On the Road

On the Road

This driver, it seemed, was a man of few words. A year ago I may have
been offended, but I was coming to know these people. In many ways, to tell the truth, it
was a relief not to see fake smiles on every face and Have a nice day on every
By Gregory Shibley

"Cuarenta minutos," announced the motorista. He was outside and
had his cigarette lit before the motor could stop its grumbling, and he walked off to the restaurante
without rubbing his back or wiping his forehead. The rest of us grabbed a few bills from
wherever we kept our money hidden and bumped politely down the aisle, everyone letting
everyone else go first. Stepping off the bus, the air outside hit me hot and fresh. Music
was playing from somewhere. The movimento around me of other passengers from other
buses woke me up, and I realized suddenly how hungry I was.

"Arrozfeijãomacarrãofrangotrereal !"
"Arrozfeijãomacarrãobifetrereal !"

Men in black pants and white shirts were standing within the sea of moving
bodies. They held each a stack of aluminum foil trays, and they barked at us to partake of
their fare. The restaurante would probably be a little more expensive, I reasoned,
and there would be a wait. I wanted instant gratification. So I approached one of them and
said, "E aí amigo, o que é que tem aí?"

"Tem frango, tem bife. Arrozfeijão-macarrãofrangotrereal!

"Dá um de bife, por favor."

"Três real."

I gave him his tres real, and he gave me one of the foil trays and
a plastic fork from his back pocket. I held my meal, warm and heavy in my two hands, and
moved through the people who were still debating what they would eat. I picked a spot near
the bus, sitting on the curb, my back to the movimento and facing out at the
bright, open land. I peeled back the top of the foil tray and saw what I had gotten:
mostly rice, a small handful of spaghetti, and a little piece of chicken, not beef. I
poked my fork through the rice and discovered a thin layer of feijão at the
bottom. Oh well. Sei lá. After many hours of sitting in an air-conditioned coach,
it was just nice to shovel in some hot food and sit in the heavy sunshine.

The sun in Brazil is different than the one I grew up with. It’s stronger,
heavier, like a brick wall falling all over you. It’s always there, even when you can’t
see it. Even on cloudy days you know it’s around somewhere, and you can see it coming off
from its people, whether they’re walking or dancing or having a beer at a buteco or
asking you for change. It gives life and soul to everything, keeps things as they are, but
no one can stay in it forever, and you must struggle to get out from under it.

After my meal, I repaired to the shade of a beer stand in front of the bus
and amid the bustle, which was by now thinning as people were being fed. I recognized the motorista
standing next to me, already having eaten and now standing coolly, only his toothpick
moving. The beer was one seventy, and I had with me a one, a twenty, and a fifty centavo
coin. "Tem troco não?" The motorista next to me threw down two
ten-cent pieces for me. They clattered on the glass countertop, and the moço
slapped them with his palm. "Valeu," I told my driver. "Ó, leva
quanto tempo pra chegar lá?"

"Chegamos em Recife às oito horas da manhã. Tá indo pra onde?"

"Até Recife. De lá vou pegar ônibus pra Porto de Galinhas.
Tenho um amigo que mora lá." I poured some beer into the small glass and called,
"Ó moço, por favor dá mais um copo aí." But the motorista said
he didn’t want any. He asked me where I was from.

"Califórnia," trying to pronounce it like a Brazilian,
"Estados Unidos. Faz um ano que tou aqui. Quasi um ano."


"Não, tou trabalhando e passeando. Dou aulas de inglês, sabe?"

"Sei. Tá gostando?"

"Tou. Você é de onde?"

"Brasil," he said flatly. I got the feeling he wasn’t
really paying attention.

"Sim, mas…"

"Ribeirão, São Paulo."

"Ribeirão Preto?"

"Isso. Cê conhece?"

"Conheço um pouco. O amigo meu lá em Porto de Galinhas, ele é
de Franca."

"Sei. Sapatos…"


"…e basquete."

"Isso mesmo."

This motorista, it seemed, was a man of few words. A year ago I may
have been offended, but I was coming to know these people. In many ways, to tell the
truth, it was a relief not to see fake smiles on every face and Have a nice day on
every smile. I leaned lazily against the glass-top counter as the motorista was.
Below my elbows were a tray of pasties, another of coxinhas, and one espetinho
de frango that no one would ever eat. I offered one more time, "Não quer
mesmo da cerveja?" and this time he glanced at his watch, and he consented.

"Dá um copo," he told the moço.

