Maybe a linear telling of this story is not the noblest way to paint havoc. Things have happened and I have learned that life, it seems, is sometimes bittersweet, and to the purest definition of the word, such that bittersweet here describes the conflict of thought and heart. Though, the conflict makes you remember life; that you’re here now and that you feel, and can tell when things change. It is something remarkable. It is something true, and no matter how destructive and insulting, it is something to cherish.
Scrutiny of Madness
I begin the telling of this story by bringing you past a quick exit from Montevideo, Uruguay. I bring you to a scene several days forward, on the Brazilian side of the border, where after many hours of frustration under the sun, which should have been hot but whose effects were being mercilessly scattered by a whistling and cold wind scourge coming off the nearby Atlantic, we were no closer to getting further, except that we decided to put our feet to pavement, despite my instinctual reservations when I looked down the road and saw nothing but continuation.
“Oh I can’t take it here, we have to walk,” said Mayra. I replied that the way made our chances look grim, that here we were in a good spot despite the weather. “We’ve been here for hours,” she said. I replied that sometimes waiting is. “I can’t be here–we have to walk,” she said. So we walked.
And we walked, and continued down that grim way with grim thumbs that no one heeded, and it was lonely Sunday and so there were few vehicles anyway. The cars that passed were driven mostly by gauchos who gestured short distance, and wrung their moustaches as their old beaters roared by.
We were out of the wind now, and the countryside gave us some sense of appreciation. It was a flat land here, and both sides of the road indicated farmland for as far as the eye could see, some of it already harvested, and the houses on the horizon nestled in among thick bundled plots of trees.
“Chael I can’t anymore. Why don’t we just put up the tent?” she said. I told her we could. We went down a ditch alongside the 2-lane highway, and crawled up a small hill to a barbed-wire fence. I said let’s camp here, on the other side of it. “Shouldn’t we ask permission?” she inquired, and I agreed, and pointed to a house. But then she lost interest in the idea, in the location, and in the day. So we were walking again.
Then my frustrations came to the fore and I said it was a damn stupid idea to be walking in this damn road, and that we should return to the windy spot, which was a better spot anyway because it was beside a quiet and empty police checkpoint–but somehow we found ground to argue, and explosions and boiling words and she screamed for me to close my mouth and I knew I should but I just kept going. “Damn it this isn’t working for me!” I declared with a heaving chest and blatant authority gotten from thin air. Then, “You’re going back to Peru!”
If you will allow me to rewind a few days, I should tell you of our fortune in the last stretch of Uruguayan road between the capital and the Brazilian border. It was a Wednesday when we left.
We woke in our tent, unlikely but together now, and happy for it. She had returned to Montevideo to be with me, perhaps frightening me with her love shown all over her face, and there I’d thought she is what a broken heart looks like, and I wondered about my own aspect. But then we embraced and were together again, and once more the fear of losing something marvelous had rejuvenated that thing such that we were especially unrestricted and liberal in the expression of our connection.
I rolled over on top of her and we bounced around on the tent’s floor in a strange way. There had been a powerful thunderstorm in the night, and it had rained enough to flood the space where we had placed the tent. So, on this morning, we rolled around on a veritable waterbed. Needless to say, it made packing the tent and our things tricky, as we couldn’t place anything on the ground, and already our shoes had been soaked.
But soon enough we had packed and were underway. The sky was gray overcast, and we walked single file down the highway. I think it was Highway 8.
By the day’s end we were in a city called Rocha, several hundred kilometers from Montevideo. A salesman had taken us to a town called Pan de Azucar (Sugar bread), which we hoofed across and flagged down an architect with whom we conversed about radicalism all the way to Rocha.
“I can take you to the coast if you want. Punta del Diablo is really nice, usually. But it’s wet. It’s also gray. It’s pretty windy too. …On second thought you might be better off skipping the coast,” he said as we pulled our things from the small Citroen.
We thanked him and he disappeared down a different road.
In the night we made camp outside the city. I had acquired a pair of free ham and cheese sandwiches when I’d asked for work at a restaurant, so we ate well. A full belly put smiles on our faces, and that night we slept close to one another.
In the morning we had walked clear across the city in the rain. Mayra was quiet, but I knew the walking was going to eat at her resolve. It did not matter anyway, because soon the gray sky broke, releasing a flourishing of sprinkle, which quickly morphed into heavier drops–so we took shelter in an abandoned house.
It was a dirty space, and looked like it was once used as a butchery. There were other houses in the neighborhood, and some people were walking in the rain. Mayra set her pack on a plastic bag she’d laid down. She sighed and ran her hand through her hair, and when she saw me watching her she smiled.
I followed a hall down to the back of the house, and found a stitched mattress of rags and grime. It was laying there on the floor alone, and looked long since abandoned by whatever crack head had been using it as home. Such an ugly thing. But surely it was a crack head’s, because this was a crack house apart from being a house abandoned and without memory. The walls were stained in time if they were not also falling apart. The ceiling as well.
On the ground I found an old white plastic screen, which looked like something someone might use to sift through river sand looking for gold pellets. I ripped off three long strands of the plastic and returned to Mayra.
“My umbrella is destroyed,” I said, opening the sad thing, whose metal supports had snapped the thread I’d used to repair it back in Buenos Aires. I don’t think I wrote about my new umbrella. The umbrella the Solis family had gifted me for Christmas had finally snapped into pieces. A few days later, as Mayra and I went to Zac’s work to borrow some clothes for the theatre, I had happened upon an umbrella stricken and alone on the street. It was a quality umbrella with a thick soft black fabric, metal supports and a carved, varnished wooden handle. I cut out the old umbrella fabric that I’ve had since the Honduras umbrella to place on this new umbrella. I had also made repairs to its supports, those that connect to the pole just below the tip, with sewing thread. Needless to say, the metal supports ate right through the thread, and had completed their gnawing here in Rocha.
