Sunday, April 24, 2011


Small towns – especially island towns – usually share some similar qualities. I’ve spent time in a few. There is almost always a collection of expatriates from various countries, drifters, professional drunks, dealers, fools and opportunists. . . though depending on the place, there is also often a refreshing sense of authenticity and genuine friendliness from locals and expatriates alike – who are perhaps simply grateful for energy from the outside. In any case, I was relieved to leave Salvador behind me, even though it meant a turbulent ride on the sea to the sandy arteries of Morro de Sao Paolo. Colorful though it was, Salvador offered no respite from the certainty that trouble was always lurking near.

I was delighted to find, upon arriving at my pousada in Morro, that my housemate – as there was only one other guest during the early part of Semana Santa before the onslaught of pleasure-seeking Salvadorans – was a multi-lingual Argentine tour guide named Sandra whose annual holidays in Morro had made her more or less a local. We became fast friends and she introduced me to the best non-touristy restaurants, beaches, beauty salons and other critical points of interest, and was also perfect company for the days I spent there.

Because Sandra has dealt extensively with English and US American tourists in Buenos Aires, she has become intimately familiar with the cultural differences that cause misunderstanding among travelers while visiting the dulcet shores of the south. I had already had a cultural primer during my first few days in Bahia – a region which lives by its own rules, yet still more exotic and other than those generally followed in Rio and Sao Paolo. Despite the passion for which Brazilians are known and beloved throughout the world, there is an attendant casualness – at least in Bahia -- that seems to dominate all transactions. Rarely would you see someone in a service position get stressed out or apologetic, no matter how egregious the offense might be considered somewhere closer to home.

Given all this, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was lying in the hammock outside my room one night, just after Sandra had gone to bed, and I saw a dark figure climbing surreptitiously over the fence onto the property of our house. The owner of the house – also from Argentina – had left us alone while he attended to business in Buenos Aires. Save for the morning visits from Cleusa, who came to prepare breakfast and clean the rooms, we were on our own -- and he had told Sandra to leave the televisions on in the empty rooms to create a sense of occupancy. Naturally, I asked this guy (in Spanish) what the fuck he wanted, and naturally he responded in Portuguese – Sandra came out when she heard our voices and he told her he was ‘security.’ Having lived in New York for quite a long time, I have developed a healthy sense of skepticism about pretty much everything, and I didn’t believe him for a minute.

In any case, we did a little investigating and indeed discovered that our young friend Edison – who, the following night, we found multi-tasking his security duties with offering hits on a joint rolled with something-or-other on the corner near our house – had indeed been hired as a ‘security guard’ for the holiday weekend. Somehow, the owner of our house and Cleusa had both forgotten to mention the small detail that someone might be hovering in the darkness, or that he occasionally climbed the fence to take naps in the hammocks upstairs. Of course, the questions remain: what security could this boy, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19, offer while getting high and/or taking a nap upstairs? Sometimes, though, I just don’t ask.

We watched the drama of the sky from various lounge chairs on various beaches, from an off-the-beaten-path reggae bar, and from under the eves of our house while Cleusa dutifully ushered the rains from the patio toward their destination in the ground. We made friends with some of the locals and other travelers, exchanged stories, played relationship counselor to a tormented German guitar player, sang songs, and eventually I made my way back to the mainland -- finding refuge in a quiet place in my head while the swells cast our boat across the waters.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mão de Amiga

In the version of my life that is realized as a film starring Julia Roberts, things might turn out a little differently than they usually do. My next-door neighbor in my pousada in Salvador, for instance, would have been played by Javier Bardem. My dreams would present me with insight into my deepest questions rather than indiscernible psychological puzzles and more questions. I read and re-read Buddhist philosophy like a passenger with instructions to an oxygen mask in a burning airplane, while holding a caipirinha in the other hand – only to create more thirst.

Life is a Zen koan, and who can make sense of it? One thing I know for sure is that there is no escape – no island or beach or river or colonial city or exotic butterfly or spiritual ceremony can change the simple fact that we are stuck with ourselves, so the sooner we can make peace with that and make friends with ourselves, the less we have to suffer.

Rio, as it turns out, is not such a big city. An Italian journalist friend took me to a not-for-tourists samba rueda one night in Gamboa, a gritty centrally-located neighborhood in Rio. A rueda is basically a big outdoor party where musicians sit around a table and get down while people dance on the hillsides where salves were ushered into Brazil. I saw this woman there who looked familiar – she reminded me of someone I knew, maybe. A few mornings later, I was eating breakfast in my paradisical pousada in Santa Teresa and thinking about massage, and that same woman walked into the room and sat down to eat breakfast with her family. One of her employees called for her, ‘Carmen, can you come talk to these guests about massage?’ So, as it turned out, Carmen – who I’d seen a few nights before at the rueda -- was this lovely Spanish woman who had lived in England and now in Brazil, and she practiced this healing art called Jin Shin Jyutsu. I liked her so I made an appointment. Opening up channels can, of course, can loosen up things that only more water – salty water from the eyes -- can wash away.

