Well it's finally about time to kick this blog back into gear. No doubt some of my readers may be concerned that my trip to Brazil resulted in some sort of kidnapping, or jungle mis-adventure. A couple of planes did crash into the Amazon on the day I flew into Rio and thankfully I was not at all involved.
I'll be telling this story via a series of blog entries so as not to drown you in the boring details. (Too late!)
The story on my trip down south really begins about a year ago, on New Years Eve -- the night I first got together with Long Beach Becky. We enjoyed a brief and casual romance over the course of the first few months of the year, but by the time my birthday rolled around in May, I kinda lost contact with her as she spent her last month or so in the States getting prepared to leave the country for a few years.
The two of us kept in touch via Email once she arrived in Brazil and I was a little surprised when, after a month or so I got an correspondence from her telling me which dates were the best for me to come visit.
When the idea was first brought up I was really looking at it more as a great opportunity to travel to South America over anything else. So I picked out a time to go and went about arranging my travel plans.
As the date of my departure drew closer, I became more and more anxious about what would happen between Becky and I on a more personal level. I knew what I wanted (I knew that I missed spending time together), but I really had no idea what she was thinking.
My instinct was to press the issue and figure everything out on the phone before I left, and since my instincts are generally 100% wrong in these situations I decided to just shut-the-fuck up and let things work out for themselves once I got there.
By the time I boarded the plane I had spent a month or so learning a little Portuguese, reading a bit on the history and cultures of the places I would be visiting, and preparing myself for a strictly platonic vacation (even though one look in my toiletries bag would give you quite the opposite impression).
I packed light and managed to fit everything I would need (along with some various things for Becky) into a carry -on sized bag. It was a large carry-on, but carry-on none-the-less.
It's a long day of traveling to get to Rio and I don' t really sleep well on airplanes, but I arrived in Rio on a cloudy and slightly rainy day, full of energy and anticipation.
Becky - who actually lives in a different city (about 6 hours away) - met me in Rio for the weekend and it was during the process of checking into our hotel where our "inter-personal situation" really worked itself out.
Specifically when the woman at the front desk asked us, "So would you prefer one large bed, or two singles?" There was some nervous laughter from LBB who hesitated -- looking at me and saying, "ummmm".
I figured any such hesitation would indicate she was thinking along the same lines as me and I said, "One big bed will be fine."
Rio is an amazing city. Most of our time there was spent in a very small section of it, but I got to see a bit more of it while driving in from the airport. Of course there are the Favelas -- which are hard to avoid. You see a lot of these slums while driving in from the airport. Eventually you drive through the mountain that is home to the famous Christ statue that overlooks the city, and you emerge in the famous costal region of Rio: Copabana, Leblon, Ipanema -- all right there.
Because the weather wasn't really co-operating, we mostly wandered around the city, went to great dinner (my first Brazilian Bar-B-Q), hit up a night club till the wee-hours and fell asleep in our hotel to the soothing sounds of some sort of porno coming from the room next-door.
After spending a couple days in Rio, Becky and I to Belo Horizonte, about an hour away by plane. Belo is where Becky lives and works, in a region of the city called Buritis. Most guidebooks describe Belo Horizonte as a good place to stop by on your way to somewhere more interesting in Brazil. However, a lot of Brazilians I talked to describe Belo as one of the most desirable places to live. It’s one of the safest large cities in Brazil and is well known for being home to some of the best food in the region.
The surrounding state of Minas Gerais also has a lot of interesting natural attractions, as well as some cool historical towns like Ouro Preto (more on that later).
Becky had to work most of the days I was there so I spent my time wandering around the various districts, talking with local people when I could, and sorta just exploring the area. It was cool to see where LBB is now living and working (I had a couple meals at the school where she teaches…surprisingly good meals actually). I fed some monkeys at Becky’s school, met a lot of her friends, went out to dinner and had a number of great meals. Stuff like that.
