For the last time on Semester At Sea, I woke up to the sight of a new city. For the last time, I walked down to deck two, swiped my student ID card, and walked off the gangway into a foreign country. For the last time, Team Awesome walked side by side along the MV Explorer and out of the harbor terminal into a new world – into Brazil.
We emerged on the other side of the terminal and were approached by Portuguese-speaking Brazilians wanting us to patronize their cabs. We passed by them in search for an ATM. Unfortunately, it was a national holiday and almost everything in the city was closed for the day or opened late and closed early. This is the second or third time this had happened on this voyage. After finding an open bank and English-speaking machines, we made our way to the elevator. There are two sections to Salvador, Brazil – the upper city and the lower city. Not much is in the lower city and it is usually the more dangerous area, therefore you take the Elevador Lacerda to the upper city, where there are shops, restaurants, and other sites to see. The elevator costs .15 reals, which is less than $.10 each way and takes you about 12 stories up to the upper part of Salvador, or the old city. Before reaching the elevator, we stopped at a famous mercado, or market, selling Brazilian clothing, jewelry, paintings, and handicrafts. It was 10:30 in the morning, but it was 5 o’clock somewhere, so we ordered a bottle of Brahma, a local beer, and sat outside the market. Across from where we were sitting was a group of young men practicing capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. Capoeira was used by Brazilians in the 18th century, but when it was banned, they disguised it as a dance so no one could tell that their “dance” was actually a martial arts practice. Now, capoeira is practiced as a martial arts dance, usually done in conjunction with music. My Taekwondo experience must have been apparent in some way, because the leader of the group walked over to me and offered his hand, asking me to join them. For about ten minutes, I did capoeira with Jonathan and his clan, who offered to give me a real lesson. Unfortunately, my Amazon trip did not allow enough time.
When we were finished with our Brahma’s, we headed to the elevator. The elevator doors opened up to the beautiful upper city, complete with cobblestone paths covered in pigeons and old buildings. I have never been to Italy, but this is what I’d imagine it to look like. We walked to the city center, which was a large rectangle with a Catholic church on one side, and cafes and shops on the other sides. Then it started to sprinkle. And then it started to pour. We ran for cover to a tourist information center, which recommended a restaurant right down the street for lunch. We shimmied along the outside wall, trying to dodge the rain. The nine of us sat down in the restaurant and ordered caipirinhas, the famous Brazilian sugar cane rum drink. Restaurant portions in Brazil are large and are made for two people to eat. Most of us ordered chicken, which came with rice, beans, a salad, and French fries. Meals in Brazil are also not meant to be quick. We sat at this restaurant for two and a half hours. We ordered our drinks, waited for 20 minutes, ordered food, waited 45 minutes, asked for the check, and waited another 20 minutes. American restaurant owners probably cringe at the idea of this (my father being one of them), but it’s completely normal and encouraged in Brazil.
After lunch, our group walked the sloped, cobblestone streets, venturing into one shop after another, even though they all sold the same things. Because of the holiday, it was a pretty quiet day. At the bottom of one of the sloped streets, we saw a group of people gathering with music being played. As we got closer, I noticed a full production set, complete with professional lighting, camera equipment (HD camera, crane, SteadiCam), and Brazilian actors and actresses. An American in a yellow hat came over to us and said, “Come over here. We need some Argentineans to dance with the Argentina flag.” We looked at each other. “But we’re Americans, not Argentinean.” “That’s fine. You look like you could be from Argentina.” We shrugged and took the opportunity. Then he walks over to Victoria. “Where are you from?” She replies, “Hong Kong”. “Okay, great. Can you hold this Japanese flag and dance over here?” She laughed and grabbed the Japanese flag. We still had no idea what we were doing. I looked around and noticed many Brazilians in yellow and green, the colors of their flag. They were beautiful and were obviously the stars of whatever was being filmed. We stood in the Argentinean section, Vic was in the Japanese section, and other SASers were in the American section. The American in the yellow hat walked back behind the camera and handed someone a bullhorn. He shouted something in Portuguese and the music started. We waved the Argentinean flag proudly and danced all around the streets of Brazil. One cinematographer with a SteadiCam walked through the dancing people while a crane with another camera swooped above us. It was hotter than hell and I was dripping sweat, but it was the best part of the day so far. We did about three takes and the Brazilian man with the bullhorn yelled something, and everyone in the streets clapped and then broke up. We found out that it was a commercial for the World Cup in South Africa. I don’t know when it will be out or even where it will play, but I’m hoping at least YouTube will have it.
