Who was it who said, "In Istanbul you can almost plausibly girlwatch"? Oh, right - the same guy who said, "Fast food doesn't satisfy appetite - it corrects it." Well within the first hour of a four-hour wait inside Guarulhos airport, you can review an awful lot of your life's work, and not just the parts that led directly to your being marooned in São Paulo. By the time my flight to Fortaleza was called, who knew what I'd be up to - the winning word I'd spelled in every fourth-grade spelling bee?

Despite loose talk of kayaks and Colombia, I decided this Brazil visit would be an old-fashioned one: cover lots of miles every day, reading and watching and listening and at times making bold and even talking. After some hesitation, the kind that assails a man when he divides one foreign number by another foreign number in his head and the quotient is $450, I did what I had really wanted to do all along, and bought that ticket. It would take me clear to the other end of the country, to a city I hadn't seen in 21 years but which I recalled as attractive, and it would instantly give this project direction and depth: back to São Paulo, through lots of places I hadn't ever seen.


"John" is a fairly common name in South America, or would be if South Americans knew there's only one place the "h" belongs. The lady at the tourism kiosk in the Fortaleza airport at least spoke it as if she knew. I'd asked for a map and said I was heading out by bus, and she answered, and then for her own recordkeeping - somebody does monitor what tourism kiosks do - asked me my citizenship, hometown, and name. I was about to spell it (I pride myself on knowing the alphabet in Portuguese) but I didn't even get the jota out, never mind the agá: at once, for reasons I couldn't guess, she became 110% helpful, making phone calls, finding me what may have been the one vacant room in this big seaside town. I knew it was summer and therefore summer vacation, but it had never occurred to me all those vacationers would have come here and locked me out. But "John" was the open sesame, and apparently to keep it open, the lady repeated it in almost every sentence.

So I was nicely ensconced, just three blocks from the beach, and fewer to a very large fast-food place called Habib's. The logo was of a leering mustached man in a fez; the apostrophe was a crescent; I noted this because I'd just read a review of a children's show that groused about its resorting to ethnic stereotypes. A fashionable disdain - I am not certain non-journalist Brazilians would care or even know what a stereotype was. Years earlier, I'd met a girl on a beach in Florianópolis who told me there was a popular song titled Nego John. And sure enough, when I switched my radio to AM (always a wrench), there it was. Nego might mean "sweetheart" or it might mean "pal" or it might mean "black guy," but I don't think it ever means "black guy so deny him that housing loan."

Anyway, I thought I might at last try sfiha, since it was right there in front of me, but instead I checked in at a grimy little pizzeria because the beer looked icy and was. With the guys, I watched a soccer game on TV. As I was leaving, I decided to pop the question. I asked the proprietor, "What do you think of this game?" Secretly meaning, of course, come on, pal, admit it, the score CLAWED its way up to 1-1 - if I showed you two sleeping gerbils and told you they were having a mindreading contest, you'd find that more exciting! The guy had indeed been bored, but for a reason I didn't guess: he was a Flamengo fan and these two teams were from São Paulo. I got the idea. "These paulistas!" I crowed, chucking my hands at the screen in despair. "Who cares!" The guy enjoyed that.

I walked down my meal on a long jetty. The breeze off the black Atlantic was stiff and warm. Impulsively, I looked straight up and there were as Três Marias, Orion's Belt, exactly where I knew it would be. I was having a South American summer, the latest in a series, and felt pleased and confident.


The cabbie who took me to the bus station complained almost nonstop, but he was so genial I didn't mind at all. Grumping about the difficulties of being self-employed, he nevertheless made it clear self-employment suited his temperament, and he kept calling me Boy and Brother, and he slowed decently when we passed a very pretty girl. I liked him, and even interviewed him, as I always do whenever I meet a Brazilian who's been to Manaus. His brother (his real brother, not just another male fare) had told him about opportunities in that city, so in the considerable year of 1986, he took the 24-hour bus ride to Belém and the 6-day boat ride to Manaus, where he became...a wholesaler of women's and children's clothing. I very much enjoy hearing from people who really put the "go" in the phrase "go to work."

He was impressed that I had been to every Brazilian state. Showboating, I know, but it ain't braggin' if you've done it, and this does keep any conversation going. Two places I hadn't been, however, were Juazeiro do Norte in Ceará and Picos in Piauí. Today, I had to choose one. The cabbie told me something which rang a bell: Juazeiro was near Crato, a place of religious pilgrimage. On that subject he spoke levelly, and with a good-hearted but firm coda: "I believe in God, and stop right there!"