One of the more interesting places I went to was the Cerntral Mercado; a huge labyrinth of an indoor market in the center of the downtown area. Becky’s friend Trisha claimed it was one of the best places to drink beer and people watch in the world, so that’s just what I did. After letting myself get lost within a place that sold live chickens right next to the hair saloon, I wandered over to one of the many small bars, ordered a beer and a steak sandwich and enjoyed the sights.
On Tuesday, just a few days after arriving in Belo, a group of us went out to a soccer match in town. The local club (Galo – who’s mascot is a gigantic rooster) was playing a division 2 game against a team from Sao Paulo. Eduma, who is a Brazilian teacher at the school where Becky works, took care of arranging out tickets and drove us to the game.
Everyone had a few drinks before leaving, and Rita and Eduma seemed to spend a large portion of the evening having a competition over who could cram the most curse-words into a single sentence. It was pretty much a dead-heat all night; although Eduma may have pulled away on the drive home as he shouted English profanity to everyone we passed by (assuring us that they didn’t understand what he was saying anyway).
We arrived at the stadium pretty early and the gates weren’t open yet, so we milled around the outskirts where a myriad of different vendors had small carts set up to sell food and drink. At some point Rita decided she needed to use the bathroom in a serious way and so Eduma approached one of the still closed gates in attempt to convince security to let her in for the restroom. They were unwilling to help but Rita (with her limited Portuguese skills) decided to press the issue herself. Amazingly she managed to break down the gatekeeper’s resolve and sprinted for the bathroom. She came back beaming with pride and decided that this incident was proof that she had finally become “fluent” in the local language. A point she brought up with great frequency for the rest of the evening J
The game itself was fantastic. The atmosphere in the stadium was top-notch. The throngs of supporters chanted, sang songs, and zealously celebrated each goal with raucous vigor.
This night was also something of a turning point for me in terms of my alcohol consumption during this trip. Even though I had never previously had more than one or two beers in one night, I somehow found myself knocking down 5 or 6 during the course of this game. I would have thought that woulda spelled trouble for me, but I didn’t really feel much. This basically green-lighted my increased level of consumption for the rest of the trip.
Of course most of us had put away our fair share of beers, but that didn’t stop Eduma from driving us home that night (with a beer in hand actually). Throw in the fact that there was no working seat-belt where I was sitting and I’ll go ahead and admit to being slightly uncomfortable with the whole situation.
Speaking of discomfort: the drive home yielded yet another fabulous adventure in bladder control, this time for LBB who went from, “I need to pee but I can hold it till we get home” to some sort of “code-red, emergency” over the course of about a half hour or so. The drama intensified every five minutes when Eduma would insist we were only TWO minutes away from a bathroom stop.
Finally we had to just pull over and let the poor girl relive herself in the weeds on the side of the road. The punch-line of course is that we soon discovered that at that point, home literally was only 2 more minutes away.
Becky’s schedule on the week I was in town to visit was actually really light. Most of her students were out of school for something called “tournament” which, from what I could gather, was like a week-long sporting event that most of the kids participate in. I guess in lieu of having team sports that take place once a week over a few months they just pack it all into one long week of competition.
This was a happy coincidence because it meant that she was available to go out at nights and even take a day off for our trip to Ouro Preto.
On Wednesday night we boarded a bus and headed to the small colonial mining town of Ouro Preto. The bus ride out was really pleasant since it afforded us a great view of the landscape in between the bustling urban area of Belo Horizonte and the quiet hamlet of Ouro Preto.
At one point, when we seemed to be at the most remote part of the drive we passed some sort large campus, full of clean, modern buildings and marked off by a concrete sign with a well lit symbol. It was just sitting there in the middle of nowhere, nestled into the dense foliage of the mountainside. I’m pretty sure it was some sort of super-villain’s secret genetics lab or something. Becky was not quite convinced.
We arrived at our destination just after nightfall. Despite having a specific pension in mind, a local “guide” spent some time trying to convince us to lodge elsewhere while procuring a taxi for us. He was pretty persistent but we held our ground and were soon off to the Hotel Colonial in the heart of town.
