When Your Car’s Towed in Salvador

I try to understand my disagreeable experiences here in Salvador as collectors items: they are precious pieces of wisdom or know-how gathered through experience, to be used or appreciated as I see fit.

That’s why when my car was towed in the middle of a baby shower, I tired to breathe deeply, curse profusely, and then place my expensive little experience on the shelf. Bu it wasn’t so simple…

First thing’s first: getting over seeing your car fading into the horizon atop the flatbed tow truck as you watch impotently from the curb. Next up, as per the official DMV policy here, you have to guess which pound your car’s been hauled off to. My one stroke of luck in this whole thing is that I got it right on the first try. We pulled up at 4:55 PM, right on time. Thank God, because the lot was closing five minutes later! Except…Right. I’d forgotten that one of the few things that runs on time, even ahead of schedule here, is the end of the work day.

“Oh, everyone’s LONG gone,” the security guard informed me. “It IS Saturday, after all.”

My return on Monday morning was surprisingly efficient, actually. I had carved out my entire morning but found that I’d be on my way to school much sooner that I’d expected. But something that truly amazed me was the seamless way Salvador bureaucracy integrates completely informal, improvised channels of, er, everything, into their official business. Observe:

I walked into the comfortably air conditioned reception, where I took a number and was immediately called. All my files were handed over and I was pushed out the door. Great.

On the way out I was told I could pay the fine right on my phone through my banking app. Again, great. But considering we’re in the middle of a parking lot, how will I print the proof of payment?

“Mockingbird will take care of it. He’ll xerox your license, too!”

“Who’s Woodpecker?”

“Mockingbird. Not Woodpecker” was as much answer as I got as the door closed behind me.

I felt, as I have more than a few times here, like Alice falling through Wonderland. And with that I was off to find Mockingbird. I looked around. All I saw was an expansive pound lot, and about a half mile of steamy asphalt, leading out toward the faint sound of traffic from the main road. I started down the driveway toward the highway and soon came upon a rickety iron structure with a rickety-looking man inside. It was essentially a tent, and I couldn’t imagine how this could possibly be the famous Mockingbird and his impressive printing-scanning-emailing gig. I saw no signs of internet. The stand was covered by a tarp in mid-fall.

“Come on in!”

He was very hospitable.

Though it wasn’t clear to me what was “in” and what was “out,” I ducked into the shade of his plastic hut, immediately breaking a sweat and wishing I was still “outside.” I looked around skeptically and sure enough, Mockingbird produced a printer/scanner from the depths of his setup, connected it to I’m not sure what, and had scanned my license and printed my email in less than 5 minutes (after sending all documents to mockingbirdxerox1@gmail.com).

Armed with the rest of m paperwork, getting my car back was now the easy part. Back up the hill at the pound, I was invited to “have a seat” (one lone plastic chair in the middle of the parking lot) and soon my apprehended vehicle was brought around. I was still reflecting on the expensive and slightly surreal escapade as I got in the driver’s seat.

“See you next time,” said the attendant.


Unsolicited Baby Advice

There is a woman on my street who, every time she sees Noam, must comment on what he’s not wearing. This goes back to when he was two weeks old and I started going on walks with him tucked cozily into the sling I used to wear. She never directs her comments at me of course, and instead innocently coos at the baby, wondering aloud if he shouldn’t really be wearing a hat, long sleeves, shoes, or any number of garments I don’t deem necessary at 85 degrees. She once pondered – to Noam, naturally – why his mom would take him out on such a windy day.

Even when I’m not being bombarded by baby swaddlers, spontaneous baby advice is everywhere. The other side of the cultural coin here in Salvador, where people are notably more warm, friendly and outgoing than in NY, is that they are in your business almost aggressively.

For about a year, I carried Noam in an Ergobaby: a sling-meets-BabyBjorn miracle of modern design. Since his early weeks we walk around our neighborhood every day. People don’t generally seem accustomed to encountering babies in this contraption – the preferred method here being just holding the babe all the time. Some are delighted at the cute vision of an infant all squished up against his mom. Others are appalled, even…offended? There’s a woman at the park who always has to comment on how squashed and miserable Noam must be, and even told “him” that she was going to hit his mom one day if she kept bringing him to the park like that…

…Should I feel threatened?

