Gone in the Morning

“Where in this wide world can a person find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity?” - Ronald Duncan

I waited as long as I could. But the tighter I held on, the more desperate he became. So when the time was right, when my choice was between crashing into a fence or letting go, I let go, and hoped the ground would be kind as it caught me. 

This was my first fall from a horse.

Bonito and I on my favorite beach.

This was a lesson in control and the so obvious loss of it. As anyone who has been riding horses for a while will tell you, falls are part of it. Mine came while riding a gelding, named Bonito bareback. Looking back, it was rather obvious that I wasn’t ready for this challenge. A few moments after mounting, Bonito realized he could be in control instead of me. He sped up and my efforts to calm him were ill executed to say the least. I had ridden him before but never without a saddle, never without the normal control mechanisms. After failing to calm him down, I knew I was going to fall. From a horse. And probably land on my back. It’s a stomach-dropping feeling when you have time to anticipate it, but I held on at best I could until we at least got to a grassy part of the farm to soften the blow. And then I simply let go. Bonito ran off and I knew my friend Eduardo would catch him for me. I dusted off my back, tried to dust off my pride and walked up to the barn.

The barn. I’ve spent many of recent hours in Brazil here, learning the loss of control and how to regain it. Learning how to get back up from very embarrassing falls. I have always wanted to spend more time horseback riding, and this is the place I've been able to do it. I’m sure my Christmas lists as a child had the unrealistic request of “pony” written at the top for many years (it still does). I was like many young girls and thought horses were a romantic and free-spirited creature. They certainly are, but there’s much more to them than just a pretty mane and tail. 

The person who has taught me this and so much is my Brazilian friend Eduardo. We met while he was a guide at another farm where I had decided to rent a horse for the first time. He was kind and patient with me, and his passion for taking the best care of the horses was so evident. When Eduardo switched jobs to work at a private family farm, he invited me to see his new home. 

I immediately fell in love. It is a simple place, but it is also simply beautiful. A wooden barn and a strip of land that stretches almost to the sea. Best of all there was a place for Eduardo’s own horse, Gaúcho. 

Gaúcho

Over the next months I was invited time after time to enjoy this space, which we call the sítio, or the farm. Eduardo taught me the very simplest of tasks, like leading a horse properly. I relished the opportunity to be outside, to help with the animals, to learn more about caring for something other than myself. The horses of course were the main attraction, but I also came to love all the creatures in our care, like the little bull we had. We called him Bobby and I’ll never forget the time he almost knocked me off my feet at feeding time. The cat, too, became part of the family. I named her Zoe and remember when Eduardo called to tell me she was birthing her litter of kittens, one of which I’ve taken home with me. The chickens, too, were a source of joy. One day Eduardo found a lost hen wandering in the field. She was blind in one eye but Eduardo took her home anyway. To say he has taught me a lot about kindness is an understatement. He has taught me we always have more to give.

I have given a lot of my time to the sítio but what I have gained in return is far more valuable. Eduardo let me ride his own horse, Gaúcho, more times than I can count. He let me treat him as my own, and I tried to do what little I could to return this favor. This often can in the form of carrots for Gaúcho and brownies for Eduardo. I saw how Gaúcho’s condition improved in his new home, where Eduardo could care for him better.

Our adventures often took us to the beach, where I would walk Gaúcho just a little into the water. He never spooked at the noise or the rush of the waves, and it was as if he was at peace on the beach just like me. His disposition as a horse was remarkable. He was patient, calm enough for kids but adventurous enough to give me my first ride bareback. On one of our last rides Eduardo braided his mane and tail. By coincidence, I had braided my hair that day, and these simple things made us both smile. I tucked flowers into his mane and Eduardo feigned his disapproval. The truth is that Gaúcho was Eduardo’s pride and joy, but he was generous enough to share him not just with me, but with anyone who cared to ride him.

One of the many rides on the beach with Gaúcho and Eduardo.

I’ve introduced another dear Brazilian friend, Mari, to horseback riding, and I remember her beautiful smile when Eduardo and I put her up on Gaúcho on the beach. Sharing Gaúcho with others was a selfless joy for Eduardo, something I admire greatly. 

