Read Crossing the River Online
Authors: Amy Ragsdale
List of “Characters”
List of “Characters”
: owner of Pousada da Ada
): wife of Yanomami Headman Julio
: Molly's good friends from school
): son of Yanomami Headman Julio and Adelaide
and Katia's cousin
: master teacher of the capoeira salon
: son of Yanomami Headman Julio and Adelaide
): Skyler's neighborhood gang
: Molly's friend from Missoula
: soccer teammates of Peter's among many others
: the bookkeeper at Imaculada ConceiÃ§ao and mother of Giovanni
: members of the capoeira salon
: Molly's ballet teacher
: our good friend and Portuguese tutor
: our landlady
: family friend and guidance counselor at Imaculada ConceiÃ§ao, the kids' school
: Director of Imaculada ConceiÃ§ao
: Aniete's sister
: Yanomami Headman of the village of Ariabu
: family friends from Missoula
): Molly's good friend and older sister of Victor
: manager of the Pousada Colonial
): Katia's aunt
: mom of Italo, Karol, and Victor
: the kids' PE teacher
: our fifteen-turning-sixteen-year-old daughter
: my husband
): Zeca's uncle
): Aniete's cousin and our
): Zeca's aunt and Robson's wife
: our twelve-turning-thirteen-year-old son
): our guide/translator when visiting the Yanomami villages
: Skyler's English teacher at Imaculada and homework tutor
: our good friend
, I was wakened from my afternoon nap by someone pounding on the door of our third-floor room in an old colonial mansion, which was now a bed-and-breakfast. The person's weight shifted restlessly on the creaking foot-wide floorboards.
. . .”
” I flipped off the light coverlet and sat up on the edge of the bed, alone in the cavernous room. My husband Peter had gone for a run, and our kids had already been swept away by newfound friends. I couldn't pick apart the rat's nest of Portuguese coming through the door, but I instantly understood that it was urgent and was something about my son.
Our family of four had arrived three days earlier in this upriver town in northeastern Brazil, a town of brightly colored nineteenth-century row houses, sunny plazas, and spreading flame trees on an expansive stretch of the Rio SÃ£o Francisco. We would be living here for a year.
I swung the door open to find Breno, our twelve-year-old son Skyler's new acquaintance. Nodding
Okay! Okay! I'm coming
, I fumbled into my flip-flops and followed Breno as he lumbered down the wide dark wood stairs. What could have happened?
Our first night in town, Skyler and his fifteen-year-old sister, Molly, had managed to join a game of soccer. They played barefoot on paving stones, on the lowest tier of a stepped-down plaza. That night, Skyler made two friends, Victor (
in Portuguese) and Breno. Breno was chunky and light-skinned, with chipmunk cheeks and a way of speaking that always sounded as if his mouth was full of bread. Victor was skinny and dark and almost inaudible. They would turn out to be Skyler's friends till the end. But now, Breno was here and Skyler was nowhere to be seen.
As we spilled out the door of the Pousada Colonial into a blast of
sunshine, I saw the long crumbling balustrade bordering the wide river across the plaza and Victor standing by a small, unmarked car. Skyler's orange Crocs dangled from one of his hands. Flip-flops slapping cobblestone, Breno and I panted up to him, sweat popping on my upper lip. Victor's eyes looked worried. He silently handed me Skyler's shoes. I peered into the car. There was Skyler, sitting in front. His blond hair was darkâwith blood.
“I was flipping,” he choked out shakily, “off a stone wall.”
Victor and I scrambled into the backseat, leaving Breno behind, as the car started up a steep hill. I'd learn later that it was an unmarked police car. I had no idea where we were going and had said nothing to the driver, nor he to me. I find when traveling in new places, where I'm not fluent in the language, I frequently trust people I might not as readily trust at home, as though, subconsciously, I recognize I'm not in control.
I reached forward, putting a hand on Skyler's shoulder.
“Sweetie, you're gonna be okay.”
“It won't stop bleeding.” His voice began to crack as he turned to face me.
Peter and I had noticed that, new to town, knowing no one, and bereft of language, Skyler had been pulling out every trick he knew to find a way into a possible group of friends: juggling oranges, solving Rubik's Cubes, flipping off walls. Five years earlier, when we'd begun our raising “global children” experiment in earnest and lived for a year in Mozambique, Skyler and Molly had attended an international school, where they were taught in English. As a result, though they'd acquired a multinational array of friends, they hadn't really learned the local language, Portuguese, unlike Peter and me, who had come away with some ability to communicate, if only in the present tense. We were all quickly realizing that for this year in Penedo, a small off-the-track town, we would have to figure this language thing out.
