Friday, December 17, 2010


Painting made by moi at Squam by the Sea--October 2010. Note the writing in the upper left-hand corner; the choice of image for this post wasn't totally random.

The human autopilot switch is a funny thing. Not funny-ha-ha. Just, well...funny. In my most recent post, I mention that I had been scared and resistant about stepping into the next chapter, but that once I was on the move, autopilot took over and my hesitation dissipated. Writing this triggered a realization of sorts about those instinctive, programmed responses I have to given situations: they make me temporarily fearless.

One particular event during my recent work trip to Brazil comes to mind. It was one of those days where the sun and the heat had drained me of any lingering energy and turned my brain to mush, rendering me a fairly useless translator. The photographer was desperately trying to make something out of an extremely boring and nearly vacant event while I stood propped against a building, wishing that he would soon give up on the fruitless situation so I could go back to the hotel and nap.

Serendipity sided with the photographer and suddenly waves of people came running up the street, yelling warnings that there would soon be gunfire. A moment later, a group of some 50 police officers in full combat armor, guns and shields in hand, formed out of nowhere and began marching towards the commotion down the block. I knew this was the end of my fantasy about leaving any time soon. Within seconds, the photographer burst into a full sprint in the direction of the chaos, all but knocking over the civilians fleeing in the opposite direction.

I wanted none of it. Having lived in Rio for a few years and having worked in the favelas far before Police Pacification Units existed, I knew that the presence of Brazil's gun-happy and notoriously corrupt police force would only heighten the tension of the situation. The reaction of everyone around me-- to move AWAY from the epicenter of potential danger-- only validated my instincts. I hung back, dreading the inevitable call which came only a few minutes later-- the photographer, telling me to get down into the middle of the riot with him because he needed names and information from the individuals he was photographing.

"It's totally calm," he assured me. "The police are just standing guard to intimidate the protesters."

Bullshit, I thought. I KNOW how crazy the cops are here. More than once did I get stuck for hours inside the shantytown schoolhouse, waiting for the police to stop shooting aimlessly and leave the community. You have no idea how quickly this can turn ugly.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to kick and scream and run in the opposite direction and abandon any ideas of being a journalist. No part of me felt drawn to go interview people in the middle of it. But it was part of the job I had fought for and accepted willingly. So there I went, heart in the throat, waves of nausea making my knees buckle with every few steps, bracing for who knows what.

I elbowed my way through the panicky crowd and found my way to the photographer. He was clearly calm, which helped to diminish my fears only slightly. He pointed out two of the cops he had been photographing and then disappeared back into the group of protesters.

Deep breaths. Get centered. And move your feet. And I did. I stepped towards the first police officer and suddenly something clicked inside me. The words started pouring out on their own: "Com licença. Estou aqui com aquele fotógrafo da National Geographic..."

There it was. Autopilot. The nerves vanished and I became calm and confident as I scribbled answers to the routine series of questions in my pocket-sized red notebook. Of course I only became aware of this shift in state after I had finished interviewing the police officers and rioters eager to publicize their cause. In the moment, my actions were entirely automated.

I find it fascinating that the mind works this way. It's not quite an adrenaline rush, with the I-can-conquer-the-world strength during and huge energy crash afterward, but it does numb the fear that would otherwise impede me from doing any number of things. I'd love to learn to harness this mechanism in order to have more control over when and where it kicks in. I hate when it happens in those early morning hours, leaving me questioning whether or not I locked the door...

Just to clarify, in the end there was no gunfire--just a bunch of people demanding their rights and cops standing around looking tough to deter any further violence or looting. And no, Mom, had there been gunfire, I wouldn't have gone anywhere near the protest. I may be brave and I may put myself in situations that inspire excessive worry and candle burning on your part, but I'm not totally crazy.

1 comment:

  1. Love it. El articulo y la foto. Quien la tomo?