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July 26, 2022

The World is your Lover: Tales from a Summer of Connection.

I met Cami in a traveller’s hostel in Rio.

I was meant to fly to Brazil with my boyfriend. We planned a couple of weeks meeting friends there for Carnival and then spending a week alone travelling to Rio. The excitement of planning the trip may have initially covered the burning realisation I was having that, try as I may, my boyfriend was not the one for me.

And in the lead up to the trip, it became increasingly obvious that I did not want to be with him anymore. There were no arguments, no hard feelings, and actually a lot of care and kindness. There just was not that all important flicker that draws you to someone. And that was what I yearned for.

I tried for weeks to avoid the unpleasant decision of telling him but there was just no turning back anymore. And when I finally did it, it felt like a weight was taken off my shoulders. The guilt of causing hurt to someone I cared for was still there but the shame of being untruthful was gone.

Unfortunately, the internal process of back and forth meant that the trip to Brazil crept closer and closer and I had no idea what I was to do. “The (single) girl from Ipanema” did not have the chilled out bossa nova vibe the Gilberto version from the 60s brought so vibrantly to my mind. It was more a feeling that, once again, I had made plans that just did not add up in my life. Where was I going, and more importantly, with whom?

I was 31, newly single, and whilst everyone around me bought houses and took out mortgages, I was googling the cheapest ticket to Brazil. I felt like the odd one out.

“I will do the North with my friends but there is no way I am flying to Rio on my own,” I said to a friend. “Yes, you can!” she shouted through the phone with an encouragement that was unexpected. “Cancel the nice hotel and book yourself into this hostel near Ipanema. You will meet people there and it is in a safer area of the city.” And with that, she pasted in the link.

I was not sure. Rio, all by myself? I had never done anything like that alone.

That night, I stared into the mirror as I brushed my teeth in my London flat share. My housemate, who had just come back from an all-inclusive Caribbean cruise shook her head. “I think it’s insane. It isn’t safe! And what are you going to do there on your own?”

I clicked on the hostel link. It looked pleasant enough, I thought; a bit crammed perhaps and sparse but the photo of the smiley receptionist and the activities on offer did bring a wave of scary excitement.

And so, after a week in Brazil’s beautiful North, a week of dancing with strangers, drinking beer in the packed streets of Olinda with its run-down yet beautiful colonial buildings, and eating fried cheese from stalls that made me regret it the next morning, I felt acclimated enough not to freak out boarding the flight from Recife to Rio.

I took a taxi to Ipanema and stepped out into the midday heat. “Casa Bonita,” it said outside in sweet mosaic tiled letters glued to a bright pink wall. I checked in and opened the door to my designated dormitory room. It was tiny. I hurled my backpack onto the top bed of a three-storey wooden bunk bed. There was just enough space for six small lockers and a square window framing the beds on either side. This is where I would be sleeping, in a room with five other girls. I was glad I was on the top bunk because it gave me the feeling of some privacy, and as false as it was, I gladly took it.

As I was trying to organise my things and lock my backpack away, I was asking myself what to do with this half first day. I settled on going for a stroll by the beach and then figuring out how I would get to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the symbol of Rio towering over the city in a glorious sunset on the cover of any respectable guidebook. I turned my back to the door and rummaged around for my bag, ready to take the first few steps outside in the sweltering heat, when suddenly the door opened.

Two girls walked in, just like me looking around the tiny packed-out room with wide eyes and astonished disappointment.

“Venga, Maria-Paz, el número cinco es tu cama.” They both looked at me.

“Hola, sorry, I didn’t see you. I am Cami, and this is my friend Maria-Paz.” Cami smiled at me with warm eyes and great teeth. Her long dark hair flowing around her slender back. She was beautiful. And Maria-Paz lifted her hand brightly to wave at me.

“Marie of the Peace,” I thought. “What a great name.”

We introduced ourselves. Cami and Maria-Paz were from Chile, two girls my age spending two weeks in Brazil, one an English teacher and the other one a journalist.

An hour later, the three of us walked down to the beach. I was blown away. Bob Marley hammered out from one of the stalls and people were roller-skating in the tiniest bikinis with an ease that mesmerised me. The sand was white and the sea turquois as the waves drowned out the beeping sounds from the busy afternoon traffic of the main road running parallel to the beach. Coconut sellers monotonously repeated “Coco Gelo, Coco Gelo” and, whilst taking the risk of sounding cliché, beautifully tanned men and women stood chatting to each other with their feet in the water and their hair blowing in the breeze.

