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Toucannuí: Gringo in Brazil Stories

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Com licença, o moço aceita a massa ao sugo ou o frango assado?”

I blinked over the top of my Delta Airlines menu: a young Diana Ross stood over me, a glittering queen in a crisp stewardess uniform, her hair pulled neatly back into a bun, her lipstick moist and perfect. Long-lashed almond eyes fixed on me with a purpose Americans interpret as “hellooo-there” but Brazilians simply call “good service.” I waited for the opening verse of “Where Did Our Love Go?” to escape her lips until she repeated the Portuguese phrase, the words flowing out like multicolored birds with long ribbony tailfeathers. I used to eavesdrop on my wife speaking Portuguese to her family while still in New York and freely admit to getting aroused by the music of the language. Lil leaned in and translated for me: do you want the pasta or the chicken? “Oh. Ehhh... pollo” I said in Spanish; “o frango para ele, obrigada” Lil relayed to Diana Ross in Portuguese.

At my feet, my old cat kicked against his soft travel kennel: this was hour three of a seven-hour journey, the longest confinement of his fifteen years. I knew he was hungry, thirsty, had to pee. He cried out a few times to let me know he was not-happy, but he was still better behaved than the rest of the babies on the flight. Maybe he wanted my chicken.

The meal came in a microwave-safe cardboard box but I was more interested in the trilingual menus and safety instructions in the seat-back pocket. I realized that with my limited Spanish, I could stumble through a decent amount of written Portuguese, but the spoken language still made very little sense to my ears. I read sentences aloud to Lil and she corrected me: our “d” is sometimes  sounds like a “j” (e.g. city = cidade [cee-DAH-jee]), our “r” is an “h” (e.g. Rio de Janeiro is pronounced [HEE-oh]), our “t” is a “ch” (e.g. I love you = eu te amo, pronounced eyu-CHEE-yamo). I tried on my new consonant set as I walked back down the plane’s aisle from mens’ room, listening to people chattering around me. I could parse out a smidge more now.

It was probably right here that I had my first Oh-Shit moment: I’m really doing this. I’ve deleted the New York City life I’d struggled for eleven years to build, and I’m gonna be on the ground in under four hours armed only with my boyhood Miami street Spanish. I sat back down and the cat began to cry again.

The night landing at Guarulhos was uneventful, the customs paperwork already in hand, the nice ladies in the “estrangeiros” line of Imigração all smiles. They checked my visa, stamped my blue American passport without delay or suspicion and smiled big, wishing me a “Bem Vindo ao Brasil.” Lil was waiting for me on the other side with our seven baggage claim tickets.

A note here: Brazil is lousy with import taxes, especially on the consumer electronics the whole world loves but few here can afford. You get a pass at the airport to bring in up to R$500 worth of electronics before you must pay import taxes on the rest of your travel purchases, usually an additional 60% of the original retail price (save those receipts). That means a USD$500 iPad costs R$1.629,00 (about USD $950) even before the retailer markup. This is how the government encourages Brazilians to spend money on nationally-produced goods... but it just makes people cheat the system for the imported things they covet and can’t get locally. They become “sacoleiros”: at airport customs, you’re surrounded by these people, each one leading a caravan of multiple luggage carts loaded with suitcases full of new (and unpackaged) goods purchased overseas. Sacoleiros claim are “personal purchases” when everyone including Customs knows they’re tobe sold locally at a high markup. It’s a show; you find a way to prove you’re telling the truth and they let you pass. It’s part of the underground economy here.

Lil and I head to Baggage Claim and strap our seven suitcases onto two luggage carts. We’ve moved to the country this way; these two carts represent everything we own in the world. But when we get into line at Customs, we just look like another couple of sacoleiros. On top of that, I’m a foreigner who stumbles through his answers to their questions in bad Spanish. They pull me out of the line and I’m told to unpack seven suitcases’ worth of our worldly possessions onto a steel table for them to inspect. Mind you, I’m a heavy technology user and a digital artist by profession: I’m traveling not only with the multiple workstations, hard drives and the forty-pound touchscreen display that make up my studio, but also my PlayStation 3, my surround sound system, my HD video projection and a small selection of games and DVDs. None of these items are for sale. These were the things I wanted to take with me as I start our new life, but in the eyes of Guarulhos International Airport, I looked like a fucking smuggler.

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