Santana do Livramento, Brazil
I know you´ve been left without news for an inexcusable amount of time, and I’m going to go ahead and blame it on the electrical sockets. Brazil seems to have no real standard for sockets, and the ones they do have rarely fit the specifications of my 110-volt laptop charger. In fact, they seem to have every type of socket except for 110-volts. Sometimes they’re simply three little round holes in a row; other times two similar holes, only set further apart. I’ve also seen ones with a single big hole on the bottom and two slanted slots up above (which looks like a little Asian person shouting) and the place I was at yesterday was all wired up with sockets sporting three holes arranged in a circle and set down in a two-inch, hexagonal-shaped depression. I mean, hexagonal? Why? Whatever happened to good old squares and circles?
This morning, I came across some travesty that consisted of a seemingly random conglomeration of six or seven holes and slots with the word VOLT!! written above it in big threatening red letters – which I guess I could’ve plugged my computer up to if I had a good pair of pliers, a bottle of whiskey, and the urge to seriously electrocute myself.
This gas station doesn’t have the right plugs either, but at least one of the five or six adaptors plugged into the single socket behind me fits my charger. I just hope I can finish writing before they all catch fire and the place explodes like a Molotov cocktail. I’m exaggerating of course, but seriously – that’s a fire hazard.
Brazil is hot. Brazil is huge. Brazil is interesting. It has a million roads going in every direction and is completely, utterly different from the rest of South America. Brazil is another world, filled with stoplights sporting 10 different bulbs and very, very beautiful women. Brazil is well worth the $618 Argentine pesos I paid for the visa – by a long shot.
However, I didn’t feel that way in Puerto Iguazú, where I had just been drained of my very last peso for the elusive document, which took up a whole entire page of my passport and featured a cropped photo of me taken in Chile grinning at the camera with unkempt hair and a five-day stubble on my chin. I was once again penniless, but it was a relief to be rid of the cash I had carried and saved during the weeks leading up to Puerto Iguazú, finally spent on exactly what I had been meaning to spend it on.
The border crossing was quick and easy, probably just like it is for people from all the countries that do not need to buy a visa. I left Puerto Iguazú on foot, planning to walk the ten or so kilometres across the bridge and into Foz do Iguaçu, the much more interesting-sounding Brazilian twin city across the river. I took care of border formalities with the Argentine stamp guy, who didn’t even glance at the ID page and stamped me on through without a break in the conversation he was having with his co-worker about some soccer team or another.
The walk began; I noticed a brightly-coloured dead butterfly on the shoulder of the road, and stopped to collect the wings for a future project I’m planning on doing which, obviously, involves dead butterfly wings. It’s a lot less macabre than it sounds – I’ll tell you all about it when I’m good and ready.
My walk was shorter than imagined; I got picked up after just one kilometre by an Argentine woman driving a car with Paraguayan plates. We zoomed across the bridge and into Brazil while I listened to her complain about how awful Paraguay was and how much she just hated living in Ciudad del Este. Brazilian customs showed similar disinterest in regards to my passport, and after glancing at the visa, placed a brand new stamp on the second to last page of the book. The Argentinean woman kept going on about Paraguay, but I was only half-listening as I happily examined the new stamp and came to the realization that I was finally in Brazil.
The road signs were in Portuguese. There was the green, yellow, and blue Brazilian flag flying in the middle of the traffic circle. The road we were driving on was Brazilian. Those trees were Brazilian, the grass was Brazilian, the dirt on the shoulder of the road was Brazilian. Even the sun seemed distinctly Brazilian, somehow. The Argentine woman dropped me off in Foz a few minutes later and I sat down for a moment in a Brazilian park and smoked a Brazilian cigarette, which I had bummed from a Brazilian person using hand motions and various attempts at pronouncing the Portuguese word for “cigarette.”
All my life if someone asked me, “Patrick, if you could go to any country in the world for free, what would it be?” I would reply without hesitation “Brazil.”
It was always Brazil. And why not? Brazil has the Amazon River, jungle, that huge Jesus in Rio de Janario, (which is the biggest huge Jesus out of all the huge Jesuses in South America – and there’s a lot of huge Jesuses in South America), and in some places it’s actually really close to Africa. Brazil is dangerous, mysterious, and tropical. Brazil is where Brazil nuts come from (right?) and where rubber trees grow. There’re jaguars and snakes and flesh-eating bacteria in Brazil, and at the same time lights and parties and beautiful women with very relaxed mentalities. What other excuses do I need? You had me at the word Amazon, and after that last sentence I was ready to head directly to the American Embassy, renounce my US citizenship, and start flying the old Ordem e Progressum off my backpack.
Well, I’m finally here. And technically, I did get to Brazil for free (though not into, despite my little attempt in Guyaramerín last year). Years ago while still a budding nomad, swaddled in twenty pounds of useless gear and sleeping in a manger of garbage, the first thought in my mind was to head straight for Brazil. I was so desperate to get here that I even tried the old-fashioned airplane ticket, but you all know what happened there (Chase Bank, I’m still waiting for you to send your hitman after me). Anyways, I am proud to say that hitchhiking did end up taking me to Brazil after all, though I’ll admit it took considerably longer than a plane would have (8 hours versus around 800 days – but I took the long way). The way I see it, it’s just more money for me and less for Copa Airlines – and most importantly, less for Chase Bank.
As I sat on that park bench and listened to voices speaking in Portuguese and the fwap-fwapping sound of the flip flops that most every Brazilian seems to be wearing, I felt a huge sense of satisfaction wash over me. It seemed as if I was meant to be here in this country – or perhaps that I was destined to come. We shall see.
The first order of business was to find Tony, who was somewhere in Foz after just one night in Ciudad del Este. I had heard (vía email) that my Padawan learner had been robbed no less than three times while in Paraguay, which I figured had to be some sort of a record considering the fact he had been there for less than twenty-four hours. Fortunately the thieves had not absconded with anything particularly valuable, stealing only pocket change, tent stakes, and a bag of bread while he slept in the bus station.
I found Tony on the main street, able to hone in on him by the sounds of his violin; the classical music sounded slightly out-of-place in the sweltering city of Foz do Iguaçu.
“I made friends with a guy from Hong Kong,” said my friend after greeting me. “He gave me some free noodles because I can speak Chinese.”
“I thought they spoke Cantonese in Honk Kong?”
“They do. His Chinese sounds really weird, like he’s deaf or something.”
I glanced at the coins in his violin case. “How’s the busking over here?”
He shrugged. “Better than Argentina, at least. I’ve gotten about 8 Reales today. But food is expensive so it doesn’t come out to very much.”
“Well, we’ll have to pool our funds, then.” I said. “Meet you in a few hours somewhere around here.”
“All right. Good luck.”
I went a few blocks up and set up camp on a ledge in the shade of a concrete overhang. Foz was bigger than Puerto Iguazú – quite a bit bigger. There were twenty-story apartment buildings all around, which gave one the feeling of actually being in a city, whereas in Puerto Iguazú you could very well be in some remote river outpost surrounded by mate plantations. I tossed a casino token from Argentina into my hat (the only coin I had at the time) and began playing.
Reales began jangling merrily to me. The Brazilians seemed amused by the sounds of the harmonica, and even though many of them weren’t even sure the name of the instrument, all smiled as they passed and a good number of them contributed to the growing pool of change in front of me. One man even gave me a 2-Real bill and told me to play closer to his shop so he could hear more easily. I moved, and as I finished a chord with a flourish and began thinking of some other rhythm to play, the old gent took the ensuing silence as an opportunity to strike up conversation with me. Of course, instead of plain Spanish, a string of unintelligible Portuguese came out of his mouth.
The Portuguese language is a strange one indeed; from what I could tell it seemed to be made up of about 50% Spanish, 25% French, 10% German, 10% English, and 5% of a little bit of all the other languages in the world put together. Not just the words, mind you, of which many are similar to Spanish, but the way they are pronounced. Reading Portuguese presents few problems for me, as most basic words look similar to their Spanish equivalent. Understanding spoken Portuguese is another thing altogether. There are all sorts of extra Portuguese letters which have a distinct sound, such as Ç, Ã, Õ, Â, Ô, and Ê. Then there are your garden-variety E’s and D’s and H’s, all of which also have different sounds.
Perhaps the most confusing is the letter H. Take, for example, the word “trabalhar,” which means “to work” (note the similarity to the Spanish “trabajar”). Read it for me, out loud. Don’t be shy. Here it is in all caps, for your reading convenience:
Did you read it out loud?
Liar. Do it again, then. Louder this time.
That’s better. How did you pronounce it? Did you pronounce it “tra-bal-har?”
You did? Ha ha, what a sucker! It’s actually pronounced “tra-ba-li-ar” (he said condescendingly). The H makes an I sound, go figure. Don’t feel bad, though – I said “tra-bal-har” quite a few times before realizing my mispronunciation was making me sound like a mentally handicapped donkey giving birth.
Another thing you may notice when reading things in Portuguese is the frequency in which the letters “ção” seem to appear at the end of words. This, apparently, does not come from any other language in the world and is pure Portuguese. The Ç is pronounced like an S, and the A with the squiggly line over it is pronounced rather like a person who is choking on a very small chicken bone would cry for help. So obviously when you say “ção,” you pronounce it something like “saaaao.” It seems every other word in Portuguese ends with “ção.” Edição. Personalização. Marcação. I believe it’s the equivalent to the Spanish word ending “ado,” or the English “ed,” but I could be wrong. They even invent some words that end with “ção,” like a sign I saw the other day that said “Babyção” – the name of a store which sold baby clothing. I found the whole getup to be inexplicably hilarious. Baby-saaao. Ha.
This is how a sea turtle frolicks
Anyways, I was not familiar with any of these linguistic codes of conduct on my first day in Brazil, so the donor of my very first 2-Real bill (which I noted with delight was blue and sported a frolicking sea turtle on the back), seemed to me to be speaking some alarming yet distinctly friendly form of psudo-gibberish.
