Authors: Amy Ragsdale
She ushered us along the verandaâpast casually scattered conch shells, a low-slung hammock, and a windowsill lined with empty blue and green bottles. Skyler brushed a coconut-shell chime, setting off its lackadaisical, hollow clatter. We crossed a walkway to a white stucco bungalow. It was partitioned into several rooms, each without a ceiling, open to the clay roof tiles. Someone perched on a beam could spy into each room, as if looking down into a dollhouse. We threw our bags onto the gray stone floor and returned to the main house, where we joined the other guests at one large table.
A couple, both social workers from Germany, two young Austrian architecture students, and a ruddy-cheeked, white-haired Austrian banker greeted us jovially. The table-wide conversation meandered along pleasantly in English, German, and Portuguese. (Italian-born, Portuguese-raised Ada could speak all of these and more.) Ada zipped in and out, cigarette in hand. Petite, tan, and wrinkled, with short salt-and-pepper hair and alert dark eyes, she monitored the continual flow
of dishes: creamy yam soup, fried fish dumplings with salsa, buttery vegetable stir-fry, and scalloped potatoes. I gratefully slugged down the
waiting at my place, decompressing from the high-speed ride and the daily strains of trying to speak Portuguese. It was such a relief to finally feel I didn't have to be “on,” as we all did in our spotlighted existence in Penedo.
Finishing off our guava ice cream, the kids and I retired to our bungalow to settle in for our nightly ritual of listening to
on an audiobook. Peter stayed to talk to the other guests, basking in the chance to have a more complex conversation, to use words that just spill off your lips.
I stared up through the sweeping white folds of the mosquito net into the underside of the clay roof tiles and watched a white rat run the length of the central beam. In my newly relaxed state, a state I hadn't experienced in months, the rat seemed magical. I wanted to believe it brought good tidings. I felt very content.
We would eventually discover that our state of Alagoas has three kinds of beaches: highway beaches, where people drive their cars into the shallows, unfold chairs, and sit in the ankle-deep water; party beaches, where no cars are allowed but the sand is studded with umbrella-shaded flesh and a parade of vendors; and classic postcard stretches of deserted, palm-lined white sand. Pontal is the latter.
Our first morning, we picked our way through an empty lot, climbing down a rock bulwark to drop onto a vast arc of sun-soaked sand. A luminescent jade ocean broke white over rock reefs. On our left, a sandy bank rose to an airy coconut plantation, trees aligned in rows like elegant couples engaged in some aristocratic dance, fronds bowing and curtseying in the light breeze.
“Do you think I could flip off that?” Skyler asked, pointing to a dip in the sand bank. After splitting his head on the stone wall in Penedo, he'd been plagued by doubts. “I'm never going to be able to flip again,” he'd mumble periodically, a remark that half wanted a response and half didn't, sure that the verdict could only be bad.
Peter and I, both physically oriented people, had consciously let our kids to take some physical risks as part of our child-rearing strategy.
, I mean things like walking on a railing a few feet off the ground, jumping off a wall, climbing trees. We felt that ultimately, our kids would be safer if they developed their physical abilities and had practice calculating the risks. Our guideline for risks was: A broken leg is tolerable. Paralysis is not.
Peter studied the bank. “Yeah. I think you could.” We knew it would be good for Skyler's confidence if he could “get back on the horse.”
Skyler climbed the bank, adjusted his feet, looked back over his shoulder, threw his arms a couple of times overhead, then jumped and landed. He ran over to us, talking fast now.
“How high was my head? Do you have your camera? Did you get a picture? I'm going to do it again. Are you ready?”
It was so good to see him excited about something. I had that same feeling of relief I get when a nagging background soundâa generator, an air conditionerâsuddenly disappears. In perpetual coping mode, I hadn't allowed myself to recognize how much tension I'd been carrying around, like a lead weight in my pocket.
Molly, Skyler, and Peter are much gutsier body surfers than I am. They look eagerly out to sea, watching for good waves to catch. They don't seem to mind the smashing and grinding on the sand when the wave deposits them on the beach.
“Mom,” Skyler suggested, always eager to include me, “if you feel yourself starting to roll forward, just do this”âhe covered his face with his forearmsâ“so you don't break your neck.”
“Whoa, did you see that one?” said Molly, head popping up through warm foam. “I flipped all the way over!”
“I almost lost my suit,” Peter laughed.
I, too, stood chest-deep and faced the great waves, rolling milky green, a smooth wall rising five or six feet in front of me. But inevitably, I chickened out and dove through rather than surfing in. Miraculously, no matter how big they were, even if I was late and the wave was already crashing, I popped out the other side unscathed. If I timed it just right and dove through the glass wall, my body would ripple out behind with a luscious, almost disembodied feeling, as though I were a paper doll fluttering, head toward a fan.