The town itself reminds one of a small village in Italy or France. All the streets are uneven cobblestone, and the architecture of all the buildings harkens back to the 18th century, when it’s proximity to rich mining veins made it one of the wealthiest cities in the world. While we were here we saw a picture of what the town looked like in it’s colonial hey-day and it’s pretty much unchanged since then (at least as far as outside appearances go).
In terms of things with Becky and I, this was a particularly memorable evening. Now that I think about it was the last time (and one of the few overall) that we would be together for just the two of us for the whole night. Ouro Preto is still known for its gemstones, so we spent a good portion of the evening in and out of jewelry stores looking at the wares offered by all sorts of local jewelers and artisans. We had dinner at a cool little place close to the heart of town called Café Gerais, and afterwards just retired back to our room with some ice cream, a bottle of wine, and some Brazilian “Deal or No-Deal” (Topa o nao Topa) on the television.
The next day (after trying to rearrange our room to hide the wine stains) we wandered around the town more. This meant visiting a lot of churches, as well as the market place that is home to another local commodity: soapstone sculptures.
We had hoped to do a bit of hiking around the outskirts of town as well, but it turned out we didn’t quite have enough time for it. That afternoon we headed back to Belo, stopping at the local supermarket in preparation for our upcoming travels, and spent the rest of the evening packing and doing laundry.
The second half of my travels in South America began with an over-night bus ride from Belo Horizonte to Rio. It’s about a 6-hour ride that began at the bus terminal at midnight. The coaches are pretty cozy and comfortable with huge seats that recline almost all the way back. Normally I would sleep pretty well in this situation but it was so hot and stuffy that I found it nearly impossible to do anything but doze off now and then.
One of the more surreal moments my trip was about half way through this bus ride. The bus pulled into a terminal that was very much like a truck stop. Becky (who had taken this ride before) told me that usually this place was almost empty and very quiet, but on this particular day – at something like 3 in the morning – the place was packed. There was a large building that was primarily a restaurant (which was absolutely hopping) a few bathrooms, and a little store
What made this so strange was the complete lack of any reference. It was dark and a little foggy out, and there were almost no lights anywhere except this stop. All this conspired to make the place feel like it was seriously in the middle of nowhere. We could have been on an island in the middle of the ocean…miles from land. It was just me, Becky, Justin, Rita, and about a hundred other Brazilian travelers.
We arrived in Rio the next morning at about 6:00 and toyed with the idea of going to find some breakfast before heading to the airport but in the end we just crabbed a taxi and checked in a few hours before our flight. The Rio Airport does have one tourist attraction though…and that’s the ridiculous announcer. You will never hear someone on a PA quit like this woman who sounds like she’s constantly orgasming into the microphone while announcing flight schedules.
Our flight out to Iguacu was pretty interesting as well. Our pilot was doing all sorts of crazy things like randomly going into steep climbs -- than cutting the throttle and “coasting” a bit. He also did an old-fashioned Top Gun move and “Buzzed the Tower” once before landing for real -- lots of excitement.
After all that we finally arrived in Iguacu late in the afternoon of the 7th, we checked into our hotel and immediately headed over to the Argentina-side of the largest waterfall system in the world. Words really fail to describe this place. It’s completely unreal. We were also fortunate to arrive on the eve of a full moon. As a result we were able to sign up for a moonlight tour of the “Devil’s Throat” – the top of the falls. It was mostly a cloudless night and the moonlight turned the Iguacu River pewter silver. It was very cool.
We also met another traveler that night who helped us get along in Spanish while we were trying to arrange for the tickets to get into the park. He was actually working in San Diego last year before selling his house and quitting his job to go traveling. He had some great stories and was very helpful to have around as a translator.
We spent most of our next day back at Iguacu, but this time on the Brazilian side. There is actually something of a debate as to which side has the more impressive view of the falls. Unfortunately our group didn’t quite realize how things worked on the Argentina side of the falls and so we missed out on seeing a large portion of what that side had to offer.
