A long, sleepless bus ride through rural Brazil deposits me at a bus station in the north of Sao Paulo, where I squeeze past the skinny Brazilian woman whose fleece blanket kept tickling me all night, sending me into a tactile panic about mosquitoes, bed bugs, and the like several times an hour. Thankfully, there is a direct metro line to Republica Square from the bus terminal, where I hope to be sitting and drinking coffee in under an hour. This goes as planned, and the cafe I find also sells coxinhas, a strange teardrop-shaped pastry filled with shredded chicken meat. My coffee-and-coxinha breakfast is delicious, and I wait to charge my phone before exploring Republica Square.
In the park, a man is getting arrested for some reason, and no one seems surprised or even interested. I also walk past an enclosure where a magician is doing tricks to techno music, for the entertainment of a kindergarten or first grade class. On my way to find an unoccupied bench, I walk by people in their late twenties and early thirties standing a few yards apart, giving the vibe that they know each other but don’t want to seem like it. They’re not looking at phones. In fact, they’re not doing anything. It seems they aren’t trying to look out of place, and just trying to blend in. I am doing the same, as I am clipping my fingernails into a bush, and don’t want anyone to notice.
Somewhere along the line, and in some cultures but certainly not all, clipping your nails became a dirty thing. I agree, it is a dirty thing, but a thing I have to do nonetheless. My problem is, I never notice that my fingernails are too long at the right moment. It’s always when I am in public that I look at my hands and realize I need to clip my nails, and stat. It’s like an itch: when it needs to be scratched, it needs to be scratched. As I clip, I start wondering what these folks are all doing. I see two people walk up close to one another, not making eye contact. One of them passes something to the other and I’m curious what drugs make people deal in this calm, cool way. They aren’t shaking, so I’m thinking it isn’t too addictive, and quite frankly I can think of a million better places to be dealing drugs than a park with police at every corner. I finish clipping and walk over to the enclosure to watch the magician, who is just wrapping up his act, and sit down on an empty bench. Then, I see the two mysterious figures peeking into the enclosure, and I realize they are parents waiting to pick up their kids. Obviously, I don’t have any kids myself but I can imagine how hard it must be to have scheduled pickup times that run late, where you are basically forced to wait with other parents with whom you have much in common through your kids. Imagine the pressure at having to socialize with these other tired people who just happened to be having sex the same year you were. Absolutely dreadful. If I was facing that every morning and afternoon, I’d make myself look like a criminal too. And a dangerous one at that. Or maybe a prostitute.
Brazilians have been nothing but welcoming and friendly to me so far, which is why I didn’t expect such overt covertness in a public park. Every interaction I’ve had has been nothing but joy at having a American Ruby League Duolinguist in their presence. Perhaps big-city wariness plays a part, too. Sao Paulo is the largest city south of the equator, and this comes with its own problems. While Sao Paolo is certainly one of the safer cities in Brazil, this often does not spark confidence in many travellers due to the sheer number of Brazilian cities that, for instance, have the highest murder rates. During the daytime, I feel perfectly safe, and am only slightly deterred by all the people wearing backpacks in front of them to prevent theft, and the occasional street prostitutes openly waiting for customers on street corners and in parks.
I spend a couple of hours on the Sao Paulo free walking tour, a three-and-a-half hour tour of buildings, dates, and parks, all of which are broadcasted via a microphone and sound system strapped to our tour guide’s hip. Naturally, I do not make it the whole tour, and leave at half-time to explore the city’s many parks, libraries, and cafes on my own.
At night, my Uber to the airport is operated by, perhaps, one of the more interesting drivers I have ever seen behind the wheel. Prior to my trip, I had read a few articles about Uber in Sao Paulo. While crimes committed against passengers tend to be fairly uncommon, Uber drivers are frequently hijacked, especially in lieu of Uber’s decision to allow drivers to pay cash in the city. This is meant to target more riders who perhaps don’t have credit cards or bank accounts. As a result, Uber drivers carry cash and are more likely to be victims of armed robbery.
My driver, who strictly follows the route to avoid making me fearful, also makes sure to drive fast through the obviously dangerous neighborhoods. Looking at his reviews, he scores a fairly average 4.5, and all of his complaints are about speeding. It is interesting to be in a situation where exceeding the speed limit actually is the safest way to drive. I am reminded of the line from Bruce Springsteen’s eternal song “Johnny 99”:
“Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop
Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top”
My suburban Connecticut existence has largely kept me from such place, although I run more than a few stop signs in my day and am far from leaving a bad review from my stoic driver who seems more afraid of me than I of him. I give him five stars for the experience.
At the airport, I check in extremely early for no reason other than the fact that it is late and I don’t want my Uber to get hijacked heading to my 12:40 am flight to Lisbon. With all of the time I have I sit in the airport Olive Garden and eat endless salad and breadsticks, to the point where the waitress starts ignoring me for fear that I will consume their entire stock of cheap iceberg lettuce and vinegar. I finally get the check, pass through immigration, and board my flight, popping a sleeping pill with hopes of waking up on the glorious continent of Europe, where you can actually flush your toilet paper.
