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By Elizabeth Jaeger
“You can’t go to Brazil without me. The Amazon is one place I’d like to go,” Kati, my spouse, looked at me over the lip of her glass as she took a sip of white wine. It was early spring, and though there was a slight chill in the air, we sat outside, unwinding after a day of teaching. I had brought up Brazil because it was that time of the year, the glorious season when I could start anticipating a new trip. Every year I endured the agony of teaching so that I could escape in the summer. And with each adventure, my hunger to explore somewhere new expanded until I felt certain I should never feel full. Traveling was my first love. When we got married, I knew Kati had no interest in backpacking the world. But she also knew better than to expect me to give it up. After all, when she asked me to marry her, my response was, “Yes, but you only get me ten months out of the year.”
“But backpacking has never appealed to you.” When we had gone on our honeymoon two years earlier she had insisted on staying in “real” hotels and carrying luggage – “real” luggage with a handle and wheels. To me – an avid backpacker – the concept of traveling with more than a change of clothes and with a set itinerary was disturbing. Half the pleasure of traveling was not always knowing where you were going until you got there. In Costa Rica, everything had been meticulously planned and in San Juan, I sat at the outdoor bar of our hotel, pining over the random comings and goings of the backpackers crashing in the hostel across the street. I had a great time, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being dislocated.
“But I want to go to Brazil.” Her eyes drooped and her lips tilted into a mock frown. We were, after all, married. Weren’t we supposed to do things together?
“I thought you intended on teaching summer school?” Two years before, she worked in insurance, but since having said, “I do,” to me, she said, “I don’t,” to corporate America. Like me, she wanted summers off, and so she became a teacher. When she saw her first paycheck, she reconsidered her summer plans. In accepting her new job, she had taken a 40% pay cut. The type of extravagance we could afford in Costa Rica was no longer possible. To make it work, we’d have to travel my way — on a shoestring.
“You’ll be gone all summer and summer school only lasts four weeks. I can meet you in August.”
While I had plenty of reservations – her misery when it came to bugs, her refusal to eat certain foods or try anything new, her inability to adapt to different climates – the prospect of company was alluring. “That could work.”
Since I had arrived in Brazil nearly a month before Kati and had dipped into Venezuela for a while, we agree to meet up north. The flight Kati took to Brazil felt endless. She boarded the plane in Newark, had a layover in Mexico City and passed through immigration in Sao Paulo. From there she caught a domestic flight to Manaus. In total, she spent nearly twenty hours in transit. Arriving at night, she was simultaneously exhausted and hyper. When she first emerged through the crowd at the airport, an avalanche of excitement overcame me. I rushed forward, pulled her into an embrace and kissed her. Without her, I had enjoyed my time immensely, but I had missed her. I missed our late nights of endless conversation, sharing a meal or glass of wine, and having someone with whom I could share a magical moment. Now that she was there, I could not wait to embark on the second leg of my journey.
Too wound up to sleep that first night, Kati and I cuddled in bed, catching up with each other and telling stories about things we did, people we had met and conversations we had had. Our first day in Manaus was a lazy one. We slept in, had a late breakfast and while I took a walk, Kati napped – spread out like an X – beneath the ceiling fan in our room.
The following morning Kati was bubbling with enthusiasm, enthralled by the prospect of heading into the Amazon. It was after all the reason she insisted on joining me. The tour started well enough. We visited a rubber plantation and watched a demonstration of how trees were tapped and rubber made. I toyed with the gooey substance that seeped from the tree. It looked like spearmint gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe and, when I pulled, it was just as stringy. The various rubber objects on display for us to buy - should we desire a souvenir - included condoms so oddly shaped and distorted that they resembled sandcastles constructed by children.
From the plantation, we took a boat ride down one of the tributaries that feed into the Amazon River. Our guide—whom I called Mowgli, because of his shaggy hair, aversion to shirts, bare feet, and childlike playful behavior—trapped a baby caiman, an animal that to the inexperienced eye looks like a crocodile. Enthralled by the odd little creature, we passed the little guy around. Kati, much to my surprise, eagerly accepted the caiman when it was her turn and, holding him, she smiled radiantly as I took a picture of her.
