“The plan, if you can believe it, is to sleep on Copacabana beach on New’s Year’s night,” Samy chuckled to the stranger. The stranger who might have been processing the words slowly because it wasn’t spoken in his native language furrowed his brows to form a teepee on his forehead. But when he responded it was clear he had understood, “That is not a good idea. It is quite crowded there, not safe to sleep.” Samy shrugged her shoulders and responded in her usual nonchalant tone of deferring problems to later in time, “Yea we will figure it out. Thanks for the drink, keep the change.”
Samy and I grabbed our caipirinhas off the cart and settled on a plastic table scarred with past revelries. I licked my lips to feel the taste of the ocean air on my tongue. Here, on Ilha Grande, off the west coast of Brazil, real life seemed like a mirage. We had only planned to be on the island for a couple of days, before hastening back to Rio in time to scope out a place to stay for a few days, including the pinnacle New Year’s Eve night. But something about the breeziness of the island and its people made us want to stand still. So far, our impression of Brazil could be summed up as big and expensive. Ilha Grande, with its ivory coastlines, street-cart caipirinhas and congenial locals had changed all that. This was the Brasilia of lore and it had us hooked.
“Hiya, ladies, mind if we join you?” Two men with tans that made their blue eyes sparkle and complemented their umber hair were closing in on our table. The one who had spoken was taller, his shoulders sturdy against the singlet that read “Pura Vida Mae” signaling he might have made his way to South America via Costa Rica.
“Only if you buy us a round,” Samy quipped, pausing before, “Just kidding, yea sure, you can have those seats.” The men settled down and placed their matching Skol cans glistening with dew on the table.
“Where are you pretty ladies from,” the tall one asked, his eyes resting on Samy a bit longer for emphasis. I was no stranger to men being immediately drawn to Samy’s carmel eyes fringed with sweeping lashes and framed by beach waves. Where my hair seemed to stand upright more than flat, waging a war against humidity, Samy wore the humidity like a veil, reveling in the uplift it gave her fine but thick hair.
“Do you want to guess? I’m sure it’s not that hard to tell.” Samy loved playing this game. I didn’t. Being a hyphenate - Asian-American - meant that people often tried to guess our ancestral land rather than guessing the obvious from our American lilts. Not that I wasn’t accustomed to it, given that even in USA, a “Where are you from?” is usually followed up by “But where are you really from?”
“Oh I have gotten into trouble for this one before. I never guess ladies’ age or heritage,” the tall one bantered. I impatiently looked around for something to distract myself from this conversation. I had my fill of sparkling conversations with backpacking Brits and Aussies and Kiwis (I had these two pegged for Aussies or Kiwis) with the same stories of rowdy backpacker hostels and drinking games that lasted till three in the morning. The irony of coming all the way to one end of the world to play the same flip cup and beer pong I played in college in North Carolina was not lost on me.
“....are Kiwis ourselves,” I caught the tall one trail off. I smugly constricted my nose and caught the eye of the shorter Kiwi suddenly remembering there were two men in front of us. Was I expected to make conversation with him since we were clearly not part of the other conversation at the table? I watched him take a sip of his beer and wondered if he was used to being in the shadow of his taller friend. With a sudden feeling of kinship, I decided to extend a gesture with, “So how long have you guys been traveling?”
The short Kiwi’s eyes widened as if shocked anyone was speaking directly to him before replying, “Yea been round about two months; we’ve made our way from Mexico down here.” He pronounced here like he-ear and I realized how effortless it was for Kiwis to draw people in. It wasn’t quite like the Indian accent that I had grown up around which was widely panned in the Western world for its lack of couth. When I immigrated to the US from India at fifteen, I knew my best chance for survival in the suburbs of North Carolina was stamping the Indian enunciations out of my vernacular and dropping mouthy A-s and lazy G-s into my speech to stick out less like a sore thumb. I had met Samy a few months after my transatlantic migration; her hair was waist-length back then, but her defiant confidence hadn’t altered an inch in the ensuing decade. Maybe that’s what had nudged me toward her back then; fresh off the boat and lost, I was in desperate need of a compass to guide me through American life. But it wasn’t just that; she knew my constraints. Our parents were schooled in similar traditions of Indian upbringing and we were beholden to them - no boyfriends, no parties, no drinking or really any of the things that defined social strata in high school. But while I begrudgingly gave into my parent’s lack of imagination, Samy adopted these boundaries as a badge of honor, like it made her that much more complex and enigmatic than those around her. To say I tried my best to be more like Samy back then was not untrue.
