Boardinghouses and Dancehalls

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio Grande do Sul,
Saturday, October 30, 2010

I took the overnight bus from Chui to Porto Alegre.  The bus left Chui at 11pm and arrived at 6:30am in Porto Alegre on October 27.  

I don't know exactly why it is I decided to stop in Porto Alegre for a few days.  I'd heard that there really wasn't anything to do there and the main reason travelers pass through is because it's a large enough city where you can make a connection to all other points within Brazil from there.  It seemed like most everyone on my bus was also traveling/backpacking but I was the only one who stayed in Porto Alegre - most of them went to Florianopolis and a few went directly to Rio de Janeiro.

OK, I'm lying. I know exactly why I stopped in Porto Alegre. It was because I had not planned on going to Brazil at this time and I was a little dazed/confused. Originally, I was supposed to go back to Argentina (after seeing Uruguay) so that I could head down to Patagonia - but the Brazilian border was so close to Punta del Diablo that I thought "Why shouldn't I go to Brazil now?" So long story short, I went to Porto Alegre because I had no idea what I was doing - and since it was the largest city in the southernmost state in Brazil, I thought that I would hang out there a few days so that I could really try to get myself together and figure out what I wanted to do and see in Brazil.  I did have some sort of plan based on my conversation with Tio Mingo (remember that from a few entries back?), but most of that stuff was around and north of Rio de Janeiro - I couldn't just skip the whole southern part of the country, right? There had to be interesting things to see.

Anyway, I am writing this entry about a week after I left Porto Alegre and I've got to say that in hindsight, I am so glad that I stopped there. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's get back to the story.

When the bus stopped in Porto Alegre, I woke up a little disoriented because I didn't sleep well during the trip.  The bus station in Porto Alegre is kind of huge and a little overwhelming (even at 6:30am when it was relatively quiet).  Luckily I made a friend in Chuy who lives in Porto Alegre.  He was this Peruvian dude getting some graduate degree in Porto Alegre and he had to sort out some visa issues at the Brazilian Consulate in Chuy (which is where I met him). It turned out that we were on the same bus to Porto Alegre so when he saw me walking around in circles in the bus station that morning, he stopped to help me figure out what I needed to do and where I needed to go.  Isn't it good to know that there are still genuinely nice people out there?

Once I found my hostel (yes, another hostel - I've resigned myself to the fact that while in Brazil, I have to stay in hostels because it's just way too expensive here), I rang the bell.  Actually, I rang 5 different bells.  I checked and double-checked the address of the hostel but the place just looked like an apartment building - there were no signs anywhere indicating that there was a hostel there.  Just as I was getting ready to ditch the hostel and find a hotel, some dude came out of the front door of the apartment building.  I instinctively asked in Spanish if there was a hostel in the building.  He gave me a confused look.  Duh - Spanish and Portuguese are two completely different languages.  Then I showed him the hostel info I wrote down in my notebook - with a phone number - and he was nice enough to call the number to ask what the deal was.  Seriously - how nice are people here?  He talked at his phone for a bit, then chuckled, and said what I think was "wait here, someone will be right down".

I was a little confused and it really didn't help that I was very tired.  I later find out that the place wasn't really a 'hostel' in the traditional sense.  It was more like a boarding house where a whole load of people actually lived (12 of 14, maybe?), and the owner decided to advertise some empty beds as hostel accommodation.  This is why there was no signage out front.

But...and this was the reason the guy at the door was chuckling at his phone...the reason why no one was answering the door was that I was A DAY EARLY.  By that I mean, I made a giant mistake when I booked the bed online.  The owner was not expecting me that day, so she was not home.  Anyway, I finally did get in - there were two people in the house (both living there) who were kind enough to let me in and show me my bed.

Needless to say, my already-tired brain couldn't process what was happening.  I had already adjusted my expectation to hostel-level accommodations - but I hadn't expected on sleeping in a bed in a room where 4 (yes FOUR) other people lived in full-time.  Not sure if my description is conveying the feeling I had when I got into the place.  But it was totally weird.  (Sidenote to PA: it kind of felt like that night at NYU so many years ago, remember that?)

After I put my stuff away in a corner of the room, I had to get out of the apartment to clear my head.  I really wasn't sure how the next 3 days were going to play out. It was all too weird.  I walked around the old part of the city and it helped quite a bit.  Porto Alegre didn't seem to me very beautiful (compared to, say, BsAs) but there was something about the town - some sort of energy - that made me want to stay for a little while.  At every other corner, there was a cultural center or an art gallery or a (good) used book store or a small non-chain cafe/bar.  What it lacked in apparent beauty, it made up for in personality and charm.  My initial thought about the city was that it was a 'smart', hardworking city; it somewhat defied one of my archetypal expectations of Brazil - that of it being overly superficial and obsessed with appearance - shows you what I know about the country, eh?

