Breakfast with Monkeys (a delayed note from the field)

I originally wrote this blog post in my journal back in June.  I debated about whether or not to post it.  Here it is, finally.

Breakfast with monkeys

Five years ago I was at a turning point. I had just been accepted into 2 PhD programs and had made the decision to accept the offer to enter the theatre & performance of the Americas program at ASU. So I quit both my teaching jobs, accepted a generous fellowship and began making plans.

Part of those plans was what to do with my summer of transition. My ex had recently decided to move back to Brazil and the new custody arrangement as ordered by the DR judge said that my son needed to visit his dad for at least 4 weeks in Brazil every summer.

There were still some trust issues. People were worried that Lucas might try to kidnap him and keep him in Brazil. I was not well informed about the nuances of custody law in Brazil but I had heard that the courts privilege Brazilian citizens and not the foreigner. I didn’t want to take any chances. So I decided to fly with my son to the drop-off point in the SP airport and I would pick him up in Curitiba for the return flight.

I knew I had 4 weeks to spend in Brazil and I didn’t want to spend it in Curitiba. I didn’t want to intrude in their space or their time together and I also wanted to have my own privacy, time and space to myself. I also knew I wanted to avoid Salvador because I needed a place that was peaceful, tranquil, safe and a place where I could relax and have a mental break before beginning the PhD journey.

So I started looking online for hostels in rural coastal areas of Bahia. I looked at every place from Porto Seguro to the beaches in the north of Bahia. I didn’t really have set criteria for what I needed. I decided I would go with my gut instinct.

So I came across a place called “Itacaré hostel.” As part of their album of photos showing the place, they had a picture of a small monkey (mico) sitting at one of the breakfast tables. That was it. I decided I wanted to have breakfast with monkeys.

I knew it was a completely silly and arbitrary reason to want to be there. But a few years prior I had fallen in love with the little micos when I saw them eat right out of my hands at a park in Rio on vacation back in 2001.

So I booked the hostel stay. Booked my plane ticket and got myself mentally prepared for what I believed would be a lovely trip to paradise. Part of this stems from that trip I took with my sister and my best friend back in 2001. We had collectively decided it was the best vacation of our lives and we even began to make plans to open a business called “Gringa Tours” where I would lead Americans on the “off-the-beaten-path” tourism vacations for those (like me) who like to avoid the obvious touristy choices. I wanted to take them where the locals go on vacation, low budget adventure style. At the time we called it “guerilla tourism.” Our tagline was going to be “When was the last time you dove head first into paradise?” We were going to see if Teva would sponsor us and the poster would be the backside of a woman, naked except for her Teva sandals.

Now I look back at those ideas and those plans and realize how problematic they are – for a variety of reasons relating to the historical deployment of words like “guerilla” and “paradise” and to the realities of power structures like colonialism, neo-liberalism and tourism.

That first trip to Itacaré 5 years ago was delightful. I fell in love and cried when I had to leave. On that first taxi drive from the airport in Ilhéus to Itacaré I marveled at the beautiful natural landscape of beaches and Mata Atlântico. The taxi driver told me how much of this area was a protected rain forest and people were not allowed to build. He touted the ideals of ecotourism and I believed him. For a few days. I saw the color-coded trash cans on the street and thought “What a great idea!”

Then I realized that the color-coded trash cans (for metal, glass, plastic, paper and organic material) were always empty. I knew something was strange and I thought perhaps my dissertation might be on the topic of “Performing Paradise” and the ways the façade and charade of eco-paradise are constructed and performed. I fell in love with the people, the climate, the slow pace of life and the natural beauty of the place. But I knew something more was at play.

I filed all that information in the back of my head and prepared to begin my PhD program. In the mean time the hostel owner’s husband said there was a local university that didn’t have a theatre program and I should see about getting a job there. I looked into it, found the website, learned there was a research nucleus dedicated to Afro-Brazilian culture, visited, sniffed around. Met a couple of people and began making connections that I hoped would pay off someday.

Each year on my summer vacation I returned to Itacaré. The second year I brought one of my best friends with me. He fell in love with the place as quickly as I did. We dreamed of purchasing a little piece of land somewhere for a retreat of healing arts. The third year I brought my partner with me. It was the first time he had ever been out of the country and I knew I needed to take special care to make sure he didn’t suffer from culture shock. He enjoyed the trip but he helped me question this idea of paradise. He has never been the kind of person who falls easily in love. His rational side still controls his life. We balance each other. But he was the one to point out to me the parallels to Erie, PA where he grew up and how the lack of industry resulted in what he was seeing as an economically depressed area. Sure, it had an incredible natural beauty, but he saw it as potentially a very depressing place to live if one had no opportunities for making a viable living. Of course I knew that there were economic and racial inequalities. Of course I knew that the people who worked in the tourism industry were paid well below what they are worth. And of course I knew the options for growth were limited, especially when career options revolved around service – a reinscription of the histories of this region which began as sugar and cocoa plantations operating on the basis of slave labor, through the age of coronelismo where white land owners operated their cocoa plantations in a mode not unlike sharecropping in the southern US to today’s tourism industry where mostly white landowners and politicians make obscene profits off the backs of underemployed bodies of color. But the comparison to depressed blue-collar towns in rural US hadn’t occurred to me before.