As long as the sun shone and there was light enough to see by, Kati enjoyed herself. But sunsets, regardless how majestic a place might seem, are unavoidable. And when the sun sets, bugs, ghosts, and other fanciful creatures slowly begin to emerge.
As dusk fell, our guide lit a wood fire over which he constructed a spit to roast a chicken. As the aroma filled the air, we felt hunger pinch our stomachs. Kati was famished, until she made the mistake of shining her flashlight on the charred chicken flesh. Swarms of bugs covered the carcass, diving in to take a quick nibble then darting away before getting scorched by the flames. Kati gagged. Revulsion reflected on her face. She turned to the pitcher of Caipirinhas, poured a glass, and guzzled it as if it was water and she was parched. Caipirinhas, our guide had told us, were Brazil’s national cocktail. They were made by mixing cachaça—fermented sugarcane—sugar and lime. The drinks, especially strong that night, were potent and served the purpose of settling Kati’s stomach. They make the prospect of eating bugs less repulsive. She ate, taking small bites; chasing each one with a sip of alcohol. Whether she ingested more Caipirinhas or chicken I do not know, but either way she ended the night with a full stomach.
We retired to hammocks that Mowgli hung from posts driven into the ground. Kati instructed him to hang hers as close to mine as possible, so when she rolled into it, her body bumped against me. With her hands folded across her chest and a flashlight clutched in her fingers, Kati gazed into the darkness. I closed my eyes but as I started to drift off to sleep, a sudden jerk, a sharp intake of breath, and a blinding burst of light jolted me awake.
“What was that?” Kati shrieked, her eyes wide, her flashlight searching for the source of a sound I did not hear.
“I didn’t hear anything thing?”
“There!” The light swung in arch, then stabilized on the trunk of a tree. A gentle breeze kissed the leaves, and the barely perceptible shift of the shadows could have confused the mind. The possibility of ghosts animated fear—a fear manifested only in the darkness.
“It’s nothing. Go to sleep.” I suggested.
Her light clicked off.
Her breathing slowed.
I tried to sleep.
“Did you hear that?”
My eyes sprung open. Light poured over my face. I held my breath. But still I heard nothing.
Exasperated, I spoke. “If you keep this up, neither of us are going to get any sleep.
“I can’t sleep anyway? I won’t sleep.”
“Why?” My exasperation bordered on anger. I didn’t want to be tired in the morning.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” she whispered, her words so soft they melded with the illusory sounds of the forest.
“Excuse me!” I sat up, stunned by this revelation. We’d been married for two years, and I had no idea. But we lived in the suburbs where streetlight filtered through our windows at night. Darkness in New Jersey just didn’t exist.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” she repeated only slightly more audibly. And it was dark. I could see only the stars, specks of light floating in the night.
I lay back down and sighed. Her fingers toyed with the mosquito netting that shrouded our bodies until they found an opening. Her hand slipped into mine and I squeezed it.
It would be a long night, I thought and then corrected myself. It would be an eternal two and a half weeks.
After our rainforest tour, we booked a flight from Manaus to the Panatal—a wetlands area located in Mato Grasso, a state in western-central Brazil—but it didn’t leave until sometime after midnight. Considering it wasteful to pay for a room I would not sleep in, I insisted that we check out in the morning, and leave our rucksack in a locker. Kati begrudgingly agreed. Traveling on teachers’ salaries meant we had to be frugal.