An Inevitable Episode of Schadenfreude
I come to the last country on this continent-crossing expedition and I am relieved, to say the least, though I have no reason to be. On my right leg, I count five insect bites, while on my left I count anywhere from three to six. What is a mosquito bite and what is the work of a bedbug is unclear at this time. I know I have to delouse myself before hopping into bed at the hostel tonight, and I know that it will potentially take weeks, as it did last time, for the bites to stop itching. Worse than all of this, however, is the fact that I’ve already used the term “Parisian parasites” to describe the last time I got bedbugs, and now if I used “Paraguayan parasites” it would seem I was overusing this particular alliterative quip. In addition to washing myself and my gear, I also have to find a printing company open on a Saturday afternoon to get my bus voucher for the following day’s trip to Sao Paolo. It is shaping up to be a fairly busy day in Foz do Iguaçu.
At this night’s hostel, the woman at the front desk (hosteless?) cannot check me in until 2pm, but is happy to let me shower and use the bathroom. I express my gratitude with virtually every word in my Portuguese vocabulary, uttering a dozen obrigados before disrobing in the downstairs shower. From my backpack, I take out the only T-shirt that didn’t touch my bed, and my quick-dry athletic shorts (co-sponsored by Goodwill and New Canaan Athletics. Go Fightin’ Rich Kids!). I place the shorts under the faucet and blast boiling water on it which, to be honest, I probably should have also done after buying it from Goodwill. There’s a first time for everything, even washing secondhand clothes. I wring out the shorts and hang them far from my bag, and hop into the hot shower, scrubbing every inch of my body with likely carcinogenic citronella soap. When I hop out, I change into the shirt and shorts which, though still wet, are thankfully not see-through, seeing as I am, as they say, “going commando.” When I leave my uninfectable, non-cloth goods at the front desk, the woman tries to convince me to do my laundry there.
“It is only twenty Reales for five kilos,” she says, and I realize I cannot give her my now-colonized clothing as it could lead to a further outbreak and my removal from the hostel.
“I’d rather not,” I say, as the last thing I want to do is sic an army of insects on an unsuspecting family, “there’s another place that’s 8 Reales per kilo, I think that will be cheaper.”
“Ok, we’ll charge you twenty for five kilos, or four reales per kilo.” I try to think of a rational counterargument.
“I’m leaving early tomorrow and I see you dry your clothes outside. I don’t think my clothes will be dry in the morning,” I say in Spanish. I take my things and wave a friendly goodbye before she can argue back.
The streets of Foz do Iguaçu are unlike those in any other country I have visited before, and not just because the signs are in Portuguese. Everyone I interact with seems genuinely friendly and sociable. Not to mention, everyone is genuinely happy to hear my terrible Portuguese, appreciative that I didn’t just learn the much more commonly spoken South American language of Spanish and wander into their country to take a picture of a waterfall then get out as quickly as I can. At the lavanderia, the worker teaches me to say “Bom Dia” (“Good Day”) rather than “Bem Dia” (“Well Day”), which I utter before leaving, much to his amusement. He tells me to pick up my clothes at five, or after five. I’m too embarrassed thinking about how I’ve been saying “good day” wrong this entire time—despite studying Brazilian Portuguese for over a year—to decode what he is saying. I continue back to the hostel to try and print my bus ticket.
When I arrive there is a new person working at the front desk and I ask, after Googling how to say “printer” in Portuguese, if I can use theirs for a Real or two. He tells me they do not have one, from across a desk with a fresh ream of copy paper on it. Over the next half hour, he helps me search for printing facilities in town, giving me keywords to search into Google, so I naturally begin to wonder what they are doing with a ream of copy paper if not using it to print. The hostel is essentially operated as a family business, and as I look around I start to see drawings of dinosaurs that one of their kids likely drew, all of which are scribbled on crisp white copy paper.
It is 3 pm on a Saturday, and all the print shops that are open on Saturdays have been closed since noon. My second option is to find a hotel with a functioning printer, and I locate the Ibis Hotel downtown on my phone as a prime candidate. In St. Petersburg the prior January, I stayed in an Ibis Hotel where they happily issued me a certified Russian letter of invitation gratis, provided I booked in their hotel. “If they are capable of getting Americans into and out of Russia,” I think, “then they must be able to print a simple bus ticket.” I walk another mile to the hotel, where the cheery front desk attendant is happy to print out the ticket for me at no charge. I am elated. Next, I stop by a pharmacy for a cool drink, then I am further distracted by a 5-Reals-and-under ($1.25 USD) store. I buy another drink there, if only to get a plastic bag to carry my laundry in. Next to the soda aisle, there appears to be an entire rack of colorful bottles of juice, like the cheap ones that they sell in the US for kids, only in Brazil they have about 20% alcohol. “If this was America…” I begin to think. But this is not America, and that is the sole reason I am here: to see the nonAmericas.
