Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Stephanie Block

I am the worst person to write this article. My idea of an outdoor adventure is being approached by an off-leash poodle at the park near my house. Don’t get me wrong—I love the outdoors. I’m glad it’s there. I just don’t feel the need to commune much with its poison oaks and ivies and lyme disease-bearing ticks.

But when Marianela contacted me about her company, Women Xplore, and described her next itinerary to Brazil, I was morbidly fascinated. Here was a trip in exact opposition to everything I knew and stood for. I signed up!

My astounded friends began receiving anxiety-ridden emails like, “What’s a headlamp?” Some said this adventure trip sounded like fun; others assumed I was going through a midlife crisis. Several weeks later, I was on a southbound plane to Brazil. My port of entry would be a place called Florianopolis (great name), which I had to look up on a map.

I plunked myself down in Brazil samba-where over the rainbow wearing ruby red aqua socks and met Marianela, the Good Witch from Venezuela. There was no brick road here—we were off the beaten path now. She had quite a quest in store for me, which started with my accommodations. I’m definitely a single supplement kind of gal. But that wasn’t an option, and what’s scarier than that? A lot, I was soon to discover.

“It’s like MTV’s Real World!” We five women joked, all strangers arranging ourselves and our luggage in a two-room suite in a modest pousada. But what unfolded over the next week wasn’t the real world at all. It was better. I would come to wish the real world were like this as these strangers cheered me on through every horrific endeavor. Wouldn’t it be great in my daily life to have people in my office shouting, “Come on, Stephanie, just one more paragraph—you can do it!”

I bade civilization a sad ciao. Over the next few days, I would do such things as repel down a sheer cliff face. I was very repelled by repelling. When I crept up to the cliff’s edge, peeked down and realized what I was supposed to do, I became suspicious that our guide Anthony didn’t have all his carabineers quite attached, if you know what I mean. Basically I was to experience every horror of outdoor recreation in a concentrated four day period. It got to the point where I would say, Oh it wouldn’t be Friday without a near death experience!

Our other catch phrase was, Ficca a vontajee, do as you like! Which was a joke because had I really been doing as I liked, we would all be sipping champagne at the Florianopolis Ritz Carlton (no, there’s not one but this is my fantasy, okay?) getting our nails filed, not obliterated clawing at slippery rocks under waterfalls.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (quite literally), we’d saddle up every morning and beat a hasty retreat from one life threatening feat to the next. Anthony, our resident botanist, tour guide and eye candy, was Marianela’s secret weapon. This biology professor had worked on his dissertation in the area and our local support staff was really his old friends. His descriptions of our days sounded something like this: “First, we’ll jump off this cliff into a bubbling pool of molten lava. Then, we’ll battle fire breathing dragons in the center of the earth. If any of you make it out alive, you’ll still have to contend with a hoard of psychotic trolls on the way back. Then we’ll eat.”

I was Afraid. AFRAID. I hadn’t even known I HAD a fear of jumping off a cliff clinging to a rope strung up across a river. It has never come up. The falls were on my left and above me the top of the canyon and its sweet, sweet safety. Anthony whispered patient encouragements in my ear, and beautiful, mermaid-like women were splayed on the rocks across the river clapping for me. It was one of those moments, me crouching on the edge of a cliff gripping the crude rope handles tightly. Would they hold? Would I die? Everyone had already gone, some twice. Jones, the only boy on the trip, had even jumped off the cliff without a rope.

I was so sick of being afraid, but I just stayed there scared out of my mind, and the waiting made it worse. I didn’t want to let everyone down, and I didn’t want to let myself down. I didn’t want to go home without doing this. Doing this was why I was here. Anthony said quietly, “Would it help if I jumped with you?” For some reason, it would. Like when people commit suicide and take their pets with them. So I took a deep breath and we jumped together, me clutching the rope and him free falling through the air.

It was marvelous.

Somehow the rope kicked in just before terminal velocity and I soared gently above the water. I let go of the rope and plunged into the visceral blue. Cheers filled my ears until water did.