In the mean time my dissertation research has changed so many times it is almost not worth following the train of thought that brought me here. Needless to say, the prospectus that was approved in April of 2013 has already become almost completely irrelevant. All the book learning I did and the abstracted information I gleaned about Umbanda and healing and women fighting for social justice had to take a back seat when I followed the methodology of my mentor where I needed to be present and listen.

If a researcher tries hard enough, he or she will, of course, see what he or she wants to see. Classical scientific inquiry: set up a thesis question, enter the field, and prove it or disprove it. Immersion ethnography is different. It is also potentially more chaotic and more difficult because of the flexibility required for adjusting the research question to fit the realities of observed rather than manipulating the data or only selecting data that serves the research question. It has felt messy and chaotic. But the method requires we keep diligent about entering the field, utilizing thick description to try to see details we might normally miss as a casual observer and continuously question any moments where we might come to facile conclusions.

Lo and behold, as much as I thought I was not going to try to write about the constructions of the idea of paradise in the imaginations of the visitors, the theme keeps forcing itself into the work. Perhaps this is because I, myself, have had to question my own notions of “paradise” in order to question my own presence here, in this beautiful place that does not belong to me, and a place to which I do not belong.

In the mean time I am a performer. I make theatre and study theatre and performance. They are deeply engrained in my ways of knowing and being in the world. So I have done what I can to always be engaged in performance projects while here conducting this ethnographic fieldwork. I am now realizing these things are all woven together. I am here, fully engaged in this performance of paradise as a spectator, co-producer of meaning, and even a performer of what it means to be a foreign visitor here in a place that still reads as “paradise” under certain limited definitions.

Cut to: June 2, 2014, morning. As I was sitting on my front porch, on a beautiful Sunday morning, drinking coffee and enjoying my café da manhã, three micos decided (finally!) to come visit me. After five years I finally got to have breakfast with monkeys. Did they come sit right at my table? No. They remained at a safe distance while the neighbors downstairs fed banana da terra to them in the tree. Will they ever come right up to me with the ease and familiarity of a domesticated pet? Probably not.

Somehow I feel like this breakfast with the monkeys has brought a sense of closure to my journey through paradise. Does this mean I will never return? I hope not. I am still in love with Itacaré. But the honeymoon is over. It is a town full of problems. But now that my eyes are more open to the problems she faces…

Yes I refer to my beloved town as “she” I could lie and say it is because the word for cidade in Portuguese is feminine. But I’m afraid it’s because there is still a very problematic residual trace of the etymology of virgin lands being referred to as feminine bodies to be explored, exploited and perhaps tamed. I know this is a problem and I still think of her beauty and presence as feminine.

Now that my eyes are open, I have a strong desire to continue my relationship with her past the honeymoon stage. She is like a second home to me. There are people who live here who I think of as family. But I’m still an outsider. I know it is not my place as an outsider to try to come in with external solutions. It’s not even my place to question why. But I will do whatever I can to continue a committed presence: to listen, to offer help whenever and however I can when it is desired or requested.

As I reflect on yesterday’s breakfast with monkeys I realize that that desire to eat with them stems from a very problematic desire to gain some sort of intimacy with a complicated notion of paradise. Perhaps the monkeys were helping me say farewell to these notions of paradise. Or perhaps because I am looking toward the end (I’ve been here 4 and ½ months and have 7 weeks left) I am thinking of the ways to bid farewell.

For 2 years my advisors and committee members had been asking me why this place was so important to my research. Why there? Why those women? And for those two years I had tried to find external reasons that merely coincided with my desire to be here. But the true reasons is that I have grown an attachment to this place. It feels like a second home. It feels like a place where I want to be present.

In the Kàwé office there is a sign that says something to the effect of “Before you try to go out and save the world, walk around your house three times.” Perhaps my real reason for choosing this place was because I needed to question the touristic desire (and there is plenty of touristic desire for this place).

It takes a long time to establish trust and a relationship with a community. But I have realized I have done very little in my own home town of Tempe, AZ to establish trust and a relationship in my own community. Here in Itacaré I had to just go out on the street. Pound the pavement and just go talk to people. Just be present. Perhaps that is the most important thing I learned here. In order to be present I need to go out and pound the pavement. Take walks in my own neighborhood. Get to know my neighbors. In suburban sprawl this is a challenge. But perhaps it is the challenge I need.