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Six Months in Central and South America With the Portuguese Female Travel Writer Raquel Ochoa
A close look at the literary journalist's 2008 book, "The Wind of Others."
Raquel Ochoa is a lawyer by profession and a passionate travel writer by avocation. A true globe-trotter, she contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines, posts monthly travel crónicas on her blog, O Mundo lê-se a Viajar (One Can Read the World by Traveling), and has been a creative writing teacher since 2008 at Escrever Escrever (Write Write). In 2009, she was awarded the Prémio Agustina Bessa-Luís for her novel, A Casa-Comboio, the story of an Indo-Portuguese family from Damão that doubles as an untold history of Portuguese India. Ochoa started traveling at the age of 16, and nomadism has been her inspiration for writing and living. She says a travel experience is good when “we destroy the minimum, we do not change the natural silence of a place and we start a friendship, maybe a love.” She adds: “If there are lessons to be learned from so many leagues, it is this: ‘It takes patience. There are trips that take years to tell us what they meant to us.’” The travel literature genre has the “ability to surprise everyone because it reflects the world, and the world is never tight, never completely discovered.”
Travel writing and literary journalism, where this study seeks to locate these crónicas, are intersections, both embracing the traveler’s personal account and the journey itself as one of the topics covered. As with other literary journalists who “have traveling as their journalistic interest,” the two activities, touring and writing about their trips, are inseparable for Ochoa. O Vento dos Outros (The Wind of Others), began as a travel notebook on a six-month journey across the Andes, from Costa Rica in Central America to Patagonia in South America. The book is divided into four parts: Atlântico e Pacífico, o Mesmo Mergulho (The Atlantic and the Pacific: The Same Immersion) (Costa Rica); Terras Altas (Highlands) (Peru); Com Rumo e sem Norte (On Track Without Bearing) (Chile); and Entrar na Patagónia (Entering Patagonia) (Argentina).
Ochoa makes the topic of these crónicas the journey itself and the ways she is deeply transformed by it: “[O]nce we’ve trodden certain places, you will never be the same person again,” she writes. The greatest advantage of traveling aimlessly “on track without bearing” is that plans just happen, without a watch, and the sun that “eradicated the will to think” becomes a guide. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call in Telling True Stories highlight that the reporter should take the chance to walk the same tracks as the object of his investigation. Pursuing true immersion, Ochoa follows the farthest, harshest, most deserted, least touristic tracks, covering off-road, stone-laid trails and “waiving the most comfortable journey along the coast that most would choose,” thus transporting the reader to the world of the Other, that is “the foreign: the one who does not belong to a group, does not speak a given language, does not have the same customs; he is the unfamiliar, uncanny, unauthorized, inappropriate, and the improper.” Some of these harsh moments of inevitable yet desirable solitude, which Ochoa describes, of “quiet and selfish contemplation, away from all, easily addicting to silence” are lasting and fulfilling for “at any moment, even now, if I close my eyes, I can easily go back, as if I had lived there all my life, as if I had never left.” This engagement situates this woman’s experience within a specific context that reveals the limits and possibilities of contemporary travel writing. Taking into account Mary Louise Pratt’s argument in Imperial Eyes, the patriarchal and imperialist undertone of most travel writings is being adapted and adjusted by modern writers like Ochoa. In her crónicas, Ochoa locates two dualities, one of the Other and one of her own culture. Her travel narratives are not looking for a romanticized place but for a genuine, authentic, and alternative space that allows for a dialogue between cultures and genres. At the same time, Ochoa’s writing is the triumph of a woman’s spirit over cultural difference, not just an anthropological or historical approach but a humanistic one. Ochoa’s descriptions, personal details, and introspections reveal a desire to enter an unknown social system alone and experience the metaphysical wind of the existential journey. Maureen Mulligan writes:
The solitariness of Western life, the alienation of cities, the breakdown of the family: these are the classic tropes motivating romantic travel writing, often juxtaposed with the glorification of the close physical and relational solidarity evident in poorer societies whose members stick together in ways that have been forgotten in the consumerist divisive West.
A deliberate expression of the writer’s state of mind, when the writer is in a different geographical location, can transform an unknown culture into a new understanding of Self and the Other. As such, the writing is not just about the journey but about the landscape and the people. It is not an escape from what seems a civilized known world but an encounter with a distant Other. It is an intellectual and cultural displacement with a purpose. In this sense, O Vento dos Outros can be categorized as literary journalism for its blending of autobiographical description, philosophical reflection, spiritual enquiry, and the experience that becomes timeless and immortalized, which Manuel Coutinho argues is characteristic of the form. Ochoa reveals alterity — that is, a sense of being in a world that is totally different from the known self and culture — and thus offers the Portuguese audience a vision of Latin America as the simultaneously close and distant, known and unknown, transatlantic Other.
