Ilha Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil
“It’s been twenty years since I came here last,” said Ricardo nervously as we turned off the main highway and onto the small dirt road leading to Punta del Diablo. “I’m not entirely sure if I want to go back.”
“We can continue to Chuy if you’d like,” I said as we rolled cautiously through the sand to the Uruguayan coastline.
My driver shook his head. “No…it’s time.”
Ricardo was my savior – my liberator from an agonizing two-day hitchhiking wait going out of San Carlos. It was apparent that most of the luck that I had saved up for my last days in Uruguay went towards meeting street children who were not inclined to murder and rob me. This, while understandably frustrating as I watched with dismay as vehicle after vehicle zoomed east without me, was apparently all part of the plan – at least in the greater scheme of things. Most notably I was able to witness the very first attempt (that I knew of) to steal my pack whilst I slept in my hammock – which while startling at first, ended up being a useful learning experience with regards to my previously mentioned “spider’s web” backpack security system.
After a fruitless day spent on the highway in a wicked chilly wind with no sun to speak of, I returned to the same old amphitheatre I had gone to with the group of children the night before, hoping to meet up again with the young law-breakers. Unfortunately they were nowhere to be found, and so I resigned myself to sleep alone between the two trees from the night before.
The place was quiet without the rambunctious bragging and whooping of the group. I lay in peace, my hammock swinging slightly in the faint nighttime breeze as I stared serenely up at the stars through a gap in the canopy of dark tree branches. Around eleven pm a couple slipped by the fire pit, purposefully avoiding me as they tiptoed into the inky darkness the adjoining conglomeration of picnic tables and oak trees afforded. Ten minutes later the wet, slapping sounds of surreptitious, yet wholly unbridled sex floated out of the shadows. I chuckled to myself and rolled over. Parks, I thought whimsically. You get what you don’t pay for.
I awoke with a start some hours later, shaken from a dream I can’t begin to remember. As is quite common for someone who sleeps in a different place nearly every evening, it took a second to remember where I was, and an additional one to figure out what it was that had awakened me. Ah…the hammock! It had moved! Or perhaps not moved…but vibrated.
All of a sudden my heart began to race. Someone – or something – had disturbed my web. The moment of truth had arrived; would I peer over the edge of my hammock to find my pack quite stolen? Or would the unscrupulous crook still be at it, trying to slice the ropes? There was only one way to find out…I nervously peeped over the side of my hammock, fixing my gaze on the spot where I had secured my belongings under the nearest concrete picnic table a few feet away.
It was still there…but was not alone. A dark, hooded figure crouched immediately behind it, his hands working at the ropes which, thankfully, still held my pack fast to the concrete table. A dirty thief, caught in the act! The scoundrel, it appeared, had not noticed my waking; I perceived him to be sawing at my security ropes with some sort of knife or sharp object. The ensuing vibrations were what had awakened me.
Quite suddenly I felt a tremendous wave of righteous fury wash over me. He was going to stick me for all I had! What kind of wanton slug steals from someone sleeping on the streets? I would show him, oh yes; it was time for action.
“Oi!” I shouted, in what I hoped was a very intimidating and frightening tone. The figure looked up from his sawing.
I swallowed. What next? Do I tell him to fuck off? Do I call him an asshole, threaten to kill him? Tell him he’s the worst kind of scoundrel for going after my one and only bag of earthly possessions?
That did sound pretty good. Right. I opened my mouth, ready to lay down a serious barrage of hostile vernacular. What came out was,
“What do you do?”
…with what I was fairly certain was a slight waver. And simple verb confusion, damn it all! I can’t even be trusted to speak proper Spanish under pressure! Que haces instead of Que estás haciendo; I’m surprised he didn’t just laugh and say “I’m a petty thief, how about you?”
Fortunately, it seemed my actually waking up had frightened the thief sufficiently, and he answered in an equally unsure tone,
“ I’m…ummm…looking for a bottle that fell down here somewhere.” His voice was low gruff, and heavy with liquor.
“A bottle?” I said stupidly, scratching my head.
“Yeah…it…fell down, I was just looking around for it.” He became more confident now. I could make out a sizable white beard on his face through the darkness. “It’s got to be around here somewhere…” he went on, pretending to feel around in the black – perhaps inferring by my dense response that I actually believed him. I did not, however, and quickly got out of the hammock in hopes of startling the crook into flight. What I would do if he stayed put I did not know.
I needn’t have wondered; as soon as he saw me get out of the hammock, the would-be future owner of all my possessions stood up very hastily, banging his head on the bottom of the table before stumbling off into the surrounding bushes. I started to go after him, then remembered that I was bare-footed and weighed 130 pounds soaking wet.
I crouched down and took a damage report: nothing missing, one rope out of six cut. For one horrible moment I thought the toiletries bag where I keep my passport was missing, until I realized that I had that with me in the hammock. Phew. I sat down on the cold ground. Crisis averted. And, I thought to myself, not without some degree of smugness, the trap worked! I woke up and chased the sorry old bugger away!
My mental revelry was suddenly cut short when I realized the thief could still be hiding there in the bushes, just waiting for me to go back to sleep. This put me rather ill at ease, so using my best gangster-homeless person Chilean Spanish I shouted I’m watching you, motherfucker! into the silent bushes.
“¡Conchetumadre, te ‘toy mirando, weón!”
Yeah. Take that, old man. I thought, popping my knuckles nervously.
Later I lay uneasily in my hammock, clutching my toiletries bag to my chest and looking over at my newly-secured pack every five or six milliseconds; I dreamed about spider wasps.
Ricardo was an argentino – so you can imagine my immense surprise when he pulled over for me as I loathingly prepared myself for what I was sure would be another long, long day on the side of the road. He was the first Argentine ever to pick me up outside of Argentina, and I told him so. He seemed appropriately flattered.
Like most Argentines who actually give me a ride, Ricardo was a genuinely friendly person; he was of average height for his nationality, with blue eyes, brown hair, and a short beard. He wore a T-shirt featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle, which stretched over his thick chest and made Bullwinkle look slightly misshapen. Despite his obvious strength he was a soft-spoken, quiet man who talked in a soothing baritone that immediately put you at ease.
“So, what brings you to Uruguay?” I asked in English – for he spoke it very well.
“Well…I need to do some thinking. I came simply to drive.”
Hmm. “Drive to where?” I asked, thinking Belém Belém Belém Belém.
He shrugged. “I don’t know yet.”
I stroked my beard pensively and said nonchalantly, “Well, I’m going to Belém.”
He laughed. “I don’t know if I’m going that far.”
“Well, as long as it’s somewhere on the way.”
“I think Chuy is far enough,” he said with a smile. “In fact, that seems like the perfect distance for me to go.”
“Excellent,” I said happily.
