Last Tuesday, I returned from my first trip to South America. I left a week earlier, bound for Fortaleza, Brazil, to help cover a Festival there for work. It was beautiful, the food was delicious and everyone smelled nice.
Here are some of the highlights:
- Fortaleza is right on the coast, and at night we could see breakdancers, volleyball players, runners and vendors along the beach. My female coworker and I couldn’t partake since Fortaleza is one of the top dangerous cities in the world, especially at night, but it was fun to drive past anyway.
- Due to a canceled flight on the way there (thanks, United), our trip took 5 hours longer than expected. That’s 26 total hours of travel time. But in the middle of it all, there was one fun thing at the São Paulo airport: a woman behind the check-in desk who knew minimal English and was determined to help us get on our new flight. Wearing an orange and maroon dress with black heels, she stepped up on the luggage conveyor belt beside her, one confident heel at a time, and put one hand out in front of her like a stop sign. “I solve,” she said, our passports in her other hand. Then she hopped off on our side of the desk and made a beeline for the airline office in an attempt to help out a couple of haggard Americans.
- The first full day we were there, our driver and interpreter took us to a local mall to grab some lunch. That’s where we saw the mall mopper on roller skates. I think that should be an option for all janitorial staff.
Coco Bambu and Boi Negro, the names of my two favorite restaurants there. So, so, so good. There, those restaurants are considered expensive, but for us, it was—as Cicely, my coworker, called it—Applebee’s prices. We were told beforehand to stay away from raw veggies, since we didn’t know if/how they had been washed, but we did have some glorious seafood and meat.
People there were so outgoing and friendly. Our photographer has a habit of getting right in people’s faces to take pictures and regularly switches between English, Spanish and Portuguese. It was fun to watch, and people took it well. Some even posed.
- I loved the community feel. We went to a public square one day to get some photos and people were just hanging out, doing all kinds of things. Old men sitting on a bench, women chatting, a guy on a bike selling fruit, a pregnant gypsy playing the sax. A group of girls did a short dance performance, and a popular comedian drew a crowd. We also met our interpreter’s mother there, who greeted us with big hugs and a kiss on the cheek like we were home for Thanksgiving. “Let’s eat pizza sometime,” she told us.
- The Festival itself was awesome. Thousands and thousands of people filled the arena, and hundreds decided to ask Christ into their lives. Seeing people, families, flood forward to acknowledge their need for Christ, and seeing others in the stands cheering them on and moved to tears is just incredible. Here’s a story I wrote about the first night.
- Everywhere we went, I heard American music, in English. On the airport shuttle, in the Brazil airports, in restaurants … everywhere. I did hear “Hey Jude” in Portuguese, though.
- When I first got to my hotel room, I was mystified by the light switches. I walked in, ran my hand along the wall to find the light, found it and kept flipping it back and forth but it stayed dark. I left the door open and walked into the room, looking for another light, which also didn’t work. Maybe I have no power, I thought. Then I saw a slot by the front door that looked like something you’d stick your room key in. That’s exactly what it was for. I put my room key in, flipped the switch and voilà! Let there be light. I took the key out, put it down somewhere and walked all the way across the room. Then the lights went out. I fumbled around for the key, put it in the slot again and realized that it has to stay there for the lights to stay on. Cicely said it was like that when she went to Kenya, too. I guess it keeps the power bill down.
- I’m fascinated at how hard people work to learn English. There were a lot of people who knew absolutely no English, but we met quite a few who at least knew a little. One of our interpreters is in his early 20s and said he’s learned the language by watching American TV shows and reading an English Bible. A couple of our other interpreters took English in school, but that’s still impressive because I took 7 years of Spanish in school and could NOT be someone’s interpreter.
- People there don’t like change, the money kind. Example: Say our restaurant bill was $29.75. We would pay $30 and get no change back. I did get change back from some places, though, like the airport.
- Riding in cars is scary there, even in the back seat. I don’t think I could’ve handled the front seat. I covered my eyes many, many times and tried not to let our driver hear my helpless wimpers. At one point, our car was so close to the bus next to it that our photographer rolled down his window and touched the bus. Then there were dozens of motorcyclists zipping between cars on either side of us and no clear rules for merging. I’d never appreciated Charlotte traffic before.
