This post has since been generously published in The Merrimack Review here.
4am, Heathrow Airport. Haydn and I have idiotically arrived two and a half hours early for a flight for which we’ve already checked in, and to kill time—and because it’s tradition—we spend nearly a fiver each on a pint before we go through security. We’ve already smoked three cigarettes in a row to prepare ourselves for the ordeal ahead, and we’ve begun playing with his new camera. It’s one of those cameras which has a built in projector, and we’re watching back a frankly embarrassing vlog Haydn recorded in his bedroom earlier. It’s exciting, this travelling malarkey; fucking bothersome, but exciting.
The two of us have been invited to travel to Brazil for four weeks. Before what promises to be a traumatic twenty-two hour journey, we’ve been subjected to a two thousand page application form, an informal interview, a stack of paperwork, a safety workshop and several pre-departure meetings, most of which we didn’t attend or complete. A week prior we had a moment of the most intense dread when we thought we needed a visa to stay in Brazil longer than thirty days. (One doesn’t.) Haydn’s job is to document his time away in order to create a short film which the Global Opportunities Centre at our university can use to advertise the programme. Essentially, he is working in advertising and marketing, and I jokingly despise him for this. He is to pick up the camera only a handful of times, and curse that he has forgotten it only a handful more, during our month away.
Our first moments in Florianópolis are uneventful—getting lost in the suburbs and fearing for our lives in what is, frankly, the safest area in Brazil; sitting through a full-day induction at our host university, sweltering in what was to be one of the only really fine days we were granted during our stay, narcoleptic in uncomfortable seats, forty adults of twenty to twenty-five years of age being told to look before we cross the road and not get into cars with strangers; taking our freshly-turned nineteen Ohioan friend out to the cheapest bar we could find and making him drink as much as we did (‘you Yanks can’t drink!’) until he threw up forcibly by the bus stop outside. We greet our housemate, a veritable supermodel of oh my bloody fuck she’s fit proportions, with a Heineken, which she promptly Snapchats, acclaiming her transatlantic cousins. We like her instantly; the three of us were to become an inseparable trio, and as the trip drew to a close, after she had courted and discarded several of the older, bigger exchange boys, we were to fuck sloppily in her paid-for single room, the taste of Brahma still on our lips, me not believing my luck, with Haydn and his inamorata, equally as inebriated, going at it for what must have been the seventh time in as many days down the hall in our cheaper, shared room.
Our first night, however, finds us wandering what is to become our home exceedingly quickly, but what is from this initial impression a bloody scary and different place. The gated house outside which our taxicab drops us may as well be midway up the Brecon Beacons, so steep is the hill one has to climb to reach it, and as we step out of the car, the dogs begin to bark—first the three belonging to Louis, the owner of our house, and subsequently all the dogs in the adjacent houses and beyond, and all the strays, it seemed, in all of South America. Such is the noise of barking dogs at all times in Brazil that it is a wonder anybody ever sleeps, and so numerous are the strays that even an animal rights campaigner such as myself may, if ever I were to come to power in Brazil, flirt with the possibility of a cull. Our landlord is, however, an exceedingly kind and generous man, taking us into his portion of the dwelling in order to offer us water and introduce us to his maid, wife and dogs, and, despite the language barrier, we get on well with him right to the end.
The first lesson of Brazil I learn getting into bed on this first night. We noticed myriad bugs earlier in the evening as we drove along the coastline and along the floors of our new kitchen, and as we lie in bed we feel the ants, few at first, and as we still under our sheets, listening to the soft whirr of the fan on the ceiling, more and more, crawling precariously along the pillow, the spread, up our legs. It doesn’t take us long to become used to this insect phenomenon, but this first night is unsettling. Still, after such a long journey, and my own personal incapacity for sleep which plagued me during the ten hour journey from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, we sleep soundly, and long. Do not misunderstand me, reader, I like travelling. I find car journeys and train rides soothing, inspiring even; looking out the window towards fantastic landscapes and countrysides, especially in Britain; plenty of time to read, or write, or merely think. But flying is shit. It’s a platitude, but there’s always a crying fucking baby when you’re trying to sleep; the seats are horrifically uncomfortable and legroom is minimal at best; the food is shit and the alcohol is expensive; you can’t smoke, you feel uncomfortable swearing. The only good thing about flying is that the stewards are usually kind, and it is my humble opinion that they are only nice to the passengers because they know they’re serving shit food in a shit environment and if they weren’t, there’d be nothing left.