Travel Writing and Literary Journalism
Scholars over the years and across countries have described literary journalism, which began to emerge before the 19th century as a phenomenon, form, style, genre, and as a discipline. The International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, and its scholarly journal, Literary Journalism Studies, attest to the growing worldwide interest in this form of journalism, which is now more than a hundred years old. Literary journalism, also called narrative journalism, as non-fiction, factual reporting that resorts to stylistic strategies and narrative techniques, was the name chosen by John Bak and Bill Reynolds to refer to the genre at an international level, as exemplified by their volume Literary Journalism Across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences. Isabel Soares argues that, from the perspective of its tone, this form of writing is a narrative kind of journalism, from the perspective of its style, a journalism with a literary flair, a journalism of embellished writing. This is journalism that reads as literature and for which the main aim is to stay true to the storytelling of reality through the personal imprint of the journalist. John Hartsock notes that literary journalism makes use of techniques related to literary discourse, such as scene construction, dialogue, and concrete detail. In literary journalism the author or narrator tells real stories, making use of the author’s senses and point of view. Norman Sims notes that the main features of this genre of journalism are immersion, structure, precision, voice, responsibility, and symbolism. Literary journalism is different from conventional journalism in its use of real subjects and literary writing techniques such as mise-en-scène, detail, and description. This journalism is also found under the forms of non-fiction known as narrative, reportage, documentary, and crónicas. In her book of travel crónicas, Ochoa deals with the “look” and the “feel” of the world and takes the time to travel, meet, and tell the story.
To situate Ochoa within literary journalism in Portugal, one must go back to the end of the 19th century, for, Soares argues, the first “new” journalists in Portugal were Eça de Queirós and Ramalho Ortigão, who wanted to break away from the constraints of conventional journalism. Batalha Reis and Oliveira Martins followed in this path by not being impartial, using humor and irony to disclose the political, social, and economic plight of the underprivileged. Committed to report the truth, and using immersion reporting, their writings maintained an intimate dialogue with the reader. Coutinho argues this form of journalism knows “a distinct emancipation through the writing of great names of national journalism who seek to face reality in a more humane, immersive and descriptive manner.” In fact, in 21st century Portugal, many well-known journalists are also writers, and vice versa, as exemplified by the following:
Sílvia Caneco is a Portuguese journalist who became known for her two reports in the newspaper Jornal i in 2002, for which she was awarded the Literary Journalism Award, Prémio Jornalismo Literário Teixeira de Pascoaes-Vicente Risco, and from which is highlighted “Preso Duas Vezes. A Vida No Hospital-Prisão” (Stuck Twice. Life in the Prison Hospital). Paulo Moura’s “A Menina Que Amou Demais” (The Girl Who Loved Too Much) is a tragic episode which was reported in a very sensitive and human way and which appeared in the newspaper Público, and was later published in the 2014 book Longe do Mar (Far From the Sea). Susana Moreira Marques immersed herself for six months in the rural, isolated, poor northern region of Portugal to hear and tell the stories of terminally ill patients, caretakers, and families, which resulted in the 2008 book, Agora e na Hora da Nossa Morte, translated and published in 2015 in English, as Now and at the Hour of Our Death. Pedro Coelho is known for his 2007 book, Rosa Brava, Pastora de Sonhos e Outras histórias (Rosa Brava: Shepherd of Dreams and Other Stories), a compilation of several feature stories and the result of years of immersion in the peripheries of the Azores islands, the rural north of Portugal, and the Portuguese prison system. Miguel Sousa Tavares’ book Sul, which consists of travel crónicas from Brazil, and José Luís Peixoto’s travel crónicas for Volta ao Mundo magazine, are true cases of contemporary travel writing that share a kinship with Ochoa’s work.
