We might as well begin with a confession: we hitched a ride, and we liked it. No, no, please, don’t take this to heart, don’t briskly turn away with a hurt lover’s stride. Let’s be adults here. It just happened. We were tired, the clouds were gray and spitting a lonely rain, and you, the reader who we knew we would have to face eventually, seemed so far away. But you must understand: this was just a seven-hour thing, a little motor indulgence that got us through a hard time. In the end, this will make us, the collective human-and-bike-parts us, the cyberspacially-challenged you-and-I us, stronger in our blogging bond. Besides, we never really discussed our exclusivity. Did Team MB&S ever promise pedals only, a monogynous and monotonous fidelity to just one form of travel? No, we didn’t and can’t.
And we can’t because South America is a land of contrasts; we need flexibility in order to adapt to its ever-changing contour lines, which have so far ranged from thin bands so tightly compressed the Andes appear one thick Sharpie swipe across the heart of Bolivia; grids of tic-tac-toe boards so wide open that each play is equivalent to a several day pedal, even a plain matrix free from the limitations of elevation lines and roads where riverboats float across the map on undiverted Amazonian waters.
With so much map reading experience, Brazil’s interior of endless rolling hills and sugar cane plantations should not have surprised us the way they did. Any idiot could Googlemap Brazil to see it’s not only an elephant country on a continent of mice (no offense Spanish-speaking countries), it’s not exactly flat either. Cycling the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Minas Gerais is like sailing the Atlantic—the roads can be calm and flat and windless; other times hills rise from the surface in a sequence of such incessant and progressively steeper waves that it seems like you’re angling up toward heaven, instead of tumbling down toward Brazil’s coastal cities of sin.
This is all just rambling to validate our carona—hitched ride in Portuguese—from a truck stop outside of the city of Uberaba to the metropolis of Belo Horizonte, the capital of Mina Gerais state. Instead of six extra days biking the 487 kilometers on a highway with heavy cargo traffic, broken asphalt, and narrow (sometimes non-existent) shoulders, we solicited the help of Emerson, a.k.a. Wheel Barrel Transporter Extraordinaire. I learned a lot about Brazil during our seven-hour chat. Despite the loud motor hum in the cab, wind whistling through cracked windows, and his soft-spoken rapid-fire Portuguese, I pieced together the details of his family life and have since found the numbers to be surprisingly similar among the working-class Brazilians I meet: married at twenty, has three kids and an expanding family, eight brothers, two of which live abroad.
The fact that blue-collar Brazilians and I have different family trees has only increased their curiosity about me and my bike journey (and vice versa my curiosity about them and their everyday lives). I’m the first American most have ever met, and family questions always top the list when smalltalk moves beyond the craziness of arriving from Colombia under pedal power. Not only am I a two-wheel freakshow, I’m a two-wheel freakshow without the warm embrace of my own child and loving wife to remind me why the day-to-day struggle is worthwhile, even heroic.
From the poorest who generously shared their breakfast table bread and butter to the upper-middle class who insisted I accept their leather-bound bible, I’ve been received now by families of all social classes (except the elite who take helicopters to work). I’ve been treated like a son, an older brother, an exotic pet to show off to neighbors, a sleepover guest with whom to share warm milk and secrets before bedtime. It’s quite amazing not only how quickly Brazilians have opened their homes to me but also how integrated I’ve become in their family affairs during temporary stays of single digit hours. I’m an interesting creature to them, a sort of Wild West figure that, until rolling to their doorstep with my American twang, only existed in the popular Western films that light up evening TV screens.
Hospitality can be hospitality for hospitality sake—it has been just that in every South American country so far—but here in Brazil I’ve sensed something more, an umph toward normalcy on behalf of my hosts, a saintly agenda where mothers and wives try to make me a decent man, subtlety, wordlessly, with a tenderhearted show of what my vagabond lifestyle lacks: a good woman. In their eyes my priorities are seriously misguided (“Poor man pedaling alone,” said one woman as she piled extra beans on my plate)—the adventure does not justify the cause, at least not without a female companion. Maybe, just maybe, they believe, some all-inclusive hospitality will act as a beacon to bring me back to the proper path of husband- and fatherhood.
After many nights of rural kindness, I’m now in Belo Horizonte—Beautiful Horizon—where I’ve already sunk into a Brazilian social scene thanks to my American friend Justin who lives/works in the city. You may remember Justin from this previous post. At the time he was living/working in Colombia and showed me the same warm welcome when I arrived to his home a novice long-distance cyclist still settling in my South America routine. Last night we drank and danced at his Brazilian friend’s family gathering. The occasion: life. In Brazil no excuse is needed to smile the night away. With Forró music loud on the open-air terrace and orange lamplight dotting the hillside neighborhoods below, I was pulled from group to conversing group and told to talk about my South America saga. Though everyone—that is all Brazilians—are too nice to ever say so, I could perceive under their attentive gazes and eager smiles a wake of disappointment from the way my tales unfolded in unadventerous recaps of kilometers pedaled and countries visited listed like recipe ingredients or answers to gameshow questions. My Portuguese is still too limited to impress, to dig deep into the details of all I’ve seen and done, but get-togethers like the one yesterday in which all laughed without worry and shared stories under the moonlight are my motivation to continue my language studies.
After traveling extensively throughout Brazil Justin claims Belo Horizonte is the country’s best all-around city. In a previous e-mail he wrote:
BH is my favorite city in Brazil by far. It doesn’t have a lot of tourist stuff; in fact, it’s really under the radar for the backpacking and it’s not saturated with foreigners. It’s really a cool, sophisticated, and modern city, and the people here are the best I’ve met so far. The more I stay here the more I fall in love with the city. The women are also stunning (and very approachable), the climate is perfect, there seems to be a lot of work opportunities for foreigners that pay better than in other areas, and it’s very safe here (I read it was the safest city in Brazil and feel no fear walking around with my iPod). Furthermore, Minas Gerais is a culturally-rich state and there are a lot of colonial towns within a few hours (Ouro Preto, Diamantina among others). Although it doesn’t have a beach, this city has pretty much all the positive qualities of Brazil without much negative at all.
What’s not to like? Brazil is great. I plan to stay in Belo Horizonte awhile, probably until after the World Cup (a very good time to be in soccer-crazy Brazil), studying during the day and practicing Portuguese every chance I get. You can expect many posts this upcoming week; I have lots of ideas that haven’t yet made the page.