There was also the lady who, when we met on a trail in the mountains, Noam sleeping peacefully in the Ergobaby, legs bobbing limply along, turned to her boyfriend to tell him how bad she felt for that poor baby.

A sizable part of baby advice here in Salvador is traditional wisdom, also known as home remedies, also known as superstitions depending on who you ask. Noam gave us more than enough opportunity to receive it; he spent the second and third month of his life crying whenever he wasn’t sleeping or nursing. He spent the first six months waking up every 60 minutes or less at night. I was in the depths of new-mother madness and was down to try anything, to hear anything out.

It began when Noam was two days old. We had just gotten home from the hospital. He slept in a tiny co-sleeper attached to our bed, and people would come visit in our room. I was inevitably reclining since he was almost always nursing, and I would invite guests to have a seat at the foot of the bed.

BIG NO NO. You NEVER sit down on a new mother’s bed, Haven’t you heard of that? It gives you cramps. Well, I never quite figured that one out but figured, OK, more space for us.

The next one came soon after. Noam seemed to have taken my chronic hiccups from me and adopted them for himself. Ever since he was born he drifts through fits of them rather easily. I always offer something to drink to get things back to normal. Until I was intercepted by a cousin here, who came to the rescue with the fool-proof plan of…

…red string? Red string! Ball it up, put it on his forehead, and listen as the hiccups fade away. Perhaps it was my skeptical energy blocking and jinxing the whole thing, but I never saw that one work, and believe me, our family here tried it many, many times.

That brings us to the eternal issue of Noam’s sleep – or lack thereof, to be more precise. I am certain that I looked over the edge of insanity more than a few times. There were nights when Noam woke up each and every time we laid him down, nights where he’d only sleep in our arms, nights where he’s only fall sleep nursing, just to wake up 45 minutes after I’d tiptoed away. Then it started all over again. People wanted to help, I

wanted to be helped. And we heard everything you can imagine, including many things we never could have dreamt. We tried almost everything that was suggested. Nothing worked, but that’s beside the point. And among passion fruit, camomile capsules, herbal tea, bottles, meditation and mantras, there was only one suggestion that was discarded:

Lettuce. Placing lettuce under his pillow. I had heard that lettuce tea was calming, even sleep-inducing, but had never imagined that lettuce by osmosis would be a viable option. And in the end, it’s not that I wasn’t up for trying out lettuce’s soporific charms, we just weren’t much into leafy greens at the time. Guess I’ll never know for sure.

Around 5 months old, when Noam got a string of colds, the last one of which turned into a serious case of bronchiolitis, the advice came rolling in again. Don’t bathe at night, spread chicken fat on his chest, protect him from the evil eye, and, most specifically, never leave him in a wind current that comes through buildings.

Movement and development, of course, is another never-ending source of input. Rolling over, crawling and walking were (ahem, still are) points of contention for everyone except Fuca and I. While I’ve always been very at peace with Noam’s own – let’s say – unhurried rhythm in this respect, others are perturbed. While friends’ babies were rolling over and somersaulting at 3 months, Noam waited until 6 to finally heave his chubby little body over. Well, by that time other babies were crawling already, which Noam didn’t find necessary until 9 months. Around this time, I was busy ignoring videos other new mothers sent in message groups of their babies running, dancing and shouting “mama”, “doggy”, and other milestones. At 14 months, Noam seems ready to consider entertaining the possibility of maybe starting some bipedal movement. And we have a neighbor who asks him every.single.day if he’s started walking yet and if not, why is that, lazybones? She loves to remind “him” that the baby down the street already walks, and she’s younger than him. Stop being so lazy! she adds.

And you know those babies who just can’t stop calling “mama”?! Yea that’s not Noam. His first word was “Daddy”, and his second was….Daddy, in Portuguese. Maybe his third will be Pops, then Father, then Old Man? I’ll just keep on being “ahhh!!” Neighbors love to throw salt on the wound, of course. When they ask if he says “mama”, they’re shocked when I answer no. “Why?!!” they ask. “All babies love saying ‘mama'”.

“Must be because I am a cold and negligent mother rejecting her role as nurturer and instead raising an unstable future sociopath.” That usually is enough for them.