I’ve spent the last few days in Salvador in the state of Bahia in the northeast. They say Bahia is the soul of Brazil. . . which I suppose would make Sao Paolo the mind and Rio the body, if we were to extend that metaphor. In general, I find myself gravitating toward kind and nerdy types – I met this awesome guy in the street the other day in Rio with tape on his glasses. Asked him for directions and he walked me all the way to my bus stop – and it turned out that he is a musician of ‘free jazz.’ He recommended an Ornette Coleman record and sent me a couple videos of his ensemble on Facebook.

Here in Salvador – a city of crumbling colonial grandeur -- I ended up spending a lot of time with my housemates – a Romanian and a Paraguayan who live in Germany, and an Argentinian. We talked and roamed around the tourist zone of the city, went to a candomble ceremony on Saturday night – where I watched people being possessed by various orishas, or energies from nature – and actually recognized a lot of movements from the samba class I take in New York. Everything here seems connected.

Yesterday I escaped the tourist zone of the old city and visited the first fort and first lighthouse in South America, whose light is said to have traveled 38 miles in the darkness and from whose portals is the only place in Brazil where the sun appears to set over the ocean. After that, I had a four-hour marathon of Bahian culture with the very enthusiastic and sincere Mestre Ryck, who trained me in Angola style capoeira. I had a little bit of an advantage from my experience with regional style capoeira 10-12 years ago. . . and when some Spaniards arrived to watch, Mestre told them I was a dancer and had me demonstrating various moves. . . until we moved on to the samba portion of the class, where the Spaniards participated. By the end, I was drumming, playing the berimbau, and made a repeat performance of “Blue Skies --” which I also sang for Marcello, the cab driver in Rio who took me to Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) after he played some of his favorite music for me. After watching me for 15-20 minutes, Mestre Ryck gave me four choices for my capoeira nickname. One of them was ‘Brazos Fortes,’ but that seemed a little butch, so I decided to go with ‘Mão de Amiga,’ which means ‘the hand of a friend.’ I suppose there is wisdom in being that which you want to have.

So if there is no escape, I will instead be the hand of a friend and look for the lighthouse's beam in the night.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

O Amor e Tudo

Rio has opened its arms. The bohemian climes of Santa Teresa are the elevated man to Ipanema's drunken 21 year-old frat boy. I am breathing sighs of relief, happy to be more in my element. Postings from earlier this week would have had to include photos from the inside of the not-so-bonita Bonita, a hostel which gives hostels a bad name -- or HSBC Bank, which is currently at the top of my list of hateful multi-national corporations. But a successful extraction of cash from my bank account, a magic hour walk in the hills and residence in the 'Brazilian Music Room' at Casa Mango Mango have transformed my mental state. Now tudo bem, tudo e amor.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Planes Where We Meet

I’ve never been a good tourist – I lived in Florence for eight months and am embarrassed to admit that I never made it to the Boboli Gardens, which covered ground mere steps from my apartment next door to the Chiesa di Santa Felicita (featuring some badass frescos by Pontormo). I’m not sure what I was doing. . . huffing photo chemicals during hours spent in the darkroom, guzzling espresso and timing my visits to the focacceria perfectly in-synch with the emergence – in all its salty olive-oily perfection – of the bread from the oven at 4pm everyday, chasing French boys on bicycles, learning to walk on cobblestone streets in stacked heels . . . There were all sorts of useful activities taking place, but I failed to tick a few critical items from my to-do list for the well-cultivated junior abroad in Florence. I like gardens, too – it’s not like I was avoiding it. Who knows. . .in any case, I’ve moved on.

The point is that I can enjoy myself as a traveler in decidedly non-touristy places – in fact, the less touristy, the better. I’ve been sling-shot from the relaxed residential graffiti-endowed splendor of Sao Paolo’s Pompeia neighborhood to the booming South-Beach-reminiscent hullabaloo of Ipanema over the course of one day’s travel on a bus. I luxuriated in the hours, staring out the window at verdant hillsides and daydreaming, listening to music and drifting in and out of consciousness. Everyone I met in Sao Paolo – and I ended up meeting quite a few people, wondered why I had made it a stop on my journey. It seemed like a logical choice to me: while perhaps lacking in obvious tourist attractions – which I might not be that interested in anyway – Sao Paolo is home to what is perhaps the greatest attraction to this citizen of the universe: interesting people.

