What happens in Brazil does not stay in Brazil. That shit comes home with you.
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
I was at my first job in Detroit and I was doing well. I had gotten lucky with some work that won a few awards and got me a little press. The agency I was working for was part of a big global network and the work had earned me a small dose of name recognition inside the company. Which is probably why my partner, Bryce, and I got called into the managing director’s office for an “exciting assignment.”
“What’s up guys? Come on in.” Bryce looks like a fucking criminal. He wears steel toed biker boots, black everything and reeks of cigarettes. His nails are filthy. His muddy Jeep with enormous knobby tires is always parked across two spaces in the very back of the lot. He’s the kind of guy who can get you anything you want. He’s fun to hang out with and he’s not a bad art director. “You guys ever been to Brazil?” I shake my head no. Bryce hesitates. It’s as if he needs to run through a mental checklist in his head before answering because it’s possible he’s been there but may have forgotten. Having completed the checklist, he too finally shakes his head no. “Well, you’re going on Thursday. The office in Rio [there is no office in Rio, it’s in São Paulo] is in a big global pitch and they’ve asked for a team from our office and one from the Toronto office to come down and work on it with them.” Bryce and I look at each other and smile. We’re going to fucking Rio [we’re not going to Rio, we’re going to São Paulo] on the company dime. This is going to be a fucking blast. “Talk to Denise about it. She’s got your tickets and all the details. Guys. I want you to have fun but don’t forget, you’re going down there to work. Do you hear me?” Bryce would never verbally answer a question like this, so I speak up for the both of us. “Of course. We won’t let you down.” His phone rings and he picks it up and starts talking to somebody. We stand there for a minute too long thinking there might be more. He eventually shoos us off like a couple of morons. Which is what Bryce and I are. We’re a couple of morons. We’re both 27. We’re in advertising. We like to party and Bryce always knows where the best ones are. We skedaddle out of there and go see Denise. She starts off with the same exact question. “Have you guys ever been to Brazil?” Again, I shake my head no. And again, Bryce thinks about it for a second. Maybe he was wrong the first time? Maybe he has been to Brazil. Like on a dare or something. But again, the mental checklist confirms he hasn’t been there and finally, he too shakes his head no. “Well, they don’t speak Spanish. They speak Portuguese. I got you guys a translation book to take with you.” She hands me the book and I start to flip through it. I’m immediately disappointed that they don’t speak Spanish and Portuguese is significantly different. I’m from Texas. Half of my friends growing up were Mexican. I took Spanish every year of my life all the way through college. I have a decent vocabulary, but this is all different shit. Along with the translation book, she gives us our airline tickets and an itinerary with the agency and hotel information on it. I don’t recognize the name of the hotel. It’s not a Hyatt or a Hilton or anything like that. But I do notice that it’s located in São Paulo. I don’t bother to ask why we’re flying to Rio. Maybe São Paulo and Rio are sister cities like Dallas/Ft. Worth or Minneapolis/St. Paul [they’re not]. The flight to Brazil is about 10 hours with a connection in New York. The seats are business class which is really nice on international flights. They give you this little Dopp kit with soap, a razor, a pair of socks, mouthwash, comb, and an eye mask for sleeping. Bryce folds his mask in half and wears it over one eye. He spends the next six hours of the flight ordering drinks in pirate voice. The itinerary says that when we land in Rio [a long way from São Paulo] we are to get off the plane and look for a man holding a sign with our names on it. This will be Raul and he will be our driver and bodyguard for the entire time we’re there. And yes. I just said bodyguard. Evidently, in Brazil, advertising is an extremely glamorous field to work in. And I don’t mean American glamorous in the sense that you can day drink and name drop celebrities. In Brazil, if you’re in advertising, you are a celebrity. People actually think quite highly of it, which boggles the mind. However, being a celebrity in Brazil also makes you a target. When we eventually meet the man who owns the agency where we’ll be working, one of the first things you notice is his hair. It’s completely white. They say it happened overnight, two years ago, when his daughter was kidnapped and held for ransom. Eventually she was returned unharmed. Now the agency employs several bodyguards. Raul is the head of security. At first this makes me feel better. If you’re going to be in a place where you need a bodyguard you might as well take the best one they’ve got. Then I think about it for a minute and the situation rephrases itself in my mind. I’m in a place that’s dangerous enough to need a bodyguard and it’s possibly so dangerous that they’ve attempted to mitigate the risk by giving me the best one they’ve got. When we get off the plane, we see no one holding a sign with our name on it. Raul is not there [because he’s in São Paulo]. Bryce is hammered. I’m exhausted. The freaking out doesn’t start immediately, but it’s definitely in the mail. I ask Bryce what we should do. Bryce thinks we should go to the beach. “We’re