Belém do Pará, Brazil
I used to play a computer game that I got out of a Mini-Wheats box about twelve years ago that was called Amazon Canoe Adventure. Basically, you paddled upriver with the objective of taking photos of animals and visiting cities and towns along the way, hence learning about the local culture and buying more Mini-Wheats. Sometimes the city would be in 1899, sometimes in 1954, or 1753 – and at one point you meet Teddy Roosevelt stranded along the river with his native guides.
All in all, the coolest cereal box prize I had ever gotten. Thanks to Kellogg Cereals, a seed had been planted in my child’s brain, and it was called Amazon. Canoe. Adventure. When you first started out you were in Belém. You got off the ship, and immediately were met by a fellow selling birds in a cage. He tells you in really good English:
Welcome to Belém, the mouth of the mighty Amazon River. Your adventure lies in wait.
Then you could ask him all sorts of questions about the city and where to find a guide, food, whatever.
Belém, Belém, Belém. That name, more than any other one, stood out to me from that computer game. My nine year old brain figured Belém was the bee’s knees. Adventure Central! Must go there someday…
Twelve years later, an old Volkswagen van driven by a trader from Marabá dropped me off. Belém, 2011. This wasn’t in Amazon Canoe Adventure.
I had a week to kill, a flight home to catch, a stomach full of açaí, and one real in my pocket. It was two weeks to Christmas. The temperature soared past 100°F, and the sun boiled down upon me from a cloudless sky. Small green parrots frolicked overhead, cackling at one another as they swooped in and out of the huge mango trees lining the streets, and suddenly all I could think was:
Welcome to Belém, the mouth of the mighty Amazon River. Your adventure lies in wait.
I chuckled lightly to myself, and followed the signs that pointed me to the downtown. I can hardly wait…
The first order of business was to get to what was known as the Cidade Velha, or “Old Town.” Word on the street (literally) was that it was the best place to play music and be on the streets. “More lights, more police. Better for you,” assured the gas station pump attendant when I asked.
“Oh, ten kilometres. Very far, take the bus, gringo, or walk all day.”
Ten kilometres didn’t sound so bad – until about one kilometre later, when all of a sudden the clear sky from before quite disappeared from view. Huge rogue thunderstorm clouds appeared literally out of nowhere; I swear to you they materialized out of thin air. One moment the sky was blue, next the wind was blowing and huge thunderheads swirled into existence right before my very eyes!
Then came the rain. The rain in Belém falls as if it’s on a personal mission to destroy all land in existence. It’s unlike any rain I’ve ever seen. I took shelter at a bus stop as I witnessed larger and larger drops pound down onto the ground, hitting the tin roof of the bus stop with such force that I thought for a moment it might be hailing. It is so intense that seeing the other side of the road is an impossible task, and the streets are converted into Class IV rapids in less than three minutes. The drops falling looked to be the size of softballs; I could have probably filled up an entire two litre bottle with just a few of them.
About twenty minutes later, the rain vanished as quickly as it had come. The sky was blue again. The sun beat down on the sidewalk and road; steam cooked off the concrete, rising up into the mangos, as if all of Belém had been converted into one giant, city-sized sauna.
Awesome, I thought.
Twice more during my walk, I was forced to take shelter under various cityscape features when more rain manifested from clear skies. Finally I deemed it easier to just busk at one of the bus stops until I had 1 more real for the bus. During the next downpour I curled up in the corner of one of the stops, sitting on my pack with my hat out on the ground in front of me, playing as impressively as I could as my hat got wetter and wetter.
After about fifteen minutes a lady gave me a 5 real bill. I jumped on the next bus marked “Praça da República,” and watched as we plowed through rivers on our way to Cidade Velha.
The busking in Cidade Velha turned out to be much nicer, and I made a fair amount of money in a relatively short time. Enough to eat well from the street food vendors, who rode precariously around the streets, dodging both traffic and pedestrians on bicycles modified to carry – and even cook – food on the go. They zoomed up and down my busking territory, never far away from overhangs – shelter in the event of rouge rainy season thunderstorms.
