I returned from a trip to Brazil on December 20th, 2007. I know what you’re
picturing: hammocks stretched between coconut palms, models in string bikinis
sauntering down snow white beaches, exotic drinks at the Copacabana…. Such
luxuries exist, but they are reserved for those with money and no children. My
trip was a family visit in tropical hell.
I married a native Brazilian, so I’ve been there several times. This was our first trip that included the entire family, excluding the dog, who won a game of rock, paper, scissors with me and got to stay home.
We wanted our two and four-year-old sons to meet their Brazilian family and learn Portuguese. My wife gave up on me long ago, but the children are at the age where their little brains soak up language like a dry sponge. Therefore, we conceived the brilliant plan of having my wife and the kids stay for two months. Due to limited funds and lack of vacation time I had to return after two weeks in order to keep my job at the mine.
Another major objective of the trip was to potty-train our two-year-old. Brazil was the perfect place to do this. Except for the beaches and a few patches of jungle that haven’t been mowed down by developers and ranchers, the entire country is covered in ceramic tile. There are no carpets to worry about, so the day we arrived, off came the diapers.
After about a week, my son realized it’s easier to use the potty than to soil his clothing, for each incident resulted in a cold shower. My mother-in-law’s house does not have hot water, which is no big deal since the air temperature rarely dips low enough to warrant long pants, let alone a warm shower.
Visiting Brazil has always been difficult for me. I’m a Yankee blue blood who gets a heat rash the minute I cross the Mason Dixon line. Even though a wonderful breeze ran through my mother-in-law’s house, it lacked air conditioning. The air felt quite refreshing while sitting on the porch with a cold beer, but after several rounds of chase and a game of “climb the mountain up daddy’s chest” with a two-year-old, I was ready for an oxygen mask and a walk-in meat freezer.
My inability to speak the native language kept me in virtual isolation. Only a few people I met spoke English, and those who didn’t, barely acknowledged my existence. During previous trips, this was no problem. I just wandered off and read a book or took a nap. However, with young children around, napping and reading became a mere pipe dream, and the majority of my conversation was limited to speaking toddlerese.
I spent most of my time preventing them from falling out of wide-open second story windows, keeping them away from a caged parrot that liked to eat fingers, and generally yelling at them for doing everything from wasting water to playing with dead insects.
I don’t know how my wife does it, but after about a week of this, I became a babbling idiot. To make matters worse, my Brazilian niece and nephew constantly spoke to me in their native tongue, even after I explained to them over a hundred times, in Portuguese, that I don’t speak the language. This made no sense to them, so they just kept trying. How could an adult be so stupid as to not speak the language?
The overpowering monotony of daily child care forced me to find creative, entertaining activities to keep my sanity. One day, while lying on the bed watching a Donald Duck DVD for the seventeen-thousandth time, I discovered a strange spider that looked like it might be a cousin of the monster in the “Alien.” Lucky for me, it was already dead. I probably rolled over on it just as it was about to take a chunk out of my ass.
I flicked it off the bed and it landed near an expressway of ants running along the floor at the base of the wall. These particular ants are not indigenous. Being from Japan, they are about one tenth the size of an average ant. Having no natural predators, they wandered all over the house.
I moved the spider’s body directly into their path, and they descended upon it like a horde of college students eating late-night pizza. I wanted to see how long it would take the little carnivores to completely dispatch the carcass. Unfortunately, my science experiment abruptly ended with two stomps of my wife’s flip-flop. Although disappointed, I had the good sense not to admonish her, fearing I could very well be her next victim.
During the weekend, my sister-in-law graciously took us to a beach house an hour up the Atlantic Coast. A beautiful property surrounded by a high wall, it boasted banana trees, coconut palms, mango trees, and cashew fruit trees nearby.
A plethora of wildlife lived in and around the dwelling. One day, we were delighted to see some Brazilian monkeys hanging out in the fruit trees. However, this paled in comparison to the frogs in the toilet. It was always a good idea to check the bowl before you sat down. The day we arrived, I spotted two in there. Even after several flushes, they clung tenaciously to the porcelain.
Later in the day, a yellow one greeted me as I stepped naked into the shower. I flicked my towel at him, hoping he’d go back down the drain, but instead he jumped onto the glass door making a sound like a wet suction cup. After imagining what that would feel like on my leg while shampooing, I made a deal with him. If he promised not to jump on me, I promised not to stomp him out of existence (I wouldn’t really do that, but don’t tell the frog).
Frogs are actually very useful because they eat insects, and there is no shortage of those in Brazil, especially at the beach house. Every day around five o’clock, we shut the house up to keep the mosquitoes out. Trying to seal off a beach house in Brazil is like installing a screen door on a submarine.
Despite our best efforts, little clouds of hungry insects buzzed around our heads as we ate supper and prepared for bed. We were lucky to sleep in an enclosed room with an air conditioner, a rare luxury, but even so, the next day, my two boys looked like they had the measles from all the bites on their face. I fared much better, being a stinky old white man with thick skin and beer-soaked blood.