I was glad about this. Uma garrafa bem gelada: the great equalizer.
He was a bus driver from the interior and I was a college graduate from North America, but
with a tall Brahma and a couple glasses between us, we were just two men having a beer. We
talked slowly about Ribeirão Preto and why he and his family had moved to Rio.
They lived in a part of Rio I hadn’t heard of. A bus bound for Salvador started its engine
and honked its horn, and a few people scurried by us to get on board.

"Cigarro?" he offered.

I told him not right now, `brigado, and he lit one for himself. He
put the pack back in his shirt pocket and squinted at the sky. Around us were low hills
sloping lazily into one another and covered so densely with sugar cane stalks. We’d been
passing through them for the last few hours. As far as the eye could see, from one end of
the horizon to the other, were these green stalks like a blanket over the sloping hills,
and one would sometimes see their tips as being the planet’s natural surface through which
the highway had been carved some seven feet down.

"Tá gostando do Brasil, então?"

"Tô gostando. Tô gostando mesmo."

"País bom, né?"

"Um dos melhores."

"Cê acha? Pois é. Até melhor do que o seu?"

"Nem melhor, nem pior. Diferente."

"Pois é." He thought about this and remarked, "Tem
muito dinheiro lá, né? Até o cara que lava prato ganha." I nodded, almost
sympathetically. "O problema maior do Brasil é a má distribiução de dinheiro.
Porque tem muita gente com muito dinheiro, ou pouca gente com muito dinheiro, e muita
gente, `tendeu?, muito muito muito mais gente com nada de dinheiro. O dinheiro dos que
estão sem dinheiro é o dinheiro que está na mão das pessoas que têm mais. Era pra ser
mais dividido. Todo mundo é pessoa igual, não importa a cor, ou, sei lá, o que for ou
de onde vem."

I poured out some more beer and let him continue.

"Os políticos são os piores. Têm alguns que fazem algumas
coisas, mas a maioria só quer pegar o dinheiro. Muito roubo. Quem tem poder tem dinheiro,
e quem tem dinheiro… `tendeu?"

"É uma pena," I said sincerely. "O Brasil tem
muito… muito potencial. Tem recursos naturais, tem povo bom, tem cultura boa, música
boa—tudo de bom. Eu acho que o povo merece mais."


"Então, o que vai acontecer? Vai melhorar? Vai piorar?"

"Eu acho que vai melhorar. Piorar não tem como, né?" He
drank and lowered his eyes.

"Tem como melhorar? Sinceramente, o que é que vai acontecer?"

"Não sei." He said this quietly, more to himself than to
me, as if maybe he would know if he thought about it, but there was so much to think about
already, and it would be easier if we could just drink our beer and not think about it,
and keep going. "Cê vai pra Porto de Galinhas?"


"Desce em Cabo e pega kombi de lá até Porto. Custa setenta
centavos e é bem mais rápido."


"Cabo de Ipojuca."

"Tá bom, então. Obrigado, amigo."

"De nada. Boa viagem pra você."

He stepped off to talk to another driver, and I went to relieve myself.
About fifty meters down, past the restaurant, were the restrooms, one side for mulheres
and the other for cavalheiros. Stepping inside, I saw the most pleasant bathroom
I’ve yet to encounter. The floor was tiled with large white squares and the walls in
smaller squares, one line of blue squares around the perimeter, about a meter and a half
up, like a Christmas ribbon. Along one wall were urinals as far as the eye could see, an
equally endless row of sinks and mirrors along an island counter down the middle, and on
the other side were the showers, uso grátis para passageiros. I chose from one of
the many urinals and released the tension of a hundred miles.

To tell you the truth, I don’t usually wash my hands afterwards, but it
felt like a nice moment to do it this time, also to splash some water on my face and
reflect in the mirror. It’s been a year, I told myself. Almost a year now, and you have a
couple more weeks to see what you can of this country. Every brasileiro I’d known
had told me at one time or another that I simply must see the nordeste. É a
alma do Brasil, I was told.

O país nasceu lá, said others. So after working here and there,
from Porto Alegre to Rio to Franca (sapatos e basquete…), I was treating myself
to a couple weeks, de férias, para curtir da alma do Brasil, as it were. There was
no better time, having already taken the time to conhecer um pouco do povo e da
cultura, aprender um pouco da língua—Christ, I’m even thinking in
Portuguese—I felt ready and qualified to relax not quite as a native, but something
more than just a tourist.

