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Monthly Archives: February 2010


I think this guy’s cousin was the one that stung me the other day. The jellyfish I mean.


Nothin’ much to do on a Friday night, ‘cept watch the soccer game…

Drinking coffee that quasi me fez pegar fogo in this heat, I told Rafael, my couchsurfing host, about my (actual) surfing exploits as he cut my hair on the porch. I was taking advantage of being near some great waves to learn how to surf. It was, of course, the last thing on my short list of things I wanted to accomplish while in Brazil this time.

I had taken a surf lesson one afternoon at Barra da Lagoa and adored it. With the instructor’s help, I actually made it up on the board quite a few times, some less haphazard than others. This is a hard sport! But, if I could have, I would have surfed all afternoon and probably every day afterward. That was the plan, actually, until the heat made it very hard to be motivated to do anything. I tried again a couple of days later, when the weather and my energy were favorable, but even then I got chewed up and spit out by the sea, probably as a testament to my audacity at thinking I could repeat my first try. Then I got stung by a jellyfish (why, I oughtta!) But I will do it again, for sure, I told Rafael. I loved it!

“It’s probably one of those things that you always knew you had a knack for, but had just never tried…like cutting hair, for example,” he said as he chopped off another chunk. “I think I have an inherited intelligence for it, even though I’ve never done it.” Fine time to tell me this, amigo.

So I came away with a haircut–if you could call it that–resembling a cross between the Nelson Brothers’ cd cover and Florence Henderson’s Brady Bunch days. Throw Lambchop into the mix to account for the humidity, and now I’ve got a new reason to leave again and go surfing.

My couchsurfing hosts, breakin’ it down, blues style. When it’s too hot to do much else, it’s the blues that cools us down…or makes us forget.

Dark clouds loom over the bright green foliage of the mata atlântica. I am listening to borrowed “Slumdog” music, which seems oddly appropriate as the bus curves around shanty houses of home construction with found materials. Men with their “radiators” out drink beer and watch as we pass. I have made myself both participant and observer now, not having to stay put, to stay within, stay anywhere. I am free. With little or no plans for these next few weeks after camp…I am free. And so I went. My friend Ashley and I went to Santa Catarina, a southern state, to Florianopolis, a city situated on a beautiful island. Whim and caprice were my reasons for going, and hey, I had nothing else to be doing. We were also going to try surfing for the first time—couch surfing.

Couchsurfing, in essence, is a project—a project to connect people, cultures, and ideas through the acts of offering your couch to fellow travelers or by “surfing” them yourself. It’s mission: At CouchSurfing International, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community. It’s about having inspiring experiences–about creating them, and being inspired by them.

Even if you don’t have a couch to offer or are not looking to sleep on a couch or spare mattress, you can join if you are just willing to meet up with travelers for a coffee/drink or some sightseeing. I think everyone should be a part of this. We all have a lot more to offer than we often realize. For travelers, couchsurfing offers a way to see/get to know a place much more personally by staying with locals, rather than hotels, and for the budget or solo traveler, this is awesome. You pick and choose who you ask to stay with, of course, and they decide whether or not to let you stay with them, but apart from this safety net, your experience is totally left to chance. We stayed with some film students in a high-rise apartment in downtown Floripa, in a building that had a pool on the roof. We were enthralled by the view. You couldn’t pay for that. Then, when Ashley left, I moved to another couchsurfing residence, a near 180 from the previous one. Situated high up a steep hill, this “pod” of four houses in the woods had Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguaian residents, either living there, staying for the season, or couchsurfing, like me. They were nearly all musicians or other creative sorts, and I passed nearly a week hanging out in the house on the hill.

What really struck me through all of this, though, is the level of trust you find yourself in. Not only are you putting yourself out there in the world, trusting the people who agree to host you, trusting that it will work out well, but your hosts have to be willing to trust you, a stranger, to come into their otherwise private home. This is incredibly beautiful. More than once my hosts left me at home while they ran errands or went to work, and often I left for the day, assuming that I would also come back and find everything in place. This requires a willful trust, a tacit agreement to a mutual peace.

The thing is, beyond the logistics of where you stay when you travel, beyond belongings, beyond what you have and have not, there exists here a simple testament to what human beings are capable of when we open ourselves up to global citizenship and blind friendship. You are more than welcome to surf on my couch, and even if I don’t have one, I’d still love to tell you what I love about my town.

