Andrea and I were proud of ourselves. After spending most of our vacation mornings sleeping in – even though the excuse of jetlag started to wear thin after a week – we had beaten the sun this morning. Granted, it was a rainy day and the sun never emerged through the clouds anyway, but if it had, it would have found us smugly awaiting our taxi with bellies full of fruit and coffee.
Our accomplishment, like most, was a product of necessity. We were flying to Natal from Rio at 10:30AM, and aware of the potential traffic resulting from a mass transit strike, we set 3 alarms, each to progressively annoying songs, our phones hiding in different parts of the room so that we were forced to stand up and walk to turn them off. American ingenuity at its finest.
At the airport, we stumbled through the automatic boarding pass machine, unaware that there was an option for English on the screen until it was too late. Our ability to decipher Portuguese into basic English constructions was sharpened by our misadventures in Rio, getting lost in dozens of identical streets. Her fluency in Spanish and my familiarity with broken English made for a surprisingly effective navigational tool, given the fact that neither of these were in any abundance in the city.
Our boarding passes burped out of the machine, which looked like it had miraculously survived the holocaust that is technological progress since the 1980s. Had I been more observant, I’m certain there was an Oregon Trail option next to the button to translate the screen into English; the slot that scanned my passport looked suspiciously sized to accommodate floppy disks, too. But true to spirit, I felt a great satisfaction in forging an unnecessarily difficult path to my desired destination.
“Boarding time 19:30? Is that AM or PM?”
I felt my phone vibrate. Having worked on a marine corps base for several years, I was aware of what I thought of as “military time.” There was no 19:30AM. I checked my phone, and sure enough, an email had just popped up informing me that our flight had been moved.
We now had close to 12 hours to kill. We talked until we started annoying each other. We read until our eyelids lumbered. We shuffled until we were too frustrated to continue the charade of actually sleeping in an airport. And we voyaged the internet until our phones were nearly dead. Event horizon was at hand.
* * *
While in Brazil, Andrea and I marveled at how diverse the country was. Though we expected people to all look like sun kissed South American beauties, we were both taken aback to see a spectrum ranging from blonde-haired/blue-eyed to charcoal black. Everything from Aryan to African. The woman running our bed and breakfast, Valaria, simplified it in a way that only English learners can. “Brazil has no face,” she said. Though she labored to say this, we heard it as poetic and provocative, her piecemeal vocab sheltering universal truth. That we found an endearing humanity in her butchered speech was almost certainly not reciprocated by the Rio natives upon hearing me parrot Portuguese translated from an app. That projection was reinforced (frequently) by observation: the pained, disgusted scrunch of their face like I had just punched their sense of national pride in the face with my query for fresh juice. Had it not been for my pitiably earnest effort they would have gladly parried it with a very real, physical punch to my face. Instead, they simply directed me to the nearest suco fresco, the word for fresh coincidentally double-counting as the slang word for homosexual. If it weren’t for Andrea by my side, the type of juice I would have been drinking could have been quite different.
In spite of my comical attempts at blending in, not once – but many times – people approached me speaking Portuguese. “Hello, fellow countryman, where might I go to find attire as casually refined as yours? I hope to become as bold and debonair as your board shorts and tank top combo suggests you are, and maybe one day learn the art of flushing toilet paper in the toilet, instead of gingerly placing it in a nearby trash can.” That must have been the gist, though my translating app wasn’t quick enough on the draw to be sure. In response, I held my hands up, shook my head and said, “sorry, no comprende,” hoping that he might know enough English or Spanish to know I had no clue what he was saying (and if he didn’t know either language, he would at least understand I spoke a complex dialect combining bland, diluted R sounds of white folk with the sexy rolling Rs of latin-based languages – really I just wanted him to go away thinking of me as a mysterious, sexy foreigner).
The toilet paper thing, by the way, is no joke. For what I presume to be a lack of confidence in the structural integrity of their plumbing and sanitation systems, you are supposed to toss your used toilet paper in the accompanying trash can next to the toilet. The result being a potent gaseous mixture of numerous skidded tissues, a We Are the World of shit-stain unity. The bathroom stalls were sweat-inducing; the stench was like a sadistic version of the Planeteers, but instead of Captain Planet, all those fecal remnants combined to form one all-powerful Anus. Using the bathroom abroad, if nothing else, will make you proud to be an American.
* * *
Back at the airport, I panicked. With hours left on the clock, my phone was on its deathbed. I frantically hopped from one faulty outlet to another. I finally found one by a water fountain, where I had to wiggle the cord and adapter to an exact position in order to receive a charge. I breathed a sigh of relief, noting how much sleeker my American cord was in lieu of the Brazilian adapter – a clean, soft rectangle compared to the clunky triangular mess. My phone was charging, so I opened my book.
Shortly after, a voice penetrated my focus. “Is this seat reserved?” Absent of the long emphasis on second and third syllables, as well as the qualifier of “my friend,” the voice was markedly not Brazilian. Rather, it was a tall European man, shuffling his red passport into his pocket. I took my bookmark off the seat and smiled, motioning to him that it was indeed not reserved, free for him to sit. I resumed reading. At some later moment, I audibly chuckled at a passage from my book, which struck the man’s curiosity.
“What is so funny?”
Not knowing how to reply, and frankly a little shocked and annoyed by his disregard for my individual privacy, I flopped the cover into his view and asked if he had read the book before. He shook his head no.
“Oh. It’s very clever,” I explained, thinking that was a more Euro-friendly word than “funny.” They say “brilliant” instead of awesome, so I strained for sophistication, if for nothing else than to make him feel more comfortable. His eyes lit up.
“Americans – they love clever!”
Perhaps I was hungry, or the fact that I was in a lukewarm airport with a fickle phone charger, or the lingering anus musk from my last bathroom visit, but for whatever reason I was more irascible than usual, and this response annoyed me. I was born in Canada and grew up in Hawaii – the title of American was one I wore loosely, regardless of what the eagle in my passport said. American stereotypes were dull and flat to me; despite having faced similar accusations in the past, being loud, fat, ignorant and white never struck me as uniquely “American.” Where I’m from, people who fit those descriptions were called tourists, not Americans. It was a distant concept, and besides, who doesn’t like clever? I don’t care where you’re from, that’s just a weird thing to say.
“Yes,” I said with my warmest smile, “Europeans are not very clever.”
He didn’t believe my smile, getting up while muttering something in his native tongue. My phone was still charging, but I could translate it myself: “Steupid American, I spit on you.” My passport beamed within my pocket – the eagle never looked so smug, the flag never so windblown.
Minutes later, a young family with the same red passport walked by. The young boy, maybe 6 or 7, opened a treat and threw the wrapper on the ground, right next to the garbage can. Europeans, I harrumphed to myself. I gladly heaved myself up from my slovenly recline to pick up after the boy. I said “you’re welcome” loud enough to be heard by whatever audience was nearby, though the actual perpetrators were no longer in earshot. It didn’t matter, the message was for everyone. Never before had I felt so American.