- Speaking of danger, we also witnessed young guys train hopping. I watched a guy jump on at a railroad crossing, then saw another and another who were already on the train, walking around on top of the train cars. I bet their mothers would have had heart attacks.
- There were stray dogs everywhere. Most weren’t that big and none of them caused a problem for us. I wanted to pet a couple, but thought I better not.
- The worst part of the trip was, by far, getting there. Our first two flights were on time and not too bad, but when our final flight was canceled and replaced with 3 short flights on a plane with uncomfy seats, I felt like jumping out of the parked plane and running around the Tarmac just to stretch my legs. Our boss called it “Tour de Brazil.” At least we got some pretty aerial views.
This wasn’t our shining moment as visiting Americans, but on our last night there, we had quite the episode at dinner. This was after three long nights of the event and day five of staying up late. And, being our last night there, we really wanted to try the Brazilian ice cream place near the hotel. We hadn’t had dinner yet, but figured we wouldn’t have time for ice cream before our flight the next day, so we went ahead and bought dessert before dinner.
We both got two scoops and weren’t done with it by the time we got back to the hotel, but since the hotel restaurant was about to close, we carried our remaining ice cream with us. … Now let me set the stage a bit. Evidently, this restaurant was voted one of the top places in Fortaleza and was pretty fancy—like four glasses per place setting. (What are they all for?!) The cheapest thing on the menu was $42, which is what we both ordered. (For us, that’s only $10.89, but for them, pricey.)
Anyway, we walked into this restaurant with our big camera bags on our backs, water bottles in one hand and half-eaten ice cream cups in the other. There was only one other guy in the restaurant, and like I said before, it was about closing time. We sat down at a table for four, and one waiter pulled out the two empty chairs for our camera bags. Three others stood by as we looked at the menu. None of them spoke English. I felt awkward and tried not to laugh. I would never do something like that here, but it was late and the only place available that didn’t require us to wander the dark streets on our own.
As we quickly perused the menu, one of the four waiters picked up Cicely’s water bottle (that she had been drinking from), pointed to it and said something in Portuguese. Whatever gestures we gave next must have said that it was OK for him to pour half the water bottle in her glass and half in mine. “Well I guess I’m drinking your water then,” I said when he left. We ordered, they brought us bread and we hesitantly pulled out our laptops to start working. (Our night is only getting started when the event ends.)
As we waited on our food, a waiter came by and waved toward the pianist in the corner. He said something about a piano, which I thought was somewhere along the lines of, “Do you like the music?” so I nodded my head enthusiastically and said, “Oh yes!” … I’ll come back to that.
That’s about the time we had some visitors: two interpreters (sisters Lia and Léa), Lia’s boyfriend and their mother (the one who wanted to eat pizza with us). We asked them to come by the hotel so we could tell them bye, and we also needed to pay them for interpreting for us. They came in, exchanged hugs and well wishes and we slipped them some money for their services. The waiters watched the ruckus the whole time, and I later wondered if they thought we were doing a drug deal in their fancy restaurant.
Shortly after they left, the food came and was yummy as expected (grilled chicken with a cream sauce and apricot risotto), but of course we’d had so much ice cream that we got full after a few bites. That’s when we tried to order a to-go box. I waited until the waiter came by.
“Box?” I asked, making a square with my hands. Nothing.
“To-go?” Cicely asked. Nothing.
I pulled up a picture of a to-go box on my phone and showed it to him.
“Ohhh!” he said, smiling. I think he was amused. He took our food and returned with it neatly packaged in to-go containers.
As we got up to leave, a waiter lifted Cicely’s heavy camera bag and proceeded to put it on her back for her, like a parent sending his little girl off to school. “Obrigada,” we said a few times to thank them, then made our way out.
I later looked at the receipt to see a $10 charge for “pianista.” I guess that’s what he was asking me … Cicely wished me luck explaining that to our finance department.