“I did two backflips”âhe took a big breathâ“no problem. Then I decided”âhis voice began to sound squeezedâ“to try a side flip.”
The car skidded under the carport of the tiny hospital's
The driver still hadn't said a word. Luckily, early on a Sunday, it wasn't busy. Skyler was whisked onto a gurney, surrounded by what
seemed to be the entire staff of ten. They rolled him through the open entrance of the low concrete building, past a reception desk, through swinging double doors, and into a simple room. Its smudged white walls were lined with cupboards, in front of which were a couple of gurneys and an IV stand. Standing at his feet, I watched as a nurse began squeezing water out of a plastic bottle into his wound, cleaning out sand and blood. He looked so small. A deep gash began to emerge, arcing from the crown of his head down to his left ear.
Perhaps I looked more aghast than I realized because I was suddenly ushered out into the hall, where I was asked to
fica um pouco
âwait a little. I sat down in one of the few white plastic chairs scattered along the empty hallway, too dazed to think. I felt as though the little boat cradling our family of four had suddenly been sucked off a calm sea into a whirlpool.
Before long, an older doctor in a long white coat pushed open the door of Skyler's room and walked over to me.
,” he said softly. I didn't need a dictionary to understand that. “
The Family of Man
The Family of Man
E FOUND OURSELVES
in this predicament largely due to my own childhood. My parents had had a yen for travel, which inspired their approach to child rearing. But this approach had started with my father's early wanderlust. In the early 1930s, he'd repeatedly dropped out of college in Seattle to hop freighters to South America and China. Then, almost by accident, he fell into journalism, perhaps seeing a way to make a career out of adventuring. Working his way up from writing ads for an Arizona radio station to reporting news in Hartford, Connecticut, he found himself, within a few years, in Washington D.C. covering the State Department for the
Wall Street Journal
. He then jumped on the first opportunity he had to transfer abroad, this time to cover World War II for
out of London. After the war, he left journalism to teach and eventually became a professor at the University of Wisconsin, but he continued to finagle work abroad every four years. By this time, he'd married my mom, the daughter of a vaudeville-actor-turned-newspaper-editor and an opera singer. Luckily, she was interested in travel, too.
I spent my first two years in Thailand, second grade in the Philippines, most of middle school in Egypt. After each adventure, our small family of three would settle back into our home base, back into American life, in Madison, Wisconsin. As an adult, I found that despite losing my best friends every time I left to live abroad, I felt grateful for this exotic, wide-ranging childhood, for the curiosity it gave me, and the easeâthe feeling that I could comfortably make my home anywhere.
My parents never openly articulated why they went to all that troubleâwhy they risked taking a five-month-old to live in Bangkok, a city with open sewers and snakes in the yard, where I developed chronic diarrhea; or a six-year-old to Manila, where my mother and I
cowered beneath our movie seats, hiding from the gunman who'd disrupted the Saturday-afternoon matinee; or a twelve-year-old to Cairo, when Egypt had reached the height of its tension with Israel and our apartment windows rattled from the bombs taking out planes at the airport. But I suspect that deep down, they knew what they were giving me and that the risks would be worth it.
Those years were exciting and hard. They took work to organize, and they were disruptive, but they pulled us out of our middle-class American lives, and that was good. As a result, I learned to punt when things took unexpected turns. I learned that I didn't have to speak the same language to communicate or to feel what someone very different from me felt. I learned that our way is never the only way. I came to understand that I belong to something much larger than myself, larger than the world of my family or town or class of people or nation. I came to understand in some subliminal, visceral way that I am part of the family of man. I'm convinced those years abroad gave me the best parts of myselfâthe parts that can adapt, empathize, connect.
Along with my growing love of travel, I was developing another passion. During my high school years in the United States, I began to study dance. In the summer of 1973, I attended a dance camp at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington. We took four sweaty classes a day from teachers brought out from New York and Seattle; we practiced our
in ballet and spiraling down to the floor in modern on the worn hardwood of the old officer's quarters. In between
and pirouettes, I explored the overgrown gun emplacements tucked into the fort's rocky bluffs and felt the clammy fog rolling in off the Strait of Juan de Fuca; I mostly did this alone. I felt as though I stood at the edge of the world, at the edge of possibility. The only thing I didn't connect to at camp was my fellow students. It was the summer of Nixon's impeachment hearings. Each night after dinner, I squeezed into the registrar's office where less than a handful of teachers, and I, sat transfixed by the twelve-inch black-and-white TV and listened to Senators Ervin's and Inouye's stern questions. I was fascinated. In the morning, I tromped to breakfast in the old canteen and listened to the other students bemoaning another serving of pancakes and the
devastation it would wreak on the size of their thighs.