I realized I had left the shorter Kiwi behind in my thought bubble. “Any favorite places on your trip so far?” A pause just long enough for his taller friend to jump in, “This spot is likely the top of the list, you reckon, mate?” A shrug and a slight nod denoted his friend was used to his friend having opinions for the both of them and he didn’t see the point in digressing. Their dynamic seemed like a reflection of the dynamic on my side of the table and as if to prove that point, Samy jumped in “Yea, isn’t this place incredible? We planned to get to Rio by now but just couldn’t get ourselves to leave this gorgeous place.”
“Well, I’m glad you ladies stayed and we got to sit at the same table with you, Cheers.” the tall one flirted, tipping his beer towards us in an universally understood gesture to initiate a toast.
The crowd enveloped us like water from an unleashed dam. It was like every stampede scene on an African plain I had ever seen in movies. The panic was palpable. It turns out there was a reason we were warned against sleeping on Copacabana beach on New Year’s Eve. As large as Brazil had seemed to us, it was here that most of Brazil seemed to descend to celebrate the dawn of another year, clad in customary, pristine white. Brazil’s famous party spirit was on gory display as children napped in tents while their parents vanished bottles of liquor into their throats and the glass decorated the sand, next to teenagers grinding up on each other. Samy and I had felt far too weary and awestruck to partake. Maybe it didn’t help to see our bedroom for the night laden with more and more rubbish as the night wore on. And right after the midnight countdown, as we hoped the party would dim down, the free-for-all began. The street running right by the beach was choking with people.
Samy and I held each other firmly with the neediness of a buoy in a storm as we tried to find and follow the flow of the crowd. It wasn’t entirely clear where people were headed. It wasn't even clear that people were just headed in one direction; all we felt was the weight of thousands of people against our ribs as we tried to squeeze through. Just as I felt we were making some progress, I felt the grip on my hand loosen and then disappear in the manner of half a second. I jerked my head to the side, or as much as the torsos I was nestled in between would allow, only to realize Samy was no longer by my side. I felt my heart reach my chest as I tried to reverse and backtrack. “Lo siento,” I murmured to the man who’s chest I barreled into while trying to bulldoze my way through the beehive. And somewhere through the buzzing of the bees, I heard the wail of a child who was clearly separated from his parents and feeling as hopeless as I did just then that he would return to safety.
Just then, as if to defy the impossible physics of the situation, where thrice as many people seemed to fit into the area than would seem possible, an orange mustang split the crowd. How that car got anywhere without running over twenty people was beyond me but it seemed that there was some method to the chaos around us. People around us seemed to defy physical laws and obey unknown ones all at once. It wasn’t lost on me that law enforcement was nowhere to be found, and people were policing themselves. The syncopation of the crowd by the car jerked me out of my helpless stupor. I had to find Samy and a way out. And as if my mind had willed it, Samy appeared, through a tunnel of elbows and shoulders. I caught her perfectly oval face, dusky from the day’s sun, the whites in her eyes stark against her skin were peaked in terror. Tears were streaming from them, onto her lips still stained in the rose lipstick we had put on in the train station bathroom where we had gotten dressed for the night. I stared at Samy through the crowd knowing there was no logical way for me to get to her, but something about the sheer fear in her face had me mesmerized. It was something I had never seen in her. If anything, her lack of fear usually amplified my own. Samy wasn’t cursed with the same insecurities that held me back in so much of the way I navigated the world. She stepped out of her shadows recalcitrantly. I loved her for her spunk as much as I hated myself for the lack of it. And in that moment, maybe there was some part of me that reveled in seeing the terror on her face, while we both confronted her vincibility. She seemed shrunken, as she let the crowd teeter her without putting on a fight.
A sharp shrill punctuated the air as the car now seemed incredulously near. In a sudden moment of clarity I saw the path that would lead me to Samy. Bracing myself against sharp appendages, I nudged myself closer to the car’s bumper, leaning onto it like a crutch. While the car parted the crowd like Jesus did the Red Sea, I shimmied along the bummer to the other side. And just when the opportunity presented itself, I reached into the crowd and pulled Samy out from it like a rabbit from a top hat. Samy silently let me lead her, as we stayed close to the car that led us to safety. As we hobbled into a hostel for the night ravenous for a mattress to lie on, something had changed. It was imperceptible to anyone, perhaps even to Samy, but gaping to me. I wasn’t just the lost migrant girl who had met her all those years ago; I had grown into someone, someone who was worthy of the space I occupied beside Samy through life.