After all the news about riots and demonstrations in Brazil, I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous. I’d traveled to some regions with moderate unrest, but I hadn’t willingly planned a major trip to a part of the world where news stories were illustrated with robocop uniformed policemen and hundreds of thousands of people protesting the exact event I was attending.
When we got there, reports on the news couldn’t be farther from the truth. We spent most of our time in a northeastern city named Natal, population 1M. It reminded me of a laid back Miami, with beautiful coastal views,magnificent bridges and a cosmopolitan downtown. Traditionally a Brazilian travel destination, it’s possible we avoided the protests because the residents seemed genuinely thrilled to welcome international visitors to their paradise. I spent a day or two on high alert (typical for me in a new place) then quickly realized that I could let my guard down.
We ventured out to the beach without locking our balcony door. We flagged down cabs. We acted like tourists. We never did stop wearing the passport belt. Old habits die hard and I’d like to avoid the experience of trying to get back into the USA without the proper documents.
The people I met from Brazil were kind and happy and welcoming. Even when we were butchering their language, they smiled and nodded and pointed and repeated and repeated and repeated in Portuguese until we understood. It was the first time I’d traveled somewhere and not felt the judgement of being American. Maybe their judgements are reserved for closer continental rivals, but we didn’t encounter the typical reaction to our nationality.
So. Fast forward to our last day in Natal. The cab, arranged by our hotel, picked us up at 3AM and we started the hour-long drive to the brand new airport. When we’d landed, nine days earlier, you could still smell the fresh paint. En route to the airport, we passed bars and restaurants still busy from the previous night. We left the main city and started the drive through the small, quiet areas of town….run down apartments, seedy hotels, boarded up shops. The city looked a lot different in daylight on our drive in the opposite direction.
The airport is far. Eventually, the road becomes a well lit highway, but to get there, cars must navigate on unlit country roads that are hidden from surrounding pockets of life. We were about 40 minutes into the drive on one of these unlit roads and our driver, who had been passionately talking to someone on his radio, pulled over. Full stop. Side of the road. Dark. Two lanes. No lights. No cars in sight.
I don’t really remember much.
I’m told he said words. ”Happy news, portuguese, portuguese, portuguese. Happy news.”
He nods his head up and down.
He gets out of the cab (OUT OF THE CAB) and walks behind the car (IT’S PITCH DARK) and out of sight.
He attempted to sound comforting, but I could only hear the voice in my mind preparing me for the worst. ”This is how I die. It’s been a good run.”
I didn’t remember any of those pieces of advice that people, especially women, read for situations like these. I just sat there.
I look over at AC who also seemed to be preparing for death.
I figured that the worst scenario was that our driver had been paid to leave us there, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn around and look. Not really wanting an answer, I asked AC, “Is he still there? What is he doing?”
He had the better seat in the current situation, but at first wasn’t able to see much.
"I don’t know."
"I can’t see."
… ten seconds pass *feels like three hours*
"Oh. He’s just splashing water on his face"
HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. ARE YOU KIDDING ME. Pulse racing. Leaky eyes. Short breaths. Blood sugar doing who knows what.
He did seem tired. The rest of the drive wasn’t something I’d like to repeat anytime soon either.
We made it to the airport safely and neither of us talked about what happened for a couple hours.
In my life, that was the first time I felt fear of imminent death. Here’s hoping it is also my last.