Friday, April 29, 2011

Mom, I can't talk now, I'm going to fly

“Mom, I’m just saying hi. I can’t talk now. I’m going to fly.” “Fly? Pooja, you know you’re flight is on Monday...” “No, I’m going to FLY. I’m going to hang glide. Talk to you later!”

So started my hang gliding adventures. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I fell in love with paragliding after floating over mountain tops in Merida, Venezuela and was determined to “fly” again in Brazil. A friend suggested that I paraglide in Rio de Janeiro. I thought, “What better way to end my trip than by by floating over one of my favorite cities?” I headed to a travel agent and requested parapente schedules. “Parapente?” the travel agent repeated snidely. I thought that was the word...that’s what it is in Spanish...and I even used the correct Portuguese pronunciation of “chi” for the last syllable. “What you want is Asa Delta,” he told me. “Whatever.”

The scheduled date arrived. After a week of rain, a morning of sunshine appeared on the horizon. I headed to São Conrado, a beautiful beach next to Leblon, the richest neighborhood in Brazil. The guests at the Sheraton Hotel share the beach with the neighboring favela (slum) dwellers (next to every rich area and famous beach in Rio, there is a slum). From the beach, my pilot and his assistant drove us to our point of take-off, the peak of mountain Pedro Bonita. Suddenly I realized what was the difference between parapente and Asa Delta. I would be hang gliding, not paragliding. It may not seem like a huge difference from the ground, but from the air it involves one crucial, nerve-wracking fact. When I paraglided, a strong gust of wind lifted my pilot and I off the ground and up into the air. When it came time to hang glide, my pilot asked me if I was ready to jump. “Jump? Jump where?” I asked fearfully. “There,” he said as he pointed to a wooden ramp that looked like it was going to collapse any moment. I thought it might be too late to mention to him that I have, had, a fear of falling from heights. We practiced running before getting into position. “Ready?” he asked. I shut my eyes tight and did not open them until I was already hanging in the air. As I cannot describe the incredible feeling of flying in the air, I will have to show you.

Carnaval da Rua

As much as we don’t want to admit it, we all form impressions of certain people based on ethnic or cultural stereotypes. In less than a week, my 50+ year-old Japanese-Brazilian Couchsurfer in Curitiba successfully shattered several of my illusions. When I first perused her profile, I thought that she seemed animated. Upon meeting her, my first impression proved true. The woman did not just have energy, she had spunk! I could hardly keep up with her as she ran around her apartment performing one task after another, the whole while talking about one thing or another. She did not fit in at all with my cultural expectations of elder Japanese woman as quiet, reserved, and traditional.

She took me to watch the pre-Carnaval bloco of the samba school Garibaldis and Sacis. A bloco typically consists of musicians from a samba school performing samba marchinha – the fast-paced samba that is played during Carnaval – on the streets. Often, members of the crowd will join in the festivities by bringing their tambourines and drums from home and playing along with the band. One word usually defines the dress code, “ridiculous.” The men are dressed in what I like to call “their skivvies,” sungas or Brazilian speedos, along with masks and accessories. The women have pieces of flare that enliven even the most mundane clothing. At the head of the bloco is a truck carrying the main singers and directors of the samba school. Around the truck is a throng of people hopping, skipping, and dancing frenetically. As the truck drives through the streets at a record-breaking speed of 5 MPH, the crowd follows, pushing each other to keep up the pace while avoiding actually leaving the frenzied mass of people that is constantly in danger of being run over by the 18-wheeler behind them.

In the midst of this excitement where was my Couchsurfer? She was dancing in the middle of the bloco. One hand held a beer can while the other held the hand of the Brazilian man with whom she was dancing. She finished her beer, threw the can off to the side of the street, and pulled me into the fray with her now free hand. She twirled me and had me dancing in no town! The many times I dreamed about Brazil, I never pictured a Brazilian as a 50 year-old Japanese woman chugging a beer while shaking to samba.

Here’s the great thing about Brazil: everyone can be Brazilian. Brazil is like the United States of South America, it has people of all different colors, origins, and ancestries. When South Americans look at me, they don’t see an American, they see an Indian. I have to explain to them that after three years in South America, I feel more latina than Indian. I joke, “I’m a useless Indian, but I’m a great latina. I don’t speak Hindi, I don’t dance Indian dances well, but I speak Spanish, Portuguese, and even Guaraní, and I’m a terrific salsa and samba dancer!” I guess it’s the same with my Couchsurfer. When I looked at her, I saw a Japanese woman, but in her heart (and her samba-dancing hips) she was a Brazilian.

The bloco truck

Our friend joining in the musicians


The woman on my left was my Couchsurfer