Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Short the real

Why do we travel? My friend and fellow writer Ruby Murray told me she began a short story once with the question, 'Do we travel to lose ourselves or to find ourselves?' Good question. Or perhaps the two aren't mutually exclusive. Perhaps we try to lose familiar parts of ourselves in order to find unfamiliar parts. That which we call self can never be observed independent of environment, but we can perhaps infer it from that which remains constant when the environment is altered, like the centre of the kalleidoscope. Or, if you want to be looser, more inclusive about what constitutes self, you could call it the sum of everything revealed in the changing light of this kalleidoscope. Either way, travel reveals more of who you are.

It must be Germany doing this to me: turning me into an impenetrable philosopher. Verzeih! To backtrack: I had some hellish trouble leaving South America. I have the type of brain that is suited for looking down tele- or micro-scopes, not for managing anything as bewildering as everyday affairs. Travel just overtaxes my capacity for multitasking - I live in the continual anxiety that I've left some crucial bit of me - passport, money, iPhone - somewhere behind. I'm constantly frisking myself like a New York airport security guard. And then I'm amazed that somehow I've kept it all together despite my, er, limitations .

Until... I'm in Rio, ready to fly to Germany the next day, and look on my itinerary and notice I'm in fact supposed to fly from Sao Paulo. Now I definitely asked the travel agent to book me to fly from Rio, but I do have a faint hint of a memory that this might have been changed to Sao Paulo for logistical reasons. I have a brief moment of heart-lurching panic, before I realise that I can probably book a flight to Sao Paolo the next day at no great expense.

There's a sign at the hostel reception that says they can help with flight bookings, so I ask the receptionist, who is completely unsuited to the hospitality industry, if she'd kindly help me. She does that thing where she doesn't quite roll her eyes (though you can see the effort it costs her not to), then tells me to come back in fifteen minutes when she's had a chance to look on the website. I do this, and, upon my return she gives me that heavy-lidded lizard look and asks me what it is that I want now. Er... the flight? Oh, she says, why don't you do that yourself, and hands me the web address on a scrap of paper. And I'm paying European prices for this 'service', and a toilet where you still can't flush the toilet paper? If I was in arbitrage, I'd been calling someone and shouting 'Short the Brasilian real!' down my cellphone.

Instead I creep off to my overpriced quarters and try to book my own flight over the dialup-speed, constantly interrupted internet connection. Eventually I manage to find a flight that lands in Sao Paolo three and a half hours before my flight to Germany departs, which I figure should be plenty of time.

Curse the lizard-receptionist! There are two airports in Sao Paulo, and one isn't even strictly speaking in Sao Paulo at all. It's quite a bloody long way from Sao Paulo in fact. One does not necessarily realise this when one is browsing a Brazilian travel website with zero Portuguese at one's disposal. When I arrive in said airport, it is immediately clear something is wrong, because this sleepy, mouldering little place bears no resemblance to the mega-airport I remember passing through on my way to Rio. Still, I'm not panicking yet, because lots of cities have a couple of airports, and you can always drive from one to the other in fifteen minutes max. Right? Wrong. Once the person at information and I have established Spanish as our language of common incompetence, I learn that I can catch a bus, but it will take two hours and doesn't leave for another hour - way too late. Taxi then? Sure. She produces a card showing the price of a taxi to various destinations. Garulhos International: 330 Real. I do a double-take. Three hundred and thirty real? That's about $200, the same as my flight cost to this god-forsaken excuse for an airport. Short the real!

But I have no choice. My own stupidity has gotten me into this fix. I'm going to have to dig my way out with my own pockets. The taxi driver reckons he can get me to Garulhos in the hour I have before I'm supposed to check in, but the very lovely English-speaking lady who comes to my aid is less convinced. The traffic at this time is really bad in Sao Paulo, she says. Still, I can't miss that flight to Germany, so I have to give it my best shot.

Well the lady was wrong. The traffic is fine, just fine! We're making brilliant time. In the silence of our mutual linguistic incomprehension, my cares slowly lift from my shoulders. We have twenty minutes to travel fifteen kilometres. Easy! And then... the traffic. Absolute turn-off-the-engine-and-play-a-round-of-poker, Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down gridlock. It's a curious kind of tension that grows in a taxi in this sort of situation when neither of you can speak a word of the other's language. I'm sure the poor guy wanted to murder me for my tongue-clicking, seat-shuffling, fidgety behaviour. By the time we got to the airport I was so late I'd given up, but god bless South American inefficiency! Nobody even remarked on my lateness as I checked in, and then I found myself standing in the passport control queue for so long I could just about have walked from Rio. Two more disinterested, lackadaisical employees as these passport officers I haven't seen since... well, lizard-eyes the day before.

This being a Lufthansa flight, there are lots of Germans in the queue, who of course despise such inefficiency, and I hear one of them remarking, "This is supposed to be a developed country, but this is the worst I've seen!" But that's the thing. It may be trying very hard to look like one, but in no way is Brazil a developed country. You just pay developed-world prices. Like I said, short the real, because there's only one direction that currency can go.

1 comment:

jon bauer said...

Can someone who doesn't know which airport he flies from really throw stones at a country? Nice one, PNJ. I think we travel because we can't change ourselves, only our context. Which, as it happens, changes our experience of us. Happy New Year.