We spent the day wandering around the city. There was nothing pressing we wanted to explore, no sight that particularly beckoned us to visit, but the simple activity of strolling through the streets to experience a place we’d most likely never return to, did not appeal to Kati. The traffic was loud and the streets were crowded. On the surface it was indistinguishable from many cities I had been to on previous excursions. The heat was oppressive; the humidity threatened to smother us. Less accustomed to traveling and much less adaptable to extreme weather conditions, Kati skillfully turned complaining into an art form. Typically, if it is cooler than 72.6 degrees she complains that she is freezing. Warmer than 78.2 and she bitches about the blistering heat. In Manaus, where it was easily one hundred and something degrees in the shade, she dissolved into a whimpering wretch.
“I’m so hot,” she sprawled out on a random bench facing the river. “I feel like I peed in my pants.” I looked at her and then I looked at me. It was my pants and my shirt that were currently stained with sweat. Her clothes, while looking a little wilted, were definitely not drenched.
“We’ll be heading to the airport soon enough.” We still had eight hours until we needed to take a taxi, but time is relative—its passing inevitable.
In the thick of the afternoon’s humidity, we sat in the shade in the square overlooking the opera house. I read Oliver Twist, trying to focus on the plot instead of the heat. Kati stretched out on a bench, forcing her limbs as far from her torso as possible. She also rolled up the hem of her shirt, exposing the skin of her stomach. Her moans mingled with a few bird calls, each one forcing me to reread a sentence or paragraph depending on the pitch, length and intensity of the groan. “We should have kept our hotel room,” she grumbled, in a whisper that was addressed to herself, but in a tone that was directed at me.
“We’ll have to leave by eleven. To go to sleep would have been a cruel joke. I’d have woken up more tired.”
“But I could have taken a nap.”
“You can nap here.” She only had to closer her eyes.
“It’s too hot. The room had a fan.”
“But we saved money” Always a bonus when trying to stretch a shoestring.
“Only fifteen dollars! I’d rather be comfortable.”
We landed in the Pantanal early the next morning. From the airport, we boarded a bus that would carry us to a remote village—if the population was even expansive enough to deserve that designation. The bus ride was long, several hours, but the seats reclined. I closed my eyes and within minutes, the gentle rocking of the bus put me to sleep. I dreamt about piranhas, and a stifling heat that forced me to dive into the river. The fish nibbled my toes, causing a tickling sensation that rippled up and down my legs. When the bus hit a pothole, I jerked awake. My feet had fallen asleep.
The bus—filled with foreigners, many from other parts of South America, who had also come in search of an adventure—arrived at a tourist camp composed of a series of weather beaten wooden cabins built along a river. The sun was low on the horizon, dusk quietly approaching in the distance. A man with dark hair and chiseled indigenous features greeted us. He spoke with a simplistic command of the English language and with an accent that I found difficult to follow. But since I could speak only a smattering of Spanish and absolutely no Portuguese, I leaned in closely, and closed my eyes to better comprehend the rhythm of his words. After a quick welcome he corralled us into a large single story plain wooden building that served as a cafeteria, meeting hall and bar. From his pocket he pulled a folded sheet of paper and requested that we sit down on the wooden chairs randomly strewn around the open space. Kati dropped her pack to the ground, sat down, and curled her legs up into the fetal position, her back resting against my side. Her body shivered. My eyes glanced about the room. A thermometer hung on a side wall—five degrees. Quickly, I calculated a rough estimation in my head—forty two Fahrenheit.
For twenty-four hours, Kati kvetched about sweltering, and the icky feeling of skin sticky and slick with sweat. She could not wait to shower. She spoke with a desperate longing of cool water cascading over her body. But in the hours since the plane had landed, the sweat dried, leaving a crusty coating of salt on her body. When we stepped off the bus she sighed with relief, eager to wash it off. But she had packed for the scorching heat of the Amazon. The Pantanal had been a last minute decision and we were completely unprepared for the cold front that swept in –unexpectedly. We each had a pull over, but we needed a jacket – and Kati regretted not having gloves and a hat.
“It’s so cold,” Kati hugged her arms to her body. “I’m going to freeze my friggin’ ass off.”
