Comfortable Owl’s smile
What do I know about Brazil? That they are the creators of the toe-slipper brand Havaianas and Ipanema, though I take with me Lowa mountain wear shoes. Of which the shoestring get strangled and I fall stretched out, first thing at the airport. Second thing is that after being waved goodbye by my family, I get an unexpected goodbye by two other friends.
The flight takes 10 hours and I am prone to watch 5 movies if not I have a real nice neighbor. Chris from Australia. He is a surf dude from Gold Coast and we are both sure about one thing; his statement that whether or not the other person fits within 7 seconds after first meeting. Chris and I fit and we do talk at such length that I only see two movies; The Revenant and Grand Hotel Budapest.
Upon arrival at one of Sao Paulo airports Chris’ surfboard and my bicycle arrive in perfect state and so we say goodbye, but not after a Starbucks coffee and cake with lemon glace. I sleep another night at the airport’s hard ground and notice it is cold. I grab for my sleeping bag and at 5 AM I am fully ready to discover this, for me, new part of Earth.
‘Don’t take the unpaved roads, they lead to nothing, only to private properties. And they are dangerous, there are thieves. Take the normal roads, they are safe and have a good shoulder.’ Says a Brazilian man whose parents were born in Lithuania. I know that ‘dangerous’ part of his story is overrated, especially if he’s a city-man but his other remarks may well be true.
Furthermore, I know nothing about Brazil, not that it is winter, not the language, not the route I’m going to take. Not much indeed. I am delivered into a whole new country and I am excited. I soon step onto an active anthill and so find out that anthills are no good for photographing at a slightly higher level than my own 1.57 meter.
I am not in for highway cycling and start off with secondary roads which are still busy. Before I have reached the countryside I have sampled the Brazilian kindness; got ethanol for free, an invitation from a Brazilian cyclist, with whom I connected through my non-existent Portuguese, and the general calm friendliness of the people.
I am happy to see people walking and cycling on the road, although many men push their bicycles up the hill. Ah yes, hills… it is a very good thing I have changed the front chain ring for a smaller one, so I am much better able to conquer hills. Brazil, where I am now, is one big puddle of hills. Not soothing suave but hard and constant.
No rodeo for this lady
First ride out of the airport and my knee start hurting. I need to sleep. But where? My eyes travel until the Earth bends, fields and patches of forest are in abundance, houses few and people hardly anywhere to be seen. Ample opportunities. If not for all these fields are fenced off. I take a reddish unpaved road. They may lead to nothing but at least may give me a place to sleep. Still, the whole lot is fenced off. Barb wire everywhere. I can’t just crawl under the barbed wire because many fields host cows. And presumably bulls too. And this combo doesn’t suit me. Then, I spot an interruption in the barbed wire, I ram my bicycle right through it; and I overlook a 6 star resort while chickens and women shouts emerge from the household behind me. This will do.
I collapse in a 15 hour sleep.
A few things are noticeable about this very far away country. I did not hear much about Brazil, maybe because my interest arranges solely East. To me it therefore seemed an uneventful, no frills country. Pleasant and exciting when in the Amazon or at the flourishing beachfront. But nothing worthwhile for the adventurous thrill seeker or altitude junkie. A good reason for me to start my South America route here.
I find it a pleasant quiet country. I won’t start comparing with India again -but if I were to do so- this is the opposite of it. Except for the cows; same type. Brazil is heavenly quiet, I can find a camp spot and be noted by a farmer or road workers, they will greet me and leave me at peace. Truckers are fine folks with overall good driving skills. Car drivers even might give way or are at least honk for noticing they’re coming to pass me. Locals may find me adventurous yet they will not look at me in disgust, awe or implausible disbelief. In fact, Brazilians are super relaxed, cheery and friendly. They see me, greet me and don’t raise an eyebrow. Not even when I enter a factory building in search for water while the sign in front of the gate clearly said ‘no entry’.
