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Authors: Amy Ragsdale

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We arrived in June of 2004, deplaning onto broken tarmac. We filed into a single airport building that looked awfully small for the country's capital, a city of millions. In Maputo, Skyler attended first grade and Molly fifth at the American International School of Mozambique. There was nothing very American about it. The teachers were British, South African, and Mozambican, and the system, as far as we could tell, was largely South African. The students came from all over the world—mostly Europe and Africa—and many spoke not one or two, but three or four languages.

“Mom, why do I just speak English?” six-year-old Skyler came home asking. “Mikas”—his Lithuanian/Danish friend—“speaks four languages.”

By the end of our year abroad, Peter and I could speak pidgin Portuguese, but the kids could barely speak any.

When we decided to live abroad again, we agreed to continue to pursue Portuguese. That narrowed our choices right down. There are five countries after Mozambique where Portuguese is the official language: Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Portugal, Angola, and Brazil. We'd barely traveled in South America despite it being our continental neighbor, and Brazil, as a BRIC country, was poised to make its entrance onto the international stage. We thought it might be good
to have a firsthand understanding of this fifth-largest country in the world. Brazil it would be.

My father had recently died and left me a little money. It would go to funding our next year abroad. And this time, the kids had made a request: to find “a small town, with a local school.” They wanted to be bilingual. They wanted to be immersed. Peter and I wondered if they understood how challenging that might be.

2
2

Not Too Big. Not Too Small.
Not Too Big. Not Too Small.

 

O
N
N
OVEMBER
28, 2009, two days after Thanksgiving, Peter and I stood at the railing of an airport balcony. We looked down at our kids on the other side of the maze of conveyor belts, plastic barriers, and uniformed TSA agents. They were standing with my mother, who had moved to Missoula to be closer to her grandchildren. We waved good-bye, bought a last latte, and boarded a plane. Our sights were set on Brazil. We would have ten days to scout the northeastern coast in search of a town, a place to live for a year.

Our plan was to land in Salvador, Brazil's first colonial capital; rent a car; and drive to the port city of Recife, three states away. We were searching for the perfect spot for round two of raising global children. I don't think Peter and I had spent this much time alone together since Molly had been born, fifteen years earlier.

I've always liked these long airplane trips and, since having children, have come to especially appreciate the enforced time in limbo: the time to read random magazine articles just for fun, the time to let my mind skip as I gaze out the porthole of a window. It seems that, as a working mother, these wiled-away hours sitting on planes are the few hours I've found that are just for me.

For years, I'd felt overwhelmed at work, overwhelmed at home, and my kids had been catching it, from me and from everyone around them. When did we Americans start having to be so good at everything? How many times have you heard someone say that if your kids don't start soccer at age six, they won't be able to play in high school? When did sports seasons start overlapping, because if you don't hit the ice rink while the summer sun is still burning or start indoor soccer training before the snow melts, your team won't win? When did winning become the primary goal?

How many psychotherapists have you heard saying that you need
to learn how to just be, that you're not defined by doing. But where does one find the time as an American adult, or now even as a kid, to stop doing, to see what it's like to just “be,” when you feel you have to keep your pace on the track or risk losing your spot? When you feel you need to excel in your job, nurture your partner, and provide opportunities for your kids so they can fill their lives with extracurricular activities (chosen for their resume points), get into a top-notch college, stack up those summer internships, and land that dream job, that surefire path to success?

So here I was again, kneeling at the altar of the world, not only hoping to hand down some of the gains from my traveling childhood to my own kids, but also searching for a way out of the hole I'd dug for myself, that limitless hole full of endless striving. Here I was, looking for a way to regain balance and joy. It was time to get myself, and our kids, off the track and into life. I was gambling that living abroad would serve our kids as it had served me,
and
I was hoping it would give me back some of the perspective I'd lost in my scramble to keep up with daily American life.
This
is why Peter and I were taking off for Brazil.

The plane rounded the corner of the tarmac, pointed itself down the runway, and began to pick up speed. I put my hand on Peter's knee.

“This is my favorite part,” I said, as I always do at that moment on a plane, exhilarated by the prospect of adventure.

There's no direct way to get from Montana to northeastern Brazil. We were on day two, flight four of our scouting trip, returning north after a long detour south to São Paulo. The plane was following the coastline. To our right, jade-green water deepened into slate gray. On our left, one white-frilled beach followed another, fringed by a line of shaggy palms that morphed into rolling green hills.

Ever since we'd thought of living in Brazil, we'd asked anyone who'd been there, or was from there, where
they
would want to go.

