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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Posto BR

Eliel, driver in Petrobras service station in Brazil
'Don't forget to feed Mona!' Fernando reminded me about the dog one more time.
'I won't, don't worry. And thanks again for everything.' I gave him a hug. This big guy deserved really big hug. I met Fernando by Couchsurfing and I thought I would stay in Porto Velho just for a few days, but somehow weeks passed. When I arrived, first he gave me keys to the second house he built for guests and later a key to his bicycle. So I had my own place and the way to move around freely in that city on the border of the Amazon.

Fernando knew basically everyone in the neighbourhood and people really liked to come and have at least a few words with him and if they didn't have time, they at least shouted from a distance: 'Hey Fernando everything OK?' My host was sometimes staying in his aunt's house, especially recently after his mother's death, and in such case I was taking care of the dog, which at the end was sleeping next to my bed almost every night. If I was not chatting with him and his friends, or not showing him Polish videos about pigeons which he loved I was staying in my little house. I used this time to finally back up all my pictures, redesign my blog and read some books, something that was being postponed for too long.

After Porto Velho it was time to see the more developed part of Brazil and I decided to hitch straight to Goiânia without any stopover. It was twenty four hundred kilometres away, quite a distance, but I couldn't see every little town in that huge country. After an hour on the side of the road a truck stopped and it was going all the way to Cuiabá! More than half the way with the first hitch. Brilliant!

Inside the truck I had some nice conversations with the driver in my quickly improving Portuguese and every time I felt tired I could just crash on the bed behind me. I was trying to not sleep too much though to not miss the transition between climates and landscapes. We were slowly leaving the rain forest behind us and entering cerrado, the richest of all the savannahs of the world. Many people told me that Cuiabá was one of the hottest places in Brazil and I could only agree. Opening the door of the air conditioned lorry was like opening an oven to check if the roast was ready. The blaze brushed my hair and I touched my eyebrows to see if they didn't burn. The heat was different than the one in Manaus, it made my throat dry in a second. Luckily the afternoon storm cooled the air down and a thick layer of clouds covered the sky for the next whole day.

After the night in the back of a petrol station it took me a few hours to find the next lift and this time it was a small white car that brought me to Rondonópolis. Another two hundred kilometres behind me. The wild cerrado was in many places turned into corn fields, and the pressure from agriculture since the invention of synthetic fertilizers was growing constantly.

After another night in Posto BR* as many called petrol stations here I was struggling for hours to find a lift. I was asking drivers near the pumps and hitching on the road, than again at posto and back on the road. There were hundreds of trucks, but most of them were bringing grain to nearby purchasing centres. In the afternoon I decided to change something and began to walk along the road. After half an hour I found another station and this one had free showers. Finally.

'Did you eat?' suddenly one of the workers asked me and I showed him biscuits that I was chewing. He waved his hand with disagreement and soon I was devouring a massive meal he brought me. He didn't really ask me anything else, he was not curious what I was doing there, just fed me and went back to work. Strange!

With a full belly I went back to the roadside and a few moments later I was sitting in the back of a small ambulance rushing to Alto Araguaia, a town on the border of Mato Grosso and Goias states. Of course I didn't end up there because of overeating, but thanks to the hospitality of a doctor. The landscape changed completely again after reaching the top of a plateau. Vast soy or corn monocultures were spreading all around till the end of the horizon and the straight road was cutting it like a blade. All of this was washed from time to time by showers from huge cumulonimbus clouds slowly passing by. The sense of space was dramatically different here in comparison with the Amazon.

In Alto Araguaia I spent a night in a station, in my hammock hung between two trees. In the morning I was sipping coffee sitting lazily next to my backpack and some people started to chat me up curiously. There was a family with a daughter who began English classes and a guy called Eduardo who after a long conversation offered me a lift. He couldn't pick me up straight from the station because he was driving a tanker full of petrol and it was illegal to take any passengers. I climbed the cabin of the truck a few hundred metres behind the last houses and a steaming hot lunch was already waiting for me inside.

Around 4 p.m. I was dropped in the outskirts of Jataí and this time it took me around one hour to hitch another ride. My driver at first didn't want to speak with me but after buying some stuff he looked at me and my backpack again and asked me what the hell I was doing there. Before opening the door to his white van he looked with a glimpse of fear: 'You don't have a knife, do you?' I had one, but I didn't mention about it. Anyways my knife was not the one he was thinking about. When I arrived in the suburbs of Goiânia it was quite late, but with help of very organised public transport I managed to meet with João Paulo. He didn't change much since the time I met him in Ireland. He was one of the Rickshaw Mafia as we called our team of bike taxi drivers in Galway.

