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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

I'll be back!

Favela Vidigal on the hill in Rio de Janeiro
I didn't realise how much police was around Salvador, I just didn't care before, but since I overstayed illegally my time in Brazil my eyes could spot them everywhere and my heartbeat was rising every time they were getting closer. After hours spent on the internet I'd found out I could cross the border with Uruguay without any control quite easily, but no exit stamp in my passport could cause troubles in getting visas to other countries in the future. Another option was to pay a fine which according to some websites was eight reais per overstayed day. There were people claiming they lived illegally for years and got away with it at the end just by paying the fine. Supposedly it was even possible to pay the fine on the next arrival in Brazil. The problem was, that I wasn't sure if all that info was still valid, just like the Polish governmental site about the visa extensions was outdated.

It took me maybe two hours to hitch the first ride out of Salvador to Feira de Santana and there I jumped on a mini bus that brought me to a posto. After another two hours I was picked up by a couple going to Itatím. They dropped me in a big service station on BR-116, one of the main roads connecting north and south of that huge country. Somehow I couldn't find any lift there till the end of the day, but one guy promised me to pick me up early in the morning. After speaking with the security and other workers I soon had a place to camp, a shower and a dinner - this time mocotó, a dish made of cow's feet, probably the most greasy stuff I tried in my life. Not the first time after asking just for a safe place to crash I was receiving for free all the rest. Once I showed that I was adventurous and not dangerous people were really open and helping. All I had to do was to crash that invisible wall of distrust with a positive chat.

At five am I said good morning to Jefferson and we started to go south together, as promised, for the next two days. From the beginning we were chatting a lot, and we soon started to talk about religion and philosophy, as Jefferson just converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. I was lacking words, but it was a great conversation. The time was going fast and with the time the distance to my next destination was disappearing. Priscilla, whom I met in Boa Vista, was doing a student exchange in the Federal University of Viçosa and that town was on my way. So why not pop in?

Two days on the road brought lots of changes behind the windscreen. Bahia was behind me together with its dry climate and in Minas Gerais I was once again in Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest with different types of rich vegetation spreading as far south as Argentine border. I was dropped in Manhuaçu, hundred and fifty kilometres away from Viçosa, when it was almost dark. Intense green of the surrounding fields contrasted with heavy steel clouds, the rain was lashing and I was standing under my umbrella with a wet sign saying Ponte Nova. After half an hour a white van stopped and we started to drive through the darkness with a loud sound of wipers and a noise of disappearing radio signal. Ponte Nova was not really on the way of my driver, neither was Viçosa, but after many wrong directions from a GPS and loads of asking around he brought me all the way to my destination, making sure I was safe and sound and with my friend. He drove off his route for fifty miles. What a man!

In Viçosa I could stay in an apartment Priscilla was sharing with other girls and it was another episode of Student Life in Brazil. Beers and caipirinhas, gigs and nights out, loads of fun. And it was the time when many students were off for holidays. The town itself was quite small and the university campus was a significant piece of it.

Leaving this place took me a while as I was standing in a queue of hitchhikers, I haven't seen anything like that since my last summer hitch in Europe. After two lifts I got to the motorway from Belo Horizonte and stayed overnight in one posto hiding from a pissing rain and a wind blowing my head off. Only around midday I found someone willing to take me and going all the way to Rio. Yes, Rio de Janeiro, that Rio. The sound of that name was bringing me strange feelings, like a mix of fear and excitement. A couple that gave me a lift brought me to the international airport, from where I could take a bus to Leblon, a district next to the famous Ipanema beach. Just in between Leblon and Favela Vidigal was a little house of Yesi, an Argentine girl from CS, who lived there for a year.