The zest for life
People start talking to me, in Portuguese, like it’s a talk show. I have learned a few lines and when I answer with ‘eu não falo Portuguese’ they might or might not acknowledge and go on. I notice Brazilians their smile, their seemingly leisurely pace through life. I notice elderly people having kept their charm and zest for life and the love for each other, perhaps calmer by now. I see credit and cheeriness in other people on a bicycle, or even on a motorbike; slinging me peace-signs over their shoulder. I notice a puzzling frown by old men I pass, and a smile breaking through when I greet them bom dia, although it is midday.
White Volkswagen minivans ply the routes from village to village and have the same anti-stress factor as the people I come upon. The only rubble along the road is rope, pieces of sugarcane and manioc. Vultures fly over this clean land, over me and over the vastness where I cycle through.
Truck drivers wave kindly and may even honk, and that’s fine because they are not doing so for a reason I dislike. So far, not one truck driver nor car driver has stopped to halt me for whatever he has in mind and I not. As I’ve said: I want to be in a country where I don’t have to battle against men. Brazil is such a country.
Comfortable Owl’s Smile
That’s how I feel about the people. There are quite many owls to be seen here, burrowing owls always as a pair in a hole in the ground, or very near their cozy dwelling. Brazilians are comfortable, they won’t honk at me when I’m passively admiring the countryside, making a photo or an extended selfie shoot. People won’t stare at me although they do admire me, and will say so. Often these comfortable owls smiles comes from people working along the route, often dark, older men. They might not even notice me passing, but when they do I receive a calm genuine smile. And I doubt some of their life circumstances, like the wage they receive for their work, isn’t that much to be smiling about…
Camping in harvest season
Brazil is immense, the patches of ground to be camping on are immeasurable. Impenetrable forests reaching beyond the eye can tell, many of them eucalyptus plantations where one can see right through. Farmland is bountiful and cows must be happy mammals. Fazenda’s are dotted around sparsely and red earthen tracks lead towards those farms and farmlands. Plenty of opportunity, except for the fences. Literally all is fenced. All.
First I start looking for a hole in the fence.
Later I opt for open gates which might be closed in the morning, but I came upon farmer’s who would get the key and open the gate.
I need to know which field is not ready for harvesting, so I can have an undisturbed morning chai.
I need to know which field is in progress of harvesting but far enough from the spot I choose so I can have a pleasant late morning stay…
I need to be on my guard that the fence I trespass has cows patty’s. If so, I then need to know whether a bull is amongst the cows?
Preferable I am away from the road not to hear those heavy engines trotting against the hill, but with all the above taken into account, this is usual not the case. And so I still need earplugs.
Red earth, unknown creatures in camp, birds with big bills flying over, insects never seen and faster than helicopters. The sun rising in the East and setting there again.
Sugar cane, orange groves as far as the eye reach and bamboo sky-high. Suddenly I am amongst it all and not a moment I have to get used to it, rearrange my inner clock or settle to sooth. I feel at home immediately, except for the many hills, constant up and down. Yet I do wonder: why can’t I be normal? Though I don’t feel abnormal, just a bit different, or so I think…
Mango, tasting how they ought to; dripping with nectar. Sliding with a new knife through never eaten fruit, slicing so enthusiastically I cut my tongue too. At first I find the prices in the supermercado high, later on I discover the food at the posto and roadside restaurants is comparing cheap, and huge in amount. Sometimes I am offered a meal for free, or birthday cake, or freshly made soup, or little gifts like a roll of toilet paper and candies ‘glucose, good for you’, and that all keeps baffling me. Once I rolled into a village and asked where I could take a shower. A big dark man accompanied me to an elderly lady who seemed to be known as offering her shower.
White tips of bird wings are adjusting to the airflow. Butterflies zoom past. Camouflaged insects see my lens aimed at their tiny being and make ready to flee. That typical innate behavior I notice in myself when wild camping. I don’t want to be seen. Neither want the creature in my camp. I have no clue about the animal world living in the bush of Brazil, however cultivated most of the land is. But things are in my camp, sniffing around at my toilet pit. Meanwhile I am waiting until the sun moves behind the tree. It might be winter, it’s warm.
