Rio, Brazil – 2006
Rio de Janeiro was hot, humid, and bustling with people. I boarded a bus to Copacabana, and I was lucky enough to find a seat next to a well-dressed elderly man. A few minutes after I got comfortable in my seat, the man turned to me and introduced himself with a perfect English accent: “I’m Mr. Irenaeus, pleased to meet you. What is your name?”
It was such a nice surprise to find a local Brazilian who spoke perfect English and wanted to converse with me.
Mr. Irenaeus immediately started talking about Rio, the history of Brazil, and the attractions and monuments of South America, all the while providing the historical and cultural context necessary for me to appreciate their significance. I couldn’t believe my luck! It was my last day in Rio, and I was forming my travel itinerary for the south of Brazil, Argentina, and the rest of the continent – so he was a God-sent gift. What was most surprising is that what interested him and what he judged as important were the same exact things that I also loved and appreciated. I had just met the perfect guide and travel advisor for South America – my man!
Soon we discovered that we shared many loves: history, politics, geography, philosophy, religion, and more. Surprisingly, Mr. Irenaeus was not only very knowledgeable about Latin American history, but he also knew a lot about European history – ancient and modern – and even the recent history of my country, Cyprus, including the details of the life of our first president, Makarios! We were jumping effortlessly from one subject of discourse to another, as if we had been friends for decades. Although I let him do most of the talking, every now and then I would interrupt him to ask something about his life, at which point he would gladly open a parenthesis to interweave a personal story into the conversation. So, while I was learning everything I could about Rio, Brazil, and Latin America from a living encyclopedia, I was also getting glimpses of his life: he had worked for the civil service for thirty-five years, retired ten years ago at the age of sixty, had no family, and lived alone. He also used to work as a part-time English teacher and loved the English language and culture. He shared his time between Rio and his hometown, where he had a summer house. He had a good pension and some savings, and was spending his disposable money on books, which he apparently devoured. Since he didn’t have a big social circle, he lived a relatively solitary life. He enjoyed frequent daily strolls in town and, as it became implicitly obvious to me, whenever he saw a tourist willing to engage with him, he would try to open up a conversation and practice his (spoken) English.
Still chatting, we got off the bus at Copacabana and started walking together along the famous promenade with its adjacent sandy beach that extends for four kilometers. As time passed, I felt comfortable asking him even more personal questions. I inquired about his opinions concerning modern technology, the internet, and mobile phones, but he abruptly changed the subject by saying “I don’t know about these things, I’m old-fashioned.”
Noticing that he was furtively glancing at the beautiful young Brazilian women showing off their perfect, tanned bodies on the beach, I asked if he had a female companion.
“I had one for a few years when I was in my early fifties, but now I’m alone,” he said. “I think I’m too old now. Women prefer young men.”
“You are not old, Mr. Irenaeus! Actually, there are many women who prefer older, more mature and educated men,” I said, reassuringly. “Those who come to this beach may be in search of beautiful and impressive young bodies, but trust me, there are many others for whom you would be the ideal partner!”
“Maybe. Maybe you are right. But it is too much energy to run after women. I prefer my books,” he said emphatically, as if to convince himself that he was making the right choice.
Eventually, I felt it was time to bring up the subject of travel, wanting to get his insights on the other countries I was about to visit in South America.
“To which Latin American countries have you traveled, Mr. Irenaeus? I’m dying to hear your opinion about all of them!” I asked with eagerness and enthusiasm.
“I’ve traveled nowhere,” he replied.
“Nowhere?!” I repeated in disbelief, making sure I had heard correctly.
“Yes, nowhere,” he confirmed.
I felt that a metal rod had just pierced my stomach!
“You mean you have never left Brazil?” I asked again, hoping he would somehow modify his answer.
“Yes, I have stayed in Brazil my whole life,” he said in a low voice as if he was ashamed to utter it.
“But why? How? How’s that possible…?” I continued trying to extract the rod from my stomach.
“It just didn’t happen,” he replied, knowing that it was not a real answer.
“You are seventy years old, well-off, you love learning and reading about other cultures, you know history and so many things – weren’t you ever curious to see other countries?” I exclaimed in a rather loud voice, as if mounting an accusation in a public court to which the accuser had to respond to save his life.
“Yes, I know I should have traveled. I don’t know why I didn’t. It didn’t happen…it just didn’t happen…”
“What do you mean ‘it just didn’t happen’? Things in our life don’t ‘just happen.’ We make them happen. Why didn’t you make it happen?” I insisted. “And why, Mr. Irenaeus, didn’t you ever travel to England, a country you so admire, or even neighboring Peru with Macchu Pichu, or Mexico with its rich history and culture? How come your curiosity didn’t urge you to take even one single trip? Come on…not even to nearby Buenos Aires?!”
“You are absolutely right. It was wrong,” he replied, sounding as if he had just said “guilty as charged.”
As if on cue, we both walked towards the nearest bench and sat in silence for a minute. I felt paralyzed, the pain in my stomach having reached my legs.
I could not truly fathom it. Mr. Irenaeus, the most educated, friendly, kind person I had met in my travels in Latin America up to that moment, had gone nowhere. He had never crossed the sea, he had never crossed a mountain range, he had never crossed a border. Even my grandmother, who grew up in a small village in Cyprus, had boarded a boat and visited the Holy Land in Israel. She even once traveled to the USA and England, without speaking a word of English and without having the education and interests of Mr. Irenaeus. Yet Mr. Irenaeus’s life was permanently enclosed within a limited universe delineated by his home, work, summer house, and books.
While still sitting on the bench, I felt as if I had just been handed a mission: to shake up his life, to destroy his settledness! The world traveler within me revolted. I spontaneously invited him to come to Cyprus, where I would personally host him. I asked him to travel with me to my next destination (the island of Santa Catarina), or to join me in Buenos Aires in two or three weeks’ time. He was unmoved. He politely declined my invitations to Santa Catarina and Buenos Aires, and said he would think about a trip to Cyprus, although it was obvious he was just being polite.
We continued our walk for another hour or so, although we both felt a bit awkward after his shocking revelation. Just before we parted, we exchanged phone numbers to keep in touch. A week later, while in Santa Catarina, I called to incite him to come and join me and also reiterated my invitation to visit my country. He declined again.
I kept in touch with him throughout my time in South America. Although he had not traveled anywhere during this period, the optimist in me wants to believe that he must have finally visited Buenos Aires as a result of our encounter – and my prodding.
Years later, I would realize that my reaction and protest had little to do with Mr. Irenaeus himself and everything to do with me: With so many things in common, I had projected myself onto him and somehow imagined who I would have become at seventy had I too never left my country. Although there would be nothing wrong in becoming Mr. Irenaeus, the idea of this potential life – a life I could have easily led, but did not – made me feel suffocated. Furthermore, I couldn’t bear seeing this magnificent bird with long colorful wings being self-imprisoned in a small cage for his whole life for no reason whatsoever and, most disturbingly, without any excuse.