January 10, 2006

The Brazilian Excursion.....



Here's the trip in a nutshell. I didn't think I would write nearly this much and this is barely half of what happened. Perhaps I should write the rest down before I forget. Here goes:

Hertford-shire is an unlikely place for a travelogue about Brazil to start but it's where the journey began so it's where this piece begins too. For four or five years now, Dave has been banging on about his local, The Lytton Arms, so I was quite keen to see it. First we had to nip into Luton to get some Brazilian money or socks or something. That place sucks. Here's a free piece of advice: If the bombs come down and Luton becomes the last habitable place on earth, avoid it. It's ugly and it's where all those dickheads on Holiday Reps: Uncovered come from. We scarpered to the safety of Old Knebworth where Dave reversed into a tree. "First one this week", he told me. (Dave's car looks like the one in the Peaugeot 206 advert where the Indian guy makes his own car with nothing but hammer, some pig iron and a glossy Peaugeot advert he's cut out of a magazine.) Dave's auntie stuffed us like turkies then we hunkered down with a bottle of whisky. The next day we ate bacon. All day long. My host was trying to run down his burger van stock so we had to eat it or it was getting chucked.

"How many rashers do you want in your bacon buttie mate?"
"I don't know, six or seven maybe? Surprise me."

We'd eaten as much bacon as any human could so we set off for Heathrow. It's pissing distance away but we had to sit on the M25 for two hours. I swore there and then that I would never live anywhere that required a journey on the M25 to get to it. Tooled up, we got on the plane had a drink, slept and woke up over the Brazilian coast.
Arriving in Sao Paulo we had stinking hangovers. Dave, henceforth known as 'The Englishman', couldn't fill in the blanks so I did it for him:

"You don't remember singing 'Rule Britannia' at the top of your voice while we watched Last Night of the Proms on the in-flight entertainment?"
"No. That didn't happen."
"Yes it did. And you spent two hours down the front of the plane chatting up the fat air hostess. That's why she winked at you when we got off the plane."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did. And you stole several bottles of wine and stashed them under our seat and behind the flight safety card."
"Don't be daft. I didn't do that."
"Yes you did. I just drunk them half an hour ago. That's why I'm still pissed and you feel like shit."
"Shit."

We knew we were about to have a decent trip when we got picked up at the airport by a guy in a suit with a slick blacked-out car. This was one of Gabriel's 'people'. He took us to a hotel (courtesy of Bernie Eccleston) complete with our own rental car (cheers again, Bernie). If anyone asked we were to tell them we were British consular staff (the real British consular staff are going to have fun trying to check into that hotel).
Gabriel, henceforth known as The Brazlian, met us for lunch that first day and took us to a barbecue place where an army of Goucho cowboys run round with spits of meat, filling your plate 'til you can't eat anymore. What impressed me most was when I put a cigarette in my mouth, an arm suddenly appeared from my peripheral vision with a lit match. Real fuckin' service. Nobody pisses in your milkshake here. I kept stubbing out my smokes then popping new ones in my mouth just to keep the cowboys on their toes.
Gabriel had to leave again so the Englishman and I found ourselves in down-town Sao Paulo trying not to look like Gringos. Picture him in Union Jack shorts, a straw hat and deck shoes constantly telling me in a loud public-school English drawl that we have to try and "blend in" so's not make ourselves targets. I wasn't much better. I had harboured this notion that I was some kind of Man from Del Monte so was wearing a jeans, a beige sports jacket and a light cotton shirt and pale white skin - every inch the gringo.

"Tell you what Dave; Let's change all our money into $1USD bills, loosely stuff it in our pockets, blaze a trail of green all over this city and see if we don't get our faces kicked in."