The first night Yesi took me for a samba concert in the Northern Zone, which was poorer and more dangerous and because of that not visited by many tourists. During the next few days I was chilling out on the beach, climbed the Corcovado mountain with a statue of Christ and wandered alone through the city. Every night we were going out to different parts of town usually in a search of live gigs. Samba was all around, in a hidden pub in Copacabana, loud narrow streets near Pedra de Sal or never-falling-asleep Lapa. Yesi introduced me to many people and all the world was in Rio: Cubans and Germans, Argentines and Mexicans, Spanish and even one Pole and of course the chilled out Cariocas - the locals. We had many interesting conversations and when the politics were discussed by people from so different backgrounds they were sometimes turning into argues. But it was all inspiring and in a friendly manner. My head was buzzing and it wasn't caused only by beer.

I liked the time in Rio so much that I decided to stay one more day and as Yesi was going back to work after holidays and couldn't offer me her time anymore I moved to a house of Alfredo, a Mexican guy, who shared it with students from Europe. The most amazing thing was the fact that the house was almost on the top of a steep hill occupied by the Favela Vidigal. This favela was pacificated a year before and like many other shanty towns in the Southern Zone which police took over, it was going through rapid changes. Alfredo lived there for more than ten months and was amazed how life was improving in Vidigal. New businesses were being open regularly, so there were new restaurants and pubs, barbershops, supermarkets and many workshops either fixing or producing something. Moto taxis were introduced, so people who could afford it didn't have to climb extremely steep streets. Recently even regular taxis started to enter the area and since a few weeks the city began to provide rubbish bins and their collection when full.

There was a concern that all this was just a make-up before the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics in 2016. Another issue was that in many pacificated favelas police started to overuse their power to a level where bribes were expected for the protection, so it was turning into another cartel. But Vidigal as I could experience, was a safe place to be, also by night. It even started to attract investors from outside who wanted to buy property there and the house I stayed in was owned by a Frenchman. There were many favelas still forgotten by the government, especially the ones far away from tourist attractions and the ones already controlled had their own problems, like growing prices from investors pressure. Anyways something was changing in the case of favelas. What would be the future of these places and most importantly of their inhabitants? Probably no one could answer that hard question.

After Rio de Janeiro I wanted to move quickly to Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil to visit Martha, another person I met in Ireland. I was taking it easy while leaving the city, so before I got to a desired spot in the far suburbs near Santa Cruz, the day was nearly over. After a few unsuccessful hours I decided to crash somewhere. I found a beautiful meadow not far from a posto and while I didn't feel too safe at first, I thought it was just my paranoia caused by the proximity of the big metropolis.

Early in the morning I had a lift to Angra dos Reis and from there quite quickly to Paraty. This historical town was a huge tourist attraction with all the colonial architecture and it was located on the beautiful Costa Verde with its numerous islands and bays. After a chill out on a beach and some sightseeing I wanted to continue but couldn't find any lift till the end of the day. After another night in a hammock I quickly got to Ubatuba, a nearby town brought by a young couple, where I got stuck again for many hours. The coastal road BR-101 was beautiful but it was more like a tourist route and there were not many trucks passing. Late in the afternoon I arrived in Caraguatatuba and I had to make a decision about my further route. I wanted to avoid São Paulo metropolis where nearly twenty million people lived and go along the coast via Santos, but it was going rather slow so far and according to maps I had and drivers I met there was a stretch of a dual carriageway behind Santos without any service station. Getting badly stuck was very likely. Reaching again BR-116 seemed possible judging the registration plates of all the passing cars and there was a posto near Jacareí. With help from heavy rain I opted for BR-116 and it started very well with a lift within a minute all the way to the station.

Restaurant in Paraty, Costa Verde, Brazil
Paraty, Costa Verde
The next day, with every hour passed, I was less and less sure that it was a good idea to go this way. The owner of a restaurant didn't let me ask around in front of his premises so I couldn't really hitch private cars. It seemed impossible anyway. People had so much distrust and fear here that they didn't want to speak with me and one guy even lifted his hands saying: 'Don't shoot!' Trucks were scarce and in the afternoon the petrol station turned into a bus station with dozens of buses stopping for a break and hundreds of hungry passengers rushing to the restaurant. Total mess that lasted till midnight. After another night behind an old abandoned building I started the same hopeless routine this time with the restaurant owner scaring me with police and the manager of the petrol station not letting me ask truck drivers near the pumps. Somehow I was saved by a trucker who brought me to the centre of São Paulo, a place I really wanted to avoid. A drowning man will clutch at a straw. With a help of hitchwiki I found another station on the other side of the metropolis. I could only hope it would be better, it was just hard to imagine a worst place than posto in Jacareí.

