I remember sitting outside my apartment in the Phoenix night, enjoying the cool air and listening to the steady murmur of the traffic on the highway nearby. It always reminded me of the steady murmur of frogs or crickets on a humid night in the mountains of New York—the voice of each individual frog, of each individual cricket, is swallowed up by the general chorus of which it is a part. It reminds me of the din you hear at a party—or any large gathering of people—with all the voices contributing to a common mood and expressing it in a slightly different way. It’s the sound of nature, of life, of creatures and humans. Sitting here on the eleventh floor of an apartment building in São Paulo, I’m listening to nature again, and scouring the horizon, taking it in with my eyes. As far as I can see in any direction are twenty-story apartment buildings spiking up out of the steep hills—and countless highways cutting between them, the traffic running like blood through the veins and arteries of São Paulo, always loaded with cars, always contributing to the general din, to the murmur of nature in this city of eleven million.
São Paulo from the sky
It’s much more than anything I’ve ever seen. People live their whole lives here and necessarily see only a sliver of the place. Its sheer size is intimidating, but beautiful at the same time. I remember the flight in. It seemed that everybody but me spoke Portuguese on that plane, that lovely sing-song language, and it was then that I got my first taste of what it’s like to be a foreigner, to be deprived of my mother tongue, to be immersed in a place utterly remote to my previous history. But it was just a taste—the kid next to me spoke English and he told me all about São Paulo—he was the son of Japanese immigrants to Brazil. And I listened to his stories and to the musical chatter of the children around the plane while their parents were fast asleep on the overnight flight. I hadn’t packed until the night before, and of course I’d had to see my friends that night too, so I wound up with three hours of sleep heading into a 22 hour flight (with layovers). As always I couldn’t sleep on the plane, and by the time I arrived I was delirious. I found the other Americans easily—well, one of the girls from the organization that arranged the exchange program found me easily, I should say… she spotted me and corralled me over to the other Americans. She had a paper with all of our photos printed on it to help her find us… like a cop looking for fugitives in a crowded airport. We waited around in the airport for a few hours, all of us totally drained, having been awake for roughly 24 hours a piece. I was dazed, and making stupid jokes with the other Americans, making them laugh at my nonsense. I wandered off and got a chocolate milkshake, fumbling through the process of ordering it, sucking it down quickly and then heading back to the group after eavesdropping on some conversations that were about I know not what. We exchanged US dollars for Brazilian reais and caught a bus to the business district, where we’d stay for our orientation into the program.
The bus-ride to Avenida Paulista was about forty minutes long, and it was nice to sit in the back of the bus—silently, away from the others—and to watch the scenery unfold outside my tinted window. Some new trees and plants, different logos on some of the automobiles, some differences in architecture, but more or less, from that seat, it looked like any other city I’d seen—people everywhere, bustling along through their lives, through their days, doing whatever it is that they need to do. I slept for a few minutes, and then we arrived. When I got a chance, I wandered around the streets nearby our hotel, groggily mumbling a few words of broken Portuguese to a vendor at a newsstand. On many of the newsstands around that part of the city they sell Aristotle, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter S Thompson, Freud, etc—I was so pleased!… and I bought copies of a few of my favorites at cheap prices (around US $5-$10 each), resolving to read them to help me learn the language. And I wondered why don’t they sell these books at the newsstands or convenience stores back in the U.S.? Ech—maybe they do, but not Phoenix, and certainly not in the countryside of upstate NY, the land of my childhood.
The two day orientation went by quickly, and none of us got much sleep. Each night we’d drag ourselves around the Paulista neighborhood, tasting the Brazilian drinks and the Portuguese language, tired out from the jetlag and the late hours. But soon enough I was in my home of the next six months—on the eleventh floor, like I mentioned already. I remember the first full day here. I was going to learn the routine—see how to get to school, where to buy food, where to have a drink, etc. My room-mate, Gino Fazzi—a Brazilian, whose grandparents had emigrated from Italy—showed me the bus I needed to take, and we got off the bus right nearby the campus, but we both had time to kill, so we went for a stroll to get some coffee. The coffee here is stronger than drip coffee in the U.S. but weaker than espresso – and it’s served in a little cup, 5 ounces or so. But Fazzi got an orange juice instead and was disgusted with its flavor. He has high standards though, for juice. You can get delicious, fresh squeezed juice at little cafés and shops all over the city—and at the open air markets you can find fresh squeezed sugar cane mixed with fresh squeezed lemons, or mangos or apples, or any sort of fruit you like— delicious!… take my word for it.
In any case, Fazzi headed to work, and I headed to class. There’s not much to say about the first day of class—you know how it goes, it’s the same with any class— lingering in the classroom so as not to waste the time. Well, I shouldn’t say that though, the first day is important for getting to know the teacher and the other students. After class, I walked to the bus stop to head back to the apartment. Then I realize that I don’t have the slip of paper with the directions that Fazzi gave me—No! But, I remember the bus I took to get here—its name, and its number—so I just figure I’ll take that. I meet a kid at the bus-stop reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and I talk with him about Dostoevsky for ten minutes before his bus comes, and off he goes. I never encounter people reading Dostoevsky in the U.S., and certainly not Notes… at least not at bus stops. A pleasant surprise indeed!