Soy monoculture in central Brazil
Soy monoculture in central Brazil
After coming back to Brazil João Paulo moved back to his parents house and that's where I stayed for more than a week. There was a slight chance he would find some work for me, but just before my arrival he lost his job himself so it didn't look too promising. After so many months on the road without any income it would be nice to make a few quid. My savings were not going to last forever. Goiânia was unfortunately not yet the place for that.

After the Goiânia chill out I decided to visit parents of another friend from Galway, Geovani. They lived in a town called Caldas Novas located less than two hundred kilometres to the south east from the capital of Goias and Geovani wasn't there for years. Finding a lift was easy and the guys who took me also gave me a bottle of homemade cachaça, a Brazilian liquor which they bought on the way from a farmer. I was dropped in Morrinhos when it started to get dark and there was no proper station to ask for a lift. It was only sixty kilometres away from my destination and I decided to take a risk and continue by night. First one guy gave me a lift to the town limits just to make my chances higher and from there I had a lift to Caldas in twenty minutes. The first night hitching on the side of the road in Brazil was successful.

Caldas Novas was famous for its hot springs and after one phone call from Geovani's mother I could enter for free one of the hydrothermal clubs and enjoy pools with hot and cold water. During two days I spent in that town I was communicating with my friends' parents solely in Portuguese. It was improving faster than my Spanish in Venezuela and I had never studied it before. And what was the most important I could understand people more. Brazilians just talked so much slower.

The next location I wanted to see before hitting towards the coast was Pirenopólis, an old colonial town, probably the oldest in this part of the country. Hitching was slow, but it was Sunday and the traffic was scarce on local roads. By late afternoon I managed to get to Anápolis and when I saw the outskirts looking a bit like shanty town I thought no one would stop. Five minutes later I was sitting in the back of a small black car filled with suitcases, with a couple going for short holidays to Pirenopólis. The chat we had was so interesting, at least for me, that I wasn't sure what happened when the car started to twist around. My heart was beating like crazy and when I finally calmed down a bit I saw a motorbike lying on the road. We were hit by it! Luckily we were all fine. The car was just scratched and had a flat tyre, the bike seemed okay as well. A guy who hit us looked like he had a few and my driver decided to call the police.
'The town is three or four kilometres from here. If you like you can walk, feel free man.' The driver, still shaking, said after a while. 'I just don't want to stop you, it will probably take a while till we sort it out.'
'Em, I don't know, I have to chill out a bit first,' I said. After maybe fifteen minutes I wished all the best to the couple and started to walk along the road in a darkness rhythmically disturbed by passing cars. Just before the city limits I spotted a nice, hidden place for my hammock. I lied down staring at the Milky Way, so much brighter in the southern sky and thinking about fragility of life. It was my first car accident in the whole hitchhiking career. Fifteen years of good luck. I obviously hoped for more.

Pirenopólis was a really beautiful town with a fantastic architecture and lots of handicrafts made by hippies who settled there. It was also the first place where I saw hitchhikers like me. There wasn't really strong backpackers culture in Brazil and usually homeless and poor were travelling this way. Together with the high crime rate it was making hard for a man to get a lift. I could experience that again the next day, as it took me five hours to get the first one. At least there was a huge mango tree growing next to me. The real feast.

In Corumbá de Goias where I was dropped off there was no petrol station to ask around, but surprisingly a car stopped just within an hour. It was a big four by four driven by Helio, a man with a strong scent of cologne, who was accompanied by his mother Clarisa, a lady with a beautiful jewellery. They were both lawyers living in the capital of the country Brasília. It was the first time I could speak English with someone who gave me a lift in Brazil. Literally after a few sentences they invited me to stay overnight in their house, so I had a chance to see that utopian city.

First I saw it by night as we drove through to the other side of Paranoa Lake, which like everything else around was planned and built by man. All the city was divided into sectors for specific functions and one of the housing areas was behind the lake. After a night in a room of a maid who had a day off, Clarisa gave me a tour around town and I could see the Presidential Palace, the National Congress, and many other governmental buildings. The city was built in just forty one months between 1956 and 1960. From above it was supposed to look like an airplane with the main axis and two wings along which all the sectors were located. After saying goodbye to my guide and host I went to see the futuristic cathedral and soon after jumped on a bus to Sobradinho, one of many satellite cities that grew rapidly around. Most of them were not planned at all. The capital attracted much more people than it was thought and the queues in the bus station were huge. Plans versus reality.

