Off the Beaten (Brazilian) Track

When asked which side of the road Brazilians drive on, one must in all honesty reply, “Both.” Drivers weave from one side of the road to the other avoiding potholes and each other in an intricate samba guaranteed to age the uninitiated. In true Brazilian style, all of this takes place at speeds as high as the condition of the road allows. It must be admitted, however, that with death appearing to be imminent those speeds always seem magnified.

Outside of the major cities, most roads have only two lanes. Road washouts may reduce that embarrassment of riches, leaving only one lane for both directions of traffic. Some washouts have been there so long that grass has grown up on the verge. At others, asphalt curbing has been built along the bitten out section of road as a concession to a sheer edge. No attempt, however, has been made to return the road to its original two-lane status.

Even major highways are only marginally better cared for and are often afflicted with terminal potholes. When our guide told us a 25-mile drive would take two hours, it sounded unbelievable. It was. It took two and a half hours. The roads had been rutted, gouged and cratered by heavy freight-hauling trucks, thrill-seeking passenger cars, and busloads of cowering tourists.

But avoiding potholes, and racing each other to be the first to cross a one-lane section of road, is not exciting enough for Brazilians. They throw enthusiastic passing into the equation just to keep vehicular matters exciting. The neatly painted lines that, in the United States, tell drivers when it is (and is not) safe to pass, are non-existent in Brazil. If they did exist, they would probably be ignored. To Brazilians, passing is a matter of individuality, personal judgement, nerves, luck and prayer.

By observation, one has to assume that passing is allowed any time, any place, on any road, of any width, in any condition (both driver and road). That includes the curving, mountainous roads in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais. To pass, a driver simply pulls out, straddles the spot where a center line should be and floors it. If a speeding Mercedes truck appears around the bend in front, the passing driver may have time to pull back onto the right (meaning correct) side of the road. If he doesn’t have time, the vehicle he is passing may move over a few inches to the right and the hurtling Mercedes may obligingly shift slightly to its side of the road allowing the passing driver (and his passengers) to live a while longer. God forbid a pothole should intervene in the path of any of the three drivers at this point.

Sometimes passing drivers do not engineer their own third lane in the center. They simply pull onto the other side of the road, gun it, and leave the rest to fate. Several times one morning our bus driver (on his side of the road which, at that moment, happened to be the right side) faced off against a passing driver coming straight at him–and us.

Our driver refused to give.

The passing driver seemed to be daring him to move over.

Our driver refused the dare.

This even became too much for the Saint Christopher on the dashboard. He crawled into the glove box. And there was no glove box.

Fortunately, for all concerned, the passing driver finally realized he was in the presence of a set of stronger nerves than he possessed. He pulled hurriedly back into line on his side of the road just as we whizzed past. Our driver seemed not to notice. Those of us in the front of the bus, however, carefully pulled our nails out of the upholstery.

Most of the bus passengers, lacking a glove box to crawl into, took the only option open to them. They moved back in the bus, the philosophy being that what one couldn’t see was less dangerous. Faulty logic, perhaps, but it did put less strain on the adrenal glands.

My trip to Brazil, in 1992, was made in the company of a group of dedicated rockhounds on the inaugural Brazil Gem Tours led by intrepid guide, Sara Mount. As any rockhound can tell you, no visit to a mine is complete without a ride over a really bad road. In Brazil, the term “really bad” can take on a whole new meaning. We discovered that Brazilian highways were feats of engineering excellence compared to the road to the Golconda Mine.

Sara explained that the road to the mine was too narrow for the bus so we would hire taxis. It sounded terribly civilized.

It wasn’t.

Sara promised us a ride of about 20 minutes on good road and about 20 minutes on not-so-good road. We never saw the good road. We got 20 minutes of not-so-good road and 20 minutes (or hours, depending on your sense of time) of sort-of road.

The single lane sort-of road was a miracle of rutted and potholed red clay. However, Sara reminded us that the rain the previous day had been a blessing because it would keep the dust down. Perhaps it was a blessing. At least the water in most of the potholes had evaporated.

