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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

I'm back!

Fifa Fan Fest on Copacabana Beach in Rio during World Cup 2014
I didn't expect any problems on the border. I personally didn't have them before, but I met people who did and went through cross questioning. This time it was going smooth, the World Cup was already on and Brazil was trying to impress the entire world. Immigration officers were like robots, stamp and next, stamp and next.

The day was hot and humid, the air was filled with this suffocating but in the same time exciting smell of the tropics. I was told there was no bus from the border to the city centre, and I didn't want to pay for a taxi, so I stuck my thumb up on the speed ramps just at the exit from the border terminal. In a minute I had a lift with two women from Paraguay on their way back home. Foz do Iguaçu was a triple border so there were plenty of cars with plates from all the three countries. It looked like Paraguay wouldn't be that hard place to hitch in the future, but now I had to cross a large part of Brazil to get to Rio. And I remembered very well how hard it was, how much time I had to spend on posto BR in order to find a lift. Now I had to find one such posto, Hitchwiki had no info about Foz.

As soon as I got to one petrol station an intense storm broke out and stopped me for a few hours. It wasn't a good spot at all, it was not the end of the city yet and mostly locals were refilling their tanks. The staff was cool and explained me how to get to a good posto on the motorway. Once I got there it was almost dark. A whole day wasted just to get to a right place. There were plenty of trucks parked around and with a bit of luck it was possible to find an overnight lift straight to São Paulo. From there I would have only four hundred kilometres to Rio. I had a great chat with many truckers, but most were either going to Paraguay or heading towards Curitiba but only in the afternoon of the next day. Got stuck at posto BR again?

I crushed for the night on the car carrier trailer of one truck, obviously with the permission of its driver. By now I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't make it to Rio for my birthday and the match of Chile against Spain. Well, there would be other matches and other birthdays. I only hoped that Francisco would still be there when I arrived.

I woke up early and after a row of strong coffees that most stations offered for free I located myself at the exit from the posto. Nearby there was a large U-turn which on Brazilian motorways worked as a junction, so people weren't driving that fast. Maybe I'd find a ride straight from the road? Hours were passing and only around midday I was finally picked up. Joys of hitching in Brazil. It was a convoy of two lorries going all the way to São Paulo. The guys were talking on the radio most of the time and I was listening to this smooth music that Brazilian Portuguese was and reminding myself many words that I already forgot. We were driving the whole day, stopped for the night and continued the next day until late afternoon. I was dropped off close to the city centre. Now I had to get out of this eighteen million inhabitants madness.

I hitched through São Paulo once and I didn't have a good recollection of it. This time I searched the maps and other websites in advance to be ready and skip it fast. I went straight to Tietê Terminal and got on the bus to Jacareí which was already behind the metropolitan area of São Paulo. Just before the exit to that city there was a petrol station with large restaurant that looked very good on the Street View. Only a mile behind it there was also a toll station and I really wanted to try them out. I couldn't find any info about hitching on tolls in Brazil. In case it wasn't allowed to hitch there I could always go back to the station.

In the morning I went to the tolls with a sign where I wrote Rio de Janeiro and put a big smiley face. After a minute one of the workers started to approach me. Will they kick me out? No, I just had to move further out. Fair play. It wasn't maybe as good as tolls in Poland or France, there was no parking or toilets, stopping was officially not allowed and the marginal lanes were for the electronic toll collection, so higher speed on them. But it still did the job. In just five minutes! I had a lift straight to Rio with a private car. What a change!

I arrived in Rio a few hours later welcomed by a pissing rain. I got off quite far from the centre, but just round the corner there was a station of suburban train so getting there was easy. After another bus ride I ended up almost at the top of Santa Teresa, a quiet neighbourhood near Lapa, the central part of the city.

It took me a while to find the house of Daniel, Monika's boyfriend. The place was full of instruments, the drum set was occupying large part of the living room, guitars were left in the corners. Daniel, whose big eyes had this friendly spark, was an English teacher as well as a musician and singer. His roommates were also into music, some tunes were constantly on. That night I sent a message to Francisco, but didn't receive any answer. Pancho where are you?

The next day the sun came out and we went for a walk with Daniel. He helped me to buy and register a new sim card, my old one after one and a half year without a top up was disconnected. Gee, a year and a half passed since my last time in Brazil. And I spent most of that time in Chile. I would never imagine that. Being a long time traveller means that one day you will run out of your savings, no matter how much you save in advance. I always wanted to live in Chile, but one of the reasons I stayed there for so long was money. And I actually didn't save that much, it was not like Ireland, the salaries were low. So my budget was tight. I started to realise that in order to continue this trip I had to take any opportunity to make a few bucks. And it looked like such opportunity existed in Rio.