A very rich man who had a lot of property and power within his city found out that there was supposed to be a very wise man living in the region. “Surely this man, if he is so wise, will have the knowledge to make even gold,” he thought. “I will go seek him out.” And so he went to seek out the wise man, and found him, in a very simple shelter in the forest, with no furniture, and few belongings. The wise man scoffed, “But, wise one, where is your gold? If you are so wise, why haven’t you anything to show for it?” The wise man looked at the newcomer and asked, “Where are your cars?” and the rich man said, “At my house.” “And where are your fancy dishes and your collections?” “At home!” “And where is your wife, if I may ask?” “Why, at my house, like the rest! I’m just traveling, you see!” the rich man said. “And I,” replied the wise man, “I am but a traveler too.”

I had a conversation with a man last week, who, for all intents and purposes, shall be referred to as a pirate. He was absolutely the closest thing I’ve ever met to a pirate, except with a modern haircut and glasses that gave him an intellectual air. It was his sun-leathered skin and tattoos of the islands he’d lived on for years that gave him away as what I believe him to be. It was he who told me that parable.

We were on the beach of a small coastal town in the state of São Paulo. He was on his way down the coast to “recover” his boat, and I didn’t care to ask the details of what that might mean. Ashley was washing laundry, and I could not think of anything better to do than to listen to a pirate tell stories about what intrigues him about the sea. He said, “ You know, I used to live on that island,” he pointed to a big formation in the distance. “I fell in love there, but I couldn’t stay. Just so many people who do nothing, they never leave the island,” he shook his head. “It is so much easier to be content alone at sea than surrounded by many people with empty minds.”

We walked down the beach talking about the tragedies of our age, of Brazil and her natural wonders but her people´s absolute disrespect for them. We passed soda bottles half-buried in the sand. I picked them up and we kept talking. While Brazilian people have an insatiable love for the beach, in general they don’t have the notion to clean up after themselves. I see this as a big tragedy all over the country, and the pirate agreed. For me, environmental awareness was implemented into our educational curriculum, and ingrained into my habits by my family. You always leave a beautiful place better than when you found it. I know that this is not the case in the public education system in Brasil, but I wonder if it would help. It’s a lifestyle, yes, but caring for our beautiful natural places comes from a respect for them. If we can enjoy them but don’t respect them, then we destroy them.

We kept walking. What we had in common was a love for a simple life. Really, isn’t that what we all want? If not a life of simple things, then a life with few conflicts? There are many people who lead very simple lives, either by not having much in material things, or by “living simply so that others may simply live.” I try to live by at least one of those styles, especially when traveling, and the wonder of the simple things–like the beauty of this place–doesn’t escape me still. But what of those whose “simplicity ” (simplicity of mind, simplicity of respect) leaves a long, nasty mark on a place or people? There are countless examples of this in all parts of the world, but it is around me nearly every time I ride a bus and people throw trash out the window, or while hiking a trail I see all the same crap people leave at the beachside. Suddenly what was intended to be a simple, enjoyable walk on the beach becomes incredibly irritating, and I vent this to my pirate friend.

What to do? Is it enough to just pick up what I find? Do what everyone else does and huff, “yep, it’s complicated,” but walk on by, relieved at having found a less-complicated reaction? Brazil has some of the most amazing landscapes and natural places I have ever had the privilege to see, but what will become of them in future generations? Unfortunately, the general, complacent “it’s not me, it’s them” attitude is very hard to change, especially when applied to something  that has no lucrative benefits. Yes, caring for the environment requires the work of picking up after yourself and a bit of respect for where you are. Living a simple life and enjoying life’s simple pleasures should not mean that you are simple-minded about it.

We all have a responsibility. We are all travelers here, don’t burn the bridge for the next generation.

It’s true. My mind has a circus running the show these days, with a Brazilian-Portuguese ringleader directing the show, where the multi-national clown tells jokes to the English-speaking audience, and the lion tamer tries to keep the Spanish monkeys from stealing everyone’s cotton candy. And I don’t even have a clue as to what the trapeze-artists are gossiping about.

And so it has been, these last few months, floating in and out of one, two, or three languages. Speaking only Portuguese for a while, then returning home (the US one) briefly to find that I was trying to speak English in a translated-Portuguese way, making awkward pé de letra (literal) translations back into my lingua mãe. I then return to Brazil, finding myself linguistically awkward, once again, only this time trying to speak in Spanish with an old, old Argentine friend with whom I’d worked at a Spanish immersion summer camp. For three years our friendship has been in Spanish. Only. And now, of course, it grew exponentially now that we know the “English side” of our personalities (if such a thing exists), but I could not, for the life of me, revert back to the “Rebeca” that he knows, that speaks purely in Spanish. I have a 10 year relationship with the language, this should not be happening! “Reb, que te pasó?” What happened? You used to be so good! Man, don’t even remind me.

