If I say I'm going to South America to fly a cropduster and then I go there but don't fly it, I admit that looks bad. And I really have only myself to blame. A person more serious about both aviation and the Portuguese language would've phoned ahead before even leaving the U.S. Instead, I just showed up at the Ilhéus airfield and figured I could wander around it 'til I found the air club, and walk in and make arrangements: who wouldn't want to give a total stranger a lesson in the Aero Boero 115? Well, affairs were a bit more formal than that. I felt I had to follow the other passengers into the terminal and then out of it; I then ascertained I couldn't get back in through the service gate; the guard wrote down a phone number but at the hotel, I found the phone unworkable. The weather turned foul in any case, but still I could have managed this whole project better, and got my first experiences ever, flying in a foreign country and in a taildragger.
I needed to find an alternate mission for this trip. Well, there had been Ilhéus itself: I had never been to this city or this coast before. But leaving the city, or more precisely examining my bus ticket in detail some hours after my departure, I got more profound justification for the whole caper. The girl at the counter, needing to input a name and sell the passage just before the bus left, simply put in GRINGO. This was only the second time in thirty years I had come across this word in Brazil.
Of course everybody knows it. But except in connection with a foreigner carping at the histrionics attending Chacrinha's funeral in 1988, no Brazilian to my knowledge ever used it. And so that became my new theme: ideas in Brazil that are stably rare. Their incidence is forever low but never zero.
Ideas like: cats. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have ever seen cats in Brazil. I mean domestic cats, not that the one sighting of an ocelot on a Goiás roadside in 2014 inflates the census. There was the cat I met on Flamengo beach in Rio in 2000; I scratched its head and it levered itself straight up from a crouch, the better to drive my fingernails into its happy scalp. And there were the kittens roistering in the doorway of a hotel one hot evening in Presidente Figueiredo in 2002. There is no Portuguese word specifically for "kitten" - filhote is used for toddlers of any species - but the desk staff had asked me what the English was and I told them, and later when I walked in, they were rehearsing the word, just repeating it, marveling at it.
And yet on this trip I was caused to think about cats well out of proportion to these trivial experiences. On this trip I had seen great numbers of veterinary clinics, as well as pet shops, and public-service announcements urging cat (and dog) owners to get their critters vaccinated against rabies. For decades I had seen, or maybe I should say glimpsed, dog food in supermarkets, but that seemed to be the extent of pet pampering. Fact is, I barely ever saw many dogs either. Mainly what Brazilians seemed to keep were small birds in cages. Maybe they're keeping cats there too! But that they might be keeping any at all impresses me.
Another idea was: baseball. Again I can count on my fingers, or earlobes, the number of references. In 1986 I somehow caught, just walking by a Rio newsstand, a story about the New York Metz [sic] beating the Boston Red Soxes [sic] in the World Series. I think it was also that year I came across in a São Paulo newspaper an article about what would have been Little League play. A boy described baseball's rules as um saco, a mild epithet roughly meaning "a pain in the neck," which if you haven't grown up with the game is probably a fair judgment. And after that, nothing at all, until this trip, when I caught a Mets-Marlins game on TV. The commentary was dopey. One guy boggled at the name "Mets" itself, repeating it like, well, kittens. He also repeated the names of certain players, evidently enjoying his own not insignificant ability to pronounce them correctly. Players from Caribbean countries were dutifully pointed out, although it is wildly unlikely any Brazilian cared, and if any did feel some Latin solidarity, it's hard to believe such solidarity would extend all the way down to a place as obscure as the Dominican Republic.
And yet again, I was on this trip made to review these few references, simply because baseball was on Brazilian TV at all. I could not imagine who besides me was watching it. While Spanish has evolved a baseball vocabulary, Portuguese hasn't in the least.
I might review things in Brazil which are infrequently encountered but no more remarkably than in other countries...like sixtyish women working in customer service. On this trip I saw one in the ticket booth of one of the movie theatres in Rio's Cinelândia district; in 2010 a little old lady in bus-company uniform sold me my passage from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo; in both cases I wondered about their homes, which were likely small apartments difficultly reached by grim commuter rail; I hope I'm wrong. I might also review things which are frequently encountered and always have been, like Bob's Burgers and most bus companies - still pretty much the ones I first found in 1986. I might also review things which have just about disappeared, like thimbles of coffee at hotel reception desks, and newspapers.
And I might consider if not review - because they are fairly new, almost by definition rare, but might catch on - outdoor restaurants that are in gas stations. In 2010 there was the one in Teófilo Otoni, this time one in Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, and both times I ate pretty darn well and wasn't at all discommoded by refueling. Back indoors, I hope boiled plantains don't catch on, but until this trip I had not seen them at all in Brazil; now I seemed to have crossed a frontier, with scrambled eggs on the other side of it. A hotel breakfast should not be a surprise but lifting the cover off the tureen and finding those guys sure was an unwelcome one. I've never opened a medicine chest to find a croquet ball and if I ever did, I would not exclaim, "Hey, I've been looking all over for this!"
Something I am still not prepared to review or even consider is: economics. Once the great bustling affair of Latin America, its capital theme if you will, the only thing "stably rare" about economics is my attention to it. It has just never seemed mystifying. You print money, money gets less valuable; you borrow money, you have to pay it back; these things amaze? I still think of Latin American economists as scribes whose exalted job is to write letters from governments to Santa Claus. However, on this trip, on the achingly balky ride between Vitória and Guarapari, I had to wonder: why do bus stations even exist? Even a couple of miles short of the latter town's terminal, we were still stopping to pick up passengers as well as discharge them. And I was the only person to get off (or on) at the terminal itself. But, I did not meditate long on this. "Economics" can have many definitions, and the ones with "people are funny" in it are nothing special. Somehow it is profitable for a bus company to have two employees aboard every vehicle, one to hit the brakes for, and another to sell tickets to, any sentient biped within a mile.
But getting back to Brazilian rarities: while that country cannot take responsibility for its weather, fact is the country doesn't have very much of the very bad kind. Most places, it's sunny or it rains and that's about all. Wandering the area around Ilhéus's airport, as a storm hovered offshore - and the eastern end of the single runway is just yards short of the Atlantic - I observed no tower, no instrument landing system, and except for a green-and-white rotating beacon, no all-night lights. These seemed strange omissions for a place fielding twin-engine jets carrying 100+ passengers. I checked Brazil's civil-aviation-authority website, and it had nothing to say about navigational aids but assured me the airport had a diaper-changing facility. There must be times when no one can land or take off at Ilhéus, and not just because a tourist failed to call early from Texas. Such times must be, very reliably, very few.
© 2016 J.A.Hutter