Prior to my trip to Europe last February and March, one of my RakasaFit participants suggested I would surely not want to miss the opportunity to get photos in a belly dance costume on the beach while at Canary Islands! In my flurry of preparations focused on the workshops I was to deliver in Budapest, I probably wouldn't have thought about this, so I was glad she mentioned it. But here's the catch -- I'd have to find someone to take these photos, as I was traveling solo. My former sister-in-law whom I was visiting and who'd lived there for decades would be a good possibility. But it turns out she was busy with work and family and suggested it was a simple matter of going to the beach and asking someone to take a photo.
Anxiety crept in as I visualized this. How would I bypass my lifelong shyness and social inhibitions to approach a complete stranger with this request while wearing a belly dance costume? Or what if I made an unlucky choice and the stranger runs away with my phone? After delaying about as much as I could, a couple days before my flight departure I shove myself out the door in my costume and shimmy down to the beach. It's just a question of showing up, I tell myself, and not thinking ahead. The rest will find a way, one step at a time. I begin to enjoy the feeling of unthinking, listening to the distant voice, and watching my own movie.
A few steps go by and my eyes settle on the man running the outdoor jetski rental. Hmmm, prepared to meet the public and a safe choice moreover. And so I ask, "I wonder if you could take a few photos of me in front of the sea?"
"Clothes on, or clothes off?" he responds.
The self watching my own movie howls with laughter! All at once I realize I'm just one of many with this idea to approach him with such a photo request! And clearly these requests have fallen in two categories! I pause for a moment, as the self watching my own movie is tempted to choose the "clothes off" option in order to find out his response. I also pause at the notion that numerous others before me must have requested this, in order for my question to require such clarification.
"Clothes on," I smile, and explain that the special costume I'm wearing is my purpose. He agrees, hurriedly secures his shop, and we take a few steps down to the shore and take some shots. Less than a minute later, he hands me my phone and hurries back to his shop. His disinterest amuses me, further underscoring the narrative of the many requests that came before me.
And then that's it? I think. All this preparation for a few shots in less than 60 seconds ? I decide to proceed further down the beach and repeat the process. I expect it to feel easier now that I've tried it, but it becomes hard again as I consider the awkwardness of approaching an unsuspecting tourist minding his own business. It occurs to me that I'd feel much better about asking a woman, and that's what I do. The woman I approach is with her male partner. She turns out to be Italian and barely understands my request in English, which would have been in Spanish, if only I knew how.
Contrary to the previous "photographer" she is effervescent with interest in the whole idea. She suggests new angles and poses as her artistic discovery unfolds. Many photos later, we agree to finish and I express my heartfelt thanks. In her eyes I see an unmistakably bright soul, glowing with a million stars. Arriving back in Budapest for a few more days before my return to the US, I immediately learn of an emergency outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, one of the first dominoes to fall in what was to quickly become a massive global health crisis. Casualties were piling high in Italy as the rest of the world scrambled to understand how to minimize the spread of this novel virus, in a panic to avoid the same fate. I think of this Italian woman, imagining the shock of her return from Canary Islands to face this nightmare, a destiny we would soon share.
Ⓒ 2020 - All rights reserved.
Thank you for reading! With the pandemic, my usual work as a presenter, teacher, and event organizer has been nearly eliminated. I'm nonetheless making good use of my time, and community building through writing, photos, and video is one of them. If you wish to support this, please send a contribution of any amount through PayPal or CashApp and connect on the various social channels. --With gratitude, Suzanna.
My theatre professors used to advise writing down all initial impressions immediately upon reading or watching a play. These initial impressions would soon be forgotten with familiarity, and were key to knowing what to highlight for the audience. Thus, I note my initial impressions of Brazil, and in particular of São Paulo and a nearby small town Itanhaém. Just a snapshot perspective that is uniquely mine, and will surely become better informed with time.
During the 11 hour flight from LA while approaching Brazil, I spotted Senegal, West Africa on the flight map, just across the Atlantic – the furthest from Seattle I’d been until now. And still more than 5 hours before we’d arrive in São Paulo on the other side of the equator. The world is massive! And so is São Paulo, a megacity of 17 million people. On arrival, passing through the custodial gates of immigration we were suddenly surrounded by a duty free mall on the scale of a Vegas hotel. My mind reeling, I grabbed a couple more pairs of much needed Victoria’s Secret underwear. As we drove to our boutique hotel, it seemed just about every urban surface was decorated with very elaborate graffiti art. Instead of a few logical turns off a freeway exit, it took many tortuous twists through narrow streets to get to our destination, a beautiful modern room at Hotel Mercure, a three-star hotel which had been through a recent remodel.