Within the course of a few minutes, I learned a few crucial words in conversational Portuguese: você, which means you, eu, which means me, boa, which the equivalent to the Spanish bueno, which is used like “OK” or “good,” and viagem, which is journey. Oh, and the most important word for a hitchhiker: carona. Hitchhiking – or literally, ride. I filled the rest of the numerous gaps in my Portuguese with regular old Español, which my new friend seemed to understand. As he went on speaking, I started to sort of understand a few words that were the same or similar in Spanish. Our conversation went something like this:
Him: “Você blah blah blah viagando? Blah blah Argentina?
Me: “Ummmmmm…si, eu…estoy …viagndo…ummmm…carona…desde Argentina.”
Him: “Ah, boa! Blah blah blah adventura!”
Me: (smiling and nodding enthusiastically): “Sí, adventura!”
Him: “Eu blah blah musica blah blah blah blah, muta boa.”
Me: “Sí, muta boa, eu…ummm….siempre toco musica mientras…viagando…ummm….para hacer…monedas. Y comer.”
Him: “Ha ha ha, bem, blah blah blah,blah, eh? Você blah mochila blah blah dormir? Blah blah blah ladrãos?”
Me: Eu…ummmm…duermo en mi hamaca, que…ummm… tengo en mi mochila. Siempre duermo tranquilo, he encontrado ladrones muy pocas veces.”
Him: “Oh, muta boa, muta boa! Eu blah uma viagem blah blah Brasil blah Rio de Janario blah eu blah blah blah anos.Blah blah blah muta boa, blah blah tudo Brasil! Eu blah blah blah mulheres, ha ha ha!”
Me: “Ha ha, sí...emmm…hay…mutas…emmm…mulheres boas…en Brasil! Tudas…son…muta bela! Eu…emmm…llevo….solo un dia aca y ví miles! Te lo juro, ¡está loco!”
Him: Ha ha ha, muta boa, mulheres, viagem, ha ha ha putas ha ha muta boa ha ha etc. etc.
And so went my very first conversation in Portuguese, which, in case you don’t speak any Latin language at all, revolved mostly around travel, women, Rio de Janario, and things being muta boa (very good). Welcome to Brazil.
I can tell how far I’ve walked during the day by the amount of salt encrusted on the straps of my pack from evaporated sweat. And when you add the salt from today to the salt from yesterday and all the days before that, you have what I have now: a giant block of sodium chloride, complete with salty straps. I don’t even clean it off; it feels like a badge of honor of sorts, as if to say, look, I have toiled today. Any anyways, if I ever find myself really needing some salt…there you go. Just chip off a few pieces, enjoy. That is where salt comes from, right?
Foz was hot. Our next city, Cascavel (Portuguese for “rattlesnake”), gave it a run for its money. We were lucky to get there after two days in Foz, since the hitchhiking in this particular part of Brazil was not proving to be much different than in Misiones. We walked out to the best gas station, which took most of the morning, and began hitchhiking on the highway as the sun boiled down on us. After an hour and a half we needed a break and more water, so we went back to the station and began asking around for lifts. This yielded similar results – neither of us spoke good Portuguese, and even if we were lucky enough to get the driver to understand us he would always say no, usually followed by the words “rastreado por satélite.”
And that is how I learned the phrase “monitored by satellite” in Portuguese. Apparently, many trucks in Brazil come equipped with not only cassette players, but their own personal satellite to monitor where they go, and even who opens the passenger door.
Now the way I figure it, there’s one of two things that’s going on here: either Brazilian truck owners are exceedingly against picking up hitchhikers and are spending millions of dollars a year launching Mack satellites into orbit – or these guys are full of shit and they just don’t want to take us. Yes, there is a big sticker on the side of the truck that screams that THIS TRUCK IS BEING MONITORED! FROM SPACE! SO DON’T TRY ANYTHING OR SO HELP ME GOD I WILL SHOOT A LASER AT YOU– but, then, I can stick a big sticker that says Ferrari on a Chevy Nova, and that doesn’t make it go 0 to 60 in less than three seconds. I call BS, but if it really is a big lie than every trucker in Brazil must be in on it. Everybody’s got their own satellite, even if they don’t have a muffler or a left turning signal.
Around four or so, a big green Freightliner with Chilean plates rolled up to the station. This was to be Tony and I’s stroke of luck for the day. At first, he didn’t seem keen on taking us.
“But I’m Chilean!” protested Tony. “My last name is Bustamente! Sometimes I say como estay instead of como estás! I live in Las Condes!”
“¿Cachai?” I added hopefully.
“I don’t know,” said the trucker. “I’m not supposed to take people, especially not while doing international trips.” He walked off into the convenience store.
“It wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no,” I said. “We’ve got to be proactive! Quick, get out your Chilean ID card!” He did, and I got mine too (remember, I have one…thank you Gobierno Regional de Magallanes!). When the trucker came back we stood up, brandished our ID’s, and said in unison, “¡Somos chilenos, weon!”
The trucker stared for a moment, then broke into a chuckle. “No soy weon…porque ayudo a mis paisanos. Get in, both of you, before I change my mind. And try not to get my bed dirty with those backpacks.”
Matias was from Los Andes, it turned out, and he had picked up his fair share of hitchhikers. “But only in Chile,” he said. “Not in Brazil, and definitely not in Argentina. Those argentinos…I don’t trust ‘em.” Typical chileno; I liked him immediately, and it felt good to be able to once again communicate easily with someone other than Tony.
We rode across the open, rolling landscape in the sun-splashed western lands of the Brazilian state of Paraná. It wasn’t quite how I had pictured Brazil; there were not so many trees, and the ones there were there seemed to be just pine, araucana, or eucalyptus. Mostly, it was grain. Lots and lots of grain.
I am not a person who is used to seeing grain. I’m from southeast Texas, and the last time I was in Kansas I was two years old, happily shitting my diaper and ruining my Mom’s mid-twenties. I went all my life thinking that grain is probably the most boring crop ever to be planted; it just looks like dry brown grass, right? What a stupid crop, no wonder people from the Midwest are so placid. Not like the rough-ridin’ jalapeño farmers of Guadalajara…
Wrong. Grain kicks ass. Granted, it doesn’t come in so many colors as the jalapeño, but it wears it’s only two colors (green, and later, brown) proudly. But it’s not the color of grain that gets me – it’s the sheer amount of it.
It must be against some sharecropper law to plant only an acre of grain. I imagine there’s a contract you have to sign before they let you buy the seeds that says something like, “You are obligated by Law to plant no less than eight trillion seeds a year – or we will find you. We know where your field is, it can be seen from space. We’ll use the Mack satellites.”
It just goes on, and on, and on. And on! To your left the grain is fresh and green. As far as the eye can see are budding, emerald stalks; they look so fertile and luscious. The earth is not totally flat, so there are hills of green grain rolling up and down over the horizon. I can see each gust of wind as it passes over the fields, I can seeit because the stalks swish and swoosh in unison with the air as the gust passes over. There are literal stripes of wind in the grain; I have never seen wind express itself so gracefully. (Note: this may be because I am used to hurricanes, which are the stay-out-late-drinking-and-then-come-home-drunk-and-angry-and-hitting-Mommy-‘cause-she’s-breathing-too-loud types of winds).
To the right is the brown grain. It is closer to the road, and, perhaps in an attempt to use all eight trillion seeds, is also planted in the ditch and the grass immediately against the shoulder. There are even a few plants growing on the shoulder. The result is a solid, unbroken golden horizon, made even more beautiful by the late afternoon sun hanging above the whole scene.
I have never seen such vast, unbroken spaces of one single color. Even in Patagonia the bunchgrass was short and sometimes irregular, and there were boulders and sheep and guanacos scattered here and there. This was something different; grain wasn’t boring, oh no. Grain was insane! It was mesmerizing; if I stared at the grain for too long I would start to get dizzy and forget who, what, and where I was. I would start to float around on those light, dainty breezes as they threaded their way delicately throughout the fields, and if I wasn’t careful I would blow all the way into that infinite golden horizon and never return. Hell, the stuff was practically hallucinogenic! I started to see shapes and faces in the patterns of the wind stripes, and my head began spinning pleasantly. It was something akin to what I imagine smoking two really fat joints of Blueberry Cush and then floating around in zero gravity with a quarter ton of marshmallows and golden silk bedsheets would be like (sorry; that’s the best analogy I can give – and also, I would really love to smoke two joints of Blueberry Cush and float around in zero gravity with a quarter ton of marshmallows and golden silk bedsheets. Can someone arrange that? Maybe talk to the satellite guys?)
No, grain wasn’t boring. Grain was trippy stuff. What’s more, now I know why people in the Midwest seem so placid; they’re just in zero-gravity marshmallow land all the time, the lucky bastards. I’m moving to Kansas and building a house out of wheat.
After a few hours Cascavel poked its head out of one of the golden fields, causing me to come back to earth for fear of crashing bodily into the pointy skyscrapers; they did not look as friendly and soft as the grain. And what’s all this about skyscrapers? Wasn’t Cascavel a tiny little dot on the map I had looked at earlier? Had I accidently become lost in the grain for too long and this was actually São Paulo?
Cascavel emerges from a field of trippy green grain
“That looks like a huge city,” said Tony.
My thoughts exactly. “Are you sure that’s Cascavel?” I asked Matias.
“Oh yeah, that’s Cascavel all right,” confirmed the trucker, nodding. “And yeah, it’s pretty big. Takes about twenty minutes to drive through it.”
“Stupid fucking Google Maps…” I muttered, not for the first time in my life.
We made our way to the downtown just before nightfall, where we planned to play a bit of music, make enough for dinner, and then find a plaza somewhere to sleep in. Cascavel, however, had other plans for us.
“Two more Reales and we’ve got booze and weed for the whole night!” shouted João the artesano madly with a lopsided grin. “Come on, you’ve got to enjoy the moment, loco, spend a Brazilian night in Cascavel, loco! You know?”
João had made friends with Tony, and when I came back from playing I was introduced to the ostentatious craftsman from Curitiba. “I’m always travelling, loco, you know,” he said half an hour later while toking on a joint in the plaza after I had contributed two of the twelve Reales I had made that night to our deviant cause. “But I have a son here in Cascavel now, loco, I gotta take the care of him, you know?” He took another toke, then coughed. “Loco, this is some good weed, eh? Ha ha ha!”