But actually, I don’t really feel rubbed by all the meddling. When I put Noam in his push tricycle these days for our walk and the grandma next door asks “him” if he isn’t feeling chilly, I serenely continue buckling his seatbelt. When she wonders aloud if he isn’t going to catch a cold, I placidly ask how her grandson is. And when she rubs her shoulders in the 73 degree weather and says “to Noam” that she’s going back inside, I smile and agree. Noam and I are the ones whose opinions count on all matters mother-baby. I get that now. All those mantras must have worked.

What I Thought I Knew about Giving Birth

Right from the start, I knew I was unprepared to have a baby. I had very little exposure to babies beforehand, had never changed a diaper, had held a newborn maybe twice ever. But you know when you just can’t know how much you don’t know? It was definitely one of those situations.

In some ways, I thought having a newborn would be harder and crazier than it actually was, starting right at giving birth. All of Hollywood and many mothers assured me I would curse, throw things, definitely scream, almost certainly send my husband to hell. I was sure I would cry from the pain. And while all through labor I kept waiting for the moment I would turn into a bawling monster, it never happened. I gave birth to Noam with no anesthesia and relatively quickly. Yes, 7 hours is apparently fast for this kind of thing.

And that’s not to say it didn’t hurt. It did…so, so badly. There were moments that I didn’t know how I would make it. There was a moment I thought Noam would be born in the car (he wasn’t), a moment I asked for an epidural (I didn’t get it), a moment where I wanted to put the whole thing on hold for a few hours to catch my breath, rest, watch Netflix, then try it all again. But more on all that later.

Noam’s birth was something planned since before I was pregnant. We worked with a doula, who is basically a laboring woman’s psychologist. We had meetings prior to the birth where we learned about the anatomy of birth, a fetus’ development, and working through pain. Of course, the doula was there with us through most of labor and then the birth. But as anyone who has given birth can tell you, nothing really prepares you. Maybe preparation is futile.

In Noam’s case, he came three weeks early (his way of showing us that everything is on his terms no questions thank you). My water broke while I was asleep, probably around 1:30 AM. After a comedic episode in which we tried to determine if I had wet the bed or was in labor, we concluded that Noam was more likely than not on his way.

Back in the doula sessions, we had learned about stages of labor and saw that there is an early phase when cramps are light and the best thing to do is take a walk, try to eat something and peacefully welcome the day your child will be born. I had imagined us walking through our neighborhood at dawn, seeing the sun rise, holding hands and listening to the first birds waking up, slowly saying goodbye to our life as a couple and making way for our new life as a family.

HA. HAhahahahahaha. By the time I had wondered aloud if I was really in labor, a wave of contractions came on so strong that it made me vomit, then immediately respect all mothers of the world about 97 times more than I already did.

When we studied labor and birth, the doula tried to help us reimagine the pain of childbirth. During a contraction, she encouraged me to try to connect to the baby, understanding that each wave of pain brought me one movement closer to meeting our little person. It’s pain with a purpose, a pain full of life.

That is so beautiful, it really is. And I believe it all, in a purely logical sense. But as I tried to think these transformational thoughts during labor, I was peskily interrupted by the will the explode the world, which alternated with the desire to implode, faint, fast forward, disappear, and change my mind about the whole baby thing. I tried to connect to him. I searched for the baby, I really did. I wanted to listen to him and let him know I was waiting for him here on the outside. I hope he got that message somehow because I don’t think I managed to formulate a complete thought the entire time. 

I also thought, naively, that I would have beautiful photos of laboring serenely and crying with joy as we held our baby for the first time. I had arranged everything with a wonderful photographer and friend. Well, Noam came 21 days early and the photographer was on vacation. What I have instead is a selfie that Fuca took as I was slung over the back of a raised hospital bed while in labor. “Hey, smile!” I glanced over, confused. Click.

The list of surprises goes on. I thought I would hate the hospital experience. I had seen pictures of hair nets and dressing gowns and didn’t relate. Well, I certainly didn’t like having random doctors I’d never seen standing around waiting for the baby to crown, and I may have thrown a hair net on the ground, grumbling rudely that I would not be wearing any of their sterile protective crap. However, the overall experience was beyond expectations. After the baby was born, there were nurses there to wrap my belly to, um, hold things together. There were nurses changing Noam, a nutritionist who crafted a personalized hospital food menu, more nurses bringing delicious food four times per day for both me and Fuca. I felt like I was in a five-star baby hotel and quite honestly, thought we could stay a few more nights.