From a local perspective, everything in São Paulo is expensive. But with dollars, everything is currently affordable, and you get great value for what you pay. Much of the city looks just like Cairo to me, minus the Arabic, but including the layer of smog. Are all megacities using the same manual for urban planning? Perhaps the same investors? In an attempt to address the extreme traffic congestion of São Paulo, drivers are assigned one day per week in which their cars are not allowed on the road.
Having traveled to many places, what is absolutely exceptional about Brazil is the hospitality, warmth, and sense of friendship immediately established. I’m told São Paulo is on the cooler end of this compared to elsewhere in Brazil, such as the north. However, I can’t imagine how humans could be any warmer! Greeting those you encounter immediately is mandatory. And unless you’re passing right through, this exchange will quickly erupt into a multithread conversation and gestures of kindness. Gift giving seems standard practice between guests and hosts, a delightful practice I hope to adopt.
I am convinced this Brazilian social abundance would do wonders for the US. We are in love with their culture in all other ways, so why not? What if saying “hi, how are you” to every neighbor, store clerk, or person standing beside us at a bus stop were so second nature it would appear abnormal and disconcerting if it didn’t occur? I’m currently reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcom Gladwell, wherein he refers to the Power of Context to explain how such minor, seemingly trivial adjustments trigger sweeping changes in social structures. This may be just the antidote for Seattle’s rapid structural transformation and population growth. Not that I’ve ever been any shining example myself. I’m trying to imagine, how will I get past the inhibiting strange glances in response?
Turn on a TV in Brazil and see no thin thighs. All women (of any race) have big strong muscular thunder thighs and butts, and look spectacular! For the first time ever I felt represented by media. Also, perhaps for the first time ever, my hair has volume! Ironically, this is exactly what most Brazilian girls struggle to get rid of with the Brazilian blowout. The coffee, on the other hand, is never big. Served as shots of espresso, it is much stronger. Order a “long” coffee and you’ll get a bit more. But if you’re an addict like me, you’ll still need several.
If I thought the cheese was incredible in France, I just met its rival. Cheese is in, on, or with just about everything, and the pizza is king of them all. There’s no end to what I could write about all food in Brazil. The banana jam. The feijoada. The many tropical fruits. I’m making a vow to myself to take better care of how I eat when back in the US.
On the other hand, everything you’ve heard about the extreme income inequality is true. However, compared to similar environments I’ve traveled, kindness and graciousness seem to prevail over manipulating tourists for financial gain. I’m sure it happens, but I’m used to it being relentless. This makes a big difference. But the dark side of income (and education) inequality in Brazil is violence. Carjacking is common, and significantly more likely to occur when cars are stopped in traffic, which is often. Knowing precisely the route you’ll drive is also vital, particularly in neighborhoods bordering slums, which appear in random patches among more moderate to lower income neighborhoods. One wrong turn down the wrong street could change destiny. And it’s easy to do with so many one-ways.
Much of this tension has subdued since arriving in the quaint rustic beach town of Itanhaém, the second oldest town of Brazil. Nearby the artist house in which I stay is a huge boulder formation said to have been used as a bed by the first Portuguese priest who founded the town. Not sure if that is folklore, but based on the number of condoms tossed on the other side of the pathway, it is a bed indeed. Gazing out to the ocean you spot a few nearby islands.
One of them is the famous but forbidden Snake Island, with the highest concentration of deadly snakes in the world, apparently discovered the hard way by a lighthouse operator and his family in the 1920s. Inside this lovely town is one of the oldest churches in South America, Convent of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, built 483 years ago by enslaved natives of Brazil, those peaceful inhabitants that lived here long before any Europeans arrived. The statues of the saints were carefully fashioned to appear as those traditionally made of ceramic, but instead constructed of carved wood and hallowed on the inside in order to surreptitiously transport gold to Europe.
I didn’t mean this to turn into a lesson on history and culture. In truth, the caipirinha and fresh catch of shrimp squeezed with lime are already becoming my most prominent memories. But history and culture are of intrinsic interest to me, so I suppose this focus was inevitable. You may be wondering, where is the dance? Yes, there has been samba and belly dance. In fact the workshop I took in Seattle with Robert Luu on Zouk just weeks prior to this trip came in exceedingly handy with partner dancing! And it seems I am summoned to perform a belly dance show this evening. But with this geographic distance it’s been important to also accept distance from my creative work, to cleanse and refresh mind, body, and soul.