In 2011, my wife, Casie, and I moved to Porto das Dunas, Brazil. We got an apartment on the beach; every piece of furniture in that fully furnished apartment was either covered with sticky, salty ocean air or crumbling to dust from the never-ending equatorial sun. The twin mattresses we pushed together flaked debris onto the floor like our constantly sunburnt skin. We got a car; a 1980 VW Beetle — what Brazilians called a Fusca. Like the furniture, the salty, sandy environment had taken its toll on that 31-year-old beast. And, like the furniture, we made it work anyway.
Unlike Casie, I’d always loved the beach. I loved the sand that stretched up and down the coast, infinite, like its own beige sea. I loved the waves crashing so loudly they drown out the miniature TV in our apartment. And I loved morning walks on the beach before the crowds filled the sprawling sand with their towels, umbrellas, and lawn chairs.
Nearly every morning, I’d throw on my swim trunks — trunks, not the speedo-style suits the Brasileiros wore — and walk to the bay near our apartment. It was a massive inlet that with high tide filled and with low tide emptied. The dangerous part was the narrow mouth where, during tide changes, water flowed at such a rapid pace it swept strong swimmers into the ocean or drew them into the deepening bay.
On one morning walk, I threw myself into the mouth of that bay to save a drowning man. Fifteen or so onlookers shouted, “Perigoso!” as I dropped my glasses, shirt, and shoes on the sand before jumping into that turbulent water. That day I was smart enough to drop my glasses on the beach before diving in. A few weeks later, I wasn’t.
The sun was up, the sky was clear, and the water was cool. I practiced yoga, barefoot and shirtless, in the packed sand where the water lapped at my feet like gentle kisses from the ocean. The mix of cool water, hot sun, and a perfect breeze made every bit of my body feel alive in ways few other experiences could. But with life, there are always surprises. In peacock pose, with elbows grinding into my abdomen, my whole body’s weight in perfect balance, I felt the first signs of an upcoming shitstorm.
In high school, a friend called it the 15-minute gurgles, meaning once you felt it you had fifteen minutes to find a bathroom. His gurgles were a much better warning system than my own. Once that feeling, that cold sweaty feeling, grabbed my intestines and twisted, if I was lucky I’d have minutes to find a spot to go.
From peacock, I moved to a simple lotus, hoping that the twisting in my belly was a result of the pressure peacock pose inflicted. I took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. Took in another and let it out slowly. On that second breath, an even more painful round of gurgles and twisting nausea hit. It wasn’t a warning anymore; it was go time. The beach stretched out like a desolate, brown highway to the south. The nearest public restrooms were three hundred yards down that way. That dangerous bay was fewer than one hundred yards to the north. Our apartment was at least three hundred yards to the west. And the mighty Atlantic stretched out infinitely to the east.
It was early enough in the morning that the beachgoers hadn’t arrived, the kite surfers weren’t skimming the sea, and the ice cream vendors weren’t dinging their bells, trying to sell half-melted scoops of Brigadeiro-flavored cones. I was alone; thank the powers that be for tiny miracles.
A third round of cramps sent me into the water, pulling my trunks down as I ran.
Oh, the mighty relief of a gut-clenching, cold sweat-producing diarrhea. There’s something unexplainable about that type of relief, like a warm cup of soup on a cold day, or a cool breeze in a hundred-degree sun. The moment the guts stop twisting… it’s like taking the first breath after an exceptionally long skin dive.
But that day, as the relief of purging diarrhea washed over me, a wave, a literal wave, washed over me, too. An eight-foot wall of water, one of the biggest I’d seen on the Atlantic coast, rolled me over and over in my shit, until I crashed onto the beach, my naked ass gleaming in the morning sun. As if it weren’t enough for mighty Poseidon to befoul me as I’d befouled his kingdom, along with my dignity, the son of Cronos stole my eyesight. Or at least my glasses. Glasses I needed for everything from teaching to driving.
