If you died in Brazil and went to hell, you'd have to go through São Paulo first.
It was so early that my brain has a hard time dredging up a lot. The airport was very lightly crowded, and we got our stuff checked in quickly while Daniel and Patricia waited outside the line. Their flight was due to leave later, so they had the pleasure of watching us go through TAM preliminaries.
We bid our sad goodbyes to the Cerqueira-bots, making them promise not to get kidnapped or anything. I also mentioned that should they happen to run into the goddess Iemanjá when they got back to Salvador, to tell her I had left the country.
Pettus had given me her library copy of John Grisham's Playing for Pizza, since she had finished it. It was short and looked like perfect airline reading. I was hoping for full diversion on the way to São Paulo.
The candy greeting was right on time. Jean and I had perfected [I thought] the multi-grab to get 3, even 4 pieces without looking like a front-loader excavating a foundation. I don't know how Jean scored, but I ended up clawing at the basket bottom for as long as I dared, and only coming up with two. My move was not slick at all. I felt the lardish buffoon as the white-shirt-blue-skirted-neck-scarf-wearing stewardess looked at me with thinly veiled impatience dusted with disgust. Probably no chance of getting a Bloody Mary out of her. I smiled sheepishly, hoping to prevent any lapse in service.
There were three of us on the row, and we were nowhere near any comfort zones in the airplane, so I buried my head in the book while Jean managed to alternately doze and read scandal rags until we landed.
One would think that Jean and I had learned something from our last experience at the São Paulo airport. But we didn't. So we all followed Robo through the same string of rumors about where the luggage was, and if it was indeed in the airport at all. We fell for a few of those, rushing through the place in a wiggly tandem, finally gambling on the luggage and winning.
And at last! Robo had found out where to go. It was like a glass mouse maze containing escalators and windows, windows, windows. When we got to what was supposed to be our entrance, I saw a horrified expression on his face as he was the first to realize that we were at the international departures section. WTF?? The SIGN had SAID Domestic Departures, I swear!
I can only remember his head, as if it were on a pole, sticking above the crowd and rotating like crazy. He finally pointed back to where we had come from and we all dashed after him. It was correct this time, but I could tell you nothing about anything, being as we were schlepping three uncooperative suitcases plus carry-ons, and none of them could speak Portuguese.
By some miracle, we found the place to check the suitcases (easy), and made it on to the waiting area to do some serious waiting. There were a bunch of international duty free stores. Robo scanned the area and turned to Pettus. "Step away from the shops," he said.
"I'm not gonna buy anything," she protested half-heartedly.
We wandered through the aisles, but there was really nothing of huge bargain status to buy. Not even liquor. Especially liquor. It was more expensive. Back to the uncomfortable metal chairs with an absurd back slant. I still would rather sit there as long as I could than be in the plane, and since we had reserved seats, I figured we'd make it, so I didn't bother to stand in the line.
Once aboard, we couldn't even see Pettus and Robo. Jean and I were in a two-seat configuration that wasn't that bad. There were no boxes and no third passenger. But there was no empty third seat, either.
Jean kept watching this group of French people who were obviously on some kind of tour. They had been rather vociferous and fun-loving in the airport, and made themselves known as a cohesive force immediately. The tour guide or leader was a chatty thing, and I noticed that she would talk to all the people in serving positions in a very French way.
"I wonder what she's up to," Jean muttered to me. "She keeps talking to that stewardess, and they keep pointing up to first class."
"I don't know," I said, knowing exactly what she was driving at. I almost wanted to avoid any hassles and stay where we were, but was dying to know what was up with the tour director's excited motioning to her group and their subsequent rush to the front of the plane. "Why don't you go and see what they're doing," I offered. If anybody could make chicken salad out of this chickenshit flight, it would be Jean.
"Okay," she said, and disappeared down the aisle, passing a man who had his head covered with a blanket the entire time we were boarding.
She returned in a hurry and breathlessly whispered, "Get up, we're going to first class. Try not to attract attention."
"What about Pettus and Robo?"
