My friend Jenny just reminded me that I have a New Year’s problem, which tends to emerge in a particularly virulent way when I travel. The problem is mad indecision. I feel the full force of the road not taken. In San Francisco, I can accept an uneventful New Year’s Eve with close friends, but on the road, I can’t get it through my head that New Year’s Eve doesn’t have to fulfill a vision. Three years ago I couldn’t decide between staying in New York with my friends Jenny and Adam or spending the New Year with my father and stepmother on Cape Cod, which in retrospect, seems insane that there was even a question. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and was afraid of being exhausted and out all night in the frigid New York cold. I chose safety—the Cape Cod with family option—and cursed myself when I found myself on a couch with my father watching Seinfeld at 11:30. I didn’t sleep anyway, so annoyed with myself for choosing the Most Geriatric New Year’s Ever.
This year I spent New Year’s week in Rio de Janeiro, which is an experience I will never forget. Jenny asked me “What was the high and low of your trip?” All I could think of was New Year’s Eve, a focal point of anxiety for days leading up to the trip, and a story to tell. I was in Brazil for a spontaneous weeklong (second) trip. The flight was purchased in mid-December. No, I don’t have a boyfriend there, which is what everyone assumes. I had just been in Brazil in September. The stars had aligned with a bizarrely cheap ticket and a place to stay for New Year’s, the high point of Braizlian partying for the year, second only to Carnaval. I have this Brazil fascination, which I haven’t completely understood yet.
What I want to tell you about is New Year’s. It’s a first-world problem to have too many choices, but the pain from being unable to decide is real. I am not as brave as I come off. In fact, I am still shaken by the telling of this story. But I did experience about five minutes of quirkyalone bliss in the midst of this adventure. Because of that . . and because it strikes me now that New Year’s 2009 was also the the tenth anniversary of this birth of this concept (I first uttered the word “quirkyalone” on New Year’s Day 1999) I want to share this tale.
So I was in Brazil, basically on my own, though staying with two pairs of friends: an American couple for half the time, and a Brazilian couple for the other half. My problem of course was not deciding what to do, but with whom to be. Typical quirkyalone problem: too many options, unable to commit, wanting the extraordinary, the miracle.
My closest Brazilian friends live in the bohemian hilltop neighborhood Santa Tereza, Rio’s version of Montmartre. They would be staying close to home. But they, and everyone else, encouraged me to experience Copacabana as my first New Year’s in Rio, the traditional Reveillon (New Year’s) celebration of 2 to 3 million people wearing white on the beach. I had seen the picture of everyone decked out in white on the beach in a tourist booklet and imagined myself dancing to a samba school, drinking the light, watery beer that Brazilians drink (which makes it possible for me to consume alcohol). making out with some random Carioca guy. Visions are all well and good, but any Buddhist will tell you that the root of all suffering is the distance between “what is” and “what we want to be.”
My vision did not map to what happened at 10:30 pm on December 31. I was stuck in a cab in the car-clogged, beach-lined streets of Ipanema, in Rio de Janeiro, fighting back tears. A cab driver, telling me, in Portuguese, “Don’t cry. It’s New Year’s Eve. It’s time to be happy.”
No matter how many times he told me it was time to be happy, I couldn’t stop crying. Then he moved to validating my emotions: “A woman crying is a beautiful thing.” Maybe my cab driver appreciated the beauty of a woman’s ability to express her emotions, her vulnerability, her real-ness, or maybe he just liked to see women sad. I don’t know. I choose to interpret him as my friend. He was the last person I talked to before I made the decision that I would have to push off alone into a crowd of two to three million. In a sense, he made the decision with me. (I just paid him a lot of money for a very short ride)
How did it come to this, that I had unexpectedly found myself alone on New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro? I had a variety of options for how to spend New Year’s Eve. I could have met Regis, a French architect on a round-the-world trip whom I met at a Lapa bar the night before, or a number of groups from the couchsurfing website, or with my bohemian friends.
After making myself crazy with indecision, I finally came up with the solution of going to a party thrown by a Mexican member of the couchsurfing website where twenty or so Brazilians and foreigners said they would be going. I could walk with them to the meeting point for everyone from couchsurfing. Great plan, except for two things: the party invitation was unclear, and I showed up when the party was ending and everyone was leaving. Worse, I arranged with Victor, a guy from couchsurfing to meet me at the party and be my escort (I had a lot of anxiety about walking the two miles from Ipanema to Copa alone). When I got there, I didn’t have Victor’s phone number to tell him the party was over and we were all leaving. I couldn’t live with the guilt of standing someone up on New Year’s who was specifically coming out of his way to help me, so I made the decision to take a cab back to my apartment to call him and then try to catch up with the group. Thus me, crying, because I knew I was never going to find that group again.
As I sat in the cab, handing over $R40 (an absurd amount for 8 blocks), I felt an uncomfortable level of adrenaline. An if my parents could see me now feeling, a what have I gotten myself into feeling, a there must be something wrong with me that I would get myself into this kind of situation feeling. My choice was clear: join the stream of Brazilians and gringos in white walking to Copacabana, or go home to the apartment where I was staying.