Cami and Maria-Paz enveloped me with a chatty presence, as if I were a school friend from long ago, whilst we were trying to find our bearings. I am no timid woman myself, but their natural warmth and openness just stunned me. It almost felt like what came so naturally to them had been a part of me all my life, and yet with my northern European upbringing was always encouraged to be kept somewhat private. And here they were, all their sparkle and joy offered to pretty much a stranger as they scooped me up and carried me along.

We spent the entire five days together from morning till evening. We joined three other girls on a walk to the Redeemer statute, we drove through Santa Teresa, we walked down Copacabana, and visited the largest favela in Brazil, Rocinha (with a local resident guide). In the afternoon, we took pictures of each other, swam and laughed, ate ice cream and papayas, and lounged and talked on our towels on Ipanema beach.

Their lives, my life, continents apart and yet the same loves, the same joys, the same stories. And hope, so much hope for the future.

At night when the others wanted to go out, Cami and I stayed behind, tired from the busy city day, and chatted. We shared our stories, we talked about our dreams, we laughed about our mistakes. I felt such a connection with Cami that her warmth and sincerity rubbed off on me.

Cami was 16 when she had her son, Benjamin. Her family helped her raise him and she was able to go to university. She showed me a picture of Benja, as she called him: a sporty and smiley teenage boy wrapped in his mother’s arms. Now in her early 30s, she was able to leave her son with her parents for a bit and travel. As she told me her stories, she was full of gratitude and enthusiasm. Her first trip took her to Peru and whilst joining a walking group up Machu Picchu she met a Brazilian man called Joao.

“Oh Joao,” she said, looking beyond me “He was so nice, Tina. We sat outside the tent for hours talking and it was magical for me.” And now, some years later, part of her trip to Brazil was also to come and meet Joao, even if just briefly, with the curiosity we all have when meeting someone from our past.

“Why don’t you come along? I would love for you to meet him.”

And so before I knew it, Cami, Maria-Paz, and I sat in an air-conditioned Range Rover with Joao at the wheel driving out of the city. It was exactly what my mother spent half her life telling me not to do.

Joao was not what I expected. He was a middle-aged, balding architect, and the charm and beauty Cami had in abundance was mostly missing from him. He was polite and decent, but he was reserved. We drove to Niteroi, went to the museum, and then drove to a small beach. Maria-Paz and I had lunch and a swim trying to give Cami and Joao a little time on their own.

Cami and Joao did not become an item. But even in the disappointment she expressed shortly after, there was joy. “He was not right for me, you know? There is someone else out there who is better for me.”

When Cami and I said our goodbyes a day later and I jumped into the taxi to catch my flight home to London, we were both hugging each other, vowing that we would meet again.

And by the time we each got home to our own lives, we wrote endless messages to each other on Facebook, making plans and sharing stories until the contact slowly faded.

But I did see Cami again, two years later.

A few years ago, my now husband and I travelled from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then took a bus over the Andes into Chile. That last leg I made for Cami and Maria-Paz. I wanted to see them again.

Cami invited us to her house and we sat around her little table with her now 16-year-old, mildly mannered son, Maria-Paz and her young daughter, cradled in her arms, and Cami’s cat, Cat Stevens. We ate pasta and drank wine until the electricity went and we rushed to put on all the candles she had. Five adults, a baby, a cat, 15 candles, and some homemade pesto no one could see but all of us could taste.

There was not much time to speak alone, but the promise to see each other again was kept and an opportunity to spend a little time together.

The next day, Cami took us to the house—now museum—of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most celebrated poet. It was a beautiful, little villa called La Chascona in the middle of Santiago where he lived with his secret mistress and wrote his beautiful poems of love and of war, of belonging and parting. The audio guide directed us through the internal staircases and Neruda’s spoken word echoed in my ear as I looked at the flowers and ceramics nourishing each other, one holding soil and the other returning colour.

I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”

And then it was time to fly back home.

For me, the encounter with Cami showed me that when you are seeking connection, you will find it. The world is your lover. And when it gifts itself to you, it might not always be in the form you were expecting but it will always surprise you. All you have to do is realise when it is happening and not turn away, and you will—over and over again—be amazed by the magical experiences life has in store for you.

One year later, my son Oscar was born. We moved into our new apartment and I started on my wonderfully wobbly and novel path of motherhood. With a bottle of milk in one hand and my phone in the other, I opened my messages to read a note from Cami:

“I really miss you and I wish you have and enjoy this amazing journey that is to be a mom. Some days ago I dreamt that we meet and you were with your baby Oscar. I love you with my heart Dear. All my good vibes for you, Besos Tina Latina.”

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