The second lesson of Brazil is learnt the next morning, as we wake, having closed the windows on what is frankly a rather chilly Brazilian evening, to everything being damp. All the clothes we wear and the bedsheets under which we sleep have a slight tinge of wetness to them, where the humidity of the country, even in relatively cold weather, moistens linens and cottons. This is a problem we have for the duration of our trip, and many clothes were thrown away due to damp-induced mould. Bugger.
The third lesson of Brazil is first hinted at a week later, but not fully realised until the end of the trip: Florianópolis is an island, surrounded by beaches, over forty of them, and therefore you will be constantly covered in sand. Sand, fucking everywhere, all the time. Piles of it falling from shoes you wore a week ago. Coming home and putting all your clothes in the wash, only to pull them out of the washing machine hours later and with them, a cascade of sand. After finally managing to dry your clothes on a sunny day outside without the dampness of the house, dried sand crumbling under your armpits. Turning socks inside out—sand. Repacking your bag for the next day—sand. Drinking from the water bottle at the bottom of your bag: HAVE A MOUTHFUL OF SAND WITH THAT MATE!! As I said to several people upon my return, ‘It’s shit to be back, but it’s nice to be dry and sandless.’
The Americans are true to their clichés—infinitely kind, few understand sarcasm, and many have never left the States. (Canada doesn’t count.) Almost all of us get on exceedingly well, but six of us bond especially into what we brand The Squad, consisting of the Haydn, his partner in crime and sex Miggy, the beautiful housemate Hannah, the enigmatic and hilarious Pennsylvanian Kara, the nineteen year-old vomiting Ohioan Cameron, and myself. We entertain them with quotes from various British shows, the most popular being The Inbetweeners, and they in turn rag us for our funny accents and annoy us by arguing that America is the best country in the world. (‘We’ve got The Beatles’ is our most popular retort.) We surmise that the reason the six of us get on so well is because we’ve picked the select few Yanks who understand our dry, facetious humour.
Our hexad embark on our most exciting adventure along a half an hour hike to Caminho da Cachoeira do Córrego Grande in order to see the Poção Waterfall. The hike is a standard affair—crossing a beautiful little stream, in which goes Kara’s foot, the clumsiest of the lot, and she is forced to walk the rest of the way with a wet sock. And lots and lots of Ceratopogonidae. Obviously none of us have applied repellent, and so we itch and scratch all the way up the waterfall. Traversing a large pipe in a Tyrolean manner rather than clamber across wet rocks to get to the pool, the six of us first climb up the side of the waterfall, consider jumping in, and then take the easy route down, strip off and jump in the pool.
Now, I have scuba dived in six degree water. I have swum in British seas my whole life, I have been to Prague in February, I have jumped in the sea on an overcast day in Pembrokeshire—yes, bloody Pembrokeshire—in March. None of this prepares me for the cold which thumps me in the chest as I tentatively make my way into the water. Before it’s up to my knees, my penis has shrivelled to frankly Lilliputian sizes and I swear I can see my toes going blue. Not one to be deterred by a little cold and faintly wondering if I will ever see my genitals again I dive in with my GoPro, attempting to swim at least to the waterfall and back in order firstly to warm myself up and secondly to get the fuck out of this sodding water. I make it to the waterfall, I have no idea which way the camera is pointing and after the current has taken me back to the middle of the pool I try to find a ledge on the side on which to sit. I’m so cold I can barely tread water and I’m essentially drowning—Haydn seems to notice this and takes the GoPro out of my hands, allowing me to keep myself above the surface. He seems to be less of an utter coward than I and he is not complaining, perhaps because he doesn’t want to show himself up in front of Miggie, who is moaning. As much fun as this is, guys, can we get the fuck out? There is a general consensus regarding this idea. Upon returning to more favourable terrestrial environments, I do not regret the Baltic temperatures of the pool—this’ll make a bloody good story, I tell myself.