The Brazilian side was plenty impressive though. The site of the falls is so massive that each viewing platform offers something completely different, even though you’re still looking at the same waterfall.
Additional entertainment was provided on this day by the Coatis (medium-sized raccoon-like mammals) that are all over the park. Most of our fellow tourists were completely charmed by these little critters and had to problems approaching them with the intention to feed and pet the critters.
Becky was initially pretty skeptical of this maneuver, pointing out various Coatis features like, “large claws” and “sharp teeth”. This mild skepticism quickly turned to boiling hatred once we watched one of the “creatures” leap up on a well-meaning tourist, grasping her leg with all four of its paws, and basically hump the lady.
They were not shy. At the lunch area above the falls, I watched one leap up onto a table where some other people were eating and grab half their food and scamper off into the jungle with it.
I overheard another tourist that day refer to these lil guys as “Perro Peligrosso”. Becky had more colorful names. Like, “those god-damned, mutant, hell-creatures”.
On Sunday the 8th, we bade farewell to Brazil and headed on into Paraguay. Iguacu is right on the border so it was just a simple matter of grabbing a taxi and driving on in.
First we had to deal with the border officials, it was our first Paraguay experience and it for-shadowed something very important: In Paraguay I was the fucking MAN.
The deal is this: For almost every country in South America, United States citizens need visas. I had procured my visa for Paraguay while taking care of my Brazilian one. The rest of my companions were unable to get their visas because the only place they could have really taken care of it was an hour flight away in Sao Paulo. So after missing work, purchasing a plane ticket, and buying the visa itself, the whole process would have been very, very expensive.
Becky, Justin, and Rita had all hoped that by presenting their un-laminated Brazilian ID they could slip into Paraguay unchallenged. As it turned out they had to fall back onto Plan B: Bribery.
This was still a bit of an ordeal. The boarder official kept holding up their paper ID’s, and Americano passports, shaking his head disdainfully and pointing back towards Brazil. Every now and then he’d hold up my passport (the one with the visa), point to me and say, “you’re good”.
Good. Me. In other words…I’m the man.
Eventually everyone else paid thirty bucks or so (which clearly went right into this guys pocket) and he stamped everyone with a 5-day “in-transit” visa. At the end of the day they got away paying less than I did, so it was all-good. Actually I was “good”, but they all figured out there shit, and it probably helped that at least ONE of us had proper papers.
At this point we were all low on cash so Justin exchanged what he had left in Brazilian reals, and distributed that to the rest of us and with that we bought our bus tickets from Ciudad Del Este to Villarrica.
Paraguay was a great experience. It stood out in contrast to the bombastic adventure of Iguacu falls, which was operatic in its grandeur (I’m not sure what that last sentence really means but it feels appropriate). Paraguay was quiet, mellow, and oppressively warm. Most of the country is agrarian, and a large percentage of those people are purely substance farmers. The viewable scenery from our bus was mostly that of wide-open plains, big skies, and small roadside towns. Every building we passed was either a small home or market. Everyone seemed to be just sitting out on his or her porch, sipping drinks and talking.
Villarrica, the town we stayed in, is described as “the cultural center” of Paraguay and is home to a number of universities. I would definitely compare it to a small college town here at home, at least in terms of size. It’s certainly no metropolis, but large enough to have most anything you need. You can even drink the tap water in Villaricca – something that’s not advisable back in wealthier Brazil.
While in Paraguay we stayed with Becky’s sister Regina who is working in the Peace Corps. We also got to meet her boyfriend (also a Peace Corps volunteer) and a number of other Peace Corps peeps while there. Conversations with all these people helped to paint a vivid picture of the people and culture of Paraguay.
