My favorite thing about landing in a new city is the way it smells when you get outside the airport. Each city has its own smell. Fort Lauderdale has a humid brew of salty ocean breeze, JFK smells like black rubber tires and burning popcorn. São Paulo’s Guarulhos International is well outside the city and the first smell that hits you is the lush forest of the Mata Atlântica laced with a heavy hit of carbon monoxoide exhaust. The double doors opened into this scent-memory and my brain called up my last visit here as we loaded our luggage Otossan’s car in the parking lot. Leaning against the window, I cradled the meowing Mr. Pisser to my chest and watched the airport retreat behind us. Okassan handed us tetrapacks of coconut water from the front seat to rehydrate as we drove past the Samsung billboards advertising smartphones, then the red-brick rooftops of humble Guarulhos. These squat homes were built by whoever lived in them with whatever they could find: spare construction materials cobbled together into homes that sometimes kept out the rain and sometimes were washed away by it, unpainted except for the spidery pixação gangland graffiti. Most had plastic tubs on their rooftops to catch run, an easy enough hack for a village without plumbing. Clotheslines crisscrossed these homes like spiderwebs.
As we got closer to São Paulo proper , Lil’s dad turned down the Radio Nissei traffic report (in Portuguese and Japanese) enough that I was able to understand the conversation inside the car. It’s hard enough to parse the words when you barely speak the language, but with the radio blaring in two languages at once, it just becomes syllable soup, impossible to navigate. Lil squeezed my hand and said in English: “my dad is asking how the flight was.” I smiled and monkeyed my way through an answer in portuñol (a sometimes-successful approximation of Portuguese using Spanish). Okassan was talking nonstop to me, unaware that I was getting very little of what she was saying. Lil translated for me: they were so thrilled to see us again, to have their daughter back home. Her mom wanted to know if we were staying “for good”, even saying she would literally chain Lilli here to make sure she doesn’t leave again. We could give no definitive answer from the backseat.
It started to rain then, massive sheets of water slaking across the highway, the windshield wipers only able to slap it around as our Honda wavered in its lane, streams of motorcycles ripping past on wet asphalt between the car lanes, knifing in and around the cars. Otossan informed us it was too late to move into our new apartamento tonight; this temporary crib was a kitenete (kitchenette, a small studio, usually for students), one of a few he’d bought to rent out over the years. Our place would be in Liberdade, the historical center of Japanese immigration in São Paulo (now mostly Chinese). To move in at night is dangerous, he said, better to spend the night at ours and we’ll move you in tomorrow. I had asked via Lilli how much the rent was, but he never answered directly. Face to face, I asked again and he dismissed me with his hand.
São Paulo was a wet blur of lights smearing across the glass on all sides, and then we were in a garage, and then an elevator, and then my in-laws’ beautiful apartment high above the city. After a full day of travel and luggage stress, it was a cozy oasis, warm and welcoming and woody, lived in by Japanese hobbits. Once we put the bags in Lil’s old bedroom and took deep breaths, I remembered my pissy shirt. The hot shower that followed was too beautiful to put into words.
We had Brazilian café da manhã in the morning: five types of fresh fruits (green-peeled orange [laranja pera], starfruit [carambola], papaya [mamão] and pineapple [abacaxi]) with slices of fresh cheese, baguette and drip coffee. Taking my coffee over to the open living room window, I looked out across my new city, a sprawling chaos in every direction like someone kicked over a bucket of grey legos. From their view, you can see Avenida Paulista, the lake of Parque Aclimação, city city city in every direction as far as the eye can see... and beyond, the mountains of the Serra do Mar to the east, Serra Cantareira to the north. I didn’t know the names of any of this yet, but I was awake again, myself again. I drained my coffee, itchy to move into the new place, to plug my toys back in and set up home and studio.