“She’s my best friend,” said Ricardo as he stared at the open road ahead of us. “And it’s such a big step. I don’t know, I told her I needed to go on a trip to think about it. Do some driving, some contemplating, and perhaps drink a few glasses of wine. So…here we are.” He gave a helpless shrug. “I’m going to give her an answer when I get back. It’s making me very nervous – that’s why I picked you up. I saw you there on the shoulder and thought to myself ‘I’ve got to give this guy a ride or I might explode.’”
“Happy to intervene,” I said, chewing on the sandwich he had just bought me. Ricardo gave a deep, pensive chuckle.
“I used to be like you, you know,” he said, tapping the steering wheel. “Always travelling, always thirsting for new experiences. But…” Ricardo trailed off, words failing him. He took a sip of water, swallowing it with a grimace as if it were a shot of whiskey. “But now I just don’t know.”
It was a long, complicated story. It all started –like many significant things tend to – with a dream.
A long dinner table in a gothic banquet hall, silhouetted in the shadows of a thousand lit candles. The table is empty of food and people – all except for a small boy with curly brown hair, who sits with a smile on the far end, the wavering candles casting dancing shadows across his youthful face …
“The next day she asked me to have a coffee with her. We’re sitting there, talking about normal things, when suddenly – completely out of the blue! – she tells me she wants to try it. In vitro fertilization.” He drove in silence for a second or two. “We would raise the child together, but live apart. I suddenly remembered my dream with vivid clarity…” He gave me a wide-eyed look. “I mean, can you imagine it? Have a dream like that one night, and then get hit with in vitro fertilization the very next day?”
“Very uncanny,” I agreed. “You know, dreams mean a lot – a lot more than most people give them credit for. I write my dreams down almost every night.” I finished my sandwich and pointed at Ricardo. “That dream you had – that has to mean something.”
“I thought the same thing, obviously.” said my driver. “Still, I told her I needed to think about it. So I took a trip to Punta del Este. Today is my driving day. There’s something about the long, empty two lane roads of Uruguay…I don’t know. It helps me. Tomorrow, I will swim in the sea. Then I’ll know what to do.”
We passed a road sign that read, “Punta del Diablo, 60 KM.”
“Punta del Diablo,” Ricardo breathed. “That really takes me back…”
The back story is long and complicated and involves the love of a woman – but I’ll spare the reader details. Suffice to say that Ricardo used to go to the small beach village every year for three weeks during the summer. Twenty years ago he stopped – and hasn’t been back since.
“I think it’s time to go back,” he said as we neared the village. “Time to relive old memories…and maybe get some lunch. Sound good to you?”
“Sounds awesome,” I said truthfully.
“Old Cuba, he was a firecracker,” said Ricardo nostalgically as we neared the village. “I remember he was the one who taught me how to drink like a man. And boy, could he put them away!” The argentino gave a hearty laugh. “Smoked like you wouldn’t believe, too. Had to be three packs a day, you never saw old Cuba without a cigarette dangling out of his mouth – and if you did you were dreaming. A real rough-ridin’ Uruguayan fisherman – that was Cuba. I remember one summer,” he stopped with a snicker, amused with his memories, “…one summer, the whole village convinced him that he needed to stop smoking. Somehow, Cuba went along with it.
“After a few days without cigarettes – couldn’t have been more than three – Cuba loses it. And I mean loses it. After coming in from a morning on the sea he corners himself over by the bar with his shotgun and starts firing randomly all around him, shouting and yelling like the devil himself had ahold of him. I was sitting just a few houses down; I thought someone was at shooting at seagulls, and I look down the way and who do I see but old Cuba, shouting and hollering like he’s pissed off at God himself, shooting off that shotgun for all he’s worth.
“The entire town – myself included – ducked for cover, because they all knew how wild old Cuba could get. A couple of them were hiding behind a junked-out car with an open pack of cigarettes, meanwhile Cuba just keeps yelling and shooting that old .12 gauge. They take out a couple smokes and just start throwing them at him, one by one, shouting ‘Cuba! Cuba! SMOKE!’
“Old Cuba, he sees one of those cigarettes laying there on the ground, walks over and picks it up…and soon he’s puffing away, shotgun on the ground and the biggest smile you ever saw plastered across his crazy old face!” Ricardo slapped the steering wheel and gave a throaty, barrel-like laugh.
“That was the first and only time I ever saw Cuba without a cigarette,” he said, lighting one up himself. “And after that little incident, no one dared tell him to stop smoking ever again!”
“Sounds like a real down-home kind of place,” I said, finally getting my laughter under control. “I’m really excited to see this town – and maybe old Cuba too.”
“Oh, he’s probably long-dead by now,” said Ricardo, blowing smoke thoughtfully over the dash. “He had to be at least sixty when I was there – and three packs of cigarettes a day doesn’t exactly do wonders for your health.”
We rolled into Punta del Diablo around three that afternoon. My driver stared out the window in a daze, lost somewhere in the depths of nostalgia. The first thing we did was visit old friends.
“Those Spanish guys, I spent the most time with them,” he said as we rounded a sandy corner and rolled thickly down the coastline. “I must have learned how to cook a hundred new dishes from them, and even though I rented a room in a different house I was always over here.” We pulled up to a great wooden beach house set between two massive dunes.
“Well, here it is,” sighed Ricardo, shutting off the engine. “Let’s see if we can get some lunch,” he said with a wink.
We came out ten minutes later, Ricardo looking sad and confused.
“I don’t understand,” said he. “Hardly even a hello!”
“Maybe they just didn’t remember you,” I said consolingly.
“They remembered my name!” he pouted, lighting another cigarette. “No ‘how have you been, what are you doing, where do you live now’ – nothing! Just ‘Oh, hi. Yep, we’re still here. See you later.’”
We sat on the beach while Ricardo smoked, the sounds of shrieking gulls and crashing waves a soundtrack to a past I could only imagine.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come back,” he mused after awhile.
“Nonsense,” I said. “You just need to see some more people. Who else do you know here?”
“Would you like the trout as well?” the plump, pleasant old woman asked me with a smile.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I replied, patting my stomach. “I ate a sandwich earlier.”
“He’ll have the trout,” Ricardo interrupted. The plump woman beamed and disappeared into the kitchen.
“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” I said, sipping my red wine and stamping out my cigarette.
“Fish is good for you. Every traveller needs protein.”
We were in the house where Ricardo used to rent his room. The plump old woman had been his landlord, and was still, according to Ricardo, cooking up the best trout in the village. She was a sharp contrast to the Spaniards, and smiled widely at Ricardo after he re-introduced himself. We ate for free, only paying for the bottle of wine.
“Two hundred pesos for wine,” said Ricardo, shaking his head.
The plump woman shrugged. “Yes, things are very expensive these days.”
“I remember I used to come here for three weeks with only 200 pesos!”
Her eternal smile widened. “Yes, my rent was very cheap.”
