As we said goodbye, she lifted one hand up in a half-wave, her bracelets glinting in the sun. She had beautiful silver hair that nearly reached her waist, and I remember turning around again and again to wave until I could no longer see the flash of her.
My time in South America was nearly over, my bag full of sand and souvenirs, my journal laden with nine months of memories. Like all good things, the trip had gone by too quickly, and I was left with very little time to explore Brazil. I had already spent three months in Central America, bussing from Belize to Panama and then sailing to Colombia, where I started a six month overland journey down to Brazil.
I was on the last leg of my trip. I had already been in Brazil for a couple of weeks, making my way from the waterfalls at Iguazu along the coast, from Florianapolis to Rio and down to Paraty.
I arrived in Paraty on a rainy afternoon. I took a bus there by myself from Rio, wandered from hostel to hostel in order find a free bed. Gone were the days when I’d book a hostel a month before I arrived, just as I had done when I backpacked through Europe more than six years before. I found a place on the beach with a leaky roof and a dirty bathroom, but the beer was cold and the crowd was a good one. The first night there, I met a tall German girl with short blonde hair who immediately whisked me out for dinner. She finished two cocktails before our starter even arrived.
‘Ehh, I don’t even like him,’ she told me between gulps. She was entertaining me with stories of her new Brazilian lover, a man who could dance. She had told me that part with a wink. ‘But he’s Brazilian, you know? I like to try the local flavour.’ With this she guffawed, head thrown back, cheeks flushed from the humidity and the drink. When I asked her for her Facebook contact after a few peach caipirinhas from a street vendor, she laughed again.
‘Are we really going to keep in touch?’ Her eyes glowed in the dark, framed by her tanned skin. I liked her.
After a boat tour of the surrounding islands one day, a Brazilian tried to seduce me, too. As we sat around a fire pit in the sand with a group of other people, he ran his finger over my collarbone, beer flecking his lips. I remembered the German’s words, but I went to bed alone. I could still hear his guitar strumming as I fell asleep, the songs drifting up from the beach.
The sun was shy during my stay in Paraty. One moment it would come out, round and inviting, turning the waves blue and the sand yellow. Just as my skin would warm, it would retreat, the ocean turning into a black churning thing again, the sand gritty and brown. Still, I liked this place a lot, liked its charm and its maze of cobblestoned roads. All of the buildings were painted garish colours, bright greens and yellows and reds, and I felt like I fit right in. I was often the only tourist on its streets in the afternoons; the only sound I’d hear were my new Havaianas – real ones, not the imitation ones I had worn all over Southeast Asia – flipping and flopping their way over broken stones.
I found a group of English backpackers I had met in Rio and we sat on the beach come rain or shine, often joined by groups of Brazilians who had the same idea. We drank cold cans of beer and threw our barbecue scraps to the stray dogs who’d scratch and whine, driven crazy by the wafts of meat.
‘You’ll get ringworm,’ one of the guys joked, but I’d pet them all anyway. These were my last days in South America, and I was trying to soak it all up as much as I could, those muggy nights when the stars hung low and the moon cast its light across the water. I’d wear a bathing suit and a sarong to dinner, my hair still smelling like salt. Everyone seemed to smile so easily, the air laced with freedom. Sometimes teenagers would set fireworks off on the street near the beach, their hisses and bangs followed by small explosions of colour in the sky.
I was in Paraty for four days, perhaps a day too long with the temperamental weather. The air was always thick, anxious with rain. The group I’d been hanging out with decided to move on to Isla Grande to chase the sun, but I decided to stay one day longer. I wanted to visit Trinidade, a beach about an hour away. I read in my guidebook that it was idyllic, a soft stretch of sand that offered an even better view of the ocean than Paraty.
I took an old school bus from the Paraty bus station in the centre of town, arriving in Trinidade mid-morning. The town, much like Paraty, was mostly deserted. It wasn’t tourist season yet. I imagined what it could be like in the languid summer months, when people would flock to its narrow streets for cold acai and the hot sun. I made my way to the beach; it wasn’t hard to find, and I could smell the salt air even from a few blocks inland.
Even on the beach, there were barely any other people. There were a few European families dotted along the sand, the husbands plump, the wives lithe and tanned the colour of almonds. I spread out my sarong and settled in to read for a while. Only one vendor, a young man with short dreadlocks, wandered up and down the beach selling sunglasses. When he approached me I tapped the ones on my face.
‘I have some already,’ I said in Spanish, hoping he’d understand, and he walked away.
The sky was too cloudy and the water too cold, so I grew restless. I decided to take an early bus back to Paraty; at least there there were streets to wander around and the promise of people to hang out with at the beach bars. I gathered up my things and headed back to Trinidade’s tiny town centre.