I loved the feeling of just floating on my back, out beyond where
the waves broke; of feeling my body, so light, being carried high on a swell and then sliding down the back side; or of letting my legs dangle down, the wave gently lifting me off the sandy bottom before setting me lightly down again. Sometimes I tried leaping toward shore with the wave as it rose and was lofted up, suspended on a cushion of water, better than dancing with any human partner.
I loved the feeling of being so connected through my senses. For once, my mind was in storage. I wasn't worrying about my family trying to adapt to a foreign country; I wasn't in hyperdrive, preparing for a dance performance; I wasn't plotting out the next step, checking things off the list.
As an academic, I'd had long vacations and always marveled that, even then, I could never completely relax. The first time I'd managed to, it had required leaving the countryâsetting up house in Maputo; establishing a simple, daily routine of coffee on the balustrade-rimmed terrace of an old colonial hotel; gazing blankly for hours at the turquoise pool and the vastness of the Indian Ocean beyondâbefore my mind would release its grip. This was the second time, finally, at the end of September, almost into month four. It made me wonder how one lets down in the States when one doesn't have so much time and what happens to a body that's continually revved.
We'd been caressed by this all-encompassing warmth on other visits to the tropics. Chubby-legged Molly had run naked on the beaches of Bali; baby Skyler had nestled into a soft Spanish breeze; waves had launched our bodies off the shores of Mozambique. It's easy to understand why, in these climates, the drive to “do” just slips away, why the faces of people in these places look so relaxed, so soft. They have none of the pinched tension, the clenched muscles I see in most of the places I've livedâWisconsin, Massachusetts, New York, Montanaâthe frigid north, where people have to “do” just to stay warm.
An afternoon passed, and the next morning; then we had to catch the van back to Penedo. We'd thought of nothing but crashing waves, the great spread of sky, the gentle swivel of palm fronds, the amniotic warmth of the water. We slipped back into Penedo, skins crusted with salt, muscles warm with sun, limp and relaxed.
WO WEEKS LATER
, the distress was back.
“Why do I have to go to school?” Skyler wanted to know again. Clearly the question was rhetorical, the vent through which blew his general anxiety and frustration.
It was late September. Both Molly and Skyler had been chosen to play on Imaculada's
teams and had just returned from a five-day competition in Bahia, ten hours and two states away. Hoping that a few months of language immersion would improve Skyler's school situation, we'd asked him to stick it out at Imaculada until the Bahia trip, after which we would reconsider his options; maybe homeschooling would be better.
When they'd left for Bahia, we had watched them standing alone amid the swarm of classmates and teachers. They'd bravely marched forward, their small bags (Skyler's old Missoula soccer bag and Molly's carpet bag from Bali) looking unlike anyone else's, and handed their luggage over to be loaded into the belly of the bus. Skyler was armed with Rubik's Cubes, number puzzles, and Uno cards. Molly had a book. Many of the guys had brought drums. Skyler's math teacher had a guitar. I was so proud of my kids. If I'd had to spend five days in nonstop, Portuguese-speaking company, I would have bolted.
During their trip, Peter and I scored a much-needed date, our own five-day trip, to Salvador, for a dose of fine dining, English-language bookstores, big-city museums, and artâa chance to check in with each other, assess our situation.
What I mostly remember from that trip was the evening we spent on the deck of a yacht club restaurant on the BaÃa de Todos os Santos, sipping a cold Riesling and eating artisan cheeses under the overhanging
arm of an enormous plane tree. The light shifted from pale blue to aquamarine to cobalt as the boatsâtwo-masted schooners, enormous motor cruisersâgentled into their slips. It was even romanticâa feeling that had become sadly alien during the logistics-filled years of work and parenting.
In Salvador, I felt I was floating on the cushion that comes with money and international sophistication. I sank into the lushness of it all, thinking it doesn't take much. I was reminded of the time during our honeymoon crossing China, when Peter and I had emerged from weeks of walking across Qinghai Province, into the polished gold lobby of a twelve-story hotel in Chengdu. That evening, we'd sat in the rooftop garden, savoring a gin and tonic imported from England. It had seemed the ultimate luxury.
There in Salvador, Peter kept saying, “Penedo is so small,” as though he were wondering what to do with it. I was afraid to pursue the remark, afraid to delve into what I feared I'd findâthat he was feeling purposeless and unhappy, that he wanted to go home. To me, turning around now felt daunting and like admitting defeat; and what would that do for the kids, for building their confidence?