“The northeast,” they'd all said.

“It's where all the great music and dance is.”

“It's the African part of Brazil.”

Later, on a good day, Peter would describe it as “like the American
Deep South. Laid back, slower paced.” On a bad day, he'd call it a “backwater.”

The ocean suddenly split to the left in a great inland scoop, the Baía de Todos os Santos, All Saints Bay. White buildings were visible ahead on the point. We were coming down into Salvador, a city of two and a half million. Miles of modern high-rises, patchy scabs of tin-roofed shacks, and then sand dunes slid away below us. The tires bumped and skidded onto the runway.

Unlike airports in Africa or Asia, where we'd been funneled into a whirlpool of sweating bodies with something to sell—“Transport?” “A place to stay?”—the airport in Salvador was a breeze. In less than an hour, we'd collected our bags, upgraded our rented Fiat to one with air conditioning, and begun picking our way through knots of highway interchanges onto ever-narrowing streets, from arteries to veins to capillaries, into town.

“Let's try for Barra,” I said, perusing our guidebook as we slowed for jaywalking crowds. “The
Lonely Planet
says it's Salvador's new happening neighborhood, good nightlife”—something we hadn't had much of lately—“and close to the Pelourinho. I guess that's the old historic part of town.”

Old colonial houses peeked out between jumbled high-rises. Billboards advertised “Shopping Barra,” a mall.

“Do you think we can park here?” Peter was leaning on the steering wheel in a tiny cramped street, peering up at a sign with the letter
e
in a crossed-out circle. “What do you think that means?”

We walked along the waterfront under almond trees, their donkey-eared leaves dipping in a quiet breeze, enviously scanning the prone bodies packing city beaches. We checked into the third hotel we found. The first two had been expensive, American prices. The third was cheap, for a reason. Our room was a dim cubicle that looked as though it were rented out by the hour, but it had a window overlooking the bay. I scanned the kaleidoscopic whirl of beach umbrellas, searching for the source of the syncopated drumming.

“Peter! There're some guys doing capoeira!”

I squinted through the window, watching a pair of brown, muscled men, bare-chested in white pants, crouch and spin, fanning their legs
high to the sound of the drums and the twang of a single steel string strapped to a stick. My body started to rock and shift, in time with their sweeping legs and diving heads.

As a modern dance professor, I'd wanted to study this Brazilian martial art/dance form for years, knowing its upside-down, acrobatic movements had had a huge influence on break dance and hence the current look of modern dance. Capoeira had begun to appear in bigger American cities in the 1970s, but the closest teacher I could find in Montana was five hundred miles away. This was one reason we were looking for a town in the northeastern part of Brazil. That was where the most famous
quilombo
had been established, a community of escaped slaves, and where capoeira, used by slaves to resist their Portuguese masters, was refined, then banned, then eventually legalized and codified. We wanted to go to the source. I was afraid, however, that at age fifty-two, I might be ten years too late to handle its handstands and head spins.

We spent the next couple of days floating on the warm waves of the South Atlantic, eating seafood and coconut milk stews in outdoor restaurants and downing
caipirinha
s, the local version of a gin and tonic, made with sugarcane alcohol and lime juice. We poked around the hilly cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho, the historic neighborhood that had been home to Jorge Amado. His books had wowed the world with the colorful, if violent, story of the settling of Bahia, this land of sugarcane and coffee plantations. Peter and I thought we'd love to live in this city of millions with its art galleries, nightclubs, and swank high-rises with names like “Da Vinci” and “Warhol.” We'd enjoy a chance to be part of its glittering international community. But the kids? We remembered our assignment to find a small town. They wanted to be immersed in Portuguese language and Brazilian life. Maybe they knew what they were talking about. After all, they were no strangers to travel.

Getting out of Salvador is a project, no matter how you work it, whether inland by looping four-lane highways, or through the beach crowds along the water, the way Peter and I did. After only four days in Brazil, we missed our kids but were also enjoying our freedom.
We dodged our little Fiat—zippier than our used Subaru back home—through barefoot crowds of bronzed bodies. Then we passed a wrecked taxi: up on the curb, bifurcated by a fallen steel telephone pole. The car looked like a crushed soda pop can.

I flashed back to careening through the streets of Cairo when I was twelve, my fingers clutching the squishy backseat of a cab as my father tersely told the driver the one phrase he had learned in Arabic: “I'm not in a hurry.”

