Last Saturday was to be my last day in Brazil. I was flying out of Rio de Janeiro at 10:15 that night, and I planned to leave Iracambi as early as possible to make sure I made it there with plenty of time. Three other volunteers decided to split the taxi with me to the nearest town, Rosário da Limeira. Ronja’s 19th birthday was on Monday, so she wanted to buy baking ingredients to make a cake. (And Maria, the newest volunteer, is a baker in Germany, so the prospect of her assistance on a cake was especially exciting.) Maria and Alex were both early risers. So we all headed into Limeira at 6:45 am on that Saturday.
I was happy to have the company. Plus, I hoped Ronja and Alex, the resident-volunteer Portuguese speakers, could help me locate the town’s only ATM to take out some reais before the bus ride. Besides the R$15 saved for the taxi and the R$12 for the bus to Muriae, I had spent my last R$9.50 on truffles and cervezas at Larissa’s restaurant. I had about 75 extra cents to my name.
After some asking around, we found that the only ATM in town was closed until Monday morning. So we hunkered down in the cafe next to the bus to Muriae, which was leaving at 7:50 am. Maria and Alex bought two espressos – only R$1 for both, which is about 12 cents per drink. Alex ordered us a few salgados – pastries with meat and cheese. I snapped a picture of us with my disposable camera. Ronja got a picture of me weighed down with a backpack on my back and a backpack on my front. Then I hopped on the bus for an hour ride to Muriae.
In the Muriae bus station, I confidently walked up to the counter to buy a bus ticket. I had been very nervous taking the buses three weeks earlier. I had even printed out the instructions so I could just hand them over instead of order aloud. But I had had three weeks immersed in Portuguese. I could buy a bus ticket.
“Um bilhete por Rio,” I said. Was it por or para? Oh well. I wasn’t even sure if it was bilhete. My beginner’s Portuguese book had given me a different word for ticket. But bilhete sounded familiar to me, and I saw it written on a sign in the booth. I figured the man would at least understand what I wanted.
“No habla ingles,” he responded.
There was a long, shocked pause on my end. “Well, I know,” I finally said.
We finally managed to communicate, and I successfully bought a bus ticket to Rio. The man hadn’t made much sense: “Habla” is Spanish (in Portuguese he would’ve said “fala”) and “ingles” of course means English. So he told me in Spanish that he couldn’t speak English, when his native language was definitely Portuguese. I took it to mean that he meant to say he couldn’t speak Spanish? A slight win?
On the five hour bus ride to Rio, I watched the landscape running by. Minas Gerais is known for its mountains, and I could see why. Mountains bubbled from the surface of the earth as far as the eye could see.
I thought back to the day before:
Friday, the last full day of my time in Brazil, the volunteers had attended a medicinal plants workshop hosted by Carla, a woman who lives about 3 km from Iracambi. Her rowdy German shepherd Choku had randomly appeared in the center a few times in the previous week, and we finally got to meet the gentle soul that is her owner. Carla studied at university in Toronto, where she fell in love with medicinal plants during a botany course. She moved back to the rainforest and now she studies plants in hopes of commercializing shampoos and soaps made with their ingredients. She has eleven cats and even more tattoos.
We walked along the medicinal plants trail and she pointed out plants that soothe mosquito bites. One plant that can treat the flu. Another that’s good for diabetes. Yet another can be made into a flour for making bread. We gathered amora berries and lemon leaves. Back at the center, we turned on some New Age music – “put on some wooden flute,” Carla had requested – and then together we made homemade soap from the berries, glycerin, aloe vera, coconut oil, and a touch of perfume. The berries turned the soap the color of lilac. We used the lemon leaves to make tea.
While we waited for the soap to dry, Carla performed a few minutes of reiki on each of us. Reiki is a practice that involves channeling energy of the universe. For a month, Carla had studied reiki two times a week for three hours each. After making signs in the air, she placed her hands on our heads, one at a time, mouthing words with her eyes closed. When it wasn’t out turn, we sipped our lemon-honey tea. Mia the kitty watched from the rafters as Choku napped at our feet. The birds and insects called to each other outside.
Now I was hurtling home on a bus. I wasn’t ready to leave. A homebody at heart, I had never been so reluctant to head back home. Perhaps because time flew so fast. How on earth did time fly so fast?
I made it to the airport at 5 pm, five hours early for my flight. I checked my bag, went through security, and headed straight to the food court. Besides a few crackers, I hadn’t eaten since the pastries. I did a loop to survey the food options. Not a burrito, not before an eight-hour flight. I settled on a fast food burger from a place called Bob’s.