I was also beginning to wonder if there was a gender divide. I had noticed before, among older retired friends, that the women often began to travel, sometimes almost obsessively trying to see the rest of the world in the time they had left, while the men tended to stay home. I was beginning to see the same divide in our family. While no one was finding it easy, Molly and I were more readily embracing the experience. Granted, our experience as females was different than Peter's and Skyler's as males, not just because of who we were but also because of the difference in male and female worlds in Brazil. Molly's friends weren't yelling at her when she made a mistake or pushing her to do things socially that made her uncomfortable. I didn't have to prove myself on a soccer field the way Peter did. But I did seem to be trying to prove that we could do this, live immersed in a very different culture than our own. I didn't want to feel I was forcing everyone else in my family into my experiment, however, so when Peter repeated, “Penedo seems so small,” I let the observation hang.
We made sure we got back to our little ridgetop house the evening before the kids' midnight return. When they fell through the front door, dropping their duffels onto the floor, exhausted, Molly's universe had flipped. “It was sooooo fun! I'm really glad I went. It was craaazy. The two girls I roomed with were great.”
But Skyler's had not.
“It was okay. I didn't get to play very much.”
“But Skyler, you made a goal!” said Molly, trying to buck him up.
“Yeah. But you made two.”
“Yeah, but we lost. But that was okay. I just felt bad 'cause my team depends on me so much. But your team was great.”
“Oh, yeah, and there was this guy, he did a rainbow
a bicycle kick. He was amazing.” Skyler's bad mood was gone, just like that. Pubescent hormones?
“On the bus home, they improvised songs that were about all of us,” Molly continued. “At first, I was sort of mad about the one they made up about me, but then it was okay. The whole bus was singing, â
NÃ£o, nÃ£o, nÃ£o, nÃ£o quero ficar com ninguem
,'”âNo, no, no, I don't want to kiss with anyoneâ“because I'd said I didn't want to
at this dance they had.”
“Did you guys sing or play guitar?”
“Skyler played a little guitar. It was really fun.”
My hopes raised, I was especially disheartened when Skyler woke up feeling down again. It was Friday morning, two weeks after Pontal, one week after Bahia and time for the big discussion with Skyler about school. Round One.
We'd been trying to walk the line between letting Skyler make the decisionâeither recommit to Imaculada or change to homeschoolingâand making it ourselves. I'd been wondering whether we were copping out as parents by putting the decision too much on him. Part of our dilemma was that we weren't feeling clear about what would be best ourselves; there was the social/psychological situation, which was clearly tough at Imaculada, and then there was also the education.
While, as teachers and writers, Peter and I felt we could design writing projects about a variety of subjects, we had no formal training in age-appropriate curriculum. On the other hand, we weren't too worried, as we believed much of the education he was getting, and that we valued, had nothing to do with school.
That Friday morning, thinking a change of scene might make the discussion easier, Peter and I nudged Skyler out of the house. We were silent for the ten-minute walk down the ridge. After Skyler plowed through two chocolate-and-vanilla swirls, we caught a
This brightly painted cigar-shaped passenger ferry would carry us across the river, a twenty-minute trip, to Carrapichu, a hill town that specialized in making ceramics. We'd thought it would be fun to be on the water, but it wasn't. Skyler sat across from us on the long bench that rimmed the wall, the coming conversation hunkered down on the floorboards between us. The boat had turned upriver, hugging the far shore of an island to take advantage of the weaker current. I looked past Skyler, through the square openings in the wall, and concertedly examined the water hyacinths caught in the eddy, with their round, juicy leaves and conical lavender flowers.
As we came abreast of the town, the captain ferried the little tube across the current and nosed it up onto the shore. The fare collector hopped out and slid the gangplank down onto the sand. Hunched under the ferry's low ceiling, we made our way to the stairs and climbed up into the sunlight. We began the slog up the steep main street.
Ceramics spilled out of every houseâgarishly painted vases, cookie-cutter figurines of drunken cowboys, placid farm animalsâall laid out on the sidewalk to dry. Our destination was a small plaza with a bougainvillea-draped arbor where we could order a soda pop and sit down at a yellow plastic table. After ordering a couple of Cokes, we sat, stiffly, looking out over the river to the slip of island across the channel. I suddenly realized we'd inadvertently trapped Skyler, literally up the river without a paddle. It didn't go well.
“Skyler, you have the power to make a change in your life,” I started. Peter stood by listening. “You've been saying it's
life, so it should be
choice. So now you have a chance to make a choice to change something, probably for the better.”
“I don't want to be homeschooled!”