As evening drew closer, I began to wonder about where I would sleep. Generally, my policies when scouting for camping sites in cities on or near a body of water is to find someplace near the water. For some reason I find that the camping is both more enjoyable and more secure when I can hear the sounds of water as I dream.
Belém is surrounded on almost on all sides by water, it being on a peninsula between the rivers Pará and Guamá – so the obvious spot to start was the shore. The river Pará was considerably closer to me than the more westerly Guamá, so I set out to walk the four blocks to the docks.
To my dismay I found the shore of the Pará to be very much clogged with a shopping centre, an old Portuguese fort converted into a park and tourist attraction, and a number of resturaunts. Further upriver was fenced off and was the industrial docks of Belém – a dark, rusty place where I didn’t care to trespass.
While walking along a well-kept costanera between the fort and the first of the restaurants, I noticed a concrete dock which went out into the Pará about twenty metres. More interesting to me than this was a small ladder which led down to the rocky beach below, and consequently to the sheltered area under the dock. This would provide both privacy, and shelter from inevitable rain. A promising spot, if I ever saw one.
I climbed down the ladder and scouted out the area. While the immediate shoreline hosted huge concrete pylons which were rather wide to be hanging hammocks on, further out over the water were posts of reasonable size which were entirely hammockable. These were, I noticed, easily accessible by a network of concrete stabilizers which ran from post to post, with the water being just beneath them, and sometimes lapping under them in the event of the occasional boat wake or wind.
I unpacked my rope and set out on the stabilizers to tie up and prepare for the hammock. This was quickly and easily done, after which I rigged the mosquito netting and brought out the hammock, hanging it about four feet above the waters of the Pará. My work was now almost complete – with the exception of my pack. Where was I to secure it so that it would not fall into the river?
Following ten or so minutes of figuring, I decided to simply tie it to the junction of the poles and one of the concrete stabilizers. Though my pack was a bit closer to the waters of the river than I would have liked (about one foot above it), so long as I secured it tightly there was no danger of it falling in.
After taking care of this with some difficulty (my balance on the stabilizers was somewhat thrown off by the pack, and being as my poles were four poles distant the shore, working my way around the others was rather cumbersome), I began working my way back to shore to collect the last of my gear.
It was then I noticed that the water seemed to be…erm…rising.
At first I figured it to be my imagination. There were simply more waves, that was all. But when I had first set out to tie my ropes the water level had been a good four inches below the stabilizers, and made loud slapping noises when a wave crashed against them. Now there was no space at all, and my feet were beginning to get wet. I stood out by my hammock for a good fifteen minutes, trying to figure out if I was going mad, or what. Rivers didn’t rise and fall unless there was a flood. There is no tide in the river!
And yet, it soon became apparent that in the Pará, 200 km inland from the Atlantic Ocean, there is indeed a tide. The mouth of the Amazon is so wide that inland cities like Belém atually experience the effects of tide on freshwater rivers! I later learned that in some places even further inland – places part of the main Amazon river – also experience tide during the rainy season due to them being more than 50km wide! The reason the Amazon was called by Portuguese explorers “the inland sea” was now blatantly apparent to me.
Obviously, over the water under the docks was no longer a viable place for me to camp. I needed to vacate before I was washed away in the midnight tide! Quickly, and with a slight note of panic, I untied my pack and hauled it back to the shore, which took another ten minutes. By this time there was an inch of water over the stabilizers, making them invisible, and I had to feel around with my feet in order to work my way back out to retrieve my hammock.
Disassembling this and the mosquito netting took another ten minutes, and now the water was up to my ankles. By the time I had made my third return trip to retrieve the last of my rope the water was past my knees, and I could feel the current of the Pará river, which nearly threw me off balance and into it´s muddy depths on more than one occasion.
