There are elements of being a tourist that—assuming you feel comfortable with the country and the language—can be fun. I don’t mind being ignorant, asking questions, getting lost. But there’s a certain type of tourist I’m not. I don’t like prepackaged tours. I’m not that deep into seeing the sights. After while, a beautiful island or mountain is just as beautiful as the last one I’ve been to. Despite my distaste for this type of travel, my cousin and I embarked upon a tourist oriented boat ride to Ilha dos Frades. Ilha dos Frades is an island that’s difficult to get to through local channels. Paying the tourist fee and going direct was a difference of about five hours of travel time. The difference between this trip and my regular Brazil experience was immediate. At the port, we were directed into a waiting room opposite the one we were accustomed to using when taking boats with other Brazilians to Ilha Itaparica. Both in the waiting room and on the boat, we were the only black people present. The remainder were about one half Southern Brazilian (Rio or Sao Paulo) and one half European. We were also the only Americans present.
The boat was beautiful. I never understood rich people’s attachments to boats until I rode on this one. Under the boat’s canopy, there were benches set up for sitting, but then there was a huge cushioned platform in the middle of the boat. When we climbed up onto the platform and laid down the experience was divine. The breeze was scrumptious and the view from the boat beautiful. The sensation of drifting across the water was luxurious, comforting, exhilarating. I kept smiling because each time I relaxed, I drifted off into this peaceful reverie that had nothing to do with anything that was going on around me, and everything to do with the sensation of being on the boat.
The boat ride itself turned out to be the biggest treat of the whole trip. While the boat was still at port, a woman came around to each group of tourists and took a photograph of them. She didn’t speak to us, perhaps she assumed that most folks didn’t speak Portuguese. As she came around, she’d point to and grunt at the people she wanted to photograph. Once our attention was secured, she’d snap the photograph. I had no idea if I was being photographed for tourist propaganda or what, but I was certain I didn’t want to be involved. When she came around to us, I gave her the stankest look I could muster to insure they wouldn’t want to use my photograph to promote anything.
Right before the boat departed, the photographer jumped off the boat. As we began to drift into the sea, I noticed a man with a professional video camera filming all the people on the trip. There was no conversation about what he was filming for or why, he just started pointing the cameras at us. I turned away, made faces and motioned for him not to film me, but he persisted and captured me on film when I wasn’t paying attention. You could consider this payback, for all the times tourists roll up into people’s neighborhoods and stick cameras in their faces to preserve a slice of local culture. Whether as a group, we karmically deserved it or not, it really got under my skin.
One of the biggest irritations about being on a tourist-centered trip is that the tour guides want to entertain you. Our guide hooked up a microphone on the boat and began asking where everyone was from, telling jokes, and giving a little history of where we were going. I just wanted him to shut up so we could enjoy the ride. After the guide finished his spiel, a young Brazilian dressed in nautical whites passed around a tray of free tropical fruit. Next, he came around with a tray of refreshments that were extremely inflated in price. When we finally settled into the silence of the journey I was relieved. It was pure pleasure to release ourselves to the rocking motions of the boat and the light spray of water splashing our inert bodies. Before long, both my cousin and I were asleep.
As we were pulling up to Ilha dos Frades, the tour guide announced there’d be a tax to enter the island. I thought randomly, isn’t this something you would either announce before or include with the travel package? But the tax was so cheap I didn’t focus on it. We paid the tax and went to the beach. The minute our feet touched sand, the hustle was on. First we ordered our drinks, one bottled water and one coconut water. The tiny bottled water turned out to be $1.50, the coconut water was $2 reis instead of the usual $1. For imported items, I understand the inflation. I learned that lesson in Lencois. When we stopped at a drink stand halfway through climbing the mountain, all the sodas were $2 reis. Our guide explained the drinks were so expensive because someone had to lug them all the way up the mountain. The drinks at the top of our climb were equally expensive, but with all the maneuvering we had to do to get up the mountain, I understand the inflated price. Whoever carried the drinks up there, deserves an extra real or two. But regarding the coconuts on Ilha dos Frades, I doubt they had to import the coconuts to the island. I wonder if I had come to the island with my Brazilian friends, the local way if I would have paid $1 real or $2 reis for the coconut.