As it turns out, health insurance plans don’t like to pay for perfectly healthy people to stay in the hospital just because they’re lazy and scared of being on their own with the baby. So back home we went. And it happened that the feeling of walking into the little room we had prepared for Noam, but this time with him in my arms, was surreal. I live it over and over again; it doesn’t get old. Even without the nurses.

These frequent and overwhelmingly beautiful moments of bliss and sublimity are essential, since the moments of urgent desperation are always lurking. No one told me what baby gas crises were like, or that it was possible for a baby to wake up every 60 minutes for the first 6 months of life (I’ve confirmed it’s possible. I don’t want to talk about it). I had no idea I could have trouble pumping milk, or that when I decided to embrace the pacifier, Noam would totally reject it. I didn’t know just how tired I could get, or how much my body could take. I didn’t expect how many times my husband and I would almost kill each other, just to look over at the sleeping baby and melt into tears, forgetting the whole thing.

Everyday I reconnect with how clueless I feel and how improvised everything is. But Noam shows us that it’s all OK — in his own way, he is always improvising, too. He sees countless things for the first time on a daily basis. And he responds with his whole being: his eyes, his body, his voice and his breathing all swerve to attention, becoming purely present for whatever it is he’s learning right in the moment – even if it is just watching us peel a carrot. I think in so many ways me and Fuca are the same: present in a way we’ve never been before, for something we’ve never done before. And definitely amazed by it all.



Much Ado about Placenta


This is a story about how I went from being someone who had never heard of a placenta to being someone who ingested one…by accident. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Being pregnant taught me many things about my reproductive system that I had never thought about. It’s not that I had misconceived notions, I just had…no notions. Never given it a thought. The placenta was one of these things.

The placenta is not, as I had imagined when I was much younger, the same thing as amniotic fluid. I realized that I had never bothered to update my teenage understanding of this amazing organ until there was one inside of me, but once I got wise to what it really was – the source of nutrients and basically all bodily functions for the baby – I was amazed.

Many believe that the placenta, being so rich in all things baby and pregnant lady, is extremely beneficial to the mother if ingested after the birth of the baby. (Side note – did you know that after the baby is born you still have to birth the placenta? And that it feels like what I imagine running a marathon just to cross the finish line and find out you have to sprint a 5k would be like?). Though there isn’t much conventional scientific evidence proving that consuming the placenta does anything for momma, it’s definitely not hurting anyone, so I did want to give it a try. I only had things to gain: some say consuming it decreases propensity for postpartum depression and helps to regulate the general transition from beautiful pregnant woman lit from behind to sleep-deprived, milk-soaked, bat shit crazy new mother.

Well there are a few ways to ingest this magic baby maker. The one I was interested in was capsules. You take your placenta from the hospital, hand it over to the right person, and for the next few weeks take placenta pills. The other, less appetizing, was taking the placenta home and using pieces of it in shakes or juices. I was not warming up to the latter.

Unfortunately, after Noam’s birth, the hospital said they had to test the placenta for this or that related to the fact that the baby was born three weeks early. So I left without the raw material for my postpartum capsules.

As it turned out, my postpartum experience was emotional, exhausting, but pretty even-keeled for the most part. I didn’t find myself regretting too much not having tested out the placental benefits I had stood to gain, as I told some other postpartum ladies at a recent get together. We were at the midwife’s house, who had invited us all over to meet each other and share a bit about the first few months of motherhood. It was remarkably comforting to be around other new mothers, and the time was flying by as we ate snacks and drank fresh juice that the midwife had prepared from her fruit trees.

Her fruit trees AND…

“There’s a placenta in this juice!” she said incredibly nonchalantly after I had already drank half a cup. I froze momentarily, as did the other two women.

I had so many questions. Mainly, whose placenta was I drinking?

Responding to our outraged disbelief which she mistakenly interpreted as enthusiasm, the midwife explained that she had so many placentas preserved from the various births she had supervised that she often tried to incorporate them into her daily diet.

Coping with the idea that I was ingesting a random woman’s collection of hormones and nutrients and torn between finding the situation hilarious and repulsive, I decided just to finish my juice. I was, after all, halfway through anyway. Who says you never get a second chance?


The Bilingual Birth Chronicles: He Was Born!….So Early!