I took a deep breath, swallowed the remnants of my pride, pulled up my pants, and dove back into murky, brown, tainted water. Eyes closed tight — no desire for pink eye here — I felt around the ocean floor for my glasses. By the time I gave up, my body had been cleansed; I was baptized and reborn half-blind — but clean — as I crawled to the shore.
How does one explain that in a rush not to shit themselves, they ran into the ocean with their glasses on? Honesty, I found, was the only option. Casie found it quite funny. As did everyone else I told. And of course, it was funny. I’d learned a long time before that if we can’t laugh at our own faux pas, we’re taking life too seriously. I’ve never been one to take things too seriously, especially when it comes to bodily functions. A decade before, my irritable bowels had placed me in a situation even more awkward than losing glasses in the ocean while shitting my guts out. I was in photography school in Montana, at a steam tractor museum. Steam tractors, with all their moving parts, all their intricacies, all their industrial beauty offer incredible opportunities for young, fine art photographers. I burned through a dozen rolls of film that morning before the gurgles hit.
The school had arranged a private day for us at the museum. A day when no other visitors would interrupt our artistic processes. A day when the museum’s main building and bathrooms were locked and shuttered. Frantically, I searched for a toilet, a private tree, a patch of tall grass, anything, anywhere to relieve myself. What I found was an outbuilding—a small, two-story barn with just enough space for one tractor and a stack of straw bales. Sweating, cold, confused, I pulled a straw bale off the pile, hung my ass over the side, and nearly lost consciousness while emptying noxious poison from my bowels.
A familiar shiver of relief came about the same time I looked to the second level of the barn. On a catwalk I hadn’t noticed before, a beautiful girl, red-haired with pale skin and green eyes stood, camera in hand, mouth agape. I took care of my business, pulled up my pants, pushed the straw bale over the mess, and looked back to the catwalk. She was still there, smiling. “It happens,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and exhibiting a Cheshire Cat grin. The thought of that devilish grin still makes me wonder how many pictures of me, white with stomach pain, bearing down on a mess of liquid shit, are floating around out there. Maybe they’re part of an award-winning series named “Caught in the Act” or something.
In Brazil, the task of finding an optometrist proved more difficult than I’d expected. There weren’t Wal-Marts with one-hour “Vision Centers” or optometry/glasses offices. These two entities were separate. First, you find the optometrist, schedule an appointment, go to the appointment, and get your prescription. Next, you find a glasses shop, schedule an appointment, take your prescription, get fitted for your frames, order them, and wait. Seems simple enough, even with the separation of these two seemingly connected entities. But, when blindness is exacerbated by the salt and sand-damaged 31-year-old windshield in the Fusca you drive, things have the potential of getting exponentially worse, fast.
Casie didn’t drive in Brazil for two reasons: 1. She has the navigational skills of a blind mole and 2. because our city was ranked one of the worst in the world for dangerous drivers. A student of mine, Jan, helped me schedule my ophthalmological appointment that day and volunteered to help navigate through the city, to the doctor’s office. He was Portuguese, not Brazilian, and his English and Portuguese were both different than the mixture of Portu-English to which I’d become accustomed. His slurred words, unique slang, and lisp made everything hard to understand over the VW’s growling muffler. Casie and I lived in Porto Das Dunas — the doorway to the dunes — which was about thirty minutes from the metropolis of Fortaleza. 2.7 million people live in that city, another two million live around it. While Jan and I drove on and on, trying to find our way to the optometrist, the constant stops and starts of the disorganized city traffic proved to be too much for the Fusca. On a particularly hard stop, my brake foot went all the way to the floor, but the little car kept rolling.
I downshifted into first and released the clutch, stalling the VW, as Jan jerked roughly toward the windshield. The obstacles of the day were growing. With another thirty or so blocks to go, no glasses for sun or vision, an etched windshield on a sunny day, a language barrier, and now, no brakes, things were getting interesting.