After we were shook down for refreshment and snack money, the artisans came out in their full glory. I could imagine someone yelling, “the boat, the boat” and everyone scrambling to organize their wares. There were women selling beach wraps and dresses and guys selling jewelry and found sea objects. One popular, and ugly, item for sale was a pile of sea coral topped by a starfish—an extremely garish knick-knacky keepsake. Each and every vendor stopped at each and every table. A simple, “We’re not interested did not suffice.” No matter what our attitude, they launched into their spiel and when they were done talking, they looked at us, like, “You’re going to buy now, right?”
This little boy came up and demanded: “Buy my sculpture.” He was a perfect example of the vendors’ attitude, in fact, he was a perfect example of the assumptions I felt surrounded the entire trip. Their perspective seemed to be—If you’re here, then you have money to give me. When we refused to buy the sculpture, he said to my cousin, “Give me your pen. I need it for school.” My cousin is kind-hearted but does not take kindly to demands and she believes in her personal possessions. After I translated what he was saying, she was taken aback. I pulled out my crackers—which I packed because I didn’t plan to spend a ton of money on food—and started snacking. The little boy said, “Gimme some crackers.” “Oh, you want everything,” I told him. “She has ONE pen because she needs to write, I have these crackers because I’m hungry, why should I give them to you?” He just looked at me. He and his friend happened to be standing there when my change from the coconut I purchased came, so I split it between them. They barely acknowledged the exchange. They simply turned and walked away. “Ya’ll don’t say thank you?” I screamed after them. “Thank you,” one said in English. “Obrigado,” the other said. But I felt not thanked. I got the sense that they believed it was my obligation to give them something for coming to their island. And on the one hand, it can be seen as a valid perspective. I’m paying some tour guide to come and take advantage of their beach and they aren’t getting anything off the deal. I hate it now that the red New York tour buses come through Brooklyn. You feel like a circus animal or something. I suppose some of them can barely stand to look at us strolling off the pleasure boat to swim in their waters and drink something cool. I guess this is the type of latent hostility and expectation the meeting of tourism and poverty promotes.
Another guy, a jewelry vendor, kept calling me ‘girl.’ “Hey girl,” he said, “come see my stuff.” I understand ‘girl’ is a direct translation from their “moça” or “menina” which is completely acceptable in Portuguese, but being called ‘girl’ just rubbed me the wrong way. Finally I told him, “I’m not a girl, I’m a woman, don’t call me girl.” Eventually he came by and tried to sell his jewelry to my cousin and me. I said, “It’s all very beautiful but I don’t have any money and I don’t intend to buy anything.” He kept showing me his jewelry as if I hadn’t said anything. By the time he got to the fifth item, describing its qualities and looking at me with meaningful pauses, I said, “Look, if you want to show me everything in your basket, fine go ahead, but I already told you…” and he cut me off in a whiny voice “You’re not buying anything, you’re not buying anything. Well, fine,” he said, “bye.” And left abruptly. When I looked up he had approached two very old white women and greeted them with, “Hey girl…” The minute “girl” was out of his mouth, he looked back at me. I screamed, “They’re definitely not girls, they’re old women, you might get away with calling me girl, but show some respect.” He finally disappeared, looking for a more willing group of tourists.
I guess I’m as much an irritation to them as they are to me. I don’t fit in with the program. Tourists are supposed to come off these boats with money in their pockets, ready to burn. And here I am with my carrots and crackers in a bag, buying only a coconut water, fuming at the circus I had roped myself into. After my little encounter with the vendor, I decided to take a dip in the ocean. When I popped up for air and laid back in the water, I heard “girl, girl.” It was the cameraman. The lens of the video camera was already trained on me. The only way we could escape from the madness, it seemed, was to climb a hill up to an abandoned church. Ilha dos Frades means Island of the Priests. Up on top of the hill, everything was suddenly still. We got a beautiful view of the island and the sea. Behind the beach, behind the beachfront stores was a grassy clearing crisscrossed with about six paths headed to the homes nestled in the center of the island. Looking at the island from on high aroused the explorer in me. Suddenly I wondered what was beyond that group of rocks on the opposite end, a more beautiful beach? I was curious about where the roads led. But we were on a tight tourist schedule—no time for exploring. The boat would be leaving soon, so we had to get back down the hill and rejoin our group.