While working my way around one of the posts with the last of my gear, now thigh-deep in the warm, muddy river, I suddenly felt something rough brushing against my ankle. Looking down, I saw to my great alarm the head of an enormous crocodile, sniffing my leg in apparent preparation to snap it viciously off!
I shouted and kicked at the reptile – and found it was only a half submerged piece of driftwood. I looked around sheepishly, hoping no-one had seen.
With all my gear safely on shore, I decided to hang the hammock between the wide pylons about twenty feet up from the rising river. This proved to be a long, arduous task – for it was difficult to climb up to a good height from which to hang my hammock, them being so massive. Finally, after a good hour, the hammock and mosquito netting was hung, and pack safely stashed away under a pile of river rubbish directly below me. I looked at my watch; eleven-thirty. Time for bed.
As I was doing my evening push-ups, I heard a voice shout at me from up above on the costanera:
“Ey! Qué você tá fazendo lá?”
I looked up. A pair of security guards glared down at me. I smiled and gave the thumbs-up, pretending to not understand.
“Ey! Cara de pau! Não pode fazer hede aquí! É proibido! Ey!”
I again pretended not to understand that they had just called me a cheeky bastard and told me that hammocking was forbidden here. Smile. Thumbs up. They weren’t pleased. They wouldn’t leave me alone and kept shouting, so I climbed back up the ladder to see if I could reason with them.
The one who had been shouting was not happy at all; his partner seemed more reasonable, so I talked to him. Angry Guard, his hand on his pistol, shouted at my face:
“You can’t put your hammock here, freeloader!”
I addressed the other guard.
“I don’t see why I can’t. Nobody owns the river. I’m not hurting anyone. I just want to keep out the rain. Aquí me fico seco. Lá (I pointed in the general direction of Belém) não tem techo. E aquí não tem ladrãos. I don’t want to be robbed in Cidade Velha.”
He shrugged, and said that he was sorry, but those were the rules. Angry Guard kept on shouting at me and drumming his fingers on his pistol.
“Fine,” I conceded at last. “I’ll move. But I’ll have you know I spent about two hours setting all this up.”
“I don’t care!” fumed Angry Guard.
“You know,” I said, addressing Angry Guard for the first time, “There’s no need to finger your pistol.” I patted my pockets. “I’m shirtless and wet. I’m not carrying anything that will hurt you.” I climbed back down the ladder, leaving Angry Guard to fume with his Glock.
I waved cheerfully at Angry Guard as I left the costanera, and began walking further downriver. Surely a more suitable dock lay somewhere that way.
However, the further downriver I got, the more Belém changed. The streets were filthier and narrower, sometimes so narrow that it would be impossible for two cars to pass each other going in opposite directions. Open sewers lined the sidewalks, where rats scurried in and out of the gaping holes, tracking filth onto the sidewalk, frolicking in piles of trash, and fighting with one another. Their loud squeals echoed up and down the waste-littered alleyways. Groups of unarguably shady characters leered at me from the shadows, whispering suspiciously amongst themselves, cackling, and staring obviously at me as I went by.
Alarm bells were ringing in my head. Get out, they told me. Now. I took the first left I could and headed back toward Praça da República. The bells faded.
Here was better. The sewers and rats stayed under the street where they belonged. The street was wider and better lit. I turned downriver again, paralleling the shore but careful to keep a good five blocks between me and those narrow allies.
I passed a couple of plazas; this one was too well lit. This one was too dark. This one had no places to hang the hammock. After awhile there were no more plazas or even grass, and I was surrounded by dark and grimy homes and buildings. It was around 0000 hrs, and I was rather lost in Belém with no good camping spots in sight. I spotted a church down the street. Further investigation revealed a perfect little gazebo inside the fenced-in area. All I needed now was permission…
The church behaved as most churches do, glaring suspiciously at me and spewing flimsy excuses. The pastor brought his armed security guard with him to talk to me, and didn’t shake my outstretched hand. I didn’t bother pressing it; people like that deserved neither my time nor my company. Disgusted but not surprised, I left the church, determined to walk downriver until I either found a good spot or Belém ran out.