Had I been able to remember the Portuguese word for "Yiddish," I would have given him, with proper attribution, the proverb therefrom: "O homem pensa e Deus ri." As it was, I just chuckled and picked Picos, as the town less likely to attract throngs.

Either way, it was a deep tour of Ceará, whose capital is Fortaleza and for which Brazilian mythology reserves the status of O-most-disastrously-droughty, the national soul in sere crisp hopeless repose, a professional waterlessness, a...kooky esthetic imperative 'cuz hey, face it people, this place is green-zinho, OK? Almost exactly 21 years previously I'd bussed through at right angles to this and been struck likewise. Verdant dales? We've GOT 'em! Ceará is actually pretty good on the eyes.

True, after a torrentially flyblown lunch near Choró, I took a walk and heard what I can only call the arthropod crunch of some exceedingly humble weed underfoot. Natural selection had given it the idea that the more it resembled grizzled tarantula fur, the less the world would actively harass it. This land is hard. Almost everywhere there grew, or stuck out, a low tree like retama, a plant best described as unreliable. You know at once that it won't give fruit or shade; can't fault it upfront for that. But you latterly perceive it won't ever help you build a boat, or a desk, or a fencepost, and if you tried to carve a handsome walking stick from it, the thing would bow and snap the minute you leaned on it. On one property I saw a ladder made from the stuff, and I thought: is that guy crazy?

At the Piauí state line, Ceará quit and the hills gave way at once to flatness. Picos did have some peaks, though, which is more than I can remember about Aspermont, Texas. My hotel room number was 103, a good measure of touristic magnetism. But the place was substantial. In my mythology if not Brazil's, the state of Piauí is the true back of beyond. Why? I don't know. That's a disadvantage of long intimacy with a country: I forget where my dumb ideas ever came from. Piauí was supposed to be the sort of place that would envy Ceará. But this town was OK. Plus it had a fine line in shapely chicks on motorcycles - who knew? Maybe it was just the fact that in 1989, the capital, Teresina, had just one train per week: Wednesdays at 7 AM. I recall breakfasting on a banana while a humid wind coursed through the empty creaking carriage. You know: that kind of train. Somehow this all seems more benighted than having no trains, or breakfast, at all.


In those reviews of children's shows back in São Paulo, approval of one actor's "funny Northeastern accent" had been given. I am still unable to distinguish Brazilian accents. And here I was, right in the Northeast! (How did I know? Easy: my hotel room had wall-mounted hooks for guests who'd brought their own hammocks rather than use the bed.) Well, whatever my aural deficiencies, they were not shared. The waiter in the restaurant in Picos asked me if I was from Santa Catarina.

I was amazed. "I lived in Florianópolis," I answered. "But I'm American."

I thought he was making a wild guess: I talked funny and looked Southern, so split the difference between Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná, and pick the state that divides the two. But no, he was firm on Santa Catarina, and said he thought I'd lived there for years. Nope - just six months. I'm sorry to say I was astonished more than flattered. My Portuguese isn't that good, while that of the barrigas verdes is.

My next bus didn't leave 'til 11, which gave me plenty of time to get tired of Picos, which I did; but I still counted the whole experience worthwhile. Looking in vain for a post office, I saw enough to learn Picos wasn't just a single long noisy strip, an urban layout rare in Latin America: I've seen it occasionally in Mexico and Venezuela as well as inland Brazil. And on this particular strip I found a shop that fixed radiators, horns, and rearview mirrors. That was so Brazilian. Next week: sparkplugs!

What else had I done? Listened to the radio, which wasn't too bad. Even heard a couple of songs I liked. Little had I imagined, back around 1996 when Sandy e Júnior did their intolerably bouncy cover of Legião Urbana's Eu Sei, what a long disastrous decline we were in for. Maybe that was because in the same year, Barão Vermelho released Vem Quente Que Estou Fervendo, which not only smoked but whose title translated perfectly as "You're Hot? So What? I'm Boiling." But in 2010 there's a tunnel, I think, with a light at the end of it, maybe.

Watched a game show emceed by a Gene Rayburn lookalike and gravitasalike. The contestants were supposed to pick up on word clues. One set of clues was "little bag," "rubber," and "pregnancy." The female contestant, genuinely surprised, asked, "Can I say that word on this show?"