And sometimes adventure travel is frustrating. I’m convinced that Anthony waited to start the hike back down a certain hill until it got dark just to give the situation that extra edge. Like it needed it! Sometimes I wondered why adventure travel had to be so adventurous—wouldn’t it be just as nice to pass the cloven-foot cachaça bottle around a cozy dinner table? I took a huge gulp as it came back my way, flicked on my headlamp and trudged down, muttering all the way about how I was probably going to trip and break my neck. The flocks of moths attracted to my headlamp didn’t improve my mood. Because I was scared. Yet again. Or still.

I can seriously say that I am now a changed woman. Hiking high above Petra on another sheer cliff face, my boyfriend was shocked that I didn’t freeze once, not even on the insanely dicey parts; I just kept following the Bedouin women. I was sure of myself, and sure that yielding at a fear crossing would only make things worse.

Why does adventure travel change us forever? A few days, a rope and two carabineers. A raging river. What does this have to do with one’s soul? One’s essence? How does jumping off cliffs eleven times a day fortify one’s character? That, dear readers, is one question I simply can’t answer, like why the sky is blue, or why absinthe is still illegal. All I can tell you is that it does. Through adventure travel I learned that there’s no place like me.

* * * *

Emails From the Edge

I think this email home sums up my big adventure trip:

“Dear Friends and Family,

My weeklong Brazilian adventure trip for me was mostly about my fears and being forced to share them with others! Every single fast-paced day included mortal danger. Luckily the 5 other people on my trip found my terror charming (I think). Half of them were single Jewish women from New York who had heard about this trip via Steppin’Out Adventures. Who knew?

Another was Venezuelan and one was the only male who felt that I reminded him of Betty Boop. Maybe it was my signature high-pitched screams of terror? “Boop-Boop-A-Doop, there’s no way in hell I’m repelling down this sheer cliff! Boop!”

The tour guide and botanist was a hottie and we made him play truth or dare around the campfire (and no, southern Brazil doesn’t have marshmallows so we couldn’t eat s’mores). Both our fearless leaders were just fantastic, as was everyone on the trip—we were a very cohesive and tight knit group from the start…. which was lucky because the concept of a private room seemed to be lost on the organizers.

That suited me just fine because I was scared of all the spiders—yes spiders!! Tarantulas gone wild every single day! Everyone was amazed at how I kept spotting them. Are you kidding me? They were the size of my face! There were tarantulas along the trails during our horseback overnight trip. There was a tarantula in the bathroom of the quaint cachaçaria we visited where they distill cachaça straight from their sugar cane fields (sugar cane is also used to make fuel for cars—who knew?). I had to have six caipirinhas before I worked up the courage to powder my nose—and the girls had to escort me.

There were also house spiders the size of dinner plates on the ranch in the middle of nowhere where we stayed for 3 days. One fell on Kate’s face from the ceiling at the barn party/churrasco barbecue, so I spent the rest of the hoedown under my hooded sweatshirt which my traditional gaucho-dressed dance partners found rather odd. Yes the spiders were horrific, but so were the daily adrenaline pumping activities that read like a Navy SEALs training manual.

Let me list them for you: I repelled down a sheer cliff face into a canyon, whereupon I had to hike in knee-deep mud out of it. I hurled my body down a high zip line in the middle of a primeval forest. Luckily I was going so fast that I couldn’t see any spiders. My cries of terror echoed through the trees. But it was so awesome that I ran back through the forest for another turn!

I faced a highway atop a skittish horse named Pimenta (Pepper) who went charging up a steep hill as soon as she heard the first truck. Luckily the ranch owner’s son, Anizio, was nearby to talk my horse down. I quickly traded her for high octane Camilia who loved to run. AND I dove off a cliff clinging to a rope, sailed over a waterfall and let go, crashing down into a river.

Even the white water rafting was insane! They made us get out of the raft at one point cuz the water was so low that there were too many exposed rocks. We had to hike across slippery rocks and then jump off them back into the freezing water and float down on our backs to where the rafts waited. Did I mention the huge wolf spiders that clung to the rocks on the sides of the river?? Veronica from Venezuela was nice enough to hold my hand and jump off the high rocks with me, sputtering and dodging impossible daddy longlegs on steroids.