João spoke a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, or what they like to call in southern Brazil “Portuñol.”
“I’ve been in many places, loco, you know?” he said, passing me the pot. “Many countries here in Latin America. I learn lots of Spanish loco, lots, but I forget some, you know?”
João seemed to rely heavily on a few key phrases in Spanish: loco, which the Argentinos like to use for “man” (Ex: Loco, ¿cuando vas a venir a mi casa? Man, when you coming to my house?) and sabes, which is “you know.” Perhaps his greatest catch phrase was “¡No pasa nada, loco!” (Literally: “nothing happens, man!” but actually means, “no problem man!”). For example, when Tony asked if the cops would give us any trouble for quite obviously smoking marijuana in plain sight of the entire city, he would say, “No pasa nada, loco, we’re in Brazil, remember!” The “no pasa nada” was always accompanied with a ridiculous arm-shoulder movement which made João look like he was temporarily possessed by the ghost of a very bad salsa dancer.
“No pasa nada, loco!” (shuffle shuffle) said João again. “The police, loco, they don’t care if you smoke here, you know? You just can’t be so obvious about it, you know?” he chuckled as he pulled a large and very obvious bag of weed out of his pocket and began rolling another joint.
João, it seemed, was right about that; the fuzz rolled by in their cars, on horseback, and just plain on foot. None of them even glanced at us – which made me wonder what an “obvious” bag of weed looked like in Brazil. I thought about the fields of green grain, and salivated slightly.
“An I espeak a little Eeeeenglish, loco,” said João in surprisingly connected English. “You know?”
“Where did you pick that up?” I asked curiously.
“In Guyana loco! You know?”
“Guyana? Cool!” said Tony. “How long were you there?”
“I was in Guyana for three days loco! I entered without papers, nothing, you know? And they kick me out, say ‘Go back to Brasil crazy man!’ I go, no pasa nada, loco!” (shuffle shuffle)
“What did you do in Guyana for three days?” I asked, chuckling.
“I dance loco, just dance!”
As the night progressed, more characters joined our ragtag group of deviants in the plaza of Cascavel. Another artesano, this one from Colombia, sat down on the bench next to us, followed soon by a lean, smiling coffee-skinned fellow whose name was “Shoo-Shoo.”
“It’s not my real name, it’s my apelido!” said Shoo-Shoo in Portuguese.
“Your last name is Shoo-Shoo?” I asked in flawless Portuñol, rather confused.
“No, no, not my last name! My apelido!”
“Yeah, my apelido!”
“Shoo-Shoo, that’s a crazy last name!”
“No, not my last name, sangue-boa! My apelido!”
What ensued was a twenty-minute argument between all people in the group over the meaning of the Portuguese word “apelido.” To me, Tony, and the Colombian, apelido sounded a lot like apedillo, which is Spanish for surname. However, in Brazilian Portuguese, apelido means “nickname,” and sobre-nomme is surname. There was much confusion and shouting and waving of hands as everyone tried to voice their opinion at the same time (and many loco’s and you know’s from João’s corner).
I will go out on a limb and say that the weed did not do much help our problem-solving skills, especially since all of us were trying to argue in a language which was not our mother tongue. Nevertheless, we eventually established that 1) apedillo in Spanish is sobre-nomme in Portuguese, 2) apelido in Portuguese is alias in Spanish and 3) we needed more weed, some booze, and females – in that order.
So off we went. More weed was easy, booze even easier, but the females seemed rather elusive. None in the immediate vicinity seemed interested in getting crunk in the plaza with a bunch of dirty foreigners and street people, so Shoo-Shoo announced he knew the perfect place to find some mulheres, just a short walk from here.
“Mulheres, sangue-boa! Ás mulheres!” said Shoo-Shoo happily, bounding off ahead of us like an excited puppy. “We go this way, many mulheres, you see! And food, sangue-boa, good food! How you say in Spanish…munchies! Ha ha ha!”
Shoo-Shoo did a very good job of providing all of us with munchies for the duration of our walk, which was longer than any of us except Shoo-Shoo had figured. Every time we passed a restaurant with outside tables (most restaurants have outside tables in Brazil) the insatiable grinning face of Shoo-Shoo would tell us, “wait here, sangue-boa, munchies coming soon!” So we would wait as Shoo-Shoo wandered around the tables and begged food, usually coming back with an impressive haul. It must be that smile, that bouncy attitude of his…
Finally, we arrived to Shoo-Shoo’s “place,” which turned out to be an all-night liquor store somewhere in one of the neighborhoods surrounding Cascavel. “Many beer, much mulheres, you see!” said Shoo-Shoo, still rocking back and forth slightly. The man could never seem to stand completely still. Ever.
“Well, very good loco,” said João with a serene expression. “Maybe, yes, we can get more beers here, eh?” He floated down to the entrance, where a couple of young people were coming out with fresh beer. The artesano made a half-hearted attempt to sell them some of his wares, and when they said no I heard him say, “Well, at least a beer or two for the guys? No pasa nada, loco!” (shuffle shuffle). He got three.
We waited, drank the beers, and smoked another joint. Finally, sometime around three a.m., we heard the sounds of screeching tires and high-pitched screams of uncontrollable drunken enjoyment.
Shoo-Shoo grinned even wider and did a little jump. “Mulheres, you see, they come!”
And come they did. Two carloads of them, drunk as could be, clattered their way into the parking lot of the liquor store. The women piled out and stumbled their way into the store, all of them so wasted they couldn’t even keep from tripping over their own legs. I wondered who had driven. Judging by the large dent in the door of one of the cars, it was the striking young lady currently puking on the pile of free newspapers. As I watched, she burped, giggled, and passed out in her own vomit. Nice.
Shoo-Shoo ran up to one of the ladies of the night and started talking to her very fast in Portuguese. She smiled, coughed, and said something so slurred I don’t think even Shoo-Shoo understood. He tried again. Communication continued to elude the pair.
As the last of the women emerged with fresh alcoholic provisions, the presumed driver was noticed unconscious with her face in the newspaper bin, which brought about much laughter and carrying on from everyone present except me, who only felt the need to smoke a cigarette. Finally, after a short debate over who should drive the dented car, the group managed to all pile back into the two vehicles without Shoo-Shoo or any of us, the last disappearing into the vehicle with her friend the newspaper-puker slung over her shoulder like a comrade fallen in battle. They sped off into the night, probably destined to take out a few mailboxes and possibly collide with one another a few blocks down the road.
I felt relived; I was tired. I needed sleep, the weed had wore off and I was never really drunk in the first place. Fortunately, there was a nice looking mini-plaza just across the street. “We’re off to camp!” I announced. “Anyone who wants to come may do so!”
Shoo-Shoo didn’t feel up to sleeping just yet (or perhaps he simply never slept), but João and the Colombian guy seemed ready as any of us for some rest. I sleepily strung my hammock between two trees near a small fountain while Tony pitched the tent nearby. Soon all four of us were asleep – Cascavel was finished with us for the night.
“It’s around here somewhere, I was here the other day,” said the Colombian as we turned down yet another dead-end street. “We need to find Rua Manaus – once we find that we’re practically there.”
For the past three hours or so the Colombian had been leading our little group on a wild-goose chase in search of a far-off homeless shelter, where word on the street was we could get huge heaping plates of free food and a shower if we arrived before 11. We were all tired and wilting in the merciless sun – my Padawan learner especially, who still had not entirely developed his walking feet. The terrain was not forgiving, either; up, and down, and up once more, before getting lost and heading down some other avenue and doing the same thing. Soon it was 10:57, and we seemed as far away as we were when we woke up in the little plaza.
“Nobody knows where the fuck this place is,” muttered Tony. “Just fucking walk and walk all day, with no clear purpose. Fucking pointless, all of it.”
“Here we are!” announced the Colombian. “And just on time!”
Like most homeless shelters, this one was easily distinguishable from the buildings around it by the ragged group of dirty, toothless people in various positions of rest lounging about around the entrance. They waved drunkenly at us as we went inside.
“Documents, please,” said the young woman behind the desk inside. I handed her my Chilean card. She looked at it for a moment, then said with raised eyebrows, “Chile.”
“Chile,” I agreed.
She stared at the card for a moment more. “How come your apelido is on here?”
“It’s apedillo. In Spanish, that’s sobre-nomme. It’s very confusing.”
“Huh.” She squinted at the card. “How come you only have one sobre-nomme?”
A pause. “How do you say that, anyways?”
“Faw-ter-main,” she repeated.
“More or less.”
The woman nodded, and handed me my ID back. “Well, Senhor Faw-ter-main, lunch is at 12. If you want to leave a bag here, ask the man behind the second door, he’ll give you a ticket and put your things in a safe place. If you want to take a shower, the same man will give you soap. If you want to wash your clothes, the man behind the third door will give you laundry soap. Make sure you do it soon, because we close at two and everyone has to leave. If your clothes aren’t dry by then you’ll have to leave them overnight.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile.
I looked around me as I left; the shelter was a homestead of sorts, with a large, one story house in the middle of a fenced-off area surrounded by a spacious yard, clotheslines, and concrete pools of water for washing clothes. I gathered up as much laundry as I dared and got some soap from the man behind the third door.
“How come you don’t have both soaps?” I asked curiously.
“I just work here,” he said, and dropped the plastic container into my outstretched hand.
The water coming out of my clothes as I scrubbed them in the concrete pool was black as ink. And no matter how many times I rinsed my favourite shirt with holes for the thumbs in the sleeves, the water I squeezed out continued to be impressively black. Finally it was just grey, and I figured that would have to do. I hung the garment in the sun before tackling my pants, which were even worse.
The shower felt good; I had a bar of soap in my bag so a visit to the second door wasn’t necessary. It was the first wash in probably around two weeks, though I couldn’t be sure since I had lost track of the days since crossing into Brazil. By the time I came out the sun had dried my clothes and lunch was ready. I slipped into my much-less dirty shirt and pants with a sigh of contentment and headed off to fill my belly with hopefully a very large lunch.
