and drew passersby to peek in and linger a moment or two. The difference between practice and performance is keen. Difficult for friends here to appreciate and, not wanting to seem ungrateful for the efforts to fulfill my request, I won't push the distinction.

Tomorrow or Saturday I'll go up to Campinas for a few days and then fly up to Rio for a few more before returning to Rio Claro for a final day in Brasil.

Two weeks is wonderful AND also not nearly enough time to have much of this place. But I the first step -- getting out of the U.S. -- was the hardest. It's samba from here.

17 March 2015


There has been no time for written documentation. Much talking and looking and eating and meeting...  And after all of that, a brain too spent for narrative reflection.

Today, I am staying home. Catching my breath. Luxuriating in the silence and relatively fixed, reliable scenery.

My "world" began to change at the boarding gate in Chicago. Suddenly, most of the people around me were speaking Portuguese. And laughing a lot. And sitting on the floor. 

Watching the Earth fall away as we took off, I was thrilled. My initial excitement evaporated after a few hours. It was after 9:30 before we were actually in the air. My seatmates were Brazilian men. I sat on the window. Leandro, who had the middle seat, was returning from Purdue where he'd presented a paper. His English was not good and my Portuguese was worse but we chatted amiably for awhile. Then dinner was served -- he was famished and did not talk while we dined. Immediately after the vibe in the plane was "bedtime."

Horrible!! No leg room. No space to recline. Could not extend my leg more than a few degrees. Horrible conditions for an all-night flight. (My first opportunity after landing, I upgraded my seating for the return flight to "economy plus.")

Made my way through the non-Brazilian maze at GRU after landing, retrieved my luggage, connected with my driver, Sr. Sosa and dozed most of the two hour drive from airport to Rio Claro.

Window to my room on Rua Particular

13 March 2015

This Is The Day

It is raining. I worried I would not sleep last night but a gentle rain commenced after midnight. The sound and scent lulled me. I slept well.

The alarm was set but in the middle of a dream a voice from another dream cried "Mom!" and I woke up, an hour before the alarm went off. I'm on the porch with coffee now, wondering if it is the memory of that child's voice...or the rain...or my excitement...or something else responsible for my tears in the shower and a lingering tenderness in my heart.

In Skype conversation Wednesday with Debbie and Eliane, a warm wash of well-being and welcome washed and caressed me. Looking at their faces, the music of their voices in my ear, something in the earth tones of the walls and furnishings behind them registered like an embrace. I heard myself laughing and marveled:  how long has it been since I laughed like this?

R was the last student yesterday. Her mother is a friend here. She came in at the end of the lesson to say goodbye and give me some money for the trip. We exchanged pleasantries (me, fighting tears that had begun when R and I sang "We Shall Overcome" together near the end of her session) and then fell silent. She finally said, "Well, we should go. But we don't want to..."  I opened my arms to her and we hugged for a long time. When I released her, there remained some hesitancy in the room. R, with a sweetness I'm coming to recognize as part of the gift of Down's Syndrome, looked at me shyly with so much affection....   "You want a hug, too?"  And she smiled and stepped quickly toward me. We've never hugged before. It was a good hug.

The daffodils opened overnight. I'm grateful it happened before I left. Their blooming each Spring, is one of the rare delights in my life here.

12 March 2015

The Time of My Life

Every moment is charged now. I am doing this or that for the last time. Or contrasting "now" with "24 hours from now". This time next week, for example, I will be packing for a trip to the beach. I am excited.

The mailman brought an armload of goodies today. Contrary to the standard procedure of dropping mail in the mounted box across the street, he brought it to the door today. One of the packages required signature and he needed to inform that my request to have my mail held until I return could not be granted. Since there's more than one person at this address, Holly Springs postal service cannot hold a single occupant's mail.

I was spared hearing his schpiel; Carlton answered the door. "I hate this town," was my response upon hearing. Yes, melodramatic. I know.

Among the goodies, this new sweatshirt. Perfectly timed arrival as only minutes before I'd be deliberating which jacket or sweater to carry with me.

The envelope requiring signature contained cut paper art from Y, touching note written in his inimitable handwriting and a monetary contribution toward the trip. My heart exploded. This is the fifth time in the last month I've experienced a soaring conviction, a total body and mind certainty, that I am not alone in the universe and I am loved.

This does not happen every day. This doesn't even happen every month. The common features among these five occurrences:
  • a person reaching out to me
  • that person allowing me to see them, sharing their thought and feeling
In three cases, I was given a material gift. All five instances involved uttering or writing the word "love".