Fortunately, this wasn’t necessary. I hadn’t walked six steps when one of the many two-stroke motorcycles found puttering around all tropical cities in South America pulled up next to me. Driving it was a man about my age, with a young woman straddling the back. The woman addressed me in English:
“Where you go?”
“I don’t know,” I responded in Portuguese. “I’m looking for a place to sleep.”
“You want a hotel?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Não. I meant a place to camp.”
The woman lifted the visor of her helmet and looked at me. She had soft, caramel skin. Her eyes, black as coal, were framed by long, naturally curly lashes. “Camp?” she said.
I shrugged. “Sure.”
She exchanged glances with the driver. “You want to camp down there?” she said, pointing the direction I had been walking.
The driver shook his finger side to side. “Very dangerous,” he said. “They will kill you. That is a bad place for camping.”
“Well,” I said, scratching my head. “Any suggestions?”
The pair leaned in together and had a conversation in very fast Portuguese that I had trouble understanding. Soon they seemed to come to an agreement, and the man dismounted the motorcycle. The woman slid up and took his place.
“Come on,” she said, beckoning. “I’ll take you to a place where many people sleep. Maybe it will be good for you.”
Shrugging, I hopped on; she gunned the motor and we took off. I could see the man waving in the rearview mirror. We waved back in unison.
It was Christmas time in Belém, and being as Belém is Portuguese for Bethlehem, the city takes this holiday very seriously. The Praça da República was decked out in thousands of lights and decorations, the mango trees wrapped in long strands of flashing, multicoloured bulbs. Live music played every night, realistic Santa Clauses were set up in the ponds fishing, there were moon bounces, singing and dancing, parades, and of course, Santa himself – much to the delight of all the children.
“Here, there are many lights. Policemen. Better for you, I think,” said the young woman as I got off the motorcycle.
“Thanks,” I said. I could see Santa throwing candy at a horde of children behind her. They squealed with delight, and after picking the ground clean, swarmed Santa for more. He threw out another handful and retreated back to the temporary stage with the band.
“Well, good luck,” she said, popping the bike into gear.
“Ok,” I said. She roared off back the way she came, waving as she went.
A walk around of the plaza revealed few good places to hang my hammock, though plenty of green spaces which could have worked if I had had my tent with me. Finally, I found a spot under the eve of a large temporary tent wedged between two permanent, colonial-style buildings. The tent sold evangelical literature. There was a space about eight feet wide between either side of the tent and the buildings; this was not frequented by too many people, and since the tent was set up with a metal skeleton, I could hang my hammock off the supports. I heard the announcer say over the speakers that the festivities would continue for one more hour before closing down for the evening. I decided to wander around until that time.
I sat in the grass, smoking my pipe and sipping on a coconut I bought for 1 real. On the stage in front of me, dancers moved gracefully to Portuguese versions of Christmas songs – which, while were still about Christmas, oftentimes had completely different words (for example, throughout the tune of “Jingle Bells,” not once did I hear anything about bells or sleighs or Grandma’s house).
At the end of the last song the dancers made a complex pyramid with their bodies and shot confetti out over the audience, as fireworks were set off simultaneously. It was quite an impressive spectacle. Brazilians really love Christmas – though the Mexicans, with their 400-foot Christmas tree, extravagant 18-wheeler floats, and full-on symphony orchestra and opera still had them beat. But not by much.
Finally the announcer called out the end of the night’s celebrations. The dancers blew kisses to the audience, the coconut vendors scurried around trying to get rid of the last of their drinks, and Santa waved goodbye to the children and did laps around the plaza in a Porsche (yes, a Porsche. Santa.)
After a half an hour the place had cleared out considerably. It was time for bed.
I hung up my hammock, keeping it low and inconspicuous (about 1 inch off the ground). I tied my pack up, shoved it under the elevated floor, did my push-ups, and fell immediately asleep. What a day.
