• Dispatch #22 •
After being in the Amazon, here’s an artist’s thoughts on Brazil—while soaring through the sky.
I’m tied to a harness, about to mount a guy I don’t know and fly thousands of feet in the air. I am strapped as a newborn would be to a stork; like a package of rations about to be dropped. I am wearing a canvas jacket with lots of pockets—unflattering to anyone. It is cold and freezing; yesterday it had been raining in Rio de Janeiro. And oh yeah, I paid for this service.
Hang gliding in Rio is not a bad way to spend my last Brazilian reals. This marked the end of my first time in the Marvelous City, and actually, in all of Brazil. I like doing a high-altitude look-what-you-just-went-through activity after all the museums, restaurants, shopping, and oh yes, lest I forget, 10 days in the Amazon jungle. I mean, what else is there to do?
I’ve been afraid of heights ever since an incident at 8-year-old when I nearly fell out of a building, so I like doing these kinds of activities if only to kick the phobia away. If I vomit, it would not be on the forest below, but on the human I have mounted and is below me, flying the wing like a dragon. There is nothing quite like the perspective one gets when you are thousands of feet in the air and gazing at the incredible beauty of Rio de Janeiro. An uncontrollable city becomes so tiny and all petty concerns become even more trivial. This must be what Daenerys Targaryen feels when she’s riding her kids, I mused. Whee, what a rush! And this became a great time to think about all that I went through in the past three weeks of being in Brazil—the Amazon, Manaus, and Rio.
2. On Expectations
Brazil was a land of unmet expectations, likely because of my newness to it. Like hang gliding, for example. I had expected that the camera would be recording what I was seeing, and it was only before I jumped that I realized it was facing… me. Oh the narcissism of it all. And so your view is blocked, so sorry. I suggest to focus on the spots around me and mentally complete the picture.
The Amazon Basin is the antipode of the Malay archipelago, which includes the Philippines. This means that if I stuck my head on the ground in Manila and kept digging, I would end up in Brazil. This might have been faster than the 4-day odyssey I had gone through where I transited through six of Brazil’s airports. I don’t know what compelled me to come here, other than the tick I have of wanting to forge into the unknown. You only live once, might as well.
Knowledge increases the probability that one’s expectations will be met. And that’s likely why I had wanted to just go without expecting too much. By then, I had just finished another residency that took me to various Southeast Asian countries and culminated in Uganda, complete with an African safari (it had rhinos!). Fate had also injected a short trip to Barcelona for a competition. And so I was not in the mood to psych myself up for anything else. Amazon, let’s just bring it on; I can’t wait to get on the other side of this, I remember thinking early in July.
But humans are conditioned to prepare for many possibilities, especially when you are an artist on a grant and are accountable for so many things. And so despite declaring my lack of expectations, I did have some on default, both good and bad. And here I am, weeks later. The things and people I did not expect to care for much, I now do with a sincere passion that surprises my jaded self, and for those that I thought I would like, meh, I guess I don’t. Such is the unpredictability of the rainforest.
And here’s another one: I expected to puke during this flight, but I didn’t. Oh hurray.
3. On Brazilian Men
Let’s start with the people. And hey ladies, I’ll begin with the boys as a public service. I was warned of sexism in South America, though I’ll give them a break— it’s really not that much different from what I have encountered in most other places in the world. Maybe it’s because to an outsider one might find such racially diverse people strikingly beautiful, and this may inadvertently magnify whatever faults they display. Oh why must bigotry mar such perfection, one may think as she encounters an Adonis. You’re pretty; why are you ruining it?! Sheesh. Most of the local guys are so beautiful that I want to draw them, and many (though obviously this does not apply to all) seem to be philanderers and/or display an appalling amount of misogyny and homophobia. Such as this jackass I’m with. This pilot is alright, except that he won my Sexist Douchebag of the Day Award so I can’t exactly recommend his services highly. Just what is with these guys:
“I have a pretty white helmet with lots of flowers just for youuuu,” he patronizingly said.
“I don’t want a helmet with flowers. I’m wearing what you have and you’re wearing flowers.” I bluntly replied.
“No! I’m a man!” he growled.
