Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kindness of strangers

Brazilian hospitality is incredible! I am repeatedly flummoxed by the kindness of strangers.

When I arrived in Fortaleza (the 5th largest city in Brazil, on the northeast coast of the Atlantic) this morning I had a little problem that turned into one of those travel adventures you can't imagine before it happens.

You see, when I arrived in Fortaleza, after 16 hours on a bus with many stops at different towns along the way, it was still dark outside, I was sleepy, and I didn't look at my watch. I thought we were in yet another town before the final destination. When I asked the driver in poorly pronounced (but grammatically correct) Portuguese, 'how many minutes here?' he did not understand. I tried a few more times, then switched to a pantomimed Spanish version of 'do I have time to wash my face and brush my teeth?' (It helps tremendously to have studied Spanish so I have an educated guess of how to say these things in Portuguese!) Following that question, he nodded and pointed in the direction of the bathroom. So, I went to the bathroom not realizing we were at the last stop (which is probably why the driver did not understand my grammatically correct but contextually non-sensical question), not realizing that then and there I needed to retrieve my bag.

When I came back to the bus, it had already left. After asking a few people, I finally understood that we were in Fortaleza (remember, this was my pre-caffeinated state!) and that the bus had left the station! So, thinking I had lost my backpack of things I need for the rest of the trip, some things that can't be easily replaced because of lack of demand here, such as good hiking boots, but not my essential items (passport, cash, which I always keep in a smaller backpack on my person). A few people I asked told me the bus went 'over there' but did not specify in particular where. Finally, one of the bus drivers of another overnight bus that was reaching its destination decided to help me. First he called from the bus station. Then, when he found out that the bus was in the garage where he was headed to deliver his bus, he took me in his empty bus. He tried to chat politely asking me about my trip, and he was the second of a few Brazilians who have told me that there are many Koreans living in São Paolo. I was a little worried that we were driving far away, and I was believing that my things were already reappropriated to the first person who found them as would undoubtedly be the case in many other countries.

Well, my bag was at the garage, everything completely in tact, nothing missing, no problem whatsoever. I even had to sign for the release of my things.

After realizing that taxis were not circulating in the area, the bus driver said he would take me to my hotel. With an extra helmet I rode on the back of his motorcycle. At first we were going pretty fast, fast from my perspective as the passenger balancing 3 bags. I was scared at times and in moments closed my eyes, yet I didn't feel imminent fear. I knew I should just breathe and relax -- like when riding a horse. I had flashbacks to Cambodia, the time of riding through Angkor Wat as well as the wipeout I experienced on the back of a moto in the rainy mud in Phnom Penh. This was uncanny because part of the reason I am here is to see a friend in Natal whom I met in Cambodia! I realized this was another adventure for me -- flying through the early morning streets of Fortaleza on a motorcycle.

I didn't realize (I don't think he did either since he was also coming off of a long distance bus), but we had left the bus depot in a relative respite from the pouring rain (it's the rainy season here) that apparently had been pouring since yesterday night. We stopped when the rain was particularly heavy (I asked where he lived and he pointed in the opposite direction; I told him I could take a taxi more than once to be sure he didn't feel he was too much out of his way). He even asked me if it was okay to continue, and so we went through giant, temporary lakes on highways due to the hilly roads and could not avoid getting splashed by passing trucks and buses. We were completely soaked and we laughed! He was more wet than me because he had given me his rain coat! He took me all the way to my hotel and waited to be sure they had a vacancy. So, this is the kindness of strangers for want of nothing here in beautiful Brazil.

*****

Right after the wet rat (me) on the back of a motorcycle incident, I ran into one of my Manaus - Belém "ship"-mates traveling the same path, staying in the same hotels (by chance, with the increase in probability due to the fact that our different guidebooks have some good amount of overlap in hotels listed) but one day ahead of me! We had just the kind of mundane day I wanted -- we walked everywhere and saw the few sights of Forteleza. We decided to meander to the bus station so he could buy his onward ticket, and when we were thirsty we stopped. We ended up waiting out the rain at a small neighborhood bar (replete with miniature pool table, about half the size of those you find in the U.S., with short cue sticks and half the balls red and half the balls blue), just hanging out and having fun, blending ourselves in with local life.

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