On the way back to the boat, I had a little chat with the video cameraman. I asked him why he was filming us. He told us he put together videos about Salvador complete with highlights from carnaval and various other festivals and at the end of the video, he added the particular shots of us to the video. I told him it sounded like a nice idea, but he didn’t need to take any more images of me, because I wasn’t going to buy the video. He said it was cool and somehow we got into a conversation about racism and how it limits opportunities. He said he doesn’t buy the whole racism convo, in fact it irritates him because he thinks everyone is responsible for making the most of their life. We told him about how shocking it was for us to spend so much time with black people in the city of Salvador and to get on this boat and all of a sudden be the only black people on the boat. We asked, if racism wasn’t a real force, how come there were no black Brazilians on the boat. They come on the tours, the cameraman said, it’s just by coincidence that none came today.
By the time we got back on the boat, my cousin and I had an attitude against the whole tour system. At our next destination, the tour guide suggested an all-you-can-eat buffet on top of this hotel for $15 reis. He kept saying, “For a little more than $5 U.S., you can eat all you want.” I told my cousin, “We’re on the beach, we can get fried fish and beans and rice for $10 reis apiece.” There was a representative of the restaurant (a black woman dressed like a Baiana) on the beach where we landed waiting to escort us up to the restaurant. I felt like part of a herd of cattle they were leading from one hustle/slaughter to another. My cousin and I ended up going with the all-you-can-eat buffet because they talked about a bus tour of the island afterwards (a tour I really didn’t want to go on, but felt compelled to consider taking) and the tour tickets were only available upstairs.
The buffet was nice enough. My cousin and I served our plates and settled in to enjoy our meal. As we were eating, the woman who had taken the photographs at the beginning of our trip appeared. As she passed by our tables, she dumped the photographs on the corresponding tables. We were quiet as we were confronted by portraits we didn’t know we were taking. It was a bizarre feeling. In the time that it took for us to hang out on the first island, she had developed and mounted all the photos and traveled to the second island. The whole restaurant was in an uproar. Even those folks who seemed to take being a tourist easier than I did, were upset. We all felt violated in a certain way. We hadn’t asked for our photo to be taken and she didn’t ask our permission. I think one woman bought a photo she had bartered down to $2.50 reis from the $5 the woman wanted. I wondered was it worth it to get all those photos developed and then have them be wasted. Somewhere on the island of Itaparica is a photo of my cousin and I, neither of us are smiling and my face is marked with a skeptical scowl.
Then it was time for the bus tour around the island. They were so confident that we all had money to burn, they didn’t even mention the cost. Turns out, after all the hidden costs and expensive items along the way, I didn’t have enough money to take the tour. I had brought $50 reis with me for the day, and it was all gone by the time I got home. In the end, I was happy I hadn’t gone on the tour (I didn’t want to, but some manic part of me didn’t want to miss anything. My lack of finances saved me, I’m sure there was another hustle at some point on the bus ride). As we relaxed on the beach, the absence of the tour guides and the other tourists felt like a huge blessing. I had the sudden realization that the people on the tour wouldn’t have another moment to sit in the sun and chill. I guess the tour guides wanted to fill up all our time so they could squeeze out as many dollars as possible. It isn’t necessary to fill every hour with active activity. I let the tension seep from my shoulders as a new friend chatted about his desire to have sex with an American girl. Like the moment on top of the hill, I felt I had found the simple enjoyment the tour guides seemed so bent on obscuring.
On Being a Gringa
At our halfway point during one of the hikes in Lencois, we visited an old man’s refreshment stand. He made beautiful drawings on rocks to entertain himself as he waited for customers. We chatted with him about life, with our guide as a translator. Somehow, the old man and I couldn’t understand each other’s Portuguese (both of us probably too far from “proper”), so the guide would repeat both the old man’s statements and mine. At one point, the old man asked, “Is she from Salvador?” The guide said, “No, she’s a gringa” and translated the old man’s question. I said “Black people all over the world look alike.” The guide said, “No, it’s more than that, you have the vibe of a Salvadorian.” And I think what he meant was, that I was laid back. I didn’t have the freshest sneakers, a serious camera and other “important” hiking gear. My lack of accoutrements often lets me slip under the gringo radar, but sometimes (especially when I’m accompanied by other foreign people), I’m obviously a foreigner. We talked about the word gringo, and the guide said he thought it came from the Vietnam War where the American soldiers wore green. The Vietnamese had a slogan: Green Go. And I told them that sometimes I felt that that was exactly what people were saying by calling me a gringa. I told them about the time I was at the hippie village in Arambepe and my friend and I walked up to the outdoor bar for a fruit juice, and this guy said “Oh, here come the gringas.” And in his proclamation was a mixture of distaste, excitement, lecherousness, and anger. The other Brazilian people present promised me that it was just a word, that people don’t mean anything by it. And I agree that sometimes it is just a word, but just as often, it’s a tag for a very complex situation.
