Oh, Brazil, I knew you wouldn’t let me down. It’s been seven and a half years since I last set foot on Brazilian soil, and here I am again, this time with a whole family in tow. I guess I’ve forgotten a few things over the years, because I expected the trip to go smoothly – indeed, even quickly, according to the careful schedule I had planned and printed in my purse. But no, this is Brazil, that marvelous tropical place where very little goes smoothly, unless it’s some brasileiro dancing a samba.
My plan eroded within minutes of stepping off the airplane. At that point, we’d been traveling for 24 hours. The little boys, who had been fantastic for both flights, began to fall apart. They – like the rest of us – were dehydrated, sleep-deprived, sticky and sweaty, and starving. Our luggage took forever to come, and then the guy who was supposed to pick us up wasn’t there. We walked around and around the arrivals area, double-checking signs, but our last name appeared nowhere. After several minutes of confusion, a text came in on my phone from the guy, explaining that his car broke down and we’d have to find our way to the apartment on our own. He provided directions for taking the quickest and cheapest route.
At this point a fire truck pulled up outside, lights flashing. The floor began to shake ever so slightly and, because we were standing next to the door, we had to shout loudly in order to be heard. For a few seconds, I thought it must be an emergency, but no, it was just the firefighters’ drum squad having a nice little rehearsal in the middle of the sidewalk. Oh, Brazil…
The bus drove for an hour and a half through the back end of Rio de Janeiro. The views from our windows were not those typical of Rio’s postcards – the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana and the Cristo Redentor statue on top of the mountain. I saw none of those. Instead, we drove over bridges and overpasses and through a long tunnel that went right through a mountain, past hillsides of scattered favelas built on shocking inclines, layers of brick buildings heaped seemingly helter-skelter on top of each other. People crowded the streets, vying for space in the seething mass of bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s no such thing as “keeping a safe distance” here, where the mentality is more about “occupy every inch you can.”
The ride went on and on, and then black clouds rolled in from the west and the rain started to pour. Still we drove, past a vast canal of black water that stank of sewage when the door opened to let someone off. My brother started gagging as the fetid air filled the bus. The general family mood reached a low point. L. said he needed a bathroom, A. kept threatening to rub his hands all over the disgusting-looking stains on the seat cover in front of us. Jason and I had eaten barely anything all day.
When we arrived at the bus station, we were told to take a taxi. I thought that would be the easy part, but it wasn’t. It required standing outside in the dirt under a highway overpass, waiting in a taxi lineup. The rain continued to pour down, turning the ground to mud beneath our feet, while the boys ran in slightly demented circles, acting more crazy by the minute.
We waited for a half hour until, at last, a taxi pulled over and said, no, he couldn’t take 5 people in his taxi. I almost cried with frustration, but instead I argued persistently, finally convincing him to let me double-buckle the boys. He wasn’t pleased and drove with a storm-cloud face until Jason’s attempts at broken Portuguese loosened him up. By the time we arrived at the apartment, he was grinning and told me that my boys’ green and blue eyes are beautiful. “Tchau, bonitão!” he said as he gave L. a high five. He even offered to wait around to make sure we got in.
The apartment was great, except for the fact that there was no food in sight. David and I headed out in the pouring rain to find a grocery store, then we ordered pizza. Within an hour, the boys were showered, fed, and fast asleep in their beds. The rest of us sat around the table in an exhausted zombie-like state, chowing down on generous slices of pizza calabresa and that inimitable Brazilian specialty, cartola – a banana-brown sugar-mozzarella combo that I’m slightly crazy about.
Just before we fell unconscious, my dear husband, whose timely jokes kept me laughing all day, turned to me with a strange expression on his face. “I just realized that ten weeks is a really, really long time.”
I laughed – or maybe I cried – I can’t even remember, I was so tired.