To cool off, we got ice cream. My new favorite flavor is condensed milk with almonds. I think I’ve had more condensed milk on this voyage than I have in my entire life combined. I’m definitely bringing my condensed milk recipes back with me! Suddenly, the clouds came back and the skies poured rain once again. A couple of us hopped in a cab and headed back to the ship to dry off and take a nap before going out for dinner, which wouldn’t be until 9:30, the typical time for Brazilians to eat dinner. We all met up again at 7:30 to head out to dinner together…for the last time. We heard about a restaurant that was home to the best chef and dessert in Salvador. However, when we got there and tried to order, they were out of most of what we wanted. I think the Sysco truck missed its delivery. I had steak in a cream sauce with rice, and I thought it was delicious. I guess I’ll really never know if it was the best food in Salvador. We got word that some club/bar in Salvador was throwing an outdoor tent party for SASers since most of the other bars and clubs were closed for the holiday. We asked around, but no one heard about anything. As we were walking down a street, someone shouted from the sidewalk, “Hey! Are you Americans?” We stopped to see a guy in his early twenties sitting with a few friends drinking beer. He sounded American too, so we stopped and said yes and that we were from Semester At Sea. “Thank God! It feels so good to speak English again!” His name was Devon, and he explained to us that he was from Los Angeles and was in Brazil for five months to film a documentary about street children in Brazil. With him were two guys from Spain (his “crew”) and a young Brazilian. He would bounce back and forth, speaking English to us, Portuguese to the Brazilian, and Spanish to the Spaniards. We asked him to ask a nearby Brazilian if he knew about this tented party. He said no, but he wanted all of us to come to his club a few blocks away. We were hesitant, but Devon asked his Brazilian friend if it was safe and legitimate. He answered yes, so we all followed the Brazilian club owner to his club. We could see the club in the distance from the strobe lights that were beaming out of the second-story window. We approached the entrance, where we were met by a short man with arms the size of the continent of Africa – clearly the bouncer. He waved us through and we walked upstairs to the “club”. Basically, it was three rooms – an empty dance floor with a DJ and walls covered in sequins fabric, a bathroom that oddly also had a bouncer or some sort, and a bar with local beer and whisky. It was 10:30 p.m. and Team Awesome and our new documentarian friends were the only ones in this obviously hopping club. We laughed it off and danced together on the empty dance floor anyway. Devon explained to us that the club doesn’t pick up until midnight. Most of the clubs in Brazil are midnight to 5 a.m. clubs, with not much action any earlier. Around midnight we left the club and walked a few feet away to a bar. Some Brazilians on the street called us over to them and lined us up in two lines and taught us a dance, which I called “Revelation”. We did over and over again. I’ll show you sometime. Then it started to pour…again! We took cover under two different large Coca Cola branded umbrellas. Brittany, Graham, and I sat under one and ordered a drink. A young boy approached the umbrella, so Graham invited him to sit with us. He looked very sad and was in torn clothes – exactly the subjects Devon was going to film. We ordered a Coke for him, which he drank and then proceeded to complain, saying he wanted milk instead. Something told me he must have been that hungry or thirsty. We also ordered French fries for him, but he was shooed away by the bar owner, who said this boy stole his chairs and was not allowed near the premises. Oops. Well the French fries came, and I was kind of glad we got to eat them instead…especially because they had cut up mini hot dogs in them!! We waited for the rain to pass before we said goodbye to Devon and his crew and headed back to the ship. For the last time, Team Awesome had a great night together.
