Summer 2009

I can’t remember how to drive a car. I can’t remember what Burger King French fries taste like. I can’t even remember what it feels like to take a warm shower. As my hair is tied back in a sloppy ponytail and matted to my forehead from sweat I try to recall what it was like to have perfectly curled hair for sorority meetings. I look down at my feet and see a distinct flip-flop tan line somewhat faded by the layer of dirt gathered from walking barefoot. I try to remember what it felt like to wear high heels. Squishing the moist rainforest dirt, as black as coal, between my toes, I don’t know why I wanted to put my feet through high-heel torture to begin with. I look back towards our hut and see a child climbing a palm tree to get fruit for me. As she swings back down easily I laugh as I try to recall what it looked like to see children playing on monkey bars back home. Children in the Amazon rainforest play in the monkey’s homes, among the monkeys themselves. A month ago I would have thought these people had nothing. Now, I realize I envy what I once saw as “nothing,” and am so thankful these people brought me into their life, and made me see everything contained in that “nothing.”

Sunset on the Amazon
Sunset on the Amazon

It has been more than a year since I was in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. As far back as I can remember my anthropologist dad had wanted me to accompany him on a research field study. In the spring of 2009, when the time came to make my decision, I decided I was ready. I had been away in college for two years, gotten accustomed to doing my own laundry somewhat regularly, had learned to cook a decent grilled cheese sandwich without setting the fire alarm off, and realized the importance of saving my money instead of buying that really cool bubble machine.

I finally felt mature enough to handle an entire summer in another country, thrown face first into a different culture. Always one for trying new things just to get the experience and live life, I was excited. However, I was also fearful. I was scared I would miss out on a summer at home with friends. I didn’t want to come back to school feeling regret. In fact, this fear would materialize as I found myself sitting in my room in Brazil listening to country music and missing home.

Sleeping quarters on the boat up the Amazon
Sleeping quarters on the boat up the Amazon

As a 19-year-old girl, my college life, friends, and sorority sisters were all I knew, and, worse, all I thought I needed to know. I didn’t realize what else the world could offer. It’s ironic that it took the wisdom of a three-year-old girl to make me change my mind. And, in fact, to change my life.

Her name was Edwarda. She was the first person I was introduced to in the small town of Gurupa, Brazil.

We had spent two days on a boat on the Amazon River to get to Gurupa. The boat was no cruise ship. Bedrooms were non-existent; we slept in hammocks hanging every which way on an open deck. Expert boat travelers would scramble amongst the colorful chaos, the sardine-packed crowd, to hang hammocks above hammocks, just to create a spot away from the intense sun. Bathrooms worked half the time, and the other half they would overflow just below our hammocks. Showers were available, but you tended to smell worse after using them.

Edwarda trying out sunglasses
Edwarda trying out sunglasses

The engine in the boat failed constantly, and when we finally got to Gurupa it was the middle of the night. After an uncomfortable few hours of sleep in the sticky Brazilian humidity, I woke in the morning in an unfamiliar house. I scrambled out of my hammock, took a cold shower – all that was available, of course – and sat down at the table disoriented. That’s when a little barefoot girl wearing only underwear, hair a tangled black mess, ran up to me. I couldn’t help but think she looked like a young female version of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, a wild rainforest child. Our eyes met, she smiled slyly. Then she grabbed my breakfast roll, and ran away screaming. This was Edwarda.

After that stolen roll, we bonded. For the rest of the summer, every time I would feel scared in the jungle, she would go ahead of me and show me how things are done. Anytime I would feel out of place, she would hug my leg and call me her sister. She was independent and wasn’t scared of anything. She loved what she had with all her heart and wouldn’t let anything endanger that love. One time a stray dog came up and sniffed my hand as we were walking down a dirt road. Edwarda, thinking it might hurt me, took off her flowered flip flop and, holding it high in the air, started chasing the dog, screaming in Portuguese for it to get away from her sister.

The author and a feathered friend
The author and a feathered friend

My new family didn’t have a car, didn’t have much clothing, or very much of anything. But Edwarda made it fun to ride around on a bike instead of getting to places in a timely matter with the air conditioner blowing. She made it fun to get down in the dirt then wash it off by playing in the rain, not caring if you looked like a mess at the end of the day. She didn’t worry about people judging her or living up to someone else’s expectations. She didn’t even know what that meant.

If we wanted fruit, we’d climb a tree and get it. Then we’d pick enough for the rest of the kids in the town. If we wanted to go for a dip in the swimming hole, we’d catch a bike ride from a friendly neighbor and walk back with new friends. If we wanted an adventure, we’d paddle down a creek in a tiny wooden canoe, frequently  with the sporadic but intense Amazon rainstorms pounding down on us. Edwarda lived life on a moment’s notice, and held my hand and dragged me along for the ride.

Gurupá on the river island of Marajó
Gurupá on the river island of Marajó

When I came home from Brazil my friends and family greeted me warmly, and I realized at that moment I hadn’t missed a thing. Yes, maybe adventures in Tennessee occurred while I was gone, but I had my own adventure of life and self-discovery. And my friends and family were waiting to hear all my stories and welcome me back.

I also learned from a small person with a large personality that it’s fun to be yourself, get a little dirty, and that material things are not as important as I thought. Edwarda, with only three years of life wisdom, understood what was important, and she protected it. Now anytime I walk around campus at night with a friend, I will have that flip flop in the air and ready.

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Ann Marie Pace

Ann Marie Pace

Ann Marie Pace is a senior at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, majoring in Journalism & Electronic Media, and is president of TVC, the student-run TV station.