“Yes, it was,” Ricardo said with a sigh. “Those were good times. I was just telling Patrick here about the time old Cuba quit smoking for three days.”
She rolled her eyes and nodded slowly. “Oh yes. There was bird shot in the side of my house for fifteen years after that.”
“Whatever happened to Cuba? Is he still around?”
“Oh yes. Cuba will never leave Punta del Diablo. His wife died last fall but he’s still hanging in there.”
The Argentine’s face lit up. “Really? Can you tell me where he’s living now?”
The plump woman drew us a map, and after another cigarette on the beach we were off. The place was only about fifty yards away, making the map rather unnecessary. Old Cuba lived with his family in a small wooden house decorated with several coats of peeling marine blue paint. Antique windows with thick timber panes graced the sides, giving the whole thing the aura of an old, Moby Dick-style sailing ship. Inside was a small living room packed with about fifteen men, women, and children – all part of Cuba’s family legacy, which by now had apparently grown to include a good portion of the village’s population. The family was delighted to see Ricardo after he reminded them who he was, and we were welcomed inside with overflowing warmth.
In the corner by the old iron stove sat an old man in a creaky rocking chair, staring off into the empty space on the hardwood floor in front of him. Cuba still had his hair – and it wasn’t even all grey. He sat hunched over, hands shaking from Alzheimer’s and constantly licking his lips through a permanent smile. His eyes, though red and runny, still had a spark of defiance left in them.
“Dad!” shouted his daughter, who was also quite old. “Dad! This is Ricardo! Do you remember him?”
Cuba licked his lips frantically. “The argentino?”
“Yes, the argentino! He’s come all the way from Buenos Aires to visit you!”
Cuba shook our hands warmly; his skin felt like wet rice paper, and I feared it would tear right off if I was too rough.
“Still smoking, Cuba?” said Ricardo with a wink.
“Oh, no…” said the old man, shaking his head so that his grey-black hair hung over his face. “I haven’t smoked in…about a month.” The whole room laughed.
“He’s been off the cigarettes for three or four years now,” said Cuba’s daughter. “He can’t smoke anymore. Right Dad?” She patted him warmly on his frail old back.
Cuba just licked his lips and smiled.
“So what are you doing these days, Cuba?” said Ricardo.
“He just sleeps a lot,” said one of his great- granddaughters, a little girl of about eight years of age. “He sleeps in the morning, then wakes up for a little lunch, and then sleeps again for most of the afternoon.” She shrugged. “He’s old.”
“I’m not old…” muttered Cuba.
“Yes you are!” said his granddaughter, skipping away with a giggle.
We spent a good two hours at Cuba’s house, sitting with his family and laughing into the late afternoon. We left with a warm invitation to come back.
“See you later, Cuba,” said Ricardo, shaking the old man’s hand again. “And don’t smoke any more, eh?”
“Or any less…” trailed Cuba with a surprisingly youthful snicker.
We sat a little while later in the plump landlord’s house for a beer before driving the rest of the way to Chuy. “That was just what I needed,” said Ricardo with a contented sigh. “Old Cuba – I never thought I’d see him again!”
“He seemed like he was happy in his old age,” I mused.
“Didn’t he, though? I couldn’t believe it; a burned out old man like Cuba, sitting in that little wooden house on the beach and surrounded by a huge, loving family.” He ran his fingers through his graying hair. “Man, there was so much love in that house – it was palpable!”
I nodded, not saying anything.
“Cuba lived a rough life – but damnit, it was a happy life. And now he has his whole family there for him; they take care of him, and live with him, and talk to him every day.” He shook his head in wonder. “It’s really amazing. My Dad was in a nursing home for the last ten years of his life. He died surrounded by old men and stony nurses he didn’t like. Cuba is a lucky man.”
We didn’t say anything for some time; Ricardo seemed lost in his thoughts.
“Do you know what I like best?” said my friend suddenly after about ten minutes.
“Sharing what I know.” He scratched his beard. “I’ve got a nephew – little fellow, about eight years old. He comes over and stays with me a couple of times a month. Loves it – and you know, I do too. I teach him how to cook, how to drink mate – all the things a man needs to know.” He took a big gulp of beer, a little froth sticking to his bushy mustache. “Sometimes, seeing those clear little eyes shine with delight as I show him something new…” He breathed and gave an airy chuckle. “Well, there’s nothing quite like it.”
I was silent. He went on.
“After so much travelling, so much gathering of information for me and me alone, sometimes it sort of seems like the only thing I really want to do now is share what I’ve learned with others.” He swatted at a fly buzzing around his ear. “Like I said, I used to be like you. Always looking for something new. I went everywhere – Europe, Asia, Africa. And I loved it – down to the last minute. Looking back now, as an almost-forty year old man, I can safely say that I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” His eyes drifted away, presumably off in some great memory from his travelling youth.
“But after so many years…well, you change. Your priorities change. Maybe,” said my friend, pointing at me, “maybe in twenty years you’ll find yourself living somewhere in Brazil, with a hostel where you let hitchhikers stay and eat for free, because you know how it is for them – and trust me, you will want to talk to them. You’ll want to share your story and what you’ve learned with young men and women who remind you of yourself.”
The fly returned to buzz in wild, frantic circles around my glass of beer as I imagined doing just that.
“You know,” said Ricardo slowly, after a pause, “I think that after living our lives for so long obsessed with ourselves – because every young person does that, it’s natural – we come to a point where we want to see no more and only feel the urge to teach – or more accurately, to help young people who are like we once were.”
The sun set slowly over the frothing, living beach in southeastern Uruguay. A lone crab picked its way slowly across the wet sand, scuttling off suddenly and blowing a batch of bubbles as a seagull swopped a little too close. We gazed upon the scene in silence as Ricardo’s words echoed through my brain. I puffed pensively on my cigarette as I digested what I had just heard.
How long would I stick to my travelling lifestyle? Two more years? Ten more years? Twenty? Forever? And if and when I stopped, just what on Earth did I want to do with myself? Hadn’t my daydreams lately drifted towards something very similar to what Ricardo had just mentioned?
After a long gap, I gave a little laugh. “Man, I don’t think you could have said anything more true or appropriate just then.”
We finished our beers to the sound of hulking grey Atlantic waves crashing against seaside rocks. The sucking sound of the ebbing tide seemed to hint at the inevitable passage of time – an exercise in acceptance and adaptation.
“You know, I think I’ve made my decision,” said Ricardo after a long time. I simply nodded; the answer lay clearly in his eyes, which shone with the beginning of tears. The last of the evening sunlight danced off of the glass drops in wild patterns as Ricardo witnessed the sun sink below the blue-grey horizon of Punta del Diablo for the first time in twenty years.
I think it was worth the wait.
“For you,” said Ricardo as I shook his hand in Chuy. A one hundred dollar bill was clenched in his hand, flapping spastically in the salty breeze.
I took it, eyes wide. “Are you kidding me?”
