No, I’m not currently travelling in South America for the World Cup (which is a pity), but I do have a few stories to share. Here is the first one from Brazil, more stories from Uruguay and Argentina to follow…
I was hungry and hungover as I hurriedly boarded the early morning bus to Porto Alegre with the intent on travelling to the capital of Uruguay that night. I had been a little slow in getting my morning organised, partly due to a hold up whilst trying to pay the hotel bill, but mostly because I was still drunk from last night’s frivolity at the local Karaoke bar. The walk to the bus station did little to clear my head, and a disconcerting wave of nausea flooded over me. The ancient vehicle, which was packed with a bewildering assortment of pungent local farmers, shuddered and jolted along the highway southwards. I closed my eyes and thought of England.
No, really, I did.
I had recently gone on a quick trip through England before setting out for South America. It had been a charming two-week mini-adventure which had included stays in Liverpool, York, Sheffield, Cambridge and London. It had been totally hassle-free and I was usually made to feel at home wherever I went. The English still consider all Australians to be quaint colonial cousins and I’m glad to say the welcome there is always a warm one.
And so, the thoughts of green meadows, rainy days and cricket soothed my hangover long enough to reach the bus terminal at Porto Alegre without an incident necessitating the expulsion of my breakfast. The outskirts of the city were shockingly congested with fume-belching cars, overcrowded public buses and groups of desperate vagabonds picking their way through the rubbish-strewn streets for food and anything of value.
My headache had grown to epic proportions during the trip, encompassing my entire cerebral cortex and had reduced my brain to nothing more than a throbbing jellyfish. Worse still, there seemed to be other jellyfish joining the party. I was really feeling the effects of last night’s beer, which had obviously contained far more nasty chemicals than I was used to. Particularly the last litre.
The bus arrived in Porto Alegre bus terminal and I made a beeline for the nearest drug store. My general appearance and a very descriptive mime was enough for the man behind the counter to comprehend that I currently had a headache so intense that it made an unanaesthetised frontal lobotomy look like a spa treatment. I swallowed a few pills with a little water and tried to re-hydrate as much as possible without creating a fountain of jet-propelled pharmaceuticals. I parked myself in a quiet corner and waited for the drugs to kick the jellyfish out of my cranium.
An hour later, it was time to attempt to negotiate a bus ticket to Uruguay, and what better place to do that than in a crowded and grubby bus terminal filled with loud and agitated travellers all trying to get somewhere else before Christmas. Outside the terminal, the temperature was rapidly approaching the forty-degree mark, and as my head continued to throb, I approached the staff sitting behind counter of the major bus company operating a service to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and attempted to organise my onward travel.
“No tickets today, Señor”, shouted the first man in my face, as if he knew that my brain was quivering at every syllable above half a decibel.
“None at all? When is the next available connection?” I asked.
“Until December 30th. No more, phphphphtt”, he replied articulating the last word with a flapping hand gesture which seemed to indicate that all of the remaining tickets had somehow spontaneously flown off into the sky. My jellyfish began to pound on the inside of head at this piece of news and rather than face the prospect of being stuck in this shithole for another week, I persisted and decided to put all of the my business negotiation skills to good use.
“Bullshit, really?” I said in not so many words. I told them it was absolutely vital for my future well-being that I reach Montevideo as soon as possible. This kind of approach always works well in Berlin, but did little to expedite the enthusiasm of this particular bus company staff member. I motioned to the man that perhaps he should ask the other agent who was currently picking his nose on the other side of the small office. This appeared to work and as the two of them huddled over a computer screen, there seemed to result a satisfactory consensus between them which signalled to me that perhaps there was a chance after all.
“There is no chance, Señor.”
The search for a bus to Uruguay continued throughout the afternoon with similar results.
There were several bus operators offering the kind of southward travel that I was interested in, but apparently none for the rest of the year. By now, the jellyfish was demanding to be let out of my head, and I was about to give up and collapse in a despairing heap in the middle of the busy bus station when a nice staff member grabbed my arm and guided me towards the first bus company counter I had tried earlier. One of the operators, still speaking on the phone, but not picking his nose, motioned for me to wait as he concluded his seemingly delicate negotiation.
“Tomorrow you go, yes?” he beamed at me holding his hand over the receiver. I nodded enthusiastically, which was a mistake in my current state, and the man finished the call and replaced the receiver with a flourish. I thanked the man profusely and almost jumped over the counter to give him a hug, but I had to make do with hugging the nice staff member instead.
I finally had a way to get the hell out of Porto Alegre, it now only remained to find a hotel for the night as I waited for the bus. After a short rest and lunch in one of the small, greasy food stalls in the bus terminal, the jellyfish in my skull had shrunk enough to allow my own thoughts to have a little personal space for themselves. It was time to leave the bus station.
Only a few metres across the main road which separated the bus terminal from the rest of the world slouched about a dozen crack addicts. Their bloodshot eyes swivelled vaguely in my direction as I passed. Some of them were awake, others were unconscious nearby, their bodies turning bright red as they lay in the full glare of the midday sun. Several of the junkies were having lunch — a small lump of dirty crack heated over the flame of a lighter on a makeshift receptacle fashioned from a piece of used aluminium foil. This sight shocked me, and the intense heat made my head throb once more. I wasn’t in any danger as the junkies were too busy smoking their drugs to worry about a passing foreigner with a jellyfish in his head who was wondering if crack would cure a headache.
I was quite keen to move on and get a good hotel in which to find refuge. Several signs for cheap hotels dotted the sidewalk, and I entered the first reasonable-looking establishment with the hopes of getting a quiet room for the night. It was a seedy looking place, with a musty smell that lingered in the corridors like an elderly guest who wouldn’t leave, and the carpet looked worn and stained. At the direction of the receptionist, I peeked into a room, and then another, and noticed that each double bed was neatly made up with a towel, a bar of soap and a several condoms neatly arranged on the pillow. My slow and sluggish senses had by now processed what I had initially assumed to be a musty smell in the corridor and connected the odour with more deleterious activities. It smelt like dirty sex and nasty drugs, or vice versa, I wasn’t sure. As I looked at the strangely aligned pattern of the worn carpet, which could have only been caused by the relentless traffic of high-heeled shoes, I realised I was standing in the middle of a brothel.
I left and tried another hotel on the next street with the same result, except this one charged by the hour, not per night. Then I continued north and finally found a reasonable room in a reasonable hotel in a reasonable part of town and slept until the next day. The jellyfish in my head disappeared and I was again a normal human being, or the closest approximation thereof I could manage given the circumstances.