“God, that’s a lot of food,” said Tony, his eyes wide as they stared at the plate – which as promised was literally heaped with a variety of foods, though it was mostly beans and pasta.
I grinned. “Buen probecho.” We dug in like wolves feeding on the first fresh caribou of spring.
“That was worth the walk,” said my Padawan learner afterwards, as we lounged in the shade of the porch with distended bellies. “That was worth every hill and every step. You know, I think I might explode.”
“With happiness, or because you’re too full?” I asked, fishing out my second-to-last cigarette.
“Both,” said my friend, groaning with a chuckle.
The group split up after lunch, with João and the Colombian heading off to go sell and Tony and I leaving to play music for the afternoon. It was decent – for me, at least. By the end of the day I had about 15 Reales, and that was after splurging 2 Reales on a dozen balls of pão de quejo, which is delicious Brazilian bread balls with a warm cheesy interior.
Tony wasn’t so lucky; he was having a hard time making any money at all in Brazil, and only made 1 Real. He shook his head, taking the cigarette I offered him.
“Classical music just doesn’t fit in Brazil,” he sighed, looking sadly down at the two fifty-cent pieces in his violin case.
“At least you can get 6 pão de quejos,” I said, smacking my lips. “Anyways, no worries – I’ve made enough for the both of us.”
We got a few sandwiches as night fell and stopped at the supermarket to stock up on pasta and other necessary groceries, and then began the five kilometre walk back to the highway, since we hoped to get an early start on our next day’s hitchhiking to Guarapuava. The walking was getting easier for Tony, I was happy to note, and the fact that it was night and considerably cooler probably helped a lot.
When we arrived to the highway we felt hungry again, and went off in search of some restaurant that was willing to boil our noodles for us. We found one on the second try, and the cheery cook even added a batch of ground meat and vegetables to the mix.
“Do you know of any place to camp around here?” I asked the cook, after we had finished eating our pasta.
“Camp,” he said, stroking his chin. “Hm.”
A pause. “Sort of difficult, camping here,” he went on slowly. “Lots of thieves, you know.”
“I do,” I said.
“You have a tent?” he asked.
“Yessir. But I like to use the hammock, Tony usually uses the tent.”
“Hm,” he said again.
Half an hour later we were at the cook’s home a few blocks away. “I’ve got a bed, and I’ve got a couch,” he said from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke as he milled about in the kitchen. “You choose who gets what.”
“I’ll take the couch,” said Tony.
“And I’ll have the bed,” I finished.
“Great,” said the cook.
“I’ve always liked cooks,” I said to Tony the next morning as our hospitable friend drove off to work.
“I’ve always liked a warm place to sleep and breakfast,” said Tony contentedly, patting his stomach. “And cooks,” he added.
We spent the better part of the morning walking east towards what we hoped was a good gas station to get out of Cascavel. Six or seven kilometres later the big green and yellow BR that marked a PetroBras service station appeared on the horizon.
It was a big station. A very, very big station. There were literally hundreds of trucks parked all around it, and the station itself was two stories high. It looked like a good place to start…but it was not to be. The day dragged on, and I tried very hard to see all the satellites that were apparently swarming in the sky directly above us like a disturbed hive of Africanized killer bees, just waiting for some poor fool to pick up a pair of hitchhikers so they could, as one trucker put it, “poof, shut off the motor five kilometres down the road.” Those damn satellites, they can do everything these days, can’t they?
Night fell. We walked one kilometre further up the road to a Shell station, hoping to find better rides or at least a WiFi signal. We didn’t find either, but the trip was not entirely wasted…
“Buffet,” said Tony, his eyes shining. “They’ve even got salads.”
“You mean they’ve got lettuce and tomato with Italian dressing on the side,” I said, poking at one of the leaves.
“At this point, anything green is fine by me,” said my Padawan learner, loading up his plate. “Do you think he’ll really make us work?”
“Maybe, maybe not. In any case, we already changed the paper towels in the bathroom.”
The owner of the restaurant had been more than happy to let us “work for food.” Seconds after I´d asked, he disappeared into the back and returned a minute later with paper towels in his hand. “Come, follow,” he beckoned us to the back. We followed.
We came into a small bathroom. “Watch,” said the owner, and he popped open the paper towel dispenser on the wall. “Learn,” he said, and showed us how to change the roll. He then took out the roll he had just put in and said, “Now you.”
I did. “Good,” he said, and gave Tony the other roll. “Now you.”
Tony changed the roll. It took him about twelve seconds.
“Now,” said the owner with a smile, “eat!”
Brazil is a bona-fide buffet-bonza. Nearly every restauraunt has a buffet – both all you can eat and by the kilo. There are usually several different kinds of meat, different sides, and many exciting vegetable options. After getting our salad fix for the evening Tony and I went for broke, filling our plates with at least one of everything and going back for more three times – not including dessert.
“There’s lots of buffets in Taiwan,” said Tony as he gnawed his way through his third piece of chicken. “But people are assholes. They eat so much they feel sick, so they go to the bathroom and throw up. Then they go back and eat more!”
“Greedy bastards,” I said, dipping a baked potato in mashed potatoes. “Dude, what’s this purple carrot thing?” I poked at a strange-looking vegetable lurking around my broccoli.
“I dunno,” said Tony, taking a bite. “But I like it.”
As we ate we were waited on by a young boy of about ten, who was probably the best waiter I have ever seen in my entire life. He brought us a bottle of Coke, popped the top off with a flourish and a smile, and asked us kindly if there was anything else we needed as the tin cap flew across the room and landed neatly in the trash can.
“What’s this thing?” I asked, referring to the purple carrot.
He smiled and gave what sounded like a very good explanation of the vegetable, its name, and where it comes from. It’s too bad I couldn’t really understand what he was saying; all I could discern was that it was a relative of the beet, and I think I heard the word “vitamin” in there somewhere.
By the time dessert came around, we had barely enough space left in our stomachs to top everything off with bread pudding, lime Jell-O, and a mint (it’s wafa-thin!). We looked over to the counter; the owner was not around, it seemed.
“Well, I suppose we should go start washing some plates,” I said.
“Right behind you, man,” said Tony, looking slightly swollen.
We washed plates for no more than twenty minutes when the owner came in and told us we had done plenty. He gave us a box of more food for the morning and pointed us to the best place to camp for the evening. The young waiter waved goodbye to us before going back to his duties and behaving very much like an adult.
After being chased away from a promising spot by a guard dog, we found our place behind a low-set billboard along the highway. Tony pitched the tent, as usual, and I hung the hammock between the signpost and a nearby araucana tree. We smoked, and slept.
The next morning brought us back to the PetroBras, where we remained for the next three days. We talked to truckers, made friends, got the neighboring restaurants to cook numerous kilos of pasta for us, met a talking parrot who would shake your hand if you asked nicely, and spent a whole lot of time just sitting around. On the second day I discovered a WiFi signal, and did some writing. The third day I slept in, remaining in the tent we had semi-permanently pitched in the auto-mechanic shop until nearly noon, as I had developed a nasty cough and was not feeling well.
“Maybe we should split up again,” suggested Tony. “We don’t seem to be getting anywhere here.”
I coughed loudly. “Couldn’t agree more. I’ll start walking first thing tomorrow.”
I plotted my route with Google Maps (yes, I know, but what else it there on the Internet, really), planning on taking the absolute smallest roads, passing the smallest towns. I would pass Fransisco Beltrão, Chapecó, Passo Fundo, Santa Maria, Rosario do Sul, and Santana do Livramento, the town on the Uruguayan border where I would meet up with Tony once more. I estimated five to seven days to go the roughly 1.100 kilometres.
Tony would stay at the PetroBras and continue trying his luck with the truckers. “Bet you 5 Reales I make it there first,” I said to him as I heaved up my pack and buckled the straps.
“Deal,” said Tony, shaking my hand.
I made it to Fransisco Beltrão by the first night. I discovered that hitchhiking on the small roads in Brazil actually works quite nicely. I got seven rides that day, none further than thirty kilometres, which was still a hell of a lot better than sitting at the PetroBras all day shaking hands with a parrot. The last ride was a bus, which took me for free the last twenty-five clicks into the town.
Upon arrival, I went to the nearest gas station for a rest and to get some information about camping spots. I sat on the bench near a couple of locals who were enjoying a few cold beers.
“Argentino?” asked one of them curiously.
“Americano,” he said, smiling and nodding, saying the word with an invisible accent over the second A. Then:
“This isn’t typical, you know,” said Manuel. “Real Mexicans have everything ready. Just look at this puto! We’re tryin’ to have a Bar-B-Q here, but there ain’t any charcoal or beer!” My new friend, a small claims lawyer by day and raging party animal by weeknight, blew smoke over his friend Roldolfo’s shoulder, who was busily trying to light wet wood on fire. Manuel flicked his cigarette butt at Roldolfo and said, “Ey! Are we gonna eat before the meat rots, or what?”
“Hey, you’re the one who took the charcoal, asshole,” said Roldolfo, shooting him a dirty look.
“Because I bought the charcoal, puto!”
Roldolfo stood up. “Hey man, fuck you, you never tell me when you’re gonna come over,” he said, pointing at Manuel’s chest. “You just show up, like tonight. How’m I supposed to know when your ass is gonna get here and want to cook a damn Bar-B-Q at one o’clock in the fuckin’morning?”
“You gotta be prepared, puto!”
“Fuck you man.”
“Fuck you too, puto.”
Despite their bickering, Manuel and Roldolfo were long-time friends. Both Mexican, they had been living for five years in Brazil, and before that twenty years in the US. Small-claims lawyer was just one of the many things the pair had been involved in during their diverse careers.
“Man, I did so many things back in the States, those were some good times,” said Manuel when I met him at the gas station after he invited me for a beer. “We made shit up there.” He stared off into space, lost in the past. “Can’t go back no more, though,” he sighed, shaking his head. “The gringos kicked me out, just like that – and Roldolfo too. After twenty years man, can you imagine?” He spoke English with a clipped, Mexican accent.
“Why’d they kick you out?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Nah, just money stuff, you know how things are over there.” He finished his beer, and then said suddenly, “Hey man, you wanna have a Bar-B-Q?”