So, I began to braid the three white plastic strands together. Who ever said braiding isn’t practical?
When the braid was complete, I used a large needle to guide it through the small holes in each metal support, and then tightened the ring around its copper-colored nest, bringing the supports to a steady rest at the pole. Mayra was happy to see me successful in this particular vagabond project.
Meanwhile, it continued to rain. Mayra took to reading in her book, whose words she mouthed, whose articulation I could make out in quieter spaces. I liked to watch her read, following her eyes following the lines of words.
And then someone came to visit us. It was a woman, probably in her 50s, and she showed up with a bright face. She came into the house and stood before us with a thermos in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.
“I saw you two come in here,” she said. Mayra and I looked at each other. “I thought ‘oh those poor kids the must be so cold!’ Here I brought you coffee, bread and biscuits.”
“Oh! Thank you!” exclaimed Mayra calmly and full of brightness.
“She really loves coffee,” I told the woman.
“Please, here,” she said, pouring the steaming treat into a mug she’d brought along. “Drink up, honey, it will do you good.”
Mayra put the mug to her lips and drank. I caught sight of the heat in her lips’ reflex, but she drank anyway. “It’s so good,” she said. “I don’t know how to thank you. Actually it’s very strange that you show us such kindness.”
“Oh it’s nothing dear! I saw you come here and thought you must not be from the neighborhood. This old carniceria has seen some bad days. The food will cheer you up. You’re hitchhiking?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, biting into one of the warm biscuits. “It’s just a little wet to stay out there right now.”
“You don’t want to catch a cold! Oh! You know, I have to walk 8 kilometers every day,” said the woman. “So I know how it is. My sons sometimes hitchhike to Chuy to buy things cheap–everything’s cheaper in Brazil. But I can’t sit around knowing you’re here in this horrible house without doing something.”
“Thank you again…”
“You can call me Teresita,” she said.
“I’m very touched by your gesture, Teresita,” replied Mayra.
“We have to treat people right. I’ve had a long hard life you know. I had a tumor, inflammations of all kinds, and now I have this blasted arthritis. But life is something beautiful–you must remember. You must always remember that.”
We made replies, and Teresita continued.
“Even when the hard times come, you have to take them as part of life, as part of your formation. Let me tell of the time I found out that my son was cheating on his wife. Well, that’s it then–I found out! I told him that he should not be cheating, that it is wrong.” She spoke quickly, but her speech didn’t seem rushed. “Well, one day his wife found out, but not through me. But my son thought that I had told her, so he came to me, and he spat into my face.”
“That’s terrible,” said Mayra. She was cupping the mug close under her chin.
“It was terrible, but sometimes relationships must be shaken, and then you see what they’re worth. I think about these things a lot. My dream, my one real dream that I have, and someday I hope to have the time to make it come true, is to publish a book of my poetry.”
Teresita continued and told us of her poems. She breathed in and her chest rose. Around her were the ruins of a home; broken glass coated in dirt, floor laminate peeling up, the corners of the room dark where people had urinated. Her face was a good face. She was kind. She stood in the doorway before two strangers from other countries, and it seemed to make sense. This is what humanity looks like.
Teresita recited one of her poems from memory, the one that begs her son to forgive her, despite the fact that she did not tell the wife of her son’s betrayal. It was a long poem, and I couldn’t follow the accent of this part of Uruguay. But her voice was emanating passion, and I saw her eyes grow teary as she uttered verse after verse.
She gifted Mayra the mug, and to us both she left the bag of bread and biscuits. We embraced her before she left, and when she had gone, and turned the corner, she was in our memories.
In the broken abode we were left speechless. We could not manage ourselves, and simply exchanged gazes. What had happened with this visit made us spend the next moments thinking of unlikely possibilities. Might we find a way to help Teresita publish her book of poems? I thought.
“Mayra, tell me that we’re pressed for time. Tell me we can’t stay here,” I said.
“We can’t– you have a wedding to attend,” she told me.
“Ah yes, the true way to hunt is slave to money and time–Hemingway,” I said.
“Nothing, it’s just that we’re doing things too fast.”
“It’s your wedding.”
“I know. I know.” She was quiet. “I want so badly to be able to help Teresita publish her book,” I said.
“I know, me too,” replied Mayra.
“Sometimes I feel that my time to give back to the world is either now or it’s always. All the time I have it in the back of my head that I’ll one day be able to return so many favors, or pay it forward. But I’m always thinking future. When such a unique and strange opportunity shows itself, like Teresita’s–a book of poetry, can you believe it?–I want so badly to help.”
“I know,” she repeated, now looking into the mug. She was so pretty.
We did not stay in Rocha. With the goodness that we’d just experienced, our next ride–once the rain had abated–seemed quick to come. His name was Astur, and beside him in the passenger’s seat sat his father.
It would be an understatement to say that Astur looked like George Clooney. By God, this man was George Clooney. His eyes were dark, as was the hair, through which ran streaks of gray–or silver, depending on how you choose to imagine the man. His eyebrows were thick and bushy, and ended far beyond the brow. His skin shared Clooney’s complexion, and his thin lips were drawn together, surrounded by cheeks and jaw covered in the greyish hints of facial hair.
We had a ride with an A-lister.
“It was separated, yes. We couldn’t really enjoy contact with the locals. We had our base, and whenever we went out it was on a mission with a translator. We couldn’t do much about it.”
“Did you get attacked ever?” I asked.
“Oh, from time to time. There are a lot of war lords in the Congo.”
“Where else did they send you?”
