If you’re reading our blog you are probably interested in nomad-ing the world or perhaps you are already a nomad. But what happens when a nomad falls in love with their location and decides to stay permanently? Dan Madera gives us a beautiful description of what it has meant to him to lay down roots in Florianopolis, Brazil.
I remember the day my wife Lisa and I left the United States to begin new lives overseas in 1997. We were just married and we decided to go spend a few years in Lisa’s country, Ecuador. Lisa had lived in the US since the age of eighteen, but had longed to go home. We were graduate students and since we had both completed our coursework we decided to pack up our books and head south while we both wrote our doctoral theses.
We packed up our house, sold what we could, stored our favorite things, and gave away whatever was left over. Then we booked flights to Quito. The day of our departure was a cool, October day in Atlanta. We had dropped off the keys to our rented apartment the day before. We had said goodbye to our friends. We had said our goodbyes to Atlanta. There was nothing left to do but leave.
At exactly four in the afternoon a rusting taxi drove up to the friends? house where we were staying. The cranky old cabby complained as he loaded the ten suitcases into the back of his cavernous trunk. He asked where we were going and when we told him Ecuador couldn’t quite grasp why anyone in their right mind would want to leave the good old USA to live in such a place. We told him we had just been married and he told us a tragic tale of how his wife had been killed in a car accident just hours after they’d been wed and he’d never gotten over it. Outside, leaves fell as we took our last ride through the familiar streets of Atlanta.
I thought again of the letter I’d received the week before from an ancient relative in Israel scribbled on the back of a flyer from a retirement home in Jerusalem. She’d heard that we were leaving the US to go live in South America. ?Well, this is surely a futile adventure, she’d written with the frankness of the elderly, but you must try.”
Excited about my big move to Ecuador, the letter struck a sour note, but it was written with the authority of generations. My family had been rootless for a hundred years, ever since my maternal great-grandparents had left the village of Lenovtse in Galicia in the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire?a terrible place full of persecution, suffering, and misery. But my ancestors did not follow the usual path. They had traveled to New York, buy they didn’t like it. They had built a sod house in Iowa and suffered the bitter cold of winter. A child had fallen in the river and died. They had fruitlessly worked at a dairy farm in Colorado. A child had been bitten by a snake and died. They had scraped by as pharmacists in New Orleans, and never gotten ahead. Always alone, Jews without a community, they bucked all the well-known narratives of hard-working immigrants to America and refused to bequeath a generation of hard-working professionals to help build the great nation. Instead, they left America and moved to Israel to rejoin the rest of their tribe.
That should have been the end of the story, but it was not. My maternal grandfather was not happy in Tel Aviv. He complained. He fought with his wife. He annoyed his rabbi. Finally, he caught a steamer back to America, taking my mother and her sister with him. But it didn’t work. They couldn’t settle down. My mother criss-crossed the globe, spending twenty years in Cape Town, then moving to Miami. Twenty years here, twenty years there, never putting down more than a provisional root.
The leaves were falling in Atlanta as we sped toward the highway and the airport. I heard my ancient aunt’s words, suddenly cryptic and indecipherable, as if written by one of the fates themselves: but you must try. As the airplane lifted into the fading afternoon light all my doubts left me and I felt the incomparable sensation of freedom and possibility that fuels the adventures of many a global wanderer. The next day, as the plane descended toward the snow-covered volcanoes of the Andean altiplano, I knew that I had done the right thing.
This was life. This was adventure. This was what I had to do before I was too old, too sick, too boring, too stale to do anything fun anymore. I was on the right track and no relative, no matter how ancient or how wise, was going to ruin it.
Those first years in Ecuador passed happily. We lived on the side of a magnificent volcano, Tungurahua, who rises 18,000 feet into the skies. We wrote, we soaked in hot springs, we watched chickens, we watched the moon rise over the Andes and a thousand sunsets. Somehow we worked on our dissertations, too. It was the eve of the millenium.