As Facebook is wont to remind us, one person leads to the next. . . and before you know it, you’re both sleeping in a dumpy hostel located in one of the former homes of Antonio Carlos Jobim (of Bossa Nova fame) in Rio de Janeiro and also randomly hanging out with his grandson, who is a musician. Just when I was resigned to having an early first night in Rio, recovering from the trip and relaxing in my unremarkable though (thankfully) private room with a bottle of water, I was beckoned out into the streets by another friend of a friend, Karine, and the aforementioned Jobim to see a friend of theirs giving a reality show-related concert of ‘axe’ (ah-SHAY) music from Bahia. Axe, from what I heard last night, is sort of virtuosic rock-funk with some Brazilian party flourishes. Imagine Stevie Ray Vaughn and Flea taking ecstasy with Bob Marley, and then the whole lot of them getting massages from members of Os Mutantes. It was kind of a fascinating experience – several levels of security (made more complicated by me not carrying ID), every short muscle-bound woman in Rio in a clinging minidress, my hosts alternately grimacing and greeting members of their social community, all who seemed to be at this show. The featured artist was this guy Davi Moraes, who apparently is also some Brazilian musical Brahmin. I need to look him up. It seemed to me he had chops but I wasn’t feeling his style – of course this is a question of taste. My non-cachaca imbibing friends were a little embarrassed -- this wasn’t their scene. I reassured them that it was interesting for me and then we repaired to a ‘bibi’ (open-air juice/sandwich joint) in Leblon (where they mentioned having seen Madonna recently) for some late-night acai juice (my first time) before returning me to my hostel – where Daniel’s grandfather used to live.

My week in Sao Paolo couldn’t have been better. Sandra and I talked for hours in the comforting lounge-like atmosphere of her cozy apartment in Pompeia as various friends came and went; I went to a contemporary dance class and interpreted the rather esoteric instructions in Portuguese that involved things like finding eights within the body and initiating movement from that shape. I visited several art galleries – both of Mauro’s galleries as well as one owned by my friend Flaviana; I ate and drank in botecos (open-air pub-like places), visited the farmers market in the street outside our apartment, did yoga with Sandra on her patio everyday, hung out with photographers and journalists from around the world, went to a film in the documentary film festival and discussed Iranian political history in a mish-mash of Italian, Spanish, English and Portuguese. I managed to drag Sandra out of the comfort of her popular domestic clubhouse one night to hear music at Jazz Nos Fondos, an unlikely locale in the bowels of a parking lot in the Pinheiros neighborhood. Though the music was not mind-blowing, it was a fun scene.

I watched people being in, falling in, and falling out of love, slippery slope that it is – tolerating each other, forging bonds in daily Skype conversations and erasing memory with various dissipating vices. Relationships seem to be more or less the same wherever you go, and probably always have been. Although we supposedly look for security, we also mock it like defiant teenagers. Maybe being slightly uncomfortable – whether an organic or calculated effort -- is just a way of staying awake. Perhaps making friends with tension and discomfort and insecurity is simply a way of being at peace with the ever-changing magically tragic nature of things. Or maybe we just visit different planes of experience, existing on one until it’s time to get on a bus and head to another.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Myths of Separation

I have been in the emergency room twice in my life. The first time was when I was four or five, I think -- Ashleigh Wahl taught me how to ride a bike on her purple Schwinn with the banana seat. Buoyed by my success with this newly learned skill, I decided to try it without hands, which didn’t work out as well.

The second time was a couple of days ago in Bogota, where I spent the weekend following ten days of blissful non-space-time-continuum living on the Caribbean coast with some friends and alongside a group of soul-searching plant medicine voyagers. Having suffered a series of ear-nose-throat maladies over the course of several months – the last one resulting in reduced hearing in my left ear, -- I started to feel a bit like Woody Allen’s character from “Manhattan,” imagining brain tumors and other possible tragic revelations. I figured I should try to see a doctor before I left the Spanish-speaking world for the uncharted and Portuguese-speaking territory of Brazil to see if I could get some answers. At the beach, we had tried all manner of remedies, including boiling oregano leaves to extract the oil and drop it in the ear, glycerine, jumping up and down, yawning a lot, meditating and visualization. Still, I was living in an echo chamber and trying to understand the metaphysical reason behind my repeated illness and this new and uniquely unpleasant symptom.

After a synchronistic run-in with my old friend Pablo Escobar during the Saturday afternoon paseo in the north part of town, another friend took me to the ER of one of the better hospitals, determining it offered the best chance of seeing a doctor on a Saturday. The good news is that I don’t think I have a brain tumor. The doctor was impressed by my Spanish, which is still at around a seven year-old level of sophistication, but not bad for a gringa. She couldn’t see anything seriously wrong and actually the situation seems to have improved somehow on its own, so for now I think I have escaped an untimely end.