He patted me on the back. “Like I said – I used to be like you. Use it well, young adventurer.” He got back into his car, closed the door, and started the engine. “Good luck, Patrick. You’ve got a long and beautiful road ahead of you.”
I stood still as a boulder, staring at the one hundred dollars in my hand.
“Will you send me photos of the child?” I asked when I finally found my tongue again.
“Without a doubt!” said Ricardo with another one of his deep laughs.
I smiled slowly. “I look forward to it, my friend. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me today. It was truly an honor – and I mean that.”
Ricardo put the car into gear. “It was an honor to walk down the darkest corners of my memory with a man like yourself.” The engine revved and he pointed seriously at me. “If you’re ever in Buenos Aires –”
“I’ll know where to find you.”
He grinned. “Atta boy. See you around, travellin’ man.” The car slowly rolled off due west, bound for Buenos Aires – taking with it the hopes and dreams of new life and happiness for three lucky people.
I walked slowly to Brazilian immigration and customs, pack slung over my right shoulder and $100 extra dollars in my pocket, wondering what turn my life would take next.
Thanks to a Uruguayan trucker who picked me up in Chuy shortly after Ricardo left me, I made it to Porto Alegre (my goal for the next two days) before the sun came up the next morning. An all-night hitch; it had been a while since I was graced with one of those.
Porto Alegre, and indeed most cities in the south of Brazil, can best be summed up by a one simple word: impressive. After grabbing a few hours of sleep in a gas station on the outskirts of the metropolis, I hitched a mercifully quick ride for the remaining ten kilometres that separated me from the capital city of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
When coming up to Porto Alegre from the south one must first cross a series of bridges, for the city is located at the convergence of no less than five large rivers in the region. Upon crossing the last, the city is suddenly visible to the left. At first glance it seems to be a huge island covered entirely by many skyscrapers. The city starts as soon as the land does, and to the untrained eye appears to go on quite indefinitely. The buildings lack the towering feel that similar-sized conurbations in the U.S. and Europe tend to feature, and the overall effect of the skyline is not ugly. Upon seeing it for the first time, I thought simply: Cool.
My interest was captured, so I decided to go in, see what there was to be seen, and definitely play some blues. The downtown was historic, bustling, and pleasing; I quickly found a good harmonica stoop under a giant iron statue of a horse and rider somewhere near a blocks-long book auction (which I found to be a nice touch).
Oh, the relief I felt to be playing in Brazil again! Porto Alegre was no different than Passo Fundo or any other place I had busked in Brazil; I made plenty. I slipped into a rhythm which I have quite stuck to since then: playing until I had 7 reais (which usually took no more than half an hour), then going to see some interesting thing that had caught my eye, followed by playing again until I had 7 reais, eating, wandering, playing…well, as I’m sure you’ve inferred, it finished up to be a very good day. I enjoyed Porto Alegre’s downtown area immensely, and as large cities go it is surely one of my favorites.
However, I did foresee one small problem, and that was finding a place to sleep. As is true with most port cities, Porto Alegre has a dark, dangerous looking dock area which practically screams armed robbery – and it just so happens that you are obligated to pass it both to enter and leave the city. Being as I was on foot, I predicted a great risk of being robbed here once the sun went down, and had no choice but to go through it since there was no way I was going to sleep in the downtown area.
When I had entered the city that morning, I noticed that the bridges I mentioned earlier passed over two large fluvial islands in the middle of the great convergence of the rivers; these seemed to me like good places to camp. According to Google maps, it was an eight kilometre walk to the most suitable of the islands, which had a sandy point with a view of the entire city from across the waters. Four of those kilometres were through the docks, and the only way to walk them was by going under the highway, since the elevated road above was high-traffic and lacked a shoulder. Alas, I did not learn this until I tried walking the highway and was nearly killed by a mad taxi careening along with reckless abandon. At this point it was nearly seven p.m. – well on its way to being dark.
As much as I loathed walking in a dark, graffiti-covered concealed area just as night was falling, I deduced that I would rather be robbed under the highway than be hit by a truck walking upon it. So I set out in the dim light through the rusty old boats, weeds, and heaps of trash that made up the eerie docks and industrial district of Porto Alegre.
I’ve always hated industrial districts; they reek of suspicion and paranoia, mostly my own. The fences surrounding every warehouse were fifteen feet high and topped with electric fencing, doing little to convince me of the safety of the area. The road I walked on was overgrown with weeds and cracked on the edges where actual small trees had taken root. I wondered if cars even drove here anymore.
I passed the low-income housing, probably the most high-risk sector. Fortunately these structures were situated behind a wall, and unless any possible muggers were on my side (highly probable, now that I think of it) I would not be seen. I could see the houses thorough some cracks in the masonry; the people lived in what could be justly compared only to prison cells, minus the guards and fencing. Huge heaps of trash lay piled outside, where dogs and children frolicked carefree amongst the filth. I passed a group of homeless people, who largely ignored me; perhaps they thought me to be one of their own. My light skin and blue eyes are commonplace in southern Brazil, even amongst the street population. This, I decided, was an advantage.
Finally I made it to the end of the docks, to my great relief unscathed and still fully equipped with backpack containing laptop. The next step would be to cross the bridges. After searching for a good fifteen minutes (it was quite dark by that time), I finally located the dilapidated concrete staircase that spiraled up to the pedestrian footpath crossing the massive structure.
The first bridge is known as Ponte do Guaiba and crosses the the Guaiba river. A drawbridge of sorts, it is designed to lift directly up on mammoth concrete pillars (as opposed to opening like a giant missile silo) on the occasion that a very large ship needs to pass. Ponte do Guiaba is very high, and as it is designed to be raised and lowered, it is not firmly connected to land; consequently it shakes violently with the weight of the constant traffic of heavy cargo and buses. There is a guardrail, but I quickly deduced that it could do with much reinforcing and about twice its present height. Even the walkway is of questionable structural integrity, consisting only of an old piece of sheet metal that is so rusty in some places that alarmingly large holes have formed, and you can see down into the river below.
Upon reaching the first island I decided to try and reach my secondary camping spot, since I was tired and really didn’t feel like walking anymore. However, what I had judged to be the best access point from my perch on the downtown boardwalk turned out to be in reality an impenetrable swamp, with mud and water up to my knees and weeds towering well above my head. I would have to walk to the second island, it seemed.
When I finally found my way out of the black mire on the first island I emerged behind a building of some sort, which was situated just before the second bridge alongside the highway. I thought nothing of it, and continued my stroll to the second island. Suddenly, two men burst out the back door – state police, I observed, judging by their maroon berets and fierce temperament.
They seemed reasonably agitated, and one of them actually had his gun drawn. Being quite empty of any desire to end up shot on an island in Rio Grande do Sul, I immediately stopped walking and co-operated with their instructions. Pack on the ground, hands on your head, legs apart, stare into the painfully bright flashlight. Sim, Senhor polícia.