We were told about the rampant corruption and the lack of private industry that conspire to keep the country in the economic doldrums. We were told about the general “tranquillo” nature of most of the people you meet, about how coupling frequently comes down to a financial transaction (Travel tip #1 for dudes looking for hot Paraguay action. You can get a lot with a simple phone card. Travel tip #2 watch out for STDs dude). We talked about the fertility of the soil (you can simply pick fruit off the trees while walking the streets of Villarrica), and how the farmers are not well versed in modern techniques, which means lots of waste and low profits.
Because were pretty far from the tourist attractions like the Jesuit ruins and other national parks, we spent our days in the hot sun, drinking beers, and walking around town. This actually leads me to the second reason why I was the man in Paraguay. Justin, Rita, and Becky all were carrying Brazilian bankcards. None of these cards worked in the Paraguay teller machines. Regina (being a volunteer) wasn’t really financially prepared to support us, so it was up to me – the wealthy American.
I went to the bank and took out a million Guarani (local currency), and spread it out amongst the whole group. We went to the store and I bought groceries for the whole group including a bunch of “expensive” imported Coronas (1 dollar per beer). On the whole I kept 5 people fed and drunk for 4 days and it actually only cost me about 120 dollars.
The last way in which I was the man was by bringing out my card game San Juan and introducing everyone to it. As I first began laying out the game and describing the rules I noticed familiar looks of skepticism. I saw the eyes rolling. I head the mutterings, “this seems awfully complicated”. 10-minutes later the game was in full swing and everyone had clicked with it. They were talking trash, throwing out lingo like, “I think that Guild Hall strategy might be unbeatable”, and generally became the primary diversion for the next few days.
I was quite proud.
Despite being hot and sunny for pretty much the whole trip, a turbulent thunderstorm rolled in on us on our last night in town. I say out in the courtyard of where we were staying and looked up into a sky that was full of angry looking clouds that burned with an eerie orange glow and barked out rumbling thunderclaps. At the risk of being overly dramatic, this may have been a bad omen for the conversation I was about to have with LBB.
So what had originally began as an opportunity to travel South America with someone who already was living there had morphed into something very different.
From the first day that I arrived and met Becky in Rio de Janeiro, she and I were essentially “together”. More than that – It felt to me that we were more of a “couple” than we were while we were dating here in the states. Over the course of those two weeks, we had certainly spent more time together than we did over the course of our entire relationship back home. In my mind, everything was working. I learned a lot about Becky in the process and the more I learned the more impressed I was. The more I enjoyed being around her.
So during out last night in Paraguay as our time together was drawing short I decided it was about time to have a short discussion about what was in store for us after I returned home. I wouldn’t say I was quite so deluded into thinking that I could just move down to Brazil and be happy-ever-after. However I knew what I felt for Becky and I knew that I wanted to be with her…even if it was impossible.
In a practical sense I didn’t really know what I wanted. I knew we couldn’t have a “relationship” with me in California and Becky in Brazil. That’s clearly stupid. I guess what I wanted was to hear her tell me that she wished there was some way for this to all work out. I guess what I wanted was something like hope? I don’t know. It’s very hard to reconcile what I know is realistic, and the pie-in-the-sky romantic side of my personality.
Before moving on to anything I had to determine exactly what Becky felt about me. Over the course of the weekend everything FELT very close -- very good. Based on what I was getting from her behavior and attitude towards me, the question, “how do you feel about me” at first seemed redundant. When I asked it the answer I got was, “Well…I mean…I like hanging out. But I’m here and your there”. This wasn’t exactly an expression of the longing I was hoping to hear…
On Wednesday afternoon we said farewell to Regina and headed back to Ciudad Del Este. The boarder town isn’t quite as quaint as Villarrica and we played it safe and stayed off the streets at night and lounged around our dumpy hotel room.
The next day we roamed around the local street markets (well known for their cheap electronics) and than headed for the airport and back to Rio. Once again Rio blanketed by thick grey clouds and subjected to occasional drizzles. No Bikini-filled beaches for me.