I won't bore you with the details but the night ended with a high-speed car chase through Sao Paulo. We were yelling: "faster, faster, undalay, undalay," waving lots of dollars at a taxi driver who seemed used to this kind of thing. On our tail were three fat gangsters in bulging suits, a greasy street-kid and a sweaty queer all crammed into a tiny Fiat that clearly wasn't designed for high-speed chases. We thought we'd be fine when the police got involved but those bastards were worse. They just smiled and waved us off. I learned a thing or two about South American Policemen on that trip. One; they are best avoided, two; when they're unavoidable they are very expensive.
The taxi driver failed to lose the heavies, who came all the way into our hotel lobby, and took most of what we had. We spent the rest of the night sitting by the roof-top pool, drinking warm beer and listening to the reasuringly-distant sound of gun-fire ringing through the Brazilian night. This was South America. I like it.
The F1 passed off without major incident (unless your name is David Coulthard). The food was excellent as was the drink (all free). The guy on the next table was the Minister for Sport but I didn't know this till I saw his face on the front page of all the papers next morning because he was in the middle of some corruption scandal - scandals are all the rage over there.
Lindsay and Katie set out, as is their style, by consuming huge amounts of alcohol then fighting or collapsing. The Englishman also stayed true to form, walking around like a dog with two cocks. "Mike, take my picture with her...quick, there's another fitty - get her picture"...and so on. No girl was safe - or interested - but that didn't deter him. Embarrasing to watch but, in a way, you have to salute him.
Straight after the race everyone was pretty keen to get out of the city - especially Gabriel, so we drove up to his father's farm. The drive itself would have been okay if not for The Brazilian's South American driving style. God knows where he picked that up because he's spent his entire driving career in the UK. He had a new car and there was just no explaining to him that cruise control is really intended for motorway use. He was well delighted with this new gizmo though, so all we could do was grip the Jesus handles and pray. Round winding mountain roads we flew, at 70mph - no more no less. We made it to the farm - just.
The farm is something else. Several buildings set around three lakes, a pool, cattle and many thousands of coffee trees. Bizarrely, they also have emus (yes, the big birds). Apparently they were delivered by a farming friend who arrived without warning and dropped them off as a gift then left. They're a tax scam if you ask me but I won't squeal.
Those days were spent completely relaxing. We didn't lift a finger. Meals were made for us and maids cleaned up after you. Felt weird at first but I could have got used to it. Lunch was just like the barbecue in Sao Paulo on the first day. They have a real Goucho who's role in life seemed to be cooking cows on a huge outdoor barbecue. Joam was impressive. His real job is looking after the farm but he insists on cooking the barbecues too. Who's gonna argue with that? For Joam, it seemed to be a matter of pride. I guess the bond between a man and his barbecue is universal.
The meal started with chicken hearts on a spit. We told Allan they were sausages so the silly monkey stuffed his face. Then he found out what they really were. This was a bit of a theme for the whole trip. The following exchange was typical;

Alan: "What's this red stuff?"
The Englishman: "Ketchup, mate"
Alan: "(gulps it down)................. BASTARD!"
The Englishman: "(tears running down cheeks) HAHAHA"