“We were in Haiti. There are always blue helmets in Haiti.”
“What’s a blue helmet?” asked Mayra.
“He’s a blue helmet,” I said. “A UN soldier. Say, how do you become a UN soldier anyway?”
“You just apply. I’ve been a soldier my whole life. Sometimes they call me back. Haiti was recent, I was called back for that.”
“Yes,” he said calmly. He seemed like a shy soldier. His father remained silent, as worn out old men will do, and judging by the sound of his voice during the few occasions he did speak, his health was probably in question. “I was also in Rwanda during the civil war.”
“That must have been difficult,” I said.
“I saw some things.”
Astur told us some stories, and spoke well of military life, and its order. It did not surprise me that he praised the military–military men always do. Once, we pulled into a military-controlled area off the road, where Astur told us that during sunnier months it was packed with visitors. We found the coast. Enormous sand dunes created a cascading descent to the Atlantic’s frothing waves, which crashed over each other onto the shore in a menacing display of fury.
“Look, Mayra,” I said, weaving my fingers through hers, “you made it to the Atlantic.”
She smiled, despite the overcast. We stood there looking at the ocean. Astur’s father walked around by the car with his arms behind his back, and Astur looked about like a bird might do. I imagined him George Clooney again, and he looked like the actor in Men Who Stare at Goats, dunes and all.
We arrived to Chuy, the border town with Brazil, a few hours later. The “border” was a street whose middle was the invisible line, which Uruguayans and Brazilians crossed at will. Supermarkets on the Brazilian side were much cheaper. Like most border towns, this one had the kind of movement to remind you that the world functions on trade. We bought a few cheap eats to make sandwiches; the mortadela was especially inexpensive.
Astur had invited us to camp at his sister’s house under construction, whose plumbing he was fixing. It was late in the day, so we agreed. From a bakery in town, Astur purchased a box of small coin-sized sweets of all shapes, sizes and stuffing. He gifted us the box once we were set up in the small shed behind the house, somewhere in the outlying areas of Chuy. Small children, his sister’s kids, came on bikes and played with Mayra. I set up the tent and watched her there with them. She shared the box of treats. When night came we were in the tent in the shed, eating sandwiches of carrot, tomato, bologni, mayo from small stolen packets, and a vegetable mix I’d bought in Pocitos.
Then the morning came, and after the border and a ride to Santa Vitoria, we were there walking from the police checkpoint, and fuming and etching frustrations and anger into the air with words sharpened by the long day’s never-ending. This is when I yelled “you’re going back to Peru! ”
But when our feet had finally found a soft spot in the woods, back near the checkpoint to which we had returned over another hour of aggression and silence walking, I was in the grass and falling into her lap. A lap is a good place to ask for forgiveness, or to explain things. Where men bow to kings, they also grovel to loved ones; and I said “I know that I am difficult to travel with–I know it! And it breaks me to see you torn by it, but I’m sorry and we have to find the good moments together.”
She said it was alright, and when night came it was cold, so we came closer together in our packs.
The next time we were walking was 500 kilometers away in Porto Alegre, where we’d arrived to after that horrible day of walking, when after 10 hours of thumbing we had only made it 20 kilometers from Chuy. A man who worked for the courts had taken us to Rio Grande after the cold night, and from there a pair of Brazilians brought us to the northern side of Pelotas, a generous thing which saved us another walk. There was a Petrobras gas station and a churrascaria beside it, where I asked for work and a light-eyed man told me to wait outside, and minutes later a frustrated lady handed me a bag of fried food–because Brazilians are kind whether they want to be or not–and Mayra and I ate.
From that gas station that very evening we met Keller, the rock star man with a corduroy jacket and long curling hair. He bought us prata feita at a different gas station, which was a lesson in Brazilian road cuisine. Waiters brought us plates of all sorts; potato salad, a plate of vegetables including carrots, tomatos, beet, cauliflower, lettuce and onion. There were black beans, some rice, French fries, and before each of us they placed wet slabs of meat over lettuce and topped with two eggs sunny-side-up. I mimicked Keller as he prepared the vegetables in oil and salt. Listening to the lettuce crunch above my jaw made the taste seem stronger.
I had also taken the moment to consider our linguistic capacities up until then. I might’ve said before that Brazilian Portuguese is not that much different from Spanish, which, after a few weeks in Brazil, still holds true. It’s a language that you can place between French and Spanish. If you know French, you can’t understand Portuguese, per se, but if you know Spanish, you can. Portuguese is close to French in that many of the words that end in “-tion” or “-an/-on” are made semi-nasal. Bread in Spanish is “pan,” pronounced as you see it. In French it is “pain,” in which you pronounce the ‘p’, but the rest of the utterance exits as a nasal constriction. In Portuguese, it is “pão”, which follows the pronunciation of the French pain, but allowing a bit of voiced air to escape the mouth.
Anyway, the language is interesting in many more ways. It does not strike me as difficult to learn, especially knowing French and Spanish already. But it would be a difficult undertaking were you to tackle it without linguistic background. Portuguese seems to drop L’s and I’s where Spanish requires them. Their articles are all vowels, and the contractions as well. “El” is “e”, “la” is “a”, “al” is “ao”, “a la” is “á”, and the list goes on. S’s experience more voicing, as do the V’s, J’s and G’s. The ‘o’ presents a whole new manner of vowel, and as I’ve said before, the closest sound we have in English is the New Yorker’s pronunciation of ‘o’ in the York of New York.
But most importantly of all is the Brazilian manner of speaking. Over the next few weeks I would start to think about a country’s role in the nature vs. nurture scheme of things. A culture has an impact any way you see it, and here in Brazil, I began to think that I was in a country of extroverts. It’s easy to speak Portuguese, I thought. You just have to be loud and gestural. Sure, not everyone is an extrovert, but I would take a gander at the argument that says that some cultures nurture their people to be more extroverted or introverted than other cultures.
