Its dark out and I’m waiting outside an upmarket shopping mall for my Uber to arrive and take me back to my hostel in Villa Madalena. It’s the middle of winter in Sao Paulo and freezing outside but not a fan of complaint and misplaced entitlement I am grateful that the icy air is doing its bit in keeping me upright until I reach my bed.
When I landed in Sao Paulo the extent of my planning was one lonesome AirBnB reservation for the first night. I was fed up with the amount of energy I had expended in life and in work up to that point, and so before I left South Africa I made the decision to just go with the flow, to not be tied down with non-refundable deposits and tourist trap package deals and let spontaneity rule. As I have learnt in my travels the last twelve months there is an upside to this approach, the unpredictability of things roots you in the present which makes the experience richer, and it also opens up those channels that allow for some really spectacular travel moments to come across your path.
I arrived at Sao Paulo-Guarulhos International after a pleasant nine-and-a-half-hour flight from Johannesburg. As the plane ascended on the coastal Brazilian city the sun had started to set in the distance, towering skyscrapers scattered like concrete headstones as far as the eye could see.
There are various well established modes of transport from the airport to the city suburbs and in the days leading up to my arrival in South America I thought I had amassed enough information to equip me to get from A to B – after all worse than arriving late at night anywhere, is doing it in a country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t want to rack up roaming charges just to book an Uber ride. It was a bit of a challenge, not even broken English was on the menu where the locals were concerned, signage was in Portuguese too. I feel it necessary to point out that I typically do brush up on the local languages before I travel, however in this instance I didn’t know I was going to be travelling through Brazil until a few days before leaving South Africa. My eventual aim of getting to the Amazon had me tossing and turning about which South American entry port to choose quite a bit. In the end the cheaper, direct flight won over the longer, more expensive, multi city flight between Johannesburg and Lima.
I circled the bus terminal a few times hoping the half-understood advice from various porters and security workers would get me to the correct bus, but alas psychically willing people to help me didn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t concerned or flustered, I was just happy to be in the position to be able to make this incredible journey. Freezing on the tarmac outside the terminal that night because I had underestimated the weather with swarms of people hustling around me to get to their destinations speaking to each other in a language I didn’t understand reminded me of the way I felt when I arrived in the UK at the tender age of nineteen – finally independent (what teenage angst?!) inspired and alive. As if the world was mine for the taking.
Eventually I slipped into what seemed to be the right queue for the bus that would take me to my accommodation in Tatuape. After the bus ride there was also a five minute Uber after some locals advised (gestured at) me that waiting for the connecting bus in that area was unsafe. A five minute drive turned into thirty as the driver got lost trying to find the poorly signposted address (this by the way is where I learned the meaning of ‘tranquilo’ for the first time!). The AirBnB accommodation was modern and clean and my friendly host respectful of the fact that I just wanted to sleep off the day’s travels. As to what would happen the next day, and the days subsequent to that, was anybody’s guess at that point.
In the months leading up to my departure from South Africa I joined an online community of people who all have budget travel in mind and it was one of these connections that came knocking the next morning. He was a local from Sao Paulo and he was inviting me to his home on my second day in Brazil to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony. A seventy-something year old curandera from Peru was in Sao Paulo facilitating a few ceremonies using Fernando’s home as a base and he knew from our conversations throughout the year that my journey was interwoven with a long-time interest about this ancient medicine I had first come across twelve years earlier whilst living in London.
I arranged for an afternoon check-out with my AirBnB host who happily obliged, and after receiving some impromptu Portuguese tutoring from her I was on my way to Barra Funda across the city. Uber Pool (where you share the car with other passengers going in the same direction, thereby halving the cost) being uber popular in the city, I confidently sat back and took in the late afternoon sites as my driver navigated the peak traffic. We picked up a thirty-something travel enthusiast, who picked up from my ‘Hello’ that I was a foreigner. She was very excited to hear about how my story had led me to South America and soon we were chatting away about her career as an engineer in the city and her dreams of breaking free from her nine-to-five life to fulfill her wish of travelling the world.