in fucking Rio, man. This is awesome.” I agree in theory. Yes, we are in Rio and technically that is awesome, but no, we shouldn’t handle this situation by going to the beach. We need to get in touch with someone who can tell us where Raul is. This is before cell phones. Cell phones exist but people like Bryce and me don’t have them yet. So it’s not like I can just take out my iPhone and make a call. I look for a payphone and then I realize I don’t have any Brazilian currency to actually make the call. Bryce has wandered off. Now I’m alone. With no money. In Brazil. And I don’t speak the language. The freak-out starts to materialize. It’s a warm flush that begins at the base of the skull and creeps upward like the mercury in a cartoon thermometer. I focus on breathing and formulating a plan. The plan that I settle on consists of me walking through the crowded Brazilian airport with a scared look on my face and repeatedly saying, “English?” “English?” “Do you speak English?” “Does anyone speak English?” It’s a simple but effective plan and in no time a very nice Brazilian woman is holding my hand like I’m her child and leading me to the currency exchange counter. She then takes me to a payphone. I have one number to call. It’s the agency number. Brazilian Mom does the talking for me. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand because it’s fucking Portuguese and not Spanish. But there are some words I recognize. Problema is one of them. She informs me that the reason Raul isn’t here is because he’s at the airport in São Paulo [which we should have flown into in the first place]. She also informs me that São Paulo is about 5 hours away and my Dallas/Ft. Worth hypothesis was incorrect. Brazilian Mom takes me to some weird airline counter I’ve never heard of and I buy two tickets to São Paulo for Bryce and me. The plane leaves in 15 minutes. I have no idea where Bryce is. As I’m scanning my surroundings, I hear a bunch of laughing and singing coming from a bar across the terminal. Bryce is surrounded by a group of Brazilians. He’s got his air guitar out and singing “Panama” by Van Halen. We fly some rickety ass plane into São Paulo. Below me is the Amazon rain forest. I’m starving and all I’ve got is Altoids. At 2 in the morning, we land in São Paulo and Raul is waiting for us. He’s surprisingly cheery for a guy who had to come to the airport twice that day. He takes us to the hotel and right before we go inside, he stops and turns to us with a serious look on his face. “Guys, this is a dangerous city. Notice where you are in elevation. Right now, we are at the very top of São Paulo. The shit flows downhill. The further down you go, the shittier it gets. Don’t go downhill too far or you’ll find yourselves up to your necks in it.” I look at Bryce and frankly I’m surprised he hasn’t immediately dropped his bags and started walking downhill. We’re there for two weeks. The agency is like any other agency except it’s surrounded by a giant fence and the only entrance is guarded by two guys with machine guns. The ECD is an American expat named Gene. He’s got a wild head of ginger hair, a matching goatee and a wickedly funny sense of humor. Gene is from Pittsburgh and has worked all over South America. He spent a lot of time in Mexico City and Argentina but has been in São Paulo for the last 7 years. We set up camp in the big agency conference room. It’s us, the team from Canada, Gene and three of his teams from the São Paulo office. We remain in this room for 12 - 15 hours a day. Every day. Including weekends. For two weeks. There’s a porter who comes in every hour on the hour with a tray of very strong Brazilian coffee and very tasty, assorted pastries. Sometimes we go out for lunch. One of the Brazilians has a 1967 Karmann Ghia. He takes me for a few drives and it’s heaven except for the traffic, which was hell. In the middle of São Paulo is their version of Central Park. It’s basically just a chunk of Amazon rain forest that they left untouched before they bulldozed and poured concrete over 587 square miles of it to create the city of São Paulo. You walk along the trails and you can see monkeys and parrots. Raul warns us not to spend too much time here and never to go into it after dark. The food is amazing. Every night we all go to a big dinner. The churrascarias are my favorite. They’re the real deal and the meat is out of this world. We drink tons of Brazilian beer and a shit load of wine. Every night we go out for caipirinhas after dinner. Caipirinhas are the national drink of Brazil. They’re quite delicious and very strong. They’re made with limes, sugar and cachaça—which is made from fermented sugar cane. There are vendors on the streets with carts surrounded by barstools. Little parties form at the different carts. We spend a lot of time going to these little parties. Bryce makes tons of friends without speaking a word of Portuguese. His appeal is basic but universal. Every morning we all meet for breakfast in the hotel. Every morning I have the same thing. Eggs, croissants, bacon and melon. On the last morning we bemoan the fact that in four hours we’ll be leaving. The trip has been amazing. The work was grueling but fun. We partied like rock stars, made a lot of new friends and had some pretty crazy adventures. The fork is literally still in my hand when it hits me. Food poisoning fucking sucks. It throws the body into a hell of a tizzy. It’s an instant feeling of unbelievable misery. I had horrible fever and chills. I was puking every seven minutes. In between pukes we check out of the hotel and Raul drives us