Keller didn’t speak much, but when he did he seemed unusually enthusiastic, for an introvert. To the untrained or inattentive ear, Portuguese sounds random but somehow pleasant, like a wind chime whose notes ring out without pattern, but which are nice to listen to all the same.
He dropped us off at a police checkpoint just before a large bridge that would lead into Porto Alegre. It was nighttime, and it was raining. We thanked our rock star benefactor, who kissed Mayra on her cheek and held my shoulder like I should be his son, then he zoomed off into the moisturous night.
I had built the tent in the rain beside the police headquarters, but out of sight.
In the morning we were walking. We walked across the city, without entering the downtown. First it was the large bridge spanning a body of water, four enormous pylons pitted against gravity that would lift the bridge vertically to allow shipping through. Down a spiraling staircase we went, and onward, following the highway that would circumnavigate the city. We walked for hours. At one point we passed a behemoth concrete stadium under construction–perhaps for FIFA 2014. There was no scenario in which hitchhiking would work here–we were on the outskirts of a large Brazilian city, walking past favelas, the name they give to poor areas in this country, where wind and carelessness had stacked years of trash against walls and fences. Car blasted past, and buses too–big city buses that were with time. We stopped once for coffee and pastels, or Portuguese for empanada, at a smack street kiosk. “Pastel” shows us that Brazilians pronounce their final L’s as the last W of the English word “wow”, something that took a bit of getting used to. We walked, but for our benefit the sun was not there–but then, that was why we were walking without entering this city; it was cold. Mayra wanted beach. Hell, I wanted beach.
We came finally to an obstacle. It was a large bridge, and part of the highway, which crossed over another highway and an impassable train track fenced off by high barbed wire walls. However, our bridge left no room to walk. The painted border of the outside lane was flush with a knee-high and remarkably thin wall.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“I–I really have no idea,” I said, flabbergasted. I looked in all directions, but there was no pedestrian bridge, and no other bridge that could cross those tracks. We were above a favela, and when I saw a man walking on a dirt path behind some of the brick walls of a makeshift house, I ran down the hill. The man turned out to be nuts, and his roaring mad Portuguese was almost unintelligible through cracked and broken teeth. The madness was in his eyes. I thought it not a good idea to chat, so I took what I could from his rambling and ran back up the hill with a bit of encouragement from desire to avoid more ranting.
“What did he say?” Mayra asked.
“Well I think he said a lot of things,” I replied. “I think we just have to cross.”
After some convincing and proper support, Mayra went first and I followed, coaching her all the while to keep her knees bent, hold onto the wall, and not to turn around or to look anywhere but the painted line we were following. The semis that passed screamed and careened, but we made it across that damn bridge, and kept walking.
It must have been another 5 kilometers, and probably 10 or 12 in total, before we had reached the last northern exit from the city. We walked one more kilometer down the exit ramp and into the outskirts of the city, where we found bathrooms at a large Petrobras gas station.
Sometimes Mayra would help me ask drivers for rides, but mostly she said that it made her feel embarrassed and ashamed, so the task was left to me. After 3 hours we were still there. Mayra, as she will do after a few hours of the same thing, decided it was time to walk and find a place to camp–so be it.
It’s a strange thing how some days turn out. We spent the entire day walking across one of Brazil’s megacities, and then additional hours asking dozens of vehicles in which way they were traveling, and all without results. When we had reached the highway on-ramp once more, and I had a sign that read “tollbooth/pedagio”, and Mayra looked good and she raised her arm to a trucker passing by, and when he stopped, we were again flabbergasted–great fucking word.
Jorge was a good man, although it was clear that he cared more for conversation with Mayra than with me. We picked us up and dropped us off in Osorio, with instructions to catch some shut eye, and in the morning at 5:30 he’d be back to take us to Florianopolis.
It worked out. We ate, we slept, we woke, she showered, he showed. And we were off.
I do not recall our conversations well, but I remember a few things Jorge said in the two days we spent with him.
“Look, indians!” he yelled as we passed over a small coastal mountain range. They were the natives beside the road, apparently. We had passed by Florianopolis, a purported peninsular beach city paradise in the summer months–all of the state of Santa Catarina boasts purported awesome beaches (awesome here is used with the emphasis that it once carried for earlier generations–ours is really an empty generation).
“My mother, 93 years old, and she finally passed away the other day,” said Jorge.
“Wow, she lived a really long time,” said Mayra.
“And if it wasn’t for that damn car that ran her over, she would’ve lived longer!” he said. “Ah! Here we are, this is where you need to stay! This is Camboriu!”
We were coming down out of the mountains, and in the distance it looked like Blade Runner’s LA skyline. The towers were stabbing into the sky in a long, endless line. But as we approached, I saw that the towers were incredibly skinny. One apartment would take up each floor. The illusion, though, set the tone of the Camboriu experience, or at least it would have if we had opted to stay.
“This is the most moneyed beach in the entire continent. Expensive,” said Jorge.
It was still overcast, still raining, and still cold. And this Camboriu was not our idea of a good beach. Jorge gladly accepted our request to continue with him. “Onward then!” he shouted.
Then it became too late to drive, “new law,” Jorge had said, “We can only drive 8 hours in total and then we need to rest for 11.” We pulled into a truckers gas station. Jorge unlatched the flaps from the trailer. “You guys can sleep in here if you’d like,” he said in Portuguese, which to my ear was now a language of lazy tongues; bubbly, chewy gummy.