"I looked for them, but can't find them. And they're not in this section. We gotta go!"
I delicately and nonchalantly grabbed everything at lightning speed that I had already spread out all over our two seats and followed Jean up the aisle past blanket guy and hot on the trail of those brazen French. After busting through the hymen of First Class, Jean immediately sought out her brand new best friend the stewardess, who pointed to two seats that were across the cabin from each other. Jean took the one against the left wall, and I ended up in the very front seat on the right side. For first class, probably the worst real estate in the room. But who cared?
I settled into my seat next to a portly gentleman who looked like a businessman that would wield a lot of cash. He was very congenial, and I couldn't tell what his nationality was. I had managed to scarf three candies on the greeting out in steerage, and had them in my pocket. I tried to find some kind of position to read in for a while, and wrestled with the controls for a good five minutes while the executive looked at me with a bemused expression. After turning around three times like a dog does, I settled down and popped a candy into my mouth and picked up the novel where I had left off.
I let it dissolve in my mouth for as long as I could stand before I had to give it the bite. When my teeth came apart, something felt strange, but I knew instantly what it was: my freeking gold crown had come out of my lower right jaw. A lotta gold, I'll tell ya! And a great crown job, done in 1975. Probably 400 bucks worth of gold there.
I did my very best to not act freaked out, as I ate the candy surrounding the crown. This had happened before, and I knew that sometimes they can be put back in like a jigsaw puzzle piece, at least temporarily, and with careful chewing can work beautifully until repair can be made. This I did with little effort. I then turned to the large man and offered him my other two candies, which he took graciously.
He had meanwhile been having trouble with his chair controls, and called the steward to help. I looked around frantically to make sure there were other seats, because I felt sure that this was the ONLY paying first class passenger. I was in awe of his fine demeanor, considering he surely knew none of us hillbillies belonged there. Fortunately, he was able to find other arrangements, and as he left, he gave me a cheerful salute.
I settled back into my seat, placated by the wonderful re-fit of the crown into the crag it came from. I was still just waiting for some prissy head guy to sweep through the curtains and point to all of us, curse the stewardesses in flowery Portuguese, and throw us out. But it never happened, so I was free to fiddle with the stupid chair in peace.
The air began to hum with the vibration of breakfast! I don't know how, I just knew it! My virgin experience. I was trying to figure out how to say "eggs benedict" and "mimosa" in Portuguese.
I looked up and a young lady was handing me a box and holding a pot of coffee.
What? If I were Mr. Businessman, I'd be royally pissed off about this. But I could only smile at her, us both knowing what an airborne social climber I was. It was almost a condescending look she gave me, as if she had read my book of expectations and then set it ablaze right before my eyes. "Eu não posso ler o inglês," she spat, as the match reflected in each of her red fingernails.
"Obrigado," was my meek reply, as I took the box gratefully. It was the same stuff they got back in economy class. W T F?
Oh well. I ran through the contents voraciously and had two cups of coffee on top of that before I picked the book up again. My crown was acting as if it had never left its socket. Jean was asleep to my left. I pulled down the shade, spent 10 of 15 minutes adjusting the seat, put the book down and went to sleep for however long that would be. When I awoke, we were landing in Manaus.
I immediately began to feel guilty for having sneaked up to first class without Robo and Pettus. "Don't tell the Kennemers about our being up here," I said to Jean on our way out.
"Why? They won't care," she said.
"I feel bad about leaving them," I whined.
"Whatever," she tossed back. "I still say they won't care."
We were herded up a ramp to the luggage claim, an area about the size of a small meeting room, packed with humanoids. The conveyor stuck out of one wall like a giant silver fist. We looked over to see Robo and Pettus leaning over the luggage, Robo's face bearing the sinus expression. I was glad to keep my mouth shut about the first class upgrade after taking a look at him.
In true fashion, the Kennemers' luggage, both dainty pieces of it, came out within mere seconds of us bellying up to the belt. That seemed to bode well for Jean and me, being as we had been loaded close to the same time. But it was not to be. And why, I'll never figure out. Possibly because our suitcases were the largest ones on the conveyor, and caused it to groan in displeasure as it spit them out at us. By this time, the room was almost empty.