I shrugged. “I could eat.”
“Good man, very good.” We stood up. “Let’s go gringo. You don’t mind if I call you gringo, right? It’s a term of endearment, you know, like black people callin’ each other niggas…”
Roldolfo finally got the fire going, thanks to the help of some gasoline siphoned from the tank of Manuel’s pickup.
“You owe me for gas, puto,” said Manuel.
“I don’t owe you shit,” was Roldolfo’s reply.
Manuel grunted, but didn’t say anything. The meat sizzled over the fire as Roldolfo went out to find some beer.
“So how come Fransisco Beltrão?” I asked. “Kind of a small, random place, huh?”
Manuel shrugged. “Small and random is better. Harder to find.” He grinned, revealing a gold tooth.
“Who’s looking?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.
“All the wrong people man, that’s who.” He flipped a rack of chicken hearts and brooded into the fire for a moment. He sighed, and lit another cigarette. “Lemme tell you something, amigo,” he started, blowing smoke, “ Roldolfo and I, we take care of each other, you know? We got to. It’s a rough world out there, gringo. You know that?”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Hm,” he said nodding. We were silent for a moment. “Patrick,” he said suddenly, looking up at me, “can I ask you a personal question?”
“How much money do you have?”
“Um,” I said, “hang on.” I fished around in my pocket and pulled out the contents. “Forty-seven cents. And a cigarette butt.”
“You don’t have no bank account?”
“Not for a long time, now.”
“Good,” he said, nodding. “That’s good. Money can be dangerous. Real dangerous. You’ll get some one day, more than forty-seven cents. But you gotta be careful, you know?”
He patted me on the back. “That’s good, gringo. I know you know. You a smart kid, real smart. You’ll be OK, I think.” He tossed his cigarette into the fire.
And that’s all we said about that sort of thing for the rest of the night.
“Gringo!” shouted Manuel from across the yard. “Come here! Roldolfo and I got something for ya!” I had been talking with a mildly attractive Brazilian girl over a beer and the last of the Bar-B-Q, but Manuel was my host so I excused myself and went over.
“Well, Roldolfo an’ me, we were thinkin’,” started the Mexican, “you know, thinkin’ about how you’re travellin’ all the time, and camping out in rain storms like a fuckin’ crazy person or somethin’,” he made a face and laughed, “an’, well, we thought you probably sometimes lack…eh…privacy. You know?”
I nodded. “Sure, sometimes.”
“I thought so!” said my host with a smile. “Which’s why me and Roldolfo’ve pooled together some cash so you can sleep in style tonight!”
“Sleep in style?” I said, chuckling. “Just what do you mean by that?”
“Come on man, we take you there,” said Manuel, and started up the motor of his truck. I shrugged, and hopped in the back.
We arrived ten minutes later to a very expensive-looking hotel.
“It’s the best place in town,” said Roldolfo. “We figured you’d appreciate it.”
“An’ they got hardcore porno on like, three channels!” added Manuel with a devious chuckle. “No commercials, niether!”
I was speechless. “This looks really expensive. Are you sure?”
“Calléte puto, we’re sure!” said Manuel. “Come on, let’s go in, we take care of everything.”
And they did. The hotel was probably the nicest one I’ve ever stayed in, with a big, soft bed, Internet, a big-screen plasma TV, and yes – three channels of commercial-free hardcore porn. Manuel honked as he drove off.
“See you later, gringo! Sleep well, and have fun with your porno, you pervert!” He put on a face of mock-ecstasy and made the “jack-off” hand gesture. “Oh, and take a shower puto, you stink! Ha ha ha!”
I waved. I hoped whoever was looking for them didn’t find them and cut their balls off or something. They were nice guys, after all.
The days slipped by pleasantly as I drifted south towards Uruguay. I managed to make it to a reasonable sized town almost every night, where I would play music and then gorge myself on local cuisine until I was full or I ran out of money (usually the former). The names of the towns appeared on road signs every morning as I began my walk: Chapecó. Boa Vista. Rhonda Alta. Sarandi. Passo Fundo. As the day coasted on I chipped away at the kilometres, hopping from small town to small town in a pleasant daze that came from simply being in such an accommodating country as I waited for my next ride.
Brazil, it’s worth mentioning, is the serious vagabond’s paradise. With the exception of the hitchhiking (which even on the smaller roads leaves a lot to be desired), the world’s largest Portuguese-speaking nation is easily the best so far for the wanderer, the street musician, the urban camper, and all shapes and sizes of your ordinary “person of the road.”
Music I’ve already covered. I made enough money to live and still have some left over to toss around on impulsive or unnecessary purchases. I got into the habit of immediately buying any food that looked strange or unknown – which is exactly how I fell in love with the dog coração, also known as grilled chicken hearts on a hot dog bun covered with cheese, corn, guacamole, tomatoes, and several other mystery toppings which just made the whole affair that much more exciting. It cost 9 Reales – I didn’t even flinch.
Busking is effective even to the point of being a pretty solidly reliable form of supporting yourself on the road. In other countries you never know when you’ll have a bad day and leave that street corner without enough money for even a single cigarette; in Brazil, you know for a fact that you will make enough not only for your cigarettes (a whole pack – not the cheap ones, either), but for your groceries, a few street burgers (known as xis) or even a beer or two.
When I arrived to Passo Fundo I had 1 real. I wanted a Xi Burger and maybe a Guaraná soda drink. For this lovely combination I would need 9 reales. Short eight, right? No problem. I sat. I played. I smiled. I made sure I looked pretty dirty and poor, and in less than 30 minutes I had made 10 reales.
I ate my Xi and sipped my Guaraná. What to do next? Hm. Perhaps some ice cream. Wow, only 3 bucks! I played for about five minutes and bought my ice cream, and since I was really feeling the music that day I played for another two hours after that – not because I needed the money but because I really do enjoy playing the harmonica. I made 40 reales. At one point there were about six people standing around my hat, throwing in fat silver fifty cent pieces and coveted bronze and silver 1-real coins. Bills of 2 reals were commonplace, and even a tip of five or ten reales wasn’t exceedingly rare.
Being an American street musician in Brazil normally attracts many of your run-of-the-mill missionaries – evangelical, and especially Mormon. I actually prefer the Mormons – the evangelists preach about how I will burn up like a big toe in Sweeny Todd’s basement furnace if I don’t make sure that at least half of the words I utter were first written by either Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – and they rarely tip. The Mormons, on the other hand, always tip.
I can usually see them coming from two or three blocks away – and let’s be honest how can I not; dress pants and a tie against an impeccably white shirt really stands out amongst the flip-flops, sleeveless shirts, and Bermuda shorts of Brazil. They preach, of course – but they preach nicely. They tell me all about just how bloody happy they are as a Mormon, and how the Book of Mormon is such a dandy piece of literature, really. None of them tell me I’m living a life of sin or look at me as if I’m about to spit fire and piss rivers of lava like Satan himself when I tell them how I live – and in fact, one of them informed me that a journey through the unknown helps one strengthen his faith in God, and that he respected and somewhat envied me.
The Mormons travel in pairs – and one of them is always a gringo from Utah. They usually spend at least fifteen or twenty minutes talking with me, which I don’t mind since they often tip more than five reales – and really they are very friendly and nice people. Sometimes I can even get them to talk about things other than God. They leave me with a smile, and twice gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon in Portuguese. I used the first one to store my dead butterfly wings and gave the other to a library.
The evangelists, on the other hand, would sit next to me for hours if they could. This bothers me because a) I am losing money while they yammer on about all the things I’m doing wrong in my life, and b) they are more annoying than mosquitoes, since legally I can’t swat an evangelical missionary and laugh as he twitches on the floor and is carried off by fire ants.
Missionaries aside, busking makes up a large part of my day and night whenever I stop off in a city to have a look around. As if the heavenly street music wasn’t enough, Brazil is also camper-friendly – especially to he who likes to sleep in a hammock.
In Argentina, sleeping in cities would sometimes present a problem since I would have to pick someplace that was not equipped with its own nighttime security guard. No security guard means more pickpockets and folks who will go after my backpack as I snore away in my Bolivian hammock. Of course, I always take precautions – meaning I tie my pack to both the nearest tree and the ropes of my hammock, so any attempt to move it will send vibrations through the whole apparatus and hopefully wake me up.
Of course, they could just cut the ropes – but what the would-be thieves don’t know is that I use more than one rope, and there are several secret ropes they can’t see so easily, hidden under dry leaves or surrounding pieces of litter. These are also tied to my hammock or something that will fall down and make a lot of noise if it’s disturbed.
Of course this is still not totally fail-safe, since the thieves could simply decide the whole thing looks too complicated, hold a knife to my ribs, and tell me to scram – but I prefer not to think about that possibility. Anyways, most thieves I’ve come across are mere cowards – especially the ones who will try to quietly cut through rope to steal a dirty backpack full of dirtier clothes (and a small laptop…but shhhh).
Like a spider I lay poised in my hammock, the centre of my cleverly spun web. The feared Nomadus aracnadia hammockoi, I am coiled in wait for some foolish bandit to pass and see that tempting, army-green pack with big fat pockets – pockets that could contain exciting, sellable merchandise like cell phones or pornography. And when the trap is sprung the Nomad will strike! He will rain down on the robber with a fearsome barrage of swearing, combined with a threatening, waving-about-of-the-arms-so-as-to-appear-bigger – since everyone knows Nomadus aracnadia hammockoi is a harmless spider with skinny arms. Very much, in fact, like the common house spider – whom you often see trapped and drowning in your bathtub or perhaps being carried bodily off into the forest by hunter wasps, destined to be eaten alive by ravenous larvae.
As of now I have never had my web disturbed, but when I do I will see just how well my little security ropes work – and how successful this spider is in chasing off the wasps.
In Brazil there are times I don’t even need to spin a web, believe it or not. Unlike Argentina, Brazilian security guards see no violation in me breaking out the hammock somewhere in their territory, and oftentimes assure me that they will even keep a special eye out in my corner for prostitutes, street urchins, and other unsavory characters. Sometimes they even let me keep my pack in the little guard office, so as to avoid any close calls.