At the station in Embu das Artes I met three girls from Uruguay hitching back home and they had a lift in less than an hour. All three of them in the same truck. Cultura Machista was working in their favour. I had no luck till the night, but there was a positive incident, like a little light at the end of that long tunnel called São Paulo. One trucker was very curious about my travels and he invited me for some snack and let me crash for the night at the back of his empty truck. He also told me that after loading he would come back to pick me up and bring south, far south.

I started to ask around in the morning, but the rain didn't let me do my job properly and I was hoping I would soon see that white lorry with a broken mirror that was my hostel last night. Hours were passing and it looked more and more hopeless. In the afternoon one guy suddenly just waved his head in acceptance before I actually started my explanation. Finally I had a lift. Bye bye São Paulo.

It took us a lot of time to get to Curitiba as we wasted many hours in a traffic jam. I was dropped in the middle of the night at the station on the southern section of the bypass and after a short nap I started to hitch on the side of the motorway congested with the morning traffic. In half an hour I was picked up by a funny long haired trucker playing old hits and singing to them who was going to Itajaí. Finding another lift was also a piece of cake and that truck brought me to a station near Araranguá where I took a quick shower and before my hair dried I was already sitting inside another truck. I asked for a lift to Porto Alegre but after a short chat I found out that I could go all the way to Pelotas. That's the city where Martha lived. Brilliant.

Suddenly hitching started to be unbelievably easy, like I crossed some invisible border. Well, actually it was visible, I went through many natural borders. Near São Paulo there were still patches of tropical forest. Around Curitiba we were already in a moderate climate, with a Brazilian Araucaria dominating in the landscape. Soon they disappeared and in the backyards of many houses surprisingly I could see coconut and açai palm trees. Near Florianópolis they were gone as well and the landscape started to remind the European Mediterranean. Soon everything changed again as we entered grassy pampa full of cattle, the area of gaucho culture with yerba mate, here called chimarrão, drank all the time.

I arrived in Pelotas early in the morning and actually woke Martha up and during breakfast we started to remind the funny way we met in Ireland. It was a chilly October night and I was working with a rickshaw on the streets of Galway when I saw her walking around with her red suitcase and a sad look. I asked if everything was OK and found out that she had no place to sleep. It was nearly Halloween, so all the hostels were booked and Couchsurfing didn't work out. So she crashed in a house we called Merchants Freaks which I shared with other lads and which doors were always open for travellers, buskers and the like. Her few days stay in Galway lasted nearly two weeks. Big time.

Martha warned me before my arrival that she would be very busy with her work and she really was. I didn't really know what she did and she was doing amazing things. Beside studying theatre in the Federal University of Pelotas, she was running a theatre and cabaret company called Aurora and together with her boyfriend Alex and other artists she was involved in Coletivo Munaya an artistic collective where I met so many people the first day that I was struggling to remember all the names. Arthur, Francesco, Gabi, Tais, Juliano and Clevy were all actors. The art of fashion was represented by Sinara, who was designing and sawing clothes. Alex was a great musician with amazing voice playing in Massimiliano Blues, his open project where many guests were performing. Paulo and Anderson where involved in recording sound and Munaya had even its own nutritionist Lúcia. All this was happening in a rented two storeys building on Tiradentes street and it had its own backyard, recording studio, a small bar and rooms for rehearsals and events.