I was flying home in six days to see my family for Christmas. It would be the first time I had seen them in about 2 ½ years of vagabonding South America. I decided the surprise everyone and return home with gifts for all. And so I dedicated myself to spending even more time than usual busking, this time for Christmas money. Fortunately the holiday spirit ran strong though the hearts of the inhabitants of Belém, and I made very good tips my first morning in front of the post office.
Between 0800 and 1100 I made about thirty reais. I wandered around and bought some earrings for my Mom and my sister, and some more tobacco for myself. I bought more food from the street vendors, and a tribal-looking necklace for my brother. Then I played some more.
In the evenings I would go to the shopping centre by the docks (near where I had been evicted by the security guards), where I had found WiFi. Sometimes I would meet interesting people there. Once, a few locals took it upon themselves to give me a “tour” of the Portuguese fort and costanera where I had been busted. I saw Angry Guard there, and smiled at him. He was still angry, it seemed.
Every night I returned to my spot under the eve of the temporary evangelical bookstore. I would go to the Praça da República around ten or eleven and watch the festivities while laying in the grass, eating 2 real popcorn, and clapping loudly at the end of each performance. I smoked my pipe and watched ballet dancers move daintily to a live version of “Silent Night” – which was interesting, because it kept the original words, and every time they said “Bethlehem” they actually said “Belém.” And we were in Belém.
This reminded me of a story that my friends in Paraná had told me about Belém. A professional soccer player from Rio de Janiero was headed to Belém for a big game. When the reporters asked him how he felt about the upcoming match being played in Belém, a hot city for soccer, he responded, “I am filled with joy to be playing in the city where Christ was born.”
Amazonian Jesus. Ha.
As the crowds dispersed in the evenings, I lay back in my hammock, smoked my pipe, and enjoyed the night. There was a palm tree near my hammock that had bats nesting in the dead fronds up at the top. All night long they would flit in and out, swooping around the buildings, and sometimes making loud screeching noises from inside the nest. I wasn’t sure if they were fighting or mating. Either way – cool!
There was also a small, black and white city cat who lived in the plaza, and who liked particularly to frequent the area where I had my hammock hung. She hunted rats and mice from somewhere nearby, and then retreated back to my space and chewed their heads off. She didn’t trust me and wouldn’t let me near her. One night – maybe the fifth or sixth – I bought a piece of fish from the market and brought it back for her. After about an hour, I got her to eat it from my hand, and she permitted me to scratch her head briefly before stalking loftily off. Typical.
Every morning I went to an outdoor bar, which was open 24 hours, for coffee. After my second night in Belém they stopped charging me. When I inquired, the owner told me, “I’ve seen you in your hammock, and I think you deserve free coffee. Also, I hate evangelicalism, and that damned bookstore. Seeing you sleeping there made me laugh.” He let me have as many cups as I wanted, all day long.
The bar, known as the Bar do Parque, was another frequent hangout of mine. In the early morning when I got up, it was filled with still-drunk boozers and desperate whores. Both types were attracted to me like a moth to the flame. The boozers cried and told me long, drawn out stories and threw up in the bushes, and the hookers (both male and female) asked me, was I refusing their advances because they were ugly?
In the evening groups of men wearing Panama hats swooped in to suckle on cans of Skol beer and laugh loudly. Women came to sit alone until one of the men in Panama hats bought them beer, which never took long. Youth crowded around side tables with guitars, asking for weed. Pretty young women slithered around the tables selling it. Bums wandered through periodically and begged. Artesanos made frequent stops to sell their earrings and things. And me? I just sat at a corner table, smoked my pipe, and drank coffee.
After a few days in Belém people started recognizing me – I was spending about eight hours a day busking, after all. They waved at me on the streets, and called me homen da gaita – the harmonica man, or bem cargada, which means “heavily loaded,” since I always had my pack on me. They called my tobacco pipe ao cachimbo da paz – the peace pipe.