Later in the evening, I went back to the 'hostel' because I was so tired that I had to get some sleep.  I ended up chatting with several of the residents as well as the owner.  I think only two of the residents spoke any English and another two spoke Spanish.  I was the only 'hosteler' staying there for the next 3 nights.  In the room I was staying in, there was a couple (I think they were married) where the dude was getting some graduate degree in Political Science and the woman was studying to be a teacher.  In another room, there was an older guy whose parents were Lebanese they but immigrated to Brazil before he was born.  And there was another lady who looked my age but I think she said she was 50, who I thought was born-and-bred Brazilian (i.e., glamorous looking black lady), but I think she spent a good chunk of her life in Israel.  Then there was the owner (she looked eerily like Michelle Obama) who held a desk job with the Federal Police.

After chatting (as well as I could in Sportugulish) with the folks who lived there - I realized that it was not weird at all(!)  I even got a crash course in basic Portuguese in the process.  As I was drifting off to sleep that evening, I reminded myself of one of the things I wanted to get out of this: to see how people live outside of my own world; this strange arrangement made it possible for me to experience life in Porto Alegre secondhand by virtue of living with this lovely group of people for a few days.  I slept pretty well, which was amazing given how I felt earlier that day.

The next day, I did some more sightseeing.  I hate to say it, but there really wasn't much else to do in Porto Alegre.  I was done with the sightseeing at 6 or 7 in the evening.  Apparently, the best thing about Porto Alegre is its nightlife - but I'd been trying to cut down on this because I went a little overboard in BsAs and I knew that the road up the coast of Brazil was going to be pretty boozy, so I decided not to go out and spend any more money on what I would eventually just piss away.  Plus, honestly, it was a lot more fun drinking and hanging out with the folks at the boardinghouse/hostel.  I did pick up a bit more Portuguese that second evening.

On the third day, I decided to take a daytrip outside of the city. I went to a couple of towns (Gramado and Canela), which were about 2 hours away from Porto Alegre.  These towns were up in some mountains where there was also a national park.  I'd been itching to go see some non-beach nature after spending close to 4 weeks on the beach in Uruguay.  There's more on this in the pictures section.

On my fourth and final day in Porto Alegre, I just walked around town some more.  The town is supposedly soccer-crazy because its team is some sort of world champion on some international league (I know nothing about soccer), so I decided in the afternoon to park at some neighborhood bar where some games were on TV.  About 3 beers in, it became very entertaining to see the entire bar go insane every time a shot was made at the goal (is that even correct soccer terminology?).  I headed back to the boardinghouse/hostel later in the evening to pack up my stuff and get ready for the midnight bus to Florianopolis.

After I'd packed my crap, I asked the owner if it was safe to walk to the bus station at that time of the evening (I'd heard that after dark, the area around the rodoviaria was a little sketch) and she told me not to worry about it - she said that she and her boyfriend would drive me there.  And before dropping me off, they would take me out for Samba.

The story picks up in the pictures section, but I've just got to say that it turned out to be an amazing night.  The couple who lives in the room that I slept in also came with us and it was a lot of fun.  It wasn't just an empty night of binge drinking - I think I only had two beers - at overpriced, overcrowded bars. We went out to something totally different.  Near the soccer stadium, there are a bunch of dance halls that had all kinds of music, including Samba.  We went to a few of them and I was so sad when 11pm rolled around because I knew it was time to head back to the bus station.

They did drop me off just a few minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave.  And I've got to say that, so far, these are the people I have been most sad to leave behind. I was surprised at how sad I was when the bus pulled away from the bus station.

But that's the way it goes, I guess.  Onward I go.


Reading list: While in Porto Alegre, I stopped in a used bookshop where they had maybe 30 books in English.  I picked up the only non-Danielle Steele/Dan Brown/etc. book. It's called Man and Boy by British author Tony Parsons. It's kind of interesting. Nothing I can really relate to, but it's good, light reading.  And it's in English, so yay.

Playlist: Jens Lekman.  I rekindled my man-crush on Jens Lekman on the night bus up from Chui to Porto Alegre by listening to his entire back catalogue. Click here and here and here for samples. Can't wait for the new album to come out.

Until next time.

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