“Which way now?”
When we’d set off just after sunrise, nobody in the tiny village where we’d spent the night had mentioned a fork in the road. Not the proprietor of the town’s only shop, where we’d splurged on a two-liter bottle of refreshing Guaraná Antarctica– ‘O Original do Brazil’ boasted the label.
Not the two middle-aged ladies wrapped in shawls who’d gotten up early to see us off. They’d bounded into our indoor campsite with smiles and steaming cups of overly-sweet coffee. We’d camped out at the local school. Pitched the tent right in the middle of the grade two classroom, amongst the child-sized desks and hopeful drawings depicting Brazil winning their 6th World Cup.
Our arrival, in this tiny forgotten village far from any asphalt road, had caused quite a stir. Not an Africa-sized stir with hordes of shouting kids and crying babies. But a dignified Brazilian stir…meaning kids strolled over to the cinder-block school to hang out and peek in the windows to get a better look at us–the crazy foreigners on bikes.
Adults dropped by to ask how it was that we’d ended up in their village, so far off the beaten track. Weren’t foreign tourists supposed to flock to Rio’s famous beaches and parade around the colonial cities of Salvador and Ouro Preto? Our hosts politely enquired if we were in need of a place to shower (we were, of course) and invite us for a meal (we didn’t decline). In this far-flung village, we were treated with an odd mix of welcome wagon friendliness and KGB curiosity.
Beyond the village there was just the road. It was a dusty red-dirt road, deeply rutted and surrounded by vast stretches of empty land. The last vehicle had roared by more than three hours ago.
By my estimates, we were stranded some 60 kilometers from the next village. 60 kilometers, that is, if we chose our path well. Our map was useless. We’d plunged off the grid into adventure.
Most adventures are nothing more than foolish expressions of self-indulgence by the bored and restless. Ours was no different. We were up for the adrenaline rush of getting lost in the middle of nowhere.
Reason assured me that our predicament wasn’t all that serious. This was not an extreme situation. Nothing like our ill-conceived plan to bike through a remote region of northern Kenya best known for tribal warfare between the Pokots and the Turkanas.
No, the backroads of Brazil are tame in comparison, like climbing the Cascades as opposed to taking on Everest.
Turning back was always an option. Well, unless your partner is as stubborn as an American pioneer heading west. Nope, I knew there was no turning back with my husband at the helm. Eric would wither up and die of thirst before turning back to the village and admit defeat.
A part of me thrived on the element of danger, however slight. Pedaling Africa’s rough pistes gave me a sense of purpose and genuine aliveness that I had missed since moving on to more subdued cycling in South America.
I was comfortable cranking out a 100 kilometers a day on Brazil’s busy highways, scrounging around for a safe place to sleep and then pulling myself out of the tent the following day to do it all over again. This routine had become my ‘day at the office’ and, in the end, left me restless and longing for more. Which, I suppose, had led to our landing at the unmarked fork in the road.
“We should definitely go to the right,” insisted Eric. “The tracks that way are much deeper. The other way probably just disappears into nothing or leads to some far-off fazenda. He spoke with the confidence of an aboriginal tracker, pointing to ruts in the road as sure signs as to the correct direction to follow.
I was less sure. Why would the road suddenly shift direction from south to east? Maybe we ought to just bide our time until a vehicle passed.
“Nah, we can’t sit around here baking in the sun using up all our water. Trust me, I’ve got a feeling about this. We should definitely turn right.”
I’d been hearing a lot about Eric’s intuition lately. Especially when I was nearing my freaking out threshold. “Don’t worry,” he’d say as the sun was sliding below the horizon. “They’ll be a farm up ahead. Trust me. We won’t end up camping by the roadside.”
And so far he’d been right. Just as that anxious tingly sensation in the pit of my stomach threatened to spring into a full-fledged freaking out, we’d spot lights on the horizon. We’d pull up to some lonely cattle ranch, blurt out our story and—this being friendly Brazil—be invited in to spend the night. Given a place to pitch the tent, and usually a filling meal to energize us for the next day’s riding. And I always got my shower. ALWAYS.
But still I was a doubter. It wasn’t exactly pessimism that afflicted me. More like a fear that if I got too comfortable with things always going my way, some terrible catastrophe would take me by surprise.
Reluctantly, I bounced along beside Eric on the road heading east. Apart from the tall sun-scorched grasses swaying in the breeze, there was an almost complete stillness about the place. Even the birds were silent and the land ached of an eery loneliness.
Just a month earlier we’d been pummeled by tropical storms, but now we were crossing country as dry as the Arizona desert.
We rattled along the trail for some time. I fretted about our depleting supply of water and anguished over the thought of a day without a shower. This would make a fine spot for a mountain biking competition, I mused.
And then, quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves in a cloud of dust speeding down a steep hill. At the bottom, a tropical oasis spread out before us. Graceful palm trees shaded the road, transporting us back to the lushness of Amazonia.
In front of us stood a rickety wooden bridge. During the rainy season, I imagined, a fast-flowing river raged below . But on that day, the river was nothing but a gentle trickle of water.
As several planks were missing and others badly worn, I tip-toed across. Safely on the other side and reassured by the fact that we’d stumbled upon a water source, a wave of relief swept over me.
We forged on and within minutes came upon a thatched shack by the side of the road. Out front a toddler dug in the red clay earth. A woman was busy chopping onions while two men lounged in hammocks.
“Boa tarde,” I called out. The men stared up in silence and the woman carried on with her chopping. It was the chilliest welcome I’d ever received in Brazil.
I blurted out some words which were intended to mean “Is this the way to the village?” It was a very approximate Portuguese, but I’d found that Brazilians are highly forgiving when it comes to bungling up their language.
A long silence followed, in which I wondered if the taciturn men were plotting some evil deed. We were, after all, two–quite obviously ‘rich’– foreign tourists stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were entirely at the mercy of the men and they knew it.
Finally, the younger of the two, a hard-faced man with leathery skin, gestured in the direction we were headed. “That way,” he grunted.
“Obrigada,” I muttered and hightailed it out of there. There are some people I’d just rather not get to know better.
The sun was a fiery orange and they air had taken on a refreshing coolness before we finally pedaled into the next tiny village. We had crossed paths with no one that afternoon.
Again, we were welcomed by friendly locals who opened up the school. We pitched the tent among the tiny desks and slept peacefully until morning when we got up, hopped on the bikes and headed for tarmac. We’d had our adventure fix, now it was back to the daily grind.