Then everything changed all at once. The volcano, so beautiful and serene, erupted and on October 17, 1999. The town was hastily evacuated. Reality, always prowling around the protective perimeter of our idyll, came crashing in. We found ourselves living in noisy, bustling, dangerous Quito. I liked the city, but there was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life there. It just didn’t suit me. It wasn’t what I had come for.
But reality wasn’t finished with me yet. A second eruption hit. There was an indigenous uprising that shut down the country. All the banks failed and overnight everyone was left penniless. El Nino caused a draught in the mountains and crippling floods on the coast. People began to leave the country in droves. Middle class people left their families looking for menial work abroad. Then a third volcanic eruption hit and covered Quito with 100 million tons of ash. It was the last straw. I thought of my ancient relative, still alive in Jerusalem, and her grim prediction. Was she right? NO! I insisted she was not.
By that time I had some money saved up and, unwilling to give up my lifestyle, I searched the map looking for some clue, some sign, some direction to follow that would not lead me back to the pressed shirts and ties of the United States. My relatives thought I was insane. My father tried to be understanding. At last, in a friend’s house, while thumbing through an atlas, I found what I was looking for: Brazil! I visited the country and after a short discussion with Lisa we headed off for the island of Santa Catarina, an island largely undiscovered by Americans or Europeans. There was something about those incomparable beaches, those white clouds piled up all the way into the heavens, the calm people with their charming manners, the beautiful people, the tranquility of it all. There was something about the fishermen, their traditional way of life going back centuries, their quiet manner formed by generations spent living on an island.
Brazil. I felt like I was part of it. Or, that’s what I wanted anyway.
The years in Florianopolis passed like a happy dream. Slowly I began to feel at home. I learned to speak Portuguese, a language I love. I had a Brazilian child. A calm boy with curly, blonde hair. As the father of a Brazilian I received the right to stay in the country permanently. I adopted a Brazilian dog who gave birth to another Brazilian dog. I bought my very own piece of Brazilian land and made plans to build a Brazilian house. When I traveled away from Brazil I felt homesick for my island after just a few weeks. America came to seem like a foreign country and Americans foreign people.
But to feel you are from a place is not the same as being from there. The locals still saw me as an outsider. A foreigner from some far-off country. An imposter, perhaps. A forgery, perhaps. There were whispers that I was CIA, the Mossad, or part of a drug cartel. But mostly I was just a question mark. An unknown. They saw me as though through a window, with half my body concealed behind the frame. When they looked at me in this way I sometimes heard the dry laughter of my ancient relative in Jerusalem, still alive, ever more wrinkled, ever more feeble. Had she been right after all? Would she have the last laugh? Would I wind up a suit in some nameless American city in the end after all? Was it fated? Was there really no way out, no matter how far I traveled or how far I fled beyond the horizon?
Twelve years passed since that cool afternoon in Atlanta. Then something extraordinary happened. I got bored. I grew restless with my stress free life and one day, as I walked down the pristine beach, I heard that old blues song, The Thrill is Gone.” I couldn’t believe it, I had actually grown tired of moving. I didn’t want my children to feel unrooted like me, jostled around from one country to the next with no real notion of home. I wanted to put down roots, to stay long enough in one place to be able to eat the fruit off the trees I planted.
Then the other day I found myself driving to a meeting in downtown Florianopolis wearing a suit and checking to see if my shoes had been properly polished. Each day now I head out to interview local professionals and business people and artists and translators and athletes. I write articles designed to guide and help foreigners in their daily lives in their adoptive city, to entertain them, to explain, to inform. I write everything I learn down remembering that my words help others to plant their root. And now, when I interview locals, or ask them about their culture, their world, I see a new look in their eyes. They look at me with understanding where before there had been confusion. That’s because they have a category for me now, a place, a name, a persona that corresponds to their island world. I am the one who ferries in the new-comers. I am the one who brings them ashore, brings them to where they need to go, who shows them around for the first time. Florianopolis has become my home.
Dan Madera and his wife, Lisa, are the owners of Sweet Home Floripa an up and coming web site for foreigners looking to make Florianopolis their home.