In a few weeks, I reminded myself, wiping my face with a paper towel,
you’ll be back in San Diego. You’ll be eating three dollar burritos and cruising up and
down the boardwalk on a skateboard. There will be coffee shops and twenty-four hour
grocery stores and the roller coaster at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, only a dollar on
Tuesdays and Thursdays. You’ll be going to Kahuna’s in OB with Big Wave Dave and that
crowd, probably crashing on his couch, too. And then… who knows? It’s all so close
and yet so far away. I could hardly imagine life without a thirty-five cent cafezinho
at a buteco before work, without a prato feito at lunch time or being able
to eat a kilo, without hearing Legião Urbana or Caetano’s "Sozinho"
every time I go out, without girls dressed in black skirts and shoulderless blouses
dancing samba, without Sai de Baixo and churrascos and calçadas in every
city with designs of black and white rock and even without favelas and even, for
that matter, not being exactly where I am right now in this big white restroom somewhere
along the highway between ali and lá.

For all my travels, I could never get past any one moment. Some people
have the image of a traveler, as I once had, as being someone who can see the whole big
picture because he’s been to so many famous museums and antique cathedrals. But if that’s
all there were to it, my life would only be a series of faded postcards. Traveling is not
about just seeing Paris or seeing Rio de Janeiro. It’s every single moment running behind
another—everything that happened in Paris, for example, is holding hands with
whatever happened just before Paris and whatever happened just after, and they’re holding
on to whatever happened just before or after them, and they all run along like, like a
line of children running through the schoolyard, all connected and yet each with its own
little personality and unique expression on its face worth photographing.

But I’d spent enough time in the bathroom for one man. I wadded up the
paper towel, gave one last touch to my greasy hair, and stepped outside where the air hit
me like a warm blast of reality.

"O gringo!"

Down the way, standing in front of our bus, the motorista was
calling me. As I came closer I saw that he was talking with two Germans, a young man and
his girlfriend. I didn’t have to be told they were German. They looked German. They
smelled German.

"O gringo, me dá uma mão. O que esses alemães querem?"

"Hey, how’s it goin’?" I said to the German.

"Are you Brazilian?"

"No," I answered. "Hi, what’s your name?"


"Hey, Klaus, can I help with anything?"

"Yes. Ask him please where is the bus for Salvador."

"Perderam o ônibus pra Salvador."

"Tão fudidos, né?"

"He says he doesn’t know."

"Tell him it was number 41307."

"Uh huh."

"O que ele falou?"

"Falou que foi número 41307."

"De qual empresa?"

"Was it São Geraldo? Was it a green and white bus like this one

"Yes. It was number 41307. Did it already leave? Maybe it’s just
getting petrol."

"Tem outro ali, ó."

"What did he say?"

"He said there’s another bus over there that’s going to

"But that’s not the right number."


"O que foi?"

"Não é o mesmo."

"Claro, mas podem falar com a motorista. O seu ônibus não vai
voltar, certamente."

"He figured you could talk to the driver anyway. That other bus is
gone for sure."

"Scheisse! That doesn’t make sense. He said thirty minutes,
and it’s only been twenty. Look at my watch!"

"Porque tá gritando?"

"Falou que a motorista tinha dito trinta minutos, mas saiu depois
de vinte."

"Ele provavelmente deixou os alemães pra trás.. Eu deixaria."

"Why are you smiling? What did he say?"


"Olha a namorada dele. Que gordinha. Imagina o bundão branco."


"What’s he saying?"

"Uh, he figures you should go talk to that other driver. Show him
your ticket. You should be all right. You want some help talking to the driver?"

"No, thanks."

He trotted off toward the bus, and she trotted dutifully along. "Turistas,"
I said to my motorista, shaking my head, "fora do contexto." He
laughed and slapped me on the back, and we boarded the bus.

The bus woke itself up, and we were on our way again. I was back in that
seat I’d had since Rio, and there was a little bit of trash that I’d forgotten to throw
away on the otherwise empty seat next to me. Again the side of the highway fluttered past,
and again I lost myself in those thoughts with which one entertains himself on those long
bus rides. And as always, there was the rattling of the motor, the mild wafts of chemical
nausea from the WC in back, the ghosts of fellow passengers bouncing back at me as a
constant foreground/background to the passing scenery. After a while, we left the cane
fields behind us. Now there were mostly dead and dying trees, living ones standing alone
and keeping quiet, weeds and low plants of unknown name and manner swarming upon the brown
and copper floor in an unending patchy mass, like multitudes with nothing to do but jitter
in the late afternoon wind. As it got darker, I was making friends with the guy behind me.
I stood up in the aisle as we talked. He had long curly hair to his shoulders and big
round eyes never more than half-open. He was one of those guys who has probably neither
voted nor been angry in his life. We talked about ourselves and each other, and he
responded to everything I said by smiling, nodding, and saying, "Pode crer."

