Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Year and Change

November 14 – Fortuleza, Brazil
Its worth asking the question now. Not just have I changed, but how. After ten months in varied environments some change is inevitable, but judging what is different is the hard part.

So this week I piled into a Land Rover with three American guys and got a sense of what might be different now than at the beginning of the year. We made the 500 mile drive from Natal to Fortaleza along the gorgeous shore, stopping in a small town each night.

Jon, 25, was our driver. He’s from Florida but lives in Brazil now. A few of us met him out on the beer-splattered streets one night in Natal. He was getting friendly with some local girls. “But I can’t do anything with them,” he told us. “I’m married.”

Jon moved down here with his wife, bought a Land Rover and now drives people up and down the coast. He said he’d take three of us to Fortaleza for 700 reais ($300), about half the going rate.

Along for the ride were Rob and Joker, a pair of early-middle-aged Californians. Rob fixes air conditioners and is here for a couple weeks. Joker grows flowers, was born in Holland, and has a month to spend in Brazil. They’re both members of a drinking club which boasts “Beer Olympics” that compel members to get drunk and topless.

From the outset, it was clear Rob and Joker were cut from different cloth than me, but we all wanted to ride along the beach and sharing the trip was the only way to make it affordable so we piled in together.

Rob and Joker have two discernable pursuits in life (or at least during their time in Brazil): women and beer. From dawn til dawn they chase these twin vices with singular focus. Readers of this blog might think I’m interested in women and beer, but after four days with this crew I felt sober and gay by comparison.

Sample sentences uttered during four days in Land Rover:

“So, where we going to get laid tonight?”

“Hey, pass me another beer.”

“Ask this guy where the best place to party is.”

“We should stop and get more beer.”

Any characteristic pushed to the extreme reveals its inherent absurdity and so I was faced with the ugliness of these pursuits. They were a kind of mirror for me; to someone else do I look like them? I don’t spend every waking moment hunting women, I don’t say “it’s 5:30 somewhere” as I crack open a beer each morning. But on some smaller scale am I much different?

“Its really good to be riding with some Americans,” Jon said. “I’ve been driving all foreigners lately.”

I felt so differently. At this point I don’t generally like traveling with Americans. Largely this is a universal feeling; travelers don’t want to hang out with people from home—Danes don’t want to travel with Danes, Canadians don’t want to travel with Canadians. It’s not a rule, just a vague preference that’s probably stronger for Americans because—generally—we’re bad travelers. We’re loud and over-opinionated and America-centric. (Brits and Israelis have equally bad reputations and maybe these are all unfair stereotypes but many agree that America, England, and Israel turn out the highest percentage of annoying travel companions).

A word more on Americans. Throughout the year I’ve heard variations of this sentiment: “You’re the nicest American we’ve met.” I take it as a backhanded compliment because it isn’t just a comment on me but on negative perceptions of Americans. Some American travelers seek to avoid the stereotype by claiming to be Canadian which I think is cowardly and stupid. I really believe being American is an advantage because people have such low expectations that by simply being an okay guy you seem like a superstar.

And there’s this: the “nicest American they’ve met” isn’t the Brook who left New York in January, he’s the Brook who is living out of a bag for the year. I am different. I’m quieter. I’m unbelievably patient. I speak slowly. My temperament is malleable to the temperament of those around me. So this is how I’ve changed.

And when I’m with Americans the slang comes out, and the references to American pop culture; I speak faster and more loudly. I revert to that spectacular American characteristic of inserting evidence of how much I know into every possible sentence. So maybe its not the Americans I don’t like, but how I become when I’m around them. Its the sad knowledge it gives me that Traveling Brook will die on the plane from Buenos Aires to New York.

If I wanted to feel better about Americans the Land Rover was the wrong place to turn. Jon was the first person I’ve met to confront me with the power of ADD. He’s unable to hold a thought from the beginning of a sentence to the end.

“Remember I was telling you about the kite surfers, well they go up the coast to, because, look at this picture, isn’t that amazing? I had to drive through this river I should probably get a snorkel, when I was in Orlando I got clocked going 148….”

Eventually a story would emerge—often a story that was already told 15 minutes prior—and the stories often focused on girls. And so certain realities couldn’t be hidden for long. How many girls have you kissed since you’ve been married?

“At this party here I kissed 14 in one night, it was this party where all the…”

But in the four years you’ve been married, how many do you think?

“Oh, no, I have no idea. But I’ve slept with at least 20. I don’t know, at least 20 that I remember.”

So on Friday night in Canoa Quebrada we all went to work and soon my three companions had found female companionship—its not that hard around here. “If a girl is from a small village and she’s maybe 16 years old and has never been anywhere then I would never get with her,” Jon explained. “Because then its like I’m stealing her innocence, like she isn’t innocent anymore and I think that’s wrong. But with these girls its different because I don’t do anything. They come up to me. And they’re really aggressive, its just really hard because they’re so aggressive. But I haven’t been with a girl for a really long time. I mean like two months…You know, other than my wife.”

For a while the group was well fed and everyone was happy. Rob talked of retiring in Brazil as he massaged a new friend in the back of the Land Rover. Massage is a nice way to say grope which is what Rob did for the entire day we spent with three Brazilian girls driving around the dunes. Jon had his new girlfriend with him, and Joker had his. It would be unfair to say I was content being the seventh wheel but I just didn’t have the stomach for that level of fawning aggression.

But then Rob lost his girl and all of a sudden he was “happy” about it because, after all, he was trying to behave himself because he has a serious girlfriend back in California.

“I hate that,” Jon said. “I hate when someone gets blown off by a girl and then says he’s glad because he didn’t want to do anything anyway.”

But Jon is a prince of his own hypocrisies and claimed to hope his girl would blow him off too so he didn’t have her calling him.

And now I’ll figure out how all this relates…These faithless Americans and my trip; how I’ve changed and how I’ll revert when this is over….

I suppose we were all somehow changed by being where we were. The Americans in Brazil were acting differently than they would back home; I was acting differently than I would with other people.

We change for those around us. We become who we surround ourselves with, like a bag of water with a goldfish in it. You put the bag into a fish tank and after a couple hours the temperature of the water is the same, and you can open the bag and the fish swims free.

So I flew in my little bag to Sydney and the water was like this: everyone’s in their 20’s (or acting like it). People dress badly and party late. Multinationals, American politics, and having a job are uncool. Having money is less cool than not having money. Everyone is looking for a friend.

Did I change? Or was it just the water around me? And is that why Americanism bothers me now, because its just a temperature of water I’m no longer accustomed to? If that is the case, if we don’t change so much as respond, then certainly I’ll respond accordingly when I get back. But I think I’ll remember what the other thing was like, too, and I’ll remember why I liked it and what I didn’t like about the Americans when they came to remind me of some of what is waiting back home.


At 12:11 PM, Blogger A^2 said...

Darwin did say that the species most apt to survive is the one that is best able to adapt to new environments. I don't think that the whole mentality of you has changed, but rather you've gained a lot of knowledge and have adapted yourself for a new world and a new New York.


Post a Comment

<< Home