As an American of Northern European ancestry, I have never considered my somewhat pale features to be anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I would laugh at the notion of ever being considered "exotic". However, on a recent trip to Brazil, I found that my features are considered by some to be a delightful novelty.
I was relaxing on Ipanema Beach one day enjoying the sun and sand Rio de Janeiro has to offer. I had experienced some trouble applying sunscreen to a portion of my back, resulting in a bright red spot from the sun's rays. Unbeknownst to me, a Brazilian family had taken notice and was discreetly snapping photos of my sunburned back.
Shortly thereafter, I began reapplying my sunscreen when I was quickly approached by a Brazilian women offering to help. Mrs. Coutas and her three daughters had been enjoying a day at the beach when they took notice of my foreign skin. Apparently, they found great humor in my sunburn and were amused at my hopeless attempt to apply sunscreen.
As she spoke only Portuguese, Mrs. Coutas coerced her youngest daughter, Amanda, to practice her English with me. Although shy, Amanda took pleasure in meeting a foreigner and interpreting between her mother and me. Our conversation was pleasant and friendly, but took an exciting turn when I removed my sunglasses.
Both mother and daughter squealed with delight at the sight of my baby blue eyes. Fascinated, Amanda told me "you have eyes like the ocean". Both she and her mother insisted I join them for a makeshift picnic, photos, and beach party. As we sat enjoying ourselves, Mrs. Coutas kept repeating the one English word in her vocabulary, "Beautiful, beautiful." Her other daughters confided in me that Amanda was quite fascinated with my fair features, a novelty among most Brazilians.
At sunset, Mrs. Coutas insisted I accompany them home to meet their remaining family members. Not having a good reason to decline, I accepted her offer and we were soon headed to Petropolis, their hometown roughly 1Â½ hours drive north of Rio de Janeiro.
In the morning, I was treated as guest of honor at breakfast before Amanda led me to town to meet some of her friends. Throughout the day, Amanda was tickled with delight to be proudly introducing "the gringo I met on the beach yesterday". She introduced me to several of her friends and her aunt, most of whom found it very chic to meet a foreigner. I was quite amused by the amount of attention my eyes attracted. Before this trip I would never have believed that my eye color could be so fascinating.
Later that afternoon, I thanked my hosts, said goodbye, and exchanged email addresses before catching a bus back to Rio. As I reflected on the somewhat unusual circumstances under which we met, I was grateful to have made friends with such affectionate and hospitable people. I'm glad to have met the Coutas family and look forward to the next time I'll need help with my sunscreen.
Stephen Lewis is a self-described enthusiast of all things Brazil. He has made three extended duration trips to Brazil to immerse himself in the language, culture, and people. Although currently at home in the USA, he plans to return soon for another dose of Brazilian adventure.