Martha loved to get people involved and I didn't even notice when I became part of Munaya. First she asked if I'd like to prepare something for the first Dionisía Urbana, an event where theatre and cabaret would mix with music, dance and poetry. I was also invited to join vocal expression classes in the university, where I had to remember quickly a short absurd text in Portuguese and act with it. Great experience. At the end of the class I read one Polish poem written by Bolesław Leśmian, an erotic I'd chosen to present during Dionisía. At the rehearsal of the dramatic lecture which would be a part of the event Gabi suggested that I could play one short role, so I started to prepare for my début in the theatre.

Dionisía Urbana proved to be extraordinary event and even though I had a little stage fright, it all went smooth. It was great to see all the faces trying to imagine what was that poem about, Polish must had sounded so exotic. It was also nice feeling to be an actor for the first time, like I entered some new undiscovered world. That night Artur and Francesco turned into Barbra and Beth presenting very funny cabaret and Ândrea performed theatrical dance show full of deep emotions. The stage was open for the audience so everyone brave enough could use it as well. Unforgettable night in Pelotas.

Girl singing in a project Massimiliano Blues at Coletivo Munaya in Pelotas, Brazil
Massimiliano Blues @ Coletivo Munaya
Munaya became my home for the next days as I was spending there most of the time. There was always something going on, either rehearsals, recordings, concerts or just simply nice chat with lots of people that decided to pop in for a sip of chimarrão or tereré*. One day in Munaya I met Ediane, a girl working in a local radio station and she invited me to the studio. We sat in front of microphones and started to talk about my travels, about my perception of Brazil and South America, about Poland and Europe, about politics and societies and of course about music. One tune 'Like a Rolling Stone' was inspired by my trip and at the end we had a piece of Miles Davis from his electric years. Buzzing! When I went out I couldn't believe in all that, I was chatting about all this things in the language in which I couldn't say a word just four months ago and it was live on the radio. Que massa**.

I didn't feel like leaving and I was postponing it again and again, but finally had to do it. It was nearly mid December and I wanted to get to Tierra del Fuego at the beginning of the southern summer. It was getting late. Finding the first lift took me half an hour and I was just standing on the side of the road with my thumb up. Easy. Near Rio Grande was even easier, an Uruguayan truck stopped literally after two minutes of waiting. Staring at the endless pampa I was thinking about that inspiring two weeks in Pelotas. It's good to belong somewhere, and when I decided to hitch around the world I decided to exchange that feeling for a blow of adventure. We can't have everything. Arriving in that town in Rio Grande do Sul was like arriving in Galway for the first time. It stole my heart straight away. It made me feel part of it. It also proved me again that the best places are not the ones with fantastic views, but the ones with fantastic people, especially if they know how to have fun. I was hoping I would have a chance to come back.

I arrived in the border town of Chuí after the sunset, and in this latitudes summer days were already long, so it was late. I took a big breath and went inside the office of Policia Federal, not sure what to expect.
'Leaving or entering the country? I was asked before I even took my passport out.
'Leaving. And there is actually a little problem.'
'I stayed a bit longer than I should. I travel only by hitchhiking and it's such a big country.' The policeman looked at the stamp, a piece of paper that I received on arrival and started to scan my passport. He tried once, then another one and I could see in his eyes something was wrong. He called other officer and they tried again.
'But we don't have you in our system. Where did you enter Brazil?'
'In Pacaraima, I arrived from Venezuela. There's a stamp...'
'Ah yeah. Their computer probably didn't work.'
'What does it mean for me?'
'No problems, you don't have to pay any fine in this case.'
'Yeah? And after how much time can I re-enter Brazil?'
'Normally you have to wait six months...'
'I heard it's three months now.' Both guys looked at each other.
'Or maybe three months, I have to check it out. But it doesn't matter for you, you were not registered.' He put the leaving stamp and gave me back my passport.

I started to walk along the road happy as fuck, followed by a group of dogs happily waving their tails. I spotted the last Brazilian petrol station as the actual border was in the city centre marked only by a sign. I crashed in the posto BR for that night and the same few words were coming back again and again to my head: I'll be back!

* Tereré - cold version of yerba mate with citrus juice.
** Que massa - in Brazilian slang meaning something like how cool.