Apparently I had wandered into a restricted area of the highway patrol’s Porto Alegre substation, and after a disturbingly thorough pat-down in search of any machine guns or Sherman tanks I might have been hiding in my crotch, I explained to the best of my abilities what I had been doing out in the swamp.
No, I was not hiding a body. What’s in the bag? Mostly dirty clothes and junk I’ve found on the side of the road. Why yes, I am a foreigner, how very astute of you, was it my accent? Where am I from? Texas. No, I’m not a cowboy. No, I don’t own a ten-gallon hat. No, I’ve never met Chuck Norris.
A glance at my passport convinced the officers I was telling the truth, except for the part about Chuck Norris (all Texans have met Chuck Norris, apparently). The pistol was re-holstered, hostile faces taken down, and I was left free to go with a warning to stick to the highway next time.
The second bridge was much less frightening than the first, it being of the standard concrete and pillar variety and only half the height, and when I arrived to the other side the small village marked on the little map I had gotten from City Hall was right where it was supposed to be. One road (further exploration revealed it to be the only road) went all the way to the end of the island, where I would camp with a lovely nighttime view of Porto Alegre from across the rivers.
The road was long; longer than I’d figured. By the time I finally reached the end of the island it was eleven-thirty and I was soaked in sweat. To my infinite irritation I found the last bit to be fenced off with a very high, and admittedly effective concrete wall and electric fencing – exactly like all the properties I had passed for the past two kilometres. It seemed the best camping spots in Porto Alegre were reserved for the summer homes of the very rich.
My last option was a small vacant lot I had spotted a few hundred metres back. That would have to do. Finding the area empty of trees or posts upon which to hang my hammock, I was obliged to simply lay out my tarp and sleeping bag on the beach – which was no great tragedy, as sand makes a comfortable mattress. My view of the city was not to be had – here I found here a wholly different view:
The water before me was smooth as glass, reflecting perfectly the stars and dainty crescent moon which hovered above the mainland across the way. The lights and sounds of the city were muted by the trees and swamps of the islands to the west. Instead I could hear only the calls of frogs, crickets, and the occasional whoop of a whippoorwill in the distance.
I smiled to myself as I wrapped my body in the warm confines of my feather sleeping bag; perhaps I had found the best spot after all.
I followed the coastline north through Rio Grande do Sul and into Santa Catarina, where my next city, Florianópolis, was located. It took a good two days to make the six hundred or so kilometres to the city, which is located on a large island directly off the mainland. I finally made the last two hundred clicks in a semi; the long-haul trucker travelled to many parts of the continent and spoke passable Spanish, making these last hours not so silent as the preceding ones (which, after generic introductions and a few simple questions to show interest, had been largely silent, my Portuguese still not having advanced to much more than that level of simple conversation).
I spent the night in São Carlos, Florianópolis’ largest satellite city on the mainland. As I arrived quite late, I had neither the time nor the energy to spend hours scouting out a suitable camping spot, and so resigned myself to setting up my hammock-bed between a palm tree and the local Lion’s Club statue in the middle of the first traffic circle I saw. I was sure to doubly secure my pack to the palm tree, and added the additional security feature of my tarp, which I wrapped around the whole apparatus so as any attempt to disturb it would make a great, loud crinkling noise I was sure to hear. I found the place to be quite peaceful, though admittedly with quite a lot of noise from the traffic, not to mention the fact car headlights shone upon me every few seconds; however I soon grew accustomed to this and slept peacefully and without disturbance for the entirety of the evening.
The next morning I had five kilometres to walk to the island and the city itself; getting an early start and a cup of coffee from a local bakery, I set off in a good mood and with plenty of energy. After three clicks, however, I found myself much more fatigued than I usually was after such a short walk. This, I deduced, was the result of a good bit of additional weight I had added to my pack the day before. The story of that is as follows:
I had been waiting on a relatively isolated part of the highway about halfway between Porto Alegre and Florianópolis when a passing semi truck went over a large bump on the road at a great velocity, causing a burlap sack to fly quite off the trailer and come to a rest in the drainage ditch near your narrator. Upon investigation, I found the sack to be filled with great lengths of very good nylon and polyester rope, three bundles in total – though all of them very much in a tangled mess. Delighted, I wasted no time un-tangling them, stretching them out, and rolling them into neat, compactable bundles, of which each was the size of a small child, roughly. All told the truck lost around four hundred metres of rope – a gift to me from the Road Gods for my patience, for it so happened I had just broken one of my hammock ropes the night before.
The only problem that this gift presented to me was the lack of space in my pack; however, I solved this problem by cutting a length from one of the bundles and tying it ‘round the outside of the buckles. This held nicely, and I figured that I had solved the problem.
However, I discovered the next day after walking three kilometres with this new arrangement that the added weight of the rope was quite significant – perhaps a good fifteen pounds extra, which brought the weight of my bag up to nearly sixty pounds. Being very loath to dispose of my four hundred metres nylon rope, which had been sent to me as if a gift from the gods, I resolved to lose some other less useful objects that had accumulated in my pack since leaving Santiago in September.
I ended up throwing out mostly clothing – for I had plenty and knew the rope to be infinitely more useful than three extra pairs of pants, five T shirts, and a hooded sweatshirt. I also got rid of a number of miscellaneous items that were found lurking in the side pockets, viz., several defunct cell phone chargers; a large bottle of cheap cologne; a moldy potato I had forgotten about, and that had been in there since Jujuy Argentina; assorted small rocks that I had deemed interesting enough to save at one time or another, and three tubes of toothpaste, all empty and dried out. All told, the weight removed indeed came out to be roughly the same as the weight my rope would add, hence I was able to save my prize and continue on with the load I had become accustomed to – which is around forty-five pounds.
When I came upon the bridge I found it would be a rough crossing – perhaps ever rougher than in Porto Alegre, for while this bridge was indeed more stable, it lacked any sort of a shoulder on which for me to walk. However, seeing no other access to the island other than perhaps building a raft, I was left with little choice but set across on foot.
The viaduct was very long indeed – perhaps two kilometres in total. I wondered how the devil people without cars were supposed to cross from island to mainland and back again, for surely I was not in the usual pedestrian crossing zone. Cars passed alarmingly close to me, honking, and I was forced to literally squeeze myself against the metal guardrail as I walked so as to give approaching vehicles as much room as possible to get by me. After ten minutes of this my pants, which are red and blue, were quite black with road filth that had accumulated on the guardrail.
After I had walked perhaps two-thirds of the way across, the police stopped and told me to get in, now! Quickly! After listening to a short lecture about walking in areas designated only for motor vehicles, I inquired as to how on Earth else I was supposed to cross the strait to the island, without the purchase of either a car or bus ticket?