Got him every time. After chicken hearts Joam would barbecue some Brazilian sausages and large chunks of cheese. This was all before main course. On offer, as is typical throughout Brazil, was an amazing variety of beef. Sirloin, top sirloin, fillet and rump steak all flame grilled and bloody as hell.
Great so far but the weather had been decidedly Scottish since arrival. I've started calling this the Curse of Fort William, after my hometown. I call it this because even though I've made a point of visiting some of the hottest and driest places on earth, it always pisses down. The desert in Spain's South Eest only gets four days rain a year and I got three of 'em. Rainfall levels in the Mojave Desert are similar to Spain's yet it pissed down when I turned up. So it came as no surprise when it I arrived in Brazil that it rained there too.
On my travels across three continents the locals always remark how on unusual it is for there to be so much rain. I used to think it was coincidence but now I know it's the curse. The Englishman, The Brazilian, Al, Katie and Lins all thought I was joking but everywhere we went the locals would say: "That's funny, it was sunny yesterday, very strange for this time of year," and when we moved on we would later find out that the Sun had indeed come out right after we left.
had that continued, the others might have wanted rid of me. I began to feel I was going to receive a blow to the skull then wake up gagged on a rickety transport plane headed for the jungle. With this in mind, I risked following the others to The Brazilian's sister's beach house but I slept with one eye open.
More barbecues. They don't have little barbecues like us. The minimum seems to be; half a cow, 30 sausages, a kilo or two of cheese and the vital organs of 20 chickens. Nothing much to report here. The village had sand for streets and we just chilled out on the beach for a couple of days. We needed to go back to Sao Paulo for me to get my flight home and all the others to head off on the rest of their trip.
Mine and The Englishman's car ran out of petrol though, and the Brazilian didn't want to stop (must have been the cruise control) so we lagged half-an-hour behind them and had to find our own way back into South America's biggest city alone. This took hours. Any other pair of bozos would have made it back fine but put me and The Englishman in any imaginable situation and we'll fuck it up. Tearing along bumpy six-lane motorways with no road-markings in nose-to-tail traffic at 50mph is hair-raising stuff. The death rate is high. Quite right. People who drive like that on a regular basis deserve to die.
Eventually we passed a Ferarri dealership and remembered that we had met the owner at the F1 so we stopped in and asked for directions. Mad Frank didn't have a clue who we were. He's a wiry hyper-active little guy who, I'm told, started out selling vegetables from a barrow. The last time we had seen him he had a six foot blond on each arm and a curious white powder streak on his upper lip. We explained ourselves and he nobly pretended to remember who we were and gave us directions to the hotel - though not before someone tried to sell us a helicopter.
We checked into the Hotel Trans America (thanks again, Bernie) where the drivers had stayed during the race. It was super-duper nice but devoid of soul or character so I decided to go out and get in touch with the real Sao Paulo. I wish I hadn't. I bought a hot dog from a street vendor outside the hotel and spent the next 24 hours with vomit and shit spraying out both ends.
I was also due to go home the next day (October 3rd) but I couldn't face it, especially not with all the others staying. I made many phonecalls to the airline. The Brazilian AA staff, like anyone in employment in Brazil, were useless. I eventually got through to one of those uber-efficient American pricks who said the next available flight was on the 17th. "Screw my job. I have to do it," I thought, then went back to the shitter.
Was fairly glad to get out of the city again but it meant a 26-hour bus journey to the North Coast. I was worried but I needn't have been. Long-haul bus travel in Brazil was like Business-class air travel with BA. A few beers and a bottle of sleeping pills made the trip fly by. We got off the bus in Porto Seguro and it was like a different world; hot, lots of palm trees and very, very laid back. The Brazilian couldn't bring himself to get on the bus though so we had to wait for his flight to arrive before checking in to the Shangri-La. Don't be fooled by the name. The Shangri-La was awful. At £4 a night we shouldn't have complained, so we didn't, but we did check out and get a Corran-type RoRo ferry to another village called Ariel d'Ajuda.
I would happily still be there. People we met who had also been to Goa said it was just like Goa but unspoilt. Some people go on about the Spanish 'manana' attitude but they haven't been to the Brazil Bahia. The preferred mode of transport is riding pillion on a moto-taxi (Honda CG125s). I used them a lot thinking: "These guys are obviously expert riders being used to such terrible roads and chaotic traffic." I later met an Argentinian settler, however, who explained that Honda had actually just opened up a showroom in Ariel and had offered these bikes for £25 deposit and 0% finance. Therefore, every kid in the village had one a bike but no licence and no riding experience. I stopped using them quite so often when I found this out although the more I had to drink the more sensible an idea they became.
I used a moto-taxi to get back to Porto Seguro airport when I left the others. I didn't get a photo but picture, if you will, a fat Scotsman, all my luggage and a wiry Brazilian Indian on a bottomed-out CG125 riding through congested Latin streets at 11pm. To get back to the airport I had to go back on the ferry and I've never seen a ceilidh like the ceilidh I saw on that boat. Brazil is a seriously musical country. A little old man we had seen around before and had dubbed 'The Orangeman', was banging a drum and singing his heart out. About 150 local teenagers were dancing around him. An original Pied Piper of Hamlyn, he led us up the slipway to the bar-strip on the other side which seemed to me like an eminently more sensible place to spend the rest of the night than the airport floor. A few rums worse for wear I hit the airport for the flight back to Sao Paulo and passed out in a quiet spot. I couldn't have picked a better place. I woke up at the front of the check-in qeue. Must have saved myself about an hour of check-in time.
The Brazilian had left Porto Seguro before me and picked me up in Sao Paulo. We headed straight back to the farm where his family were spending the weekend. TB's stepmother, was running late for dinner so she arrived by helicopter (as you do). Lots more eating and relaxing ensued before The Brazilian and I went back to Sao Paulo a day before my flight. I stayed at his flat in the city. It's actually sickening to see how much cheaper it can be to live in a place like that. The same money wouldn't get you a shitehole with rising damp in Glasgow but over there you get a view and underground parking. I don't think Gabriel dreams of a life in Sao Paulo though. He says he wants to be a coffee farmer and, to be honest, so do I now.
The flight back was uneventful. Managed to sneak into business class while none of the air hostesses were looking so I was quite comfortable. The last thing I remember about that flight was a concerned Scouse stewardess asking me if I felt okay and me replying: "Why wouldn't I be? By my reckoning I've just had a bottle and a half of your best red wine, half a pint of Johnnie Walker and six sleeping pills." Bye bye Brazil - hello Blighty.