Today is packing day. As has traditionally been my way, I am packing light. One large suitcase to be checked at the airport and a new tote large enough to carry both the essentials from my purse and my laptop. It pleases me immeasurably to be carrying goods that I will leave in Brazil:  some medicine for my host, a baby carrier I will mail to new friends in Brazil once I arrive, Y's cut paper pieces that will hang and gift while I'm there. Fun to think of how those spaces in minha mala will be filled for the return trip to U.S.

A little nervous about the Portuguese. I am nowhere near fluent (correspondence with my hosts in Rio de Janeiro point up just how far from fluent I am...) but my learning is already accelerating:  I am on the email guest list for a party on Sunday in Rio Claro and have learned and used new words to RSVP.

Several people have wished me "the time of your life." The wish is already coming true.

11 March 2015

To Do in Brazil

  • Visit Campinas
  • Send Daddy a birthday card
  • Drink a caipirinha
  • Put my feet in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Buy flip-flops
  • Play all my favorite Clara Schumann pieces
  • Visit Theatre of the Oppressed center
  • Take a class with Marina Abramovic
  • Meet Elizah and Paulo
  • Mail baby carrier to Lidiane and Alesandro
  • Find piano scores for "Brazilian music"
  • Speak Portuguese
  • Inquire about the meaning of the thumb-between-fingers for Y
  • Buy coffee to bring home and share with B
  • Dance
  • Visit Sao Paulo U
  • Take pictures

06 March 2015

It Begins Now

where I am it is 28 degrees and there are patches of snow on the ground and the sound water dripping and puddling in the air.

where I'm going in one week, it is 82 degrees.

If things go as planned, one week exactly from this moment I will be 30 minutes in the air, flying from Memphis to Chicago where I will wait for 5 hours and some minutes to get onto a plane where I will remain for 12 hours. In the air, for 12 hours!  Imagine it!

Yes, "anticipation" is morphing into excitement now. Jittery about my language skills but resigned:  I am going to Brazil, where most people do not speak my native tongue. I'll get by.

Through a California friend, I have made the acquaintance of a young couple who live in Rio de Janeiro. The wife and I have begun to talk on Facebook. As best I can understand, they are theater people. I won't catch the show they are preparing for but I will meet them face to face the day after their show and spend a few days in their home. We will attend an entertainment extravaganza the second night of my stay:  live music and dance + film + exhibit by Mozambican performers and artists. Sounds exciting and everything is 1/2 price in Brazil for people age 60 and over.

My plan is to write about this Great Brazilian adventure here on the blog and post pictures on Facebook. I know some of you don't "do" FaceBook so I may add a page to the blog and post some or all photos there. Stay tuned.

It is illegal to smoke cigarettes in public spaces in Brazil. I have purchased nicotine patches and may use this trip to attempt another quit. I equate it with giving up anti-depressant medication when I reached New Orleans...

02 March 2015

The Long Way Round

Good Morning and thank you for calling Merchants and Farmers Bank in Holly Springs. This is K_______. How may I direct your call?

                    Good morning. I'm making a trip and I need Brazilian currency.

Yes, Ma'am.  You need what?

                           Brazilian currency. I'd like to exchange dollars for reais.

Oh, OK....  Can I get your name?

                      Alex Mercedes.

Do you have an account with us?


Can I get your phone number?


OK. The lady that handles that is out and I'll have her call you back.



Five minutes later.

This is L______ at Merchants and Farmers Bank of Holly Springs returning your call. How can I help you?

                  Yes.  I need Brazilian currency.

What is it?

                   Brazilian currency. I'm on my way to Brazil and I'd like to exchange some currency before I go.

Well, I know we don't keep any of that in the bank but we might be able to get some.

                        OK....so....  Do I call you back or....?

Uh, no Ma'am. We don't have it in the bank but we might be able to get some. I'll have to check and see.


[seconds of silence]

                   Are you checking now?

Uh, no Ma'am. I'll have to call you back.  May I have your number?

                      You have my number.  You called me.

Oh.  (giggle) That's right. OK.  I'll call you back.


.........Five minutes later.

This is L______ at Merchants and Farmers Bank of Holly Springs calling you back about the Brazilian currency?

                Yes.  What did you find out?

We're not able to order any Brazilian money.

               OK.  Thanks for checking.

01 March 2015


It is March!  This is the month I go to Brazil!

First twinges of genuine excitement hit about 20 minutes ago.

I am wondering how much cash to carry.

I am anxious to hear and smell Brazil.

I am nervous about packing only summer clothes. Clothes I have not worn since I was 8 pounds lighter than I am now.

I am looking forward to being away from Holly Springs.