I leave the store, sipping my soda, and stroll down to the laundromat. When I get there, it is 5:02 and the doors are locked. The lights are still on in the back, so I knock for thirty seconds. Nothing. I sit down on the curb for fifteen minutes, hoping that someone will enter or leave, so that I can pick up my clothes. That is to say all of my clothes except for a pair of almost-transparent athletic shorts and a single t-shirt. After fifteen minutes I give up, and begin walking back to my hostel. “Of course he meant ‘pick it up by 5 pm,’” I thought, “he was telling me the time the laundromat closed, not the time my stuff would be ready.” I assured myself that sleeping in shorts and a t-shirt would be fine, and that I could just pick up my clothes in the morning before my 1 pm bus.
That night I recline on my bed, reviewing some Duolingo Portuguese lessons, when the thought hits me: the locals couldn’t think of a functioning inkjet open on a Saturday. Why then, in this Catholic country, would I think I could pick my clothes up on a Sunday? My heart stops as I realize that I might either have to go without underwear, socks, and another set of shirts or pants until I meet my parents in Portugal the following week, or I will have to buy an entirely new wardrobe in South America. This could really put a dent into my round-the-world backpacking expenses. I decide to go back to the laundromat to check their hours, as it is clear I will not sleep tonight if this issue is unresolved. When I get there, the door is open and another guy is working the counter. I say ola and collect my clothes, asking him when the store closes and trying not to seem like their five o’clock shift-change gave me heart palpitations. He explained they stayed open until 9 pm.
As my heart returned to normal, I decided to celebrate my returned clothing with a celebratory dinner of cerveja and shawarma which, if you pronounce correctly, should be next to impossible to say five times in rapid succession. A block from the laundromat, two rotating sticks of kebab flood the sidewalk with the warm, primitive, aphrodisiac of meat on flame. I look at the menu, and the two sticks of different meats. The menu says there are two types of shawarma I can get: frango and misto. I know frango is chicken, so I assume misto is lamb based on the smoky, fatty smell that feels like a warm hug from a large Greek woman.
“Can I have one with both frango and mixto?” I ask in a dialect of Portuguese known only to myself.
“No this is not possible,” he says laughing right in my face. “Misto is the two. It’s two meats.”
I sheepishly realize what he is saying almost before he says it. Misto means “mixed.” I might as well have ordered chocolate-vanilla-vanilla-swirl. I apologize, saying what has become my catchphrase:
“I’m sorry, I learned Spanish before Portuguese, your language is hard for me.”
Not once has it gotten me out of trouble, as residents of this part of the world are generally able to manage both without breaking a sweat. On this side of the river, however, they particularly enjoy watching me sweat, and sweat a lot.
The shawarma-carver hands me my mixed meats atop a warm pita, with lettuce and a perfect amount of the ubiquitous yogurt sauce with which such a plateless dish must be served. I crack open a light, incredibly refreshing, local beer and happily down both.
“So you speak Spanish, yeah?” he asks.
I tell him I do, and that I just came zigzagging to Iguaçu from Ecuador. He calls into the back that I’m an American who speaks Spanish, and a few minutes later out parade two thin men wearing Venezuela hats. We speak for a few minutes while they pay their tab. He asks for support, for help, not to me but to my people so that he can return to his country where hunger and desperation are rampant. He wants peace, and he thinks either I or my country can bring it. I wish him good luck and he bids me safe travels. He is happy to meet me, and his presence is a warm one.
Back in bed, I read and start to relax, though the open window is making me anxious about more bites that evening. My legs itch like hell, from the now-dry waistband I have been walking around in all day, to the ankles covered in mysterious red bumps. However, I have inexplicably reclaimed my gear, like Sancho Panza reclaiming his trusted, reliable Dapple, and I am ready for wherever the next adventure takes me. In the night a middle-aged Brazilian man from Salvador talks to me about his newfound love for solo travel, giving me a terrific opportunity to practice my Portuguese. When I run out of Portuguese and just start pronouncing Spanish words funny in the hopes that they become Portuguese, I realize it is time to say boa noite and boa sorte to my fellow wanderer and conclude a long day of wandering myself.
Learn a Language with Vìctor: Answers
1. ¿Dónde está Brasil?
2. No, no quiero comprar calcetines.
3. ¿Por qué? Porque ya tengo dos.
4. Claro. Están sucias porque no las he lavado en dos semanas.
5. ¿Eres mi mamá? Suenas como mi mamá.
6. No hablo portugués brasileño.
7. ¿Dónde está la salida desde paraguay?
8. No, no quiero un taxi allí. Sólo muéstrame.
9. Porque no tengo dinero. Esa es la razón.
10. ¿A dónde vas? ¡Tenía una pregunta!
Bonus (worth 2 points):
Por favor, no me des esa unidad flash que parece un Peppa Pig deformado. Soy un cleptómano. Yo lo robaré. ¿Crees que no lo he hecho antes?
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.