Celebrations on the streets of Rio de Janeiro
Celebrations on the streets of Rio
On my second day I went to Copacabana to see the Fan Fest and feel the World Cup vibe. While the beaches of Rio were always full of people from all over the world, this time it was really packed and all the people were proudly displaying where they were from. The colours dominating in Copacabana were actually blue and white, the place was filled with Argentines, they were even camping on the beach, something that normally wouldn't be allowed. Now police didn't care and in the same time their presence made the place very safe. Many Argentines were selling either food or beers on the beach and after a little chat with one Porteño* I realised I could do the same. And I saw a styrofoam box in the house of Daniel. Fuck it, let's try!

Before hitting the beach stuffed with beers I wanted to celebrate my missed birthday. I was hoping to do it with Francisco but he was already in São Paulo. What a pity we couldn't meet. But, I'd found out that Greg who was working with me in La Valija was also in Rio and we soon met up in the place where he was crushing. There were other English lads and a group of people from Cape Verde. What a mix. After a few we went out to Lapa and soon after lost each other in that endless crowd. I didn't manage to find him, but I still had an interesting night.

'Good luck!' told me Daniel patting my back.
'Thanks man, I will need it' I replied grabbing the portable fridge full of beers and then headed to a bus stop. I had to take a bus and then metro to get to Copacabana and I was afraid all the beers would get warm by then, but the ice was still on top of the blue cans when I got to the beach. I remembered my first time as a beach vendor many years ago in Poland. It was actually my first job ever. The first word didn't want to pass through my throat for a few good minutes. And now I was about to do it in Copacabana, in Rio de Janeiro, in Portuguese. One big breath... cerveja!** The first sale was in ten minutes. A group of Brazilians couldn't believe that one Pole was selling them beers. From that moment on all my shyness and anxiety was gone. I was walking around with a big smile excited as hell. What an experience!

More people were coming over as another match was just about to start. I couldn't sell inside the Fan Fest, but the screens were really huge and well seen outside of it and many people preferred to watch it without entering the Fest. Every time I sold a beer I felt free to enjoy one as it was covered, so I could be on the beach all day long, watch the World Cup matches and have some beers without spending my savings. It costed me only a bit of the effort. At the end of the day I even had a few reais left in my pocket. Cool.

Daniel was very curious how it went when I came back. We had a great connection from the very beginning and Monika was so happy about it when we talked on skype. One evening Daniel was playing a gig in one bar in Santa Teresa and I was invited. That night he played many covers, mostly Brazilian tunes, including Novos Baianos which I liked a lot. The bar was small so no crowds but people seemed to enjoy it. I did.

On Saturday Brazil was playing the round of sixteen match against Chile and some kind of tension could be felt. Chile did very well so far and most Brazilians weren't happy with their team. They were afraid of losing it. I obviously supported Chile and was very curious what it would be like if Brazil really lost it. How would the streets and the beach look like. After exciting match Brazil won and every corner turned into a party. I thought I would do well with my business, but it was quite the opposite, I was struggling that afternoon. The last few beers I just left for myself, no point to push it too hard. Rio, soccer and samba... and I was inside of it.

I stayed in Rio a few more days and some were better some worse for my business. I saved almost nothing, but I didn't have to touch my savings which was good enough. During these couple of days I also did some more sightseeing and visited places I didn't have a chance to see before, for example The Sugarloaf Mountain. We also went out once or twice with Daniel to Lapa to grab a few drinks. After Monika I was the second Polish he met and that probably made our conversations deeper. He missed her a lot and was a bit worried about how would it all turn out. Monika bought a house in Ecuador and wanted to run a hostel and live there together with Daniel. He liked the idea, but in the same time he loved his life and career in Rio. When he'd found out that she booked a flight to Rio he was all radiating with happiness.

'Hey, you wanna impress this chick when she arrives? Learn this tune!' I showed him a song called Whisky Moja Żono by a Polish band Dżem. He started to work hard with it and I was surprised by his ability of pronouncing Polish. The fact that he was Brazilian was probably helping him, both languages had similar sounds. Maybe that's why Portuguese was so easy for me?

After a goodbye hug I went to the bus stop in front of Daniel's house.
'Are you heading downtown?' I was asked by a guy putting some stuff to a car.
'Yeah I'm going to Central.'
'I can get you to Lapa if you want.'
'Yeah sure, why not.' Sweet, I had a lift in the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. Some strange change again. After a long bus ride I left all the skyscrapers and favelas of the city far behind and got to the tolls on BR-116. This pedágio*** looked very well, there was a bus stop with a lay-by just behind it as well as shops and restaurants.