Luckily, in my youth, I had a 1982 Honda Civic, aptly dubbed “The Nasty.” When I got a second, newer Honda, I turned The Nasty into a type of go-cart/ATV. I chopped the top — literally, chopped it off — removed the doors, back seat, muffler, hatchback, and all other excess weight. By the time I was done, I was able to drive The Nasty through the crowded woods of my grandfather’s tree farm. In it, I climbed muddy hills, raced through creeks, and ramped over mounds of dirt that the Honda company never intended. As a 19-year-old, one of my favorite things to do with that old car was get going about 45 MPH in a field, pull the E-brake, cut the wheel, and let it spin. Then, when the spinning slowed, I’d kick it back into first, release the E-brake, release the clutch, and hit the gas. It didn’t take long to master the fine art of the 180, 360, and 720. Eventually, I mastered the skill of E-braking and, through the fields and forests, could drive just as well without using the floor brake as I could with it.
This skill didn’t translate well into city driving. In the forests and fields back home, there weren’t 2.7 million Fortalezains veering in and out of this lane or that. There weren’t mule carts overloaded with trash, recycling, or coconuts jamming up the roadways. While in the forest, I could turn any direction I wanted, at almost any time, but in Fortaleza, left turns were forbidden. Add to that the massive potholes that Brazilians filled with spray-painted office furniture (so people knew where not to drive) and the picture of this leisurely journey toward the optometrist’s office starts to come into focus.
Though my E-braking in The Nasty didn’t quite translate to city traffic, without it, I don’t think the swerving, the short stops, the poor navigation through dozens of city blocks, or the parallel parking would have been possible.
After the uneventful appointment with the doctor, the next task was to return home. Thirty minutes of city and another 30 of rural driving without brakes, or glasses, looking through a scarred windshield, and now, thanks to Brazilian ophthalmological efficiency, dilated eyes.
For a single Real (about $.50 American cents at the time), a shouting Brazilian man waved two filthy rags stopping traffic as he guided me out of the parallel parking spot. Using only the E-brake to stop, I made my way forward, backward, and side to side, until I could pull away free and clear. It may sound easy, but I assure you, as I was driving a 1980 German tank, without power steering and the car in front of me was a shiny plastic Mercedes, and the car behind me was a similar BMW, and because car insurance wasn’t a requirement in Brazil, my ever-active anal sphincter was clinched tight.
Through it all, Jan chattered on in lispy, incomprehensible Portu-English, as I focused my dilated eyes on the busy street, one foot on the gas, one on the clutch, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand hovering between the E-brake and the gear shifter. That’s when the fear started in.
I’m not normally a fearful person. I’m not afraid of death, nor do I quiver at the notion of bodily harm — lord knows I’ve felt enough of that. After living through injuries like a broken neck, two bowel obstructions, a torn kidney, a compound fracture, and so on and so on, death, and pain don’t scare me much. For some reason, my fears have always been related to finances. I’m afraid of money — or, rather, the lack thereof. Driving through a city with millions of people, labeled by CBS as some of “the worst drivers in the world,” blind, with no brakes, and no insurance the notion of the inevitable car crash was terrifying. Cars, like most everything else in Brazil, are outrageously expensive. One of my students lived in a gated community — armed guards with rottweilers at the gate. His neighbor owned a Porsche, Cayenne. “That car,” my student told me as we drove by one morning, “cost more than my house.” His words ran through my mind as I crept through the city, pulling the E-brake, downshifting, veering, and dodging.
Fifteen minutes or so into the return trip, Jan, who hadn’t stopped talking the whole drive, paused. I glanced at him, curious about the cause of his sudden lapse in conversation. But I didn’t glance long — I had to keep my eyes on the road.
After a long pause, Jan’s next words came out in perfect, lisp-free English. “I don’t know where we are.”
I wanted to scream, “Your only fucking job was to navigate!” but I clenched my jaw and kept moving forward. Block after block of unfamiliar road, blinded by the sun, I crept at 25 KMH. Cars and motorcycles flew by, honking then swerving into my lane. Ten blocks or so later, Jan said, “Now I know where we are… this is where my mom got carjacked last week.”