We’re outside in the garden, smoking what must be our tenth cigarette of the day, and the skies open. In Brazil, it seemed to us that it doesn’t ever just rain, but that the sky is making some drastic attempt to rid itself at all costs of every last remaining drop of moisture that it can, that it is imperative to the survival of the atmosphere that it be utterly, completely rained out, and when it gets to the stage where it thinks it cannot push any more water out of those big, grey masses of liquid droplets we call clouds it throws down a little more, and it was our guess that the reason our clothes were unceasingly damp (see rule #2) was due to the humidity in the air caused by the subtropical rain. I have my camera in its waterproof case and am making a Sisyphean effort to capture a flash of lightning for use in a video I am making. We eat, a pasta dish we have now made four nights in a row (overcooked, too little sauce, too much cheese) and use our Easy Taxi app to find a driver to take us the five minute drive or thirty minute walk to the university building, where we are booked in to play a football match, consisting of lecturers, staff, students and friends, for an indefinite amount of time – generally, whenever the owner wants us to piss off.
The rain refuses to stop but we are both keen to play so we don’t cancel the taxicab. I’ve made the mistake of signing up for the Cardiff Half Marathon and haven’t run once since I’ve been here and Haydn’s an avid footballer (he’s not missed an Arsenal home match all season—his season ticket is his baby) so we both have our separate reasons for wanting to play. Down at the pitch, turnout is surprisingly good, and we’re excited. Haydn scores several goals in quick succession until it’s his turn to go in goal, and I manage to put two away before the end of the match. It’s a very chilled out game, teams are precariously balanced, and we absolutely smash them. It feels good. The pitch is a small AstroTurf deal, torn to shreds with massive bumps around the centre circle and today is sodden wet, gargantuan lakes of puddles bringing the ball to a dead stop no matter how hard one boots it. I am in goal, and as the rain comes through the netting above, the dark sky is lit up by a fantastic streak of lightning across the sky, going from right to left, and from my position it seems so big and so high as to follow even the curvature of the earth, bending up and away and down towards me over on the left side of the field past the trees, easily beating the spotlights in lighting up the pitch. Everybody is taken by surprise and momentarily stops to gaze at the sky before carrying on. We score another goal. It’s Haydn’s. Of course.
It’s the last night, and a massive group of us, almost all of the students, have agreed to go to Lagoa da Conceicao, the stunning, huge body of saline water which, legend has it, was formed from the tears of a particularly upset witch many years ago. Along the lagoon are a multitude of bars, restaurants and cafés and as a probably intimidating-looking group of youths we bar-crawl eastwards along the southern side of the top half of the strand until we end up, sobriety having been left behind several kilometres previously, at a snooker bar right at the corner of the lagoon. I beat Haydn at pool, I believe, for the first time ever, and in celebration we buy another drink. Outside, several of the girls have begun to shed tears; some of them have decided that it is time to go home as they have an early flight, and they are finding it particularly difficult saying goodbye. I stand awkwardly outside as they hug and kiss, with even Haydn becoming emotional. Wondering somewhat whether I am legitimately made of stone, I say my goodbyes, offering special gratitude to those who have made the trip particularly memorable. And then they are gone; to be seen perhaps in the future, and if not on only social media and in the mind’s eye.
A small group of us, not content to leave so early, determined to make the most of our final moments in this country, decide that, since it is probably only a fifteen minute walk (try thirty), to wander—with beers, of course—down the road to our favourite beach, Praia da Joaquina, the beach on which most of us have learnt to surf, several of us have had what could well have been serious injuries in the water and, in my own humble opinion, if one climbs the rocks to the north of the ocean, which holds some of the most beautiful views on all of the island. And so, a small group of us, Brahmas in hand, set off down the road, proper mortal, extremely sad, on a mission.