Soberer now, we made our way more slowly out of town onto the Linha Verde—the Green Line—the two-lane coastal highway that veers to the northeast and heads out toward the tip of Brazil's bulge. As landlocked Montanans, we had decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that it would be nice to find a town on the ocean.

The road wasn't crowded. There were none of the top-heavy trucks, axles askew, moving diagonally down the highway that we'd seen in other developing countries. Rather, the occasional shiny SUV; maybe an air-conditioned, double-decker luxury bus; a pickup or two. The road, although narrow, looked newly paved. The foliage shifted from palms to bamboo to drier pine. We spent the night in tiny Praia do Forte, home to a sea turtle conservation center and weekend condos overlooking a small harbor. Could this be our town? No. Charming, but too small and too touristy.

We crossed the border into the state of Sergipe, cattle country. The walls of thick foliage thinned and gave way to dry rolling hills, humpbacked white Brahma cows, and stunted inland palms. We swung back out to the coast and pulled into Sergipe's sprawling capital, Aracaju. Though the downtown's five- to six-story buildings were more modern, they looked worn out, tired.

“Arajacu? Aracaja? Why is this name so hard to remember?” we said laughing, wondering if we would ever get a grip on Portuguese.

After driving miles out of town along a sand-swept beach highway, in search of a nonexistent hotel listed in our guidebook, we backtracked, checked into another, and crossed the busy ocean drive, lit by nighttime stadium lights. Trekking across a deserted beach, narrowing our eyes against gritty, blowing sand, we tumbled down a steep bank
and fell into the ocean for a swim in the dark. The verdict: too big, too windy, too soulless. We crossed Aracaju off the list. At breakfast the next day, we pulled out the map.

“Hey, Peter, this looks good. Penedo, in the state of Alagoas. It's a small town. It's not on the ocean, but it's on a big river, and it's only . . . maybe . . . thirty kilometers up from the coast.”

We looked it up in the guide.

“‘Colonial masterpiece of the state,'” I read, “and you get to it by car ferry. I love that!” When I was growing up, one could only get to my family's cabin on the island in Puget Sound by car ferry.

Leaving Aracaju, we headed inland and poked along the main two-lane highway. It was clogged with earth-moving equipment. The operators seemed to have torn up the road and then left for a permanent coffee break. Finally, we pulled off onto the route that cut down to the Rio São Francisco. The view suddenly improved, as though we'd flipped to a prettier calendar page. The fields were greener. Ample, spreading trees stood alone, blooming white. A hill town rose to the left, its entrance drive lined with geometrically clipped bushes. Fluttering stands of eucalyptus flanked another rise. The road dropped. There was the river.

“Whoa, it's wide,” said Peter, a canoeist, eyeing the whitecaps on cobalt blue.

We pulled into the slanted cobblestone ferry slip. Ramshackle buildings squatted on either side. There were no lines, no designated places to park. A couple of men ambled out of the building on the right, a brightly painted yellow bar with the image of a giant beer bottle on its wall. It was labeled
Nova Schin
. We looked out at the river. The ferry was still out in the middle, a matchbox in the distance. Peter walked up to the window to order. “
Um novo shin
?” Months later, we would learn it was pronounced “nova skeen,” but the man gave Peter a thumbs-up and cheerfully retrieved a cold, wet bottle of beer.

The little ferry scraped its metal gangplank up over the cobblestones. A truck, a few cars, and several motorcycles inched their way off the boat. No one seemed in a hurry. I watched, mesmerized. What would that be like—to not be in a hurry?

Once on board, we left our car to go stand at the bow. Penedo glimmered
white across the water, church towers poking up like little exclamation points. A big blocky building had been dropped in the middle of what was otherwise a perfectly preserved nineteenth-century town. We passed a brushy island on the left and looked upriver, then down, to open hills spreading away on either side. We were crossing over from the state of Sergipe into Alagoas. Splashes of red flame trees and swishing palms came into focus as we drew closer to the far shore.

“This could be it.” Peter said, glancing at me. We felt a rev of excitement. “If we live here,” he said, pulling himself up a little taller, “I'll need to bring a rumpled white linen suit.”

As the ferry docked, we squeezed back into our little Fiat, and Peter carefully backed it down onto the cobbles of the landing, which expanded into a riverside plaza. Despite the lack of signage, we found the Pousada Colonial, a B and B in an eighteenth-century house on the far side of the square recommended by our guidebook. Katia, the
pousada
's small and bustling manager, led us up a dark wood staircase and opened a door into an airy, third-floor room. We swung open the heavy wooden shutters.

BOOK: Crossing the River
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