RIDING IN KOMBI´S WITH MONICA
Trip Start Dec 01, 2002
24Trip End May 26, 2003
Leaving the cheerful people of Sao Paulo behind, I bused my way north to my second stop: Olinda. This is a town of 300,000, but its crazy Carnaval party is said to be one of Brazilīs best. The old townīs hilly streets of tight, bright-painted architecture become absolutely packed with people of every skin color enjoying themselves.
I was back here - Iīd missed Carnaval this year, shoot! - to visit Carmen and Rebekka, a family that rented out sleeping space to me and other travellers during Carnaval in Olinda 2001. Carmen, a small, short-haired older lady, had advised me and talked to me like my own Brazilian mother. And Rebekka was her empty-pan-stomached, dark "morena" (brown-skinned) daughter of eightteen years.
We were happy to see each other, and they rushed to show me the washing machine theyīd bought with this yearīs Carnaval money from travellers. It had been a dream of Carmenīs aching-back, clothes-wash-washing-by-hand hands to get that machine ever since Iīd known her. It was especially impressive since Carmenīs receptionist job paid her a mere 250 Reals (about US$75 or $80) a month.
Thatīs not so much money. Luckily, though, the rice and noodles and meat and beans and farofa (ground-up powder from the potato-like "mandioca") that Brazilians eat all mixed together, isnīt very expensive. And itīs yummy; Brazilian-style is the way to go.
Poor Brazilians are nevertheless just as cheery as any, I find. Hanging out for ten days again in Olinda was fun. Especially ... because there was a craaazy, totally wacky Canadian also staying in the house.
"Canadians are crazy," is an important theory I have. And happy, playful Monica, with a full-face-wrinkling-like-Winnie-the-Pooh smile, dorky glasses, and a body like a piece of string, was no exception.
Touring around the beaches and nightclubs surrounding Olinda, she and I rode in kombiīs. These things are vans which drive around the area picking people up and dropping them off for small fees. "Kombi-men" shout out their routes from moving vans like mad-men, and they get in and close the van doors with professional skill, even as the van might be moving. Monica would later develop a little "thing" for these sexy kombi-men.
However, seeing as how Monica and I spoke english together, the kombi-men were inclined to try and rip us off. Only, this never worked - Monica was a tenacious Portuguese haggler. In the end, Iīm pretty sure it was us who ripped off the poor kombiīs.
We went to the beach one day, and Monica made up a happy song about Brazilian foods which got everyone around us looking at her strangely. On the kombi ride home, Monica got an idea: "If people in the kombi canīt understand our english anyways, why donīt we just make up an even weirder language and see the reactions we get?"
And so it was.
We got in the kombi. Using South African-like? clicking sounds, I began: "(clic)(clic)(cleec)(cleec)(cleec)(cleec)(clic)."
Monica responded, "(clic)(clic)(clic)(clic), (clac)(clac)(clac-clac)(clac)."
We pointed out he window, laughed, and carried on. Monica said once, "(clac)(clac)(clac)(cleec), (clic) POHP! (clic)(clic)(clac)." The "POHP!" with her lips had caught me off guard, and I cracked up and started incorporating it in my language.
I varied things a little. "(clic)(clic)(clooc), (whistle-whistle) baggabajabagabbaba - (clic)(clic)(clac)(clooc)." And the strange language needed strange customs. I pounded my fist to my nose.
The unfortunate, other kombi riders werenīt even safe from us. Monica, using only clicks and motioning to where her watch would be, managed to learn what time it was from the quiet gentleman to my side. Later, she told me to inquire about the price from the kombi-man, which I could do by clicking and holding money. And even though Monica wasnīt allowing herself to speak Portuguese, this still didnīt stop her from arguing tight-fistedly about the price.
Adding a new, strange custom, I put my lips to Monicaīs forehead and blew. She didnīt seem to like this and so an angry argument ensued. By the second time I did it, she yelled, "(clic)(clic)(clooc)!" and slapped me hard across the face.
Without hesitation, I got up from my seat, shooed the quiet gentleman at my side to slide over to my spot beside Monica, and I hunched alone at the aisleīs end, arms folded and sulking. It was a pretty decent performance, if not disturbingly odd.
We arrived back in Olinda and went out that night with Carmen and Rebekka. In the steep, rock-road hills of colonial town Olinda, people marched serenely behind a small band playing samba and other musics.
Rebekka, in a group that performs traditional routines of dances local to Olindaīs state, Pernambuco, gave the foreigners a frevo-dancing lesson. To dance frevo - in the routines, Rebekka wore bright colors and twirled and umbrella - you wildly kick your foot out way to the side, shoot it back behind the other foot, and then kick your other foot out. Rebekka jacked around, looking crazy and fun.
Monica wouldīve needed about a year of lessons. She danced like an indecisive swan. It didnīt bother her that no one else in the Olinda street group was dancing, nor that she danced so bad. She danced frevo and looked like a ballerina learning her first move. Dancing samba or anything else, she took two steps in front followed by two steps in back and moved no other part of her except for her arms, not even her head. Samba-ing Brazilians usually move their hips and shake their feet more.
I told Monica she needed some arm muscles. Rebekka told of a Pernambuco dance routine in which a guy tosses around a large, limp doll - only to reveal in the end that the doll actually contains a thin woman inside. Monica wouldīve been perfect for that, Rebekka said.
All this bad dancing was making Monica hungry. "I feel like a meat-stick," she said, wanting a shiskebob thing sold on the streets.
"You look like a meat-stick."
We sat on a park bench to eat. Rebekka told of how she was studying for the "vestibular," a huge, competative test in Brazil that everyone has to take and do really well on if they want to go to university. Itīs especially tough for poor people. Rebekka told of her poor elementary school, where kids sat on the floor, teachers didnīt show up, and the roof was caving in.
On a sadder note than that, Monica decided she wanted to go dance in a club the following night.
On the kombi ride there, Monica, I, and the kombi-man danced in our seats. To the brilliant song that goes: "Tubarao, tubarao! Banhista! Sai da agua, vem para a orelha!" (Thereīs a shark, a shark! Swimmer! Get out of the water, come to the shore!) Monica asked if she could drive the kombi.
The kombi was sad to let us, along with a friend of Monicaīs, go at the dance club. It was to be popular "forró" music. Thatīs something like a faster American slow-dance, I guess, except with an extra step thrown in and a hop and a hip-wiggle to it. Itīs cool when you have rhythm with someone, but for people with no rhythm ...
I asked several Brazilians to dance with me, and I made it through the whole song with one of them. They said things like, "Nao quero mais," (I donīt want to continue with you.) and "Nao acerto o seu paso." (I donīt dance like you do.)
Meanwhile, Monica was asked by one man to dance. After a minute of forró, he tapped her on the shoulder, said, "Vamos danįar mais, mais logo," (Weīll dance more a bit later.) and winked good-bye, forever.
It was a pretty humbling night.
The next morning, we woke up at Monicaīs friendīs apartment, and Monica prepared french toast. Monica, for someone built like a string bean, ate like a monster.
She fell fast asleep on the kombi ride home - another thing that only she in Olinda had the custom of doing in kombiīs, and it sometimes caused her to miss her stop.
It was a fun stay in Olinda. Carmen and Rebekka are fine. And Canadians are still crazy.
Later, "Gabriel" (my second name, as Carmen and Rebekka call me because they canīt pronounce "Justin," and, for some strange reason, Monica calls me this too)
Much thanks to Carmen and Rebekka; and Monicaīs friend, Narra; for the places to stay!