It would be impossible to share all the memories of him, but I will always remember the lazy flopping of Gaúcho’s ears and the gorgeous reddish-brown color of his mane, and how it always reminded me of my sisters’ auburn locks. Gaúcho was willing to carry me in all kinds of weather, through both physical and emotional storms. He led me safely through the rain and thunder more than once, and carried me to see the sunrise on the beach. In short, he allowed me to see innumerable wonders, both around and within me.

We said goodbye to Gaúcho last month after he battled colic for some days and didn’t improve, despite lots of medicine and love. Eduardo called me in the dark hours of morning, saying he thought it would be time to say goodbye. He was right. Gaúcho made it just long enough to enjoy one more sunrise in a place that we both came to call home. 

Eduardo and I buried him later that day, on the trail that we take to get to the beach. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard digging the final resting place of a friend. It was the kind of work that exhausts your soul. But I was so grateful I could be the one to help in that difficult task after all he had given me. Eduardo let me put flowers in Gaúcho’s mane for the last time, and we thanked him for the adventures. In the end that’s all we can ever do, thank someone for sharing a little bit of their light with us. 

The Horse 

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.
___

He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
___

England’s past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs;
He is our inheritance.

by Ronald Duncan

The Price of Secrets

I know a man who can identify a bird by the shape of its wings. In an instant of flight he analyzes its shape and size and coloring, then quickly flips through a thick field guide to show me a drawing of the bird I was too slow to catch on camera.

It’s easy to miss sighting a bird or a monkey or a caiman or a cobra in the jungle, despite their near omnipresence. They move seamlessly in and out of the shadows of this vast habitat. But catching a glimpse of wildlife, to see this intense array of biodiversity is what brings me and thousands of other voyagers to the Amazon every year. 

The intensity of the natural diversity is enough to make you feel like a stranger on this earth. And why wouldn’t it? The Amazon, or as Amazonas, as it is in Portuguese, is a wild, storied land. It would be foolish of me to try and capture its grandeur here, but to prepare for this trip I did read two accounts of men risking life and limb and sanity to experience this place. The first was The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic. He opts for a Amazonian voyage at what is perhaps the worst possible time—in the middle of a divorce, a new relationship, a stressful transition for his kids and his lack of physical preparedness. But then again, is there ever a good time to venture into one of the world’s harshest environments? I think not. His book details a trip with Sydney Possuelo, the once-leader of Brazil’s government agency to protect the indigenous people. Possuelo’s lifework was to implement a no-contact strategy for the agency, meaning they wouldn’t attempt to intentionally modernize any uncontacted indigenous community. Instead of trying to bring the tribes to a modernized way of life, he worked tirelessly to survey the outskirts of their communities and advocate for their independence. Basically, the idea was to leave them to continue living the way they have been for hundreds of years. Wallace’s book follows one of Posseulo’s trips to search for and survey what was believed to be one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, the Arrow People, or, the Flecheiros, who were given this name by outsiders for their habit of launching poison-tipped arrows at any intruder. This adventure weaves together the challenges of modern Brazil’s interaction with native populations and the classic jungle trek (with a few surprises, of course). The Unconquered is a fantastic look into the madness of the jungle and Brazil's culture, and it is one of the best pieces of journalism I've read to date. 

The other book I read was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, which retraces the the tale of Royal Geographic Explorer Percy H. Fawcett and his 1926 disappearance in the Amazon. Fawcett, a well known and experienced explorer went on a mission with his son Jack, and his son’s friend Riley to search for the fabled El Dorado, or the Lost City of Z, which Fawcett believed was a highly sophisticated society deep in the jungle. He wasn’t alone in this theory, and after Fawcett and his party vanished, others went in to search for him and Z. Not all lived to tell their tales. Fawcett’s other exploration feats are as legendary as his disappearance, and this book was a great introduction in the old world days of exploration and how alluring the Amazon can be, despite its dangers. It was also a fascinating look at a talented and perhaps troubled man possessed by passion. You should read it before the movie comes out in October. Trust me, it's worth it to experience this adventure first in words, then in film.