A petrol station in Sobradinho was a hitchhiker's nightmare. Hours and hours and hours of nothing. Practically no trucks and all the cars going just around the metropolis. Finally in the evening I jumped on a bus to another station in the next town called Planaltina. One guy who saw me hanging around there with my backpack started to ask me questions and with every answer I gave him his eyes were opening wider and wider. He invited me for pamonha, fantastic food made of corn and we watched a match in a TV, even though I had no clue about Brazilian league. His name was Eliel and he was running a company producing female shoes. At some point he introduced me to a driver who's truck was waiting to be fixed. If it was done in the morning I could go with him.

I spent that night in a shopping centre that was part of the station. No one was renting a space on the last floor so I crashed on a kind of balcony from where I could enjoy the view of silver lightnings on a distant black sky. The next day I was awaken by the sound of rain. I went downstairs and met the truck driver who invited me for breakfast. It looked like his truck was not going to be fixed by late afternoon so I had to find another lift, which I did only around lunch time.

Kids playing football in Salvador, Brazil
The next driver wasn't very talkative and we were swallowing miles either in silence or listening to Christian music, quite common stuff in many cars. I had a lift all the way to Luís Fernando Magalhães, five hundred kilometres closer to Salvador, where one girl from CS was already waiting for me. When we arrived at a massive truck stop it was dark already, so I asked a security guy if I could stay somewhere for the night, something I was doing many times before. They were always showing me some quiet place where I could sleep for a few hours, and this way I knew it was safe.

Even though the posto was full of lorries the movement was close to zero as it was the beginning of the weekend. In the afternoon I went to the other side of town and started to hitch on the road next to a small petrol station. After an hour one guy stopped holding something in his hand.
'There is a bus to Barreiras in a few minutes. Take it,' he said while showing me ten reais note.
'No thanks I travel only by...'
'Take it, it will get dark soon' he squeezed the tenner into my hand and drove away. I was still standing with a sign saying Barreiras, amazed with what just happened. I saw the bus already arriving hidden behind a truck when both the vehicles started to pull over. I was ready to take the bus when I heard from the truck driver: 'Hey, Barreiras? Jump in!' What a situation.

I spent another night in another posto and in the morning an old couple in an old car gave me a lift to the next station outside Barreiras. From there I had a lift in a few minutes for maybe forty or fifty miles, with two funny lads who bought me lunch and a few beers. Soon after a small truck stopped with an old hippie behind the wheel. Accompanied by a great music from the seventies I was observing the changes in the landscape. The cerrado was turning into caatinga, almost desert like formation where the dominant plants were tall cacti. I was already in Bahia state, closer and closer to Salvador.

When we stopped for a short brake, just after the sunset, the driver took something out of his pocket and asked if I wanted as well. First I was shocked when I saw him preparing lines of coke, but fucking hell I was in South America. I started to wonder how many of my previous drivers were using cocaine to not fall asleep. Maybe I just didn't notice. Is it better to go with a guy who's high or who falls asleep? Good question.

We continued till the middle of the night and I slept through most of it, until we reached a junction on which the truck turned towards the north and I went to a station close by. In the morning I was sipping coffee and thinking about my hitching through Brazil. I realised that since I left Porto Velho I spent maybe a third of the nights in Postos BR. If hitchhiking was easier I wouldn't probably have much to do with them, specially that most of the roads so far were single lane ones.

After breakfast made of granola and powdered milk I found a lift all the way to Salvador with an old man in his four wheel drive. Once we passed Feira de Santana we were back to the tropical rain forest as this narrow strip of coastal area was moistened by the ocean. Almost every hill in the outskirts of Salvador was wrapped with favelas, world famous shanty towns and they all had some kind of beauty in them, though they were probably hard places to live.

Denise, who invited me to stay at her place for a few days, was living in Pelourinho, the oldest part of the city. It was full of picturesque buildings, many of which were recently restored and I could walk for hours trying to take a good photo. It wasn't always safe unfortunately, once a girl saw me taking out my camera and she came closer to whisper: 'Be careful with that in Salvador' There was a lot of music and performances on the streets, especially capoeira and African influences could be seen everywhere.

In Salvador I had one important thing to do: extending my stay as the ninety days I was given were almost over. I handed my passport to an officer of Federal Police, he took it and disappeared for a moment. When he came back he was holding a piece of paper in his hand. I was ready to fill in the form.
'Tourists from these countries can't extend their time in Brazil anymore' he showed me the list he brought.
'What? But according to the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs...'
'That's a new law. You have three days to leave Brazil.'
It was like a slap. What to do, what to do? What the fuck should I do? Cold sweat covered my forehead.

* Posto BR (pronounced posto beh ehee) - posto means station and BR is a brand of petrol stations run by public company Petrobras, as well as a short for a federal road.