As I made my way back from the beach, I noticed a tiny shop on the side of the road. While most of the other establishments were restaurants or bars, concrete patios comprised of colourful plastic tables and chairs out front, this shop had racks of jewellery out front and fabric of deep jewel tones hanging in the window. Never able to resist buying or at least browsing jewellery while travelling, I decided to have a look. I was picking up a necklace with a large crystal when the shopkeeper came out of the shop to greet me.
‘That one is good for the spirit,’ she said to me, smiling. Her face was lined and tanned, but still soft and approachable. She had straight silver hair that fell down her back, and she wore a long wine-coloured caftan that was belted in the middle. Like me, her wrists were stacked with bracelets, her fingers stacked with rings. I felt a kinship with her right away.
‘Oh yes, I have one just like it from Bolivia,’ I told her.
‘Oh really? When were you there?’ she asked. I told her about the adventure I was on – rather, the adventure I had been on. It was coming to a close, and I was flying home after nearly nine months in Central and South America. I didn’t really know what would come next, only that I was out of money, and that I wanted to be with my family on Christmas, which was a few weeks away. I showed her all of my jewellery, the silver rings from a market in Ecuador, the beaded bracelets from Peru and Chile, the earrings from Argentina. I had always collected my souvenirs like this, my body laden with memories.
‘What about you?’ I asked. I could tell that she wasn’t from Brazil. Though her English was perfect, her accent was European, German perhaps. She laughed.
‘Oh, my story is a little bit unusual. I left Austria many years ago to travel around the world. India, Morocco, then some time in Tanzania. I was never in one place for very long.’ She had been a teacher, teaching both English and German to make a living. In Kenya she met a man from Zimbabwe, a photographer, and within a year had a daughter. Within another year another daughter was born, and the four of them travelled together, sometimes living out of a little caravan, other times finding a house and settling for a while.
‘But you know how life is,’ she continued, smoothing out a few strands of beads. Her daughters grew restless with all the movement, begged to stay put for a while. The family decided on Mexico, in a town on the beach I’ve now forgotten the name of. The girls went to the local school, and the woman taught English every night in the back of a shop. Her partner still travelled often, as his job required him to do so. As she told me all of this she straightened the same beads again and again. I could only imagine how that life had grown monotonous. Routine didn’t usually suit wanderers like her.
‘My girls left soon after high school. Here they are.’ She showed me a photograph that was tacked on the wall, pointed to each woman. ‘Sophia studied in Mexico City, and she’s a lawyer there now. Isabel followed in her mother’s footsteps. She’s in Sri Lanka at the moment, probably hiking through some rainforest.’ She smiled, her finger staying on the photograph as she talked. ‘As for my partner, well…’ and with this she waved your hand into the air: gone, gone.
‘And now you’re in Brazil?’
‘Yes,’ she continued. ‘For the moment, anyway. I still teach sometimes, but I have a bit of money saved up and I spend most of my time travelling, selling jewellery. Here,’ she picked up another stone. ‘This one’s from Mexico. It’s a fire opal. Orange is for adventure, you know.’ The stone was a burnt colour streaked with white, and had been polished round. I held it in my hand, the chain dangling between my fingers.
She was not the first woman I met who had lived a life like this: unbound, mostly unencumbered. Sometimes a job or children or some unforeseen event made her settle for a little while, but I could sense a common restlessness in her spirit, a need to wander, a need to keep moving forward. She always shared a similar way of looking at the world, seeing it as a thing limitless in its opportunity and its beauty, a thing to be endlessly explored. I respect women like her, admire her. They’re the ones who are out there every day, discovering new lands.
I said goodbye after an hour or so, as I was conscious of getting back to Paraty before the sun went down. I bought the crystal necklace from her, and she pressed a carved wooden ring into my hand as I left.
I think about her from time to time, wonder how she dealt with the same things I do, the lure of adventure and the idea of settling somewhere for a while. I wonder how she balanced these ideas, or if she had simply flung the ties of a regular life behind her, setting out limitless and free. I thought about her even more as I made my way back up to Rio, and then as I flew home to Canada, and then as I made the decision to move to London to study. In Winnipeg the air turned my breath into ice, my tanned skin out of place against the white snow. I couldn’t bear to cut off any of the beaded bracelets from South America that lined my wrists, but they looked old and tattered in this environment, like they had only really thrived while in the sun.
If you’d like to read more stories from Central and South America, click here.
If you enjoyed this story, you might like:
When the Rain Fell (a story from Guatemala)
The Story of Guillermo (a Colombian artist)