Closing the Gap Between Writer and the ‘Other’
Stripped of all European or first-world luxuries, Ochoa stays in poor households, modest hostels, even a lightless cubicle, carrying only a backpack, experiencing the earthly existence of these distant, as Alice Trindade writes, “different, eventually exotic” Other(s), immersing herself in their cultures and environments. On an alterity path, to discover the identity of the Other and of the Self, the author becomes, in Soares’ words, the “‘I’ that writes about personal experience as a way toward both self-discovery and the discovery of the ‘Other’ with whom the ‘I’ engages.” Ultimately, Ochoa discovers that she is “the Other, for the Other.” That is, she, as a traveler and guest in their country, is revealing her own Otherness to her hosts and hostesses, even as she becomes aware of their Otherness to her.
Ochoa portrays Latin American landscapes and peoples through sharing her new understandings, empathies, impressions, feelings, and emotions, thereby making the reader a witness to her experiences. Fear and despair, and love and passion, are so naked that the distance between the subject and the object is narrowed, as Hartsock describes the reader’s experience. The writer and the reader are immersed in the experience of the Others’ different, unknown, exotic cultures, traditions, and identities: “I was now in loco, I could feel their smell, understand the mode of living of this so different people,” Ochoa writes. Her literary style — “I left that place with tranquility injected into my arms” — engages and touches the reader. Everything is voiced in the personal tone and intimate familiarity of a sensitive woman, involving the reader as closely as possible. The whole captures what Hartsock refers to as “writing subjectivity.” Ochoa takes the reader to Machu Picchu, where she reflects, “the impact one feels before such intense scenery intensifies the awareness of the site’s hidden myths and history.” The writer’s detailed, first-person accounts of real, day-to-day adventures, dangers, relationships, friendships, passions, encounters, departures, and losses are a mark of her genuine involvement with the Other in what Roberto Miguel Herrscher calls the “theatre of reality” and of literary journalism itself. Unbelievably beautiful landscapes are experienced — by Ochoa and, through her words, the reader, through the senses — colors, tonalities, odors, sounds, and temperatures. As well as giving personal understandings of Ochoa’s surroundings, these travel crónicas are an emotional and intellectual journey deep into the self where, Ochoa writes, “my own mental travels carried on, unsupervised.” This is the travel of identity and self-discovery: “At that moment, I finally understood the spiritual onus of the others’ wind.”
Raquel Marques Carriço Ferreira argues that personal motivations, determination, and curiosity motivate the travel journalist to walk a certain path, while at the same time portraying “a state of mind, an attitude, a behavior, a personal and collective experience full of meanings” and revealing a humanistic perspective. Indeed, the journalist’s journey corresponds to what Claudio Magris defines as a wandering around the world, letting oneself pass, passively, through the flow. Ochoa displays a deep understanding of the Latin American reality, its social and political contexts, as Luís Fernando does with Angola or Miguel Sousa Tavares, with Brazil. In O Vento dos Outros Ochoa shares the historical, geographical, and political backgrounds of Latin American peoples and their cross-cultural civilizations (which are a mix of European and Indigenous peoples). She presents local stories and legends as well as photographs she took of real people and livelihoods as sources of inspiration, as have been noted by researchers such as Coutinho and Trindade. Ochoa uses code-switching, alternating her use of two languages, Portuguese and Spanish, in the crónicas and thus shows a cultural and linguistic encroachment of the Other on the Subject, and is the case of a language, Spanish, being added to voice as noted by Trindade.
Traveling Is a Little Like Being the Wind
David Abrahamson and Alison Pelczar note that book titles can “sell the book by sounding good while also giving an idea of what’s to come” and lead readers to search the world beyond the pages. The title O Vento dos Outros and some of the book’s subtitles — “Pura Vida, um cão e uma vida” (Pure life, a dog and a state); “Espaço neutro” (Neutral space); “Montanhas mareadas” (Nauseated mountains); “Continuo a exercer o meu direito à abstracção” (I still have the right to abstraction); “A besta branca” (The white beast) — are carriers of message. O Vento dos Outros is not simply about the way the wind became baffling: “suddenly, I was not just on the land of the wind, I was on the land which became the wind!” Along foreign and unknown Latin American landscapes, Ochoa describes the wind as the “unsettling,” relentless, and humanized companion “full of character, it passes but never stays.” It is the “lord of those lands which could be felt, seen and heard as it smelled of independence,” and the “fool, never seen, ripping me off the ground if it wanted.” Powerfully, it “authorizes the first drops of daily rain,” and “only allows the strongest to resist.” Its sound is music “flying through the ends of the gorges which don’t exist,” followed by “thousands of sounds, sometimes like voices that would make me look back, as if someone was calling, cursing, purring or simply whispering.” Patagonia is “addicted to its orchestra of wind, which flees ties and roots, homes and countries.” Its absence of noise is also noted: “the silence of a dead volcano, inhabited by a green lake, changes your conscience,” and “never has a silence taken over me. Never had I heard such a mute silence. Breathing became strange.” The wind bonds people and language. Orlando, a native American Indian, “replicated opening his mouth before beginning as if he was going to blow wind instead of words” and inserted reading into his life like “an upsetting gale.” O Vento dos Outros is the carrier of their identity.