"Tá falando bem português," he told me. He was going to
Maracaípe which he said was close to Porto de Galinhas. He told me about the surf
competitions there and how a person can camp out on the beach anywhere he likes and how
everyone smokes pot and relaxes. He told me I should hang out with him there for a few
days. Did I have a surfboard? No, but you can rent them there. "Talvez,"
I said. Everything was perfect at the moment, and I was in no mood to make decisions.
"Talvez mesmo."

"Pode crer."

At the next stop, by the time the reading lights had been turned on inside
the coach, we all got out again as we had before. I picked up a bottle of 51 and some
tonic water. My new friend behind me got a 300ml of Coke. We grabbed a few plastic cups
full of ice from the lancheria and when the bus got going again, just a few minutes
later, we got to know another guy who’d bought some guaraná, and we passed the
bottle of 51 among us to mix with our refrigerantes. It was nighttime in the middle
of nowhere, and still the road went on.

"Forty minutes" driver




"Hey, friend, what do you got?"

"Chicken and beef.
Ricebeansspaghetti-chickenthreeReais! Ricebea—"

"I’ll take beef, please."

"Three Real."


corner bar

"Got no change?"

young man; "Thanks,"

"Hey, how long until we get there?"

"We’ll get to Recife at eight o’clock in the morning. Where are you going?"

"Recife. From there I’ll take a bus to Porto de Galinhas. I’ve got a friend who
lives there."

"Another glass here, please."

"United States. I’ve been here for a year. Almost a year."

"Exchange program?"

"No, just working and traveling. I’ve been teaching English, you know?"

"I know. Are you enjoying?"

"I am. Where are you from?"

"Yes, but…"

"That’s it. Do you know it?"

I know it a little. My friend in Porto de Galinhas, he’s from Franca."

"Right. Shoes…"

"That’s it."

"…and basketball."

"That’s it exactly."

(coxinhas, espetinho de frango: typical fried snacks in Brazil)
"You sure you don’t want any beer?"

"Give me a glass."

A cold bottle




"You’re enjoying Brazil then?"

"I am. I really am."

"Good country, huh?"

"One of the best."

"Think so? Hmm. Even better than yours?"

"Not better or worse. Different."

"There’s a lot of money there, huh? Even the guy who washes dishes makes
money." "The biggest problem in Brazil is the distribution of the money. Because
there are a lot of people with a lot of money, or a few people with a lot of money, and a
lot of people, y’know?, a lot a lot a lot more people with nothing. The money of those who
have nothing is the money in the hands of those who already have more. It has to be
divided more evenly. Everyone is equal, whatever the color or, you know, where he’s

"The politicians are the worst. There are a few who do some things, but the majority
just takes the money. Robbery. Those with the power have the money, and those with the
money… y’know?"

"It’s a shame… Brazil has a lot of… a lot of potencial. It’s got natural
resources, good people, good culture, good music—everything good. I think the people
deserve more."

"I agree."

"So then, what’s going to happen? Is it going to get better? Is it going to get
"I think it’s going to get better. It’s got no way to get worse, right?"

"Has it got a way to get better? Really, what’s going to happen?"

"I don’t know."

"You’re going to Porto de Galinhas?"


"Get off in Cabo and take a van to Porto. It costs seventy cents, and it’s a lot

"Okay. Thanks, friend."

"No problem. Have a good trip."


use free for passengers

northeast. It’s the soul of Brazil

The country was born there

…vacation, to enjoy the soul of Brazil

get to know a little of the people and the culture, learn a little of the language

coffee; corner bar
lunch plate
(a kilo: by weight)
(Legião Urbana; Caetano Veloso: famous band and singer, respectively)

(Sai de Baixo: a popular sitcom)
barbecues; sidewalks


over there(near); over there (far)

"Hey, gringo, give me a hand. What do these Germans want?"

"They missed their bus to Salvador."

"They’re fucked, huh?"

"What did he say?"

"He said it was number 41307."

"Which company?"

"There’s another one over there."

"What happened?"

"It’s not the same one."

"Sure, but they can talk to the driver. Their bus isn’t going to come back, for

"Why is he yelling?"

"He said the driver told him thirty minutes, but he left after twenty."

"He probably left them. I would,"

"Look at his girlfriend. Little fat girl. Just imagine her big white ass."



out of place."

"Right on."

"You speak good Portuguese."


"Just maybe."

"Right on."

(51: a type of local alcohol made from sugar cane)


(guaraná: a type of soft drink)

soft drinks

Gregory "Gringo" Shibley is originally from
California and has spent the last few years traveling. He has been in Brazil for the last
year, working on both his writing career and his tolerance for alcohol. You can contact
him at gshibley@hotmail.com 

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