Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but they accurately coincide with real events. Personal names are fictional.
The first two of these letters are about a Methodist VIM project– Volunteers In Mission. I am a Methodist by virtue of family, and inclination, who has participated in several VIM Missions; I find the people who do this sort of thing are unusual and outstanding in the best sense of the words. Our two designated drivers, Frank and Ted, two senior citizens, can serve as examples. They neither speak Brazilian nor have ever been in the country before. Frank is from Oregon, has never been out of the USA. He has spent his life in electronics, and is retired, now trying to develop a practical small hydrogen generator. He has been breaking down water into its gasses, Hydrogen and Oxygen, trying to use only a small amount of energy to do that; and then generating power through the chemical re-fusion of the gasses, recycling recreated water in an endless cycle. To me that seems an impossible perpetual energy machine, but… what do I know? Nada. He has blown up his work-space a couple of times.The other driver- call him Ted- is an executive who made his fortune late in life at a silicon valley start-up. He’s hard working and focused. And, most importantly from my perspective, an alert and oriented, even in this place where he had never been before. He has led several VIM projects; this is one more.
It’s cool now, but the day promises heat and humidity. This is the second big night of Carnaval here in this small Minas Gerais town at about 3000 ft ASL. My companions went last night but I begged off, too much noise and too many people… tonight will be enough for me. I’m writing this in the still of the morning at a friend’s home, a friend, Nana, who has a fast internet connection. She is, I’d say, a self-made woman who began to make and sell clothes, married well, expanded to a store, and gradually accumulated a number of pieces of rental property. At age 90, the madrefamilias of her clan she still is constantly thinking and planning new enterprises, alert but weak; she just had a bypass, diagnosed as diabetic only a few months ago, is on metformin, apparently controls her blood sugar well. To use Nana’s internet today is a great advantage for me because I work on the asilo –– a home for the elderly and handicapped–during most days, and in the evening transportation is a problem.
My flights to Sao Paulo, Brazil– SMF HOU GRU– were uneventful. Houston was under a thick blanket of sea fog, but arrival and departure were on time. Leaving HOU I was in the janela seat- window- so only uprooted the two sleeping Brazileiros twice to walk about. There were only a few people in the’ foreigner’ line at immigration, in the main Sao Paulo airport. My well-traveled checked bag, hadn’t gone to Heathrow like it did in the past; I suppose it was disappointed.
Three people of our group should have already arrived from Chicago. I checked for their flight; it had landed on time. Yet they were not at the place we were to meet, a certain a restaurant. The only other likely nearby place was a Pizza Hut. ‘Informacao’ said there is NO way to page, ‘ nao ha parlantes’ –no speakers? Really? Police don’t have them?Nao. …I looked around for a prepay phone to buy, but found they could only be sold to Brazileiros–9/11 effect? There are many. For example, foreigners wanting to visit the USA can find the experience not only difficult, but sometimes administered by those who are callow and demeaning. After 9/11 the experience became more troublesome, and Brazil responded in kind. Like Argentina they decided to require a ‘reciprocity fee’ just as we do in the USA:—$160 at the time, and an extensive application. Hassle for Hassle. Mordida for Mordida—as well as a convenient way to collect another tax.
I needed to find a way to the town where we were to work– in case my colleagues had failed to make their flight. So I checked out the omnibuses and found they leave from terminal four. Rather than go there immediately, I waited. The last two people in our group were to arrive from LAX at about 1330; and indeed, right on time, our leader appeared, call him Ted. He went directly to a little clutch of chairs nearby and the first 3 were there. But he had news. The other leader, Neli, our native Brazilian organizer, who would guide us, had missed her flight in LA. American Airlines did not wait 10 minutes needed for her and 15 others to arrive. So she would arrive at midnight. We decided to stay the night in a nearby Marriott, a quite plush and comfortable nearby Marriott.
The next morning, Ted immediately sets to work arranging for two vans from Hertz; not a simple task as it turns out: the phone call required about 50 min and the car pick-up another 50 minutes. So after two hours we load up two minivans. My van has a sliding door that won’t open but Hertzians confidently say ‘neve- mind-no-problem’ and we take off planning to follow the lead van onto the nearby freeway. Within a few minutes our van’s door alarm began to sound unceasingly… so we turn to go back to Hertz.