It’s not that my ego is big
Being a cyclist is being a bit of a weirdo, carrying your own stuff, camping in plowed fields and sugarcane plantations. Eating out of the pan and using the plot behind your tent as toilet. Being happy with the occasionally rain shower so that your clothes are cleaned. Yet, most passerby’s don’t know that. Nevertheless, cars do stop and trucks irregularly too, not occasionally just after they’ve passed me. Previous experience has learned me that people who do so, want something from that abnormal cyclist I am. That is, in countries such as Iran and East Turkey, not irregular these people want more than just a photograph. They want the whole picture.
So each time a car stops I think it’s for me. And when I pass, it turns out it is not. When a truck has stopped I assume he did so because he liked the picture he saw. It’s not. They stopped because the first is making a phone call, the latter has technical issues.
It are my thoughts, that are formed by the first experiences as a backpacker in India, East Turkey and Iran. And later as a cyclist being fortified in Iran. And now in Brazil I notice how these thoughts have progressed, and how mistaken they are. What am I to think of that one particular man who’d approached me while whizzing down his zipper or perhaps he closed them instead? What am I to think of the road worker who went off in the bush -I am camping stealthily and he is just 6 meters away from me- who flaps back his heavy synthetic apron and start snagging his trousers probably he went for a pee? Or what about the man who leads me on his motorbike out of a city onto the highway and further on towards a desolate farm road, waving his hand in a creepy was, being too familiar with me. He was just helping me, and presenting me with a cold drink and a candy bar.
So, it is not that my ego is big but that the switch of my mindset is adjusted quite a bit tight for a country like Brazil. My mental cards are shuffled on a foundation where people are oppressed and frustrated and not widely known with female freedom fighters (aka equality) although India does have a separate ticket booth for people alike. As it does have the rule that women may skip the queuing line, because they’re woman (thankfully this is not silently accepted everywhere anymore).
In short, Brazil is new for me. I don’t know the conducts as I know so well in the East.
Looking at the map of Brazil is something like watching the moon and trying to guess what’s there. I would love to cycle a fraction of the Amazon, but that’s way out of my direction. I would love to taste something of Mato Grosso do Sul, simply because there are fewer roads. Yet, I am at a cacophony of roads, to compare with the density of the Netherlands. That’s where I am, that’s where I start.
Pure west is the direction I’m going, straight for Paraguay. I choose the principal highway and when I notice I don’t make much more than 50 kilometer a day I want to try the option some men, I met on top of a hill, told me about. It is straight, quick and safe with a big shoulder: the expressway. Not a big fan of highways with speeding cars, I start to like it because it’s here where the big posto is to be experienced.
From Botucatu I take the expressway and enjoy it for 200 kilometer, then I need locality again, and I simpye take a turn. As usual, I have no plan and so I determine my route upon my liking and this may change from day-to-day, depending on my mood and way of looking at things.
People, and especially women, tell me how brave I am; to cycle Brazil. And for once, I fully agree. I feel ill prepared and silly to just pitch the tent where I have no clue about. ‘Not here, but in Ponta Pora they exist,’ tells a police man at a police posto where I fill up my water bottles. Ponta Pora is my I reply to his question ‘where are you going?’ He’d asked me where I sleep the night. He then shows me a picture about a dog shredded to pieces by a species related to a wild swine. Measurement: 2 meters tall. I already know about the existence of the fierce-looking macaque and signposts just made me aware of an animal crossing the road for the oncoming 20 kilometer: the capybara.
Suddenly it are not human species I fear in the night but the biggest rodents on earth! They might not attack me, the thought I am sleeping amongst the biggest rat-brother existing is a different experience than standing and trotting between them in a rat temple in Bikaner (India). I wish not to sleep amongst capybara’s anymore. Next camp: corn field.
