Learning to Dance Again - Face Paint, Flash Mobs and West Side Story

Uh-oh… Now what?

Like a scene out of West Side Story.  The Jets meet the Sharks, Latin American style.  From up over the crumbling cement of an eroding pier on Playa Los Angeles, they move toward us with intensity, with purpose.  There must be forty, even fifty in the gang… they far outweigh our crew. Intent all the while, each step brings them closer to where our group holds our ground.  Both groups charged with an energy and a cause – a reason to be right here, right in this moment. 

I turn to look at my comrades… their faces reflect similar splashes of purple, green orange and yellow paint to that splattered across my own – but through the holes in the face painted masks I can see the same look in their eyes as dances through my head… “What’s the protocol for a Uruguayan brawl?”

I’m sitting at the main sail winch.  At the ready, one hand balances the red and white-flecked line ready to lower, the other flat on the side of the silver drum.  My head tilts in to the wind the way a dog sometimes does when they’re trying to understand the sounds coming out of your mouth.  Doing so creates a pocket of still amidst the boat’s chaos on the non-windward side of my face.  Commands, bursts of excitement, sails flapping… I funnel through them waiting for my specific command.  Not yet.

The Sea Dragon approaches.  Piriapolis, Uruguay
“When we come round,” I hear the Captain caution, “there’s not to be any shrieking.  No shrieking, okay girls?  This is the most dangerous part of the voyage.”

I hear the slight hint of teasing in his voice – a nuance that would have eluded me 33 days ago – but it doesn’t overshadow his severity. I throw a sidelong smile to Carolyn behind me in the cockpit.  Her sister is coming to meet her and – having been known to shriek on occasion, as we all do – she’s a likely candidate for bailing ship and swimming toward her out of pure excitement.

For all the hurry up and wait, sail up and sail down, trawl in and trawl out, engine drama, negotiating between winds at 25 knots to those that barely whisper in your ear, infinite sunrise after sunset, and weighing the fantasty of tiny Diet Coke bubbles bursting on my tongue versus never having it again if we could just stay on the boat a few more days…  Suddenly we are there.  And none of it matters.

The boat turns toward the starboard side, and from underneath the dramatic red and white display of the jinneker sail, I see the end of a pier come in to view.  And it’s undulating.  Moving up and down, jumping, yelling, cheering – this amorphous and energized blob of 40-something people cheer so loudly that it flips a switch in all of us on the Sea Dragon.  We start cheering.  (Not shrieking.)  Smiles explode on our faces.

Megan Ponder and her first (large) beer in 33 days.
And in a way more powerful than just about anything I’ve ever felt before, humanity rushed in to that space between us and the 20 something yards to where they celebrated.  All air sucked out, eyes wide with surprise.  Hit. In. The. Stomach.

It’s a tangible, chomp into it with your teeth connection with people I don’t even know.  That I could touch them if I tried.  Hug them.  Jump up and down and celebrate with them.  Explore an infinite possibility with them, but not before the telling of tales before they become tall to them… of what was, what is, and what could be for the ocean we just crossed…

Massive.  Huge.  In this void of clarity, I think I experienced a brand new feeling.  For the crew.  For what we just did.  For safe passing.  For beauty.  For the ocean.  An intense and beautifully unique blend of pride and gratitude, alchemized for just that moment from the intense vibrations pinging around the space between us.

It welled up in me so much that it came out of my eyes.

“Close is crying!”  I hear Carolyn yell.

Yes. Yes, I am.  And then everyone else did, too.

On the list of things I wasn’t expecting to do a day after landing in Uruguay, getting my face painted with a bunch of the town locals wasn’t on it.  That said, I’ve never had an aversion to dressing up and making a bit of a scene, so trustingly I stepped in to a cultural experience directed by some new friends.

Front page of the paper, baby!
Not 24 hours earlier and moments after stepping off the Sea Dragon, I land in a press conference and meet a local nonprofit, Ecopolis, that manages many facets of the environmental sustainability movement in Piriapolis, Uruguay.  Ecopolis has carved a unique niche in the costal and beach activism arena. One of the most effective ways they see to educate and inspire activism from the community is through “skits.”

“Can we do one?” Leslie, my colleague, inquires.

“Si…” they said with surprise in their voices and faces.  “When?”

“How about tomorrow?”

Leslie shows off her face paint, sign, and whistle blowing talent.
And so it was that at 6:00pm on a Sunday – prime beach time in the city – we gathered at Playa Los Angeles prepare.  About 20 individuals showed up – local supporters, comrades from the Sea Dragon and volunteers with Ecopolis.  We were instantly splashed with face paint, doused with glitter, strewn with toy whistles and noise makers, and were taught the words of a chant:

Cuidemos nuestras playas
Juntemos la basura
Sumate y se uno mas
Tachin, Tachin, Tachin!

(Roughly, this translates in to a catchy cheer about caring for our beaches and throwing away our trash.  Tachin” is the Spanish version of “woop”, “hoorah” or “holler” as far as I can tell.) 

To the beat of a drummer and led by a flag dancer, the group of us began the chant and walked down on to the beach, yelling loudly, dancing and parading our signs for all the beach dwellers to see.
Our leader.
Insert for a moment some American mentality: a bit of nervousness on my part that what we were about to do would be a miserable flop.  That people don’t parade down beaches like this in the States.  What if people didn’t listen to us?  What if they laughed?  What if they threw their trash at us?

The reality of the situation couldn’t have been further from this imagined scenario.   To the contrary, the reception was uniquely Uruguayan, as far as I can tell – open, receptive and engaged all the time. 

There’s a massive 6-court beach volleyball tournament going on?  No problem.  They handed us the microphone and stopped the games to do our cheer for the audience and speak about our work. 
Toby Salz speaking about 5 Gyres in front of the volleyball tournament.
A family is quietly dining on empanadas, cobbed corn and mate?  No worries… they encouraged their little girls to bring the family’s trash to the bags we carried and deposit it. 

Oops, sorry, we just walked through your game of paddleball by mistake – clapping and yelling and dancing?  Apparently not an issue– they banged their paddles together and joined in on the cheer, lending strength to the message we carried.

The entire length of the beach we paraded, yelled, and carried on… feeding off the energy that the crowd in front of us was giving back.  It seemed like everything had gone perfectly.

And then we ran in to the Jets.  And they were doing the same thing as us.

They had many more people than us.  They had bigger signs.  Music.  Costumes.  But surprisingly enough, they stepped back and quietly waited to cross our path on the beach until we were done with our chant.  When we were done, they applauded and yelled, and then swapped spots with us, taking formation in several long, spaced out lines.

Then something amazing happened.  Music started.  They looked at us and motioned for us to join them.  And we all started dancing.

I’ve never been involved in a flash mob before, and I don’t know if I’d count this one since we hadn’t rehearsed, but the moves were easy enough to follow that none of us made fools of ourselves.  We just boogied and danced our hearts out, laughing, on the beach.

When the music was done, they held up signs that spelled out, “No Violence.” We all shook hands, kissed cheeks, and went on our merry ways along the beach.

As we walked away, the realization of what a unique and powerful experience we’d just had hit me.  Not just standing up for something you believe in, but yelling, cheering, engaging others and ultimately shaking your booty for it in front of hundreds of other people.  I have the deepest gratitude for everyone with Ecopolis for opening our eyes to another way – different, but effective and engaging all the more – to bringing education and change to the community around us.  More so, as we all move to our own tempo, seek out our beat and refine our rhythm, can we contemplate with more conviction the magic that could be if we collided more often, and decided collectively to move toward the music?

That is something we can dance to.