For future reference, the pedestrian walkway goes quite under the bridge and is much lower down by the water; I had not seen it because I had arrived on foot from the shoulder of the freeway. However, on the bright side, since apparently nobody has been stupid enough to venture across the top of the bridge on foot for some years, I found no less than R$3.50 in very beaten up coins under the guardrail as I dodged traffic – of which I used R$3 to buy a coffee and fried bread, and the remaining R$.50 to prime the pump (my hat) before getting started with the day’s busking.
Florianópolis also proved to be good territory for street musicians, as well as being both a clean and aesthetically appealing place to be. However, to my great dismay, on this day I bent a note out of tune on my G harp (which I like to call my “down and dirty” harp), leaving me with only two serviceable harmonicas to play on, these being in the keys of E and F. Fortunately I had managed to save about R$30 after a few hours, and went off in search of a music store with hopes of obtaining a replacement. To my dismay the only playable one cost almost R$200, which is absolutely an outrageous price for a simple diatonic harmonica, regardless of its brand or edition.
Later that day while taking a break in the plaza and smoking a cigarette, to my great suprise I spotted a familiar face: the Colombian artesano I had met more than a month previous in Cascavel was engaged in his usual daily exploits, which consisted mostly of drinking liquor and selling his wares. Unlike most artesanos in South America, who generally make things like earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, the Colombian produced interesting and admittedly very impressive complex wire sculptures; dragons, guitars, drum sets, airplanes, and many other things you would believe to be verily impossible to make from mere wire magically took form as he worked with naught but his hands and a pair of pliers.
“Ey, carajo, how you been?” said the Colombian amiably as I shouted to him from across the plaza. “Where’s the chileno?”
“Missing in action in Uruguay,” I said with a shrug. “I believe he’s swimming in a great sea of marijuana somewhere in Montevideo.”
“Ey, sounds like a good place to me missing, no? Speaking of which, you up for smoking a joint?”
“Great, compadre.” he pulled out a joint, already rolled, and popped it into his mouth. “Let’s smoke it here on this bench and make those old guys over there give us dirty looks, ey?”
“I’m all over that,” I said, smiling as I remembered how the Colombian turned almost every sentence he spoke into a vague rhetorical question. The weed was good and strong; I forked over 2 more reais so the Colombian could get some more liquor, and indeed I drank a little, though it was more to wet my mouth than it was for the alcohol. We finished the joint, after which the Colombian pulled out some more loose weed and a few dirty, crumpled papers. After a fumbling attempt to roll, he handed the whole assortment to me.
“I’m too high. You roll, eh?”
I did, finding myself very high as well, but still managing to produce a smokeable piece. I hit it twice, passed it to the Colombian, and let the smoke eek slowly out of my lungs. What transpired in the following ten or fifteen minutes I can’t be entirely sure of; the THC hit me like a ton of bricks, causing most every sentence I spoke to, halfway through, suddenly sound so utterly ridiculous that I would dissolve into a useless heap of laughter and be unable to complete it – or indeed, even remember what I had originally wanted to say.
I kept unconsciously mixing my Spanish with random Portuguese words, saying things like “Oie weón,¡ pasame el copéte, por favor! ¡Me fico con muito sed aquí! Ni siquiera podo hablar, ¿sabes?” Even though I knew you say quedo instead of the Portuguese fico and obviously mucho instead of muito, puedo instead of podo, etc. etc. – and unless I spoke very very slowly and deliberately, many words would unintentionally come out in Portuguese, despite the fact I spoke much better Spanish. Basically, though I knew in my mind the correct Spanish words for what I wanted to say, more often than not if I also knew the Portuguese word they would leave my mouth in that tongue.
“Ey, so when are you gonna pass me that joint, carajo?” said the Colombian after what seemed like years of sitting stoned in the plaza, starting at the gargantuan old tree which was the park’s centerpiece.
“I passed it to you man. Like, hours ago.”
“I don’t have the joint; you rolled it, and still haven’t passed it.”
“Dude,” I said. “I passed you the joint. I distinctly remember that part.”
He shook his head slowly. “I didn’t get no joint.”
I blew out a stream of air. “I passed it right after rolling it, weón. I’m positive.”
“Pssssh…” said the Colombian, becoming suddenly angry. “¡No seas así, carajo!” He said it like most Latin people do when they are upset, drawing out certian syllables, so it sounded like no seas asiiiiií, caraaaaaaajo. He held out his hand again. “You still got it – pass it!”
I became equally upset and slipped into very Chilean vernacular. “Psssh….estái looooco, weoooón! ¡No tengo ninguna hueá! You’ve got the fucking joint, you’re just too stoned to remember.”
“You’re the one who’s stoned, carajo! Now stop hogging the weed and share!”
This went on for several minutes – until suddenly we spotted what was left of the joint on the ground in front of us about six feet away…being pecked at by a pigeon.
“Hey, the fucking bird, it stole our weed.” observed the Colombian. We stared in silence at the pigeon; seeming to feel eyes upon it, the bird stopped pecking and blinked dully at us.
“Well, let’s get it back,” I said, still watching the bird, which had resumed with its marijuana banquet.
“Why is he even doing that?” said the Colombian with an innocently confused tone. “Birds don’t eat weed.”
I shrugged. “They eat grass.”
“Hmm…” said the Colombian, nodding.
I stood up to retrieve the joint – whereupon the pigeon promptly took it into its beak… and flew off to some distant rooftop.
The Colombian pointed unnecessarily as he watched the weed soar away. “Ey! Ey! EY!” he shouted, sounding as if he might cry. “Carajo, the fucking bird…!” He held his hands up to the sky where the pigeon had flown, a tragic look painted on his face. “It…it…it…!” He began breathing hard, not quite able to get the words out. “Puta mierda, it stole the whole thing!” He moaned, putting his head in his hands. “Ahhhh, hijo de puta, fucking stupid animals! That was all I had left!”
Unfortunate. And that, friends and neighbours, is how I learned that pigeons will eat anything. Like literally, anything. I wondered for days after that if the bird had gotten high.
I left the Colombian later, leaving him to mourn his stolen pot in solitude. Being as Florianópolis is known throughout Brazil (and indeed the world) for having some of the best beaches on the continent, I was resolved to travel to the eastern side of the island, which was open to the ocean and rumored to have very large waves. Figuring I would go and see if I could get some bodysurfing in (for I’ve never learned how to surf with a board), I set out east to the beaches of Santa Catarina, which lay about thirty kilometres from the city.
My walk was very long indeed; once I found my way out of the city I was obliged to follow a long, winding coastanera type of thing, paralleling the sea for a good five kilometres before I came to the road which would take me to Lagoa and my desired waves. It being a cool afternoon and the effects of the pot still very much in my brain, I found myself enjoying the walk immensely.
Especially when stoned, I take great pleasure in walking long distances with my pack. To be completely honest, I don’t even feel as if I’m carrying a burden; rather, it feels as if the pack is a part of my body – and indeed I feel quite naked when I take it off for a rest.
