A few minutes after we pass the academy I let Marcus know that after three hours my bladder has reached capacity. He pulls off into a rest area that resembles those on American Highways along with a food court with multiple options, a gift area and modern “banheiros.” The food courts are empty despite it be a time when many people would pause to eat, and I take this as a sign that Brazilians who travel by car are taking the pandemic seriously. Those hopes are quickly dashed when I walk into the bathroom and see several employees hastily put on their masks as I enter the lobby. It reminds me that no place I go for the next 24 hours is safe. That I must be on overly cautious in all situations if I am to remain unscathed by the virus during my journey. Needless to say, I hasten my visit as much as possible and spend an inordinate amount of time washing my hands.
This section of the trip is bucolic and beautiful. The road winds next to and sometimes over a wide river that looks unblemished by modern times. The countryside is a combination of farmland, copse of trees and small valleys that we would call hollows back home. It is the type of scenery that makes you wonder what it must be like to live here. The type of scenery that makes it is easy to daydream.
In my case, it is less daydream and more daymare, a runaway and frightening imagining that takes place during the day. My trip to the bathroom has frightened me, beyond reason, to the fact that I could be exposing myself to the disease. That I have willing exposed myself to a disease that has infected 6 million worldwide or roughly the population of Rio and killed over 600,000, the equivalent of the population of Boston. I am in a country that has done little or no testing yet ranks 3rd in the world in verified disease cases. A country that has all but abandoned any pretense of control and prevention. It becomes far too easy to recall the images of the quick lime covered mass graves in Sao Paulo. From there it is not a far cry from the images of the sick, facedown on hospital beds, ventilators breathing for them, with wire and tubes leading from their body. I think about how these people are totally alone, except for masked and gowned caregivers, without distraction, left only to feel their disease and ponder whether they will recover.
It is too easy for me to imagine in one of those beds. Petrified and alone. Without Elaine. Without family. With all too fervent imagination pondering my survival. These thoughts roil my stomach and embarrass me. I feel as if I am a coward.
To calm my overactive meanderings of the mind I think about how I have equipped myself. I have many cloth masks that Elaine has managed to gather for us, most of which fit well enough. But I know that masks only really help you if it is being worn by someone else. They are designed to protect your fellow travelers not you. I also know, because I have worn most of them, that some fit better than others and none of them are medical grade but merely make do in light of a global pandemic. I pass through one cloud of virus containing microdots and I am toast.
Part of my protection pack are 3 small containers of alcohol gel. that I can use to cleanse my hands and, if need be, surfaces. But I know that while washing my hands, cleansing them from germs is a must, it is not a panacea. It is just a tool. A single step that will lessen the chance of getting the disease but does not 100% the eliminate the risk of getting disease.
I wonder “Have I made the correct decision to leave our home Rio?” I was relatively safe there. Behind two walls with only limited interactions with the outside world that could produce infection and disease. I remind myself that the reason I am leaving is not because I feel unsafe there, even though at times, I do, I am leaving because I need to take care of my health, which I can not do in Brazil. I need to find a way to make a living. I have a family I want to see, hold and hug. I yearn for puppy love.
While these thoughts help, I know I am caught in a vortex of negative thought. It is not productive and contains seeds of fear and indecision that, if they take root, had the potential to incapacitate me. To ease the swirl of destructive thoughts, I try to recall the virtual visit I had with my physician a couple of days before. I had made the appointment because it had been so long since I had picked up prescriptions at my pharmacy that they needed to be renewed by her. Also, I wanted her to prescribe me an anti-anxiety medication. I know me. As long as I am moving forward. Pushing towards something, I am okay. The minute I stop. When I have time to contemplate my imagination switches into overdrive and the result is exactly what was happening now, a “death” spiral of negativity and thought. Dr. Pettee understood and was only too happy to write me a script for Alprazolam. But she also wanted to know what I was doing to plan for my trip and the precautions that I was taking. She listened carefully and then told me the only other precaution she would recommend is “not touching my face.”
I had taken her advice seriously and, in the days, leading up to my journey I had tried to practice not touching my face. It is not easy. Especially in Brazil where mosquitos and other insects find the faces of gringos especially delicious. Your first instinct is to swat at them. Beat them away. But you cannot if you are practicing not touching your face. This was compounded by the allergies I suffer from in Brazil that require me to take Claritan daily. It helps but it does not take away all the symptoms. Your nose itches and you want to rub it. Your eyes are irritated, and you know that you could get relief by quick removal of the gunk that has built up in the corner of your eye. It is maddening, and nearly impossible not to touch your face but I persisted, practicing until it almost became second nature to twitch instead of rub, blink instead of remove, and when all else failed just grin and bear it until the moment past.
It reassured me that I had a plan that was Dr. approved. But despite the precautions made, I also knew that no matter how carefully I planned, no matter the elaborate steps taken to ensure my safety, that luck and providence would play a large part of me making it through this disease free. And I knew what a practical joker god was.
I knew I need to distract myself. To move my mind away from the risk I was taking onto to something that would occupy my mind and disrupt the swirl of negativity circling the drain of my consciousness. The answer appeared outside my window.
We were passing through farm and pastureland and there were large irregularly shaped conical mounds. Had they been pink they would have looked as if the earth had acne. I recall from the trip that Elaine had taken to Sao Paulo years before that these were termite mounds. I use my phone to Google “Brazil Termites” and discover that the north eastern part of Brazil is the home of almost 200 million termite mounds, averaging 8 feet high by 30 wide, they cover an area the size of Great Britain. Some of the still active mounds were started 4,000 years ago. The kicker is that this biological phenomenon, an insect culture dating back seven centuries previous to the birth of Moses, was only discovered a couple of years ago.
We live in a culture and a society where we think that we know the planet we live on yet something as gigantic as this, an insect culture that has thrived for 4 millennia and is only now being discovered. It boggles me and reminds me of Socrates’ axiom “The more you know, the more you know don’t know.” It also rings a distant bell for me. Wasn’t there a movie in the ‘70s the prophesied the world being taken over by insects: The Hellstrom Chronicle? It envisioned a post-apocalyptic world run by insects. Seeing these mounds, knowing what I know now, it seems less far fetched that it did 50 years ago.
[Part 5 06/02/20]