I have been forever changed.
Never again will I be able to pretend or convince that the greatest problem in my world is the status of my most recent homework assignment, the time I have left in a day to squeeze in an elliptical work-out, the number of new dresses I have hanging in my closet, or any other manifestation of the state of my ego. For this, I am endlessly indebted to the hardships, poverty, refuse, disease, and detritus of Salvador’s city streets.
What a surreal moment.
I am writing my last Salvador de Bahia adventurer-blog-post-update. I have lived and traversed this city for 167 days. Tomorrow, around noon, I lug my lifetime’s worth of luggage on to a domestic flight to Minas Gerais, Brazil, where I will be employed as a field-research assistant on an on-going Muriqui Monkey Ecology project. I will return to the United States in just short of 24 days, arriving in my quaint and missed Omaha Airport late the night of July 10th.
It is time to say my goodbyes, despedidas, to the city that has been my home, entertainer of my escapades, my elation, my extreme frustration, and my vehicle for thrilling personal growth.
I am doing so with gobs of sweet aҫai for lunch, excessive consumption of agua de cocos, ocean swims despite the omnipresent “winter” rain, and reflection manifested in this blog post. For my final post, I was considering a list of “Brazilian-taught-lessons”, an all-inclusive inventory of how life abroad has changed me as an individual – a comic undertaking. As I begin pondering what this list would include, I suddenly imagined a catalogue of anecdotes, life philosophies, and paradigm-thought-shifts stretching to infinity… I fear even my most dedicated reader’s eyes would glaze over like a canned-ham long before the culmination (which admittedly, may never have come). So instead, I will do my best to encapsulate 6 months of transforming life experiences in a microcosmic and adventure-packed story of my recent trip to Chapada Diamantina, Brazil. Enjoy.
To The Land of Faeries and Back – Friendship, Adversity, and Now I CAN DO ANYTHING.
You meet a lot of incredible, wild, exceptional people living abroad. Least of which, I’ve found, is Yourself.
Being stripped of every comfort, be it your language, familiar places, happily accepted understandings, or naïve perceptions of your globe, you are forced to stop and recollect. You sit with yourself.
You find out what you love, what you hate. You discover what you can and cannot take.
This grand expedition and short back-packing holiday with the gorgeous and audacious Sarah McGough was the perfect culmination to what I am, with great cliché, labeling my adventure-bred, Brazil-initiated, pain-and-ecstasy-borne Personal Growth Journey.
The trip began in fine Salvador style:
Sitting on a bumpy and chock-full city bus with half of my belongings, I was craving an escape from Salvador frustrations and bustlings. I was on my way to meet Sarah at the local Rodoviária to catch a 7-hour bus to Chapada Diamtina for a little fresh air. Though I had visited Chapada, a National Nature Reserve boasting beautiful mountains, plateaus, waterfalls, and few visitors, I was happy to be returning for some fresh-air and my first (although abbreviated) backpacking experience. I was surprised when, at a deserted bus stop far from Sarah’s apartment, I watched a familiar gringa climb onto my bus. “Sarah?!” The troubled look that greeted me was worry-provoking to say the least.
Sarah had just experienced the pinnacle of Salvadorian transport problems. She related with alarm her experience: her city bus had just been chased, frenzied and unassisted, through the traffic-packed streets by an armed gun-man. Poor Sarah, who now bravely related her story, had been caught in the midst of screaming passengers shouting terrors in a foreign language as her run-away bus clamored down alley-ways and unlit roads in attempt to escape before unceremoniously dumping all of its passengers on an unlit lane in the middle of nowhere and prompting them to run. Run my little gringa friend did, and my serendipity-or-something-so-sweet, she ended up on my bus. I did my best to comfort and understand, but Sarah, though a little discontented, was un-phased and brave. “Let’s get out of this city!” we concurred.
And so, we did.
The misadventures had only just begun.
We arrived in Lenҫois, Bahia at what we guessed was 4:00 a.m. To our sleep-deprived pleasure, we found the hostel employee who was to meet us at the bus stop had forgotten about us. After an hour of curb-sleeping and waiting, we decided to trust a local tour guide to give us a ride. Arriving at our hostel, we found it closed. Four hours of waiting later, we secured a key to our room and a breakfast of fresh-baked bread and dark organic coffee. Maybe it was the fresh mountain air, but neither of us minded the debacle that was our morning all that much. In fact, I relished the time outside without the noise of traffic or street vendors.
We passed our first day in Lenҫois catching up on lost sleep, lazily perusing artisan stores, and partaking in the best dinner of our lives (think cacao-pasta, tea from backyard leaves, homemade ricotta sauce, and magical, cardamom-infused, life-changing, mind-boggling, dark-chocolate-brownie-involving homemade ice-cream…) We relished the slow pace of life and chance to talk for hours. We also used the time to search for a guide for a camping/back-packing expedition. Enter serendipity once again…
The cheerful, generous man who we had tentatively accepted a ride from in the early hours of the morning was waiting at our hostel when we returned that night. As our hostel quoted ridiculous prices for Park Tours upon our expression of interest in hiking, he smiled. Danilo, as we learned he was called, stepped in to save us. “I’m a tour guide – we can do a three day hike for half that price…” Two desperate gringas signed up on the spot.
To follow? Three days traversing physical and emotional limitations, life philosophies, language barriers, mountain-top vistas, childhood dreams, lightless caverns, illnesses, and happiness. Every step was worth it and more.
We hiked. A lot.
