In addition to sightseeing, another unfortunate yet inevitable circumstance of traveling is falling ill. While well-equipped with antibiotics, my insight into Natal, capital of Rio Grande do Norte, has been limited to transiting between the bus station and my accommodation, and from the front balcony of my guesthouse to the toilet. I have had one uneventful night out. In my two days, I confess to know nothing of Natal except its lackluster downtown and a package tourism scene that attracts as many single men from Northern Italy as it does hordes of local prostitutes. The best result I could wish for in Natal was to wait for the Cipro to take effect and keep moving north to Ceará.
In winter, non-Brazilians flock to Ponta Negra, eight miles or so south of downtown, to enjoy the hollowness of this overpriced and over hyped beach resort. Ponta Negra boasts dozens of guesthouses, thatched-roof bars and souvenir shops along the shore to please the most mindless tourist. Other predictable amenities flourish. Hippie vendors hawk beaded necklaces and bracelets. An abundance of idle taxi drivers play dominoes shoreside. Tommy Hilfiger boutiques and real estate firms cater to ignorant Europeans interested in making this upscale abomination their second home.
The keen observer will note that Ponta Negra lacks one key element true to other vacation destinations: there are no joyful children here. Mom and dad do not bring the kids for a family outing. On the other hand, disheveled and topless youngsters criss-cross the promenade in search of spare change from tourists. Ponta Negra is a forest of balding middle-aged guys in search of what cannot or does not carnally fulfill them back home. The women are two-fold: staff for bar or hotel service and prostitutes. Decent single women in Ponta Negra are as common as a winning season for the Temple Football program. When dining alone on average pizza away from the bar scene, I actually encountered a blonde lady. Gorgeous, she was the far south of Brazil. So out of place she looked with long wavy, golden hair and the bluest of eyes, most of the restaurant staff spoke to her in English, taking her for German or Scandinavian. Otherwise, it was easy to determine she was not working among the male clientèle since she was not wearing a skirt the size of a paper napkin. Unable to take my eyes off her, I wanted to invite her to my table, but how do you do that without letting on you think she’s working?
I have made much mention about the Brazilian addiction to soccer. Well behind futebol is volleyball. However, beachside, Brazilians engage in footvolley. That is, they play two-on two volleyball without the use of their hands. If footvolley ever becomes an Olympic sport, it is best the IOC simply cancel the tournament and give all three medals to the Brazilians. This will save time, money and the effort of holding a tournament in the first place. Significantly more challenging and technically more difficult than both soccer and volleyball, you’d never know it by watching the pick up matches at night under the lights. The talent on display borders on the unbelievable, perhaps because these men do little else. Their dexterity and teamwork with instep, shoulders, and forehead produce points of over a dozen exciting exchanges and some can last over one minute each. Onlookers cheer for these slender, well-cut men, who become temporary stars and an exciting attraction for those unfamiliar with the game.
Ponta Negra’s night scene brings out the distasteful side in people. The Italians fly in for nothing else but their libido, arranged in advance before even arriving at Natal’s airport non-stop from Milan. Without them, Ponta Negra would be reduced to the likes of Virginia Beach in mid March. Vagrant street children fight for scraps, usually gristle and chicken bones, that foreign men with their dates throw onto the street. The women who accompany them also join in and take much pleasure from the suffering and misfortune of others. Watching the dining couples laugh at the spectacle brings me to a boiling point. Worse yet, one prostitute with her German rendezvous teased a boy of about six by dangling a piece of pork at him over the retaining wall of the restaurant from her table. As the helpless and famished boy reached out for it, she snatched it back out of her reach, much to her delight in a type of laughter that was almost evil. The whole scene made me turn around and concentrate on my beer.
“Hi! Everything going well with you?” I turned to my left and there she was. Maybe about twenty, her low cut blouse and exposed lacy bra were three sizes too small, greatly intensifying her already gifted features. She was an absolute knockout.
“Just fine.” A conversation could not hurt. Soon enough, my disinterest in her would send her away. I told her the common lines. Just got into town. Yes, I like Natal (not true). Just here for some fun (but not her kind of fun), etc.
As she wrapped her legs around my thighs, I looked straight at her. Simply a stunning girl. She could have anyone she wanted. Why resort to this? “Look, I now you’re a busy woman tonight, so if you have time, you’re welcome to grab a beer.” I pointed to the steel bucket of five bottles submerged in ice.
“Could I have a water instead?”