to the office with all of our shit in the trunk. We get to the agency and the porter becomes my caretaker. He is very kind. He lays me down on a couch and gives me seltzer with lime in it. He brings me cool rags for my head. I’ve never felt so lousy in my whole life. And the every-seven-minutes thing is still going strong. After a few hours, Raul takes a knee next to me on the couch. “It’s time to go. You have two choices, my friend. I can take you to the airport or I can take you to the hospital. Which will it be?” I have truly never felt so rotten in all my life. The nausea, fever and chills have not subsided for the last two and a half hours. I’m also having these really weird bouts of vertigo and feelings of disassociation. I consider my options. Suck it up and go home? Or check into a Brazilian hospital? I’ve been in São Paulo for two weeks. Bryce and I did not follow Raul’s advice. We went downhill many times. Way downhill. And he was right. It does get shittier. But nevertheless, we had some interesting adventures—we got to see a bit of the real São Paulo, which is beautiful, colorful, wild and very fun. But also, desperately poor, underserved and kind of loco, to tell you the truth. “Let’s head to the airport, Raul. I can always change my mind on the way.” A miracle happens on the drive to the airport and the fresh air causes my nausea to subside. We hit a McDonalds’s because I know I need to get something in my stomach if I’m going to make it home. McDonald’s cheeseburgers have always been the only thing I can eat when I’m sick. We board the airplane. I’m handed another Dopp kit. And for the first time since I set down that fork at the hotel, the universe treats me kindly and I fall asleep. I wake up pretty much as we’re making our final descent into Newark. Upon waking, everything horrible that I felt back in São Paulo was back and was ten times worse than before. We have to get to our connecting flight at another gate. At one point I fall down and start to Army crawl across the floor. Bryce picks me up like we’re in fucking Vietnam and he’s not gonna let his buddy die in a god damned rice paddy. The flight from New York to Detroit is a blurry nightmare. The attendants clear out the back row for me and give me cool rags for my head. I spend most of the flight puking and crying in the tiny airplane bathroom. I’ve never felt anything like this in my entire life. My body was shaking uncontrollably. I was dripping with sweat. I couldn’t leave the tiny, filthy bathroom because I couldn’t stop puking and dry heaving. I had no idea what was happening to me. It was the most awful and terrifying experience of my life. I was absolutely sure that I was going to die on that airplane. We land in Detroit. I’m at the very back of the plane. I need off. Now. I put one of the rags over my mouth so I don’t puke on anyone and I start to repeat the phrase, “I’m coming from Brazil and I’m sick.” “Excuse me. I’m coming from Brazil and I’m sick.” Cough. Retch. Gag. “I’m coming from Brazil and I’m sick.” Snort. Moan. Grunt. People look on in horror but they get the fuck out of my way. It’s like Moses parting the Red Sea. No one wants anything to do with the strange man who’s coming from Brazil and is sick. A woman puts her hands over her daughter’s eyes. And then the second miracle occurs. I get off the plane. I walk into the terminal and right outside the gate there’s a man holding a sign with my name on it. This is pre 9/11, but even back then if you had a car-service they’d usually be waiting for you at baggage. For some reason this guy had decided to come to the gate. He says that we need to go to baggage claim. I tell him that I don’t give a fuck about my bags. “Get me to the car, man. I’m not sure if I’m going home or to the hospital but I need to get out of here immediately.” Bryce tells me not to worry about the bags. He’ll get everything and catch a cab home. I take off with the driver and we head to the car. The fresh air on the drive and the relief of at least being back in my own city makes me feel better. I tell the driver to forget the hospital and he drops me off at my apartment. Three days later, I’m still sick. A week later, I’m still sick. Another two days and my doctor tells me to go to the hospital and he’ll meet me there. They test for parasites. They test for STDs. They test for AIDS. They test for cancer. Basically, they test me for everything they can legally test me for. I’m in the hospital for a week. My doctor comes in to talk. “Jeff, I think I know what’s wrong with you.” “What is it Dr. Miller? What’s going on?” “You’re having panic attacks. You’ve been having them since the flight from New York that you said was the most terrifying experience of your life. You’ve got PTSD. We need to approach this from a panic disorder perspective. I’m putting you on Xanax and Paxil. We need to get this under control and then your body will be able to get over the food poisoning.” It works. In a few weeks I’m back at work. A few more weeks and I’m back to my old self. Everything is fine. A few months later, I head to the airport to fly home to Texas for a friend’s wedding. I had been feeling a little lousy for the last couple of days but it was nothing compared to what I had just gone through, so I pretty much just shook it off. As I approach the exit ramp for Detroit Metro Airport everything from São Paulo comes back. The color completely drains from my face. Waves of nausea wash over me like a tsunami of misery. A cold sweat moistens my face and forearms. I start to feel dizzy and lightheaded. This is serious. I pull over onto