This was the case in Passo Fundo. After my long, happy day of reales, ice cream, and xi burgers, I was well worn out and ready for a good night’s sleep. The pickings were slim when it came to trees for hammock hanging, and like the spider I am I stalked around, eyes darting from tree to pillar to pole, estimating the distance between them to see if they were – as I like to say – hammockable.
Finally I found a place in the parking lot behind a vegetable market. The two trees were the right distance apart; the only irregularity was that they were set on a slope. The first was considerably higher than the one down by the asphalt. Still, it wouldn’t matter since I could just tie up to the bottom of one tree and the top of the other. I asked the security guard if there would be any issues with the arrangement, and he laughed and said that, no, there wouldn’t be any problem. He let me keep my pack in his office and gave me a doughnut.
I slept through the night. I slept through the early morning. I slept through mid-morning. I could feel almost-afternoon sun on my eyelids when I was awoken around eleven-thirty by another security guard. He smiled and said the night shift guard had told him all about me – and promptly presented me with a cup of hot coffee and some sweet bread. Was I still tired? he wanted to know. Because I could sleep more if I wanted to.
I was pleasantly shocked; in Chile sometimes the security guards let you crash in their domain, but they wake you up very early and usually mention something about their boss. Here, the guard let me sleep till nearly noon – and I could have stayed sleeping even longer if I wanted to! And I got breakfast out of the deal. As I got out of the hammock I began to wonder how I had even slept ‘til almost noon – there were cars everywhere in the parking lot and the vegetable market was booming and full of people. I got my pack back from the security box and bought three carrots for the road before leaving.
Good busking, good camping…what more could I ask for? Nothing much, but Brazil still had plenty of goodies to offer this fat and happy house spider.
I found myself stuck one evening on my way to Passo Fundo in a medium-sized town by the name of Sarandi. I waited for a few hours hitchhiking at the traffic circle, but by about seven it was apparent that I would be staying the night – which was fine by me. I headed to the downtown area (which sported a dozen or so fifteen-story apartment buildings and not much else), and began the ritual searching-out of a good perch to play some blues. It was just getting dark when I found one. I played for fifteen or so minutes and then suddenly had my day made by a donation of ten reales. Figuring that should be enough to tide me over for the evening, I went off to find a restaurant that would cook the spaghetti I had bought the day before in Chapecó.
After a few tries I found one. The owners were the types who would add some meat to my lonely pasta, and as I sat at one of the tables sipping a Guaraná soda and devouring noodles like a demented five-year old, I wondered if it got any better than this.
As usual I had spent the day hitchhiking without any lunch, and breakfast pickings had been slim since the previous night’s dog coração and ice cream binge had left me without too many reales to spare for breakfast bits. Consequently I had a healthy, lumberjack-like hunger burning within me, and ended up eating the entire half-kilo of pasta – no small feat, since usually I can only manage a quarter kilo.
As I sat there, gorged like grizzly bear in a ten-acre blackberry patch, I closed my eyes and took the deep, contented breath that a full stomach always invites. When I reopened my eyes I noticed with a start that more food had magically appeared in front of me! What was this wonderful witchcraft?
“A couple sandwiches for breakfast,” said the owner kindly from behind me. “They’ve got ham and cheese and sourdough bread.” She smiled and disappeared back into the kitchen.
That did it – I was never leaving Brazil. Screw Uruguay, how could it compare to this? There was literally nothing more I could ask for! This country was officially perfect!
I sat at the table for a further half-hour, partly because I wanted to talk a little bit with the owner, but mostly because I was too full to risk any major movement. When the huge mound of noodles had been partially broken-down by my overworked stomach acids, I excused myself, thanked the owner, and waddled out of the establishment to smoke a cigarette and think of something else to do.
Coffee sounded like a good idea. I had bought a can of instant coffee a few days before to save reales on caffeine expenditure, so I went off in search of a cup of hot water and perhaps a dash of sugar to top off the evening.
The local gas station/buffet was able to provide those things. I went out back in search of the tap that dispensed boiling water (a very neat feature, by the way), and upon return to my pack and plastic table I was stunned to find a large plate of food sitting in wait.
This wasn’t your ordinary spaghetti and meatballs, either. This was a fucking meal. A steak, covered in melted cheese, with a side of French fries, mashed potatoes, beans, coleslaw, salad, and those weird little purple carrots too! I figured there must have been a mistake; some hungry person had obviously stolen my spot. I flagged down an employee and said,
“Somebody has lost their meal.”
The waiter gave me a look. “You mean you don’t want it?”
“B-but –” I stuttered. “I mean yes, but–” I scratched my head. “That’s for me?”
“Sure. The boss sent it over, said he thought you looked hungry.”
“Really,” I said, wondering how the man had not noticed my stomach bulging with eight billion pounds of spaghetti and meat. “Wow, that’s…that’s really nice of him.” I looked inside; the owner smiled at me and gave the thumbs up, then rubbed his stomach and licked his lips while nodding. I smiled and gave the thumbs up in return, trying not to move too quickly, least I trigger a spaghetti avalanche in my gut.
“Enjoy!” said the waiter with a smile, and left a fork and knife on the table.
“Thanks man…” I trailed, observing the banquet before me with apprehension.
How the hell was I going to find room for all that in my pasta-packed belly? I couldn’t refuse it – first off it would be rude, and second…well, a feast like the one in front of me didn’t come by every day. I mean, cheese steak? Coleslaw? Those weren’t very common things to find in Brazil – those were rare fucking flavours. No way I could turn it down, or even pack it up in a doggy bag – those flavours are best tasted fresh.
Well, there weren’t too many options. I took a sip of coffee and a deep breath, grabbed the utensils, and dug in with the air of a brave soldier headed into a battle in which he will most likely be mowed down within the first three or four minutes. I had never eaten so much food in one sitting before; perhaps I would explode like Mr. Creosote.
As soon as I tasted the cheese steak, I completely forgot about the planet of spaghetti orbiting my spine. Now that was food! That was juicy, medium-rare steak covered in at least three different types of cheeses. I could almost feel my pupils dilating as I chewed. If I would have been in a Tenacious D music video at that moment, I would have been portrayed with the top of my head violently exploding to the sound of heavily distorted guitar chords, leaving only a grinning headless jaw and a hand, still holding the fork up. It was that good.
The flavour pushed me on until the cheese steak was done with. I was just about to sample the coleslaw when my stomach sent out an emergency distress call to my central nervous system.
This is the USS Digester, broadcasting on the emergency network. Stop. Been receiving colossal amounts of food for past few hours. Stop. Were filled to capacity after spaghetti, but more heavy food keeps coming. Stop. Too many cheeses and red meat. Stop. Lacking manpower to digest. Stop. Many brave amino acids lost to exhaustion. Stop. Requesting immediate engagement of Emergency Gag Reflux in association with ANY AND ALL FOOD PRODUCTS. Stop. Repeat, USS Digester, requesting IMMIDEATE ENGAGEMENT of Emergency Gag Reflux. Stop.
My subconscious responded.
Central Nervous, responding to emergency distress call from USS Digester. Stop. Seriousness of situation recognized, understood by High Command. Stop. Engagement of Emergency Gag Reflux approved. Stop. Stand by for nausea. Stop.
USS Digester, message received. Stop. Standing by for nausea. Stop.
It arrived right on time. Suddenly the banquet in front of me transformed from delicious food into giant piles of dog shit. Alarmed, I dropped my fork and clenched my jaw. Had I been eating that? What was going on? What had happened to the coleslaw I was about to tackle? I closed my eyes and tried to sigh. The nausea was strong. I felt sick.
There was no way I was going to throw up. That would have been a horrible insult, not to mention a waste of perfectly good food. I pushed the plate of dog shit to the other side of the table and squeezed my eyes shut for a full minute until the nausea passed.
That was it; no more food. A man could really hurt himself eating like that. Time to calm down and get the rest of those edibles out of sight. I hurriedly scraped the leftovers into the Styrofoam box with my breakfast sandwiches and drank some water. Phew. Disaster averted.
And so I discovered just one more great thing about Brazil: you are in more danger of perishing due to shamelessly stuffing your face than from starvation – a plus in my book.
I love reptiles. Spending a day searching for and pursuing cold-blooded critters of all kinds is my idea of a day well-spent. Yes, I found it a little odd that in all the many hours spent walking down the highways of southern Brazil I had yet to see any live reptile crossing, loitering, or spending any time at all in or around the roadside area. I even searched them out, diligently turning over boards and tires where snakes might be hiding and oftentimes spending a good hour or two tearing apart old piles of wood left to rot in area cow pastures. But my toils were for naught; the searches yielded only worms, slugs, mice, nests of enormous, angry black ants, colourful mold and centipedes, and many very poisonous-looking spiders.
I had seen snakes, yes, but they were tragically flattened on the roadside. I saw one just south of Fransisco Beltrão that had been alive only moments before, and I cursed myself for arriving too late to save the poor fellow. He was red and black and reminded me of a scarlet kingsnake; I buried him next to a patch of bamboo.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I came across a serpent slithering across the asphalt – it was springtime in the southern hemisphere, after all! The perfect time for lively little heads to poke out of winter burrows! And I was in Brazil, for chrissake; what better place is there to come across interesting snakes like the rainbow boa, or the tropical rattlesnake, or even the fabled Bushmaster? I would have even been happy with a humble garter snake.
These thoughts lurked perpetually in the back of my mind whilst walking along the roadside; as I hiked my ears were always pricked for the distinct rustle of flight over dry leaves, and my eyes automatically scanned the underbrush for a telltale flash of scales.
However, as I walked out of Sarandi the next morning (having managed to successfully digest the entire cow I had consumed the night before as I hung in my hammock between a pair of eucalyptus trees), reptiles were not the first thing on my mind. Traffic circles were.
Brazil is the proud home probably the most confusing highway system I have ever seen. I’ve gotten used to traffic circles in other parts of South America – and really that wasn’t too hard, since traffic circles are actually a pretty simple affair. In theory – and if you’re driving.