The next morning at 8 a.m., Alli and I left for our Amazon riverboat tour. Our seven-hour flight left from Salvador’s international airport, connected at Brasilia, where we stayed onboard, and continued on to Manaus, a large city situated in the middle of the Amazon. We arrived at the dock a little after 3 p.m. to find our large Mark Twain riverboat, painted red, white, and blue, with matching balloons and a sign saying “Welcome Group Semester At Sea” (don’t ask about the wording). I threw my stuffed backpack over my shoulder and walked onto the dock. A male and female Brazilian dancer dressed in traditional costume complete with feathered headdresses dances to fast-paced music as we boarded our home for the next three days. Fresh fruit and other snacks sat on a table on the lower deck for us to eat after a long day of traveling. Alli, Cara, Sally, and I walked upstairs to claim our hammocks – our beds for the next two nights. The hammocks were strung across the second level of the boat, about 35 in total, and almost piled on top of each other. I picked a navy blue, purple, and yellow plaid hammock toward the front of the boat. The hammocks resembled blankets rather than the typical ones you see that are white with holes. Each hammock also had a blanket, but let’s be real, it was 90 degrees and 90% humidity. I would be sleeping in a bathing suit, if anything. The four of us explored the rest of the small boat and noticed there were only two female toilets and no showers at all. Yay! After departing Manaus, we sailed down the Rio Negro to the place where it meets the Amazon River. At the “meeting of the waters”, as it is called, you see the two rivers meet, and it looks like oil and water. The Rio Negro is a dark, dark brown color, while the Amazon River is a lighter brown. The rivers don’t mix, but rather the sediment keeps them separated and they swirl like a coffee drink. We sailed further down the Rio Negro, seeing small communities where people live in houses on the water. We arrived at a floating market and walked on a thin, wood bridge through the jungle. At the end of the bridge was a wood shack on stilts overlooking the river and thousands of massive lily pads. In the water were sets of two eyes floating along the surface, gathering toward the base of the wooden stilts. The eyes emerged to reveal large alligators, which perched themselves of the docks below. At this point, I really hoping the thin wood bridge and the stilts below wouldn’t give out. The sun was setting as all of us got into small boats and headed out onto the river to fish for piranhas. It was the most beautiful I had ever seen – the sky was orange, purple, red, pink, and blue and they colors reflected onto the water. Our fishing poles were small bamboo branches with a piece of meat attached to the hook. No one caught piranhas but a few people caught small catfish. When it was completely dark we set out to go alligator hunting. Our boat driver shined his flashlight along the riverbanks, waiting for glowing yellow eyes to pop out. Lightning bugs were flashing all around our small boat and sound I’ve never heard before were echoing from the trees in the distance. Another boat found a baby alligator, so we motored over to where they were sitting. Everyone got a chance to hold the alligator for a picture, which I’m sure it was not exactly thrilled with. It was probably only 18 inches long, so it did not move much. Then the boat next to us caught a large alligator that was over two feet long. I would have gotten a chance to hold that one too if one of the girls in the other boat hadn’t dropped it back into the water after freaking out. We got back to our riverboat a little after 8 p.m., where we had dinner and got adjusted in our hammocks. I didn’t sleep very well the first night. My legs kept falling asleep from being higher than my head, so I tried bending them Indian style until I realized I was hitting the faces of the people on either side of me. Finally, I turned on my side, balanced myself, and got some sleep.
The sunrise woke me up the next morning and the river was as smooth as glass. After breakfast was our first jungle walk, which required long pants. But honestly, by this point in the voyage, I had realized there’s no point in looking good or trying to not look sweaty. Our guide, Sidomar, took us through the jungle, showing us different plants and trees and explaining their uses. Sid used to live in the Amazon, and his sentences frequently started with, “When I was a little boy living in the jungle…” He later told us he didn’t sleep in a real bed until he was 13; it was always a hammock. The canopy provided some shade, but the humidity still made it incredibly hot. We walked through the jungle for a little over two hours before returning back to the riverboat. Before lunch, we got to swim in the river. Though it is actually fairly clean, the Rio Negro is dark brown; it gives your skin a copper tint when you look it at under the water. The temperature of the river was refreshing and most of us played volleyball. The only thing Sid warned us all of was not piranhas or alligators or anacondas, but something he calls the “pee bug”. If you are in the water and you urinate, this small, thin bug swims up your pee stream and into your body, latching onto the inside. It is impossible to remove it without surgery because when you try to pull it out, its body has stickers on it that rip through skin. “So don’t pee in the water everyone!” said Sid. After lunch we visited a local Amazon community. It was a well, developed community with a church, school, market, and many houses on stilts. After taking a tour through the town and meeting some of the locals, we played sports with them. The girls on our boat challenged the women of the village to a soccer game. I volunteered to goal tend – I was sweaty enough without running. Then 10-on-10 game lasted for 20 minutes, in which we scored three goals and they scored zero. I dove through the mud to block seven of their attempted goals. They were really, really good, but then again, it is Brazil. The men had a game as well, but they got killed. Then we played volleyball, which I definitely was not very good at. Before we left, we participated in a ceremony that they do every time a SAS group comes through the village. The village picks an MVP from the male and female soccer team to award a Brazilian soccer jersey to. The announced the guy first, and a tall blonde guy named Dane was given a jersey. Then it came to the girls and the local women yelled, “Goalie!” in unison. So we all took a picture together…I will cherish that yellow Brazilian jersey forever. We waved goodbye to the community as they stood on the dock and we motored away in our small boats. They were taking us to a beach, where our riverboats were to have a beach BBQ and party. It took about 45 minutes to get to the beach, but on the way we were entertained by the best lightning storm I have ever seen! There was not thunder and no rain, only massive bolts of lighting panoramically surrounding us. I felt like I was in a painting. It was one of the many moments I’ve had on this voyage where I stop, block out all the sound surrounding me, and thank God for the exact moment I am experiencing. We got to the beach, which was set up with a BBQ, tables full of food, and plastic chairs. One of the riverboats was blasting music from its stereo system. A group of us pulled some chairs in a circle and talked about our favorite memories from the semester while we enjoyed steak kabobs, chicken, potatoes, and delicious dessert. By this time, I noticed that several mosquito bites were making my legs itch. Yes, I wore deet, but I’m convinced that I have the sweetest skin there is. The second night of sleep was definitely better than the first, and I woke up with the sun again the next morning.