There were many people on the coastanera that afternoon, most meandering along at a slow, leisurely pace; others jogged or ran. I was sure to walk faster than all of the other walkers, feeling I needed to get in some exercise so as to clear my head and do some righteous sweating. I was going along very nicely and at a decent clip when suddenly, two women – somewhere in their early-to-mid-thirties, by the looks of them – approached me from behind and quite overtook me with a brisk power-walk. This, I quickly decided, would not do.
It was obvious that the pair were used to being the fastest walkers on the coastanera; they appeared to be your typical, “let’s go work out and eat sushi!” in-shape, soccer Mom-types. What they didn’t know was that today, they were about to be bested – for I am extremely competitive…even against soccer Moms.
I increased my speed considerably, and was soon just behind them. The women, it was obvious, were almost as competitive as myself, and had no desire to be overtaken. They kept shooting clandestine little glances at me from over their shoulders, and purposefully increased their speed to prevent my passing them. I let them go, then continued to slowly inch closer and closer until I was alongside them once more.
Though I could have overtaken them at any time, I preferred this approach – for I knew that the second I passed them our roles would be reversed, and they would be the ones inching up behind me. I knew from experience (that is, seven marathons), that it’s better to chase than to be chased; by hanging back just behind them, I set the pace. Plus, I needn’t remind you that I could stare at their asses the whole time – which I will say were very nicely formed from all that power-walking.
Basically, the plan was to wear them out until they could support the fast pace no longer. Only then would I pass them up. Of course, I had unfair advantages, viz., I was a young man, and had, as I mentioned, seven marathons under my belt, and also walked twice this distance nearly every day. Nevertheless I figured the fact that I was a heavy smoker (and indeed was smoking as I walked along behind them), and bore a large twenty-five kilogram backpack on my shoulders tipped the scales a bit closer to even.
The poor women had no way of knowing the extent of my competitively, or the fact that I would sooner pass out from exhaustion then allow myself to be beaten. However, they seemed to fancy themselves winning after about two kilometres – for I heard one mutter to her friend, he’s slowing down, ha ha – and while I had in fact slowed down, it was only so as I could stay a tiny bit further back and be able to see both asses at the same time, without turning my head to either side.
Like a hunter in Stone-Age Africa running gazelles down to exhaustion, I relentlessly tailed the pair for another two kilometres. I was sure to go just a little faster every thirty seconds or so, never cutting off any speed I added, until it was obvious they were close to their breaking point. All three of us were breathing hard and sweating in rivers – and yet the woman still did not yield, finding somewhere reserves of energy to use against me. I thought perhaps it lay stored in their asses – which indeed appeared to be very energetic.
Finally, as I had predicted, I sensed the pair reach their limit and slow down noticeably. I had broken them. Smiling, I strode past as they glared daggers at me. I waved cheerfully, purposely trying to breathe evenly and appear quite at ease and not at all tired.
I know; men are stronger than women, of course I won, and blah blah blah blah. But fuck you, a victory is a victory. And those were some nice asses.
When I finally got to the road it was nearly dark. Still, as luck would have it, I got a ride with a pair of women who said they had seen me walking across the bridge that went over the strait that morning, and asked if I had walked all the way here from there. I told them I had walked here from São Carlos. They didn’t believe me.
Though the walk-off had cleared my head of the pot I had smoked with the Colombian, these woman were also packing herb – and as is customary they were kind enough to smoke another very fat joint with me on the short, ten-minute drive to Lagoa. And so I was just as high as a kite when I got off, and promptly spent all the money I had made playing harmonica in the city purchasing heaps of many exciting different types of munchies, until I felt I would actually explode if I ate a single thing more.
I was sitting at a local café, sipping a coffee and polishing off my third and final cinnamon roll, when I overheard two Americans talking nearby. One of them, it appeared, fancied himself to be just about the greatest long-term budget traveller that ever existed, and I listened with a mixture of amusement and distaste as he bragged to the girl he was eating with that he had been travelling for almost a year and had spent less than $9,000! Though I did not hear her speak, I knew the girl was American because she seemed very impressed with the whole scenario.
I left them alone in their little world, wondering if they were paying only $30 a night at their “Lonely Planet Recommended” hostel as I went and slept for free in the plaza. I ate one last cheesy bread before falling into a luxurious slumber behind somebody’s rusty pickup, using my massive amounts of nylon rope wrapped in some pants as a pillow.
The beach, I discovered the next morning, was indeed very pleasant, with chalk-white sand and all of the scantily clad beautiful women that the island is so famous for. The ocean roiled and frothed with truly enormous waves, and a flag on the beach warned surfers: Mar perigoso. The sea was so rough, in fact, that after only twenty minutes out in the water I was forced to retire back to the beach out of pure exhaustion. There was a swift rip tide that took me quickly away from a spot where I could still observe my pack on the beach before me, and at one point it quite pulled me under for a good five or six seconds as a massive wall of blue water broke on top of me and forced me down into the depths. However, the few waves I did catch were worth the risk – for I was able to ride them for a solid ten seconds, and all the way back to the beach.
After this I contented myself with merely sleeping in the sun, intent on seeing my family in December with a bronzed and healthy Brazilian look about me, so as I could laugh at their pasty gringo skin. I lathered on as much SPF 50 sunscreen as I thought fit – which was quite a lot – and, figuring myself sufficiently protected from sunburn, went to sleep.
I woke up about an hour later. It seemed I had not been burned, for once in my life. I packed up my things and went walking back up the beach, planning on playing my harmonica for a little while on a nearby boardwalk, on which there was a good amount of foot traffic and hence, money-making opportunities. However – as is often the case – the gods had other plans for me.
“We call him George because he looks like George Cloony,” said Karla, the pretty little Panamanian girl sitting next to me. George, meanwhile, shook his head.
“I like to think of myself as more of a Julies Ceaser,” he said, giving me a noble look and the slow-motion thumbs-down from that Russell Crowe movie. He could have pulled it off, I allowed – but he still seemed like more of a George Cloony.
George/Julies, real name Claudio, had been the one that flagged me down as I walked by with my pack in tow and dressed only in my red and blue pinstriped pants, him being Brazilian and pretty inclined to invite random people to drink with him in the sand. With him were his two co-workers: Pri, a Brazilian woman in her early thirties and Karla, who seemed about twenty-three, or thereabouts. The group lived somewhere in the huge Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and were here in Florianópolis for what I discerned was an awesome reason: to do some paragliding. I secretly hoped that maybe – just maybe – I could go with them.