But it should be remembered that the difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets.
— Percy H. Fawcett, lost in the jungle

My own voyage did not remotely resemble any of the treks I read about but it was no less thrilling. The density and diversity of the Amazon Basin is simply astonishing. I saw a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the jungle, but it was enough to feel like it was a world within itself. The starting point of our journey was in Tefé, a small city in the state of Amazonas that is about a hour long flight west of Manaus. From there we took a small boat for 40 minutes or so to the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. There are many outfitters that advertise Amazon jungle experiences, particularly outside of Manaus, but most of the ones I researched felt more like a gimmick instead of an actual look at nature. The Uaucari Lodge, however, not only employs its own biologists, but it is a model of sustainability. I was impressed by their organization and service, and most especially by the quality of their guides. Speaking Portuguese made our experience more enjoyable, of course, but the guides were all helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. During one canoe trip I foolishly asked our guide, who grew up nearby, if he had to study the field guide much in order to work this job. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my backyard.” The brightly colored parrots were as familiar to him as pigeon was to me growing up. 

Every day in the reserve he proved it. He pointed out two sloths which otherwise would have gone unnoticed to my untrained eye. He also showed me that a coiled lump in a tree just above our heads was in fact a snake sleeping. It was in that moment I finally saw for myself a little of what I had read about the Amazon and its hidden dangers and its undeniably deadly qualities.

But deadly can be beautiful.

It was as if we were clawing our way through a huge, vaporous terrarium, an enormous laboratory where the process of evolution continued to unfold by the minute, spawning a mind-boggling array of deadly creatures and toxic plants, all locked in a terrifying contest of survival.
— Scott Wallace, The Unconquered

Piranha fishing is surprisingly easy. Here, the guide tells me not to let my arm so close to the fish's mouth...

You know, I had a lot of romantic notions about the jungle and this kind of finished that.
— James Lynch, Jr. as quoted in Lost City of Z discussing his capture by an Amazonian tribe
Have you ever heard the sound of a jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always talking.
— James Lynch, as quoted in Lost City of Z
Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.
— Percy H. Fawcett

Linda Olinda

It has been over a month since my three-week trip around Brazil began, but the cool ocean breezes are ever present in my mind. The journey began in Olinda, a small colonial coastal town in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. Once a stronghold of the sugarcane industry and the state’s capital, Olinda has seen its glory days come and go, but the charm remains in brightly colored buildings and churches reborn after a ruthless looting by the Dutch. 

As perhaps is to be expected in a Roman Catholic country, there are churches around just about even bend in Olinda, including 20 Baroque styles chapels mostly dating from the 18th century. The historic center of this quaint hilly town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, one of just 13 cultural sites across the entire country. I loved wandering into a few of these houses of worship with their beautiful, delicately painted blue tiles. The chapels were scattered among the broken cobblestone streets where I caught glimpses of the ocean shimmering just beyond the palm trees.

The view from our Airbnb was envious, especially at sunrise.

Perhaps even better than these picturesque views was an accidental encounter with several dance troupes of caboclinhos who perform the traditional indigenous dance that portrays three key aspects of that culture: hunts, harvests and battles. Caboclinho means “little caboclo” which is entirely unhelpful unless you understand the origin of caboclo. This was the Portuguese term given to the offspring of natives and blacks in Brazil. It is worth nothing that the Portuguese and Brazilians historically had a different view of racial intermixing than the United States. The intermixing was in some ways encouraged here in Brazil centuries ago, and though I can’t pretend to understand all of the nuances on the subject, I can say that this term caboclinho is not meant to be a racial slur. These days it refers to the dancers themselves who perform this traditional display, which includes the characters of a chief and the tribal mother (or female chief), shamans and their warriors. The instruments are nothing like what you would find in a high school band. Instead of clarinets and french horns, these kids learn to play bamboo pipes and maracas shaped like war clubs to decidedly un-Western tunes. And then they dance. I don’t mean awkward prom school dances or even the ballet numbers I tried to do as a kid. I mean whole body movement faster than you can blink. Feet shuffle and arms wave in a maniacally beautiful fashion. Add to this the sparkles and feathers and headdresses the size of a mattress and you have a festival. In fact, you have the northeast's answer to Rio's Carnaval. Needless to say, Brazil continues to surprise and delight.

To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield

O que é um berne?  “What is a worm?”