We went on a second jungle walk, but this time we went through the secondary forest, which is deeper into the Amazon than the first hike we went on. The ridiculous amount of mosquitoes proved this. There was no path already made for us, so our guide cut a path for us with his machete as we walked deeper into the forest. He showed us again what the different plants were used for by the indigenous people, including one tree whose milky, white sap was a treatment for malaria. He cut a piece of the bark off and caught the sap in a funnel he made out of a banana leaf. He passed it around, asking if anyone wanted to try it. I figured with all the bites I had, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea; it tasted like cold cream of celery soup. I know, that wasn’t as cool as a Bear Grylls’ descriptions of maggots and grubs. After the sweaty, two-hour hike, our riverboat took us to a beach, where we spent the entire afternoon swimming and playing volleyball before heading back to Manaus for our red eye flight back to Slavador. This was now day three without a shower, so most of us brought our shampoo and washed our hair in the Rio Negro. Nothing like bathing with water darker than your skin! Incidentally, I felt much better. It took about three hours to get back to Manaus, but since we got there at 8 p.m. and didn’t need head to the airport until 11:30 p.m. for our 2:40 a.m. flight, we were taken to what we all thought was going to be a club at a hotel (that’s what we were told the last three days). Instead, we were all taken to some sort of outdoor, public pool/recreation center. There was a stage set up where dancers were dressed tribally, doing Brazilian dances. Most people were sitting at the plastic chairs and tables talking, though. Twenty minutes after getting there, we were all bored. Luckily, there actually was a bar at this shindig, so we spent most of our time making castles out of our “soda” cans. At 11:30 we loaded the buses and headed to the airport. We got there and were checked in by midnight, so we walked around, got a burger at Bob’s Burgers, got ice cream at a stand before security, and then sat by our terminal until we boarded the plane a little after 2 a.m. I tried as hard as I could to stay awake until I got on the plane so I could sleep better. I was out for the 4-hour flight to Brasilia, where we had, oh yes, a 4-hour layover…yay! Like zombies, 50 SASers moved through the airport, trying to find last minute places to shop or buy breakfast. Most just waited for our gate to be announced and then passed out in the uncomfortable chairs around it. I slept a little on the 2-hour flight to Salvador but not much.
As tired as I was when we finally got back to the ship around 2 p.m., I still had some last minute shopping to do. And of course, because it was Sunday, the market right by the ship was closed. So Alli and I got in the elevator and went to the upper city to shop…I was so not in the mood, so all of you getting gifts from Brazil should be extra happy…just kidding. We ran into Graham, Brittany, and a few others who were also walking zombies. We couldn’t even really hold a conversation with them to find out how their trips went, so we just grunted, waved, and passed by. After shopping for a little over an hour and getting everything we needed, Alli and I headed back to the elevator. We stopped at a café right outside to get a local, Brazilian chocolate dessert and some ice cream (condensed milk again!). And for the last time on this voyage, I had ice cream in a foreign country. I watched the setting sun from the top of the city.
It was a long walk back to the ship, but I think that’s because I made it extra long. I entered the harbor and saw the MV Explorer. At this point, I had completely forgotten I hadn’t taken a shower in four days. I watched the uneven cobblestones pass under my feet. Wow, my Pumas were dirty. I kept my head down, because I didn’t want to see the short walk to the gangway get any closer. “Your ship ID please.” I took extra long to fumble through my belongings to pull out the red lanyard. For the last time, I swiped my card to allow myself back on the ship. For the last time, I stood from the inside and looked to the outside world, that world that had gotten smaller. I noticed an older, homeless woman waving to me from outside the ship, obviously not allowed near the gangway. I walked back down the gangway, took off my tennis shoes, and handed them to her. I walked barefoot back into the ship. When I turned back around to give one last look, the shoes were already on her feet. And for the first time, I cried as the gangway door shut behind me.