I was grateful that we had crossed paths, she acted as translator between myself and the driver who, you guessed it, had gotten lost. It was now pitch dark and I was already an hour late, I also needed to draw some cash. Bianca without hesitation routed us to a twenty four hour supermercado and accompanied me to the ATM – she was weary of me drawing cash at night on the street as I stood out like a sore thumb with my pink hair and fair skin. Although I am extremely independent and quietly bad-ass, I really appreciated her help.
We exchanged details before saying goodbye at her destination, and the driver and I drove off into the night with some stern words in Portuguese from Bianca as to the route to follow to get me to my destination. We then got lost a few times again. Eventually, after guiding him with left and right hand gestures and a close eye on my zoomed in GPS (and complete disregard at this point for the roaming charges I was racking up), with a “Pare aqui, por favor” we stopped abruptly in a dodgy looking cul de sac. Gangs of young men were standing around with drinks in their hands up and down the street, dogs seemingly without owners were milling around looking for scraps and attention, and Fernando’s triple story house was here at last. Or at least the current version of what looked vaguely like the one I saw on Google Earth a few minutes earlier.
I arrived as my host and his housemates were at the dinner table finishing their very vegan dinner. We sat at the kitchen table trying to make conversation, Fernando the only one of the six or so inhabitants who spoke some English. After he finished his meal he offered me a cup of tea, suggested I get some rest before the start of the ceremony at eleven pm and with that ushered me into a store room showing me a mattress on the floor where I could sleep.
As the rest of the house retreated to their bedrooms for their pre-ceremony nap, I wondered whilst I was laying there in the dark firstly what I had gotten myself into, and secondly what undisclosed ingredient the tea I had been drinking contained, for I seemed so mellowed out that I was dreaming before having fully fallen asleep. I lay with my eyes closed in this dream-like state until the time came for the ceremony.
Fernando seemed to be missing in action, so I followed everyone else into the ceremony room (a converted lounge at the front of the three story house) and picked one of the mattresses which had already kindly been laid out by someone whilst I was resting. The mattresses were arranged in a circle. In the middle of the room was what looked like a small shrine, candles lit, flowers and pebbles arranged around it.
The ceremony, which lasted six hours, was beautiful. The group made music using various instruments and the vocals carried us through our journeys to where we needed to go and back. When the sun started rising we settled in to get a few hours’ sleep. Once I was rested I freshened up and amid rolling waves of gratitude, hugged Fernando and bid the house adieu. It’s hard to describe the sensation I was experiencing then, I wanted to get out of there and into the streets (into life!) as quick as my feet could carry me. I decided to hail an Uber – so to speak- to a hipster hostel in nearby Villa Madalena, the artier side of the city. Arriving way too early for check-in at nine am, I left my luggage in the capable hands of the Brazilian-Chinese Die Antwoord-fan behind the desk and took to the streets feeling inspired and hungry.
After having some fantastic homemade pecorino and walnut pasta from a nearby eatery, I spent a couple of hours chatting to friends back home on Whatsapp. My energy grew steadily into fatigue and with the weariness of the un-dead I checked into my room at noon. I knew when my head hit the pillow that there was some much needed restorative rest on the way. Two days later (no exaggeration here) I woke up with resolve and set out to book my ticket to the State of Amazonas.
To get to the Brazilian Amazon is easy but it isn’t cheap. I spent hours online to try and find cheap deals (try Despagar if you are ever in that neck of the woods) but was coming up empty, the fact that I wanted to travel the next day was counting against me. At a local mall I spent hours standing in airline office queues hoping to get a cheaper deal on a one-way flight to Manaus but alas, a positive attitude and a patient smile wasn’t enough for the universe to give me a break. I decided to call it a night and to succumb to the very expensive online ticket I reserved the day before, deciding to book it first thing in the morning. As luck would have it just as I was about to head home, consolatory ice-cream in hand, I was drawn onto a strange Being John Malkovich-ceilinged floor and spotting a nondescript travel agent, said a prayer and took a leap. Thirty minutes later I walked out with a ticket to Manaus at half the cost of the online offers caveats not withstanding. I didn’t mind the four am start nor the ninety minute bus ride that I had to take to get to Congonhas one bit, I was just grateful for the saving and that I was inching closer to the jungle.
*Courtesy of nationsonline.com