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Dear Sasha: How do I create my own Eat Pray Love journey in Brazil?

Note: I get so many fabulous questions from my readers. So I have decided to start answering them. This will be an ongoing column, “Dear Sasha.” If you have a question, send it in!


Dear Sasha,

I’ve been thinking of having my own sort of “Eat Pray Love” journey in Brazil and any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. I haven’t planned anything yet, but researching for now. Eat Pray Love for me means re-discovering yourself through travel, visiting a country and discovering a culture and people and learning to love yourself. I’ve been drawn to Brazil since I was young perhaps because I’m from a very mixed background and there are so many mixes in Brazil and also from reading Brazilian literature.

This may be a stereotype but I feel that happiness and joy for life and simple things is ingrained within the Brazilian culture, and also there is a sense of women being strong, sensual and owning themselves as women. I need to be around that :) Samba, music, the sea…and discovering a new culture. I also feel there is a great visual aesthetic and relationship with beauty, colors, patterns, craftwork and I want to explore that more.


Dear Maye,
First, let me say that your intuition is right on. Brazilian joy may be a cliche, and it’s true. Brazilian people do have a very special kind of joy, and that alegria knocked me out and changed my life when I first visited Brazil in 2007.

I get an emotional tune-up from Brazil each time I visit. Brazilian people have more than their share of misery and difficulty, of course. Many Brazilians suffer with poverty, long commutes, and violence. But in general, Brazilians make the choice to be connected and to smile and to look at the light side of life more than we do in the U.S. They are more connected to each other through joy. They make the choice for humor, to say tudo bem (all good) and really mean it. (Tudo bem is the way people ask each other, How are you? All good? All good.) Another possible greeting is “E a‚àö‚â†, beleza?” which is a way of asking, “Hey, over there, beauty/great/fabulous?” They throw their arms up in the air and choose life. Brazilians are also masters of living in the moment. I wrote about that here.

I have now visited Brazil four times and lived there for a total of 8 months. A third of my next book Wet takes place in Brazil and in that book I’m sharing my stories of what I learned from Brazil.

Let me give you some bits of advice and refer you to some of my favorite posts about Brazil.

If you feel the urge, you must go
If you have an instinct to go on any adventure to discover yourself through travel, I say go. It can be scary. That’s the point. Going into the unknown will teach you so much about yourself.

How do you create your own Eat Pray Love journey in Brazil or anywhere? There are many ways, and you need to find your own. You certainly don’t have to figure it all out before you go. Be sure to leave yourself some free time for exploration in the moment. Elizabeth Gilbert constructed Eat Pray Love in the book in a very orderly way, saying she was exploring x in this country and y in another. That’s usually not how life works. I recommend setting an intention for what you want to explore, but also know that you will discover so much more than you initially intend. We have a hunch, but then the waters of life rush up to meet us and fill in the rest. So I say, set your intention, and then be open.

Traveling alone without a plan is brilliant. Going with a friend is also great, though you will likely have more experiences of self-discovery on your own. You will need to make your own decisions, and this is a big challenge to meet on your own. When everything is stripped away from our patterns of everyday life, you find a blank canvas. What will you choose to do? In essence, where will you put your attention, what will you do, whaat will you choose to create? Traveling without a plan is scary and exquisitely creative. Your life truly becomes art.

Let yourself be open to what happens. There is a Brazilian samba song called “Deixar a vida me llevar” which means “I let life take me.” This was my anthem during my travels, to get off my to-do list mode and let life happen, let life take me. To travel without a plan. Brazilians are probably more likely than Americans to travel without a guidebook, to let the unexpected happen. Take your cue from them and try out this style of travel if you have never tried it. And listen to this samba song for inspiration.

Learn some Portuguese, even just “tudo bem”
Brazilians will love you if you take the time to learn some Portuguese. At the mininum, learn how to say “oi” (hi) and “tudo bem?” Brazilians embrace foreigners and if you learn even a little bit of their language you will be one of the family. Perhaps because they are surrounded by Spanish, they feel “quirky” and different and will appreciate your effort. You will be loved.

Brazil is a super quirky country. Enjoy.
In addition to being a sensual country, Brazil is a quirky country. Read about my favorite quirky spots in Brazil here.

Here are some of my posts on Brazil:
Quirky Places in Brazil
“The Trouble with Brazilian Men.”
An Unexpected Quirkyalone New Year’s in Rio de Janeiro
What It Feels Like to Travel Alone in Brazil
Brazilian Happiness, Part Two

To find out more about my Brazilian adventures, be sure to sign up for the Wet list. Wet is my new book and it starts in Brazil. And let us know how your adventure goes!

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Posted in Advice, Brazil, Travel, Traveling Alone, Travels

How Brazil Resurrected My Spirit

alma do brasil = soul of brazil! the soul of brazil is strong!

alma do brasil = soul of brazil! the soul of brazil is strong!

I’ve been writing to you about Argentina a lot lately because I spent the last eight months in Buenos Aires as a digital nomad (working) living my dream of immersing myself in tango. I loved those eight months!

I’ll be back in Oakland, California in a few days.

Before I fell in love with tango and Argentina, I fell in love with Brazil. Today I want to tell you about why I love Brazil and how that country resurrected my spirit when I was burnt-out working in Silicon Valley. I want to tell you because the Brazilian people are waking up in a most exciting way and it’s thrilling to see.

