Describe the longest amount of time you have ever been away from home.
It felt like a chilled, early summer morning; though it was actually mid to late winter. I don’t remember the month exactly, but it was summer in the states, which would make it winter there in São Paulo. It was midmorning, and I was roaming about the unfamiliar streets, always within sight of our large hotel, taking in as much as I could manage. I kept close primarily to ease the concern of my older travel companions. Being that I was only 16 and traveling without my parents, the responsibility of my survival and return home fell on them. I was too young to fear the city. Never mind that I was a child, knew approximately 3 phrases in Portuguese, and was in one of the most magnificent albeit dangerous cities in the world.
On my excursion I found a small record store. I am certain I didn’t have a lot of spending money, but the little money I did have was causing 3rd degree burns on the outside of my upper thigh. Because I had terrible taste in music when I was 16, I purchased two Bon Jovi CDs, These Days, and Crossroads. The guy at the store also convinced me to purchase a CD with a long, flowing-haired, Brazilian guy holding an accordian on the front cover. I later gave it a listen, but couldn’t make it further than a couple of songs and likely never touched the thing again.
Small, incremental scenes like this one are all I have I retained from my two week stint in Brazil. I remember those two weeks more vividly than I do any other two weeks in my life, but even those memories are foggy and disjointed. I have decided that the next time I travel I will document everything obsessively. I will spend time in the evenings recounting the events of the day while it is fresh in my mind. I will take as many pictures as I can without missing the experience itself, which I will save safely in a place where I can easily access them. But I didn’t have the wherewithal for that at 16. And so these hazy scenes and peculiar details are the best I can give you from my trip to Brazil: the longest time I’ve ever been away from home.
I traveled with a group of roughly 15 people from Central Baptist Church of Johnson City, TN first, into São Paulo and then a week later to Rio de Janeiro. Our mission was to sing in local churches, clown and perform puppet shows for children in the schools, churches, and streets, and I remember there was something to do with financing those schools in the favelas (hillside shanty towns) just outside of Rio for computers. When we were not performing these missions, we were fervent sightseers, bent on experiencing as much of the culture and landscape as we possibly could in our limited stay.
It is from this patchwork of experiences that I will recount a few memories that stand out above the rest: The first of which is having lunch at a beautiful buffet-style restaurant where the food was brought to you and you either accepted or declined. For the most part, I accepted. My favorite item was the cut of cupin, the hump of a Brahma bull. My least favorite was chicken heart, which I tried only because of the emphatic urgings of my translator (who was himself only 17). The other thing I remember from that lunch is the explosion of worry that came from my fellow travelers and caretakers when I unknowingly agreed to the rum topping our waiter offered me with my ice cream. It was, after all, a Southern Baptist mission trip.
I believe it was the day prior to the buffet lunch that we sang as a guest choir in an extremely large and exquisite church. The sermon was in Portuguese and thus I did not understand a word of it, but the passion with which it was delivered and received moved me in a way I had never been moved before. After the service, we dined with the pastor and his family. That is where I and the other young guys in our mission group met Denaldo’s daughters. Denaldo was the pastor of the large church where we sang, and he had three daughters. The oldest was likely around the age of 19 or 20, which incidentally was also the age of the next oldest guy in our group, Davy. The other two daughters were 17 and 15, and each of them was more beautiful than any girl I’d ever met to that point. Many references were made to the beauty and charm of Denaldo’s daughters throughout the trip and for months afterwards, especially between me and Davy. I left with their address, as the younger two daughters insisted that we keep in touch. We corresponded through mail a couple of times before one of the parties simply failed to follow through with the next letter. Which is a shame, because knowing me it is perfectly conceivable that I simply lost interest. But now, over a decade later, I think it would be fascinating to have maintained an intercontinental pen pal from childhood.
As far as tourist sightseeing experiences go, we were fortunate enough to be driven up the side of a large hill (perhaps even a small mountain) where we parked and looked out over the ocean of skyscrapers that made up the 7th most populated city in the world.* It was magnificent and shocking. I have looked out over New York City from the Twin Towers; in terms of size and breadth it fails dramatically in comparison. And as overwhelming as the size of São Paulo was, the view of Rio de Janeiro from the top of Corcovado Mountain was infinitely more breathtaking. I was awestruck standing there, beside Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) overlooking the lavish hotels erected along the beach, which curves below the massive Sugarloaf Mountain, it too standing tall above the city below.
On the honorable mentions list is the drive-thru zoo where we, in our rented van, drove through an assortment of habitats, witnessing very large and dangerous animals roaming about freely. We were also allowed to frolic about for a half-hour on one of the beaches in Rio, which I only know was not the Copacabana.
Of all things seen and experienced on this trip, what stood out most to me was the attitude of the people we met. I mentioned before the passion with which the congregation in São Paulo worshiped. Even more stirring was the joy and level of contentment of the children we met In the favelas outside of Rio. Dressed in clown garb, complete with white face makeup and a flowing neon-blue wig, I communicated with them through verbose and ridiculous motions. They smiled, laughed, and freely covered me with hugs. Despite the dirty and tattered clothes they wore and the surrounding sun-faded, garage-sized shacks they called home, they were grateful, bright-eyed, and bubbling over with wonderment and laughter. That experience, those encounters, humbled me in a way I’ve never really recovered from.
Because of this trip, I have a great affinity for Brazil and I would love to make a return visit at some point. I am no better at Portuguese now than I was then, so my ability to survive such a trip would hinge upon me finding a group to go with or a proper translator to whom I could attach myself. Though I was young and I certainly felt the effects of culture shock (primarily upon arriving at a hotel where English was nowhere to be found and then again in the favelas where I saw firsthand a completely new level of destitution), I do not remember at any point feeling homesick or eager to return to the normalcy of Tennessee. I am, in many ways, a born traveler. And so, it has come to my attention that I am going to have to come across some large amounts of money someway or another and then have a very persuasive conversation with my wife in which I convince her to pack her bags for an indefinite trip abroad.
*I thought São Paulo was in the top 5 most populated cities in 1999, but my feeble Google search neither confirmed nor disproved this.