Read, in a magazine, touching stories of Brazilian soldiers killed in the Haiti earthquake. (And by the way, learned the Portuguese for "zombie," a word I may never need, but man, I feel better just knowing I've got it in the clip.) Also read a column by Roberto Pompeu de Toledo, one of my favorite writers when you can keep him on Brazilian themes; Zilda Arns, luckily, was a great Brazilian theme. Funny how not enough people know dehydration is life-threatening not because of water loss but sodium loss, and that sodium uptake is coupled to glucose uptake; thus a very good rehydration mix is water/salt/sugar, the "little serum" Dr. Arns championed in Brazil as a means of reducing infant mortality. At age 75 she was championing it in Haiti when a rafter hit her in the head. "She died in combat," wrote Mr. Pompeu. Indeed she did. Let us salute her, and the Brazilians a third her age who wore the uniform.

And - this just before boarding the bus for Petrolina - read the society page in Meio Norte, a Teresina newspaper. We're a long long way from Tatiana Bubniak, but I for one still pine for this stuff. Reading gossip, and listening to kids: two underrated ways to study a foreign language.

Oh, and one more thing, while boarding the bus: a poll! A girl doing one for some highway department asked me how many family members I was traveling with and other questions of a highly personal nature. I enjoyed this, and cooperated fully. It was back in 2000 that I was last interviewed, in a Rio bookstore. I'd bought a dictionary - not Portuguese-English, but straight Portuguese, the kind a native would use. I was asked if I could have bought this book at a bookstore closer to home. Oh, no, I assured my questioner; I had to come here, to Rio, for this one.


For just the third time ever in Brazil - the first two times were in Fortaleza and Picos - I went jogging. Off the bicycle, I feel underexercised, but my fear of looking ridiculous, plus the granite fact that running isn't fun, has always kept me off Third-World streets. This vacation, though, I said what the heck. After all, Brazil has a phrase for it: fazer cooper, in long alien homage to an American doctor most Americans have never heard of.

The intent in Petrolina had been to run alongside the São Francisco, the biggest Brazilian river most Americans have never heard of. But I wound up on the bridge over it, and could not complain. The view was great. And now, in crossing from Pernambuco to Bahia, I could claim I'd run across a state line.

(With the beach in Fortaleza, the strip in Picos, and now this river, I was aware how lucky I was. On the last morning of the trip, trying to get into a groove in downtown Belo Horizonte, I was caused to remember a guy I'd read about on a Manaus sports page. He competed in Iron Man triathlons, but found the dead center of Amazonia a poor place to train. So, to further his career, he moved to...Paraguay.)

But back to Petrolina, a town I don't think you should visit or name a daughter after. On the '86 ride I'd crossed the São Francisco at Propriá, and later that day, lounging on a sunny deck overlooking the water, tall frosty in hand, I'd thought: this river 'n' me, we got a future. And maybe we and my kayak do. Right now, though, inspecting the stone path along the river, I could only smirk at how Northeastern it was of a pizzeria to put its outdoor tables facing, not the great serene river, but the narrow noisy two-lane.

And at breakfast the next morning, I thought how Northeastern it was that the staff put the little spoons as far as possible from the coffee things. On my '86 trip I was full to busting with stories like this. I will try to avoid retelling them now. Brazil had seemed so very weird. I don't know...you just have to be in a small room with all the windows shut and it's pushing a hundred degrees outside and you're both sitting in front of an unplugged fan and the other person says, "It sure is hot in here."

Meh! Feh! Interjections elude me, in any language. Please just trust me: Brazil in general, and its northeast in particular, was nuts.

Was. Not is - not mostly, anyway. Petrolina was OK. I mailed an important high-level postcard, then listened to some AM radio just to show how tough I was. The word "polyvalent" kept getting said, and I thought they were talking about vaccines for kids. Not quite - "polyvalent" seemed to be the name of a school, and they were definitely talking about kids. In this school, discipline was strict. One of the speakers used the verb baguncear in reference to the sort of kids who would be expelled if they did...whatever this verb means. Maybe the broadest and most neutral translation is "to show unwilling." But it's elastic, and stretches from "horsing around" to "fucking off."

I recalled the one other time I'd ever come across it. I had to check a map. Yes, it was in Itapiranga, a tiny town on an attractive oxbow downstream of Manaus. A poster advertised a local soccer championship, male and female divisions. First prize for the ladies: free movie rentals. And first prize for the gents: free movie rentals and a case of beer. But the guys had to be careful: baguncear was grounds for forfeit.