The guide cleared his throat then launched in a well-rehearsed speech about the ground rules: when we’d eat each meal, the standard activities—boat ride, piranha fishing, and horseback riding—that the staff planned for us. Once we knew what to expect, he assigned us to cabins. Ours was small, made of thin planks of wood that did not rest evenly on each other. Pervasive cracks filled the walls. The draft was unpleasant—cold.
“Do you think there’s hot water?” Kati asked in a small voice.
I shrugged, fairly certain there wouldn’t be any, but not brave enough to admit it. “Why don’t you check?”
She disappeared into the bathroom. I heard the soft click of the door as it closed. The water turned on and within minutes it muffled Kati’s sobs. Before I could go to her, she emerged tears spilling out of her eyes. “The water is freezing.”
I didn’t doubt her assessment of the shower, but sometimes there are tricky little gadgets or obscure switches that needed to be flipped in order to tap into the warmer water. I checked, but didn’t see any. “If you take a quick shower, turning off the water while you suds up, it won’t be so bad.” I had taken numerous cold showers in frigid environments. I didn’t love them, but they did refresh and revive me in ways that nothing else could.
“NO,” she answered adamantly.
“But just last night-”
“That was last night. I’ll die if I have to take my clothes off in the cold to take an icy shower.” She furiously tugged on the zipper on her pack and rummaged through her belongings, extracting a package of baby wipes. “I’ll use these.”
“What?” I looked at her incredulously. It was only cold water. But she was serious. She pulled out a wipe and reached under shirt. Without stripping off a single layer, she wiped down her entire body. Before she could finish, I grabbed my towel and retreated into the shower.
That night I fell asleep listening to the wail of words that carried the cadence of another mantra, “I’m freezing my friggin’ ass off.” Obviously she didn’t. When I woke the next morning, I pulled back the covers to inspect the body part in question.
On the third afternoon, the guide took us piranha fishing. Fishing has never been a favorite sport of mine. I find it rather dull—standing at the water’s edge, casting a line, and then waiting, always waiting. I didn’t have the patience, and I lacked the desire to develop a technique. But fishing for piranhas was as novelty, something I could not do at home, and so I approached the activity with a great deal of excitement, determined to catch at least one. A group of about eight of us walked down to the water. We each took a pole fashioned from a light reed with a string attached at the end. There was no reel. Instead, we cast the line with a flick of our wrist and if we felt a nibble, we jerked back our shoulders, yanking the hook out of the water. But if you didn’t snatch the line quickly enough, tightly enough, the piranha wiggled away. The tour guide cut up a chunk of raw beef to use as bait. Having learned, perhaps from past experiences, that tourists can be squeamish and unwilling to handle bloody meat, he slipped the bait on each of our hooks.
Clouds blocked out the sun and Kati shivered. She wore a black fleece zipped up to her neck and kept her free hand buried in a pocket. Grumbling about the temperature, wishing she had gloves, Kati cast her line. As the minutes stretched out indefinitely, Kati grew agitated watching as the rest of us took turns hauling in a piranha. Several times I felt the gentle tug, the hungry assault of a fish drawn to blood, but since I lacked practice, he succeeded in stealing the flesh and vanishing into the depths of the water. On the fourth or fifth attempt, frustration blinded me to technique. Furiously, using both hands I jerked the line out of the river. The piranha, with a gentle thud, landed on the grass. I shrieked with excitement. Kati redoubled her efforts until finally, the guide wrapped his hands around hers, waited for the telltale nibble and with a rapid twitch of his upper body, he helped her secure a catch. Gleefully, she held the line out for me to see and for one brief moment she was immune to the cold, the warmth of her accomplishment radiating through her. But once the poles were collected and we returned to bar in anticipation of dinner, the chill settled in deeper.
From our bed, Kati took the thick woolen blanket and wrapped in around herself like oversized poncho. Dinner consisted of chicken, rice and fried piranhas. They were skinny, more bones than flesh, and rather tasteless, but there was something satisfying about eating food that you provided, even if it alone could never have sustained you. While I picked at the flecks of meat, Kati grabbed her knife and attacked the lifeless jaws. The sharp teeth would make a fitting souvenir, a constant reminder of her adventure.