Some would simply nod and smile as I played. Some would tip. Some would dance and laugh, and some would sit with me and talk for hours. Once, as I was playing in my spot in front of the post office, I saw a man passing by nodding his head along to my music. He pointed at me as he went by, grinning widely, and said to his companion, “Ísso é Belém do Pará!” This is Belém, of Pará!
I felt honored – like I was a part of the city, something that travellers rarely have the privilege to feel. In that moment, my blues helped form the impression of Belém for somebody. Maybe when Belém was mentioned to them in the future, they would think of the Pará river, the Teatro da Paz, the Praça da Rebública…and me, playing the harmonica by the post office.
I slowly accumulated enough money to buy presents for everyone. There was a nice, handmade wooden plane that a man was selling across the street from where I played that I wanted to buy for my Dad, since he’s an airline pilot. It was breakable, so I waited until the last day to buy it, but I made friends with the guy who sold it (along with other things made from wood).
His name was Gabriel, and he lived in the ragtag conglomeration of fruit stands and peddler’s warehouses across the street from the post office. At one point there had been a building there, but it was torn down years ago, leaving a vacant lot in the middle of Cidade Velha. The artesanos and street vendors quickly descended upon it, putting up metal frames with tarp roofs where they sold their respective goods, creating a little marketplace. Gabriel had been one of the first people to build there, and was the only one who lived in his little hut full-time.
“I’m safe here,” he would say to me. “Look – I’ve got a little stove, and electricity! See, I have a TV and everything.” He showed me how he barricaded himself inside at night, locking a series of metal screens around the whole thing, and his curtains. He slept in the same place he used to display the wooden things he built, for sale every day – even Sunday, when the rest of the huts would be empty metal skeletons. All except for Gabriel, who was always there with his wooden airplanes and tanks and school buses. How or where he went to the bathroom, or showered, is still a mystery; as far as I knew he never left. A whole life, lived along the sidewalk in Cidade Velha.
One evening, while sitting in the Bar do Parque and wondering how many beers the Panama hat men would buy this woman before he realized she wasn’t going to sleep with him, I noticed a pretty young lady a few tables away smiling towards me. I looked behind me, wondering who she was smiling at – then remembered I was at a corner table and the only thing behind me was a mango tree.
She sauntered over and sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I like your pipe.”
“Um,” I stumbled, “Okay.”
Why was she talking to me? I was homeless. I lived on the streets. People called me the harmonica man, and knew I played each day in front of the post office. I hadn’t showered in three weeks, and I hadn’t changed my T-shirt since I was in Brasília about a month before. She had no business talking to me.
“Pipes are cool,” she went on. “Do you smoke weed out of it?”
“No. That would destroy the flavour.”
“So you don’t smoke weed?”
“Not out of this pipe.”
“But you do smoke weed?” She gazed at me coyly from behind her eyeliner. I noticed that she had enormous ti – I mean, blue shirt.
An enormous blue shirt.
“Well, sure I do,” I said, staring at her enormous blue shirt.
She leaned slowly forward, staring into my eyes, and whispered into my ear, “I’ve got something for you.” She smelled like vanilla. And she had an enormous blue shirt. Truly massive. And…she had something for me?
“You have something for me,” I repeated, not really remembering what those words meant.
“Yes,” she whispered again, and placed her hand in mine. I could feel something in there. “Five reais,” she said, “and you don’t have to use your pipe.”
“Five reais,” I trailed. I could see down her enormous blue shirt, and knew for sure now why it was enormous.
“Well.” I said. “Um.” Silence. I cleared my throat. “Five reais. Hm.”
She leaned even closer. “So, do you want it or not?” I couldn’t see anything except for her blue shirt, and everything smelled like vanilla.
I didn’t stand a chance.
As I lay in my hammock later that evening, I smoked my five reais worth of weed and watched the city cat try to catch the bats in the palm tree.
That blue shirt was a hell of a salesman.
