Friday, February 13, 2009

Off the Beaten Track

One of my trips to Brazil took me to a little town called Joinville in the Santa Catarina region of the country. When I asked the concierge what sights the city offered to enliven a Sunday afternoon, he wrinkled his nose. “Joinville isn’t really a tourist destination,” he said.

Sometimes those are the best tourist destinations of all.

You find yourself acting like a funky-looking local. You wander the mall, eat at a churrascaria, visit the local zoo-park. The concierge has warned you the place doesn’t have many animals, but you find animals that don’t reside in your local zoo. You watch mothers bounce their babies in their arms and you learn the Portuguese word, arara, for a bird that looks like a parrot but maybe is a distant cousin. The mother says this over and over: A-ra-ra, a-ra-ra, a-ra-ra. You learn with the baby. You don’t know the word for the bird in your own language, but now you know it in a foreign language. There’s no translating. Now you speak Portuguese. Disney World has never done that for you.

You follow couples and families and gaggles of teenagers, winding into deep green rain forest, staring up at trees with leaves like fans. You look at the plants growing beside the road and recognize some you have blooming in pots set on your windowsill. Here your potted plants grown to the size of trees. You only know two or three words in Portuguese so you can’t ask where you are or where you’re going. You can’t check how long it will take to get there or what to expect when and if you arrive. You can only live in the moment, be in the moment, experience what is, without expectation.

At the end of the road, cars line the shoulder, umbrella shaded stands sell lemonade, bottled water, and Guarana, the Portuguese version of Mountain Dew. You hand over one of your bills, five reais, and you hope the coins that the woman drops into your hand are the right change because it’s embarrassing to peer at each little coin. You tilt your head, your eyes rolling up toward the sky as you try and count each piece of copper and silver to see if you’ve got the right change back. You take your drink and climb the spiral stairs to the top of the world where you can see rolling carpets of green, rivers spilling into the sea, mountains swirled in mist, the sun slipping between blue sky above and blue water below. Looking straight down makes you dizzy, so you peer at the horizon and know that tomorrow will find you, right where you are, wherever you are.

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