One morning, my son pointed at something scurrying across the bedroom floor. “Look at that big bug, papai (father).”
It was a cockroach the size of Rhode Island. I smacked it with my brother-in-law’s sandal, and made a mental note never to walk from the bed to the bathroom again without the light on.
That cockroach paled in comparison to the flying cockroach that buzzed into my mother-in-law’s kitchen several days later. My wife and all three of her sisters stood around chatting in Portuguese. Being natives, you’d think a giant flying insect would be no big deal, but they reacted as if the guy from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre just showed up for dinner. Normally, I would have been the one screaming, but being the only male in the room, it became apparent that I had to deal with the situation.
The critter landed on the refrigerator door, so I gave an Austin Power’s judo kick to knock it to the floor where I could squish it, but lucky for me and my thinly clad feet, it flew back outside.
By the end of the two weeks, I was ready to swim home if I had to. As I dusted the termite droppings off my belongings and packed them in my suitcase, a feeling of dread overcame me. My return flight connected through São Paulo, a two-hour trip by air from Salvador. What if something happened and I got stuck there all alone?
A gringo like me without a street-wise native speaker wouldn’t last long. I’d probably be robbed blind and left on a street corner wrapped in an American flag where someone would set fire to me.
Before I could even start worrying about São Paulo, I had to get to the airport. My brother-in-law, Fernando, borrowed his brother’s car and dutifully volunteered to drive me. We left with plenty of time, but he had to run an errand for his work. He left me in the car with the windows down in a dilapidated parking lot somewhere in the middle of the city.
I felt vulnerable because the windows were electric and he took the keys with him. After a half hour of sitting and sweating, hoping no one would try to harvest my kidneys, relief washed over me as I saw him approach the car.
He reached inside and felt the ignition. “Where are the keys?”
“You took them,” I answered.
He checked his pants, then all the pockets in his backpack, but came up empty.
“Oh, I think I know,” he said, then ran back through the parking lot and out of sight.
My heart climbed up the back of my throat.
Five painful minutes later, he reappeared out of breath with huge sweat stains soaking his shirt. Lucky for me, he also possessed the keys.
“I dropped them by the elevator,” he explained as he jumped in the car.
I flashed a weak grin while suppressing an urge to cover him in vomit.
After a wild ride through the city, which is typical whether you’re in a hurry or not, we made it to the airport in one piece. After parking the car, Fernando joined me in the check-in line.
He felt bad about the whole key thing. “Do you want a beer?”
“C’mon. You need a beer. It’s no problem.”
I didn’t want to be rude, and thought I’d have enough time for a quick one. “Okay, one beer.”
With that, he ran off somewhere. I thought he might grab a table at a café or something, but a few minutes later, he reappeared with two beers, opened them, and handed one to me. I was next in line, and there I stood with an open beer and three pieces of luggage. I wasn’t sure what to do.
In the US, I would probably be arrested. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I emptied the entire contents with a few huge gulps, gasped a “thank you” that ended in a wet burp, and handed him the empty bottle. I hadn’t slammed a beer like that since college, but it’s amazing what you can do under pressure.
I landed in São Paulo on time, but my arrival flight was an international connection. This meant I had to go through customs, and after waiting in line with the foreigners, an official told me to get in line with the Brazilians. This confused me, but the guard let me through without any questions.
I didn’t know what to do next. Should I get my luggage? Did I have to check in again? After running around for about an hour, waiting in different lines and asking anyone with a uniform what I should do, I finally found the correct line.
After passing through security, I searched for my gate. My ticket read gate nine, but the monitor reported my flight departing at gate seven. The monitor should be the correct one, I assumed. The monitor at gate nine displayed a flight for London. I located gate seven, but it was on the other side of a glass wall.
After running along the wall like a caged animal for twenty minutes, it became apparent that there was no way around. I could see gate seven was empty. Had I missed my flight? Adrenaline coursed through my body like acid as panic set in. I envisioned myself slamming my fists against the glass, sliding slowly to the floor as two policemen grabbed my ankles and dragged me away. My deepest fear was becoming reality.
I spotted an airport employee hurrying by and blocked his path. “Licença (excuse me), do you speak English?”
“No,” he answered.
Like a typical American, I continued, holding out my ticket. “My ticket says this flight leaves from gate nine, but the monitor says gate seven. Which is it?”
“Oh,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing on the planet, “Gate seven is gate nine.”
To me, that phrase summed up the confusion that is Brazil. Apparently, you had to go through door at gate nine to get to gate seven. I felt better after other passengers showed up in a total panic, wondering how to get to gate seven. At least I wasn’t the only one in the dark.
My flight left on time without any issues, but even after taking off, I didn’t relax until the wheels touched down at my final destination. As a result, I went a total thirty-six hours without sleep.
Even the mountain of frozen snow greeting me at the end of my driveway and the haze of sleep deprivation didn’t dampen my mood. I had made it all the way home, and the only thing that could surpass my jubilation at that moment was the safe return of my family to my side.