Though most people would probably see me as brave for traveling to Rio alone, this was really beyond the pale for me. I haven’t even gone to a movie alone in years. There I was, about to essentially go to Times Square alone to watch the ball drop, but in Brazil. The night was thick with moisture, the streets were boutique- and tree-lined, with juice bars and gay bars. And little me in the white dress I had bough in Ipanema the day before for the big night. I paid the driver, emerging on to the streets, to sidewalks full of packs of people in white jeans, t-shirts, dresses. Every so often–or maybe just once–I spotted another woman walking alone and felt confirmation that I wasn’t a total freak.
I arrived on the boulevard lining the beach, scanning for the Sao Paolo (Paulista) woman I had been walking with. No f— way. It was all me. Rationally speaking, all I would have to do was walk between one to two miles among the thousands of people in white walking along the beach to get to Copacabana. The most amazing feeling started to settle over me. All my dues had been paid in anxiety. Now I could relax. The worst had happened. It was just me, a woman, walking alone in the mist, among groups of friends and couples on their way to celebrate midnight. You know what? In some ways, those five minutes were the best of my trip.
Other than couples holding hands, everyone was walking in groups, constantly separating and reuniting. I could have easily been someone separated from her group, walking purposefully to reunite with them. It wasn’t that crowded, there were plenty of families, it felt safe. I didn’t feel conspicuous. In a sense, everyone seemed part of a group, and everyone seemed to be alone.
As I walked along the bright, well-lit, misty boulevard, a peace that had been missing from the until-then frantic trip settled into me. I would play the role of the flaneur, the solitary wanderer in the crowd, a role that I romantically cherished in my twenties and have lost touch with in my thirties. The silence actually felt good. Reflection is something I cherish about New Year’s, and it had been absent from my trip. I felt strong. I felt crazily strong. I felt like I had already gone on such an emotional journey, and now, I could relax into myself and feel whole.
For maybe three or four moments, I felt deliriously dizzy, verging on pride, that sense of OK-ness, even with all the stress, the crying in the cab, the WTFness of being alone on New Year’s Eve in Rio, it was going to be OK.
Then the road curved to the left. The walkway along the beach continued straight. Some people continued straight, and some continued along the road, with what looked like a samba-drumming group. I wasn’t sure which was right. So I looked for people who seemed “normal,” “non-intimidating.” I settled on a young couple. “Is this the way to Copacabana?” They assured me I was going the right way. In America, maybe that would have been it. But this was Rio, a city where my random encounters consistently lead to friendships. Of course, they were curious about me, why was I walking alone? Was I lost? “Lost” seemed to be the more forgiving adjective, better than “loner freak”! I had lost my couchsurfing group, and I knew where to meet them. They would take me there.
In the end, though, I wanted to stay with my new Brazilian family; they utterly and totally adopted me. Like many Brazilians, they were extraordinarily warm and friendly. Clarissa, the 23-year-old girl whose English was spookily like a Southern girl’s, was so much fun to talk to. It was hard to believe she was Brazilian. She was there with her Floridian boyfriend Chris, her parents–both doctors, her cousin, and Chris’ parents from Florida. Lucas, her 24-year-old brother, had just graduated from medical school, and was my companion for the night. When New Year’s came, we hugged, we took pictures together, we sprayed fake snow on each other. We went to their aunt’s apartment in Copa, where I got to see a nice middle-class apartment and she told me all about her son doing a work experience in San Diego. Later was she only slightly confused when she learned that they had just plucked me from the street. Lucas told me he was glad they met me; because of me, we all had a real adventure, criss-crossing the city on bus and on foot between 3 and 5 am to go to a trance party (which was of course over by the time we got there) at another beach, Barra. We stayed there until 7 am to watch the sun rise.
We took a cab back to their home in Jaracapegua, essentially the Queens or Brooklyn of Rio, a vast collection of residential neighborhoods. Lucas gave me his bedroom to sleep in, along with boxer shorts and a t-shirt. I spent the day at their house, talking about Brazilian industry and their economy with their father, reading the Brazilian version of “Where do babies come from?” and swimming in their pool in another pair of borrowed boy shorts.
When Lucas drove me home to Ipanema, he said he wished he had time to give me a gift. He pulled out a CD that a friend had given him of Tom Jobim music. I thanked him for driving me home. The whole trip would probably take him about an hour and a half coming and going. He said that it was no problem. It didn’t matter if he came to visit me whether I drove him somewhere. It was the right thing to do, he said.
In the near two weeks since New Year’s, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect. I got back to San Francisco, mightily jetlagged, but still managed to bring together my friends for our New Year’s ritual of making collages from magazines of the things we want to manifest magically in 2009. I’ve decided that in the future, I must treat all future December 31s as if they are no different than November 30.
As amazing as the night turned out to be, it may not have been worth the madness I caused myself. But on the other hand, the most valuable thing to remember is to trust. This year upon us 2009 is filled with so much fear. So much economic fear. The worst that can happen is often not as bad as we imagine. The imagination of all that is bad often robs us of much more. One of my major “intentions” for 2009 is to minimize fear and maximize hope. I want very much to not remember the fear of that night so much, as vivid as it was, and to instead, remember the incredible, disorienting, but amazing feeling of meeting my new and adopted Brazilian family. What it all means, I don’t know. But it all worked out.
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