Not so fast. There is the central São Paulo freeway ‘system’ to consider; it allegedly is a system, but almost impossible for a stranger to decipher. One MUST use the freeways to get from one sector of downtown to another. Further, one can never just drive round the block without heading one-way toward some distant unknown place or world. When our van begins its beeping-complaining we are in the midst of at least 15 freeway lanes; the actual count changes due to off and on ramps, merging and sets of parallel lanes separated by cement dividers, off and on ramps, with signs with names we find meaningless; it is a traffic limbo.
Worse, if you find yourself on the set of freeways going in the wrong direction, (as we did twice), to get from that wrong way series of lanes to the right way you must invent your own clover leaf under and around all these lanes. We finally did so, and got back to HertzHell. They give us another van after another 30 minutes and we head out again. Frank is driving the lead car guided by Neli- the native Brazilian; but she is almost as confused about the freeways as any American; she grew up in her small town and for many years has lived in California; in our van no one excepting me speaks any Brazilian, and I speak poorly.
We are immediately separated at the first on ramp. In one of those incredible episodes, after wandering around for half an hour we find a gas station to ask directions: There they are, the lead car! Relief and joy, we’re on our way! But I had a nagging premonition, and ask Neli to write down the sequence of towns we are expecting to drive through.The traffic is heavy and the lead car switches constantly from one side of the stream to the other as we follow. The signs are hard to detect or understand. Guess what! We are once more instantly separated. Despite our in our vast collective ignorance, Ted finds what we think is the ‘actual’ freeway, according to Neli’s ’s instructions. So we simply start the drive North dripping with doubt.
We travel private toll roads; they are new, beautiful, with contractual requirements for maintenance: at the end of a couple of decades they will revert to the State and begin the inevitable process of rising tolls inefficiency and decay. Every half hour or so there is another toll booth, usually about US$ 5 or 6. Every hour or so we pull off the toll road to a gas station to ask the way; happily, as time goes on we start to see the names of places we expect; it becomes clear we were on the right route. At first the very attentive and friendly gas station attendants we ask don’t even recognize our destination, but in time they re the name, and we began to see highway signs that confirm it. Celebration time again. Right?
Wrong. At the next to the last toll Candy, wants to pay the toll and finds she has left her purse in the women’s banhiero, at the last gas-direction station. It contains ALL her documents, credit cards, and money. She is frantic. We turn around, paying tolls again as we go back. Ted, our compulsive leader, goes directly to the right gas station. I explain our problem to the cashier , who says no one had been into the locked ladies room since we left; and he is right! Candy breaks down in tears. We resume our northward way again paying a third toll twice. No credit for recent payment!
At last we arrive, a town of about 14,000. I have been here before on an earlier VIM trip and know generally where to meet our contact at a church on a central rise, that can be seen from afar. That church is the very heart of the local Carnaval celebration. We immediately find our contact, call him Dan, an old-timer from earlier missions here.We are Home free, like in the old childhood game, Hide and Seek: Alli Alli Oxen Free! Right?
Wrong. Dan has more news. The lead Hurts-van broke down at a divider strip in the middle of those parallel freeways. After a frantic 15 minutes with high-speed death passing on either side, Neli apparently decided she would rather die crossing to a nearby hotel than from starvation or humiliation or anger. She crossed 5 freeway lanes, a low cement divider, and 3 more lanes to the hotel. She called Hurtz. They send a tow-truck, which required 40 minutes because afternoon traffic was picking up. The driver agreed to take them to within 50 yards of the hotel. He explained that was as near as he could get in his tow rig, because the entrance is blocked… a big convention.
Our colleagues dragged the luggage from their van across the huge parking lot. ( I am very happy my big blue wheeled bag, the one that likes to go to Heathrow, survived.) Our companions told Hurtz to take a Hike, and got a ride in a taxi to the bus terminal nearby. They boarded an elegant Marco Polo Brazil-made bus and finally reached our town at about 1 AM after a long but easy ride, with one change of bus; the way many normal Brazilians travel.
A week later we have complete the task proposed for the newest section of the asilo. That is the topic of the next letter, but here are some photos:
HurtzHell Carved fruit at Bob’s Hamburgers (!)
I’ll email this now because I’m dreadfully afraid of losing it somehow…. Outside it’s still quiet. I want to take some pictures, and my companions are due back in another hour or so. Nothing will really happen with Carnaval til it is dark, and less hot and humid. That’s why it begins at Midnight and ends at dawn. The celebrants are not stupid. Ted has vowed he is not finished with Hertz. I take him at his word.