Brazil vs. Argentina
Brazil and Argentina are rivals. Argentines (well, let’s say Buenos Aires residents, Portenos) are moody and known for complaint, psychoanalysis, tango, beautiful architecture and being the “Paris of the South.” Complicated is the word for Buenos Aires. In a delicious way. They’re about the head.

Brazil, by contrast, is about the body. If complicated is the word for Argentina, let’s say wild and charismatic for Brazil. Brazilians, in general, and in my experience, are light and funny and are always up to embrace life. They know how to live. Every time I go to Brazil, I get an attitude adjustment. The country is well known for cosmetic surgery, but for me, Brazil gives me a spiritual adjustment every time I visit. Ah yes, this is what life is about. Enjoying life and enjoying having a body. Without shame. Read more ›

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Posted in Brazil, Travel

Five Reasons to Travel Alone

img_5687 During 2010, as I traveled alone through France, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina, I regularly encountered people who find it courageous to travel alone. I remember a hairstylist in Bogota. As she blow-dryed my hair, she told me she couldn’t picture it. I asked her why. She couldn’t really say. So it goes. For most people, traveling alone is unimaginable.

Traveling alone still gives me a thrill, but it’s not scary anymore, I’ve done it so much. Traveling alone can be occasionally lonely, yes. I have felt pangs of loneliness at times. Scary, in South America or Europe, rarely. It’s easy to meet people when you travel alone if you stay at hostels and hook up with couchsurfing, a global network of travelers who support each other through hosting and advice. People think that couchsurfing is only for finding a place to stay, but it’s also for making friends. Go to the “groups” section and find the city you’re visiting, find out what people in the couchsurfing community are planning. Post a message saying that you are coming to town, does anyone have advice or want to have coffee? Couchsurfing members are astonishingly friendly and helpful.

Here are five reasons to travel alone, some classic, some idiosyncratic. There are also reasons to travel with a romantic partner or with friends. Each experience is unique, but traveling alone is undoubtedly rich. Add yours in the comments.

1. Learn how to make decisions.
For me, traveling alone was one crash course in making decisions–just keep on rolling the dice and see what comes up. Stop the research. Stop the analysis paralysis. Just keep choosing and living. In travel, everything is as it is, and there’s always another day to change course and choose again. A lot more happens in life when you stop worrying about what to do and just go. That problem dogged me in the year before I made the decision to travel. I was so freaked out by the idea of putting my life in storage and jumping off the known career path that I pondered the decision to death. I planned to travel only four months and wound up going for over a year. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop.

dsc03710 2. Openness to the world. The sense of risk and heightened reward is what draws me to traveling alone. Traveling with a friend can be an adventure too, but the adventure quotient is usually higher when you are alone. You’re more vulnerable in the sense that you have to seek out company and help. There is a lucky charm in traveling alone. My friend Mark lived in Rio for three years right by the beach in Ipanema. On a solo trip to Rio I stayed with him and he jokingly told me he could always spot the solo travelers by the red streaks on their backs: the spot they couldn’t reach themselves with sunscreen. Apt observation and probably true for some solo travelers but not all. But hey, just because I’m traveling alone doesn’t mean I can’t ask a hunky Carioca volleyball player to put sunscreen on the hard-to-reach places. That’s the advantage of traveling alone, isn’t it? Openness to adventure. :)

3. The grace of trusting in strangers. Traveling alone also teaches you to trust your fellow men and women. They are the ones who help you out when you are in need. I will never forget the man who stopped a long-distance bus for me in Colombia so he could go buy me Coke and toilet paper (I confessed to him that I had “digestive” issues right before we got on the bus). Then he invited me to his family’s home for lunch, and I still get emails from the family saying they will never forget me. I have had similar experiences all over Brazil and Colombia. The kindness and welcoming spirit is unbelievable.

4. Star in your own movie. When you travel alone, the trip is completely yours. You are the star of your own movie. All the mistakes are yours to make, the serendipitous discoveries to enjoy, and the insights to savor. The recollection of the trip is entirely personal and private. Even though I have blogged extensively about my travels, there is no one who was along the whole journey with me who can say what it was all about. Some people prefer to share memories and make meaning from the trip together. That is beautiful as well, but there is also a soul-searching power in doing an odyssey on your own.

When we set out on an extended travel by ourselves, we may not know why we are going when we begin, and it may only be clear when we come back. When you finally understand the narrative of your solo trip, it’s your secret.

Me and my Belgian BFF

Me and my Belgian BFF

5. A new best friend (or love) 4-eva. In a whole year of travel, I made a new best friend who I know will be a friend for life. We will be at each other’s weddings if we get married, we coach each other through our post-(or newly)-travel lives, and we hope to meet up for other adventures in Africa, Asia, and to dance tango in Buenos Aires. We spent close to two months together in Cali, and we met up again in Buenos Aires for two more months. Our friendship is pure gold and we have both helped each other grow in innumerable ways. That openness to a new friend might not have been there if I had already been traveling with someone else. And who knows? You might meet the love of your life. Thataforementioned friend did actually . . . .