We took showers at the gas station, and crawled into the trailer beside sacks of flour as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. I noted something in my notebook, and listened to Mayra’s breathing as sleep took over her eyes:
I think she’s using this time in Brazil to unlove me, and it’s depleting me of all energy. I warned her about the difficulty of this trip, and if there’s something that I’ve come to learn, it is that despite my love, I want to be alone. I reject the romantic and welcome the drifter, the man who does not care where he’s going, who does not waste time in small talk or petty fights, the often lonely wanderer whose rightful place is the road, and who embraces all the hardship, misfortune and unknown that comes with it. Sometimes we are happy. But there’s also the negative. The arrival. Fuck the arrival.
We had stopped at a buffet, where we learned about the delights of that most expensive of Brazilian customs. Jorge and a fellow trucker brought us down a dirt road to a grand, empty bay surrounded by beach. It was calm, and pleasant. There were vacation homes built nearby, but now empty for the season. It would be the perfect place to enjoy the beach, but here, still there was rain in the air.
We arrived to Sao Paulo, Saint Paul, one of the largest cities in the world. Some lists say 18 million, and some say 22, but it doesn’t matter. A large city is large wherever you stand. A busy intersection in a city of 500,000 thousand looks an awful lot like a busy intersection in a city of 32 million (Tokyo), minus the neon perhaps.
“I can leave you off at one of these gas station,” said Jorge, motioning to a Petrobras snug up among a shantytown, with scraggly figures signaling us for a ride. I saw a large billboard: “You talk to your kids about bad language. Have you talked to them about CRACK?”
When I looked back to the gas station I said to Jorge, “We better find a better place to camp.”
“Sure sure, I’m going to Campinas. There’s a large gas station called Graal there–expensive, but you can use the trucker restaurant behind it. Sound alright?”
It took another hour and a half to cross the enormous outskirts of Sao Paulo. The highway was black, and slick. Lights of favelas pierced the fog.
“See those walls? They built those because when the traffic here gets backed up, the bums and gangs come from those favelas there to rob vehicles.”
We drove though immense tunnels, and I thought about urban expansion. How could these roads get any larger? What would this place look like in 20 years? In 50? It’s hard to consider, but then, humans will continue to birth new ones in any case.
The city fell behind us, and when we’d finally reached the Graal of Campinas an hour north of Sao Paulo, we were weak, hungry and tired. They were heartfelt goodbyes with Jorge before his rig rumbled on. We were left behind in a huge gas station, complete with a giant buffet area chock full of expensive selections too dizzying to manage. Instead we ordered one plate to go from the trucker restaurant and ate it with bread in the tent.
Then my notes stop.
I was there, stuck in time and in a state that I could not be bothered to describe in too much detail. It was a fever, and one that our host Manuel assured us would land me in the hospital if I did not take medicine. He and Mayra returned to the house with yellow and red pills, which I gobbled down from my prone position on the mattress, well hidden beneath both sleeping bags and puffy like a stuffed animal, but still cold under so many layers of clothing.
We were lucky to have arrived in Sao Paulo after two days suffocating in the Graal. A young and ambitious trucker from Brasilia had brought us into the city, with warnings of great danger and pleads that we instead come with him to Brasilia. He gave us his number for if we changed our minds.
We had hosts in Sao Paulo, who had contacted us while we were still in Graal sending out requests. We were fortunate to receive confirmation from Manuel, whose house we found after a long bus ride and another ride on Sao Paulo’s remarkably wide subway cars, and then a walk, to find their house. We were fortunate, that is, because that very evening my state worsened and I fell terribly ill.
Shivers, weakness, a hollow chest, no hunger whatsoever. Damn dirty apes! It lasted for two days, and on the second, it suddenly dissipated. Mayra and I took the occasion to take the strangely clean subway into the city. It was damn expensive too. Everything in Brazil is damn expensive. And I don’t say it to mean that it’s more expensive than the States, but that it’s damn expensive for the Brazilians themselves. When a bus costs a dollar fifty, and you make 300 dollars a month, what the hell can you do? Later, I’d hear someone say that laborers and workers who live in the favelas receive vouchers for their transportation–he said that Brazilians have enslaved themselves. Fuck–the gap between rich and poor is something frightening here.
In the center of the city, we found Avenida Paulista, which Manuel had recommended we walk. It was dominated mostly by the skater crowd, young and old. There were hundreds of them, and everywhere. It was Sunday.
Besides that avenue, which was lined with Sao Paulo’s biggest buildings and modern architectural displays, we found few other things of interest. The city was diverse to be sure–people of all ethnicities and body types, and the kind of people you can look at and it is easy for you to create stories about them. He was the son of a millionaire who became his daughter, and then renounced all her inheritance when she wasn’t accepted, and now she’s on crack. That guy over there has spent his whole life inside small guard posts. He doesn’t mind it, but then, he doesn’t know anything else. This old couple has lived in the city center their entire lives, and they’ve been together so long that they’ve forgotten how they met–but they always remember their routines, the ones that give reason to wake to a new day.
Sao Paulo was depressing. Given, we did not give it much time, but when you feel it you know that your first impression holds enough weight to carry the days.
There were signs relating to the municipality’s crack campaigns everywhere, but we didn’t need to see the signs to know there was an epidemic. But those signs were amusing, albeit in an unfortunate way. I could just imagine what such a campaign would look like in the States: “Crackdown on Crack–Throw the pipes down the drain”.
We walked down almost deserted streets, the only steady characters those that were rolling around in their soiled and rank mattresses, sprawled out before public telephones or in front of abandoned buildings, the graffiti, which itself was rather particular, blending in to the unattractiveness of such a depressing image. Never had I felt so notably uninspired, or for that matter, robbed of inspiration. In a city so large, there are sure to be interesting communities of artists or intellectuals or students or what have you, and there are sure to be museums that impress, and parks that heal stress, but for our little walk in the center, we felt blatant and sure of our observations.