Here, and hitchhiking, it’s another story. There are simply too many roads going in too many directions and crossing each other too many times. The result is many traffic circles with many different ways to go. Even leaving out of Sarandi I had to walk through three separate circles (Portuguese Word of the Day: trevol. Learn it. Live it). Later on in Santa Maria I would end up walking more than fifteen kilometres past six.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “But Patrick, how come you have to walk past all the traffic circles? Why don’t you just stop at one and hitchhike there?” Well, Mr. or Mrs. Smarty-Fucking-Britches, I can’t do that because if I do then every person who passes by will most likely perform the dreaded POINT. You know…POINT to the right. POINT to the left. POINT straight ahead. It doesn’t matter; whenever a driver goes through a traffic circle and knows he has another one just a few clicks ahead, he will think to himself as he sees my smiling face and hopeful thumb, aw, he’s probably not going my way, so it’s best just not to stop and waste both our time, right? Yeah. Better point to where I’m going so he knows there’s no hard feelings…
I hate the POINT – especially when I’ve been waiting for a good long while and really don’t give a hoot where the driver is going. After all, most anybody who is driving further than ten kilometres will get me to a spot where there aren’t so many damned POINTers. And anyways, how the hell are you supposed to know where I’m going if I don’t have a sign? Are you a mind-reader? Do you read my blog? Do you think you’re being rational by pointing to the left? Here’s something: what if – and, try to bear with me here – what if I’m going to the left too? I KNOW! Like, WOW, who wudda thunk it?!
Anyways, the…umm…point is, if you don’t hitchhike at the last traffic circle, POINTers will ruin your jolly early-morning mood. The tricky part is figuring out just how many traffic circles there are. Sometimes it’s simple: two. One to get into town, one to get out. Sometimes there are three, with a secret smaller one in the middle that only goes two ways and seems like a good hitchhiking spot, since people have to practically stop to go through it – but it is actually POINT City. Sometimes, as was the case in Santa Maria, there are six huge ones going in all directions and spaced out by a good two or three kilometres – and you never know if the one you’re at is the last one until you notice all the POINTers and figure out that you’ve still got a few more clicks to go.
Sarandi was not so confusing in regards to how many traffic circles there were – all the locals agreed on “three.” No problem, right? So off I went to pass trevol três and usher in periods of joyful, POINT-free hitchhiking. The problem was, after trevol dois, I had no idea which direction to go. The signs marked all sorts of towns, including Três Palmieras, the microscopic place I had passed a few days before – and huge, distant cities like Porto Alegre and São Paulo – but nowhere did I see any sign that told me just how the red jolly fuck I was supposed to get to Passo Fundo, a decent-sized city less than 100 kilometres away.
Well, best to follow Road Intuition – which at the time was telling me to just take the biggest road. So I did. I walked about one kilometre, then spotted an old lady hacking away at weeds in her garden and decided to confirm that I was, in fact, on track for Passo Fundo.
I wasn’t; Passo Fundo was down the second-biggest road. So much for Road Intuition. I walked back (uphill, by the way, and hot as can be), and headed down the route the road sign unhelpfully informed me would take me to Porto Alegre…eventually. Trevol três was just as confusing, and my Road Intuition failed me once more as, two kilometres down the road, I figured out I was headed straight for Santa Fe, Argentina.
After finally solving the riddle of the trevols, I crested the top of a hill and headed off to a nice spot of shade I could see about twenty metres ahead of me. That was my spot. I would stand there, out of the sun, drink some water, eat that other sandwich and –
Movement. Scaly, reptilian movement, and the telltale rustle of dry leaves. I wasn’t sure, but could’ve sworn I had just seen the tail end of a tropical rattlesnake disappearing into a little den made in the roots of a big tree near the roadside. Reptile! Finally!
The chase was on.
Careful. I needed to be careful. There were lots of dark little cracks around the big, partially-buried boulders surrounding the roots of the tree, and the tropical rattlesnake has a potent mix of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic venom (the only pit viper in the world with such a combination, by the way). A bite could easily be deadly. I just needed to find out exactly where it was he had slithered off to…
A thorough search of the outside cracks made me assume that the cascavel had retreated into the confines of the deep, dark den. There was no way I was getting him out of there by digging. Too deep, too many rocks; I would just have to be patient and wait for him to come out on his own. I squatted on a boulder just behind the entrance and lit a cigarette, staring at the space below me. I was patient; he would come back out. They always did.
Five minutes later I heard a faint rustle from inside the den. My muscles tensed up as I readied myself for the first good look at my quarry. Another rustle, and suddenly the tip of a scaly nose emerged from the den, complete with a long, heavy black tongue, which flicked quickly in and out of the protruding mouth.
It was a reptile, all right. But it wasn’t a tropical rattlesnake – or even a snake, for that matter. No snake had a tongue that heavy and thick. No, what we were dealing with here was a bona-fide monitor lizard – or “tegu,” as this particular species is known to science.
The Tegu-Monitor of Brazil
That’s right – a monitor lizard. The walkers and stalkers of the reptile world. You may be familiar with the common monitor’s infamous cousin, the Komodo Dragon of Indo-China. The tegu of southeastern Bolivia, Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina is not nearly as large nor as fearsome as the mighty Komodo Dragon – but it can still reach an impressive size. As the rest of the monitor’s head emerged from the den, I could tell that the creature was at least one metre long – possibly longer.
I moved slightly; the tegu’s head shot up and our eyes locked. Both of us sat frozen in place, staring intently at one another. I licked my lips. The monitor flicked his tongue. Oh yes, ladies and gentleman – the chase was most definitely on.
Someone needed to make a move, and it might as well have been me. I knew the second I twitched a muscle in my hand the tegu would vanish back into the den before I could get the rest of my arm raised – he didn’t live to be a metre long by being slow, after all. I had to think of a plan; the monitor was fast, faster than I could ever hope to be – but I could think. I could reason. The tegu could only run.
And so I hatched a devious plot: the entrance to the den was not so big – maybe a foot wide. And the monitor was a thick creature, with weight and strength. There was no way I could ever simply grab the lizard – I would always be too slow. But there was another way…
I could noose the bugger.
Like every good hammock-bandit, I’ve got plenty of rope and parachute cord in the pockets of my pack. If I rigged a noose over the entrance, and waited to tighten it until the tegu came out far enough so that it would close behind his front legs, I could simply drag him out – or at least keep him from retreating back inside and give myself time to get down below and remove the reptile with my own two hands.
It could work. It would work. I needed to get my parachute cord.
All this time I and the monitor had remained with our gazes locked; as predicted, the moment I made a move for my pack there was a sharp rustle, and the tegu vanished back into his dark, earthy domain.
Time to go to work.
Five metres of cord would do the trick; I tied a Siberian hitch into one end. Loose and slippery when opened, firm and practically immovable when tightened and struggled against, it was the perfect knot for the job. I climbed down to the entrance, widened the noose, and placed it around the entirety of the hole, making sure there was no way the monitor could leave the den without passing through my trap. I ran the extra cord up and over the top, where I sat on the boulder and tightened the slack against the palm of my hand. I was ready. Now…I played the waiting game.
It took a good hour for the tegu to deem the outside of his den safe territory. I was of course, still waiting up above on the boulder, cord at the ready and half a cigarette clamped between my lips – but he didn’t know that. The monitor wanted to leave – to bask in the sun, and to hunt spiders and beetles and even mice, if he was lucky. And he would do all of those things – just as soon as I caught him and had a nice look and perhaps took a photo, if I could find someone passing by with a camera.
The telltale rustling of dry leaves announced the emergence of the reptile. I stamped out the last of the cigarette and made sure there was no slack in the parachute cord. It was coming – the ultimate showdown. Man versus Monitor. Who would fail, who would prevail? We were about to find out…
The nose, the tongue, followed soon by the better part of the monitor’s head emerged from the den. He was in my noose. But no – not yet. The moment wasn’t right. I needed more lizard further out. I needed to noose him behind the front legs or he would slip right out of my trap.
The tegu was cautious; he scrutinized the earth outside his den, tongue flicking rapidly in and out as he tasted the air for danger. He looked left, right, and all around – but not once did it occur to him to look directly upwards. If he did he would have seen Man, poised and motionless, waiting for his moment to strike.
More tongue flicking, and the reptile advanced another step outside the den. I could see his whole neck now; it had green and black stripes with dead, white skin peeling off it. Typical lizard – can’t shed all his skin off at once like a snake. One foot was resting on the noose. The other was still out of sight in the den. One more step…just one more step and the trap would work.
The tegu took the step.
Now was my chance! I clenched my jaw and readied myself for the jerk that would close the noose and leave me victorious– when the palm of my hand slipped against the boulder, making the tiniest sound.
The monitor’s head shot straight up. His amber, almond-shaped eyes stared into my round blue ones.
I had been spotted.
But all was not lost – the tegu was still inside the noose. It was to be a race of reflexes, then. Would I be able to pull the noose tight before the monitor vanished back into the den? Or would the reptile prove to be faster that even my speediest endeavor?
Well, there was only one way to find out. I licked my lips, took a shallow breath, and jerked the noose as quickly and sharply as I could. The Siberian hitch closed and flew up onto the boulder where I sat.
There was no monitor lizard trapped in its clutches. I had failed. My trap had failed.
I sighed, fingering the empty noose sadly; the intelligence of Man was no match for the instinct of Mother Nature.
But the plan could have worked, I thought. It should have worked. The only mistake was the sound I had made with my palm. Had I not drawn attention to myself, I could have had the noose tightened before the monitor knew what was happening. The plan could still work.
Not one to be discouraged so easily, I readied myself for Attempt Number Two. The plan was essentially the same: noose the tegu. This time, while setting the cord around the entrance of the den, I made sure that it was well-concealed under dry leaves; monitors had very good vision, after all. No irregularities could be apparent, or the lizard would simply never come out.
The only difference in the second plan was my position. Directly above the boulder was too obvious; the slightest sound would give me away and ruin everything. I needed a new blind.
I found one in the crook of the tree situated above the den. I needed to be concealed and yet still have a good view of the entrance so I could know when to pull the noose tight. The crook provided these features, and I rolled out my sleeping bag so as to give myself more cushion and comfort during the long wait ahead of me.