“Sure, that’s no problem.” She enjoyed that she could talk to me in Portuguese as opposed to having to pretend to understand English, German, or Italian. Her time being money, a German arrived who had shared her company the night before. I never even got her name. She latched onto him as Linus does his blanket. Right next to me, she spoke not another word to me and the two were gone not soon thereafter.
I grabbed the nearest taxi by having to walk through the middle of a woman spewing fire from her mouth and tossing lit batons in to the air.
Drained of strength, I have kept just enough in reserve to make it to the toilet in time without risking seriously negative consequences. A complete lethargy has seized my body and my joints ache as if suffering from arthritis. I cannot even make it to the nearby restaurant two hundred yards away. The mere thought of food jumbles my intestines. Not having eaten anything in twenty-four hours, my appetite is still on sabbatical. Jose María of the Pousada Ibérica has kept me company. A Spaniard living in Brazil for eleven years, we spend the entire day on the front balcony chatting about how Spain has changed in fifteen years, whether Real Madrid is as good as everyone says, and why Spain will never, ever win a World Cup. He disagrees with me on the last point, blind to the fact that when on the big stage, Spain just is not cut out to compete at the highest levels. Jose María has rejected the bustling Americanized life style Spain has adopted. We agree that the siesta is slowly disappearing in order for Spain to compete with the rest of the world.
“José María, when I first went to Spain, you people did not know what a fax machine was and e-mail was about as common as space travel for Bolivians. The evolution of your country has been remarkable.”
“Yes, but at what price? We are losing our identity.”
“Do you want to go back the way it was? You remember, the days when Spain was a second world country in Europe?”
“No, but I would like to have my afternoon nap like when I was a child.”
With my condition considerably improving but by no means 100%, the overnight trip to Canoa Quebrada was still not an option. The nine a.m. departure best fit my attitude and disposition. Confident enough to board a bus for several hours, Viação Nordeste had only a few seats left for Aracati just ten minutes before departure. The ticket agent placed me exactly where I dislike the most, but it was all she had available: left side of the bus on the aisle. In a perfect world, I take the window seat on the right side. I just have to look out the window to see where I am going. On an airplane, I am no different, particularly during take off and landings. The right side affords a better chance to view signposts and billboards with information about the towns where we are arriving. From the little I could see over the shoulders of a hefty grandmother, Rio Grande do Norte is dryer and the towns more distant between each other the further north one travels. Oil drills methodically rock up and down in order to keep Brazil a self-sufficient country with respect to its energy needs. Upper class Brazilians often boast of this accomplishment, especially to Europeans and Americans. But to what avail? What good is it to be independent of the Middle East when your own gasoline costs over $4.00 a gallon? Those at the lower end of Brazil’s imbalanced economic spectrum can take little advantage of prices that are out of their range to begin with. It is an example of the chasm between rich and poor in Brazil. To be self-sufficient yet charge exorbitant prices for fuel defeats the purpose of self-suffciency.
As the winter sun penetrates even the shades pulled over the left side of the coach, our driver has switched off the air conditioning for some mysterious reason. Within minutes, passengers have slid open the windows, but to the driver’s bitter disapproval. He has opened the door separating him from the cabin and barked out instructions for everyone to close their windows. It must be some company policy. Who knows? Who cares?
All obey the driver except me. The heat inside is intolerable. As we are in the tropics, there is no chance I will close my window no matter what. My insubordination has provoked the accompanying ticket agent to come out from next to the driver and take care of matters. He makes eye contact with me and motions for me to close the window. I motion back in the negative.
“You need to close it now!” This was going just the way I like it. The confrontation was inevitable. He knew by my appearance I was a foreigner and hardly expected some stern Portuguese back in his face.
“I’ll close this window when the air conditioning starts up again!”
He leaned in close to me and this grabbed the attention of the entire coach.
“Close it! It is against regulations to -”
“Please do not talk to me about regulations in Brazil! No AC, it stays open. Got it?” The agent only two feet from me leaned over ever so slightly to gain access to the latch. I impeded him without making contact. “No! This is not how you treat passengers!” My scowl sent a clear message. Any closer, he’d regret it. “I will report you to your bosses as soon as we get to Aracati!” I knew I had the rest of the passengers with me. They just weren’t brave enough to stand up to foolishness. Right then and there I wondered if this is a national character or just the set of circumstances on the bus.
The agent backed off. He returned to the driver’s compartment and locked the door to the cabin. Just then, every single passenger opened all the windows to the bus. Of course, when at Aracati to connect for Canoa Quebrada, my bag was the last unloaded and was tossed carelessly aside. I only wished my vocabulary had been better developed when I grabbed my pack and walked away.
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