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Posted in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Travel, Traveling Alone, Travels

Brazil’s Quirky Soul

There are plenty of studies on the world’s happiest countries, but what about the world’s quirkiest? I think Brazil would definitely rate in the top five. Perhaps it’s in part because I got to know Brazil better than any other country, including my own, and any country becomes quirky when you travel through it extensively. But I also just think Brazil is a place where people really value expression and creativity is found throughout society in unexpected places.

I was continually delighted by the unexpected art projects I would stumble upon in my travels. Projects without institutional support taken on as an individual mission in a city or out in the middle of nowhere, even, along a highway.

What do I mean by quirky? I mean unexpected, unique, and unpretentious. Totally individual. There is no real equivalent for the word “quirky” in Portuguese. I always carefully explain the word quirky to Brazilians—that it means good weird, not bad weird, which is “esquisito” in Portuguese. It means that you have the courage to be yourself exactly as you are, without trying to be different. Using the example of Amelie often helps people understand the quirky aesthetic, though of course you don’t have to be cute as a button to be quirky or to plant garden gnomes in gardens.

Here are a few of my favorite quirky places in Brazil.

A woman giving birth in Jardim do Nego

Jardim do N‚àö‚Ñ¢go . Nova Friburgo. Jardim do N‚àö‚Ñ¢go is a sculpture garden with huge moss-covered sculptures of animals and humans, including a particularly spectacular sculpture of a gigantic women giving birth. The artist is N‚àö‚Ñ¢go. It seemed so mysterious how this garden had taken root out in the middle of nowhere, the product of one man’s imagination and solitude. The government recognized him for his contribution to tourism, but I can’t imagine the garden was commissioned. The Jardim is 13 km north-west of Nova Friburgo on highway RJ-130. The garden is part of the Circuito Turistco between Nova Friburgo and Teresopolis. Drive this road and you can stop at waterfalls, a cheese factory, and a museum about Swiss immigration to Brasil.

The bird cemetery on Paqueta
Cemitério dos P‚àö¬∞ssaros (Bird Cemetery) on Ilha de Paqueta. Rio de Janeiro. One week when I was feeling overstimulated by the chaos and noise of Rio I took a friend’s suggestion to visit Ilha de Paqueta on a day trip. Paqueta is just an hour away by ferry in the Baia de Gaunabara, but it feels like another world and time period. There are no cars on the island–only bikes (which you can rent cheaply) and horse-drawn buggies. It was a weekday and I was pretty much the only tourist on the whole island. More than 10 guys asked me if I wanted to take a tour in their bike- or horse-drawn carriages. I finally relented. The tour was worth the price when my driver stopped to show me a BIRD cemetery attached to a human cemetery. My guide told me that people from all over Brazil bring their birds here to rest, and that the bird cemetery had been a personal project of its creators. The fact that someone had a vision for a bird cemetery and went ahead and created one made me happy.

The largest cashew tree in the world!
O Maior Cajuero do Mundo, or The Biggest Cashew Tree in the World, Natal. What a tourist attraction! A tree that covers more than a New York City block! Planted in 1888, the largest cashew tree in the world got to be so big due to genetic anomalies. Instead of growing vertically, the branches grow sideways and then down into the ground, spreading out without end. The tree has become a tourist attraction that costs R$2 to enter. This for me is the definition of quirkyness–instead of becoming a source of shame the tree’s genetic oddness is celebrated! The town has turned the tree into a Lonely Planet- mention-worthy tourist attraction. I went to see the tree with Brazilian guys, an Israeli, and an Argentinean from my hostel and they thought it was hilarious that I thought the Maior Cajeiro do Mundo was one of the best things I had seen in Brazil. Well, it was! I loved it.

Escada de Selaron
Escada de Selaron, or, the Selaron Steps. Rio de Janeiro. Santa Teresa is the most poetic neighborhood I have ever known, and it’s where I spent most of my time in Rio. Santa Teresa sits on top of a hill with dozens of hidden staircases that descend into various neighborhoods at its feet. Some of the staircases have been turned into canvases for art, and none more than the Selaron Steps, which lead into Lapa. A Chilean artist Selaron started an art project as an ode to Brazil. Now that the steps are well known he collects tiles from tourists who bring them from their own cities and he is ever adding to the collection. There’s a small gallery tucked inside the wall alongside the steps where he sells photos and art. The steps are his love note to Brazil, and he says he will work on it until the day he dies. Descending the steps from Santa Teresa into Lapa is a glorious way to enter the city.

I’d love to hear about other odd, creative, individual projects in Brazil, or really, anywhere in the world. Any ideas? Please suggest them in the comments.

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Posted in Brazil, Travels

Ate Mais, Brasil

A few of my favorite Cariocas

A few of my favorite Cariocas at Bar do Mineiro, Santa Teresa

My time in Brasil has come to an end, and my time in Colombia is just beginning. I left Brasil June 19 on a madrugada (dawn) flight that routed through Lima, Bogota, and then to Santa Marta, where I began my journey through Colombia, on the Caribbean coast. It was not easy to leave meu amor, Brasil. Booking my ticket was torture and took several afternoons. But it was the practical thing to do. And all of my American practicality has not yet been scrubbed out of me by Brasil.

I first fell in love with Brasil on a three-week trip to Salvador, Arraial d’Ajuda (in Bahia) and Rio in 2008 and left with a resolve to come back and spend more time in Rio. Everyone always asked if I had a boyfriend in Brasil and if that was why I wanted to go back. But no, there was no specific one man–there were many! Just kidding.

