A trip to the Amazon begins with immunizations. My least favorite of which was the yellow fever vaccination, because they don’t stick it in the meat of your arm like most. No, this one comes with a surprise. If you bend your elbow at ninety degrees, and press a finger into the back of your arm just above your joint, you’ll feel a little hollow spot. That’s where the needle goes. Had I known this going in, it might have been better. But I didn’t. The tech at the pharmacy swabbed my elbow, and before I realized it, the needle went in. I broke into a cold sweat. Blackness crept in the edges of my vision. I nearly passed out.
That moment of expecting one outcome, but finding another would play out many times in weeks ahead.
My flight to Brazil routed from Seattle, to JFK, to Sao Paulo, and then to Salvador. It wasn’t until we finally made it to our apartment building in Salvador, that I realized what I was in for. I put my duffle bag and backpack down on the floor of the apartment. It was a bare room. Tile floors, shabby white walls. A bed with a single sheet. A toilet. A shower. Nothing else.
I looked out the window at the streets of a sprawling and chaotic city, and I panicked. I was scared, I was so freaked-out, that I started planning how to get back to the airport and buy a ticket home. At this point my Portuguese was bad, certainly not good enough to negotiate a taxi, and from my experiences so far, no one spoke English.
Salvador was foreign, like no place I had seen. I was this kid from a mountain town in the middle of nowhere. I joke that where I grew up, you had to drive three hours to find an elevator. It has grown up some since. The hospital has an elevator now. Maybe a hotel or two does as well, but I’ve learned that the place where you grow up never leaves you. Most of the people I graduated highschool with, I knew since first grade. To borrow lyrics from a song one of them wrote, it’s “pine trees for miles … dirt roads for days, and not much in between.” I’ve linked the song below. Give it a listen.
Ten years later, I remember every thought from those first few minutes in that apartment in Salvador. I remember sitting on the bed and wanting to collapse under this crushing realization that this trip wasn’t for a few days. It was weeks—and I was in the easy part right now. Soon we would be travelling to places even more strange and threatening.
I could barely breath.
There was another voice in me though, one competing with the panic. I told myself to put on my swim trunks and go to the beach. Beyond the buildings in the window, I saw a sliver of the sparkling turquoise ocean. I said to myself, don’t decide anything right then. Get to the water. I rifled through my bag and found my trunks.
Hot sand scorched my feet as I crossed the beach.
I waded into the water until it was waste deep. Then I let one these massive waves just blast me. It knocked me down and rolled me. Salt flooded my mouth and my sinuses. When I found my footing again, I was laughing. Everything felt better then. Somehow, I knew I could make it through.