On the other hand, the rain had lubricated the mica and clay road surface. Trucks carrying mica away from the Golconda often drop chunks of it on the pseudo-road where it is pounded into a powder. It turns the surface into glass. Several times we went around corners (and potholes) sideways.

Of course, in true Brazilian fashion, all this pothole dodging and slithering was done at speeds as high as the road allowed. So when the driver misjudged and hit a pothole, the car slammed its belly into the ground, driving our feet up to where our knees should have been.

The alleged road ran next to a (fortunately for us at the time) dry riverbed. Sara explained that sometimes the taxis drove in the riverbed because the road was washed out. It was hard to see how she could tell the difference.

Naturally, there were bridges. When we hit the first one, LaVerne, who doesn’t much care for driving over air, wagged her right index finger at Sara, chiding her for not warning us about the bridges. The fingers of her left hand were embedded in what was left of my right kneecap. “This is like the time we went up to that mine and ran out of road, remember, La Verne?” commented her husband Bill from the front seat. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we had run out of road when we had left the not-so-good road.

Sara had said we would be getting close to the mine when we reached a gate. We came to a gate. It was up a hillside and beyond it ruts were faintly visible in waist-high weeds.

“Uh, Sara…?”

“Wrong gate.”

We sighed with relief.

When the right gate appeared, we had to take possession from a flock of chickens and a herd of horses. We didn’t pause or even slow down much. The chickens scattered. The horses, slow on the uptake, finally decided it was wiser to live to fight another day and ambled off the track. We went on.

When the group reached the mine, the taxi doors exploded. Jeffrey unfolded from the backseat of one of them and advanced menacingly on our guide. “Sara….” he started, in a tone that clearly said he had more than one bone to pick with her. Kathryn claimed that her intense and prolonged conversation with God on the ride to the mine had improved her relationship with the deity significantly. The drivers were clustered around our Brazilian guide–they seemed to be engaged in serious contract renegotiation in rapid Portuguese. The rest of us were wondering how the taxis were going to turn around in the small space allowed. The thought of backing down the road was not entertained.

When it came time to head back to Governador, we found our driver, shirt off, legs protruding from under the back of his taxi. He’d torn a hole in his fuel line and was busy patching it with soap. (The soap apparently reacts with the fuel to solidify it. Travel is always so broadening.)

Hole patched, return fare renegotiated, nervous rockhounds reinserted into taxis, we headed back. Our driver we could see was waging an inner battle. Should he drive as fast as he could so he would reach town sooner–hopefully before the leak in the line opened up again–even though that meant a harder ride? Or should he drive more slowly, reduce the risk of banging another hole in the fuel line but increase the risk of running of gas before we got to town? Speed won out over prudence. We whistled down the track.

And track it was, wide enough for only one and a half cars. Fortunately there was no other traffic on the road but us. Until, that is, we hit the blind curve. Coming around it, at a speed to match our own, was a Mercedes truck. I could see the little three-pronged emblem clearly on the front grill. I thought it time to interrupt Kathryn’s conversation with God.

Our driver was the discreet not valorous type. He swerved to the right onto a grassy berm that materialized out of nowhere. The Mercedes roared on over the spot we had lately occupied. The truck driver had either not seen us or thought we were beneath noticing. I suspected it was the latter. Our driver was stoic. The only sign I saw of his nerves was when he lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his upper lip.

We didn’t even notice the bridges as we crossed them in record time, the driver straightening the wheels just in time to strike the boards designed to take them rather than the air in between them.

When we got to the gate, moving at just this side the speed of light, the chickens bolted out of our path and the gate was hurled open for us. We blazed through a cloud of feathers and the driver flashed a Brazilian thumbs up at blurred figures clinging to the fence on either side.

In our short absence, the not-so-good road had been transformed into a not-too-bad-at-all road. Our driver took it, potholes and all, in record speed.

When we pulled up in front of the hotel, Sara told us we could open our eyes. But I didn’t trust her. I waited until we back on the plane to Miami.

Advice if you’re traveling to Brazil? Don’t rent a car. Sit in the back of the bus. And don’t take a rabbit’s foot. It didn’t help the rabbit any, either.