Five years ago today, I almost died.
Not “I farted while carrying the casket and almost died from embarrassment” died or “I had so many Jagerbombs last night I feel like I might die” died. I mean “going down for the last time, pushing up the daisies, step into the light, shed your mortal coil, singing with the choir celestial” died.
First, some back story. Five years ago, I spotted a little blurb at the bottom of the front page of the business section of “The Tennessean.” Rotary International was looking for applicants for a one month group study exchange to the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina in the southernmost portion of the country. As part of an international exchange program, Rotary would sponsor four professionals under the age of 35 to travel with one Rotarian and stay with families, speak at Rotary meetings about Nashville and work in local companies in professions which were similar to what we did here in Tennessee.
I figured I had a good chance to get accepted since I studied Portuguese in college and wrote my honors thesis on Brazilian labor policies. I’m pretty well traveled and not uncomfortable with public speaking. The hitch to the situation was the fact that the ad appeared in the paper on only one day.
It was September 11, 2001.
Not many people were real excited about international travel on that day. There were only four applicants for four spots. I was in. Not that it was easy to convince RUABelle that it would be a good idea for me to leave her for a month and basically be incommunicado the whole time. In fact, I was only able to make two phone calls and access the internet three or four times during the entire time I was gone.
But she relented. Actually, I’ve wanted to go to Brazil ever since I started studying their history and culture in college twenty years ago, so I was going regardless. I think she sensed that and figured it would be better to just accept it rather than fight. Plus, this was the trip when I gave her The Rabbit.
The group consisted of our sponsor, who was then the head of the biz school at Belmont, a young female architect who had spent a couple of months in Brazil the year before, a Colombian woman who worked in HR at Dollar General and another young lady who was an attorney. Yes, you’ll note that it was a married guy, three single young women and me. That didn’t make RUABelle very happy either.
Our language skills varied. The architect was fairly fluent. The woman from Colombia (South America, not the town near Shelbyville) spoke Spanish and could comprehend just about everything she heard and could respond in a mélange of the two languages which is formally referred to as “Portañol.” I was rusty, but could understand most of what was going on and communicate well enough to participate in conversations. I had the verbal skills on the level of about a third grader. Consequently, I spent a lot of time talking to children while I was there.
Our other two team members weren’t as lucky. They had no background in Portuguese and didn’t really have an ear for languages. They compensated by speaking English v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and LOUDLY. So we wrote their presentations out phonetically for them so they could fake their way past the groups of aged Rotarians who we spoke to 3-4 times per week. They prayed there wouldn’t be any Q & A which would expose their lack of language skills. When people started to ask us questions, I just pulled out a guitar and we all sang “Rocky Top.” Yes, we did. Luckily, in Brazil they serve big communal bottles of beer at each table at most Rotary meetings.
We were generally very supportive of our two colleagues who were pretty much unaware of what was going on around them. Especially since we were often split up to stay in different homes and most of our hosts spoke no English. But I have to admit that we did have a little fun at their expense every now and then. For instance, the Portuguese word for lawyer is “advogado.” We waited through a couple weeks of giggling at the presentations before we finally broke down and corrected our resident attorney who had been starting her speech with, “Hello, my name is Beverly and I am an avocado.”
So anyway, back to the almost dying thing. We had been in Brazil for about a week in the state capital, Florianopolis. Floripa, as it is called, is a beautiful island off the southeast coast of Brazil. We were attending the District Rotary Conference where we were displayed like zoo animals to the assembled conventioneers. After a few days of sitting through boring presentations about public service campaigns that only a few of us could even understand small portions of, we decided to play hooky for an afternoon.
We had been running pretty much 24/7 for the first week as our hosts toured us around the city and entertained us at night. Mine even took me to a whorehouse the third night I was there and left me sitting in the bar while he went upstairs with an exotic local after I politely declined her “hospitality.” But that’s a story for another time.
The first five days I was in Brazil, I went to sleep at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. I was actually afraid that I was on a pace to have to wake up before I went to bed. We really needed the break.
