By Dan Goldman
Com licença, moço aceita a massa ao sugo ou o frango assado?
I blinked over the top of my Delta Airlines menu: a young Diana Ross stood over me, a glittering queen in a crisp stewardess uniform, her hair pulled neatly back into a bun, her lipstick moist and perfect. Long-lashed almond eyes fixed on me with a purpose Americans interpret as “hellooo-there” but Brazilians simply call “good service.” I waited for the opening verse of “Where Did Our Love Go?” to escape her lips until she repeated the Portuguese phrase, the words fluttering out like multicolored birds trailing long ribbony tailfeathers. I used to eavesdrop on my wife speaking Portuguese to her family while still in New York and freely admit to getting aroused by the music of the language. Lil leaned in and translated for me: do you want the pasta or the chicken? “Oh. Ehhh… pollo” I said in Spanish; “o frango para ele, obrigada” Lil relayed politely to Diana in Portuguese.
At my feet, my old cat kicked against his soft travel kennel: this was hour three of a seven-hour journey, the longest confinement of his fifteen years. I knew he was hungry, thirsty, had to pee. He cried out a few times to let me know he was not-happy, but he was still better behaved than the rest of the babies on the flight. Maybe he wanted my chicken.
The meal came in a microwave-safe cardboard box but I was more interested in the trilingual menus and safety instructions in the seat-back pocket. I was relieved to find that I could stumble through a decent amount of written Portuguese that with my rusty español, though the spoken language still made very little sense to my ears. I read sentences aloud to Lil and she corrected me: our “d” is sometimes sounds like a “j” (e.g. city = cidade [cee-DAH-jee]), our “r” is an “h” (e.g. Rio de Janeiro is pronounced [HEE-oh]), our “t” is a “ch” (e.g. I love you = eu te amo, pronounced eyu-CHEE-yamo). I tried on my new consonant set as I walked back down the plane’s aisle from mens’ room, listening to people chattering around me. I could parse out a smidge more now.
It was probably in the middle of the airplane aisle that I had my first Oh-Fuck moment: oh fuck, I’ve really done this. I’ve deleted the New York City life I’d struggled for eleven years to build, and I’m gonna be on the ground in under four hours armed only with my boyhood Miami street-Spanish. I sat back down and my cat began to cry again.
The night landing at Guarulhos was uneventful, the customs paperwork already in hand, the nice ladies in the estrangeiros (foreigners) line at Immigration were all wiggles and smiles. They checked my visa, stamped my blue American passport without delay or suspicion and smiled big, wishing me a “Bem Vindo ao Brasil!” Lil was waiting for me on the other side with our seven baggage claim tickets.
A note here: Brazil is lousy with import taxes, especially on the consumer electronics the whole world loves but few here can afford. You get a pass at the airport to bring in up to R$500 worth of electronics before you must pay import taxes on the rest of your travel purchases, usually an additional 60% of the original retail price (save those receipts). That means a USD$500 iPad costs R$1.629,00 (about USD $950) even before the retailer markup. This is how the government encourages Brazilians to spend money on nationally-produced goods… but it just makes people cheat the system for the imported things they covet and can’t get locally. They become “sacoleiros”: at airport customs, you’re surrounded by these people, each one leading a caravan of multiple luggage carts loaded with suitcases full of new unpackaged goods purchased overseas. Sacoleiros claim these as “personal purchases” when everyone (including the Customs agents) know they’re to be sold locally at a high markup. It’s a dance the citizens and the government do because it’s illegal but everyone does it: you find a way to prove you’re telling the truth and they let you pass. It’s big part of the underground economy here.
Lil and I headed to Baggage Claim and strapped our seven suitcases onto two luggage carts. We’d moved to the country this way; these two carts represented everything we owned in the world. But when we stepped into line at Customs, we just looked like another couple of sacoleiros. On top of that, I’m a foreigner who stumbles through his answers to their questions in bad Spanish. They pulled me out of the line and ordered me to unpack the seven suitcases’ worth of our worldly possessions onto a steel table for them to inspect. Mind you, we’re moving house from the USA and I’m a digital artist by profession: I’m traveling not only with the multiple Mac workstations, a bag of hard drives/cables/adapters and the forty-pound touchscreen display that make up my studio, but also my PS3, my surround sound system, my HD video projection and a small selection of games and DVDs. None of these items are for sale. These were the things I chose to take with me as I started our new life, but in the eyes of Guarulhos International Airport, I looked like a fucking smuggler.
We waited. And we explained. We waited again. And we explained again. I think we sat leaning at the long steel table for over an hour in this giant terminal with conveyers belts and X-Ray machines and not a whiff of air conditioning. With the cat-carrier under my arm, I sat schvitzing suspiciously in front of the rotating customs officials like I had a condom full of cocaine shoved up my caboose as they repeatedly grilled us about our story. Wedge kicked fiercely under my arm, crying from the heat and the hunger and the general bad-trip fear vibes of the situation. Eventually we got through without taking that 60% import-hit on the contents of our former apartment, which probably would’ve broken the bank before we even left the airport; it must’ve been Lil’s twelfth patient explanation that did it as I couldn’t understand a goddamned word of the interrogation. Tossing our belongings willy-nilly back into our seven empty suitcases, we rushed out to meet Lil’s parents, who’d been waiting for us in International Arrivals since the plane landed two hours ago.
Rounding the corner out of the interrogation area, it was then I realized what Wedge’s struggling in his cat-carrier meant: after nearly twelve hours without food or litter box, he just couldn’t hold it anymore. The poor old baby’d pissed the carrier I’d been cradling under my arm, soaking the right side of my body. Through the sweat and stress of our drama in Customs, I hadn’t even noticed. We turned the corner into Arrivals and there were Okassan and Otossan, my in-laws, all smiles and love. It had been over two years since we’d seen each other and they rushed up to embrace their funky gaijin son-in-law. I put up a hand in universal “NONONONO WAITWAIT!” gesture but they pressed themselves against me, warm with Brazilian love and now with fresh cat urine.
I was here for five seconds and already I’m a complete asshole.
Next time: “Chove, Chuva”