Since my first trip to Salvador, I’ve marveled at the bizarre relationship between native Salvadorians and tourists. To imagine that you get your lifeblood from foreigners, people who know nothing about you and have nothing to do with your existence must be infuriating to a certain extent. A gringa can be a lot of things. We’re known as:
And most importantly,
A possible meal ticket.
All of that is mixed in with the tag “gringa.” The word’s origin—the hostility of the Vietnamese War—highlights the darker angers underlying the word. It points to our presence in foreign countries as:
As a group of travelers, Westerners display all those traits and more. It is a difficult group to be a part of, yet there is also a huge sense of entitlement that we take advantage of while traveling under this umbrella. But mostly, I like to keep a low profile. Interact one-on-one, slink by the tourist spots, sit down on the corner and chat with a few artists as the hours fly by. Of course for someone who fits in physically, there are more opportunities to do that, and there are towns that, because of the low numbers of tourists, are less on the tourist hustle.
One of the most laid back trips we took was to Cachoeira. It’s a city three or four hours away from Salvador. The entire city is made up of old architecture. We went on a Sunday so the pace was especially slow. We wandered through the cobblestoned streets unmolested. Checked out the structures, poked our heads into an old convent that had been converted into a hotel and stopped at a place covered in intricate woodcarvings for lunch. One of the things Cachoeira is popular for, besides the woodcarvings, is its liquors. They make liquors out of every fruit imaginable: caju, caja, lemon, ginger, passion fruit, pineapple, raisins, the list goes on and on. Inside the liquor shops you can buy a small plastic cup of your favorite flavor or buy a bottle to take home with you. In the place where the liquors are fabricated, bees hover around drawn to the sweet scents. As we tasted the various flavors, we watched one bee hover dangerously close to the surface of the liquor. Finally, the bee fell in and drowned in the sweet liquor that had tempted him(?) so.
When our host stopped by a second liquor joint for a drink, my cousin and I climbed up a little cobblestoned hill to an abandoned church. There we sat on the crumbling steps, felt the breeze and talked. I felt a peace settle in my bones. The stillness of the place surrounded me like a comfort, like a balm and suddenly I knew I was in the right place at the right time. I travel for healing moments like these. When everything feels timeless and I’m attached to neither the past nor the future moment, I really feel like I’ve momentarily left my life for a delicious slice of an illusive existence that only exists in surrender.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
A friend of mine recently asked me about my acceptances and rejections. “How are they?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I told him, “I’m not tallying them for myself.” On my own, I don’t count my acceptances and rejections. And now that I’m counting them here, I don’t memorize the numbers. The purpose of this tally is to demonstrate how often a writer gets rejected. I’m not a high level, high profile writer, and I’m not a low level, low profile writer, so I think I probably have a moderate ratio of acceptance to rejection. I intend to show other writers that they’re in good company when they receive a rejection. Personally, I don’t see a point in literally keeping tally. I simply want to take the sting and stigma off being rejected. I hope I’m doing that for someone with this acceptance/rejection o’meter.
I was rejected from two fellowships. One was a two-year writing workshop at Stanford in California (I think this is my fourth rejection from them) and one was a 9-month fellowship at Radcliffe College in Boston. I also received a rejection from a MFA program that I thought was my backup. I was certain I would be accepted, but I wasn’t. Because I didn’t really want to go, I didn’t put too much stock into the rejection, but a friend of mine suggested that I contact the program and ask why I didn’t make the cut. Although I don’t want to attend, I could get some information about what’s lacking in my applications overall. Especially since I am consistently rejected from fellowships and programs, while simultaneously having a pretty good publication record. She also cited a friend who contacted a university department that rejected her, and after they spoke, the department reversed their decision and admitted her. So I’m planning to contact the school and have a little conversation with them. I’m still waiting to hear from the MFA program I really want to attend and the NYFA grant. (I’m not sure where to put these rejections… I think I’ll put them under residencies/workshops).