the shoulder and then I pass out. I wake up slumped over in the car seat. I roll down the window and breathe in some fresh air. I don’t know what’s going on but I know I’m not getting on that fucking airplane. I get my wits about me and turn the car around and head home. I’m out of commission for a week as I again go through the entire process of feeling exactly like I did when I had food poisoning. I call my doctor. He puts me on more Xanax and eventually I recover. The next several years are strange. All of my panic attacks revolve around travel and airplanes. If it’s for work, for some reason, I can do it. If I have to get on an airplane to go see a client or shoot a spot it’s not a problem. I pop a Xanax on my way to the airport. I make sure that I get there nice and early. I take it easy and I’m totally fine. But if it’s travel for personal reasons, like a vacation or a trip to go see friends, that’s when I run into serious trouble. I’ve lost consciousness and been administered oxygen on two different flights. On one trip, I wound up in the emergency room in Atlanta where for some reason they gave me a shitload of tramadol and I couldn’t stop drooling for three days. I got one at a concert one time and collapsed in the parking lot. Luckily, two really wonderful Canadian EMTs were nearby and took excellent Canadian care of me. I even made it into the show for the second set. They don’t know tons about panic attacks. What they do know is that it’s an evolutionary thing that has to do with our fight or flight mechanism. That’s the thing that helped keep us alive when the leading cause of death was getting eaten. Today, in most people, that mechanism is now only activated at Kanye West concerts or when a new iPhone comes out. But mine is still a bit more trigger happy. Brains are weird. They’ve studied human fossil remains that are over 200,000 years old and our brains are pretty much the same as theirs. Even the neocortex—the newest part of the brain and the region responsible for higher functions like language—was roughly the same size two hundred thousand years ago as today. What isn’t the same is how we live. 200,000 years ago, we lived in what scientists refer to as an immediate return environment. This means that most of our decisions were based on purely immediate needs. When you were hungry, you ate. When you were tired, you slept. When you saw a lion eat your friend you got the fuck out of there. This is the environment that our brains were designed to handle. It isn’t until about 2,000 years ago that we begin to move into what scientists call a delayed return environment. We discover things like if you plant these seeds now, in a few months you will have something to eat. And then, maybe a few years later someone knocks on the door of your hut. “Hey Steve, how are you?” “Good Dennis, what can I do you for?” “Well, I had this idea. Is your daughter, Amanda, still a virgin?” “You’re damn right she is.” “Awesome. If we throw her into a volcano, I think the harvest this season could be really spectacular. What do you say?” “Amanda! Get down here.” And so begins the shift from living in an immediate return environment to a delayed return environment. We begin to worry less about now and more about the future. This is an entirely new concept for humans and the delayed return environment causes new forms of stress that from an evolutionary standpoint our brains weren’t meant to handle. Dennis is going to spend the next three months worried sick that Steve will be pissed if the harvest isn’t good. Amanda was his favorite daughter. Almost everything we do in the modern world is based on a delayed return. If we go to school now, we’ll get a good job later in life. If we save money today, then in 30 years we can retire. If I wear this ironic t-shirt people will think I’m clever and want to hang out. For 200,000 years we didn’t worry about that shit. We focused on our immediate needs and that spring loaded fight or flight mechanism came in super handy. It really hasn’t been until the last 500 years that we’ve switched over to a mostly delayed return environment. That’s like 30 seconds ago when you’re talking about brain evolution and neo-cortexes. They estimate that about 5% of the population experiences panic disorder. So some of us are still working with a full blown version of the original equipment and it can get a bit glitchy at times. If this were the old days I’d be the one with the advantage. At the first sign of danger, I’d be off like a jack rabbit. All you people would be dinner. Who’s laughing now? I remember when Dr. Miller first started talking to me about panic disorder. He said stressful jobs can really exacerbate the problem. “What do you do for a living, Jeff?” “I’m in advertising.” He didn’t even say anything. He just looked down at his clipboard, made a note and changed the subject. He might as well have told me I was completely fucked. Luckily, I’ve never had any problems with it at work. For some reason, and I’m yet to find the therapist who can properly explain it to me, I really only get them when I try to travel for pleasure. It’s been 20 years since I went on that trip to Brazil. It’s taken a lot of work but I’ve pretty much got my panic disorder under control. Thankfully, these days I rarely get panic attacks. But rarely isn’t never. And if you’ve ever had an actual panic attack then you know how preferable never would be. Things have gotten a lot better but I still struggle with personal travel. So I keep working on it. Because one of these days, I’d really like to go back to Rio. This time on purpose.