My fondness for Brasil was born out of a love for the rich culture of music and dance, exuberance, the people. I sensed the country had something to teach me by example. Brasil is full of passion, optimism despite difficult conditions, quirkyness and creativity in unexpected places, and an everyday humor that jives with my personality. After five months, I’m fairly fluent in Portuguese and continue to love learning nuances of the language. Brasil feels like my adopted home country. I’ve met other Americans who feel this way, that you develop a heart connection with Brasil. Maybe I will fall in love with another country harder, now or in another decade, but for now my heart beats for Brasil!

I spent three months traveling in the south and the northeast. I really wanted to settle in one place for at least 3 months. In the end, I spent a little less than 2 months in Rio, which doesn’t seem long at all. I was there for 2.5 months, but in that time, I also traveled to Ouro Preto, Sao Paolo, Paraty, Petropolis, and Manaus! Wow! In such a short time, I developed a number of dear friendships in Rio. It amazes me that I was able to develop a network of friends so quickly, and I really enjoyed introducing them to one another and enjoyed watching some of them become friends.

I am continuing on with my travels for practical reasons, including Brasil’s six-month tourist visa limitation, and the fact that if I am serious about living in Brasil I’ll want to continue my career in some interesting way there, and now is not yet the time for me to get serious about work. Soon it will be time to think about what comes next. I am hoping that the continuation of my career, wherever it takes me, will also feel as interesting and alive as the last five months of learning have been–and that the unplanned adventure will only continue.

I have a number of blog posts saved up inside my brain about Brasil and will be posting there before moving on to writing about colorful Colombia.

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Posted in Brazil, Travels

Have a Nietzsche Day in Santa Teresa!

Just another morsel of poetic terrorism in Santa Teresa

Every day when I got on the bus, or on the poetic yellow cable cars rambling through Santa Teresa, Rio’s hilltop bohemian neighborhood, I would see this splash of graffiti, if you could call such simple handwriting graffiti. “Have a Nietzsche Day!”

What an intellectual neighborhood I chose to live in for a while, I thought to myself, smiling. At the nearby Mercandinho, an impossibly small corner store that sells coffee, beer, carpaccio, papaya, laundry detergent, I meet poets who had hung out with Allen Ginsburg. Everyone is an artist, writer, translator, weird Carnaval bloco organizer. Maybe an American working on her Fulbright in poetry. Or someone like me, just bumming around and enjoying.

Poetic terrorism is what my friend Roma calls it. According to Urban Dictionary, poetic terrorism is a “movement dedicated to spreading random acts of beauty, poetry, wonder, magic and thought-provocation. The concept was originated by the writer Hakim Bey and has appeared in movies such as the cult French film Amelie. Poetic terrorism differs from the concept of “random acts of kindness” in that its acts are not always kind, but its ultimate goal is not malice, but broadening of the mind.”

Roma’s girlfriend Iracema studies Nietzsche. She too lives in Santa Teresa and often tells me to have a Nietzsche day a lot. I don’t think she is responsible for the scrawl, but she has adopted it for her lexicon.

But what does “Have a Nietzsche Day!” mean? I had always associated Nietzsche with nihilism, meaninglessness, being adrift without a moral compass. Why would I want my day to be like that? Downtown from Santa Teresa, which is calm and beautiful, the Centro and Lapa are beautiful too but much more hectic and chaotic. And full of malandros, sneaky characters who lack a firm morality.

Iracema and Roma gave me a different take on Nietzsche. Iracema wrote her doctoral thesis on him, and from what I gather, for them, Nietzsche is about breaking through social rules and affirming life according to authentic desires. Iracema says, Having a Nietzsche day means “a day in which we not ashamed of who we are.”

So having a Nietzsche day for them means smashing paradigms, living fully, authentically. There’s a non-cheesy Carpe Diem feeling to it, a live-every-day-as-your-last, because death is not so bad. It’s just the conclusion of a well-lived, full life.

Our conversations, if not the exact definition, remind me of early talks that I had with my friend Marcello, who also lives in Santa Teresa. Marcello, who works at a bank, and is quirky but not an artist, warned me early on that it’s a crazy neighborhood, and all his friends, some of them expatriates, act like they are living each day as their last. How is that possible to sustain over years? That was his question.

Brazil is very much about the moment, and Santa Teresa and Lapa take the energy around the present moment to another level. The music never stops. Maybe only on Mondays.

In San Francisco, Sunday night is a time to be quiet and prepare for the coming week, Maybe make some soup. Do your laundry. Not in Santa Teresa. It’s time to drink beers in the street in front of Bar do Mineiro for 6 hours straight, or to go to a roda de samba. Living out loud in the streets is relaxation. Life is lived at a different frequency.

Would I be cut out for such a life, for having a series of Nietzsche days? Could I be a superperson? Could you? See below.

Living at a high frequency all the time leaves me rather exhausted. So does rewriting all the rules, though I seem to enjoy tinkering with them.

From Philosophy Pages:

“Nietzsche insists that there are no rules for human life, no absolute values, no certainties on which to rely. If truth can be achieved at all, it can come only from an individual who purposefully disregards everything that is traditionally taken to be “important.” Such a super-human person {Ger. ‚àö√∫bermensch}, Nietzsche supposed, can live an authentic and successful human life.”