We arrive. This is to be the last time we are to see this beach for the foreseeable future, although Haydn and I have sworn to return in the next few years. As we walk down the steps to the beachfront, we notice a small group of perhaps four or five sitting just to the right, perhaps one hundred metres away. Undeterred, and with several of the faster walkers already in the water, the stragglers strip off hastily in the half-light of the lamp post and run to the water to engage in one last holiday cliché. Perhaps it is the booze blanket, but it isn’t that cold. The group just down the beach hasn’t made a move to the bags and clothes we’ve left back on the shore, and we have a good view of them, so we aren’t too worried. When we tire of the water, we decide to climb up the aforementioned rocks and gaze out across the water to the sand dunes and mountains beyond, in what we perceive at the time as one last act of freedom before we return to what is surely going to be a disappointing home.
Nude, on the rocks, looking out towards the darkened sky, the grey clouds moving slowly eastwards, the sun as of yet not even close to the horizon, some platitude regarding an overall atmosphere of peace and happiness springs to mind. However, this is violently shattered by what can only be described as an explosion back on the shore. We start in unison and hide behind a rather scrawny-looking tree, peering down at the strangers sat on the shore. We’ve seen no flashes of light, and there is nobody around to slam a door; the idea that somebody has a gun seemed silly, ludicrous even. Who would carry a gun? The thought crosses my mind that we are in a dangerous country, that we have been lulled into a false sense of security, that we should have been more careful than to walk around in the early hours of the morning on secluded beaches. Overriding all of of this is the pertinent knowledge that I am starkers. One of the students we are with is a hunter. He says he’s sure that it’s a nine millimetre. He’s heard the sound of guns before and he believes that’s what it is. Is he just trying to scaring us? We can’t be sure. Cautiously we make our way down from the rocks and quickly gather up our belongings, dressing hastily and climbing back up the steps, hiding around the side of one of the restaurants which line the shoreline in order to be out of view of the group on the beach. One of the girls we are with delivers a potent axiom: ‘I’ve been to India, I’ve been to Rio, and I thought myself streetsmart, but when I thought that was a gun, I shit myself.’ I believe we all did.
We never find out whether it was a gun or not. As we stand around waiting for a taxicab, we see the group on the beach leave, without so much as a surly glance our way, and two men come out to pack fishing equipment into their cars and stand around until our driver arrives giving us disturbing, peculiar looks. The cabbie offers to fit seven of us—seven—into his car, telling us that we really shouldn’t be around here this late at night. We smile at each other, our own discerned, youthful immortality making the experience anything but stupid. We sleep soundly that evening, and wake up extremely tender.
We see people at the airport the next day and say genuine final goodbyes. I have spent literally my last pennies. It’s time to go home, though we wish it wasn’t. I repeat to Haydn the oath I’ve been saying all week that if somebody turned around and offered me a job and a chance to stay here, I’d take it and never look back. The first flight to Rio is a meaningless, hungover affair, and we sit miserable in the departure lounge upon disembarking, dreading the long haul. Fortune smiles on us, and we sleep through nine out of ten hours of the second flight, waking up twice for the meals and once just before landing. The third flight is a delayed and pesky ordeal. We arrive home miserable, tired, desynchronised and wishing fervently that we weren’t here, that we were back on vaguely overcast beaches, learning to surf in the rain, having sex, eating pastéis de nata, laughing with our new American friends over the linguistic difference between trash and rubbish, motorway and freeway, smoking cheaply and heavily, promising ourselves that we will wake up early and hike through the subtropics and actually doing it, drinking all week and not feeling guilty, not going to lectures.
Only some of these wishes survive the transition back home. The blues hit between three and seven days after landing at Heathrow and they’re bad. A major case of post-session depression. There’s very little you can do about it; smoke through it and try and find something enjoyable, even remotely comparable, to the time you had when you were away. But it’s impossible – even the beautiful, calm lake of Virginia Waters, the countryside around Colony Gate and Pirbright Ranges cannot instil the same sense of calm and happiness as could gazing out over the Baía Sul off Saco dos Limões. Eventually, this feeling will leave, and your memories of the time you had away will fade, and the conversations you had with the people you met will be forgotten, and the pictures of your trip stored away deep on your hard drive will be all you have left (remember that time I went to Brazil?) and you’ll be fine again. Eventually.