By nightfall, I lost count of the times she cursed our decision to come to that wretched section of the world. I told her to go to bed, to pile the blankets over her and sleep, but she claimed it was too early and shivering alone in bed would be more hellish than staying up with me. To keep warm, she bought a liter bottle of Caipirinha which she drank liberally. To dissociate myself from her, to cope with her constant complaining, and to pretend that she was just a stranger whose path I was unfortunate enough to cross, I drank—perhaps guzzled is a more appropriate word—a second bottle. But all the cachaca in Brazil couldn’t obliterate her misery or improve my tolerance of her mood. I’ll be honest. At that moment, I hated her.
The following morning, as we were getting ready for breakfast, Kati’s sanity snapped. The cold—her inability to get warm—had devastated her reasoning skills. We had planned to stay one more day, we had paid to remain in our room one more night, but Kati snatched her rucksack, shoved her toothbrush and baby wipes inside and rushed to the door, slamming it open.
“Where are you going?” I asked, racing to keep up.
“I don’t care. Anywhere that isn’t cold.”
“But we can’t leave until tomorrow. And we’re supposed to go on another boat ride today.”
She spun around to confront me, her frosty blue eyes wild with determination and anger. “Then stay. But I’m not.”
The guidebook had promised a plethora of wildlife in the Pantanal. But our horseback ride had been a disappointing jaunt around the outskirts of the village. We had seen nothing but birds. Our boat ride also yielded little to get excited about. Colorful foul, a few caiman and a capybara did not constitute a wealth of native fauna. We had seen all that in the Amazon.
“We should have stayed in Manuas, at least it wasn’t cold.”
Evidently, she had forgotten how she felt while she had been there.
Before I could stop her, she marched up to the tour guide, and in rush of words, she demanded that someone take her away from that deplorable place. She spoke so quickly, so forcefully, and so bitterly that she slurred her syllables, rendering herself unintelligible. The guide, through a mask of fear and bewilderment, stared uncomprehendingly at this raging American. But when tears filled her eyes, and she pointed to a boat, a flicker of understanding swept across his face. She wanted to leave.
Within two hours we sat in the bow of a small motorized boat. Refusing to speak, Kati hugged her rucksack to her chest. If she was still cold, she didn’t show it. Relief was the only element visible in her face. The boat brought us to a bus, which after several hours carried us to a small town. Kati and I walked to the travel agent, located in a squat white building. When we entered, I asked a middle-aged woman to book us two bus tickets to Belo Horizonte. It would take twenty-four hours to get there. After years of backpacking, I was accustomed to this sort of traveling. Stretching a dollar was always a priority. The more frugal I was, the longer I could stay – the more I could see. But hearing the infinite number of hours and mentally processing the brutality of it, the extended amount of time without a shower, Kati’s eyes blazed with fury. Before the travel agent could type our request into the computer, Kati clawed open her money belt and tossed a credit card onto the agent’s desk. “Make that two plane tickets!” she demanded.
Horrified, I glared at her. Two plane tickets would cost $800—eight times what two bus tickets would cost. “We don’t have that much money.” Eight hundred dollars was often what I budged for two or three weeks of travel.
“I’ll work Saturday detention all year if I have to in order to pay for it.” Her face was calm, almost too calm.
A fitting punishment, I thought but kept the sentiment to myself.
We arrived in Belo Horizonte late in the evening.
“Please,” Kati begged as I consulted the guidebook for a place to stay. “Please can we spend a little extra money and get a hotel room with a nice bathroom and hot water.” Hadn’t she already blown our budget? The sort of room she requested would cost ten to fifteen dollars more than I wished to pay—but the price was preferable to another breakdown. And so I acquiesced.