I’ve been thinking about healing, though, and how the body crumbles in such specific and appropriate ways at such specific and appropriate moments. I’ve been thinking about how suffering makes us seek a spiritual path. A few days into my own personal rogue beach retreat, a group of New Yorker yogis left the finca and a group of mostly North Americans arrived to engage in the aforementioned plant medicine work. As fate would have it, one of the leaders of this group happened to be a writer from New York who I met in a café about 15 years ago – a conversation struck up by my choice of reading material: The Portable Jung. Jung never fails to get people talking. The world is a handkerchief, as they say, and so it goes. For the next several days, I observed from the outside – because I chose not to participate in this group’s work – and heard bits and pieces of people’s accounts of their experiences, revelations and nightmares from the journeys they traveled in the night. People wanted to talk a lot about what they were feeling and going through, and I had some interesting conversations with a few members of this rather large and diverse crew as they broke down and rebuilt themselves. Mostly I stayed out of their way, though, so not to get entangled in the mess of energy and karma being churned and stirred and purged in the darkness.

I did my own ‘work:’ merged with the ocean, wrote, practiced slow yin-style yoga with my friend Lya, ate coconut and cacao and arepas and huevos haros, stared at the sky from various hammocks, slept an obscene number of hours, sang to myself and wondered if I would ever hear normally again, acquired and then balanced a gringa tan, read the transcribed lectures of Yogi Bajhan, walked barefoot through the jungle, swam in pools made by waterfalls. Yos and Claudia, our beloved hosts, took the best care of me. We philosophized, laughed, ate some delicious cookies and marveled at the wonders of the natural world.

I also befriended a magical seven year-old (right at my level) Kogi named Roxanna. The Kogis are one of the indigenous tribes in Colombia, and some were invited to teach and speak as part of the plant medicine retreat taking place at the finca. Roxanna and I both improved our Spanish while making paper fortune tellers and drawing pictures for each other with some crayons left behind by one of the previous seven year-old visitors. The Kogis, like most indigenous people I’ve met, are quiet and seem possessed by a tranquility and stillness mostly unknown in our turbulent societies.

My friends Lina and Jaime received me back in Bogota with love and enthusiasm and plans for an excursion from the city for my weekend visit. Lina, a beautiful dancer, is learning to walk again after undergoing a new and rare type of knee surgery on both knees, so she relaxed and soaked up the nature and community at Suezca while Jaime Franco – like Lina, another delightfully enthusiastic liver of life – took me on a ‘small bike ride.’ We started meandering country roads, then met up with a team of mountain bikers and Jaime suggested we join them – ‘just for as long as I felt like it,’ he said. I told him I might not be able to keep up but he said not to worry and off we went. In the great tradition of under-promising and over-delivering, I’m proud to say that I huffed and puffed my way past most of the team, scaling a gravel-strewn vertical incline – all at about 8600 feet of elevation. Part two of our physical adventure day was rock climbing – something I did once last year with Jaime and another friend, and while I survived it, I’d figured I’d quit while I was ahead rather than risk trying it again and possibly failing. But my poetry-reciting, art-making, joke-telling, confidence-inspiring homeboy Jaime Franco coaxed me back to the rock to face my fears. He told me to become a part of the rock – I abandoned my fears of separation and realized again – perhaps even more acutely – how literally not being able to project more than one step at a time forces one to be present.

On the way back to Bogota for my flight to Brazil Sunday night, Jaime continued recalling to memory the words to the T.S. Eliot poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – a line from which I have taken the name of this blog – and also told us a joke about why men and women don’t understand each other. Men, apparently, are more compartmentalized and have brains divided into separate rooms, including something called the ‘nothing’ room. Women, on the other hand – perhaps being more intrinsically connected to the oneness of the universe because of our role in creating and sustaining life – mix everything together, and there is no ‘nothing’ space. So when a woman asks a man what he’s thinking about and he’s in the ‘nothing’ room, he answers ‘nothing’ and the woman can’t fathom how this is possible, because she neither has nor dwells in such a void in her own being. I realize I may be opening myself up to criticism for setting up this dichotomy -- and actually, I think there is a good reason for this difference in our ways of organizing ourselves psychically. In any case, please speak your truth.

I arrived in Sao Paolo this morning and was received by my new homegirl Sandra, who I met through Kate, one of the yogis whose retreat I caught the end of on the coast. Yet again, a friend of a brand new friend has welcomed me into her home and her life – and even more uncanny is that Sandra knows and used to live with with the one other person I know in Sao Paolo, though I know each of them through completely different contacts.

We are in every room, and every room is ours.