The second trap was ready. The noose was set and concealed, with the line was pulled tight and free of time-wasting slack. The only thing missing was my prey. The waiting game commenced once more.
The tegu are cautious creatures – especially the ones in Brazil, where they are often killed and eaten with soy sauce. I was familiar with their cold-blooded thought-process; the reptile would not come back out so readily this time, oh no. After the first disturbance, it took him five minutes to return to the outside. After the second, an hour, and following each ensuing disruption the monitor would spend longer and longer increments under the ground – until he deemed the entire process of emerging from the burrow too risky and stayed inside throughout the night. I figured I had one more try until the lizard would call it a day and stop coming back out altogether.
I waited and watched. Cars passed by on the highway and shot curious glances at the crazy homeless person waiting with bated breath in a tree over a hole in the ground, a white string cradled in his sweaty palm. After about an hour the police rolled by, and noticing me in my blind, stopped in front of the den.
“Go away!” I hissed. “You’ll scare him back inside!”
“Scare what back inside?” asked one of the cops with a raised eyebrow.
“The lagartixa!” I moved my arms erratically up and down, doing my best imitation of a monitor lizard running.
“Ohhhh…” said the officer with a cautious tone. “Um…good luck, then.” He drove off, looking at me several times in his rearview mirror as he rolled off down the highway.
Stupid cops, I thought to myself, fuckin’ up my lizard hunting. Now he might never re-emerge.
The wait dragged on; two, three, four hours. The sun crawled across the baby blue sky of Rio Grande do Sul as the songbirds frolicked and shouted loudly at each other from opposite sides of the road. I ate the second sandwich and the leftovers from the night before, which had transformed back into good food during the night. I watched two grasshoppers as they courted, copulated, and were suddenly attacked by an assassin bug – whom injected toxic saliva into the female and sucked out her resulting liquefied internal organs like a macabre bug Slurpee. I watched ants cut off entire leaves and haul them all the way to a distant nest in neat, organized little lines. I counted how many times per hour the cows in the pasture across the street took a shit (between three and five), and threw small caterpillars into the middle of the highway to see if they could make it back to the grass without being squashed.
During all this the tegu did not surface. I refused to move; I had more willpower than a cold-blooded reptile. I wrote in my road journal to pass the time.
1400h. Four and a half hours and the monitor still refuses to break his marathon wait within the burrow. The first attempt at capture was a failure – a technical error on my part. Noose re-positioned and self re-located to a more concealed venue.
Patience is a virtue, and the ability to simply wait is a rare and valuable competence. This is the first time I’ve come across a tegu, and I’m not about to lose the game. Four and a half hours is child’s play – bring on the double digits, monitor.
The day is young and the sun is bright and warm. Why spend such a jewel of an afternoon buried under three feet of damp earth in a depressing hole in the ground? Sun yourself, my friend! How else is a cold-blooded beastie like yourself supposed to obtain vitamin C?
I chewed on my pencil and imagined the tegu, deep in the catacombs of his clammy den, scratching away on a tree root with a claw as he updated his own diary…
1400h. The human is relentless. Five long years in this world and I have yet to come across one as determined as this one. Earlier it almost had me – had it not made a small noise with one of those ugly, pink fleshy things (hands. The Elders called them hands), I would have been captured and devoured with soy sauce for sure.
What is the human’s motive? Could it be hunger? I rather doubt it; sustenance is readily available to most of its kind. Perhaps it is motivated simply by the demented desire to torture me as I wait in this miserable, dark burrow for the entirety of an afternoon. If that is indeed the case, the race of Man is even more brutal and diabolical than the Elders of Iguazú ever imagined.
It’s been hours; perhaps it has gone. Yet something in the back of my mind –call it instinct– holds me back and tells me to wait.
Tick-tock. Scritch-scratch. Am I willing to take the risk – or do I simply, as the old saying goes, wait, watch, and listen?
Time will tell. The day drags on, and my patience is being tried.
What? Lizards are scholarly beings in my imagination.
It had been nearly six hours when the paranoia began to sneak up on me. What if he has a secret exit, I thought suspiciously. What if he came out three hours ago and is now fifty yards away, sunning himself on a rock and laughing at me? I ground my teeth. No monitor makes a fool of me. I would show him.
I stood up from my perch. I would find that secret exit and the tegu. I circled the tree; no surreptitious way out was apparent. It had to be there somewhere; I expanded my search to cover other trees in the area and a nearby pile of old roof tiles. No monitor was visible, and I was distracted for a good twenty minutes at the pile of old shingles, which I completely took apart in search of snakes. I found none, but did manage to unearth a nest of fire ants so enormous that the local population was probably three times that of Mexico City. I poked at them for awhile until the infuriated insects expanded their defensive pillaging to the tips of my boots, at which point I retreated back to the safety of my perch and continued my watch.
It was nearly five pm, and I was entering the eighth hour of my vigil in the crook of the tree when the sun began to sink low over the horizon and I started to think that perhaps the tegu would not emerge before the onset of night. I sighed; perhaps I had been bested. But there was one more thing I wanted to try before giving up.
Perhaps the den was not as deep as I thought. And with the knowledge that my quarry was not, in fact, a highly venomous South American pit viper, I could excavate with little worry of sustaining a deadly bite. I would still need to keep an eye out for spiders, of course, but I do that anyways every night before I sleep; the main danger turned out to be non-existent. I hopped down to the entrance of the burrow and peered inside.
It looked quite deep. After going straight down for a foot or so it made a sharp turn to the left and disappeared from sight. Perhaps the curve followed the root I could see protruding from the grass nearby. Perhaps the main room was actually just a foot or two beneath the boulder where I had been sitting during my botched noose attempt. Perhaps all was not yet lost…
I grabbed a spade-like rock and began hacking away at the grass around the root. Within ten minutes I encountered a subterranean rock blocking my way. Figuring it couldn’t be too large, I dug around it until I was able to ascertain its size. It was big. Too big to dig out. I would have to try finding another way into the guts of the burrow.
The second option was digging up. The den was dug into an embankment which came from the construction workers digging out a flat path for the highway; perhaps I could start from the bottom and hollow out a tunnel that would give me access to the main room – which at that point I was almost sure was underneath the large boulder situated above the den.
I dug, but was bested once again by an interred boulder. Curses; that left only one alternative before I would be forced to abandon the chase and return to Sarandi…I would have to move the large boulder above the den.
Preparations were made; after digging out a sizable trench around the entirety of the offending stone, I sought out a sturdy bough from the surrounding forest and wedged it as far underneath as I could manage. Using it like a lever, I put my weight into it and heaved with all my might.
The boulder moved a fraction of an inch; I heaved again, with similar results. The thing was just too heavy for me to move alone using this technique. I had to try something else.
Ten minutes later thirty metres and three sets of polyurethane rope stretched out down the shoulder of the road. The remaining twenty was occupied by me as I fastened the two ends around the back side of the boulder using interlocking clove hitches, which acted like a harness around the back of the massive rock. I slung the extra rope over a thick, low-hanging branch of the tree, tied a loop for my foot in the near the bottom, and hopped aboard.
I jumped repeatedly on the loop with all the force I could muster as I hung precariously over the shoulder of the road. The rope tightened with a snap, and the boulder budged slightly with each jolt. And yet, despite my toils, it still refused to vacate its spot above the den! No matter how forcefully I jumped and how loudly I grunted, the rock was simply too massive to be moved. After fifteen minutes and a good deal of sweat, I finally decided to call it a day.
As I wound the rope back around my forearm and rolled the sleeping bag up, I looked back at the burrow. Despite all my attempts to get in, it still looked quite impenetrable. I shook my head and gave a little chuckle. You win, monitor, I thought as I began walking back to Sarandi. Well played, my friend. Well-played.
The sun was just about down as I re-entered trevol três and the town was once again visible. I was sweaty, largely covered in dirt, and there was soil jammed deep under my fingernails from my excavation efforts. I had scratches on my arms and legs from a few prickly plants that had been growing around the den, and a couple of fire ant bites burned on my ankle. The only way I could have been happier was if I would have at least been able to touch the tegu.
I whistled a tune as I passed trevol dois and neared Sarandi once more; I wouldn’t make it to Passo Fundo that evening. The day was over – spent, but not wasted.
Back at the burrow, the tegu poked his head out into the cool Brazilian night. The human had gone – but what a mess it had left. The reptile grumbled to himself as he made sure there had been no major breaches in the security of his den. Holy jaguars, he thought to himself as he examined the boulder over his roof, shaking his head. He almost moved it, too. The Elders were never going to believe him; that human had been insane.
In any case, after three pm the tegu had a decent afternoon. After re-excavating his old emergency exit (which went under the highway and came out in a nice, sunny patch of boulders about fifty metres away), he spent a pleasant afternoon basking in the sunlight and eating wood beetles.
He had noticed the human on the other side of the road, crudely trying to dig its way into the den with a sharp stone. So rudimentary, he had thought, chewing on a wood beetle. It was no wonder monitors were the dominant species.
I paid Tony the 5 reals without complaint.
“I beat you here by three days,” he said with a chuckle. “I should have gone triple or nothing!”
“Right,” I said. “And how many rides did you say it took you to get here?”
“And where did you hitch them from?”
“Very nice,” I said, nodding. “It took me 31 rides and a week to get here. I walked more than sixty kilometres, almost OD’d on food, watched free porn in an expensive hotel paid for by fugitive Mexicans, and participated in an epic, 8-hour chase after a metre-long monitor lizard.”
“Nice,” said Tony, nodding as he folded up the 5 real bill.
“You may have won the cash,” I said, putting my arm around my friend, “but I won the game. You still have much to learn, my young Padawan. Now, tell me about these friends you made here…”
We headed off into the town of Santana do Livramento for a few beers and some storytelling; it was good to be back with my friend. Uruguay lay ahead of us, full of surprises and adventure – but that’s another story.
Thanks for reading,
–The Modern Nomad
– Refrence Maps –
Map 1: Foz do Iguaçu, Cascavel, Fransisco Beltrão, Chapecó
Map 2: Chapecó, Sarandi, Passo Fundo
Map 3: Santa Maria, Santa do Livramento
Map 4: Southern Brazil