So: a productive morning, wouldn't you say? Onward, then, to Feira de Santana. This is a large ambiguous township near Salvador, and when I say that, you should say: well, why not just go to Salvador? Because as lovely as I remembered it to be, it would lengthen the next day's stage significantly, it would swing me too close to old and really tired memories, and because...I'm saving it. Salvador, like Rio de Janeiro and Florianópolis, is on my take-a-girl-there list.


We had a...troubled bus driver on the way to Feira de Santana. He was very afraid the a/c would let us down, and to make sure it wasn't overly taxed, he frequently came aft to scold us to keep the curtains drawn. I have met a million bus drivers and this was deeply strange behavior. And in Brazil! Sorry, here comes more Eighty-Six: back then, no bus had a/c, and passengers objected when I opened a window.

But I snuck peeks all the same. Had there been a set-to, I was confident my seatmates would defend my tourist's prerogative to view Brazil. They were very nice to me, very happy to hear of my trip, and by the way, had friends in Davos, Switzerland, which was like finding out Thomas Jefferson's love child's descendants were now setting world interest rates.

I should say a little bit about the terrain I was now giving metered glances to. Pernambuco, and now Bahia, lacked the thing I had come to dislike so heartily back then: sugarcane. I don't think there's anything good about a sugar economy, with its iron wedding to beastly labor, the allied armies of canecutters and legislators, to produce nothing more than firewater and cavities.

So what did I see? Until Minas Gerais, the next state after Bahia, rangeland, by which I mean fenced land, though only in Bahia did it get to the point of grassland. Goats seemed popular, though it doesn't take many goats, or many restaurants named Roast Goat, to skew my internal statistical faculties. (Anyway, what are these, pubs? 'Cause that's what the name sounds like!) But what really struck were...cacti. Whatever your vision of Brazil, I bet cacti are hardly in it. They were hardly in mine, until now.

Anyway, on to Feira de Santana. I had my suspicions. I had never been to it, and for no good reason at all, feared the worst. I had some vague idea of having read a single story about it, decades ago. Something about it being...what?...Brazil's biggest mover of...what?...used toys or something? Sounds unlikely, but this really is the sort of thing that would get a Brazilian town's name in a Brazilian newspaper.

Yes. I mean: No, I don't remember exactly. But: Yes, Feira de Santana looked totally capable of capturing, then defending against all comers, such a dismal commercial distinction. When tourists do nothing else, tourists shop, and that was the only way I could imagine why it was so hard to find a hotel room.

But, as always, and I mean 100.0000% of the time, things worked out. True, unlike 99.9999% of Brazilian cabbies, the one here took me to an unsuitable hotel, one way too expensive. ("It has a pool!" he said. "I don't want a pool," I said.) It cost nearly $100 a night. I had the money. But I just couldn't bring myself to spend it...here, on this. Look, I know I shouldn't talk dirty on a family website, but it shames me not at all to admit I am a male of only normal potency, and there was just no way I could receive and enjoy all the blowjobs this hotel would have to give me in return for what I would be giving it. No Brazilian hotel room could possibly be worth $100 a night.

I finally found a place that was all right. But there was a catch: the room would be available only after 7 PM. Creeping Northeasternism, I thought: the unprecedented complications just keep on comin'. But as I say, things worked out. I went around the block to wait it out with a cold one, and there I had a most interesting conversation.

It was with the proprietor, and it started poorly. He pronounced Kaiser (a brand of beer) Kezeh, and had to say it several times before I savvied. Then, as I got into my cups, a girl came up and said something about a smock. Huh? I guess I look reliable: if you've lost your smock, ask John. But no, she hadn't lost one. She started to explain what a smock was, but I told her I already knew. Then she asked if she could sit down. "Not if you're selling a smock," I answered.

As it turned out, that was what she was doing: the proprietor confirmed it. And while he and I were talking (the girl having smiled, shaken my hand warmly, and left), a very young man came in and made a pitch for a blender. Just like that. The proprietor (the kid wisely skipped me) turned him down, and he left too. Like the girl, he was in sales, and the fact that neither his dress nor his bearing indicated this was irrelevant. This gave me pause. Maybe Northeasterners weren't weird. Maybe they were working.

I didn't ask the proprietor that, but before I left to claim my hotel room, we covered many other subjects. Like the cabbie in São Luís I'd asked in 2000, this man was unsurprised at José Sarney's ceasing to be a Senator from one state (Maranhão) and instantly becoming a Senator from another state (Amapá). Such moves were normal in Brazil, and the guy gave numerous examples, many involving Ceará. And like the soldier near Pico da Neblina in 1999, he said things in Brazil didn't always serve usefully, and proved it by misconjugating the verb "to serve usefully." (Prestar; both fellows made the third-person singular preste.)