By the time 10 pm rolled around and it was time to board, my stomach was lurching. I paced in the bathroom near my gate, trying to make myself vomit to rid myself of the pain. To no avail. But boarding was wrapping up. I had to get on that plane.
I presented my passport and ticket and entered the gate. There was a long downwards ramp leading to the plane with several turns and corners. The corner before the entrance to the plane – so close – I stopped and promptly threw up.
Several people crowded around me. A jolly-looking man who turned out to be the supervisor of the gate handed me a glass of tonic water. He asked me if I still wanted to board. Of course I wanted to board the plane. And I was feeling a bit better. But being stuck on a plane while feeling like that sounded like hell. I hesitated.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the seats outside the gate, hanging my head. They were fetching my bag from the belly of the plane, and my flight was leaving without me. It was nearly midnight in Rio.
The supervisor tasked Lucas with walking me to the airport doctor. Lucas was a handsome young man with a slight mustache and a bright red blazer that reminded me of a British guard. We walked side by side in silence. He carried all my bags.
At some point, he told me to sit while he went to check with a police officer about my passing through a section of the airport. I had thrown up again by the time he returned. I waved at him sadly.
After the third time I threw up during our walk to the doctor, Lucas crouched beside me. “I called an ambulance,” he told me. “Now listen. I told them you couldn’t walk. You have to pretend to be sicker than you are or they won’t take you in the ambulance. Okay?”
A few minutes later, three paramedics showed up and buckled me into a wheelchair. I was feeling much better post-vomit, so I was working hard to act frail. I put my hand over my face to keep from laughing. What fun! They lifted me into the ambulance, and I immediately felt my stomach scream in response to the moving vehicle. My convincing act became reality. The sirens went on.
The airport hospital room was entirely white, as they always are. I vaguely wondered why they’re universally so dreadfully white and why they never have windows. They stuck an IV in me. Lucas translated the name of the medication. I tried to repeat it in Portuguese and they laughed.
“The words are always harder to pronounce in Portuguese,” Lucas said kindly.
I responded, “But they’re much prettier in Portuguese.” Sy Montgmery wrote that the Brazilians speak as if their lips are numb from kissing. I love that.
Lucas walked me to the airport hotel in Terminal 1. His supervisor had booked me a room free of charge, as well as rescheduled my flight for the next night. Lucas helped me check in as his girlfriend arrived in the lobby. She worked at the airport too, and their shifts had ended at 10:45 pm. It was nearly 1 am now. They always rode his motorcycle home together, so she had waited for him.
My hotel room had a comfortable bed and a big shower. I felt so incredibly grateful to the staff who had helped me so much, while simultaneously wanting to cut off my body below my neck. I spent the night hugging a trash can at the foot of my bed. The next day I paid to stay in the room until 8 pm and ordered room service – toast and coconut water – to my room. I’ve never had food poisoning before, but I had been under the impression that it lasts the night and then vanishes as fast as it came. I had even been thinking the night before, how will I kill an entire day in Rio? But I felt awful on Sunday morning. Even as my stomach started to feel better, I had become feverish. Now I was focused on recovering for my flight that night at 10. Whereas I had been reluctant to get home before, now I was eager. All I wanted was to just finally be home.
That night, I checked out of the hotel at 7 pm and waited in the lobby for a shuttle. Lucas sent me shuttles and carts the whole evening to get me from place to place so I didn’t have to walk far. His supervisor walked with me to the pharmacy to choose medications. We brainstormed the foods that could have poisoned me. I thought it was Bob’s burger. He reckoned it was the sauce for the fries. Only later would we find out that it was the salgados I had had for breakfast in Limeira: Ronja had gotten sick as well.
The culprits!!!! Not sure why I took a picture of them at the time. But there they are.
As I checked in to my flight for the second time, the woman at the deck eyed me sternly. “Why didn’t you take your flight last night?”
“I got food poisoning,” I told her.
“Are you sure you’re okay to fly tonight?”
I had been asking myself this question literally half an hour ago. But I stood up straight and looked her in the eye. “Absolutely.”
It’s funny, looking back. At the beginning of my trip, I was so worried about just making it safely to the program. I had all sorts of people checking in with me. I had prayed. I had my cheat sheet of travel instructions. And I walked up the runway to that first plane on October 21st feeling surrounded by guardian angels.
But it was the trip home that knocked the wind out of me. Instead of getting home Sunday morning, I arrived home Monday afternoon. As I excitedly looked for Esteban in the airport, I realized that thinking of my family and friends had helped me make it to Brazil.
But it was strangers who helped me get back home.