Monday, 14 March 2016

A brief sojourn, in South America


The sky outside the windows is red fire, nature elemental, obscured only by the curve of a man’s head as he reclines his seat. I massage the small of my back and shift in my seat, trying to ease the pressure on my tailbone. Outside and to the right, the clouds cover expanses of green, part momentarily, and close again.
The day is warm and close. I step into a cab without haggling, and watch the world go by. The driver never indicates, part one of the strange thing they call ‘culture’ here. Outside, the world is derelict; half-built or half-maintained, buildings fall apart before they are obscured by partitions erected at the side of the highway. A graffito declares ‘Rio 450 anos corruptos politicos’. Others are drawings underneath flyovers, in impossible places. As we slow, men sell popcorn strung around their necks. The police sit with their red lights on, and watch the traffic.
Mercifully, I am allowed to check in early, instead of spending hours nervously carting my bag of beautiful possessions around an unfamiliar city. I shower, cold water only, and snooze, unable to get the AC working.
I ask directions to the beach, which is easy to find. In the midday sun I walk as slowly as possible, limping from shade to shade. The beach bars offer more shade, food which has the same names as food I know, but different consistencies. I eat, and drink, and watch the waves crash in and out. I pay and leave, a big tip? Who knows? I walk, new jandals cutting slightly. In the sand leading down to the sun chairs they have laid hose pipe with small holes, which keeps the sand wet and cool enough to tread.
Along the waterfront people ride bikes and jog, which is hard to believe in this heat. Half the men I see disdain shirts. Old men and women are turned brown with the sun, crinkly, dried out like fruit, or maybe tough and protected. Other people are at work, hauling carts or shifting produce. I want one of those drinks which is basically just a cut open coconut, but I don’t order one. I wander back to the hotel and wash the sand off my feet.

Rio is beautiful in that European way, with grand vistas and mountains, while much of the pavement is dilapidated and smells of piss.
My friends are here. Instead of taking a cab, I decide to walk. It’s half an hour, but the night is warm and I like to walk. I stroll (see: power walk) along the Copacabana, under shady trees and past shady characters. I am accosted by a whore; she asks for a light and then rubs herself against me unceremoniously. Rebuffed, she asks if I’m gay. I tell her I have a girlfriend, the lie covering the truth: I don’t feel like risking HIV or a mugging.
I arrive at the hotel unscathed, embrace my friends, receive candy. We go up to the roof, drink caipirinhas, and survey the beach at night. The world is beautiful, from up here.

The next day I visit giant stone Jesus, along with thousands of others. He stares down across the city with either benevolence or indifference. The holes in his hands are fake: they don’t go all the way through. I wonder how big a cross would have been needed to crucify a giant stone Jesus.
The tour van stops outside the Maracana in the baking heat. I buy water which would be cheap in London but is expensive here. The guy knows what he’s doing. There’s a statue of a famous footballer holding the World Cup aloft but not looking thrilled about it. In front of the statue a man poses in a Brazil shirt, taking money from people for pictures of him with a football. I snap one of the statue without him, and go to stand in the shade.

We drive past people in the street; a young boy mimes shooting an old man in the face, the old man looks both horrified and disgusted. He steps forward.
We pass on, around the lagoon, where people jog in the afternoon heat, without breaking a sweat. I retreat to the hotel and apply more sunscreen, make my way to the roof, and sloth about in the pool. From there I can see a mountain, in the deep curve of which, if I stand on tip toes, I can see over to Jesus, guarding the city.
Later, I message my friends and we have drinks and catch cabs up to Pão de Açúcar. My friends fall asleep in the back, well-travelled as they are. The mountain is at its grandest when you cannot see it; perched atop the hill we ignore the visitor centre and take handfuls of photos. I know in my heart they’ll always be a pale imitation of the sights which flood into my eyes, and the happiness I feel here, with my friends around me. Tomorrow, I will fly from the little airport; we see the planes bank hard and sweep in to land, and then we get in the capsule and head back down to the ground.

Porto Alegre

I fly in and cruise to the hotel, find an exquisite room with patio doors which aren’t supposed to open but do, and take snaps of the view. My friends and I go up to the pool and dick around; the water is warm and waist high.
We head out for dinner, walking in the evening heat to a local mall. On the way in, we see a castle surrounded by a massive ball pit. The question is raised: can we play? The answer is yes. We take our jandals off and pile in. We tackle each other, dive around, throw balls, and generally act like happy idiots. I feel dirty, exhilarated, and tired all at the same time.
Dinner is excellent: meat and slabs of melted cheese, and beer to wash it down. I ask how to say toothpick in Portuguese.

