Life Lessons from the Island Jungles of Brazil
I had just quit a band when I flew down to Brazil. I had dedicated the last four years of my life to this band—it was my full time job, my passion, my hobby, my travel. Even though I held many identities, musician was top of the list. I’d played guitar for at least a dozen years, always answering that pesky adult question “What are you going to be when you grow up?” with a deadly serious, “a rockstar.”
I thought the trip to South America was just a vacation after four years of hard work, a chance to visit two of my best friends living new lives abroad. It became so much more.
Within a week my buddy and I were on a big island (so named by the indigenous locals and the Portuguese alike) off the southern Brazilian coast. It’s a sparsely populated jungle paradise with a green mountain top towering 1,000 meters over choppy seas. Its lush verdure is home to endangered monkeys, parrots, sloths, caimans; penguins and whales play among the waves.
There are a couple of tourist towns and beaches that are easy to get to, but during the stormy season the back side of the island is only accessible via hours and hours of hiking overgrown jungle trails. My buddy and I were determined to get to the most remote beach, a journey which included sheltering for a night in a cave to avoid a thunderstorm, falling asleep to the haunting lullabies of the endangered Howler Monkeys. The last day of the long hike followed a particularly underused trail. With massive roots criss-crossing our path and fallen fruit trees to crawl under, I often doubted we were going the right way. Yet we were told that the path simply followed the coastline, and when we came to a beach blocked by a river to cross the river and pick up the trail on the other side. Simple.
No one told us that on the other side of the river was a mini-mountain rising up at a forty five degree angle, a kind of “wrong-way” sign nature placed on the other side of the river to tell people like us to bug off and go back to our straight lines and predictable roads. The front side of the mountain was a sheer cliff face dropping into the sea; the rest was an impassable green and black thicket. No one told us that actual trail involved swimming across the deepest part of the river and finding a hole in the mangroves, hundreds of meters inland from where the trail had originally dumped us onto the beach. So we didn’t do that.
Instead, we crossed where the water was ankle deep, transitioning from the normal world into a fairy tale where the forest was alive, hungry, and mean. I’ve never been in a jungle so thick, with vines full of skinny long sewing needles and branches of studded thorns as large as my thumbs. Every tropical plant in that jungle was designed to prick, tangle, maim, or slice. Some of the larger leaves were paper thin but stiff as stone, giant razor blades begging for the blood of careless travelers. Thick spider webs blocked every turn and vines snagged each footstep.
The sun conspired with the thick canopy to set quicker than usual. It seemed like hours but we had hardly gone an eighth of the way up the peak. The jungle had already claimed the backpack straps of my guitar so I was clutching the instrument under my arm. My buddy’s shoulder-length hair was full of spikes and dirt and broken off bits of forest arms. Shadows lengthened, and in the purple darkness the matted thickets threatened to swallow us up. We agreed without a word even if this were the right way, it wasn’t for us. We scrambled back on our trampled trail and leapt onto the beach with a sigh of relief.
But now what? We couldn’t see any opening in the mangroves, and the deep flowing water didn’t seem safer than the rocky cliffs dropping into the ocean. How could we cross them with our packs, keeping my guitar dry, no less? So in the light of the moon we started climbing.
Of course these cliffs got more and more treacherous with each step we took. Even if we survived the sizeable fall into the rocky ocean floor unscathed, the large waves would pound us against sheer cliffs. Yet once we had gotten as far as we had, it seemed just as reasonable to go forward as to go back. So we pressed on, myself with only one arm—my guitar was tucked under the other.
I dragged my guitar to the island out of habit; a habit I developed early in my love for the instrument. There had hardly been a day that I didn’t have some guitar with me, because there was never a day I didn’t want to play. I had purchased this particular one from a Spanish luthier while studying abroad six years earlier. It had wound its way through Central America on my back, earning me meals, lodging, and friends, and made the rounds in the band van on North American tours.
The guitar was always a perfect companion; it helped me cry in the lonely times, and it helped me laugh in the happy times. Climbing cliffs in the moonlight, a few hundred feet above the crashing waves, it no longer seemed like the perfect companion. But I couldn’t just leave it behind.
Wavering bright lights from our destination village beckoned for us across a bay. We finally crossed the treacherous rock through sheer determination combined with a twisted sense of humor. We finished the trek with an hour long hike across the abandoned beach, arriving at this tiny town with bellies empty and hearts full of gratitude. What a good chance to play the guitar, eh? But of course, our lodge had its own, a relic of some past backpacker who perhaps wasn’t so lucky on the cliffs.
That feeling of adrenaline keeping me on those cliffs despite my gitfiddle under my arm stayed with me. At the end of that island trip, I made my way to São Paulo to stay with another friend. This one also owned a guitar, rendering mine useless. Recognizing the pattern, I left the guitar at his place for my next sojourn. Sure enough, the hostel had a little acoustic and no one to play it.
The next place I stayed had a whole band setup. It was a musical haven with jam sessions galore, capoeira practices and samba lessons. Many nights we were passing around all the instruments, everyone playing everything, singing and humming, but I hardly even played guitar. The biggest hit was when I made a shaker by filling a bottle with a handful of metal beer tabs.
I quickly learned that I didn’t need to drag around my guitar. The music was in me, and the music was out there, regardless of my instrument. I didn’t have to create the opportunities to play; they found me.
The timing was not lost on me. I had just left this band, less sure about a career in music than I’d ever been. The guitar was a perfect symbol for the identity I held as a musician; seeing how little I needed to drag it around was a clear symbol that I no longer needed to drag that identity around. Giving up the identification didn’t mean I was no longer a musician, just like giving up the guitar didn’t mean I wouldn’t play music. Instead it opened up new, creative possibilities that I would not have thought of otherwise. It left me safer, giving me an extra proverbial hand to clamber across cliffs on the proverbial Big Island of life. It left me freer to travel without the stress of protecting this valuable thing from damage and thieves.
This trip taught me the value behind loosening and expanding our exclusive identifications, of how powerful a mirror our life circumstances can be. I learned firsthand how letting go of a particular sense of “who I am” can help bring me greater happiness and peace. When we let go of the strict ways in which we define ourselves, our emotional well-being is no longer at the effect of those definitions. Our happiness isn’t tied up in the ways people see us and whether or not the situations we find ourselves in support the way we see ourselves. By giving up the exclusivity of our identifications, we gain the power to decide.
Now when I travel I sometimes bring my guitar, and sometimes I don’t. The difference is that whether I bring it or not I know I can make music; whether or not I make music I can bring joy and happiness to myself and others. My music-making ability isn’t limited to my guitar just as my joy-making ability isn’t limited to my identity as musician.