'Hey, do you think you will still be in Brazil in September?' I saw a message on the screen of my phone after finding a wifi. 'Today I will book a flight and I want to go there for three weeks, I'll go alone and I would like to meet you in Brazil.'
'Wow, wow, Aileen is going to travel! But I think I won't be here. Two months, a lot of time. Maybe in September I'll be in Ecuador or Colombia.'
'Other option is Tumbes, it's in Peru and only thirty kilometres from Ecuador. I would go in the second week of September. But I want to know where you will be before buying the tickets so we can meet. I'll have three weeks of holidays. I have to buy tickets until tomorrow.'
'Okay, Peru is much more likely than Brazil. And why until tomorrow? Any offer?'
I was chatting with Aileen quite often, but this message completely surprised me. She told me she got motivated and started to save money, it seemed they weren't just empty words. She was thinking about flying alone to a country she'd never been to before. I was really happy to see that.

After the night at one station I walked back to the tolls. Again a sign with a smiley face and tah dahm... a lift straight to São Paulo. In less than a minute! Have I found a Holy Grail of hitchhiking in Brazil? This time I was picked up by a truck driver from Nordeste, a region I haven't been to so far. Maybe on my third visit to Brazil. Now I was heading back south. I wanted to see Florianópolis about which I heard so much. The driver after listening to my travel stories invited me for lunch and on our way back to the lorry put twenty reais into my hand saying: 'grab some nice dinner tonight, you look skinny.'

In São Paulo I watched another match in a porter's lodge of one company. I was just passing and guys invited me over and offered a coffee. 2-1, Brazil won against Colombia. After the game I went to Decathlon shop to buy the camping gas and then to Tietê Terminal which was just round the corner. This time I made a mistake, I forgot to check when was the last bus to Embu das Artes leaving. I arrived too late. After a bit of asking around I found a bus that supposedly could get me close enough. When the driver dropped me at some junction I realised I had like ten kilometres to Embu. And it was almost midnight. The area didn't look too bad but I didn't feel comfortable walking there by night, so when I found the first petrol station I stayed there till the morning. I woke up early and with two more bus rides I arrived at another toll station really far away from São Paulo. A piece of cardboard, a marker, a smiley face and the first truck pulled over. Holy shit!

I was dropped at one posto on Curitiba's bypass. It was dark already so I sit near a socket and started to browse the web totally chilled out.
'Where you headin' to?' a mid age man asked me suddenly when I was reading the Polish Newsweek.
'To Floripa.'
'I can give you a lift later, now I'm really tired, I need a nap. I'll be in my car, that white one over there. I'll let you know when I'm ready.'

It didn't feel like Brazil. No, it actually felt like perfect Brazil. I loved this country, the people, their vibe, the only thing I didn't like was that terribly slow hitchhiking. But now I was being offered lifts even when I wasn't asking for them. It was one of my favourite countries and I would love to stay here longer, live here for a while, polish my Portuguese. Not now, not now... I knew I had to go, still so many countries ahead of me, I couldn't stay in every place I liked, I would never finish this trip. And Brazil? It should still be here.

A few hours later we started to drive down south. The guy lived in the north of the country and was on his business trip. In Brazil it meant a few days drive. When we were close to my destination I was really tired, my head was falling down, but I forced myself to not sleep because it looked like my driver was falling asleep. Every time he got quiet I started to talk something, anything to keep him awake. I got off his car around 3 a.m. in the suburbs of Florianópolis.

Paluch with friends again in Pelotas, Brazil
Back to Pelotas! With Martha, Gabi, Átila and Bruna
In the morning I checked my email. No news from CS, so I decided to find one nice beach and camp for a night there. Florianópolis, also called Floripa, was located on an island and it had beautiful beaches all around. It was a popular tourist destination, but this time of the year the beach in Barra da Lagoa was really empty. This part of Brazil had already temperate climate and the winter was just beginning. It wasn't really cold the day I arrived but the next morning a strong wind started to blow from the Atlantic and I had to dig for the jacket in my backpack. It wasn't time for Floripa's beaches, so I headed on.

First there was this short and quick lift with one girl to the city centre. She told me that she'd never hitched in her life, but was always picking up and according to her Floripa was the capital of hitchhiking in Brazil. After a short bus ride I had the next lift very quickly again from one posto to the tolls thirty kilometres south. I was going to Capão da Canoa where I wanted to visit Natalia, Roger and Marcelo, the guys who gave me a lift in the north of Chile. Capão was not on the main road so I wrote Osório instead. It wasn't a big city, maybe it would be better if I wrote Porto Alegre, but I didn't have any cardboard left. After an hour I went to a restaurant nearby and very quickly found another lift with a trucker.  After around two more hours I ended up at a tiny station in a tiny town.