I expected her to take a shower immediately, but exhaustion from lack of sleep coupled with the emotional strain of the past few days acted like a sedative. Within minutes, the gentle rumble of her snores filled the room. Neither the light, nor the sound of traffic rising up from the street disturbed her.
In the morning, the alarm clock woke us up early. We planned to head into Ouro Preto, a quaint historic city approximately one hundred kilometers south-east of Belo Horizonte. Wiping the sleepiness from her eyes, Kati stretched and headed into the bathroom. Ten seconds after closing the door, she screamed—her voice shrill and penetrating. Fearing the presence of a masked man armed with a sharp knife, I tore open the door just in time to see a six inch cockroach scurry into the shower drain.
“I can’t shower here,” Kati exclaimed, brushing passed me, and once again reaching for the baby wipes.
“You’ve got to be kidding me?”
“I can’t shower. Not in there. Not where there are bugs—big bugs.”
“What? Why not? After the extra money we spent, you have to shower.” They way she was throwing away money enraged me.
“No, I can’t.”
In a fit of exasperation, I grabbed a towel, slamming the bathroom door shut behind me.
Though still unshowered, Kati’s mood was less dour when we arrived in Ouro Preto. I immediately fell in love with the city, its stunning colonial architecture—white walls topped with vibrant orange roofs—dating back to the eighteenth century. We found a cute simple guesthouse, with a clean bathroom and finally Kati took a shower. She emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon, bearing no resemblance to the cranky caterpillar she had been. With a smile, she looped her arm through mine and we began an aimless gander through the city.
Located in a valley, the city streets are quite hilly, some rather strenuous to climb. One of the more charming aspects of Ouro Preto is the plethora of churches, rising up above the houses that surrounded us. The interiors are decorated with gold once mined locally—a reminder of how the colonists raped the land. Being the sort of tourist whose curiosity is unquenchable, one who doesn’t wish to miss anything and finds even the most insignificant sights to be remarkable, I felt compelled to enter each church we encountered. Kati, less enthralled by historical landmarks—especially religious ones—felt bored by the sights, agitated by the walk, and irritated by the heat. By noon, she began mocking my interest. Each time we crested a hill, regardless of its height, she gazed out at the horizon, and despairingly pointed at steeple in the distance, “Oh look, another church.”
Along with an overabundance of colonial churches, Ouro Preto is known for the gems that are still mined in the area. And there is no shortage of entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this mineral wealth. Gift shops specialize in jewelry, selling necklaces and rings adorned with the imperial topaz, a stone mined only locally. Kati couldn’t resist the allure of the pale amber colored stone. She browsed through several shops, appraising the stones, her eyes lingering longer with each stop. Finally, she had found something beautiful about Brazil, something that gave her pleasure, a pleasure previously denied to her by my rugged itinerary.
In the final store we entered, the allure of the imperial topaz conquered the last of her discretion. “It’s the only place it’s mined,” she whispered to herself as if in a trance, fingering the stone proffered to her by the jeweler. I didn’t even attempt to talk her out of it. When she extracted her credit card, I simply closed my ears to the sum, not wanting focus on our rising debt. Despite the hand washed underwear draped over the balconies at fancy hotels, I had adapted to her way of travel far better than she had adapted to mine.
Beaming with excitement over her purchase, Kati dropped the ring into her money belt. While in Brazil, she didn’t want to tempt any would-be thief by wearing it.
It wasn’t until we were at the airport, awaiting the flight that would take us back home, that Kati, finally feeling safe and secure, slipped the ring on her finger. It may have been costly, but the stone was pretty. Staring at it, Kati sighed, nostalgia already replacing reality in her memory.
When we landed in Newark airport, a friend of mine picked us up. Settling into the backseat of her car, I said to Kati, “Show Barbara your ring.”
Eager for a compliment, Kati spread her fingers. But a short gasp, a whimpering cry, arrested the movement of her arm.
“What is it?” I asked. We were back in the States, what could possibly be wrong?
“It’s gone!” She choked on her sobs.
“The stone…it’s gone.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.