Northern Adventure

April 4, 2010

I shifted into fifth gear, released the clutch, and pressed down on the accelerator. The speedometer climbed to 140 kilometers per hour as the never ending fields of northeastern Brazil raced past. Rounding the crest of a hill, my heart suddenly dropped. I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop mere feet from the lazy goat blocking the middle of the road. Everyone in the car released their breath and sank back into their seats. With an irritated glance in our direction, the bearded animal plodded forward and out of our path.

How did I end up in this crazy situation? I certainly never planned to take a week long road trip with a Brazilian family whom I had just met four days ago. But after getting to know Elane, Samuel, and A Mãe (Portuguese for mother) in Salvador, such an adventure seemed like just what I'd been looking for. Brazilians are known to be very open and friendly, but it still came as a surprise when they invited me to crash their family vacation after barely spending a day together. Over the next week we would visit beautiful beaches, attend family birthday parties, and spend three full days packed into Samuel's tiny Fiat while covering hundreds and hundreds of miles in northeastern Brazil.

The beaches of northern Brazil are spectacular. They are blessed with golden sand, endless horizons, and deliciously warm water. The scorching sun is less of a nuisance when you can set up under the shade of an umbrella and be served cold beer. And as anyone who has been to Brazil knows and appreciates, Brazilians like their beer frigid. To end the day just right, the family and I would have some tasty Bahian seafood as we listened to the waves crash onto the beach. Slowly my Portuguese was coming along, to the point where I could understand a fair amount of what was said around the table. But it was difficult to concentrate when distracted by the food in front of me. Brazilian cuisine must be the best in South America.

We arose early one sunny Friday morning and took off from Salvador for family who lived in the coastal city of Maceió. Maceió was supposedly about a seven hour drive, but after taking a few wrong turns we managed to make it in a mere ten. This knack for getting lost would become a trend, but more on that later. The drive was gorgeous, as we passed by quaint villages and endless palm trees. To pass the time, I studied Portuguese in the back seat as we rocked to thumping axé music that was blasted out by Samuel's massive, bass-heavy, stereo system. I think my ears are still ringing.

O Trio Eléctrico de Sam

We arrived in Maceió utterly exhausted, but there was no time to rest because a raucous birthday party was underway...for a one year old. Screaming kids, laughing clowns, and bright balloons assaulted our senses. After conversing with some of the extended family, we escaped from the delirium and set up camp in another family member's house down the street. For the next two days, we ate healthy breakfasts and filling dinners in their home, as I enjoyed an authentic Brazilian experience that few tourists ever get. The family and I also visited some of Maceió's beaches and took a boat tour to several local islands.

The family had several more days left until Elane, who is Brazilian but lives in Switzerland, needed to be back in Salvador in order to catch a flight to Europe. While they were deciding what to do with their remaining time, I had a thought. Perhaps they would want to visit the seaside city of Fortaleza? I had a friend there, named Olon, who long ago had invited me to come visit whenever I happened to be in Brazil. We could probably stay with him. They quickly jumped on the idea, despite the fact that it was a 12 hour drive north! Did I mention that Brazilians are different than Americans? Well, little did we know that a trip we planned to make in one day would end up taking two entire days on the road.

About seven hours after we left Maceió, Samuel noticed a steering issue with his car. We stopped in a city on route and managed to find a mechanic, and were told that it was a simple matter of getting a realignment. Perhaps, but three hours later and we were still waiting. When we finally got on the road again, the sun was going down and we were all sick at the thought of driving past midnight to make it to our destination. To make matters more complicated, we had gotten disoriented and were no longer sure of the best way to get to Fortaleza. Oh, and I forgot to mention that we attempted to undertake this herculean journey without a single road map. In the absence of a visual aid, we relied on stranger's directions to help us reach a city that was hundreds of miles away. Not surprisingly, this turned out to be a costly mistake. We drove for another few hours before calling it a night and finding a place to stay.

After waking up and enjoying the view from our pousada perched on a lake in a pretty town, we set off early in the belief that we would be in Fortaleza in time for lunch. A stranger directed us down the road with the assurance that our goal was plausible. But after driving for about an hour, we came upon a road sign that said that Fortaleza was approximately 493 km (over 300 miles) away! Everyone in the car lost their wits. The stress of being packed in that tiny vehicle for hours on end had boiled over. Pulling over at a gas station, I jumped out of the car and implored the clerk to give us a road map. Thankfully, they had one. I couldn't believe my eyes when I discovered our current location; we had gotten completely off track after leaving the mechanic, and were no closer to Fortaleza than when we had left his shop! Poor A Mãe had a fit and Samuel was drained from driving for so long. So, I took over the wheel.

Driving the extensive two-lane highways of Brazil is both thrilling and terrifying. Apart from the already discussed risk of ramming into farm animals, you have the long-distance big-rigs to overcome. I've never passed so many trucks via the oncoming lane in my life, and at speeds of close to 100 miles/hour. In addition, there are police checkpoints to deal with. Whenever a sign warned us that a checkpoint was imminent, I quickly pulled over to the side of the road, jumped into the passenger seat, let Samuel drive past the heavily-armed officers, and then jumped back into the cockpit. Neither of us wanted to explain why a gringo was driving in this remote area of Brazil! Another interesting incident involving the police had happened a few days before. I won't go into details, but suffice to say that some Brazilian law enforcement officials are not immune to soliciting bribes.

At six o'clock in the afternoon of our second full day of driving, we belatedly arrived in Fortaleza. Olon and his wife, Valeria, graciously took us in their home, fed us a hearty dinner, and listened to us vent our grievances from the journey. Soon after, Olon, who is a doctor, took off for an all-night shift at the hospital. Despite barely sleeping a wink, Olon generously spent all of the following day being our tour guide in Fortaleza, showing us around the city that he calls home.

Fortaleza is the fourth largest city in Brazil. It also happens to be sprawled across miles of pristine beach. The coastline is filled with colorful and modern skyscrapers, giving the city an interesting architectural feature.

Elane, Samuel, and A Mãe would start the long drive back to Salvador the next day. After such a memorable week spent together, it was hard to say goodbye. I spent three more relaxing days in Fortaleza, where I met more of his Olon's family, ate more scrumptious Brazilian food, and continued to improve my fledgling Portugese. In a last act of genorosity, Olon dropped me off at the airport at 6am so I could catch my flight to Rio de Janeiro. I was left with the lasting impression of the warmth and openess of Brazilians; how I had been invited into their homes, introduced to their way of life, and made to feel welcome without the slightest hesitation. So to Olon, Valeria, A Mãe, Samuel, Elane, and all of the others who have made me feel at home in Brazil, I say "Muito Obrigado, e que a próxima vez seja em minha casa!"


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