What’s the big deal, right? So I’m just “tuned in” to Portuguese now, right? Just imagine the dismay you feel when you are good at something, then suddenly reduced to feeling like a blubbering idiot, because it just takes so much careful concentration to try to do what used to be so natural, and your speaking pace is cut in half. These last few weeks have actually become more and more a house of mirrors, as now none of the three choices are coming out in the way I want to communicate with them. Oy, vê. I have no language. The circus music started again, and the monkeys are hard to catch.

So I’ve had to come to peace with this idea that I can have one or the other, and not both….but then I started my couchsurfing career. I stayed 6 days in a household shared by artists and travelers alike, with up to six nationalities at one time—Portuguese being the main language used when the Uruguaios and the Argentine were not around, but when they were, it was Spanish, “Portanhol”, and bit of English thrown in for humor. Perhaps it was absorbing all three languages at one time, perhaps I was just relaxed and didn’t need to try, but it was like Spanish and Portuguese separated themselves once again and I was able to converse freely in the two, switching back and forth, in clear, sensible expression. It seems silly, but it was a big moment that I wasn’t sure was going to happen. While I may never lose Spanish, per se, I could not bear the idea that I had “tainted” it and could not go back. Now, I think, I can.

It’s as if the circus master finally made the monkeys sit in my row so that we could all throw popcorn at the others together.

Time has taken the afternoon off and we’re all down for the count, sucker-punched by the heat. There is just not much we can do but stay down. I know better than to kid myself that it’s worth it to leave the shade of this porch, when out of its bounds it’s 40 degrees. Eeesh.

We all sit around this house on the hill, our energy below sea level, trading turns to be the next to gasp, “Uff!” It certainly is hot. It’s a wonder we don’t all melt as it seems from our complaning, but it may be more about having someone to reclamar to about the weather than it is the weather itself. I just don’t feel like myself. I can’t think below sea level.

We all wait for sun to set, and that’s when everyone manages to transform from sloths to humans, and you would not believe what this sounds like. In this community of couchsurfers and artists, in this tucked-away house on a hill, jazz and blues riffs break out of nearly every surface, it seems. I am privy to incredible jam sessions as madrugada comes along, and I am again elated. I wish for night’s cover to stay longer, but as it must, it gives way to dawn and I go to bed knowing that when I wake, I will once again be transformed into a slug.

Which is my interpretation of the Norwegian song Parsley taught us, that actually meant “Oh, so lucky I am!”. And I certainly am. I spent a few days with Parsley, Clifton, and Fanny May, my camp colleagues, after camp ended, traveling (again) to Paraty, one of my favorite places in Brazil.

I’m ready to go back to the States, there is no doubt about that now, that I have a lot to do there, and that I am ready to begin new things, to get back into a routine. Like Mariano said, “you’ve got the itch again, Reb.” He could have been referring to my insane bug bites, but we were talking about that urge that calls us back home. In any case, though I feel the pull home, I know how lucky I am to be here and to be in such great company. I have more points on the globe where there are open doors to me, and more people I call friends.

I hope I always remember the sound of Parsley laughing histerically as we were body-checked by ocean waves…I feel a complete sense of freedom, a peace about where I am—even if I miss people a little, I can still be content with the knowledge that both they and I am okay.

It often happens when you work at a job you love that you feel as if you are not even working at all. It happens even more when you work at a language youth camp.

The month of January flew by, as I worked and played, sang songs and taught lessons to Brazilian youth in the interior of Sao Paulo. I’ve worked with the same organization, but in Spanish, and this reminded me of what fun it is to teach your own language, especially when you can make dinner announcements on all the ways to use the phrase “S’up?” (And yes, there are many). Like an even more intense extension of what I was doing before in Quissama, this was pop-culture at its finest, coming out in all the funniest forms.

I wrote a blues song (the best I have written), my favorite verses about the goofy, talented kids, like the thirteen year old who was playing the blues riffs to accompany my song. Incredible. But what actually left a far bigger impression was my colleagues, their backgrounds and hobbies, where we all came from and where we were going. Linguists and musicians, mountain-climbers and actors, we all had a lot to share, and three weeks of immersion camp garnered three weeks of more ideas. Man, I have places to go!

I think “fortune” is relative—at least it is for me—but certainly not when it is right in front of you, and very real at that. I spent last month in total bliss, reveling in the magic of equal energies, of people who inspire as much as they allow themselves to be inspired.