Thinking About “Wave Boy”

Man and woman at the beach

Photo © Michael Sommers.

Over the years, a lot of people have come to visit me in Brazil from North America. One of the most rewarding aspects of these trips (at least for me) is that these visitors allow me the opportunity to fleetingly and vicariously re-experience Brazil as if it were the first time.

It’s not as if I still don’t continue to get the occasional thrill from Brazil (especially when discovering new places, cultural aspects, music, food, etc, of which Brazil has a seemingly never-ending supply). However, having lived here for more than a decade now, many elements have become extremely familiar, while others have become humdrum, banal, or even (in a few cases) irritating. For this reason, I always welcome the opportunity to see Brazil anew through the wide open eyes of someone fresh off the plane.

Never have I experienced eyes that opened wider than those of my sister’s husband, Dave. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people fall sway to Brazil’s charms, but none took the plunge with such fervor and abandon as he did.

It’s amazing how Brazil, Brazilian culture and Brazilian people, can tap into emotions and facets that might remain dormant in other parts of the world.

Dave was born in the tiny town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and grew up in the Midwest before moving to New York after university. Over the years, he’d done road trips across Canada and the U.S. (a ferocious drummer, he played in several bands) as well as the obligatory trip to Europe (i.e. the U.K., Holland, France), but never had he set foot outside of the safe confines of the “First World” until he and my sister came to visit me and my boyfriend at the time, when we were first living in Salvador.

As was his usual habit, up until the moment that Dave actually got on the plane, he put up considerable resistance to any trip my sister organized. Objections ranged from missing golf tournaments and someone taking his job while he was away to the plane crashing. Years before 9/11, he insisted on being at the airport at least 3 hours prior to take-off. And yet, the moment his feet hit terra firma, his curiosity and enthusiasm knew no bounds. Brazil offered Dave his first experience in the “Third World”, in the tropics, in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the trip not only blew his mind – it also changed his life in the way that travel sometimes can.

Through Dave’s eyes I relived the simple freedom of being able to drink (and buy) an icy can of beer in the street (without the camouflage of a brown paper bag) and the heady first-time experience of biting into an acarajé, a bean fritter, fried to crunchy perfection in dendê (palm) oil, and prepared according to Afro-Bahian tradition by a Bahiana dressed in a white turban and lacy white petticoats. When Dave ordered his first acarajé at Salvador’s Porto da Barra beach, I was just going for a dip in the ocean. Upon my return to dry land, I panicked to discover that he was already hungrily working on his third fritter; to put it delicately, dendê sometimes doesn’t agree with gringos’ unsuspecting digestive systems, but Dave’s stomach – like many other parts of him – were fearless.

Another time, he and my sister went to the beach and Dave returned, thrilled at having made a new friend: a street kid to whom he had given the nickname “Wave Boy.” (Dave’s Portuguese was limited to “Tudo bem?”, “Tudo bom” and the ubiquitous thumbs-up sign that Brazilians use on a variety of occasions to mean “okay”, “cool”, “great”, etc. – but he got incredible mileage out of this linguistic trio). While I retroactively worried about the naivete of my sister and Dave palling around with street kids (not always the safest thing to do), Dave’s eyes were shining as he sipped his post-beach caipirinha and told me about the joys of body-surfing with this marvelous kid.

A rabid sports fan, Dave was over the moon to be in the land of futebol. When he discovered that a regional championship game was going to played in Salvador, he begged to be taken. My boyfriend (who had never been to a live soccer game) did the honors which, at the time, entailed hopping a municipal bus stuffed to the gills (to say there was “standing room” would be overly generous) with drunken, chanting, drumming (on the seats, windows, and side of the bus) fans. After getting far enough out in Salvador’s suburbs, it was necessary to walk through a favela and a garbage dump to actually reach the stadium. Emotions always run high at these games, but Dave’s joy lasted for months – and just as amazing as the actual game to him were the favela, the garbage, the endless ride, the pounding on the bus. His enthusiasm was so contagious that my boyfriend decided that he might actually start going to more futebol games in the future.

On occasion, Dave’s enthusiasm was so boundless that it spilled over into recklessness… such as the time, my sister, Dave, and I traveled to Rio de Janeiro. We were staying at Arpoador, the slim stretch of sand at the end of Ipanema where surfers gather to ride big waves. Immediately upon arriving, my sister and Dave hit the beach. While my sister kicked back on the sand, Dave threw himself into the vigorous surf, which after a few rousing moments, threw him back, head-first, onto the beach. It was a scary moment (we feared a concussion), but for years after, Dave claimed it was the best brain injury he ever had.

During the same trip, my sister and Dave had a taxi take them up to the Floresta da Tijuca, where they hiked through lush rain forest, had a delicious lunch at a restaurant with a panoramic view, and promptly got lost (a few hours later, they were thankfully found). Upon their return, I freaked as they happily recounted their day to me; I recalled all the stories I’d heard of people actually being lost in the vast floresta and never being found. Dave, however, was delighted to have had such a wild jungle adventure right in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities.

Like any musician worth his salt, Dave inevitably returned from Brazil laden down with precious CDs, DVDs, and percussion instruments – tambores, cuicas, reco-recos, pandeiros – purchased from the markets of Salvador and the century-old music shops in Rio’s Centro. But he also returned transformed – and not just because he began avidly following Brazilian politics, listening to samba, and sprinkling “tudo bem“s into his daily speech. It’s amazing how Brazil, Brazilian culture and Brazilian people, can tap into emotions and facets that might remain dormant in other parts of the world. Seeing Brazil through Dave’s eyes, this became very clear – it was a gift he gave me.

Last week, I was still in São Paulo when I received a phone call from my sister. She was in a hospital with Dave who was suddenly and unexpectedly dying. Complications from cancer. He was 50. Before I hopped a flight to New York, I talked to Dave on the phone – he was unable to speak, but still conscious.

In Bahia, people wish each other “axé,” a word of Yoruba origin used in Candomblé, but which has entered the Bahian vernacular. It means “good energy” and I wished this for Dave the last time I talked to him.

Ever since, I can’t stop thinking about “Wave Boy”.

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