Plus we hadn’t visited what Florianopolis was famous for: the beaches. Floripa is renowned for having 42 different beaches, each with different characteristics and personalities. The beaches on the western side of the island were secluded and quiet, sheltered from the wind. The beaches on the east side were known as some of the great surfing beaches in the world with the Atlantic providing consistently excellent breaks and pounding waves.
Local residents tended to choose a beach which fit their personality and stick with it. Rather than saying, “that’s not my bag” or “that’s not my cup of tea,” Floripans say “não é a minha praia.” Literally, “that’s not my beach.”
But we wanted to see all of them. Or at least as many as we could see in an afternoon. Our group split up and I jumped in a car with Beverly the avocado and a friend of my host, Roberto. Roberto had lived in the United States for a few years, so his English was excellent. But he was a strange bird, kind of creepy and a little bit grabby. I could never figure out whether he was hitting on Beverly or me.
We traveled in his tiny Ford KA (picture a cross between a riding mower and a Star Trek shuttle craft) for a driving tour of the first few beaches. We knew we had a lot of ground to cover, so we didn’t even get out of the car at most of them. Roberto had a plan, and we didn’t know where the hell we were going anyway, so we just went with the flow. We were unaware that Roberto’s plan revolved around getting shitfaced.
He took us to an incredible beach called Joaquina. It is the site of many international surfing competitions and the talent was everywhere. By “talent,” I mean world-class surfers. Oh, and unbelievably gorgeous women walking around in bikinis so small that they are colloquially referred to as “fio dental”-dental floss. Apparently in the past few years, the trend has been for swimsuit designers to use even less fabric. The fio dental has given way to a suit called the “Cepacol.” It gets into places that even dental floss can’t reach.
Needless to say, I was quite content to sit with Beverly under an umbrella and drink non-alcoholic batidas out of pineapples like Thurston and Lovey Howell. We were easily the palest and fattest people on the beach. Hell, probably in the area code.
Roberto sat next to us in full sun turning redder as we watched from a combination of the tropical solar rays, the lecherous looks he was giving to the long and lean and tan and lovely girls as they walked by (and maybe the surfer dudes?) and the numerous beers he was pounding.
After about and hour and five beers, Roberto asked whether we wanted to go next door to his favorite beach, Gahleta. He said not many people go there because you can’t drive to it. It necessitated a mile long walk along the beach from Joaquina and required clambering over some rocks and along some craggy cliffs.
It sounded a little ambitious for two out of shape Nashvillagers until he added, “And it’s a nude beach.”
“I’m in. Finish up your damn umbrella drink, Bev.”
Despite what you might think, there aren’t a lot of nude beaches in Brazil. They think it’s a lot sexier to hide just a little bit of skin rather than let it all hang out, and I have to say I usually agree with them. But I had seen some incredibly beautiful women at Joaquina and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to take a peek at what lie behind the curtain.
I should have heeded the Wizard of Oz’s advice. After a half hour treacherous hike during which Roberto managed to drink three more beers, we arrived at Gahleta. It was secluded and the view of the raging surf was amazing.
And it was a nude beach. For old dudes.
With their sagging scrota and bushy gray pubes, it looked like a group of twenty men playing hot potato with a basket of squirrels. Roberto didn’t seem disappointed and Beverly was really amused.
We decided to at least make the best of it and go swimming. Beverly had a swimsuit on and Roberto was wearing running shorts, so they were set. I had not had as much foresight. But I figured when in Rome and began to strip down. When I got to my boxers, I realized that they had kind of a Hawaiian floral print to them, and they looked like a bathing suit anyway so I stopped short of full-on commando. (Foreshadowing-I still have those boxers and wear them occasionally. But never on an airplane. Because I call them “the boxer shorts of death.”)
The water was wonderful, clear and warm as a bathtub. We body surfed in the shallows while the professional surfers shredded a hundred meters further out. The sets of waves came every 20 seconds or so and we jumped up and down in place to keep our heads above water (and Roberto’s beer dry). Beverly isn’t much over five foot, so she had to jump higher than we did.