'The flight booked! For the first day of September :)' Aileen informed me that night.
'So you'll arrive in Peru on 1 September? I have to set up the alarm for that day to not arrive too late.'
'Hehehe yeah I'll be in Máncora on the first, you can't come too late.'
'Well you never know when you hitch. I will put my alarm for a week before and if I'm still far I'll start hitching planes;)'
'Hehehe you silly!'
'You wanna hitch, move around or stay on the beach all the three weeks?'
'My plan is to come to Peru, meet you, hitch together to Ecuador and then go back to Chile.'
'And what if I arrive late? Do you have a plan B?'
'Sit down and cry hehe.'
'Okay, so I have to find a map that shows runways.' It looked like I had a deadline.

In the morning I couldn't find a lift for a while so I scribbled 'Next station' and began to hitch at the entrance to the motorway. It worked very well, I had a few short lifts jumping from one posto to another. When I sit down for a second at one station I saw a bus turned into a camper van. It had Argentinian plates and was painted with Brazilian and Argentinian flags, faces of Neymar and Messi and a phrase 'A hug of the goal.' I exchanged just a few words with the driver and I was in. They were five friends from Rosario and they prepared the bus just for the World Cup. Now they were heading to Porto Alegre for another match. Cool guys. They dropped me off at the exit for Capão and after another quick ride I ended up in front of the shop run by Roger and Natalia.

That day they closed earlier, most businesses were doing so when Brazil was playing. Surprisingly one supermarket was open so we went shopping. There was one TV turned on. Suddenly we heard a groan of disappointment. Brazil - Germany 0-1. Soon after another groan and another and another. What the hell 0-4? After the fifth goal some people started to shout: 'come on Germany, one more!' And soon they got what they wanted. 0-6, 0-7 and finally one consolation goal that no one cared about anymore. We drove through the city and it was absolutely deserted, not even one person. On the faces of Natalia and Roger I could see more of a shock and disbelief than sadness. I couldn't believe it either. Later on we started to joke about it, the internet was already full of memes. That was probably the most sane reaction to such a disaster.

I stayed in the house of Roger and Natalia for a few days. They were great couple, both very smart and spiritual. Their clothes shop did okay, but because it was wintertime they obviously couldn't sell any bikinis, so they were thinking of going to Nordeste and sell clothes there from their hippie kombi. I thought it was a great idea, it would be holidays and business combined together. One day they brought me to Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest that was covering nearby hills. Marcelo and his friends had an organic farm there. They were growing loads of food, they had so much avocado they couldn't eat it all. For me the most interesting were the juçara palm trees. Their tiny berries could be turned into nutritious and tasty pulp just like similar berries from the north called açai. The pulp served with granola was becoming a popular breakfast in Brazil and Marcelo was selling juçara as well. They needed volunteers from time to time and I thought I would stay there for a bit, but once Aileen booked her flight to Peru, I had little time. Marcelo was constantly coming up with new ideas, he was overwhelmed with them sometimes, joking that he would need two lives to realise them all. His latest experiment was juçara cheese. It's so great to see people really into something.

From Capão da Canoa I went a bit more south to Pelotas. I couldn't leave Brazil without visiting Martha again. Getting there was so easy, for the first lift I didn't wait more than fifteen minutes and the second one, from the tolls near Porto Alegre, was in just two minutes. On the way we were listening to the radio transmission from the World Cup final. So this time Germany. Martha was already awaiting me in the same apartment on Osório Square. She lived with her new boyfriend Átila who played in a band called Barrio Sur.

Martha as always was involved in so many things, now for example beside preparing for her thesis defense she was recording a video describing in sign language how to bake bread. Me and Átila took a little part in this project as well. She knew how to get other people involved. The first time I visited her we were spending most of the time in Munaya, the artistic collective run by her and her friends. Unfortunately the collective didn't exist anymore. She said the last time I arrived was probably the best time to visit her. Munaya was on, it was a summertime, but for me it didn't really matter, I still felt great in Pelotas, it still felt like home. Actually now Brazil started to feel like home, it felt so familiar, I felt like I knew this country, like I understood the people. And I never really lived there, I spent there altogether less than five months. Quite strange.

After a few days of preparations and many rehearsals made at Martha's apartment came the day of the defense. We went to one of the buildings of the Federal University of Pelotas where some friends were already awaiting with their fingers crossed. We entered a classroom and when all the professors arrived Martha started to present her thesis. It was called The paradox of the author-producer. Difficulties and possibilities of making theatre in the southern part of the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The professors had many questions after and in my opinion it only meant they were really interested in the topic of her research. It all went very well. Congratulations!