“Well, that's not the only option. Let's talk about all the options. Should we make a list of pros and cons?”
“Okay. Let's make a list of pros and cons. What would be the pros of staying at Imaculada?”
“So does that mean there are no pros?”
“Okay, what about the cons?”
“Okay, it sucks. I'm writing down
. Why does it suck?”
“I don't know. It just does.” A pause. “I hate Brazil.”
The conversation went on like this until Skyler, who had already walked off once to jump over the retaining wall onto the grassy hill below, said he needed to take a walk, by himself. “Okay, but come back with some thoughts about what you want to change,” I said. As usual, this wasn't turning out to be the neat, rational conversation I'd envisioned.
He stalked off across the street. I felt the town was small and quite safe. Peter wasn't so sure. “I feel like following him.”
“I think he'll be okay.”
“But it could be hours. The next
is at eleven thirty. I don't think we should do this all day.” He left to follow Skyler up the side street.
A couple of young men riding bareback came galloping down the hill past me. Earlier, there had been a number of small horse-drawn carts laden with hunks of gray clay. Today must be clay-delivery day. I liked the horsiness of this town; the day we'd come here to pick up our commission of ceramic dinner plates, six horses had been tied up in front of the town library, like horses in the old American West tied up in front of the saloon.
On our way up, looking at some of the newly fashioned wares drying outside people's houses, Peter had noted, “They make the ugliest statues.”
“I don't think they're so bad,” Skyler had retorted, eager to oppose.
“I rather like the one-eared goat,” I said.
“I think that's an accident,” Skyler had said.
“Sometimes accidents turn into the best things. Somehow, with the one ear, he's more . . .” I searched for the word.
“Appealing,” Skyler tried, suddenly caught up in the question rather than the fight.
“Yes, more appealing. More expressive.”
In the midst of all our turmoil, amid the heels-dug-in resistance, we'd have good moments like these: as long as we didn't talk about schoolâabout the hours of struggling to understand in Portuguese or of spacing out, crazy with boredom; about the castigations on the
court, which no local seemed to take personally but which Skyler had a hard time shaking off; about the unrelenting pressure to kiss girls.
I had my back to Skyler and Peter when they returned, Peter in the street, Skyler hugging the wall of houses. But I knew they were coming because the woman facing me at another table made that slight lift of the chin that says, “Over there.”
We walked back to the landing, Skyler ahead of us. Round One: stalemate.
Watching Skyler struggle with adapting to life in Penedo, and hearing Molly's realization that it would not be as easy to make friends here as it had been in their English-speaking school in Mozambique, I was filled with awe at what we were doing in Brazil and also wondering how I'd managed not to analyze the situation better before we'd committed to it. We were not as far “out” as some, like missionaries or anthropologists, but we were definitely out there, more than my family had ever been when I was growing up.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about living abroad as a child, being a three-timer myself as a kidâin Thailand, the Philippines, and Egyptâand having already done it twice with our own children, in Spain and Mozambique. I was convinced that although the experience was not always fun, one would definitely come out richer for it. I, too, had been dropped, cold, into a school in another languageâat the same age as Skyler was now. But there were small
differences that may have made all the difference between an experience that was difficult but also fun, and one that was just difficult.
My family always lived in big citiesâBangkok, Manila, Cairoâwhich had international communities from which to draw one's friends. My parents had access to a circle of intellectually stimulating, internationally sophisticated,
locals. We didn't have that in Penedo. Though I went to a French school in Cairo, two other students there were native English speakers. They were my friends; in retrospect, they were my only friends. There were no kids like this for Molly and Skyler in Penedo.
So at the end of September, the kids' third month in school, Peter and I were asking ourselves: Do we stick this out because we set out to do it, by God, or do we bail? If we're willing to bail, how long do we wait to see if it gets better? How much better is enough? Do we resign ourselves to a hard year on the theory that in the end it will be a “growth” year? How much do we subject our children to suffering, so that they can learn from it? How much are they suffering? Not only were we in the unknown culturally, we were also in the unknown of our own psyches and, more agonizing for Peter and me, meddling with the unknown of our children's psyches. Just because living abroad turned out well for me, I couldn't assume it would for them.
So then came Saturday. It was the first day of the
Jogos da Primavera
âthe spring games, spring starting in October in the Southern Hemisphere. As we understood it, all the schools from town and the surrounding communities would participate in fifteen days of sports competition, including
, swimming, and running races. And there were some big competitors, like the public school down the street with its student body of six thousand (three five-hour shifts daily of two thousand students each, morning, afternoon, and evening). Being good all-around athletes, Molly and Skyler had been invited to do just about everything.