In 2016, I traveled solo to Rio de Janeiro and then Salvador da Bahia in Brazil.
I wanted to trip to be half-reporting, half-vacation, but when my story pitches fell through, the whole week to left to explore. My Portuguese was pretty elementary, but I felt at least confident enough to speak simple phrases and ask short questions.
Rio was a lot like how I imagined it would be—humid, greenery spotting tightly-packed streets and buildings. The people were beautiful, expressing the colorful mosaic of humanity. I walked on the beach by the Copacobana, the applied sciences Museu do Amanha, went to farmers markets, malls, the famous Escadaria Selaron and more.
But to backtrack a little, most of this stuff happened after day two of the trip. One day, I had the first and only panic attack I’ve ever had.
It was sparked by a simple conversation with the women at the front desk of my hotel. I was trying to ask her if she could call me a taxi, but I couldn’t remember many of the words I had learned. She had to call someone over who could speak a bit of English (not super better than hers but good enough for me) and we eventually figured it out, but for some reason, it sent me down a spiral of anxiety. That failed attempt to get a taxi without any hitch got me thinking about all the emergency situations I could be in where I would be able to neither ask people around me for help nor offer help to someone who may need it.
I wasn’t afraid to getting robbed or anything. As an African American, I felt safe walking around, knowing that if I just kept my mouth shut then any Brazilian would just assume I’m Brazilian (I’ve been mistaken for Brazilian twice in Paris). But it was the first time in my life where I wasn’t able to communicate.
In other places I’ve been, the common language was English. I know French well-enough to be fine in France, so there was no issue there. But not having any more than a tenuous command on Portuguese, I felt helpless. Something about that frightened me, to the point where I called my mother and best-friend and told them I might dash to the airport and try to come back home right then and there. They talked me down, encouraged me to keep calm and keep everything in perspective. “Just sleep on it and you’ll feel different in the morning.”
And I did.
My angst subsided in the morning and a few days later when I flew to Salvador, I very much enjoyed the rest of my trip. Salvador was the old slave-port for Brazil, which has the largest Afro-descendant population in the world outside of Africa. The beach was amazing, and I managed to visit the Igra de Nossa Senhora dos Rosario dos Pretos, the first church in Salvador that allowed slaves and freedmen to worship. It was also a meeting place to Black (Preto) community organizations such as fraternities and sororities. I also saw art and artifacts at the Museu Afro-Brasilerio. My favorite thing there was wooden carvings of the Orishas of the Yoruba in West Africa. I did get lost walking around a neighborhood but I figured it out eventually. And I managed to get a taxi back to my hotel on my own.
Since then my Portuguese has improved um pequeno. A few years later, I went to an academic conference in Lisbon, Portugal. But looking back on that trip to Brazil, it makes me think of how quick a traveling experience can flip into terror due to small things we may not even consider before we embark. My memories poke and prod at the idea of “adventure ”— the gratification we get out of it, but the paradox of needing some semblance of safety to enjoy it.
Writer James Baldwin said you “can’t be both safe and heroic.” He was talking about a much different context, but I think the words hold true here. Being in Brazil wasn’t like I was jumping out of an airplane or anything, but just using the analogy, it’s something ironic about the reward you get after risk— the risk is still measured, calculated, which isn’t very risky.
The trip taught me this, but definitely not in the way I expected. If you had told me I’d have a panic attack because I couldn’t clearly ask for a taxi, I would have told you there’s zero chance that would happen. But as someone who has in many ways dedicated his life to communication, I hadn’t expected to be tongue-tied in Brazil.