Then I spent two nights on a working farm and drank foaming milk right from the udder in my morning coffee. Oh the things I did! I climbed waterfalls and went on several night hikes (as if hiking during the day off trails wasn’t scary enough). I slept on a dune under a full moon and the glittering Southern Cross. And I lived to tell about it, screaming and complaining the entire time: “Seven waterfalls on this hike? Couldn’t we just see 4 and call it a day?”

My skin is still on fire and so is Veronica’s—we shared a bed at the remote farm that we horseback rode to from the first already remote farm, and we were the only ones to get eaten alive by bedbugs. Or some heretofore undiscovered variety of bloodsuckers. And I have a huge welted rash on the back of my left shoulder from who knows what. How do you say calamine lotion in Portuguese? I am told that these are adventure travel badges of honor and that I should wear them proudly.

So that is my story—day one, terror, day two, paralyzing fear, day three, tarantulas, day four, terror of tarantulas…but I feel proud to have survived and perhaps just a little more brave. But don’t go breaking out the camping gear for me just yet! I need some time to get the image out of my head of the huge black tarantula rearing up as my horse cantered by—I believe we crushed him because when we hiked that night in total pitch black for hours through the canyon we got lost. I was inexplicably the only one to catch the body of a huge mutant tarantula in the light of my headlamp. I screamed, of course, and because the guide remembered me screaming earlier that day having seen the dearly departed bug alive, he realized that we needed to turn back. So my phobia ended up saving the day!

Seriously, this was one of the most fantastic weeks of my life. Beautiful people, beautiful country, and gorgeous memories for a lifetime.

Viva Stephanie, Adventure Diva! I am off to Ipanema Beach to check out the Sunday Hippie Market, right after I take a hot shower.

Much love from Rio,

Stephanie

p.s. Did I mention I learned how to lasso?”

* * * *

Things I Learned From Adventure Travel That Apply to Life in General:

It’s okay to go at your own pace.

You don’t have to go it alone.

It’s scarier to think about a thing than to do that thing. In other words, get it the fuck over with.

I CAN.

Let others help you find footholds and follow in their steps.

The worst thing you can do is choose to be last in a lineup.

* * * *

Stephanie’s Top Ten Brazil Travel Moments:

1. Writing the bulk of this article at dawn nestled in my bed at Vera and Vitorli’s ranch with the sounds of the household coming to life in the background

2. Learning to dance the Forro at a Florianopolis (Floripa) club

3. Crewing small sailboats to visit an old fort grown over with bougainvillea, hoisting that mainsail and eating fresh seafood

4. Vera teaching us to cook in her kitchen

5. Watching baby pigs like so many Wilburs jockying for nipples at the belly of their mama

6. Vitorli giving us a tour of his apple orchard, picking Fujis straight off the tree and eating them

7. Cantering with Camilia across the open plains specked with pines

8. That first succulent bite of churrasco barbecue straight from the grill and one of Vitorli’s cows

9. Seeing the bridge in Floripa that was the original model of the Golden Gate Bridge

10. Being engulfed by the plains of southern Brazil amidst the tall and trim acaria trees and rolling hills of Vitorli’s spreading acres. The sparse landscape, when not trying to kill me, was punctuated by these austere Brazilian pines that burst into menorahs at the top. Their sap-soaked wood burns longer than regular wood and their large pine nuts are part of the local diet.

11. Resting on the top of a high sand dune looking up at the Southern Cross

* * * *

For more information:

Women Xplore.com Call or email Marianela and tell her that Tango Diva sent you! If you dare! When this Diva is not leading amazing itineraries through Brazil and Venezuela, she trains for adventure races which are 24-hour hardcore races through varied terrain. Definitely check out her website’s latest itineraries. In the mood for a challenge? Why not go on my birthday with her to Venezuela’s famed Angel Falls this August?

Learn more about Anthony at Southern Brazil.com.

Bom dia to my travel mates: Hallie, Veronica, Kate, Jones and Amy! Brava to Amy for conquering her fear of horses, and Veronica, who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, conquering her fear of heights. We inspired each other to conquer our fears, and these triumphs were redoubled because we were in it together.

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