But whose fault is it that there are so many mad people in this world? Is it theirs? Are they even mad at all, because they sleep in groups–for protection, no doubt–and they’re talking and moving and social? They are; they are social, especially with tourists. Some are unintelligible. But why are they there? And in the “clean” cities, where are they? Have they all been shuttled off somewhere, or do they simply not exist? No–humanity will always find a place for its lunatics and those who have gone mad–because the two are distinct as far as I’m concerned. But asylums are not big enough, are they? Clean cities can’t account for all the madness, which finds a way to remain dormant, and mostly in people who blend in with normality–damn it how does that make you feel? Is the uneasiness that I feel when I see “strange” people in the street the right sensation to sum up humanity? You know it–it’s the feeling that you get when you’re not sure how to act. It’s a butcher the world, sometimes, and it serves up such a wreck.
Kings and Vagabonds
Mayra was sick also, but in a few more days’ time, we felt sufficiently well to move on. Manuel was an interesting guy. He was a music composer, and a damn fine pianist. He was a damn fine person, and a good host who would not allow us to spend a dime on anything, including the vegetable-packed soup he made for the whole house when finally they, too, fell ill.
I felt that we had missed a good opportunity to make a close friend, despite our being in his house for four nights. But sometimes that’s the way of things.
It was surprisingly easy to leave Sao Paulo, albeit once again expensive. It took a bit of google map browsing to find a highway gas station outside the city, a metro ride to “Armenia” and a bus 529 toward Aruja, getting off at a tollbooth (pedagio) in Rodoviaria Presidente Dutra highway, and walking to the gas station.
It took a few hours but eventually we met a trucker who agreed to take us to within an hour and a half of Rio de Janeiro, our next destination. Looking at my map, I had been particularly disheartened about the hitchhiking possibilities in this part of Brazil, between the two largest cities on the continent, and whose highway was dotted with huge population centers the entire distance. But as long as we remained in gas stations, it would work, we thought. How fun.
It was an uneventful ride, except that our benefactor was especially concerned with helping us once we arrived at the Esso gas station just west of Barra Mansa. He found and introduced us to the station manager, who, once our trucker had gone, took it upon himself to make us feel extra welcome. I thought back to the horrible hitchhiking experience Resistencia, Argentina had afforded us, getting kicked out of gas stations left and right–and here, welcomed with open arms.
But I could feel my fever returning. I felt the chill, like something that has legs and crawls on you. Mayra could see that I was in a bad state. So could the manager.
He took us to a room in the back where I waited as Mayra bought some food at a nearby restaurant. I didn’t eat.
The night ended when the manager had prepared a place outside under a covered area. He laid several layers of cardboard on the ground, and a curious trucker pitched in with a thick foam mat. Mayra set up the tent, and inside I shivered and coughed as though trying to rid my body of itself–out! You damn dirty apes!
When the morning came, we were both sick, but a manageable sick. Then began the day. We were about an hour and a half from Rio de Janeiro, but the traffic which came to this gas station was mostly headed to Tres Rios to the north, or the nearby cities of Barra Mansa and Volta Redonda, neither, they said, with suitable gas stations. We weren’t going to walk on this massive highway, and nor were we going to risk thumbing so close to our destination. Sometimes, hitchhiking requires careful consideration, and despite the boredom of a gas station, we opted not to wander off.
Morning became midday became early afternoon. No one. Some truckers were headed to Rio, but satellites were making sure they didn’t take us along. Finally, after asking a private car’s driver if he was headed to Rio, and he said no, I gave up and headed back to where Mayra was sitting on her pack, bored. I knew she was bored. She’d told me that often she thought that we were losing time. I had responded by attacking boring jobs whose only justification is money. But it was a seesaw of opinion, where some days we were righteous in our determination to travel, and other days she spoke of going home to Lima. Call it indecision. Call it heartbreaking.
The man I’d asked ended up driving over to us and asking what in the hell we were doing trying to get to Rio hitchhiking, it’s damn dangerous–and no, it’s no burden, come along, you two, I’m paying for your bus to get there!
He didn’t sound as unwilling as I paint it. He was happy, in fact, to take us on to the rodoviaria/bus station, and he even offered to treat us to coconut juice, which Mayra rejected and I pouted over. At the station, he bought us bus tickets worth 15 dollars each. It was a surprise, but a welcome one, and like a good Samaritan who seeks no further recognition, the man simply left with a smile, his flip-flops pointed out in his stride.
The bus came two hours later, after we had made a stupid mistake by purchasing a buffet meal to share, which cost us 10 dollars between us–a waste of shitty online articles.
I admit that sometimes all this talk of hitchhiking and the ride seems tedious. Sometimes I don’t wish to write about it all. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to be worth writing about it. Perhaps you agree, perhaps it bores you. But then, though I care that you’re here and reading this, and forming an opinion, and perhaps learning about something you didn’t know before, I am not writing only for you. I write also for me, and for my crap memory. I don’t write about every ride, despite the concentration of paragraphs on benefactors, but I try to. I want to remember everyone who helped me. Maybe I can’t make them all interesting, but I can give them all a place here, and that is something. The continuity of this voyage is important to me, and the writing of rides serves the purpose of making observations contextual and therefore relevant and coherent.
Whether it was our being sick, or the frustration that existed between us, or that we were both thinking of our homes, the fact is that we were distant, and my attempts at closeness were met with her shoulder. Now we were in a dormitory alone, both of us coughing that deep, tearing cough that rips at your lungs and makes you feel as though your voice wants out.