And this is why the Chinese Dragon Lady in me breathed fire and why he’s the one wearing that floral helmet in this photo. Dracarys, shut the hell up and go to your dungeon. Read some Gloria Steinem or something or you won’t get your five stars on Tripadvisor, you bonehead.
But you have to hand it to South American charm, which is irresistible. I mean, how else can this guy have a girlfriend? I repeatedly refused extra GoPro footage as this would mean I would have to pay more, and finally, after having our photos taken by his colleague who insisted (“The view is so good, you must let me take your photo!”) and me giving the pilot a lecture on why he should be on social media, he goes:
“You know, everyone has been saying how great you were at following instructions and how you weren’t scared. I’m giving you all the videos for free because I like you.”
See what I mean?
4. On Brazilian People
Not since living in New York had I encountered such gorgeous racial diversity as I did in Brazil. I do appreciate what some people refer to as the “Latino Rainbow” where every skin and hair color imaginable exists in this continent. There were not a lot of Asians in the parts I went through (I would have to go to São Paolo with its Japanese population), and I recall one incident in a bus where people took photos of me thinking I wouldn’t notice (I did, you bastards). But despite my apparent “otherness”, the diversity here is such that I was not gawked at as much as, say, Colombia, where I once stopped traffic. If the Philippines is a melting pot, so is Brazil. You people are beautiful.
Brazilians are a loving people. I met someone whose father has had five wives. The number of couplings and uncouplings may startle conservative tourists (though Brazil’s statistics pales in comparison to many other places), but as someone from the One Country Left In the World Where Divorce is Illegal Aside from the Vatican, I’m very glad that the women here have more choices.
Beyond beauty and romantic love, I think Brazilians are incredibly kind. I was just there for three weeks, yet I was really sad to leave and also happy to have lots of people to come back to. I always do a final round of goodbyes in the countries I stay in—I likely will not see most of them again, or if I do, I will never feel about them in the exact same way. Brazilian warmth reminds me of what you can find in the Philippines; I suppose this is why I open up to them quite quickly. Like Filipinos, many are also chronically and horrifyingly late—sometimes holy-crap-should-I-call-the-cops-it’s-been-hours late, which zaps the punctual hardworking East Asian in me like a baby taser gun but only somewhat. It’s hard to stay mad at people calling you Love or Darling or Beleza even though they barely know you. Bless the colorful Portuguese language.
Which brings me to my favorite and winner of my Most Versatile Word Award for Brazilian Portuguese: “beleza”. It sounds like it can mean nearly anything, from “See you soon!” to “Sorry I lost your socks.”
“I’m sorry I’m late!” = “Beleza!”
“Ready, set, go!” = “Beleza!”
“Oops, I had an affair.” = “Belezaaaaaa!”
“Beleza” is the Brazilian equivalent of the Asian bow, I suppose. And as we soared thousands of feet in the air, I stared at the vast expanse of the Tijuca Forest below me and the lively waters of the Atlantic ocean calming down on the beach of São Conrado, and I can’t help but think: Brazil, you’re quite beleza.
5. On Art and the Amazon
The Amazon is in trouble. This much should obvious even to those who have not been there, but being immersed in it gives one a sense of urgency; the tree you just fell in love is under siege from deforestation. Holy smokes (pun intended), we must do something. The Amazon: a place of unspeakable beauty but I can’t shut up about it. I’m just not the same.
Brazil and the Philippines share a similar history only with different colonizers, which means that alas, I need to learn yet another language as I made so many friends there. I immediately can’t help but notice the similar social and environmental issues that we share. It’s just that in Brazil they have natural blondes.
During the residency we had some really cool scientists give lectures about the Amazon. There I think I went through every emotion imaginable, from wonder to outrage to hope to sadness. We were in a remote area with no wifi, but this did not disconnect us from the greater issues of the world; I actually came in thinking I should do this residency before it’s too late. Of all the professions I have had, art is the one that springs from a more authentic and primitive core of the human spirit—I would do a project not to please someone else, but because I can’t rest easy until I make it exist. And so instead of leaving depressed, I decided to leave pissed and motivated—the good kind of anger.
