Anyone can tell you, part of my personality is avoiding what I think is the mainstream. Hobbies, food, movies, music, all of my tastes are influenced by what I think is normal or basic. This means I get the chance to enjoy things others sometimes miss out on, and it means I can notice and enjoy things others miss. However, as I’ve been learning this trip, sometimes I eliminate the opportunity for enjoyment by passing judgment too soon.
The Main Río
When I first heard we were going to be in Río for some of our South American tour, my first thought was “everyone goes to Río.” While I am anti-status-quo, I’m also pro-once-in-a-lifetime-opportunities, so these two effects canceled out and I was neutral about the whole idea. However, once we got to the city and settled into our gem of an AirBnB (thanks Maddy), I began to realize why people come to Río. You simply can’t get a view of a city this big woven into mountains this abruptly large and rotund. The beach is perfectly situated for sunsets, not only with a flat ocean, but rolling mountains and jungled islands as well.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão da Açucar) is one of the natural wonders of the world, and I can see why it got this award. Sure, it’s absolutely packed with tourists and overpriced sandwich shops, but the view is truly immaculate if you can crop out all of the human greed.
We got to enjoy a beautiful sunset at Ipanema Beach, spent some time resting in the perfectly manicured Río de Janeiro Botanical Gardens, and of course, we couldn’t leave without saying hi to Jesus on top of the mountain. We saved Christ the Redeemer until last and spent our days catching glimpses of the statue from the beach or through the trees and out windows of European cafes. Now I understand why it makes Río so iconic: it’s visible from almost all well-traveled parts of the city, lends a commanding presence to any setting, and provides a waypoint for navigating, which, of course, I’m eternally grateful for since I have the navigational skills of pigeon with a magnet strapped to its head.
Needless to say, I will be going back if I ever get the chance.
From the Botanical Gardens
Fortunately the air cleared up after we got out of range of the airport, or at least so I’m told since I was fighting for consciousness in the taxi passenger seat trying not to drop my head on the dash violently. We were blessed to be able to stay downtown in one of the most beautiful areas of the city. We spent Sabbath walking around a nearby park filled with ducks and families and an above-average number of rollerblading pedestrians. We took some time to sleep since we booked most of our flights at affordable but forsaken hours of the night. This included our flight out of Buenos at 2 am on January first. We spent December 31st trying our best to rest, and then scampered off into town in our whitest clothes to celebrate the Argentinean New Year’s Eve tradition.
We felt a little left out walking down the cracked and littered sidewalks only to peer into open windows where families and friends toasted over hardwood floors, under bright chandeliers, and beside spiral staircases leading to promising balconies. Instead of asking to be invited to one of these galas or rooftop get-togethers we celebrated from a park square and listened to illegal fireworks, blinded by 2023 cardboard glitter glasses and deafened by music from a dozen nearby bars. Despite the delirium, it was easy to notice a strong cultural difference. Normally when you put 200 Americans together with alcohol, a minimum of four people go to the hospital, eight more go to court, and a pickup truck is overturned. In contrast, the Argentineans quietly gathered around Jenga games or made small talk over burgers.
Speaking of burgers, we ate the 19th-best burger in the world at the humbly named Burger Joint.
The last point in our travel down the mainstream led us rather poetically to Igauzú Falls. Since the wonder of the world is shared by Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, we chose the Brazilian side since it turned out to be the most affordable and provide the best views. It proved to be an aptly named Wonder of the World. Standing in the mist on a platform in the middle of the river with dozens of other tourists felt strangely communal. We had come from all over the world to bask in the power of millions of gallons of water. It reminded me of the power of God and how His power and beauty manifest in nature and brings us together.
The day after visiting the falls, the rest of the group decided to hop the border to the Argentinean side and do some hiking. I decided to stay home. It was the most relaxing day of my life. I was a little sad to miss out on the beauty but the day to myself to explore around our hotel and sit by the pool was simply unmatched.
On the third day in Iguazú we decided to pop over to Paraguay to add another country to our list of destinations. We took a tour of one of the largest dams in the world, which was honestly quite impressive. Then our taxi driver decided to drop us off at the mall, since obviously that is what Americans like to do all afternoon.
Inside the mall we scanned the first floor for food options, found nothing, and concluded it was time to start asking strangers if they had any snacks. We were kindly directed to the food court on the top floor, and it then occurred to us to search the other levels of the mall.
After I got some food, it slowly began to dawn on me that I might possibly be trapped in purgatory. As my senses started to return, I realized the mall we were in wasn’t a mall at all. It was the idea of a mall. The dream of a mall. Possibly a drug-induced hallucination of a mall. It was as if someone had seen a mall in a single scene from an 80s American film and said, “Ah, yes, a mall. Let us build one of those.” It was as if I was trapped in a dream set inside a mall, but my brain was not awake enough to fully simulate all the right details. There were stores that sold only plates and chandeliers. There were stores that only sold gold-plated cutlery and shoes. There was a bookstore and coffee shop inside an arcade. The grocery store that sprawled the entire third floor had only one entrance and exit directly connected to an escalator, with other exits blocked by shelves. And these shelves: none of them were parallel. Navigating the aisles was like navigating the streets of some ancient, very poorly planned European city.
After wandering about hopelessly trying to find the others, we finally reconvened, dazed and confused, and decided we needed to leave as quickly as possible. Assuming it was possible to leave.
Our taxi driver had to show the receipts of purchases we made in the mall to the parking garage employees just so we could leave, presumably to make sure we had spent enough money inside the not-quite-a-mall.
Eventually we made it back to the safety of our hotel and decided to strike Paraguay from the “places to revisit in South America” list.
What is Normal
While we were in Buenos Aires, enjoying our walk through the park, we watched a father and son try to feed bread to the ducks and geese. The people were quickly identified as targets for unlimited bread-based resources, and a hundred or so waterfowl attempted to mug the little family, which quickly started backing away and then running to safety.
We chuckled from the sidelines at the pair’s foolish assumption that they could withstand the might of hungry ducks. Underneath this moment of communal joy was a different emotion, one a little more difficult to explain. Perhaps the scene was, perplexing? Or maybe something was missing. Or maybe something was found.
Another time, we sat in church in Santa Cruz, exerting all my brain power to decode the sermon. A little toddler wrenched himself out of his mother’s arms and came squealing down the aisle, giggling at his newfound freedom. I think we all had the same unconscious reaction to try and snatch him up and entertain him while the sermon continued, after having trained ourselves to parent every child in sight over the last four months.
Before we could act on this habit we realized something different about this kid. He already had a parent to put a gentle end to his short-lived independence. He had a pew to go back to, and a home after that. The boy at the park with his father was there spending time with his father. We have gotten so used to children with undeserving or non-existent parents we forgot what a real family looks like. We forgot about normal families who have kids because they love them, not just as a byproduct of bad decisions.
And then I realized I have no idea where I now stood in the Mainstream. Was it just a shock to come back from an orphanage to a community where children get to be kids? Or had I spent my whole life living in some blessed side stream and Familia Feliz has been my first exposure to the real world where people struggle through real lives where their parents can’t be trusted and they have to seek out love instead of receive it.
What is normal?
Maybe there is more than one Mainstream. Maybe the only way to make a difference in a stream of life where pain and abandonment are so close and real is to cross over. Maybe it’s worth it to redirect the lives in that stream to a different kind of life. Maybe there’s a Mainstream of water that’s worth wading into.