We had arrived to Rio de Janeiro after two hours in the bus, and it was nighttime. But I’d written down how to get to Casa 579 from the Rodoviaria in the new Clairefontaine notebook that I’d received in a package from home back in Buenos Aires (there were also Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups–a lost cause outside the States. The was also a book on Banksy). Bus 133 to Ave. Dr. Julio Otoni, and up the hill. The 133 had steamed through the bulk of Rio de Janeiro, a city of some 11 million people, and the second or third largest on the continent, depending on who you’re talking to.
Casa 579 was a bed and breakfast. From Buenos Aires, I’d sent out a message to dozens of Rio hostels and hotels with the hope to wrangle a free place to stay in exchange for a bit of work. It turned out Casa 579 could use us–Mayra as a dog walker and me as a blog writer. So it goes.
We found the house after climbing the curving street in the night. A wall of thick green-leaf vines and a blue iron gate hid the pousada behind. Once inside, an Australian woman greeted us. The house seemed empty. It was very much a house, and not so much any other building. There was a main common room with a purple and pink couch, and long wooden table. The southern wall was an expansive window that afforded views out over the jungle hills, and though it was night time, we could see Christ the Redeemer atop its perch on Corcovado Mountain.
In the morning we were still sick, but the breakfast that was included in our “payment” could settle any score. The cake, in particular, was something that, with the other staff in the following days, we’d come to create connotations of deity. On the top floor we found a terrace. It was enough for us that we had a place to lay our heads for a week and a half, but we realized our lucky find when we saw the view out over the best part of the city. Rio de Janeiro is recognizable by its drastic geography, with Sugarloaf Mountain reigning in the most gawkers–and there it was, out there at its point, plopped in a city embedded in its natural surrounds.
We met our boss lady, Helga of Portugal. The owner, Teresa, was home in the UK, but I would Skype with her later about my work. Mayra became acquainted with the two dogs she would be walking, and her days were made busy with them in the morning, at midday, and in the evening. There were other staff as well, and a staff common room and kitchen on the bottom floor, just beside the jungle. Natalia from Cordoba, Argentina, there was Sabrina from Germany, Sahal from England, Adam from Colorado, and a few others. Mostly, though, I spent my time with Mayra.
I wrote our time in Rio de Janeiro in my notebook, and I find it legible enough to quote directly:
Rio has an obvious attraction. It’s the feeling in the street, no matter which street. There’s a diversity of people, and that they’re comfortable together is what makes you feel at ease. The skin black as blue, or white, or mixed or Hispanic or mixed, and often round faces which are bright, and something about movement in Rio is loud. We went to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, but otherwise we were bad tourists. As per Ipanema, why the song only mentioned one girl is beyond me. Young people are playful vendors are screaming, the road is near to the sand–a fluffy sand that’s darker and dirtier closer to the road. Women and men alike wear little, and everyone but the few tourists are bronzed. The buses back to Casa 579 take a long time, and they pass through the urban scape, which at every turn, there’s a jungle-covered hill, sometimes with a smooth rock face, like Sugarloaf Mountain is so famous for. You can see that iconic monument, a large mound, really, from the terrace. There’s a hammock where, after a morning of work on the blog and SEO, I find solace, with my view. The blog has given me the time to learn WordPress–I created it from scratch. The terrace has given me the time to think about why I want to be alone-why I’ll continue alone. Mayra even said it, that she wants to go back to Lima. Maybe talking about it makes us lame before each other. But we share our time now. The other day we visited a favela-1 of 3 residents live in these steep hillside brick and mortar shanty towns. The vistas over the white city, which seems spontaneous and random nestled in among the hills and unlikely geography–are expansive. In the favela, there’s a different vibe. There are many children, some flying kites and trying to imitate the slightly older pros. The roads all arrive to some part of the favelas, but there they stop, and the entryway is on foot, and it’s like passing the threshold to another world. The planes that land at the airport and fly over the city are visible from everywhere-even here, where you enter the small alleyways hugged tightly by the spontaneous constructions, and are suddenly trapped in a place that gives you only two options. Roofs and narrow stairways, and buildings that connect overhead, giving the feeling of a maze-and you’re not sure where it’s ok to walk. But these narrow spaces are active with people–mostly young and sitting around. There are “corner stores,” despite there being no corners. Then when it is late evening there are street lights that hum and change the colors and contrast, which cast shadows in places to hide forms that before you could see and were familiar to you. It can feel frightening, and when you’re reminded that armed gangs once controlled this favela, the space feels constricting, so you leave to the open views of a city lit, the black spaces marking bodies of water or large hills, and again you feel awe.
“We have to buy the ticket, so that we can appreciate these last days together,” I said. I hadn’t kissed her since Sao Paulo, but she was getting better.
She was looking at the table, and I watched her, the cityscape falling behind her from the terrace. She said to me with a neutral tone, “you really think that’s going to change how we are?”
“I think. I know.”
When that day came that we bought a ticket, it was a long one. We spent much of it on the terrace, where I read, and where she surfed the internet. Or where she read and I surfed. Christ the Redeemer was rather close, and we could make out the bowing of his head, and the folds in his robe. I thought how unfair that it holds the title of World Wonder, alongside such places as Machu Picchu and Rome’s Coliseum. Really, the fact that it’s a World Wonder is thanks to a good publicity campaign, just like Iguazu Falls. But then, the list shouldn’t even exist in the first place–it dilutes the importance of sites that otherwise are the Wonders’ equals. The bastards and their lists.
I found a ticket, which was a round-trip ticket, but which was less expensive than a one-way. So it goes.
We were together now, and she had let me kiss her. We were sprawled on the bed in the dormitory, looking at the passenger details we’d typed in.