So, we got capybara’s, macaque’s and small boars. And I choose a spot along the river, in the woods. When I see those droppings, I am sure it is a rather big animal and I’m not sure whether to be afraid or not. Have a good sleep Cindy…
I cycle in the state of Parana, through places like Cȃndido Mota, Bela Vista do Paraíso and smaller towns like Centenário do Sul and see beautiful people, with cream-colored cowboy hats, old men with dark rimmed glasses, rare dark bearded man and gipsy alike people reminding me of Roma. One of those occasions I think: ‘I want to make a photo of him’. It’s a truck driver with a sugarcane loaded 30 meter long vehicle. He sees me and asks me where I am from. I answer and get my 30 kilo loaded monster to a halt besides his. He astonish me with a video he’d made; of me cycling. And now, a few days later, we meet again. Excellent opportunity for me to do a photo shoot with him. Again he astonish me with taking great poses in front of his truck.
While he brings me sugar cane to chew on, a police man patrolling in his car stops. He checks whether I am okay, especially perhaps in the company of an unknown male figure besides the road. I assure him I am fine. Police man turns his tiny car and pulls up right beside me, and then I recognize him. This serious looking man dressed in bulletproof armor is the police man I talked with about wild boars, a few days ago.
Cycling on through the small villages of South Brazil
Some more quietness in my head takes over with the absence of walls. Yet, camping stealthily between sugarcane makes my head wonder: imagine if a harvest machine hit my shoulder-blade when I am sleeping? It would certainly hurt! I have dreams about creatures with an armored back and huge knifelike fingers with which they attempt to crawl over the tent and get a hold of me in the nighttime.
As I cycle on a road, I sleep near that very road. And since the road is never flat, truckloads with sugarcane have utmost trouble gearing up the hill. Their motors roar like heavy war artillery, and I need earplugs… hoped that wouldn’t be needed in Brazilian natural utopia. I camp most nights so I have few chance to wash myself and thus go to bed sweaty, with red earthen feet and covered in fly- and mosquito bites where the 3 itching relieve creams try to promise what they’re made for, unsuccessfully.
The quietness of camping suits me immediately and children jiggling for attention at an auto posto annoy me equally immediate. Yet, I use these auto posto’s to clean myself (there are hot showers), use Wi-Fi, do laundry, eat, fetch water, some toilet paper perhaps and charge batteries.
It start to become rare that my nights of sleep are undisturbed. As soon as the dark sets in the animal-world start to awaken and a persistent rumble takes over the roar of loaded truck engines. Not much later I see a new species entering the world of Cindy, and rolling into the front tent; an armadillo. I shine my light on it and am overtaken by the cuteness of his soft, pointy snout. Sometimes dogs roll out of the bushes, not to hunt me but to take on the race of the fittest. Of course, they win.
‘Corajoso,’ are people telling me now, men and women alike. Modestly I reply Brazilians are easy and relaxed people, nothing to be worried about. I don’t feel bold or courageous to be cycling here.
‘There are thieves here,’ they tell me. Thieves everywhere, right?
‘Bandidos drogas,’ they explain further to the naïve woman on her bicicleta. Oh…
They tell me the which villages I will pass through are notorious, as well as the village I am in right now. They tell me not to stop for people halting me where no others are around. But vulnerable as I am on a bicycle, and even more so on an uphill, there’s no way they need to halt me; even an armadillo can keep up with me -and they have really short feet-.
Where many fields were fenced before, they’re not anymore by now, I have free access to acres of sugarcane fields, cornfields and abundance of nature. It are not the capybara or armadillo anymore I am worried about. The ladrões drogas are now which worries me. Or is it just the usual case of ‘danger’ from one village to another unknown village?
I am on my way further into South Brazil, direction Mato Grosso do Sul…
What’s Not Here
I start out on this road, call it love or emptiness.
I only know what’s not here: resentment seeds, backscratching greed, worrying about outcome, fear of people.
When a bird gets free, it doesn’t go back for remnants left on the bottom of the cage!
Close by I’m rain. Far off, a cloud of fire.
I seem restless, but I am deeply at ease.
Branches tremble; the roots are still.
I am a universe in a handful of dirt, whole when totally demolished.
Talk about choices does not apply to me.
While intelligence considers options, I am somewhere lost in the wind.