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.