Or maybe “Have a Nietzsche Day” is a joyfully meaningless slogan, post-Nietzschean prank to get me to write this blog post. From this essay by Bary Brent Madison, “Coping with Nietzsche’s Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer”:

Derrida is the great postphilosophical prankster, the “ironist,” the indefatigable turner-out of texts which are mercifully free from the burden of having to actually mean something (qui ne veulent rien dire, as Derrida himself would say) . . .

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Posted in Brazil, Travels

Brazilian Happiness, Part Two

And now, another installment in my quest to understand the fascinating condition of Brazilian happiness–how is that that these people seem to be so unremittingly joyful? Is it because they are so musical, so closely connected through family, do they put antidepressants in the agua de coco? What is it?

Last week I visited Sao Paolo with my new friend Catherine. We met in the strikingly beautiful coastal, colonial town Paraty at the couchsurfing gathering for the Jazz Festival. At the last moment, I decided to chaperone Catherine on her first couchsurfing adventure in Sao Paolo. That’s the joy of bus travel.

Our host was Alberto, a true gem who picked us up at the bus station, paid our metro fare on the way to his home, and bought us beer and wine to chill out at home and enjoy our first of two nights together. Alberto showed us Sao Paolo the next day, and I was so happy to finally put a face to the name. So many Cariocas and others have talked negatively about Sao Paolo, so it was exotic to finally see it for myself. I liked it, for two days anyway! Alberto is the rare young Brazilian who lives alone and it was a lot of relaxing fun to hang out on his couch and watch Brazilian MTV–surprisingly different and better than American MTV. More weird videos and sophisticated programming.

Alberto brought up this question of Brazilian happiness with me. He initiated it, referencing a conversation with a Canadian he had hosted, who had asked, Why are Brazilians so joyful and warm and open and North Americans are not? Alberto had his answer ready for me. Little did he know this is my blogging fascination of the moment. His answer was rather simple: Brazilians are used to living with insecurity, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Jobs, money, housing, violence, and I would add relationships (in the sense that infidelity is so common). Because they never know what’s going to happen, Betao (his nickname) said, Brazilians learn to enjoy every day as it comes, to suck every bit of pleasure they can from each day. That’s his life philosophy, anyway, to live as intensely as possible so he as stories to tell his grandchildren. He’s also the kind of traveler who arrives at his destination without a guidebook, only a backpack, no plan, just relying on God and luck. God, that fetishizing of the non-planned adventure!

Alberto’s theory is that Brazilians are de facto Buddhists. Because their lives can’t be planned, they realize they have no control over the future–they are much better at focusing on the moment. Pleasure is better than pain, Alberto said to me. And I though, how simple and true! (Certainly that’s true with regard to Brazilian men–they are very good at focusing on the pleasure of the present moment when they see a woman they want to kiss.)

In some fundamental way of the universe, Alberto is absolutely right; we pretend to ourselves that we have control in the U.S. and Europe, but at any time, an accident could happen, a spouse could leave, a lottery ticket could prove to be the winner. According to his theory, our stable lives always leave pleasure for the future–in a stable day to day life, you know where you are going the next day, and the next day, and life becomes more routine, less spontaneous and pleasure-filled.

I read somewhere a long time ago that one of the cornerstones of mental health is to feel control over your life. I always believed that to be true. That when I feel in control of my destiny, my environment, and know that I have enough money in the bank to cover my bills, my mental health is more stable. It’s fascinating to me to think that these people seem happier than I am on a daily basis but they live with such insecurity. On the other hand, people in many other countries live with great insecurity too. How happy are they?

And then there’s the mask of Brazilian happiness. I wonder what’s really going on when people go home for the night from the samba party. When I got back to Rio from my two-week trip to Nova Friburgo, Petropolis, Paraty, and Sao Paolo, I bumped into the expatriate crew in Santa Teresa. These are young women from England and Norway who who have settled here and are teaching English. I shared some of my frustrations with Rio, that it can be hard to feel connected here in a city where everything is about fun, fun, fun, and everyone is always wearing this joyous smile. They have had Carioca boyfriends, so they have gotten in a little deeper than I have, in a sense. They talked about the mask of happiness in Rio, that’s all tudo bem, jovial smiles out at the bar, but when they get home, their boyfriends expressed a real lack of trust in anyone, and seemed awfully depressed, not wanting to go out. Obviously, this is an anecdotal hearsay, but I do think there’s something to that, the way people present themselves out in public here has to be different from what they really feel inside.

I adore the joy here, but it does me a lot of good to talk with English people who are more culturally similar to my friends in San Francisco. We are more unafraid to talk about our problems and get in there and analyze them, look for solutions. Perhaps this happens among intimate friends in Brazil, but it has only happened with me once–with my dear friend Natalia in Florianopolis. She too thought that Brazilians have a problem with talking about their problems. I felt closer and more comfortable with her ultimately than any other Brazilian woman that I have met traveling, yet.

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Posted in Brazil

The Truth Behind Rio’s Happy Smiles

happiness at the Friday afternoon baile, Centro Cultural Carioca

Two years ago when I first visited Rio a cab driver told me that Cariocas always find a way to be happy, no matter how little money they have in their pockets. He dropped me off at Beco do Rata, an exuberant outdoor samba bar. Later in the evening as I got swept away into a crowd surrounding around 20 percussionists, I thought, god, maybe he’s right. What are they doing that I should be doing too?

