As I mentioned in my previous post, I leave tomorrow on a one-month trip to Brazil, with the intent of walking more than 1,000km along the Caminho da Fé (Path of Faith).
OK. So, why? Why Brazil? Why walk more than 1,000km? Why this path?
In late 2014, I had a very brief email exchange with a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. In her second message in this exchange, she asked me if I wanted to come to Brazil to be part of her support crew for the 2015 Brazil 135+ ultramarathon, which she had won in early 2014. Of course I said yes.
You can know a lot about me from the fact that I began that previous sentence with ‘Of course’.
The Brazil 135+ ultramarathon is a race—actually a set of simultaneously run races—that occurs in Brazil every January. The exact lengths vary each year, but each year’s races include at least one that is longer than 135 miles. To get a good sense of how difficult and rewarding this race can be, check out Kelly Agnew’s blog from his 2015 attempt and 2017 success.
My jobs on the support crew included navigation and translation. So, in the few months between our email exchange and the race, I needed to learn as much as possible about getting around in the rural interior of southern Brazil and—a larger task—I needed to learn to speak Portuguese. The only languages other than English with which I had any real facility were Russian and Japanese; I had never learned much of any Romance language other than some tourist Romanian. But I dove in…
… and when I dove in I felt like someone going diving in a tropical coral reef for the first time. Here was a vast, colorful world that had always been within reach but that I had never before considered with more than a distant academic glance.
As an involved citizen of the USA, I can learn a lot from another democracy of hundreds of millions of people struggling with issues of government corruption, income inequality, violent crime, pollution, resource conservation, federal versus state rights, the overhang of building the early economy on African slavery, treatment of indigenous people from whom the land was taken during colonization… Brazil is a lot like the United States of America. In some ways, they have done better with the same initial conditions; in some ways, we have done better. Learning more about the former can help me to effect positive change here; learning more about the latter can be a source of pride. Heck, if you need any convincing that Brazil and the USA are connected at the cultural roots, just see this data point.
In January of 2015, we succeeded in traveling to the race, competing, and getting home without anyone dying or getting lost. So, done, right?
No, I was hooked. I wasn’t done learning about this country whose history read like a good run of Game of Thrones and whose current culture seemed both inviting and challenging. Also, I had determined that I would soon be leaving my job, with the goal of studying to become a translator. Portuguese translation pays better than most, so it seemed that pursuing a course that would get my Portuguese to a higher level would be a good use of time.
So, I contacted the race director for the Brazil 135+ ultramarathon and volunteered to help with the 2016 race.
The race uses the middle portion of the Caminho da Fé, a religious pilgrimage trail, as the course. This trail is a modestly maintained dirt trail for most of its span, except for a few paved or cobblestone patches where it passes through towns and villages.
Every year before the race, a crew needs to creep along the course to mark the way with reflective yellow arrows, clear rockslides and fallen trees, and see if any bridges are washed out (and, if so, either fix them or create detours). This takes longer than the race itself, so there’s plenty of time to get to know the area and practice one’s Portuguese with the rest of the crew.
After three weeks in Brazil, with a large chunk of that time spent on this trail, now I was done, right?
No, I still wasn’t done. This trip confirmed that learning Portuguese to a level at which I could use it professionally was an attainable and enjoyable goal. I had also seen enough of the Caminho da Fé that I wanted to experience it the way that it was intended to be experienced: the whole thing, on foot, as a pilgrimage.
I’m not a religious person, but I respect rituals of reverence, contemplation, meditation, sacrifice, seeking… all of which are at the core of making a pilgrimage on foot through a sparsely populated and physically demanding environment. As I end this year of study and training before I go back to a regular job, now is a good time to take a good, long, slow walk alone, so that I can be sure of what I want from the next phase of my life.
If nothing else, taking a month to walk through a region where almost no one speaks English will be a test of my fitness and my language skills. But I expect that that is not all that I will get from this experience.
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