I turned to a man named Bruno with very blue eyes and asked this question without a hint of sarcasm. An early, necessary sidenote: for those of you who don’t know, sarcasm is my natural state. Bruno turned to me with a surprisingly equal lack of sarcasm and answered, “É quando você tem…

This was not my first mundane vocabulary question, or my last, during a four-day weekend in what’s known as the Switzerland of Brazil, Campos do Jordão, in the state of São Paulo. Apparently it is also Brazil’s highest city, meaning that during the winter it might get a dusting of snow, maybe, but probably not. It’s not yet officially winter here, but that hasn’t stopped Brazilians from reciting the Game of Thrones chant “Winter is Coming” and donning scarves and gloves. I don’t have the heart to tell them that no, it’s not coming. At least not with heaps of snow. Because this isn’t really Switzerland. It’s only fake Switzerland in Brazil, which means two things: 1. Winter sports are never going to be your thing 2. Everything is decidedly less organized.

But I didn’t go to Campos do Jordão for the nonexistent snow or even the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like architecture. I went on a wild, curious and abrupt turn of the mind. I went on a whim. I went to spend a few days expanding my comfort zone with Outward Bound Brasil. I’ve wanted to do an Outward Bound course in America for a few years, particularly because they offer free programming for eligible veterans. I haven’t made it to a course in the States yet, so when I happened upon this course in Brazil that was open to anyone, including a gringa like me, I decided to go. Not because of careful planning or a great desire to sound like the dumbest person in the room, but simply because I could. (Fact: I did sound like the dumbest person in the room, but I got over it).

As my family members and fellow military friends know, there are many choices you cannot make while serving in the military or being a part of a military family. You usually cannot choose where you live, or when your family will be together. You cannot choose your rank or your commander or your uniform. You often cannot chose if and when you go to war. You certainly cannot choose whether you come back. You simply serve, knowing that you will have to make a million other, often more difficult choices along the way. And though my season of military service is over, I try to be mindful of the ability to choose during this unparalleled season of freedom I am in right now.

So I chose to go into the woods with ten Brazilian strangers and ask them about worms. Our four-day weekend was spent largely at a cabin learning how to do things that seem totally useless in most of our everyday lives: tying knots and using a compass, finding an azimuth and navigating to a point (sans GPS, if you can believe it). These were all things I had done before but long forgotten, however for others it was an entirely new experience. The joy in seeing someone learn a new skill, not because they needed it for a job or a promotion, but just because they wanted to do something different, was joyful. We played a few of the classic team building games, and one such exercise is the trust fall, where you willingly fall backwards off of a platform and hope the strangers you met yesterday don’t drop you. 

In the military I had done countless of these exercises that are meant to help you trust yourself and the others in your new team. But now I was seeing it from the civilian side, from people who chose to spend their long holiday weekend doing something different. They weren’t attending because their ROTC program required it or because their military education demanded it. They weren’t trying to impress the commander or the first sergeant. They certainly weren’t wearing uniforms. But as a group and individually they were more dedicated to trying, to taking a risk, to falling and failing than I had seen in a long time. And they reminded me that once you get past that moment of panic, you can start learning. In the end that’s what Outward Bound is trying to teach you, to keep striving and not to yield to your panic. 

This is easy to say in the more-or-less controlled learning environment I was in. The harder task is taking this idea home and then applying it when your when language skills fall short. Like when you’re the foreigner who can’t explain herself after her debit card was literally eaten by the ATM and the bank workers are blaming you for their dysfunctional machine. Not that it has ever happened to me, of course. 

Which reminds me of another phrase I learned that weekend: Nunca se renda. Never surrender. This doesn’t have to be a William Wallace-type war cry (but that's fine, too). It can be a quiet reminder in the days when you feel like you don’t have a choice or a chance. It’s a reminder to me when my Portuguese fails me and I’m caught in another awkward situation, likely of my own doing, that I can’t talk my way out of. I used to be good at that. It used to be my job, actually. Talking in and out of situations, in and out of media interviews, in and out of the spaces between rocks and hard places. I liked the work, too. I liked telling stories, even the difficult ones. But you can’t be a storyteller if you don’t know the language. So I’m relearning…everything. That primarily means learning to embrace the discomfort zone and not being a berne about it. So, nunca se renda. And don’t be a worm.