Traveling in Brazil with pouco expectations and muito joy

We have only been in Brazil for two days so far, but my initial reactions are joyous. That's partly because this is such a great place and partly because, just before leaving the South End of Seattle, I took the Art of Living Course at the University Heights Center. The first thing they taught us was not to have expectations. The instructor pointed out that, "Expectations take the joy out of life."

So, for instance I didn't necessarily expect our luggage to arrive on the plane with us. After all on a former trip to South Africa, my suitcase was five days late. I wasn't particularly concerned that this time our luggage took only two more days longer to get here than we did.

All right, maybe it's impossible to expunge all expectations from your brain. Expectations crop up persistently as dandelions on the lawn. Although it is nearly impossible not to have expectation, the level of joy or disappointment you feel correlates inversely with the level of your expectations. In the case of so-called "developing world" travel, my expectations are based upon a lot of difficult experiences, the likes of which have not yet cropped up in Brazil.

Last year, for instance, my husband and I took a tandem bicycle journey in India, similar to the one we're on now: our goal is to circumnavigate the globe in segments to promote our dream of a world parliament elected by the people. The people of India loved us and were very good to us, but we stuck out like a big sore double thumb everywhere we went. Imagine being the only woman in the country who wears pants. Women in India wear saris for everything from working in banks to hauling rocks on road crews. But I wouldn't be caught dead riding a bike in anything but pants, let alone something resembling an evening gown.

In Curitiba, Brazil, women wear pants almost exclusively. Clothing styles are at least as informal as Seattle's, and women don't seem as hung up on modesty as they were in India. So no one takes any notice if I joyously expose a few skin cells to a bit of fresh air.

Then there is the matter of language. Of course, I procrastinated and didn't try to cram in any language training until after I boarded the plane at SeaTac. Language study is a good way to spend 25 hours of dead time in flight.

My self-study course in an Asian language like Hindi was a pretty hopeless effort. Hindi is based on Sanskrit afterall, and its beautiful ancient letters register upon my aged, untrained brain as meaningless squiggles. With Portugese, the language spoken in Brazil, I have a better chance.

When I was in high school, the system wisely deigned that I study two years of Latin. Because Portugese is a Latin language, I was better able to cram in enough to get by. After I ask someone a carefully rehearsed question, I can sometimes even ferret out a word or two of the person's rapid reply, at least enough to guess at the general gist of their meaning. Because my expectations were based on last year's trip to India, I have found communication in Brazil to be pure joy.

Another joyous aspect of Brazil is its diversity. One reason we looked so out of place last year in rural India was because Caucasians rarely show up there. However, here in Curitiba, Brazil, I feel less of an oddity than I do on the No. 7 bus in Seattle.

Curitiba has a wonderfully diverse population. No one even notices us. Even though it is way down here near the bottom of the earth, Brazil is still America afterall. So its demographic history followed a pattern similar to that of the United States. Back before the 1500s there were only native peoples living here. Then along came the greedy Eropeans, in this case Portugese bandeirantes, bent upon extracting Brazil´s natural resources and selling them for profit. First the Europeans tried to enslave the insufficient supply of native Americans who, of course, were unwilling to cooperate with the game plan.

So the Europeans started capturing African slaves to work the sugar and coffee plantations, bringing them here by droves. A lot of Africans also resisted enslavement and escaped into the Amazon jungles. More than 700 Brazilian towns and villages surviving today began as settlements built by escaped African slaves. Much later came other groups of European immigrants such as Germans, Italians, Poles and more. As a result, it's pretty easy for us to blend in, at least until we board our tandem bike and start pedaling down the coast road.

A particular hazard of looking out of place and linguistically confused in India was that we were harrassed by scam artists called touts. Those were weird characters posing as "helpers" who wanted to take us on tours or to expensive hotels and receive kick-backs from sleazy proprieters. So far, in Brazil we have not yet been targeted by any opportunistic crooks of any kind. We just walk peacefully along the streets with lots of other pedestrians enjoying the beautiful parks and clement weather.

The image of happy pedestrians calls to mind an aspect of Curitiba that vastly exceeds even the expectations of our comfortable life at home in Seattle. For a couple of decades, Curitibans wisely elected as their mayor an enlightened city planner named Jaime Lerner. As a result, Curitiba is a well planned city that manages its phenomenal growth around an excellent transit system. A carefully designed system of wide "trinary roads" stretches out in all directions around the city's core. Each of these roads has separate protected bus lanes. Passengers pay their fares and access buses from tube stations at the edge of the bus lanes, so the buses don't have to pull off into traffic. When one of these long, doubly articulated buses stops at a tube station, dozens of passengers can get on and off within a few seconds.

The buses travel quite fast and can get you downtown, or to any part of the city, within minutes, faster perhaps than in your own automobile. The result is fewer cars, smoothly flowing traffic and virtually no traffic jams. Cars are not even allowed in the central core of downtown Curitiba, except in a separate lane for making deliveries. Instead, the entire downtown area serves as a huge pedestrian mall full of shops, sidewalk cafés and beautiful parks with huge tropical trees. When the mayor first introduced the no cars ruling, downtown property owners and shop keepers reportedly complained, until their sales figures skyrocketed. Seattle could learn much from Curitiba.

But what has exceeded my wildest expectations so far is the relative dirth of litter.

Curitiba´s streets aren't nearly as littered as Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Seattle, let alone India. Curitiba is a remarkably tidy burg. And besides being fairly clean, the place is quite green. It has lots of grass, trees, plants and flowers. The green of surrounding hillsides is decorated with colorful neighborhoods with Spanish tile roofs. Even so, I caution future visitors not to expect Greece or Italy. There are reminders of South Africa in Curitiba: here and there are some hastily built houses, walled compounds and barbed wire fences. But these "third world" trappings are few enough to leave the city with an overall sense of freedom and joy-at least for one whose expectations were modest from the start.

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