Back at home, I became convinced of a gut feeling that I wanted to spend more time in Rio to understand the city’s exuberance. I got in touch with an old college friend who had lived there for three years. He told me his years in Rio were the happiest in his life. The healthiest. That everyone feels sexy there, no matter what their body type. A Spanish woman I met while traveling told me that Rio brought her great happiness too–Rio has this kind of happiness mystique.

Brazil never shows up very high on the various indices reseearches release on the world’s happiest countries. Yet Brazil and Rio are known for a positive, joyful attitude. A friend told me once that Argentinians will use any excuse to protest, and Brazilians will use any excuse to party.

When I first arrived in Rio this spring after three months of traveling, I felt a happiness even bordering on a high–something about arriving inspires a strong reaction, driving through its geographic wonders, a city made up of mountains, dazzling beaches, and decaying (and preserved) beautiful architecture.

But with a manic high always (or usually) comes a low. And the longer I am in Rio, the more complicated I find the city. I still find it extraordinarily beautiful and to possess some of the most amazing nature and culture I’ve ever seen collected in one city, but I can also see the dark sides more clearly now–at least the dark sides for me. And more than anything else, the always-on nature of the city, more than New York, can feel chronically overstimulating. (I’m hoping that now that I’ll be moving into an apartment rather than living in a guesthouse I will feel a better balance with the city.)

Rio is anything but simple. It’s probably the most complicated city I’ve tried to learn, and usually I’m a very fast city-learner. I often feel retarded downtown when I can’t find my way back somewhere.

It’s many worlds connected via numerous bus systems (I had never been to a city where the buses are run by different private companies not just one municipal system, quel confusion!). You move from the gritty faded glamour of Copacabana to the throbbing dusty historic and commercial center to neighborhoods that easily feel as bourgeois-chic as the Upper East Side, and then there’s Santa Teresa, the bohemian Montmartre where I decided to fly my flag. And in the middle of it all are pockets of favelas, or communities, and there’s always a feeling of multiplicity, of different sociological realities playing out at once. I feel more guilty being middle-class in Rio and going out to a nice restaurant or say, not spending my time volunteering, than I do in other cities because the realities are so smushed up against each other, as compared to other cities where poor communities are more hidden.

Rio is a city that pulses, even throbs, with music. The city’s energy is unbelievable–people are constantly in the streets for a roda de samba, a fair, or watching football, or just to sit on the street corner for hours playing cards or drums. Lord have mercy when the World Cup comes in June! Monday night feels like the only downtime.

But people are stressed here and with good reason. Tita, the Lithuanian who works at the guesthouse where I have stayed for three weeks, who has lived in Rio for five years,. keeps harping that Rio is an urban jungle, that you always have to be on your game here. For those who can’t afford to live in the central Zona Sul, the commutes can be as long as two hours each way on the bus. There aren’t enough good jobs for everyone–from low- to high-skilled.

Despite low wages, the prices are comparable to San Francisco for many things–a bus far is about US$1.25; a juice is US$2. Rent ranges from US$200 to $US800 and far above. And yet, the minimum wage is $R500 per month. That works out to about US$270 a month. They don’t calculate wages on an hourly basis but they should. Most young people in their 20s and 30s continue to live at home with their families, but even then, how do people feed themselves?

People elsewhere in Brazil assume you can’t trust a Carioca, but I find the opposite to be true. For a big city, Cariocas are extraordinarily helpful to foreigners and to other Brazilians. But at the same time they are very suspicious that other Cariocas are trying to take advantage of them in some way. Malandragem is a Carioca concept, and though it’s glorified as a wily, clever way of making sure that you don’t get taken advantage of, I also find it depressing, a double consciousness in the brain that makes you feel you can’t completely trust others.

I wonder if there is a pressure to be happy in Rio, some truth behind the frenetic activity, going out all the time. My friend Josemando is 26, a software engineer. He goes out about five times a week and thinks many of the people in his generation in Rio go out as much to keep up the illusion that they are so happy. How do they afford it? Even the middle-class educated who live at home seem to make around R$1000 per month. There’s a collective momentum in all this extroverted exuberance. Being an on-again, off-again introvert who is sometimes susceptible to outside pressure to go out and have fun, it can feel like too much for me–stop the world, I need to go sit in my bedroom.

On the other hand, people do seem to be genuinely joyful. Now is the moment, party now, sleep later. Sleep never. Restaurants serve free espresso for people to take a shot before they go out into the streets.

I see people singing to themselves more than any other place I have been. (Many Cariocas tell me I “think too much,” surely another blog post topic, so I guess what they do instead is sing?).

In my neighborhood, people are really very friendly. I’ve been doing a simple, spiritual yoga class at a simple gym in Santa Teresa. Last week the yoga teacher instructed us to hug everyone at the end of class, saying Namaste with each hug. Gosh, such a round of heartfelt hugs. It’s the kind of interaction that I have always craved in San Francisco, where yoga classes often can feel anonymous.

And they joy people find in dancing! Later in the afternoon I went to one of my favorite things in Rio, the weekly afternoon baile at the Centro Cultural Carioca. Between 12:30 and 3, people come to dance bolero, saltinho, Samba de gafiera, salsa and Zouk (the lambada of the new millennium).