Part of me thought, Bring it on! Try to take this fucking POS. I’d kinda like to see that. Part of me thought, but then, how would I get home? And part of me just laughed. How, in an entire city that size, does the person responsible for navigation lead a blind driver into the exact neighborhood where his mother was carjacked the week before?
“Turn left, next road,” he said, his lispy accent returning.
I bit my tongue and tried to remind myself that he was doing me a favor, that without him I never would’ve made it to my appointment. But his idiocy was wearing on me.
I took a deep breath. I let it out slowly. Calm. Passive. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ve always been. And through gritted teeth, I calmly said, “You can’t turn left in this city.”
“Just do a right and come round,” he said, knowingly.
At this point, I was creeping in the far-left lane of a three-lane road trying to stay out of the way of drivers making right turns, of the maniacs on motorcycles who sped by with a live chicken in one hand and their bike’s throttle in the other, and of cars that cost more than houses. Fearful of that inevitable crash, I didn’t want to pull the E-brake more often than I had to. I fully expected the emergency brake’s cable to snap at any moment like the Fusca’s frame and the steering column did just a few weeks later.
After three anxiety-packed right turns, I was heading north, back toward the main vein of the city. Another right led me to a road I knew but was less comfortable driving on without brakes. I cruised at 50 KMH for three kilometers, before Jan said, “Can you drop me off at my mom’s shop? I’m supposed to work this afternoon.”
Through another clenching of both jaw and sphincter, I calmly said, “Sure. Where is it?”
Ten blocks later, I screeched to a stop as an imbecilic driver reversed from her parking spot at full speed. Jan hopped out at his mom’s hair salon — not the kind of salon where they style hair, but the kind where they electrically remove hair (mostly women’s pubic hair, this was Brazil after all).
I drove the Fusca, alone now, through pot-holed streets, around donkeys and goats that crowded the less inhabited roads that led back to the dunes. I skipped my driveway and drove down the dirt and sand path to the beach. To say I needed a breath of fresh air after that tense drive would be an understatement. I parked, engaged the E-brake, and walked down the coast, carrying my tennis shoes, my feet being lapped by the now, calm ocean — it seemed Poseidon had forgiven me for my previous offenses. I walked the four hundred yards to the bay and sat on the rock formations that only showed when the tide was low. I sat and blurrily watched the kite surfers skim their way across the ocean. I watched as vague figures of fishers netted their day’s catch. I watched and I breathed. I watched and breathed and considered the luck of my day — the good and the bad. I considered what the day had been and what it could have been. Sure, I could have done without the exodus from my bowels that started this whole thing, I could have done without the eight-foot wave that rolled me in my own crap as it stole my glasses. I could have done without brake failures and getting lost where hijackings occur. But I was lucky that day. My mission had been accomplished. I’d driven nearly blind, without brakes, through a maze with more obstacles than most American drivers can imagine. I’d parallel-parked a brakeless, power steering-less car between two $150,000 works of art and got it back out of that tight spot without trading paint. I was lucky because if life is about the journey, not the destination, I’d proven myself up to the task. Up to anything this life had to throw at me.
When my heart was back in the right place and my body was relaxed, I stood, ready to return to the Fusca, to make the last leg of my journey home. I took one more deep breath, the salty air fresh and cool, and let it out slowly. When I did, I looked down into the rock formation, squinting my still-dilated eyes against the sun’s reflection gleaming off something impossible. There, broken, and missing one lens, was a set of glasses. Not mine, but very similar to my own. They’d been battered and ruined by the ocean, but their silver frames still glimmered in the afternoon light — a reminder that I wasn’t the only one who’d been through days like that. Days filled with shit, blinding sun, and clueless navigators. Days where the fates take us, full speed ahead, without brakes, toward our worst fears. Days that prove the average person can surpass the struggles of their journey through this tumultuous life.•