Is this the world for me?
That fall, when I applied to college, I applied to schools with no dance. I got into Harvard despite my unusual childhood, or maybe because of it. But it wasn't there that I gained the tools I've needed for life. My abilities to get along with people, to stand up for what I believe, to think critically from a wider perspective have come from conversations at my family dinner table and the down-and-dirty trenches of travel.
One Christmas vacation when I was home visiting, my father, then a journalism professor, held one of his graduate seminars at our house in Madison. He pulled me aside.
“I have a student I'd like you to meet.” I wondered why. Was my generally reticent father becoming a matchmaker?
Mortified, I disappeared into the other room, but not before I got a look at the student in question. He sat at the other end of the living room in the old Victorian chair by the picture window. Tan and green-eyed, with a shock of thick chestnut hair, he sat with the muscular ease of an athlete, relaxed but alert, like a jaguar draped over a branch.
“He's actually kind of cute,” I admitted to my mother, arranging crackers on a plate in the kitchen. I was to learn that he'd grown up not far away on a lake outside of Milwaukee, that he had recently graduated from Dartmouth College and was now a year into a graduate program in journalism.
But what I really wanted to figure out about Peter Stark was whether he had an interest in travelâand I didn't mean a two-week vacation in Venice or Acapulco. I wanted to know if he was of the “hard-traveling” kind; this was one of my make-it-or-break-it criteria for marriageability.
However, that evening in the kitchen of my parents' house in Madison, I didn't have marriage on my mind. After all, I had a boyfriend back at school. I returned to Harvard and completed my degree in art history. But dance had stuck with me. As soon as I graduated, I jumped on an offer to dance with Impulse, a modern-jazz company based in Cambridge. Two years later, my boyfriend and I moved to New York.
There I navigated the juggling world of part-time jobs, dance classes and auditions, and moving from one rental to another. I finally settled in the heart of Greenwich Village in a fifth-floor walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen. In the meantime, my boyfriend and I split up, and my father quietly returned to matchmaking.
Several years had gone by since my first glimpse of Peter in the Victorian chair. On completing graduate school, Peter's first impulse had been to seek out “someplace remote”âmaybe Southeast Asia or Alaska. After finding no openings in the hip, artsy town of Homer, he returned home to Wisconsin, traveling by train through the lower forty-eight. On his way, he passed through Montana.
This looks remote
, he thought. A former Wisconsin editor suggested he check out Missoula, in the mountainous western part of the state. “It's a lot like Madison,” he'd said.
It turned out Missoula was a place I knew. I'd spent every summer of my childhood driving four days each way from our home in Madison, Wisconsin, to our summer cabin on an island in the Puget Sound in Washington State. I'd sat happily in the back of our Chrysler station wagon, gazing out the window and tunelessly singing the signs or anything else that presented itself. “Red door, white window frame,” I'd croon. I'd looked forward to our stop at the Sugar Shack donut shop on Higgins Avenue in Missoula. That usually came around day three. Other than that, I didn't have much sense of the place.
One summer, my dad, recently separated from my mom, came through New York City to scoop me out of my “struggling-artist, Bohemian life” and make the drive across the country. Forty minutes east of Missoula, Montana, we pulled into a gas station. He mentioned that an old student of his had settled there.
“Why don't you give him a call on that pay phone over there,” he said, gesturing to the glass booth in the corner of the overgrown-grass lot. “I'll get gas. Let him know we're close.”
Why should I call him? I don't know him.
I wondered. But I followed instructions.
A half hour later, my father bumped the Volkswagen van into the dirt alley next to Peter's tiny house, innocently looked around, and said, “I'm not sure where his house is. Why don't you get out here and
knock on some doors while I drive farther down?” I got out, and he disappeared. At the first house, Peter opened the door.
We circled each other tentatively for the next five years, spending time in both New York and Missoula, flying to meet each other all over the country, as Peter pursued his budding career as a freelance magazine writer and I performed and toured with a series of small modern dance companies. It was giddy, but I was being careful. I'd been involved in a few overly enmeshed relationships before, or so I felt. I wanted to be sure this time I could keep a clear sense of myself. As we slowly got to know each other through handwritten letters, heart-thumping phone calls, and occasional trysts, I'd hear about his trips to Isle Royale, or Iceland. I began to think maybe he could be the hard-traveling kind, the adventurous partner I had in mind.
