Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The electric truth

Wherein Leigh Goes to Brazil and Almost Gets Hit by Lightning

One of my favorite icebreaker games to play with new English classes is One Truth and One Lie. Some fellow teachers introduced it to me in Quito, and I will be forever grateful. The rules of the game are that each student must tell two stories, one of which is true and one of which is completely made up. Then the other students ask the speaker questions to try to determine which tale is B.S. Since the idea is to trick the rest of the class into thinking your true story is a lie, people usually talk about their most outlandish experiences. Needless to say, I've learned some pretty unexpected things about my students on the first day of class.

Art House Queen's recent entries about Bahia, Brazil have called to mind one of the stories I always use for One Truth and One Lie. Most students find it absolutely impossible to believe, and they label my other story, which usually involves almost getting attacked by a bear, as true.

They're totally wrong.

When I was studying abroad in Santiago, two students from my exchange program and I decided to visit Brazil between semesters. The many warnings I'd heard about traveler safety in Brazil petrified me into not bringing my iPod and frequently leaving my camera behind at the hostel. Our first day in Salvador, Bahia, we met a young tourist who had recently been held up at gunpoint, which didn't do much to tame our nerves.

Despite everything we'd been told, absolutely nothing happened. We were never robbed or even slightly inconvenienced. The most danger we ever found ourselves in was when we found ourselves packed onto an extremely narrow overpass with hundreds of people pushing to enter Rio's Sambadrome for Carnival -- which, now that I think about it, was actually really dangerous. But we were never victims of crime or aggression. Which, juiced up on horror stories as we were, surprised us at the time.

As it turned out, the only serious threat we would directly face in Brazil would come from the most unexpected place: above. While staying in Salvador, we decided to check out one of the many beaches just outside the city. Not long after we arrived, it started to rain. Since it was time to break for lunch anyway, we scurried off to take shelter under the giant table umbrellas at one of the restaurants near the waterfront.

Since there weren't many other customers, one of the waiters tried to do us a favor by uprooting umbrellas from vacant tables and planting them in a protective circle around us. By the time it became clear that the rainstorm was an electrical one, we were surrounded by five tall metal poles.

It didn't take long for me to start thinking back to my brief Girl Scout days and recalling that this, along with low cookie sales, was one of the scenarios they told us to avoid. We were pretty much setting ourselves up to get electrocuted.

Suddenly, we saw a column of light -- just a handful of meters to the side -- that was so bright we had to look away, even though it disappeared after an instant. We heard a resonating crack, as if someone had shot off fireworks. When we looked back, the area around the table next to ours was smoking. Wide eyed, one of my friends --who had been touching one of the umbrella poles during the incident -- said she'd felt her entire arm tingle.

We bolted. We took shelter under a thatched roof with a giant group of Brazilian college students who chatted us up -- in a perfectly functional mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English -- until the storm blew past. They were quick to let us know how they felt about the recently reelected George W. Bush.

It took a while for what had happened to properly sink in. When it did, we were in disbelief. During the nearly two weeks we'd spent in Brazil, none of the expected calamities -- robbery, illness, logistical disaster -- had befallen us. Instead, we had almost been hit by lightning.


I'm not surprised that so many of my students refuse to believe this story. I myself don't quite understand the science behind it: Why didn't the lightning strike the umbrella poles directly? Why didn't it catch the wooden table next to us on fire? If anyone can think of another explanation for a column of light that creates smoke and sends electrical charges through nearby metal objects, I would be happy to be enlightened. Until then, though, I continue to maintain that my friends and I nearly fell victim to one of the most improbable accidents on earth. In one of the most beautiful places possible.


Art House Queen said...

That story is AMAZING. This is a good write up as well. I think you should submit it to magazine for review. It would definitely get you published.

I just read this aloud to my sister and she said the story was amazing! Wow! Now I'm off to Wikipedia to research smoke-inducing electrical charging happenings...

Isabel said...

that's a crazy story! Good thing it didn't strike the pole!! And I play 2 truths and 1 lie with my English students EVERY first class because it's so fun to hear everyone's outrageous stories. My truth is that a plane crashed in my backyard when I was in high school and people never believe it, but it's true!

Sara said...

You have the most amazing stories! I actually bought mace because of your story about nearly getting assaulted.

I was terrified when I went to Colombia because of the whole bombing, kidnapping and narcotraficante thing, but everything went very smoothly. Then, I went to Buenos Aires and got held up at gun point inside the hostel. It was scary at the time, but now I laugh about it.

Mamacita Chilena said...

Oh my gosh, that's total insanity! You're right, it's so totally unbelievable that I'm not surprised people always think that's your lie...crazy.

Leigh said...

Art House Queen, thanks for the Glimpse suggestion! I didn't know about it before.

Isabel, I'm guessing that's about as improbable as getting hit by lightning.

Sara, AT GUNPOINT?! That's terrifying. Glad you're OK!

Kyle, happy early birthday!

Maeskizzle said...


On relative safety and danger. I had a gun pointed at my head in a nice hotel in Edina, Minnesota where, ironically, a Criminal Justice Seminar was being held. The next day I was leaving for Spain and I was SO GLAD to be leaving the freaking United States of America which is, unfortunately, armed to the teeth.

Maeskizzle said...

p.s. It was an armed robbery. I don't imagine they made off with much money. People generally pay the hotel bill with credit card.

Leigh said...

That's terrifying!! Were you the hostage they grabbed when they stormed in and yelled "Everybody down!"? I'm glad you're OK. You should write a blog post about it.