Traveling Is Losing People
A recurrent leitmotif of literary journalism is the disclosure of social plights, inequalities, and injustices endured by real people in real places where “poverty reigned the streets,” and, Soares notes, on the “margins of social ostracism.” These hardships belong to ordinary “citizens whose everyday lives are mostly ignored,” Trindade argues, “by both the local and international press,” belonging to “sectors of the population that had, so far, attained no public recognition.” An unknown or inconvenient truth known to the public only through Ochoa’s telling of the story is that “Latin America is a land of social inequalities where the boiling point took place many years ago and still exists.” Literary journalists add their point of view and poignant criticism: “I traveled without the ambition of wanting to know more than was possible but with the evidence of the social and cultural inequalities,” as the following example, in which Ochoa describes South America as “a continent of volcanoes and a society of social unrest.” It is an intense criticism of the real world where real people live and where “there are demands and accusations of systematic violation of human rights on behalf of the Chilean and Indigenous Mapuche authorities. They don’t keep quiet.”
Ochoa’s crónicas describe the social, cultural, and political environment of some South American countries where “religious displays are intimately linked to social and political displays.” Contemporary Peru, for instance, is a “troubled nation” whose “portrait is bleak due to human rights abuses, corruption, and violations of law. Economic modernization has benefited only a small sector while the majority of the population makes enormous sacrifices and hundreds of thousands of families live on the edge of poverty.” Ochoa travels with the locals to work at five in the morning on old, uncomfortable, overloaded, and irregular buses where “it smelled bad, the seats were dirty, of sweat, of dust, of food leftovers.” She describes Peruvians as hardworking, nice, well-bred people, but closed and with no interest in foreigners. The urban populations differ from rural peasants, who do not seem to bathe, wash their clothes, or clean their hands and nails. They spit on the floor of the bus and throw litter out the window — simple people bound to the earth.
Social changes and the current worldwide state of affairs, such as how tourism, international commerce, and brands have devalued local handicraft and products, are exposed: “How far does the goodwill and values of those who consider themselves more Indigenous coincide with the global challenge forced on almost everyone in the world through globalization and its ways? Don’t they sometimes run over human dignity?” Social criticism is cast on the enduring, imposing leftovers of colonialism and imperialism emphasized by words such as “running over,” “submissive,” and “animal” when referring to the United States’ undesirable presence in the country. Historical buildings, such as churches and cathedrals, are solemn, “but even that colonial beauty makes the touch of oppression implicit.” In Cusco, Peru, the U.S. presence shows two conflicting worlds, exploiter and exploited, “the best and the worst that everyone can see. As if the Inca offspring mixed with the Hispanic culture were sold to tourism with anger, self-disdain, sold, money and business, survival and work, rich and poor.” The past and the present invaders mingle while “there’s a decolonizing silence amongst Peruvians. A silence I do not grasp or is not for me to grasp. I’m just another trespasser” in what Soares describes as a “place where tourism has distorted the landscape.”
Pure Culture Shock
The mix of peoples and cultures in some Latin American countries has generated complex and somewhat turbulent societies. All countries are developing and suffering from great social and economic injustices and inequalities, and this is reflected in people’s hostile attitudes toward foreigners, as the people do not benefit from tourism. The foreigner is the Other: “the presence of outsiders is easily felt, you are frequently the point of convergence of dark eyes. They assume you are European or North American.”
Awareness “of how different human beings can be from each other” sometimes entails what Ochoa describes as a pure culture shock. The author states that, “against common belief, Indigenous movements still subsist consistently in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Paraguay and in Bolivia [representing an] ethnic hotchpotch.” The different reality and cultural environment of Limón, Costa Rica, is shocking as “we find a city of mounted houses, aggressive traffic where people were suspicious, if not violent,” and ultimately “annoyed by our presence there: our simple stroll on the street made them angry.” In Chosica, Peru, “people are very closed, we never meet foreigners and the level of kindness toward a foreigner in simple things like sharing public transport was that of total indifference, as if we were invisible. Invisible beings don’t have the same rights as normal people.”