We discussed Brazilian self-sufficiency in petroleum; now I know how deep that offshore oil is. We discussed Chinese power; he thought Chinese goods were second-rate, but that could only have been patriotism talking. I thought, but was unable to say with such precision, that China's economic strength depended totally on a cheap docile labor supply. I couldn't say it because I didn't know the Portuguese for "docile." I should've resorted to manso, which means "tame." I knew that one.

And, cautiously but with a genuine desire to find out, the man asked me what Americans thought of, or knew of, Brazil. I have had a lot of experience answering this question graciously. It has always helped that at least I obviously knew something of, and (though it was long in coming) even cared about, Brazil.

Time to go stake my room. I separated as ambassadorially as I could, got my slot, then went to Habib's, for sfiha. I now know it is like lahmacun. And as I said back in Turkey, I'd order it again.


In its time, which was also the Panama Canal's time, the Madeira-Mamoré Railway was said to rival the other as a civil-engineering marvel to capture the world's imagination. But maybe the only person who "said" this was Percy Farquhar, who financed the Amazonian project. He also financed the Rio and São Paulo electric companies, which until very recently were still called, in English, Light. I mean you'd see L-I-G-H-T on blockades around utility construction. But other things Percy Farquhar financed (or "built," as his uncritical biographer liked to put it) were railways in southern Brazil. Farquhar complained about these ventures. He thought Brazilian politicians were grossly padding mileage estimates, requiring far more track to be put down than was really needed.

Certainly that is the sort of chicanery you could expect, and can expect, of Brazilian politicians, and non-Brazilian ones too. But there's another possibility: southern Brazil's hills are all in the wrong places!

In the areas I'd visited on this trip so far, they were in the right places: in noble isolation, or rolling in synch. It occurred to me on the run down to Vitória da Conquista that here was one of the few Brazilian landscapes a painter could paint.

I was glad I noticed that, glad I noticed the very rare thirty-mile vistas that Brazil offers. Otherwise I feared I would spend this day reminiscing about the terrible '86 bicycle ride, the end of which had been here. Well, I hardly thought of it.

In Jequié, I recalled having pushed through the rough tilted land that separates the coast from...well, desert was what it had looked like. I recalled checking into a fairly expensive hotel. In the large dining room I ate alone, a figure in tan slacks and a white buttondown - had I pedaled almost 1200 miles with all that and a hardcover dictionary too? No wonder it was a tough ride! I recalled lingering at my table, staring out a floor-to-ceiling window at the purpling western sky above a jagged black range.

And then I thought: 24 years is a wonderful cushion. I remembered a little of what I'd seen but almost nothing of what I'd felt, and whatever it seemed then, it was really very tiny in the larger scheme of, well, anything.

I recognized nothing of Poções, where I had ceased to pedal. And while the layout of the Vitória da Conquista terminal, where I'd shipped that junky Caloi 10 only to abandon it rather than waste even a day trying to sell it, was still familiar, I didn't feel too elegiac.

Now that this trip was fully overlapping an older one - and also because I was catching a cold - I wanted to wrap things up and go home. There would still be a few things I might want to include here. The cabbie in Vitória da Conquista bellowing "Two!" when I allowed as how I wasn't much interested in Carnaval - this was his way of saying That makes two of us! The clerk at the hotel who, when I told him of my all-state performance, asked the good one: "But have you been to Fernando de Noronha?" (No, but as I pointed out, this eco-tourism detention center is part of the state of Pernambuco, where they do let humans in and where I have been, and anyway, he'd never heard of Trindade, Brazil's other flyspeck dependency in the Atlantic.) And of course those two women in line in front of me at the bus station the next morning, the ones who, upon receiving their tickets, read them upside-down. I believe literacy is wildly overestimated in Brazil.

But all that can wait for another time. Right now (this is in Teófilo Otoni), I just hope I haven't jinxed my trip by getting a meal with cold spaghetti in a restaurant which - and I didn't realize this until I sat down, so cunningly had it been concealed, or maybe I just can't be surprised by Brazil anymore - was actually in a gas station. I'll swear to this in court: the whole time I was there, nobody bought diesel! Man, what a country this is. You couldn't invent this stuff, no matter how long they made you wait at Guarulhos.

© 2010 J.A.Hutter

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