We were only in about waist deep water (for me, not the avocado) when I commented, “Man, this is great. These waves are a blast, but they don’t really give you much time to rest between them.” Right as these words left my mouth another set of waves came in and I jumped up like I had a hundred times before in the past half hour. But this time when I came back down, my feet didn’t hit sand. And neither did Beverly’s or Roberto’s.
I looked over at Bev and immediately saw a look of panic on her face. It must have been like looking in a mirror because she desperately said in a choked voice, “We’re in trouble.” Roberto actually threw away his beer bottle, so we knew it was serious.
I flashed back to first aid training:
1. Don’t panic.
2. Don’t let somebody else drown you .
3. Swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip.
4. Float on your back.
I tried all four of these in about five seconds. Unfortunately, I’m not that strong of a swimmer. I’m an open water scuba diver, but the 1000 meter swim test has always been the hardest part of any certification test I’ve ever taken. And to make matters worse, I’m a sinker. I doubt it’s because of my low body fat percentage, but when I try to float on my back, my feet head toward the bottom and the best I can manage is to bob like a bottle with a message and a cork in it. Once, I was on a fishing boat twenty miles into the Gulf and remarked to the first mate that I wasn’t that good at swimming. He told me, “In that case, if you fall overboard I recommend you swim straight to the bottom and run as fast as you can toward shore.”
This meant that the incoming waves were breaking over my head and I had to swim straight up to get my head above each crest. When I would hit the apex of each surge, I would try to spin around to see where Beverly and Roberto were. We tried to stay close, but we were losing ground as we each fought our individual battles with Poseidon.
I could see that Beverly was able to float on her back better than I was, but she was whimpering and gagging on salt water as each wave broke over her head. I told her she was doing great (Liar!) and to just hold on. Roberto was trying to swim back toward shore, but even with a full freestyle stroke aimed dead at the beach I actually saw the rip drag him backwards right past me. I reached out to grab onto him, but he wisely fought me off in an act of self-preservation.
I was utterly spent by this time. I couldn’t spin around at the top of the waves anymore for a status check. It wasn’t that I didn’t care how they were doing; I had just reached the realization that I was in a life or death situation, and it didn’t look good for the home team. I was spending more time under the water than above it, barely able to power my upturned face through the surface at the top of the waves for a quick gasp of air.
I held my breath and settled under the water looking up at the sun filtering through a few feet of brine through my bloodshot and sore eyes. When I felt the rising surge of water start to pull me up I would kick with everything I had to get my face exposed long enough for a breath. One time, I didn’t estimate the distance correctly and ended up a few inches short of the surface. I started to sink back down without exchanging the CO2 in my aching lungs for the precious O2 that I desperately needed. Even though the current was not supporting me anymore and was instead pulling me down and backwards farther from the shore I thrashed my body in a corkscrew and flung my head out of the water like a trout rising to a fly.
I managed to suck in a mouthful that was half water and half air and it occurred to me at just that moment that I didn’t remember ever calling for help. Despite the fact that I couldn’t really spare the air, I yalped a hoarse cry. I couldn’t see Roberto or Beverly at this point, but when I came up the next time for air I could hear them also yelling for help. I was unable to contribute to the claxon as I didn’t have the lung power to do more than croak.
Like I’d always heard, I experienced a moment of peace as I realized that I couldn’t make it back to the surface too many more times. I wasn’t upset, but I did feel a little guilt. I thought, “Why did I come to Brazil? Why did I suggest we go swimming? Beverly’s so short. She must be having a terrible time. I wish I could have helped her. I wonder who will tell RUABelle. I’ll miss my dog and my cat.”
Right about as I was headed down for what I figured might be the last time I felt a tug on my arm. Then I got the most wonderful wedgie I could ever imagine as a strong tan arm grabbed on to the back of the boxer shorts of death and rolled my limp body onto a surfboard. I didn’t immediately realize what was happening and lolled off the other side of the board back into the water and started to settle toward the bottom again.
