Keith Irwin

Altamira

Apr 20, 2014

Brazil, Hitchhiking, Travel, Latin America 2014


This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

April 20

In the morning, I got up and stood by the road with my thumb out. I was aware of the distant roar of a highway, until I realized that there was no highway, except the one I was on. So what was this noise? A few drops of water landed on me, and then a lot more. I dropped my pack and started rummaging for my emergency tarp, which was on the bottom, so I had to take some other things out first. The rain came so quickly, that by the time I had the tarp out, it was already pouring. I had to scramble to throw my stuff and self underneath it. I crouched over my backpack with the tarp draped over me, but it was so thin, I could feel every drop as if there was no tarp at all. It rained so hard that the water streamed down the road and formed a river along the curb. I had to tuck the edges of the tarp underneath myself to prevent my things from getting soaked from below. I wasn't sure how long the rain would continue, so I put my bare arm out of the tarp so passing trucks could see that the orange blob needed a lift. 

After about ten minutes, the rain stopped as rapidly as it had started. I repacked my bag and tied the wet tarp to it to dry. A short while later, I got a lift with a friendly trucker. 

This driver took me all the way to Rurópolis. After arriving, we stopped at a little store and got coffee and bolas. Then I said goodbye and continued on my way. 

A photo of a muddy road near a town
Where I hitched out of Rurópolis

I had to walk through an ocean of red clay-like mud to get to the road out of town. Normally I go to the end of a town to hitch a ride, but in this case, I didn’t want to walk through endless mud, so I put out my thumb in front of a mechanic’s shop. 

There were some trucks going by, but I got a ride with two young men on motorcycles. The one who gave me a ride seemed to think it was cool to pick up a traveler. I talked to him briefly on the back of his bike. “He’s North American!” he hollered to his buddy. 

A photo of a muddy road in the jungle
The Transamazonian highway

They went a few miles to a farm and I said goodbye. I waited for quite a while there. I expected traffic to thin out as I got further from Rurópolis, and I was right. While waiting, I realized that my tarp was still quite wet and I'd might as well dry it out in the sun while I was standing around. I trudged through some mud to a wooden fence post and took off my pack. I carefully untied the tarp without letting the pack touch the ground. Then I swung the tarp high up onto the post, but the end was sharp and pierced a hole as soon as it made contact. To add to my bad luck, a wooden box truck stopped shortly thereafter, so I had to trudge back to the post and retrieve it anyway. 

The driver had a woman in his passenger seat, but signaled that I could ride on the truck. Actually, I'm not sure if he meant that I could ride on top of the box, or if I could climb up and drop down inside the cargo hold. I wanted to ride on the top, so I clambered up. The box was mostly empty, and the roof was a series of uncovered wooden slats. I tied my backpack to one, so it hung down into the hold. Then I sat on a sturdy-looking plank and held on. 

A photo of a wooden bridge over a high stream, taken from atop a truck
Crossing a stream on the truck

The road was bumpy, and the rocking of the truck was magnified where I sat. I held on to my seat. There was jungle on the left and jungle on the right. The sky was blue and the palm trees were green. The road was a reddish brown mud, full of potholes. We passed under a powerline which nearly decapitated me. I assured myself that I would pay more attention and duck when I saw another one. But I got distracted by the scenery and was nearly clotheslined by the next one too. This happened again and again, as I never noticed the wires until I was underneath them. Fortunately, they were all high enough. 

The driver turned into a side road next to a large field of bulls. I was about to complain that he should let me off, but I realized it was a driveway and he was parking. I untied my pack and dropped to the ground. Thanking the driver, I prepared to say goodbye, but he invited me to supper. 

In Brazil, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and people only eat a snack in the evening. On this particular day, it was Easter, which is probably why an especially large table was set for a great meal. I met other members of the family, as word spread quickly that a foreigner was coming to supper. There were about a dozen people there, and I told them about my travels as my Portuguese would allow. 

I remember seeing a calendar on the wall, and was surprised that the days of the week were not similar to Spanish. The words for ‘Saturday’ and ‘Sunday’ are ‘sabado’ and ‘domingo’, as in Spanish, but Monday through Friday are literally called “second-feria” through “fifth-feria”, respectively. 