It turned out he was. In fact, he was drivenâdriven by a fear that the world was so rapidly homogenizing that soon there would be no culturally distinct societies left intact. “We've got to go there before it's too late,” he'd say. We got married in 1987. In the first years of our marriage, “there” would be China, Greenland, West Africa, the Tibetan Plateau.
On our five-month honeymoon, we traversed China west to east, on foot, by boat, and by bus, negotiating our way through territory not yet open to foreigners. One night on the Tibetan Plateau, after a day of walking behind a horse cart in the rain, I collapsed onto the straw of a horse stable to sleep. I dreamt of a warm pub in Ireland or a sunny sidewalk cafÃ© in France. A few days later, as I dragged the horse we'd dubbed “Fat Freddy” over yet another barren fifteen-thousand-foot pass, I hallucinated about breakfast at the International House of Pancakes, picturing waffles with melting scoops of whipped butter, greasy sausage patties, and bottles of sticky syrup. Instead, the next day we sat on sheepskins, sipping warm yak milk outside a yak-wool tent. Our hostess, a nomadic Tibetan, couldn't take her eyes off me. She suddenly erupted in laughter. When it appeared she wasn't going to stop, we asked our Chinese translator what was so funny.
“She says she's never seen blue eyes like yours, except maybe on a wolf.”
For far-out travel, in Peter, I'd met my match.
We've been lucky. On settling back into Missoula after our honeymoon, I managed to get the only university dance-teaching job in the state. I was hired to head the dance program at the University of Montana, a job with a huge learning curve, as I'd barely taught and had never been part of a university. For the first three years, I just tried to keep breathing, but it was exhilarating. It was a small program, which meant there was lots of freedom to take it in new directionsânothing was entrenchedâand my colleagues were smart, open-minded, and supportive. What there wasn't was lots of money, but no matter; if you were willing to put in the sweat, big things could happen. My cohorts and I created new degrees, added teaching and performance tracks, produced four times as many concerts as had been offered in the past, lobbied for money, and expanded the faculty. Then I began to take stock.
I missed performing. Had I jumped ship too soon? Left New York before I had a chance to really explore its possibilities and my potential? There were no dance companies in Montana, not one. So a colleague and I decided to start a troupe. That's the thing about Montana: If you're willing to put in the work, you can do just about anything. There's no oneâand few institutionsâto dictate the rules. That's how Montanans like it. Over time, I would come to find that along with that freedom comes little structural support, and that can be taxing.
Peter had moved on to writing books and was working at home, in our three-room railroad apartment perched over the Clark Fork River. He had taken over making dinner, tired of waiting for my late-night arrival. Six years after my start at the university, I was putting in sixty-hour weeks: running a dance program, teaching a full load, producing student concerts, and co-directing a small touring company. I was thirty-five, and it suddenly dawned on me that we might want to have kids.
On a Thanksgiving vacation, I went for a walk in the dank woods behind my family's Puget Sound cabin. I came back to a warm fire in the cast-iron stove, flopped down in a wooden chair, and announced happily to Peter that I'd come to a conclusion: I didn't need to be Martha Graham receiving awards at the Kennedy Center; I wanted to
have a more well-rounded life. I told him I thought we should try to have kids. Then I started crying. This was a clue. As I write this, I feel so blessed to have two wonderful children. My heart has expanded in ways I could never have imagined. But I am of the generation that thought that hard-driving career women could, and should, do it all. That struggle for balance, the balance between family and career (an oft-mentioned duo that fails to include time of one's own) is now an epidemic in America. I dove straight into it.
Our first child, Molly, turned two in Irian Jaya, then the name of the Indonesian half of New Guinea. We celebrated with a slice of
Buche de Noel
from a local bakery in Jayapura and gave it to her with a lighted number-two candle and her chopped-up malaria pill. She didn't quite make the twenty-pound minimum for a full dose.
My father, then in his eighties, joined us as we took a small plane from the port of Jayapura up into the Baliem Highlands, home to dozens of rural tribes. Our photo album is filled with pictures of my dad in his lightweight “tropical” suit surrounded by nude men wearing penis gourds; of Molly, her hair a cap of platinum blond, squatting in a circle of black kids; of Molly being toted on the back of a village girl, inside a string bag the women use to carry yams; of Molly (still nursing at the time) squealing with delight at all the bare-breasted women. Just the right start, we thought, for our future child of the world.