The big day arrives. We dress for the wedding, and the boys and I head down for a gathering of men tying ties. There’s tapas and whisky, and joie de vivre. David had brought presents from Australia, for the groom: a digeridoo, a boomerang, a stuffed koala.
We jump in cabs and head to the venue, a beautiful deck overlooking the river, blue skies and a mild breeze. The ceremony is lovely, and even though we don’t speak the language, we get choked up when Alex and Carol say their vows.
The reception is amazing. There’s great food, dancing, and plenty of booze. My friends and I dance like maniacs, and don’t feel ashamed. The waiters top drinks up with skill and timing, fuelling the carnival atmosphere. Samba dancers and musicians arrive, ramping up the tempo even further. Ties and high heels are discarded, as are inhibitions. We donate money and receive pieces of the groom’s tie; we throw the bride and groom into the air, almost recklessly. People are happy and friendly.
Later in the evening, there are cigars and whisky, and quiet conversation. Six hours have flown past, more quickly than I could have imagined. We head back to the hotel, and drink another drink, before heading to bed.

The day after is blissfully lazy. We invited to the bride’s father’s house for drinks, conversation, and some of the best barbecue you have ever tasted. Salted beef, and pork with crackling. Even the potato salad is amazing. We chat and sit in the shade, made to feel so welcome and so at ease.

Buenos Aires

I arrive in the middle of the day and leave my luggage at the desk, too tired to worry about taking my laptop and passport with me. I saunter down sun-baked streets, in search of a reputable ATM and adventure.
The Plaza de Mayo is covered in sun, and some tourists. There are banners and political graffiti around, and I feel safe, but edgy. There’s a famous monument, and a church. I stop in for a rest and some cool air. If there were candles, I would have lit one for my mother, but there are not. I wander the city, blend in; people hand me flyers for things I can’t read. I walk up to another large monument, find a café, and have lunch.
Later, after I have been able to check in and drop my bags, I wander the city some more, and have dinner; the café is charming in an unassuming way, and I watch football teams whose names I don’t know while I eat. The game is frenetic; I sip cold beer and eat slowly. Well, slowly by my standards.

The next day I ask how to use the tube and ride it to the zoo. The place is almost deserted; it’s a weekday and cold by their standards (18 degrees). I finally see elephants after years of trying (well, intermittently trying), and they are beautiful, if bored.
I visit the Cementerio de Recoleta, which is amazing in a sad way. Some of the tombs are majestic, others unkempt. As I pass one by, I am sure I can see the white of a skull in a broken coffin. I wander around, taking photographs, and leave again soon, tired of thinking about death.
Buenos Aires is a beautiful city; it’s European, with Spanish, Italian, French, even English influences on the architecture. The grid system reminds me in places of New York, which can only be a favourable comparison. I feel more comfortable here, given that my small amount of Spanish is much better than my small amount of Portuguese.

Praia de Pipa

I awaken at 3am and take a cab to the airport, flying to Natal airport via Rio. The time passes quickly enough, and soon I arrive. Noah and Helen have waited several hours for me, drinking and playing cards, so we can take the hour and a half cab ride together. For this, I am extremely grateful.
We arrive late, and miss the sunset. Our friends have been chilling and drinking all day; I’d expect nothing less. We have a drink and walk back across rickety planks, back to the pousada to drop off our bags and take an evening swim. I practice my diving and my floating. Life is as good as it’s ever been in that moment.
The pousada is quiet and lovely, with a beach view to break your heart. At night, I talk with Lisa and David, and sip red wine.

The next day is stormy and wet, but still warm. We muck about, wander into the town, past restaurants and shops full of beer, sunscreen, and jandals. We find a restaurant nestled back from the road, amid a cooling cover of trees, and we eat. The food is fantastic, like everything here.
That evening, two of us leave. I bid them farewell, sit back down with a lump in my throat, sip vodka and coke. The rest of us chat, and tell stories.

In the morning I eat breakfast, cooked personally by Vera, the pousada’s owner. She also makes fresh smoothies every day, with berries from a tree in her garden. I laze about in the hammock, and then we wander down to the beach. The ocean is choppy, but so warm; I cannot help but jump in. It’s been far too long since I was in the ocean.
We sit about under umbrellas, and take pictures of sand crabs scuttling out of holes in the sand. Time passes slowly and quickly at the same time. We leave the beach and go riding quadbikes, an idea I am nervous about at first but quickly learn to love. The drive is thrilling, the scenery almost too much to take in. We pass rafts ferrying cars across a river, local kids playing football. It would be fun to join in, if time permitted, and if they wouldn’t put us to shame.
I head back to the pousada to relax for a while and change. Vera tells me, I am not alone. I will always remember her saying it. We converse in broken English, and I go up to spend an hour snoozing in my hammock. I decide I need a hammock, when I get around to buying a house.
Dinner that night is excellent, topped off by a game of poker using improvised chips: acorns, matches, and pinecones. I am terrible at poker, and always will be.

Noah and Helen leave the next morning, and it’s another day at the beach for Alex, Carol and I, and more swimming. Or, more being smashed around by waves. I get sunburn, but what the hell. Time does that thing is does once more, swimming away out of reach. We head out later for dinner, and talk about learning languages and having ambition. The cause of all suffering, is desire.

The next day is the last. We eat breakfast and take a ride to the airport. If I had my way, I’d have been two hours early; instead I trust the locals and we arrive in perfect time. I hug my friends, and head inside to catch my flight home. I think about the trip: one of the best I’ve ever had, and over far too soon.

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