While we were waiting for the meal, I was offered a glass of milk, which I accepted, though I am not a big fan of milk. The glass of white liquid which was offered to me was the single most disgusting thing I have ever drank. Never again will I accept a glass of milk on a farm. It was sour and had yellowish globs of fat floating on top, as well as thick, chunky parts under the surface. I wasn't under the impression that I was being fooled, as nobody watched me drink it. Therefore, I was careful not to express any disgust. I'd been offered a piece of cornbread too, so I took a bite of bread after every swig of milk to absorb the aftertaste. I had to ration the bread carefully, because I had more milk than bread. 

A goat kept wandering onto the patio, until somebody would shoo it away. 

In conversation with members of the family, I learned something of the farm. They had more than a hundred cattle, but also chickens and cacao trees. I said I had never seen a cacao tree before, and had only eaten processed chocolate. So I was led to one in the yard. The fruit is speckled yellow-brown, grooved, and oblong. Inside a thick yellow casing, was a series of pods with white goo. The dark brown seeds were encased in the goo. I was told that I could eat the goo, so I pulled a bit out with a finger and tried it, as did my hostess. It was thick with a hint of orange. The seeds cannot be eaten, and must be roasted and processed to make chocolate. 

Finally it was time for supper. I was informed that the chicken and beef came from freshly slaughtered farm animals. Everything was delicious! Country folk do not usually have a lot to talk about, so today, I was the hot topic of conversation. They mostly referred to me in the third person, and I interjected with answers occasionally to show that I understood (whenever I did). 

After the meal, everyone slowly settled down into hammocks to rest. I was kind of tired, so I laid on a bench too. After a few hours, I woke up and stretched. It was getting late. I sort of hoped that I could stay the night, so I could shower and wouldn’t have to camp again. But I wasn’t invited, so I said goodbye to everyone and walked down the driveway to the main road. 

It was late afternoon, around four o'clock, and I was wondering where I would be able to sleep. But I was well-fed and couldn't worry about a thing. I sat on my bag and waited for a car, since there was no traffic on this dirt road. The air was fresh and humid. The world had a bright, vibrant appearance: a blue sky overhead, red road below, and green fields and forrests around me. Maybe, if the sun set, I could return to the house and ask to sleep on their porch in case of rain. Surely they wouldn't have a problem with that. I watched a butterfly dance around me. 

Suddenly, I saw a yellow land rover appear. I put out my thumb, but it passed. To my luck, however, it stopped afterwards and drove backwards toward me. I grabbed my sack and jogged up to it. Inside was a guy and a girl and they asked where I was going. The question was a matter of formality, since there was only one way to go. “We can take you to Altamira,” the driver said, clearing a space for me to sit in the back. 

The driver was a doctor and his girlfriend was a nurse. They both spoke good English, better than my Portuguese, so I was relieved from stumbling through their language. They had gone on a road trip for the weekend, just for fun, and were on their way home. When asked how old I was, I said I was twenty-four. The guy and his girlfriend were a little over thirty. 

“Thirty!” I exclaimed. “So you guys are married or what?” 

They chuckled sheepishly. 

“No,” the guy said. “Not yet. But maybe someday. Someday, I will ask her to marry me.” He grinned. “She is a nurse, and I will need someone to bathe me when I am very old.” He laughed heartily. She just looked at him and smiled. 

A photo of a man with the author, smoking a cigarette in front of a yellow land rover
We stop for a cigarette

The ride to Altamira was long and bumpy. The driver told me about Altamira's flooding problems. The government insured the houses for everyone who lived there, so when they flooded, they were rebuilt exactly as they were. And the next year, they’d flood again, and more taxpayer money was thrown into it. 

I was invited to stay at the driver's house. I was more excited to use a shower than anything. I told my him I'd left my towel behind, and he gave me a new one. It seemed a little small, and after I got out of the shower, I discovered it was a t-shirt. It was a cool t-shirt though, meant to raise awareness about dengue fever. 

There were some hammocks hanging in a carport behind the house, and I slept comfortably in one. 


RurĂ³polis Altamira Firehouse