Immersion in cultural and religious festivities highlights differences: “a spit, a push, a theft, a feeling of insecurity were things that made me as alert as a clean bed.” At the end of the (self) journey, Ochoa views Central and South America as a large bowl of bloods and races with individual countries, each with its own cultural heritage, peculiarities, and ethnic borders. The word “different” gains a new dimension. In many of these Latin American territories, ethnic multiculturalism and confrontation date back a long time. Today, many Indigenous groups face extinction. The montaña region (the poorly populated, Eastern Amazon plains), for example, sometimes functions as a “safety valve for social tensions,” welcoming landless peasants and, as Soares notes, “documenting the difficult survival of illegal Latin immigrants.” Ochoa writes: “People should leave because they want to, not because they are trapped in a country with no opportunities. This is what we must fight against.” Dialogues with the Other, along with detailed description and perspective, set the scene and, in this case, introduce identity and alterity, as Trindade notes, “by giving voice to unusual narrators and doing that in different styles.” Orlando, the Native American Indian friend, left his village at 16 to see the world and was not welcome on his return: “It was in my own home that I understood the prejudice of intolerance.” Orlando sees the European woman as different and belonging to “a culture which stimulates independence.” Immersion changes Ochoa, leaving her torn between two worlds. The European lifestyle, where “men in suits run to work under the same stress that grants any yuppie in Europe his credibility,” becomes senseless. First-world lifestyle feels inadequate, causing the sensation of being “in-between, neither here nor there, I needed time to understand this new world, still feeling the Andes’ air in my lungs.” The culture shock that Ochoa describes finds echo in Edward Said’s analysis of modern Orientalism: “a vision of the contemporary Orient, not as narrative, but as all complexity, problematics, betrayed hope.”
Pachamama: A Woman’s Sensitive Insights
This female narrator, a traveler, and a writer, who Jonathan D. Fitzgerald might describe as “simultaneously sentimental and subjective,” embarks on this emotional journey and strongly identifies with Mother Nature: “everything you give Pachamama, she gives back to you.” This relationship is always portrayed through the sensitive look of a woman who reveals a true love for the landscape. Closeness to the mountains causes strong feelings and sensations and the distance generates saudades (longing) and the feeling of the “condor’s breast syndrome.” An ordinary daybreak or nightfall is described in a sensitive and literary style: “the day already shaking on the other side of the night and we fell asleep without resisting,” and, “the daylight bugs changed guard with the night bugs, you could hear it.” Feelings of wonder, marvel, and astonishment incite physical reactions: “I felt invaded, such energy handcuffed me,” and, “at each gesture I could feel the Andes in my body, I had them in my body aches.” Intimacy with nature encourages isolation: “I felt like running, far away, as far as possible, the farther the better. I knew the landscape was very strong.” This hermit experience of isolation and immersion generates the contradictory and desperate need for company and the adopted dog, the backpack, or fatigue itself, become Ochoa’s travel companions.
Love is described in a romantic and feminine manner, like a love story that when it “appears it is forever, then it passes.” Regardless of how long it lasts, love is experienced as “my place …. to feel this is the first time we love, although we have loved so many times before.” Love-making becomes “those moments (where) human beings forget all constraints, emptying all thoughts and entering for seconds in the other’s intensity, which already is your own,” in a “night (when) we burned with such passion that we fell asleep inside each other’s dreams.” A passionate and sensitive style links, as Trindade says, a “sentiment to an event.”
These travel crónicas are descriptive, factual, subjective, consisting of humanistic literary writing, portraying real people with real lives deserving a place in Portuguese literary journalism. To read O Vento dos Outros is to travel with the heart and the senses.
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A version of this story was first published in the August 2020 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
Meet: About the Authors
Raquel Baltazar is assistant professor at the School for Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, where she teaches English for the social sciences and Portuguese as a foreign language. She is a research fellow at CAPP (Centre for Public Administration and Policies). Her research interests are in the fields of cultural studies, Portuguese contemporary literature, Iberian studies, identity studies, Portuguese as a foreign language, travel literature, and literary journalism.
Rita Amorim is assistant professor at the School for Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, where she teaches English for the social sciences. She is a research fellow at CAPP (Centre for Public Administration and Policies) and CEAF (Centro de Estudos Africanos). Her research interests are in the fields of English language teaching, English as a Lingua Franca, code-switching, language and education policy, travel literature, and literary journalism.