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I went to Brazil with three goals: (1) to not get kidnapped, (2) to learn Portuguese, and (3) to have sex with a Brazilian. Of course, truth is, I was really only set on one of those. Before I left, about a dozen friends, on hearing that I was going to Brazil, had told me at length how much ass I was going to get. "Man," one friend said, "you are going to clean up. Have you seen pictures from Carnaval?" "Well," said another, "just be thankful you don't have a girlfriend." "Dude," said a third with a faraway look in his eyes. "Brazil, man. Brazil." This went on for about two weeks. I would tell people where I was going, and the reaction was always the same. Always, "Man, I can't wait to hear those stories," or "Damn, you're going to have an amazing time," or, simply, "Dude." It's understandable; Brazil occupies a peculiar place in the American imagination — a sort of sexual Eden of beaches, all-night dancing, and beautiful, hot-blooded, willing people. The fact that it's a fairly conservative, very Catholic country doesn't jibe with that image, and is therefore generally forgotten. By the time I got on the plane, all the expectations were making me very nervous. I'd like to say that I'm not susceptible to peer pressure, that I wouldn't turn a month-long, possibly revelatory backpacking trip through Brazil into a quest for foreign hook-ups. I'd like to say that I'm above treating an entire nation's women as a collection of sex objects. I'd like to say. Two weeks into my trip, I remained un-laid. Brazilian girls — especially in Rio — were very free about making out, but that was basically it. More than one frustrated foreigner told me (word-for-word, making me think that this was some kind of expat aphorism) that "kissing's like shaking hands here. But more than that — forget it."
Every time I talked to a girl, I felt sure that to her, I was just another gringo looking for ass.
I was beginning to suspect that the "willingness" of Brazilians had been highly exaggerated. For one thing, most Brazilians live with their parents well past college, meaning that sex, when it happens, has to happen at a motel or love-hotel. There's no culture of, "Hey, you want to come back and have a drink/smoke a bowl/see my etchings?" There's no "back" to come to, no subtle way of saying, "Hey, I maybe want to have sex with you." It's either a motel or nothing. So, night after night, that meant nothing. I began to get anxious. Also guilty. Every time I found myself talking to an attractive girl, flirting in my crappy Portuguese, touching her arm or back, I was struck by the paranoid certainty that to her, I was just another gringo looking for ass. More than once, I had to fight the urge to step back, raise my hands defensively over my head, and say, "Despite the fact that I am foreign, and am somewhat interested in getting into your pants, I am not objectifying you. I respect you as a human being, who happens to be female and Brazilian." Only my limited Portuguese vocabulary, and the sneaking suspicion that this was not actually true, kept me from doing that. I passed my days in a miasma of desire and guilt. I began to despair. Then I met Ana.
The first thing Ana ever said to me was, "Your glasses remind me of Sartre." It was about 12:30 a.m., New Year's Day, and we were standing knee-deep in seawater by the beach in Barra, one of Salvador's suburbs. She leaned in a little too close to say this. She was wearing a simple, white cotton dress, no bra. When she bent towards me to shout over the music, I saw her nipples, a rich coffee against the dark skin of her tiny breasts. She was staying in the same hostel I was, although we'd never talked before. She was a tiny girl, five-foot-nothing and delicate, with thin, birdlike features. She sat like a bird too, perched on the edge of her seat, her legs crossed, her arms flapping animatedly whenever she got excited. She had a very vaginal tattoo drawn in henna on the back of her hand. I pointed at it and said, "You know, that's kind of dirty." Her brown cheeks colored slightly. "That's not what it looks like." I smiled. "Neh?" She shook her head. "No. I can be a little bit pornographic, but that's not what it looks like." Maybe in Portuguese that made more sense. But, as I discovered, she liked to talk, and I could more or less follow what she said. And, if she wasn't beautiful, she was at least. . . I don't know. Brazilian. I mentally slapped myself for thinking it.