I heard exasperated Portuguese as my surf angel reached down again and plucked me up like he was pulling a beer out of the bottom of a cooler. My oxygen-deprived brain was having great difficulty making instantaneous translation, but eventually I figured out that he was telling me to paddle. I was too exhausted to assist, but I managed to form the words for “Where are my friends?” in a language that seemed pretty opaque to me at the moment. He asked how many of us there were. I told him two others, and he said “We got them.”
I collapsed face down on the board as drool flowed out of my mouth onto the sandpapery surface that smelled vaguely of feet. The surfer started to yell at me in excited Portuguese. “You have to help me paddle! We’re getting farther away! We’ll never get back! You stupid tourists are ruining our surfing!”
All I could do was to keep repeating “Obrigado! Obrigado! Obrigado!” He said, “You’re welcome. Now swim!” There wasn’t room on the board for a surfer and a beached whale, so he kicked behind us like an outboard. I had gathered enough wits to actually start to contribute to our propulsion, so we finally started to make progress. I couldn’t raise my head, so he was the navigator as well as the engine room on this particular ship.
Finally after what seemed like an eternity, we made it close enough to shore where he could roll me off the board and I could crawl up on the beach. Beverly and Roberto had already made it back (apparently their surfers were stronger than mine), and they were talking excitedly with a group of naked old men. I staggered over to them and lay down on my back on top of a flat rock. Still gasping and sweating profusely, I waited for my heart rate to drop below 200. At this point, I felt a draft and noticed that these particular boxers were “gappers.” I had apparently finally gotten into the swing of things at Gahleta. But I couldn’t have cared less at the moment.
I asked where my rescuer was so I could thank him, and somebody said “out there” and pointed past the break where the group of surfers was back at it. Well, I sure wasn’t swimming out there to see him.
I put my clothes back on and used my toe to write “Thank you. I’m sorry.” and my name in the sand. I doubt it made much of an impression on him, but at least we didn’t take up any more of his prime wave time.
The stagger back to the car took a lot longer than the first trip. Roberto stopped for a few more beers. I joined him for one. At this point, he suddenly broke down crying and said that he should never have taken us to Gahleta. He knew it was dangerous and he was drunk and don’t tell anybody in Rotary he did this and as a matter of fact three people had drowned at that same beach last week and he didn’t think he could drive us home because he was too upset and wasted.
So I gave him a sweaty hug and took his keys. Despite the fact that I hadn’t driven a stick shift in ten years and neither Beverly or I really knew the directions or even the addresses to here we were staying, somehow I managed to navigate the crazy third-world traffic of Florianopolis and get us all to our respective homes. I collapsed on the Speed Racer sheets of the twin bed in the room where I had displaced the son of my host and slept until the next morning.
Our first task the next day was a tour of an old neighborhood of Floripa. Beverly and I had agreed not to tell anybody in our group what had happened until we had moved on to the next town so as not to conjure up a shitstorm during the District Conference while all of our hosts’ grand poobahs were in town. We had heard the story of another Group Study Exchange trip to India where the cab driver had run over and killed a small boy on the way from the Calcutta Airport. He never even slowed down. They got to their first hotel, called Rotary International, went back to the airport and flew home. We didn’t want to screw up everybody else’s trip.
Our tour group walked into an ancient church and the priest walked directly up to Beverly and me and handed us prayer cards, saying “These are for you.” At least I knew that’s what he was saying. To Bev, he might as well have said “Momma go foo-foo in the banana patch.”
I looked down at the cards and realized that they were for Santo Exposito, “o santo dos causas urgentes.” See, thanks to magic of cognates, you can read a little Portuguese. “The Saint of Urgent Causes.”
I still keep it in my wallet. I look at it every now and then. It’s tucked behind my bus pass. I’ve only pulled it out and muttered the Portuguese prayer once during a particularly violent bout of turbulence on a commercial flight. The date of the festival of Santo Exposito is April 19. Remind me to make my annual donation to the Brazilian Surf Rescue Fund. And to be thankful for every day I’m alive.