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ColumnistsPeter Nelson's TravelsPeter Nelson's travels - Southern Brazil and Uruguay

Peter Nelson’s travels – Southern Brazil and Uruguay

by Peter Nelson 

Bill’s sister Melodie lives in Sao Paulo.  Sao Paulo’s the business and financial center of Brazil.  Periodically, it fights with Rio over which city is the largest.  To say nothing of which city has the best soccer team, or the rowdiest fans.  But the bottom line is, Sao Paulo is ugly, and Rio is drop-dead gorgeous.

Melodie however is friendly and cheerful, and definitely on the gorgeous side.  Best of all, she’s a member of the British Tennis Club.  So as soon as I arrive, I toss my backpack into a corner of their spare room, and we’re off.  But it’s a bit of a sticky wicket when we get there.  Turns out that the club manager is an old-school Brit.

“There are rules, you know.  This is not a circus.  You play tennis in a white costume, or you don’t play.”

The devious little mind starts ticking away.  I love tennis, and don’t get many opportunities to play.  Wait a minute, my undershirt’s white, and so are my boxer shorts.  Melodie reads my thoughts, and she grins.  OK, it’s easy for her, she’s got a proper outfit on.  Anyway, just like Superman, I duck into the nearest phone booth, and presto, I’m the Andy Roddick of the Southern Hemisphere!

Well, almost.

So it’s OK to play tennis in public in my underwear, as long as it’s white.  That reminds me.  A quick flashback to Istanbul, 1968.  I was travelling with a Swiss miss at the time, and we wanted to see Hagia Sophia, the largest and most beautiful mosque in the world.  But we’re stopped at the entrance by an attendant.  Serena’s miniskirt is much too short.  No bare knees allowed in the mosque.  Apparently, Serena’s mind is as devious as mine.  She just unfastens the waistband of her skirt and tugs it down until her knees are covered.  The attendant looks rather perplexed.  I imagine my face has an interesting expression on it too!  But hey, she’s obeyed the rules, so in we go.  As you can imagine, Serena’s new appearance would be considered less than modest in Western society, but none of the Turks give her a second glance.  Modesty, I guess, varies considerably in different cultures.

Melodie’s great and a lot of fun, and tennis is one of my great loves, but I gotta say, one of the major attractions of life in Sao Paulo has to be Melodie’s washing machine!  The first one I’ve seen since leaving Costa Rica some months ago.  Washing your clothes by rubbing them over river rocks with a bar of soap really does work.  I am often sparkling clean, but eventually these tiny holes appear in my clothes.  And before long, they’re not so tiny.  (But Latin America’s a great place to be an incompetent male.  Any time a competent female sees me washing clothes or sewing patches on my jeans, she looks at me with disgust, rips the clothes out of my hand, and does the job for me in a flash.  Hey, can I help it if I was never domesticated?)

Getting down to the southern end of Brazil.  This is Itajaí, a small town on the coast in the south.  This whole area is referred to as the European part of South America, and with good reason.  There are Polish towns, German towns, Italian towns, in all of which the old mother tongue is spoken.  Itajaí’s language is Portuguese, but the town looks German — houses with steep brown roofs and so many flowers.  After three months in Rio and two more in São Paulo, I didn’t think my nose would be capable of smelling flowers any more.
Goat's eye view of Florianapolis
Goat’s eye view of Florianopolis

I’ve always thought that cities are inhuman. Now I’m thinking that they’re anti-human, actually hostile to human life. Itajaí is like paradise by comparison. I can stand in the very center of town and hear nothing but the wind in the leaves. The beaches are small but clean, and when walking out to them, you can hear crickets in the fields and the birds above them.

In fifth grade geography class, I remember thinking of Uruguay as a strangely exotic name.  Always wanted to see it.  And it greatly exceeds those expectations I had at the age of 11.  As green as Ireland, as bright as North Dakota, as friendly as Canada.  Every town I visit, no matter how small, somebody there seems to know I’m coming, and a warm welcome is always waiting.  The great thing about all this enthusiastic hospitality is not the free food and lodging — Uruguay is cheap enough anyway — but being able to enter the lives of all these local people.

Most afternoons, we wind up sitting cross-legged on the floor drinking maté.  A delightful drink and a lovely ritual.  The tea is drunk from a hollowed-out, polished and painted gourd packed with dried yerba leaves.  A silver straw (yes, real silver, usually a treasured family heirloom) is inserted, and then steaming hot water is poured in.  Somebody’ll be playing a guitar, or there’s music on the record player.  And we drink maté and talk for hours.  Most towns have little or nothing in the way of conventional “entertainment”, but nobody notices the lack.  Because everybody loves having guests to dinner, and evening meals are long, animated affairs like some medieval banquet.

Spent a few weeks in a middle-sized town called Durazno (“peach” in Spanish).  I stay with a local family who are also hosting Avril and Sue, two British girls who are teaching English for a year.  We become buddies, hang out, go to the beach, etc.  Nice to speak a bit of English.
On the beach with Sue and Avril
On the beach with Sue and Avril

For an outing, we went to Punta del Este, the Riviera of South America and the playground of the idle rich.  Fortunately, we got there out of season, and none of the jet set was there, but what mansions!  Even the gas stations look like 18th century English manor houses.  I kid you not.  The city water tower is a gigantic castle turret with crenolated battlements and intricate sculptures all over it.  You wouldn’t believe it!  Clean beaches, water so transparent that if it weren’t for the light reflecting off it, you’d think the bay was dry!  Pine trees, and bright bright pastures dotted and splashed all over with sun-yellow wildflowers.  Lie back on the sand, warmed to a lazy heat by the sun, and watch a lone seagull sail overhead, sunlight shining through his wingtips.  The sweet life.

 Uruguay has a distinctly European flavor.  Plump little old men in black berets sit around dark wooden tables in outdoor coffee bars.  Broad-leafed trees bend together over quiet streets.  No natives and very few blacks; most of the people are lighter-skinned than I am.  The morning milk is delivered in a leisurely fashion by horse and cart — the old style square-roofed milkman’s cart, even in downtown Montevideo.  The immaculate cleanliness of restaurants and markets is a welcome contrast to the northern Latin countries.
Downtown Montevideo
Downtown Montevideo


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