There was another person in Belém who was also known as “the harmonica man.” He wasn’t a busker, he was a homeless person who wandered around selling cheap plastic Bee harmonicas for ten reais apiece. He played a tune while he walked – the same tune, always.
You could hear him coming from two blocks away, even over the street noise and the buses. Once, he sat down and played with me. I played along to his endlessly looping tune with short, three note chords. We made three reais; I gave them all to him.
From then on, whenever we passed in the street he would stop me, smile impossibly widely, and dance. Every time. Then he would pat me on the shoulder a couple of times and skip away, laughing wildly and shouting “Homens das gaitas!”, before resuming his endless loop.
There is a tobacco shop in Belém about six blocks from the main avenue in Cidade Velha. I went there every couple of days to buy tobacco, and also bought another pipe there. The owner recognized me every time I went in, and was the only person in Belém who called me by my real name. She told me I should move to Belém. I asked her why. She said it was because I was the only person that ever bought pipe tobacco from her.
“Well, you sell a lot of cigarettes,” I said.
“But it’s not the same,” she sighed. “Cigarettes are ugly. The tobacco pipe is a beautiful thing. More people need to smoke tobacco pipes in Belém.”
I liked her a lot.
Once, while I was busking in early afternoon – which is a slow part of the day – a couple walked past me. They smiled, stopped, and the man started digging around in his pockets for coins. He threw 75 cents into my hat.
His girlfriend glared at him.
“All of it!” she hissed.
He threw the rest of his coins in my hat.
After they left, I counted them. They added up to almost five reais.
I liked her, too.
Another evening in the Bar do Parque. The Panama hat men were talking about Colombia, while a marching band paraded around the plaza, playing the same song over, and over, and over again. The guitar kids were stoned, and couldn’t play the guitar. I had spent all of my money on gifts that day, and was really hungry but had no means to buy food. It was too dark to busk. I was hoping the man a few tables over would leave some pizza crusts on his plate that I could swipe.
Suddenly the sky rumbled, and a typical spontaneous Belém thunderstorm developed. We all scurried for cover. I hid under the overhang of the municipal museum, while the Panama hat guys quickly finished their beers and trotted off the nearest indoor bar, and the stoned guitar kids voiced concerns about their guitars getting wet. Soon it was pouring, and the Bar do Parque was empty.
Twenty minutes later the rain stopped completely. I could see the moon through the mango trees. I went back to the little plaza, got another free coffee, and sat down in my usual chair.
I noticed a wet, blue piece of paper on the ground in front of me. It was muddy, as if someone had stepped on it. Curious, I picked it up.
It was a 100-real bill. One of the Panama hat men must’ve dropped it while running for cover – for it was unlikely the guitar kids had any 100-real bills.
I left the bar quickly and blended into the crowd behind the marching band. Later on that night, I bought a gargantuan slab of meat, a plate of shrimp, a bowl of açaí, and a can of Skol beer.
Who ever said vagrancy doesn’t pay?
On my last day in Belém, I played for the first half of the morning and made as much money as I could. I got my last free coffees from the Bar do Parque, and bought the last of my Christmas gifts, which were a bottle of cognac for my uncle, a few necklaces for my cousin, and my Dad’s wooden airplane. Gabriel said it was ten reais; I paid him fifteen. Then I took the bus to the airport, buried my knife and fingernail clippers out by the bus stop, and went to check in for my flight, which would take me first to Rio de Janiero on TAM airlines, and then to Charlotte, North Carolina, vía US Airways, and later to my family in Houston, Texas.
I slept in the airport that night, and the next day I stepped on an airplane and disappeared into the sky. I could see Cidade Velha from the tiny window of the Airbus 319 passenger jet. I felt privileged to have been a part of its history, if not very briefly.
I would be back in a month; I wondered if anyone would remember me. Would my spot in front of the post office be re-occupied? Would the temporary evangelical bookstore where I slept be taken down? Would the other harmonica man still dance for me?
One thing was for sure: Gabriel would definitely still be in his hut.