Meanwhile, as is customary before launching yourself high into the air and at the mercy of unpredictable wind thermals, Claudio was slamming back numerous beers and smoking cigars. As almost always happens when I spend more than an hour or two with people, it was requested that I play some blues on my harmonica – which I gladly did. Claudio and his group were apparently so impressed with my random improvisation that they gave me fifteen reais and insisted I play a show that evening at the hostel they were staying at – which Claudio informed me was only twenty dollars a night, and for that reason he would cover my costs so as I could, as he eloquently put it, “take a shower and play the clean blues.”
Why not, I figured – though I had been rather looking forward to camping on the beach. Claudio was funny and the women he was with very friendly and sweet – not to mention drop-dead gorgeous, and had not yet mentioned anything about boyfriends.There were plenty of other beaches in Brazil, I decided. To the hostel…
Before this, however, we needed to go paragliding. Karla stayed behind on the beach, citing a fear of heights, while Claudio, Pri, and myself went to hike to the top of a nearby cliff with vague intentions to jump off of it. I was not sure if I was being included merely to watch, or to actually participate. They had two parachutes with them – but I knew not if they were for one person, or multiple.
As it turned out they were not tandem, much to my great disappointment. I would be grounded whilst my new friends soared high into the sky on nylon wings. Still, I was happy for the opportunity to watch and learn just how the whole process of flying with a parachute (as opposed to falling with one), worked. First, the whole apparatus was spread out in a crescent shape on the ground before us, while the seat was secured to the bottom by thousands of thin nylon threads. After this you must sit in the seat (being sure you are properly strapped in) and launch yourself into the air. This, while the physics of it perplexing to me at first, is done simply by pulling the exact correct thread which causes the front of the chute to lift off the ground, catch the wind, and shoot up into the sky – taking the daredevil on the other end with it.
Or…at least that’s what’s supposed to happen. Claudio was having a bit of a rough time getting started. Apparently, there is such a thing as too much wind getting into your parachute, as was apparently the case today. After two failed launches in which Claudio careened bodily into the surrounding bushes without flying anywhere, he was resolved to soar on his third try – especially after seeing another paraglider in the distance who, it seemed, had had no trouble with too much wind. The man sat stubbornly in his chair, much like Julies Caeser, and said resolutely, “This time, I will fly,” – whereupon he yanked the line with great force, flew ten feet into the air and twenty feet across the ground, then crashed directly into a rock face like George of the Jungle, with a sound that made you cringe and go oooooooo.
There would be no flying for Claudio that day. Fortunately there were no major injuries, but an impressive number of cuts and bruises. The other paraglider who was already in the air saw the accident and drifted over, landing nearby to see if everything was all right or if anybody was seriously hurt. Upon finding things to be all right, he pulled his line and drifted right up into the air again with scarcely and difficulty at all – which, understandably, pissed Claudio off considerably. Still, there was nothing to be done but descend the cliff and go back to the hostel – for even Julies Caeser admitted he had not the strength to fly anymore that day.
The hostel, according to the plump girl from New Orleans sitting across from me, was the best place to sleep in all of South America. I immediately felt sorry for her – for that meant the poor thing had never camped in Peruvian volcanic springs, or Chilean mineral salt flats, or the jungles of northeastern Bolivia, or even in that vacant lot on the island in Porto Alegre – for all of those places and more seemed to me a thousand times better than the backpacker’s hostel in Lagoa – though I noticed with little surprise after looking into a few of the approximately eight thousand guide books scattered about in the area, that every single one of them heartily agreed with the girl from New Orleans, and, as if begging me to throw them into some great bonfire, freely admitted that they do not support nor recommend hitchhiking.
I will allow, however, that as indoor places went the hostel was not so bad – though the bedrooms were comparable to university dorms, only without so much weed, and in order to get to them you had to descend at least four hundred stone steps, which while good cardiac, were mildly annoying after Decent Number Two, and downright irritating after Ascent Number Thirteen, when I was drunk and had smoked twelve cigarettes over the course of the past thirty minutes. Still, there were showers – and LOTS of very good food, which I admit I enjoyed very much, and did not hesitate to help myself to thirds.
Not surprisingly, I met many foreigners there. I will not lie to you and say that I did not take much pleasure in seeing the looks on people’s faces when I told them how long I had been travelling, and how I managed to do so. In fact, it seemed word of me spread throughout the hostel like wildfire, and after two or three hours there, I needed not introduce myself to new faces, for they would say to me, “Oh, I heard about you! You’re the guy who’s been hitchhiking around South America for like, years!”
And so my time there was basically spent receiving colossal ego boosts from numerous people, of numerous nationalities. Oh, and getting sloshed – for what could possibly be a better idea in a place that has 400 railing-free stairs separating you from the place where you intend to sleep? I only behaved as Claudio did, when he wisely decided to drink moderately before paragliding and running into a great boulder. Homo sapiens sapiens – the aptly named Very Wise Ape…myself included.
I played a little show with my harmonica, as I had promised Claudio, which more or less made me a hostel celebrity for the evening. One British guy even told me that he was almost moved to tears; as I had not put so much effort into my improvisation as I might have done normally, being half-drunk on the wave of free alcohol that had been crashing over me since I’d left the actual waves of the sea, I assumed that he – like many of his countrymen, and indeed myself – was simply drunk. This later turned out to be the case – though he had apparently been sincere in his compliments to my music.
I enjoyed the attention immensely – yet secretly pined for my hammock in the woods, where the only thing I could hear were crickets and frogs, and my old sleeping bag, full of holes and losing more feathers every day – both of whom lay patiently in wait for me at the bottom of all those stairs, shoved into one of the hostel’s lockers.
I was also surprised to meet some people I liked; while there were indeed many of the travellers whom never fail to rub me the wrong way with the stupid things they say and do, there were some there who, though they stayed in hostels and relied quite upon the guide book to take them around, were simply behaving as such due to a great lack of time, them being normal people with jobs and lives in their respective countries, which I could understand and respect. I met a pair of Irishmen (both named Brian) who were like this, and had a good time talking with the droll duo – for Irishmen, as a rule, tend to be jolly, enjoyable people.
Towards the end of the evening I was reminded of my place in the world as most everybody in the hostel went out for Halloween night, presumably to splurge in bars. This not being on my list of things to do in Florianópolis, and with only 15 reais in my pocket anyways, I was quite content to stay in with Pri and the wounded Claudio late into the night, learning a little bit of Bob Marley on the guitar from a stoned shirtless Brazilian with dreadlocks and Bermuda shorts.
Later on that evening (or early morning, more accurately) I lay in the top bunk of a double bed at the bottom of four hundred stairs covered with a thin sheet. In three hours I would have to get up or risk sleeping past noon and owing the place twenty dollars. Somebody’s cell phone alarm went off just as I had almost drifted to sleep, and didn’t stop until I got out of bed, spent ten minutes looking for it, and turned it off. I closed my eyes, listening to Claudio’s thunderous snoring below me and the periodic racket of very drunk foreigners barging in every thirty minutes or so.
…the best place to sleep in South America, remember.
—and the state of Paraná