The four of us arrived in time to check in (where I received some extremely confusing instructions on how to operate the rooms air-conditioning -- Instructions that seemed to involve a lot of dialing the operator and front desk -- Instructions that I later by-passed in favor of ripping the cord out of the wall.) and walk down to a decent little restaurant that overlooked Ipanema beach. It was here that I tried my first and only caipirinha: a Brazilian cocktail made with sugar-liquor. Despite having plenty to drink throughout the course of this trip, that ONE caipirinha was the first thing that got me feeling really “affected”.
My last day in South America was spent hiking and sightseeing at “Pao De Azucar” – the distinctive rock formation known to English-speakers as “Sugarloaf”. It was a great little hike through a bit of jungle. We saw some monkeys, found a dog that adopted us for much of the hike, and (despite the low hanging clouds) got some exceptional views of the city of Rio.
Soon though it became time for me to get back to the hotel so I could shower up and head off to the airport. I hugged LBB goodbye and boarded the taxi and headed home. What an exceptional experience overall. The combination of being in a new and different place, experiencing Brazil and South America for the first time, and my personal experience with Becky made for some extremely happy two weeks.
I’m not sure if I can sum up the whole Brazil experience. First of all…Brazil is a huge and diverse place. The 10 or so days I spent there are hardly enough time to get a feel for the whole place. You couldn’t spend 2 weeks in San Diego and claimed you’d experienced America, and the same is true of Brazil.
That said I still felt like I got a good introduction to a lot of what makes it special. Especially when it comes to the warmth of the people who live there.
One thing that was NOT as advertised: Brazilian Women. I know that people associate Brazil with legions of gorgeous, lusty women, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. Which is not to say it was filled with ugly women either. There were pretty people and not-so-pretty people. It didn’t seem special in that respect – at least compared to Southern California.
As far as LBB goes, I’m really not sure how to understand that situation. Sadly I think that I find myself in one of those lopsided “I like you more than you like me” situations. I am also aware of a couple important factors that may or may not govern the intensity of my Saudade. The first is that it’s pretty common for someone to develop a more intense longing for things that are out of reach. I recognize that part of me is probably caught in the grip of wanting something more because it’s unattainable.
Secondly, it would be foolish to ignore the unique and special circumstances surrounding our time together. I think that the extra stimulus of being on a vacation like this can sorta take everything else to the next level. I don’t mean to say that this artificially heightens emotions, but it’s fair to say that vacationing through South America is different from what a day-to-day relationship would be like.
On the other hand, spending all that time together is still a pretty good indicator of how well you really get along with someone. Fact is, I think we are a good team and I know that I genuinely care for her.
So where does that leave me. The honest answer is I’m not really sure. Since the conversation in Paraguay, I think I’ve managed to talk myself into believing that “I like hanging out” is less an honest expression of apathy towards me and more the result of less-than-perfect communication skills combined with an sensible unwillingness to commit to someone who lives like 10,000 miles away from you. I figure I got a 40% chance of being right there.
Another thingI want to stress is how important it is to me that Becky have the best possible experience in Brazil. To that end, I really don't want to be any sort of impediment. She's in such a unique position (I'm frankly quite jealous) and I want her to be able to make the most of it, without distractions.
I still get to talk to LBB fairly frequently and I should even get to see her again for a few days in December. I’m still a little unsure of what I really want. It’s still hard for me to get past what’s reasonable, what’s possible, and what takes place in fantasyland.
So I think the solution is to just sort of wait and see. I think there’s a good chance that I could go back to South America in the summer and travel the Amazon and Peru with Becky and her friends. Who knows…I mean. There are certainly ways in which I can make it possible to spend a few months away from work and home without jeopardizing the future I’ve been working towards for the last few years.
In the meantime, I can’t really keep myself from at least dating around a little. I know she wouldn’t wait for me. I mean…I don’t even think the chances are good that she’ll return to Southern California when she’s done in Brazil. So I know I need to keep myself open to the possibility of meeting other people, although it’s still hard for me at this point to generate interest in other women.
The short way of saying all this is I’ll just have to take things as they come I suppose.