As I glanced at the passing paragliders, I thought of my fellow artists and realized that I can’t be the only one from this experience who was (is) feeling an acute sense of Amazonian Withdrawal. How difficult it is to return to chaotic urban living after the serenity and magic of the forest! Everything in the city is getting on my nerves. Traffic? Ugh I miss the Amazon. Long line at the grocery checkout? Ugh I miss the Amazon. Annoyed at someone? Damn it, I’ll stick you in the Amazon and hope a jaguar eats you, you jerk. All things manmade and artificial seem to pale in comparison to what nature had provided for us. I think most of us want to go back. I for one am plotting to go back to some forest. Any forest. Whatever place where I can escape commercials and PR people always wanting to sell me something. Get off me, you neoliberals! There are lots of forests in Southeast Asia; I should visit before they disappear. I’ll see you there!
6. On Massages and Inequality
On the way back from hang gliding, I hopped on a bus which took me from Rocinha to Gávea to Leblon. We drove through favelas to affluent houses to fancy shops, painting my view with shades of inequality. Everyone warned me about violence and theft in Brazil, which meant I trained a little bit harder in taekwondo, left Asia without a credit card, and also used my breasts as a handbag—the latter I hope to never do ever again. I assure you, though, I was fine throughout the trip and would conjecture that I’ve been to more dangerous places. Inequality: harbinger of world problems and a pain in the ass (and boobs).
Since last year, I’ve been giving facial massages to people during my residencies, both as a thank-you and as a way of mitigating potentially stressful situations by spreading positive energy. In my world, every day is spa day. In Brazil, I massaged as many as seven people a night using Amazonian honey, leaving my fingers numb, my heart full, and my patients’ faces glowing. Perhaps this should be my selling point in my next grant proposal—when I’m done, I’ll leave everyone beautiful.
I had also raised a few eyebrows when I offered to give a facial to the cook. I even gave him a hand massage. Hey, the old man deserved it—he made all our delicious meals and that was no easy task. I will never forget how tough his skin was, how his fingers felt like they haven’t stretched in a while, and his initial shock. I also will never forget how he eventually crossed his legs and relaxed, finally convinced I wouldn’t hurt him. I’ve massaged lots of people by now, but this one was for the books.
Sometimes I think I do this as a minor act of rebellion against the class systems that persist in the world, and the one I always return to in Manila, where being six feet in heels, having skin paler than a white person’s, and speaking with an American accent confer a certain judgment. I think humanity will be less divided if we treated each other equally and with respect. Plus I hate seeing clogged pores and massages are awesome. If you’re reading this, I’d be happy to give you one. Just remember I only massage from the waist up and that I have a black belt.
7. On Privilege and Perspective
In the Amazon, I had a lot of interesting conversations—the main reason I keep pushing to do these opportunities, of which this would be my 8th in the world and 2nd in South America. One artist was from a country that is the opposite of places like Brazil and the Philippines: our cultural antipode, if you will. One night, she was talking to me about problems she had and I, puzzled, interrupted, “You know, I’ve always thought people in your country were so privileged that you didn’t have any issues. Doesn’t everything work? It’s like utopia.”
And here she countered, “Yes, but because everything is provided for us, everything is given, you stop fighting and you second guess everything you want to do and choose the safe option. And there are lots of us who feel like this.”
You stop fighting.
I had to pause. While it should be intuitive, it was different hearing it from this woman—the downsides of unchecked privilege that for once did not feel lame. For years of knowing people who have known only this world with some feeling smug about it, all I could hear from them was how their lives were so stable and amazing. But in the back of my mind, I always thought that man, with the cards that were dealt you, shouldn’t you be more…impressive? The world was built for your success—why haven’t you done more? You people need a Tiger Mother.
This is a lesson that keeps repeating itself in all the stories I have lived so far—someone who has all material things is likely lacking in something that privilege cannot buy. Such as: love and friendship on a deeper level that challenges individuals to step up in ways their institutions won’t, opportunities to test oneself and see what he or she is really made of, living as though you’ll die from some disaster the next day, meeting people from different worlds and seeing them as equals instead of the Others— I think this is the importance of struggle. Not just with immersing oneself in the jungle for ten days, or flying shotgun thousands of feet in the air, but in the expansion of one’s perspectives that makes you a better human being.
It was worth journeying halfway around the world to Brazil. My hang gliding video clocked in at 5 minutes and 43 seconds.