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ColumnistsPeter Nelson's TravelsPeter Nelson's travels - The road to Rio

Peter Nelson’s travels – The road to Rio

by Peter Nelson

On the road outside Belem, I set a new (and so far unbroken) bad-luck hitching record.  Two days — TWO DAYS!! — standing on the side of the road before I finally got a lift.  Not much traffic, mind you.  Mostly big trucks who seem to stop often, just not for me.  On the second morning, this attractive young lady wanders over to me.  By now my Portuguese is at about a kindergarten level, so I can sort of talk to her.  But it turns out she wants to converse, shall we say, “non-verbally” …

Afterwards, she sheds some light on why my hitching luck has been so bad.  She’s a highway prostitute, and along with dozens of others, she works the road from Belem south to wherever.  For some reason, most truckers prefer to share their front seats with young women rather than with shaggy foreign males.

Bahia (also known as Salvador) is the next major stop.  Gorgeous old city right on the coast.  Crumbling Portuguese stronghold built against the Spanish 400 years ago.  The stone walls may be crumbling, but the people are vibrant and colorful.  Markets are noisy and active and full of the music and the scents of the tropics.  Wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables and baked goods.  Huge multi-colored drapes of cloth for sale.  Unfortunately, I can’t afford any of it, not even the food.

I’m totally out of money, as are some other European backpackers I’ve met.  We’re sitting in a woeful group around a café table, devouring the last of these banana-and-ketchup sandwiches, when the checks arrive.  Strangely, all of us got money at the same time, so we went from dire poverty to fabulous riches in one afternoon.  That evening, we had a communal feast — huge loaves of fresh bread, buttered boiled potatoes, xuxu (a lovely local vegetable) in white sauce, apples, pears, yogurt, and a succulent red wine with some nice mild Bahian cigars to top it off.  A delightful repast, both in quantity and quality, we ate for 2 hours solid.

Next stop, the capital of Brazil — Brasilia.  I’m far enough south now that it’s supposed to be winter.  Brasilia has deliciously cool nights and bright windy days.  Strange city though.  Huge, futuristic, but empty.  Almost no people visible.  When you add the deserted feeling to the clouds of red dust blowing over the city, it feels like some abandoned gleaming metropolis in the middle of a Martian desert.  Like other “designed” cities (Canberra, Australia, for example), it was designed for the automobile, not the humble pedestrian.  You can’t walk anywhere!  There are no sidewalks, for one thing, and anyway every building seems about 10 miles away from every other building.  But when you do manage to find people, they’re good folks, like everywhere else.  Went to some nice, rather upper-class parties, where I was a popular attraction, owing to my ponderous knowledge of American and English rock songs.

Empty plaza in Brasilia
Cathedral in Brasilia

Belo Horizonte is much bigger, but hardly empty.  Full of young people and the good smells of food.  A very large central park with huge flowers whose scents are strong enough to overpower the smell of traffic exhaust.


What can I say?

Everything you’ve ever read or heard or even imagined about Rio de Janeiro is true.  First of all, it’s easilyeasilyeasily the most awesomely beautiful city on the planet!  Steep green mountains plunge straight into the restless tropical sea.  The loveliest beaches on the planet.  The most beautiful people on the planet.  And the best work ethic on the planet too, in my opinion.  It’s a Friday, it’s a glorious day, so the boss just closes the office, and he and all the workers head down to the beach and strip off and play volleyball for the rest of the afternoon.  Why not?

Rio – the old surrounded by the new
Copacabana – one of the most famous beaches in the world

Staying in Ipanema with Bill (Graeme’s friend) and Miriam, a stewardess for Varig, the Brazilian national airline.  We spend our days on the beach, obviously.  Brazilian skin is every color under the sun.  Pure white and deepest ebony and every color in between — coffee, chocolate, dusky cream — you name it, they’ve got it.  And they show all of it on the beach.

Helping Bill coach his high school basketball team.  Since there are only 9 boys on the team, an extra body is needed for intra-squad games, so they’re glad to see me.  We take the team running on IpanemaBeach a couple of times a week.  Plus Bill and I run by ourselves a lot, plus 3 or 4 sets of tennis every Wednesday night at the British Club, plus my usual walking explorations every day.  Oddly enough, I’m far more physically active in the city than I was in the jungle.

I go up in the favelas as often as I can.  An amazing culture, the poorest but also the happiest people I’ve ever seen.  Their houses are just pieces of ragged tin and broken plywood held together with wires and ropes.  Everyone’s skinny, and their clothes are threadbare, but their faces are smiling, and there’s music, music, music everywhere.  Man oh man, you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen these kids dance!  A ten-year-old street kid can dance the socks off any break-dancer on MTV.

And there’s a kaleidoscopic cultural life — the British Brazilian cultural group has lectures on literature, the American Embassy has free films, we get free tickets to plays sometimes, plus regular cinemas, art museums, libraries.  Weekends, we usually head out of town.  It’s nice, even for a farm boy like me, to come down out of the trees and have a social life once in a while.

One afternoon, we’re rolling up the expressway from Copacabana, and a carload of young locals pulls up alongside our car.  Complete strangers, right?  And this is no back road or secluded alley.  This is Rio’s major freeway, and we’re all cruising along at 60 miles an hour.  Their car window rolls down, a bare arm extends out towards our own speeding car, the hand cupping a lighted joint to protect it from the wind.  We pull it into our car, take a few hits, pass it back, and the other car speeds away.  Is this the 60s, or what?

OK, it’s the 70s, but close enough.


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