20160822-062851.jpgWell guys, after posting last time that I still had weeks to go at work, Noam was born exactly two days later. That shows me!

Many things at home were already prepared, but I also had grandiose ideas of finishing paper proposals, writing, and other household projects before he came. Dreams of yesterday! Now I have to figure out things like getting his passport, how a birth certificate works, and how to change a diaper.

The day before he was born, people at work threw a surprise baby shower, then Fuca and I continued on to a concert that night. We got home, went to sleep, and two hours later the baby was on his way.

20160822-062919.jpgSo: Noam Landau Santos, born 8:47 AM on August 17th at just over 6 lbs. The rest we’re figuring out!



The Bilingual Birth Chronicles: Kids Ask Pregnancy Questions

IMG_7509 (1)As I settle in to the 9th month here, I’m looking back on what it was like to be pregnant and constantly surrounded by young children. So much of it was extremely touching: there were many hugs, careful kisses for the baby (who sits at about eye-level for a 7-year-old), and lots of baby-patting. So much of it was also hilarious, as students struggled to understand pregnancy – something so familiar to them but also so mystifying, almost irreconcilable. You know, we as adults, myself included, are not that different in our non-comprehension of gestation, so I’ve compiled a list of the 10 best questions and comments students brought to me over the last few months. Maybe you’ll even identify with some of them. I definitely did.

-Teacher, you’re pregnant?!
-But….how did you get that way??

-If I put my ear to your belly, will I hear him?

-Hey, look, she’s pregnant!
-Yea, tell me something I don’t know!

– Is he connected to your belly button?

-Why isn’t your baby going to be born now?

-How will you know when it’s time for your baby to be born?

-Did you swallow him?

-Does he have a name yet?
-Yes, it’s Noam.
-Um…can you say that in English?
-….that is English.

-Hey, you don’t work here anymore because you’re pregnant!

-When he moves around, is it like that movie Alien?

All really valid questions and reactions. With just a few weeks of work left, I’m still all ears.

The Bilingual Birth Chronicles: Nation-Ambiguous

IMG_7471As it turns out, I’ve traveled quite a bit while pregnant. At six weeks, I was in Georgia with my older sister. At eight, I was on a plane back to Brazil. After that, there were two more trips to the states and another still to a conference in Brasilia that my doctor finally vetoed.

One great thing about boarding in Brazil is the priority access line for pregnant women (along with other “special needs” groups as they’re called). You board first, and everyone falls all over themselves to help you.

As a pregnant person, though, I’ve felt very little need for special treatment. In fact, I routinely forget I’m pregnant and am constantly chided for lifting heavy objects, squatting down or standing for too long. When it comes to airline staff, their offers to help are often met with my blank stares, bewildered and trying to retrieve the reason they might have for wanting to help me.

For the flight attendants and airport staff, this is interpreted as a sign of my lack of comprehension of the Portuguese language – a more than fair assumption. They begin trying the next tricks up their sleeve, hoping to arrive at my native tongue. Funnily enough, English is hardly ever their go-to. I’ve been approached in Spanish and French. People bombard me with a list of nationalities, making rapid-fire guesses as to my origins. French ranks high, as does German and generally Scandinavian. The US hardly ever comes up.Though it doesn’t quite send me into an identity crisis, I do feel a pang of disappointment when the guesses aren’t right.

Landing on the other side of the Americas, however, sometimes presents the opposite problem. Once in Miami, all bets are off as I mix seamlessly into the sea of international arrivals. Again, the lines and movement of the airport baffle me in any language, so when a security official barks me to remove my shoes, blanks stares and visible concentration on my part precede any action. Impatient and cutting her losses, the security rep translates it into her best shot at Portuguese for me. I smile and comply. After that, I’m helped in Spanish by a few vendors as I try to pick up items Brazilian friends have requested. What I love about Miami airport is that even after responding in English, way too embarrassed of my Spanish now to dare to use it, I’m still answered in the vendor’s first language. This is languaging in practice.

Arriving in New York and on the very last leg of my trip, I stop for a quick coffee before getting a cab to my parents’ house. I place my bagel and drink order, and wait by the counter for them to call out my name. Soon, the barista is handing over a paper cup while checking the receipt to identify the customer. “Hulia??,” he yells. I am home.