Day One consisted of an early morning rise, more coffee and gulped down papaya, and a hot start to a walking-filled day. Strapped down with all of our gear, two Americans and a local tour-guide headed off into the vast hills and valleys of Chapada.
Joy in the interesting ecology, beautiful views, and wonderful personality (and vegetarian-cooking abilities) of our hastily-chosen guide found Sarah and I blissful all day long. We both immediately felt renewed and free of city-worries and frustrations, with giddy expressions of “oooohs, aaahhhs” and “WHY CAN’T OUR HOST MOMS COOK LIKE THIS” as Danilo appeared from out of the brush with a beautiful plate of gourmet-level cooking. I am still perplexed and impressed.
We were exhausted, well-worn, but likewise feeling idyllic when we arrived at our encampimento for the night. In this small local-home where we would over-night, we were greeted by an enthusiastic and eclectic community of Brazilian back-packers, over-appreciated TANG, an appreciated concrete floor mattress, quaint little church, bonfire, and most importantly, “naturally-filtered-spring-water.”
Brazil lesson that I will include here… DO NOT DRINK THE WATER.
A miserable night’s sleep interrupted by constant races to the outhouse, images of being air-lifted out of the mountains, groans expressing terrifying stomach pains, and begging Sarah for a new garbage-can. I thought I would die. I knew I would die. This was unprecedented discomfort. I wanted my mom.
Luckily, I had the next best thing.
Being so terrifyingly ill, was totally absolutely worth it.
Sarah McGough is my doctor-sister-spirit-guide-queen. I cannot think of anyone who I would rather be ill with. In the darkest hours of that night, I was endlessly comforted by two realizations. One, Sarah was going to take care of me, with medicine and caring and real life looove. Two, though very far away, I had a support system that loved me and would not hesitate to send the United States Marine Corps to save me. I was not alone.
Another Brazil Lesson: I am THE LUCKIEST, most supported, loved, happy little girl.
The morning-after-illness dawned overcast and cool. News quickly spread around our small community that I was ill. The response by my new friends was nothing short of moving.
My every belief in the good-of-all-humanity was restored as I was offered condolences, herbal remedies, mushed bananas, and every type of home brewed tea to improve my condition. By 9 a.m., despite my lack of sleep, I was so inspired and encouraged that I decided something a little crazy: I would in fact accompany Sarah and Danilo on our planned hike. This was no small challenge: we were to climb Morro do Costello, the highest plateau in Chapada.
And climb we did.
I tell you, not only do I now know I am capable of overcoming every physical limitation, but I know that pain and sickness and bad make life and love and accomplishment and good – so worth it. So “vale a pena.”
And so, for the next few days, we hiked. We breathed fresh mountain air and discussed religion, the glory of leaving comfort zones and the missings of home, our childhoods, and our motivations and dreams to change the world for the better. We learned about Danilo and his life as a guide, his 11 year old son, and adventures sky-diving and bungee jumping. His smile was priceless when we promised him that, in his honor, we would do the same.
80 kms in 3 days. Deeply fulfilled, exhausted, and rejuvenated.
Our return to Salvador was unfortunately as eventful as our arrival. International bank difficulties ended in multi-hour, trying debacles. Sarah got her turn in sickness as our bus home was pulling away. We held hands on the way “home” to our city, me anxiously praying I wouldn’t have to stop the bus and carry her to the nearest hospital with a bad case of appendicitis. Even snagging a taxi to our apartments was a small disaster when we rolled in to town at 5 a.m. We both arrived home so over-taxed and in disbelief of our experience. But what a life-changing, lesson-imbuing, whirl-wind story and adventure we were blessed with.
And here in lies my conclusive statement regarding my last 6 months.
Of course, living abroad for half a year is going to crack your world open. It ripped me from all semblances of comfort zones, brought me to the cusp of insanity, enabled me the most beautiful views of my life so far, and made me beg for home.
Just like my illness in Chapada, my experience in Brazil would have been nothing without the adversity and pain I faced. The realities of poverty and violence here have forever changed me, and I am so very glad. I am thrilled to find myself more gentle, more cognizant of little pleasures, and more thankful of my family, my beautiful and motivated friends, my language my education, my organic peanut butter, and the beauty that is life.
But of course, Salvador isn’t all problems and complaints. It is beautiful and rich, bubbling, warm, welcoming culture. It is friendly and selfless agua de coco vendors, rhymthic dance classes, capoeira in the streets. The dark things – poverty, drugs, governmental corruption – do not rob the joy and light and happiness provided by these things. Instead, they illuminate the joy of a casual soccer game on the beach, the support of a friend, and the value of simple acts of kindness.
I am overtaxed in trying to understand how my time here has changed me, and how it will inform my future. I do, however, know this:
Salvador reminded me of wonderful things I had forgotten: a good book can feel just like home, the fading sunset never gets old, and a phone call with your Mom has the capability of healing all wrongs.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am blessed. I know beautiful people whose support and love I cannot live without. I have been given a unique, miraculous opportunity to inhabit this world. Now, I feel I have been granted the energy I need to give back to it. The vehicle that was poverty and adversity, the sicknesses in Salvador, revealed to me the value of acts of kindness and importance of motivated, pointed work for better.
Thank you, Salvador. I love you, Brasil. I will not forget the purpose, good, and lessons I have found here.
And thank YOU, for journeying with me, supporting me, and inspiring me.
As I’ve said a million times, I am one insanely blessed little girl.
I take my leave for the forests and my monkeys.
- Still round the corner there may wait
- A new road or a secret gate,
- And though we pass them by today,
- Tomorrow we may come this way
- And take the hidden paths that run
- Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
- - Andrew Lang