The same evening Martha and Átila organised a churrasco, a typical barbecue in a house of their friends to celebrate the defense. First Átila and other band members had a rehearsal so we had some live music. I could call their style Panamerican. After that we began to enjoy great food and cold beers. Arthur and Francesco turned again into Barbra and Beth in their cabaret show, at the party there were also Gabi and Bruna, people I met a year and a half before. In the morning our heads were a bit heavy, but it was worth it.

After doing nothing for a day in the apartment we went the next day to Laranjal on the coast of Lagoa dos Patos with Martha and Átila. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and we were enjoying chimarrão sitting on the pier and taking pictures while Átila was playing guitar. On my last night in Pelotas we went out and while Martha and Átila wanted to go back home early I stayed with Arthur, Fransesco and Gabi and we soon moved to an after. For Arthur and Francesco it was a goodbye party. They were going soon to Portugal for their student exchange. So it was a kind of a goodbye night for all the three of us.

In the morning I had a short visit to the renovated Mercado Central where Átila was having a jam with other local musicians. After lunch Martha and Átila brought me to a bus stop on the main street. Another goodbye in this trip, but I didn't feel sad, I actually felt happy I had friends in this part of the world. And it all started in Ireland so many years ago. I knew we would see each other again, I was back and I would be back.

I found a lift straight from the road just before it got dark directly to Porto Alegre. I wanted to meet up there with Alex, Martha's ex who moved out from Pelotas some time ago. Unfortunately his phone was off for most of the day and after a few more tries to contact him I decided to grab the last subway and head to the outskirts of the city. Maybe some other time Alex. I spent another night on posto BR, but this time they were more like my hostels rather than places where I got stuck for hours.

After breakfast I started to head to my final destination in Brazil, the same place where I began my second visit to this country, to Foz do Iguaçu. Hitching was usually easy, only at one point I waited for like two hours. First I was taken by a family with kids, then by students and finally by a truck driver. Again it was a convoy of two lorries and the guys were chatting on the radio a lot. They dropped me some forty kilometres before the city in the early afternoon the next day. An hour later I was already in the city centre after two more lifts. The landscapes were changing all the time in those two days. Pampa near Porto Alegre, Araucaria forests in the interior of the state of Santa Catarina and finally the jungle of eastern Paraná.

'Take the bus to Vila C,' I read the instructions again sitting at the bus stop. Soon after a hard bench turned into a comfy couch on which many couchsurfers crushed before. I was in the house that three students of anthropology were renting. Taisa and Effy were Brazilians, though from different parts of the country and Maite came from Ecuador. They called their house Antro C and it was a place full of recycled furniture and an orchard where bananas and coffee were growing.

Iguaçu Falls in Brazil
Iguaçu Falls
Taisa was of Polish origin and grew up in a Polish-Ukrainian village in the state of Paraná. It was interesting to listen to her stories about how her granny was cooking meals I actually knew. Effy was from the capital city of Brasilia and did some backpacking and hitchhiking in other South American countries. Maite as an exchange student from Ecuador had some tips for me about her country. I wasn't the only couchsurfer in the house. Fausto and Ana were from Colombia almost finishing their Brazilian adventure. Pretty much everyone spoke both languages so we were switching between Portuguese and Spanish in a funny way.

One of the main attraction of Foz were obviously the waterfalls and I couldn't miss it. I decided to see them only from the Brazilian side even though many people claimed it was better on the other side. After the recent floods some of the trails in Argentina were still closed though and including the prices of buses it was more expensive. I also didn't want more stamps in my passport I needed space for other countries. I went there with Fausto and Ana and it was absolutely worth it, especially the last part when I could nearly touch this roaring wall of water. Depending on the movement of the clouds rainbows were drawn and erased on the background of the furious river by invisible artists. Stunning view.

Antro C was such a chill out house that I actually stayed longer than I planned. And I'd love to stay more with that positive and intelligent people, but I had to go. I didn't have many deadlines during this trip, but Aileen now created one. I had to hitch well over five thousand kilometres in just five weeks if I didn't want to leave her with her plan B. And some beautiful places were probably on the way. After a bus ride to the main road I started to cross another natural border this time called River Paraná. After a year and a half spent in now familiar Chile, Argentina and Brazil I finally entered the territory of the country I knew almost nothing about. Welcome to Paraguay!

* Porteño - colloquial name for someone from Buenos Aires.
** Cerveja - beer in Portuguese.
*** Pedágio - in Portuguese toll.