My guess is that people come during their lunch hour, the crowd fills the floor nicely between 1 and 2. They’re people of all ages, all socioeconomic levels, based on their dress. And I think, wow, what an amazing thing—that people just brim with smiles dancing these incredible dances in the middle of the day, with no objective of finding a romantic or sexual partner or getting drunk (how it feels often when you go dancing at night). Just for the joy of dancing.

There’s a rivalry between Cariocas and Paulistas (residents of Sao Paolo). Paulistas say that Cariocas never work, they’re really part of the whole malandro culture, trying to get by on doing nothing. But it also strikes me that Cariocas work very hard for their happiness. They train their eyes on the positive, go to work on very little sleep, and say, oh, tudo bem. All is well.

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Posted in Brazil, Travels

Working Really Hard to Deixar a Vida a Roular

Soon after I arrived in Brazil I had an archetypal travel adventure on a bicycle. It was my third day in Brazil, and I was staying in the super-calm south of Florianopolis, one of the favorite places I have visited. I rented a bicycle that had a pile of shit stuck to the front tire. My Portuguese was still rusty, and I pointed it out to the agreeably dirty woman working at the bike borracharia (garage). She acted like she didn’t see it, and then used some kind of tool to wipe it off. Against my better judgment, I accepted the bike and rode off with a random destination: the reportedly New Agey part of town, Campeche.

I biked in the hot midday sun for almost an hour, really proud of myself for tolerating the sun. I stopped for agua de coco along the way. Then splat! Explosion! The tire exploded and the bike was history, at least for the afternoon. I had no idea where I was so I ducked into a nearby restaurant. As I explained the situation to the woman working the register, another young lady overheard me and offered to go with me, wherever I was going. I had no idea where I was going. She seemed to be going to the beach, so that seemed to be a good enough destionation to me. I locked the bike by the restaurant and joined her to hitch a ride to the beach. (I wouldn’t have hitched a ride by myself, but she seemed to know what she was doing.)

Two surfers picked us up, and she got out before we reached the beach. To where, I have no idea. Such are random travel adventures. While we were at the beach, I watched the surfers’ belongings while they surfed, and I enjoyed a nearly empty, broad beach and fresh orange juice.

I remember very clearly explaining to them my plans for my travels in Brazil. Specifically, that I had no plans. They told me, Oh, you are “deixanda a vida a roular”–letting life roll. A very Brazilian thing to do, it sounded like I had found the perfect place to travel plan-less.

Ever since I visited Brazil for the first time, the topic of planning has come up. Some of my Brazilian friends argued it’s impossible to plan here (she was from Bahia). Another, from the south of the country, said that’s not true, indignantly. You can plan. The South of Brazil is much more prosperous and organized than the North.

Here I am now in Rio, and I want the vida to roular, but it occurs to me that patience is also required to dexiar a vida a roular. I am a planner. I am happy when things are happening, rolling. I admire all the Cariocas that I see standing around on street corner drinking beers at botecas (Brazilian indoor-outdoor traditional bars) on Sundays even at 10 am (hell, even Mondays on 10 am). I look at them and think don’t you need to–want to–do something?! I mean, more than drink a beer and enjoy the sun and the company of others?

I wanted to learn how to “be” more on this trip, and “be” doesn’t have to mean drink “be”er, though it certainly seems to ease the process of “be-ing” in Brazil. I am a consummate “do-er” and unless I place myself in an ashram where there is nothing to do but meditate, I don’t know that I am ever going to become more of a be-er, at least through travel.

Deixanda a vida a roular–letting life roll–seems to require that being, the courage of patience, to believe that something will happen. At the same time, what if nothing ever does? Even here in be-friendly Brazil, the people on the Rio Couchsurfing group (who are resolutely middle-class, for the most part) are constantly planning adventures–hikes, parties, board game nights–weeks in advance. Planning is alive and well in Rio.

And that brings me to right now. I don’t know that Rio is the right place for me to stay much longer than I have stayed. The city is so dynamic and full of energy at times I feel like I am holding a live wire of electricity. The dynamism is incredible. Last night, a literary festival in the neighborhood where I am staying staged a concert of women percussionists and singers called Mulheres de Chico, women who love Chico Buarque. After the festival, crowds spilled out on to the streets on a Sunday night. It was the kind of street energy you associate with Carnaval, that happens very rarely in the States. It’s entirely impressive and amazing, but the party energy never ends. And I realize I am a more tranquilo person. I need some ambient music, some quiet. Here the samba beat never stops. Literally. LIving in Santa Teresa above Lapa I feel like I never have quiet. The writer, or solitude-seeker in me, is screaming, stop the world, I want to get off!

So where do I go? Or do I stay? Is it possible that if I found a more resttful home (I am living in a guesthouse right now) I would balance out and better enjoy all the great people I have met so far, all the amazing dance and drumming classes I have found? I am enjoying getting to know a place on a deeper level and all the weird intricacies of Rio’s culture. I feel very attached to the idea of staying in one place for a while, as if all the cool, sophisticated travelers I’ve ever talked to have impressed upon me that’s the best way to travel. And I wanted to form deeper relationships than you are able to create when you are constantly on the run from one amazing sight to the next. Rio is a strange place to make friends though–everyone is immediately friendly, but it’s a place that is very structured around “doing” fun stuff.