“Why does it have to be like this?” she asked. “What if I came with you?” Her eyes were becoming tearful.
I told her she knew that the days of enthusiasm for having decided to be together would again tumble into chaos, like it did after Buenos Aires, like it did after Montevideo. Our petty frustrations would take over our minds. Her chest heaved. I hate it, damn it, to see her sad.
Oh, the madness of it all! Life, you bittersweet bastard, you throw one hell of a curve ball. You give us minds to think and want to grow, but then you give us hearts that want something different. You allow us to want two things so badly, and so equally, but which together are untenable, that we claw at ourselves in agony because it’s a damn horrible and terrible thing.
I told her that I needed my mind. I told her with great overflowing reserve that as long as I was with someone, I did not have control of my mind. Instead of thinking of new things, instead of learning Portuguese or considering the countryside, the people or the sky, I’m thinking of how I might have offended you, or how I should act so as not to hurt you, or of how oh!–damn it all I have chest exploding for you.
And then I said I dream of new continents. I said that I see it alone, I see myself, and I’m alone in those endeavors. And why the hell are you here, at the beginning of something I want to live so long? Why aren’t you at the end, or at the perceived end, where I can willingly forget the road and grab you and be sedentary somewhere where we can keep cooking great meals, and where you never grow tired of my games. The road is a treacherous place for games, for companionship. It’s a place where you have too much time to brood and think about the little things that annoy you about something–or someone–and alas there is only one other someone there, so you create them a demon and cast them into a purgatory of indecision, where they should be so lucky as to be considered still at least worthy of your company.
Then I told her my dream is to write and draw. I told her I love it. I told her the travel, coupled with the writing and the drawing, were my project, my life, something that I do, and not for money or recognition but because I find it excruciatingly important for some damn reason. It makes me think of a quote from the Hemingway book I still carry:
“A country, finally, erodes and the dust blows away, the people all die and none of them were of any importance permanently, except those who practiced the arts, and these now wish to cease their work because it is too lonely, too hard to do, and is not fashionable. A thousand years makes economics silly and a work of art endures forever, but it is very difficult to do and now it is not fashionable. People do not want to do it anymore because they will be out of fashion and the lice that crawl on literature will not praise them.”
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
But it doesn’t matter that I quote the man, because my heart doesn’t want to believe in loneliness, the thing that my mind is courting now, when I tell her that I’m leaving her, that she must think of it like that; that she cannot stay because I will not be with her if she does. But her tears and sniffling burn, and my mind struggles.
“We cannot keep this going. I’m going home. I cannot fly–it would make me a damn dirty hypocrite; no, I must rush over land and find my home again. I will not be happy, Mayra, I will be sad, but I am forcing myself,” I said.
“I know,” she replied through patternless breathing.
I made new explanations that I had not thought of before, but I let my mind have free rein. And the red chambers of the blood rusher were screaming and pounding out a heavy rhythm, trying to get my attention. But the explanation came out anyway… I need to travel how I travel, and I need my mind to be free of company. I don’t think a person is their true self when they’re in a relationship for anyone else but their partner. I think your mind is, consciously or subconsciously, always making room for the other person, as though your thoughts need validation from some vibe or glance. Perhaps you can be yourself with people who already know you, or when your partner is off somewhere, but when you’re always, always together, a new encounter seems bittersweet.
I watched my finger click “purchase,” the deal was done.
I saw then that we were together again. You realize what you have when you know you’re going to lose it; ours was lost somewhere between indecision and tension, but now, after a perpetual cycle of loss and rekindling, it would be loss.
Loss. It will not be now or in the near future that I will regret this, but when I’m an older man, and if I’m alone and crave someone. It will be when I’m tired and want to stop moving. I’ll think of her and lament. But now is no time to abandon the dream of something different; shun the normal template! and so many young people are sad.
“You know,” she said. “Every cell in my body, all of it, loves you.”
Sometimes, being cliche isn’t only OK–it’s warranted:
There’s a calm surrender to the rush of day
When the heat of the rolling world can be turned away
An enchanted moment, and it sees me through
It’s enough for this restless warrior just to be with you
And can you feel the love tonight
It is where we are
It’s enough for this wide-eyed wanderer
That we got this far
And can you feel the love tonight
How it’s laid to rest
It’s enough to make kings and vagabonds
Believe the very best
There’s a time for everyone if they only learn
That the twisting kaleidoscope moves us all in turn
There’s a rhyme and reason to the wild outdoors
When the heart of this star-crossed voyager beats in time with yours
The airport is cold. The seats seem built to be uncomfortable. Bright white lights turn everyone into a character. Seated people are bent in ways they’ll regret. We’d regret it–we slept there from 11pm, and at 4am we woke. An airport seems an apt purgatory.
When she had her boarding pass we stood away from the security gate line. I had my hood on, but water fell to the floor, or crashed off the rim of my glasses. I thought that, perhaps during these brief moments of goodbye, I was among the saddest people in the world.
“Look at me once more before you go in,” I said.
She put on her glasses. “I will.” She was crying.
“Ciao,” I said.
“Ciao,” she said.
She followed the guard rail to the suits, who checked her pass, then she turned and looked at me. And then, she was gone.
I thought I could see her red sweater through slits between the black glass of the security barrier. I walked back and forth, a hooded wreck, watering the floor, waiting for her to come back. She wouldn’t come back–of course not, I’d told her so many times not to. Damn it. You fool. You are a fool.
A trail of tears might as well be a trail of blood–they both lead to the bleeding. Mine fell to my feet and disappeared into movement. I walked out of the airport and down the road. Dawn came in blacks and oranges, which didn’t make any damn sense–there was no red.