Anyway, I sit there for 40 minutes, and I never see the bus—not once! I did see a bus with the same number and a different name pass by, but that’s all. And here comes that bus again with the same number but a different name. I hop on—close enough, eh? I ask the driver a question about where the bus is headed, but he doesn’t understand a word I say, and he shoots back a question at me and I don’t understand a word he says. I just sort of shrug my shoulders to convey my indifference, pretend as though I know what’s going on, and head towards the back—there’s no seats because I’ve waited around for forty minutes and now it’s rush hour, so I stand there slopping around the bus because it’s lurching so much—it’s all over the road, and this driver really doesn’t care! He’s screaming around corners and tailgating motorcycles, slamming on the brakes so as not to kill them when they don’t speed up. So many hills in São Paulo too—they must have built the city on a mountain range!—that didn’t help the smoothness of the ride either. Most of the bus drivers are pretty tame, but this driver was a madman, I don’t know why he was in such a rush. The bus ride seemed to be taking much longer than the ride to campus in the morning—this was due to rush-hour traffic, as I know now, but didn’t know then, but should’ve known then—so I got off at a bus stop with a nice big platform, and tried to figure out what’s next. “What to do?” I’m thinking to myself. “I don’t know… I don’t have a clue!” I see a Walmart nearby—“ech! They even have these wretched places here,” but I head in that direction anyway—at least it’s something familiar.
I didn’t have a cellphone, but I did have Fazzi’s number, so I figured I’d go into Walmart, buy some socks and some food, and then use a payphone to call Fazzi and figure out where to go, what to do, etc. The place wasn’t much different from any other Walmart I’ve been to. A few different products for sale, different foods, etc, but the same place overall. I scarfed down some fruit and chips and peanuts—I was really hungry by that time, and I headed out to the payphones—but there were no payphones, at least none that I could find. Payphones all over the city, in unusual little post-modern, egg-shaped booths—but none when you need them! Eh, no big deal. I thought to myself: “I’ll just head back towards the bus platform, and figure things out from there. Maybe I can figure out how to borrow somebody’s phone… just gotta find the right words, but that’s a real task without English.”
About 50 yards from the platform, the sky opens up and the rain just falls in torrents… it’d been drizzling for a good hour, but now it was ridiculous. I didn’t even run to the platform, I just continued in my long-legged gangly stride. Nearly soaked by the time I got there, I sopped down into a seat… everybody else was standing because the seats were soaked, but I didn’t care. No problems here!… so I’m soaked to the bone, and a bit chilly on top!… so I don’t know where I am in a completely foreign city!… so I have no telephone to speak of!… so I don’t know the address to my home here in Brasil! No big deal! The rain is still coming down like mad—at least I have certainty with that. I’ll just wait it out here, and when the rain lets up, then we’ll see—this is what I’m thinking to myself. The rain is coming in sideways now, and the little old frail woman standing next to me puts her umbrella sideways and tells me and another woman to get behind it… beautiful! I couldn’t understand her words, but the hand gestures made it clear what was what. The little old doll gives up some space behind her umbrella to us, what a sweetheart! But soon the rain lets up, thankfully, and I ask the woman how to get to Barra Funda station—I had remembered Fazzi saying something about Barra Funda being a possible way to get home, so I figure it’s worth a shot… I don’t know where I live, so I can’t ask them how to get there! She points me in the direction, but I’m not exactly clear on which bus stop I’m supposed to wait at. The rain starts up again… she gets on her bus… and I’m still sitting there, shivering by now, looking in the direction that she pointed me towards. Finally I just go. I plow through the rain—it’s not as bad as it was thirty minutes ago when it started anyway. At the bus stop, I see the Barra Funda bus come down the road, but it only stops on the other side of the road. I chose the wrong spot. I’ve got to find a phone and call Fazzi!
But then I see the bus that I took in the morning—same name, same number—approaching my bus stop… I hop on with haste and grab a seat. This bus takes me clear back to the school campus—I guess it only goes one direction! I go and sit at the bus stop and the sky opens up again… soon enough there’s a small river flowing down the street… the tires of the cars parked on the curb are almost totally submerged in the filthy water, and it’s flowing down the hill with a fury, collecting all the bits of trash and filth that accumulate on the streets of any city… soon the sidewalk is completely swallowed by the stream, and I’ve gotta stand on the seat of the bus stop so as not to get my feet soaked. Two girls come running down the hill, laughing, and take cover under the bus stop. I immediately ask them if I can use their telephone—the one gets a smirk on her face and asks if I speak English—I do, and I guess my Portuguese isn’t too pretty either, seeing how this was her reaction. She lets me use her phone. I call Fazzi and he tells me which bus to take. It was the same bus that I took earlier—the one that I took to Walmart, the one with the same number but a different name. What a laugh I had then! Wandering around for hours… speaking gibberish to people… following instructions to a bus stop even though I knew full well that I didn’t understand the instructions… and the whole time I had taken the correct bus to begin with! Well, now it was time to head home, and I sat back down to wait for the same bus I already took. The girls took off after I used their phone, darting under the canopy of some restaurant, waiting a few minutes and then continuing down to the next canopy, trying to keep dry, but getting soaked nonetheless. São Paulo: the city of rain… every day with a nice downpour in the afternoon! (for the summer season anyway.)
Finally my bus came… I tried to leap over the stream to get to it, but it was pretty wide, and my left foot landed right in 4 inches of water, filling my shoe with the stuff… meh, a little more water, that’s all… I hopped on the bus, my left shoe making all sorts of squishy noises from the water, and by this time the bus was pretty empty—it was well after rush hour. I dropped into a seat like a corpse, exhausted from the day’s trivial ordeal, and checked my pocket for the keys to the apartment. And what do I find, but the directions that Fazzi wrote for me earlier that day, with the name and number of the bus I was currently on… I had a good chuckle then. As usual, I have trouble keeping my head straight about the simplest things. No big deal! It was fun to wander around in a strange place talking to people who I couldn’t understand, and slowly making my way back home through the wet. I slept well that night—worn out from the sleep-deprived flight, the reckless nights during orientation, and the rainy rainy day.