I had a dream about Belo Horizonte and Minas Gerais while I was home in April. I really have no idea where I will go or whether I will stay. I’m not looking so much for advice about where to go but just to connect about making decisions while you are traveling–how to make them. None of it is too serious, really. Obviously they are first-world problems. But I do think there is something deeper here about letting life roll and letting decisions happen naturally without a lot of angst.

I met a young Swiss woman in line at customs when I came back to Rio this time who seemed to fly to new continents very easily. She decided to fly from Rio to New York, then San Francisco, then got bored with New York, so she booked a new, relatively cheap circuitous ticket back to Rio. I didn’t quite understand her budget, but I was impressed by her lack of attachment to a plan or the place, just going with what she felt at the time. She seemed hyper but with equanimity. I wonder if I could be like that. . . just say, OK, Brazil is over, I’m off to Asia now. That would be really badass if I found a cheap ticket and did that.

Most people must think coming to Brazil by yourself and hanging out in Rio for a while takes courage, but now, the ante keeps getting higher. I’ve met plenty of people doing this. For me, on some deeper level, I think all this travel stuff is about making decisions in such a way to maximize the enjoyment of my life. I want at least the illusion that I can control my life, and choose the things that bring me the most pleasure, the most thrill, the most enjoyment. Discerning what that is is the challenge, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. And theoretically, to let life roll.

By the way, I took the bus back to the bike borracharia and told them where the bike was locked. The dirty woman accepted the news gracefully and sent another guy off to fetch it. Luckily, I didn’t pay anything for my bike tire explosion experience.

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Posted in Brazil, Travels

The Threat of Aloneness

Now that I’ve been promoting Quirkyalone in the Brazilian press, the question of aloneness has come up several times, as reporters and I wonder to each other, why is aloneness so threatening in Brazilian culture? They’re asking me the question, too, it’s as if both of us are curious.

I’ve actually found it fine to travel alone in Brazil-partially because people are so friendly. But it’s clear that a woman alone is odder here in Brazil than she is in the US. Being alone still sets off alarm bells.

The more time I spend here and get to know people better, the more that the resistance to being alone seems rooted in the centrality of the family. (As a side but related note, I have never seen witness such mother love as last Sunday, Dia Das Maes, Mother’s Day. I met people who traveled two and a half hours by plane to see their mothers and the advertising was just over the top–My Mother, My Life.)

My friend Josemando, who is from Recife, in the Northeast, tells me that in his family’s home, no one family ever knocks on his door when they enter his room. The concept of personal space in a family home does not exist. I can’t even imagine never being alone in that way and the doors being so permeable. My parents and siblings generally knock. I knock too, if memory serves, though my mother does rightfully accuse me of stealing some of her clothes when I’m home without asking. In general, I grew up in a household where I could retreat into my own little world in my bedroom, and I could count on being alone.

My body is accustomed to the silence of privacy, to knowing that I can lie down uninterrupted. I just read a book called Three Junes in which a Greek character said the word privacy did not exist in his language. I’m not sure that’s true, but certainly the desire for privacy is cultural. I am not sure that my dependence on quiet is the best thing in the world for my happiness. Being an atomized individual, a free radical let loose in the world, can be unsettling and many times during my travels I have craved a companion to help me figure things out. The human touch of another person can be very emotionally stabilizing. Talking things through with others helps.

Brazilians are famously “alegre”–joyful. And I wonder if part of that joy is rooted in the fact that they are so rarely alone. Perhaps if you are never alone, you never have to think too deeply, and perhaps thinking a lot when you are alone can also get you into trouble.

I can’t help but wonder if Brazil will march toward a more quirkyalone future as more women become economically independent and marry later in life. Will the family continue to be as strong here when women have other options? Will that tight-knit bond continue if more women and men could afford to live on their own? (It’s more common than not for Brazilian adult children to live with their parents until they marry. (Thus the omnipresent love motels.)

There’s something very sweet about the closeness people feel in their families here. I envy it. If you like your family, and get along well with them (that’s a BIG if), why not continue to live together? It’s certainly easier to have built-in babysitters. Maybe it really adds up to a happier life. But at the same time I don’t envy the lack of freedom. I like the fact that I can choose to live apart from my family and can’t imagine never having left my hometown.

A Brazilian just peered his head into my room to ask me a question and it startled me. I was in my own little bubble of solitude that I like to construct every so often. It bothered me that he popped in without knocking, but it bothers me that it bothers me. I would like to be a little more flexible; I wonder, what will it be like if/when I become a mother? At the same time the extreme extroversion of RIo makes me crave solitude even more. When I’m alone, that’s when answers come to me. Things settle inside and I start to feel like myself again after being jostled around on a bus or at a party. The recipe for happiness must be individual to every person and be influenced by the cultures in which we were raised. For me, I can’t imagine living without some quiet and solitude.

And why being alone more foreign in Brazil than in my world. . . well, these are just the beginnings of my theories. I’m very open to others! I like being alone, and I also like thinking with others.

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Posted in Brazil, Travels


Sasha Cagen in Buenos Aires Sasha Cagen (@sashacagen) is the founder of the quirkyalone movement, a coach for women, writer, and transformative tango teacher living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Read more,

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