We schlepped our stuff out into the main lobby, which was lined with shops of all kinds and interspersed with bars and snack kiosks. Immediately, a tall black guy with beautiful dreads held up a sign reading "Anavilhanas Lodge" practically in our faces. How he knew it was us I'll never know. Once again, I'm sure Robo and Pettus were the tipoff. Jean and I look so international you can't tell WHERE we're from.
The guy smiled broadly, spoke stellar English with a cool accent, and gestured like a surfer as he told us we would be leaving shortly, but were waiting on one more passenger for the van to the lodge. He told us we had a little more than an hour, and suggested we eat and relax, that he would find us when the van arrived.
To the left, anchoring the whole room, in a place of honor next to the tourism office, was a Big Bob's Hamburgers! I was hungry as hell, being only tormented by the tiny suggestion of a breakfast.
We trooped over to the table area and immediately commandeered one, building a fortress around us with our luggage. Robo and I went up to get the food. The menu read just like something in America, obviously because WE are the king of hamburgers. We ordered various stuff, me getting some kind of burger.
Our faces must have been very interesting as we all took our first bites. Like Darrin trying to eat Samantha's cooking on Bewitched is what I picture. "Man, this is WEIRD!" I said. "It's got so much filler in it. Is there any beef?"
"I think it's soy," Jean said. Neither one of us stopped eating.
Robo and Pettus had gotten chicken. "Well it's kind of like a McNugget sandwich," Pettus said. "But it's not bad." Robo wasn't saying much, just looking suspiciously at his food.
"I think I'm gonna walk around," he said, getting up. "Can y'all watch my stuff?"
"I'll go with you," Pettus said.
"We'll watch the stuff," we said.
As they disappeared into the crowd, Jean and I ruminated on the contents of our lunch. The texture was like half-quiche, half oatmeal, kissed with the lips of a big beef cow. I had never experienced anything even close. There was no similarity to even a McDonald's patty. It was almost repellant. By then I had begun to wonder if it were some kind of special meat that only Brazilians can eat--kind of like drinking their water. It started to freak me out a little bit, but I kept eating the "hamburger" anyway. I don't need to be sick in the Amazon, I thought, reaching for the rest of Pettus' food.
Presently, Robo returned carrying a great safari hat with "Amazona" and a leopard embroidered on it. It was one of those button-the-sides things with the string to go under your chin. "I only paid 10 bucks for it!" he enthused.
"Where?" I shouted.
I was already headed down the left side by the time he had finished telling me. He was right! I got a hat like his but with a toucan on it, and a crocheted sun hat decorated with polished wood for Jean. Only 20 bucks for both!
We had more time left, so Jean decided to see if she could get some money from an ATM. AGAIN. I stood by her while she tried all the machines to no avail. There was a young guy and girl of undetermined nationality also having a go at getting something from the uncooperative machines. They were having no more luck than we were, and I made some kind of pithy comment about it as I was lurking around, then asked the girl if they were on their honeymoon. She gave me a strange look and shook her head.
We had been seeing them all the way from Rio to Manaus. Her boyfriend was carrying around a berimbau wrapped in brown paper, but there was no disguising what it was. Robo wondered what it was going to be like carrying it around all over Brazil.
Our greeter showed up shortly, and waved us to the curb outside where our van was waiting. He and the driver took care of all the luggage, managing to get it in with no difficulty. I was extra mindful of the carryon that had my Rio treasures in it, but all was handled beautifully. We had been waiting on an Indian gentleman to complete our group. When he got in, we all greeted him cordially. He responded in kind. His name was Rupi. That's what I thought he said. As it turns out, it was true. Like the money, but spelled differently.
Also in our van was the young couple from the ATMs. They were both camera-ready, the guy being particularly effusive, speaking in flawless English.
"I am Yavor. This is Natacha," he told us.
We began to introduce ourselves just as the van took off.
I knew we were going on a ferry, but didn't really grasp it when it was told to me.