My neighbor, a sassy little Italian from Perugia, convinced me to visit a nearby city for almost free on Friday. It was almost free because our university was sending a delegation to a foreign language teaching conference with their government-owned charter bus. And she convinced me because she promised me a trip to Walmart. In all my years in the US I resisted Wally World. When I was a New Englander, I avoided Walmart because it was just too Southern to shop there, and when I became a Southerner, I avoided Walmart to dispel the stereotype. But now, in my state of normal food deprivation (and I mean normal, not American, because Brazilians eat meaty, carby, repetitive meals, unlike anywhere else in the world, except maybe Italy, but that’s OK because repeating ravioli is always welcome), the prospect of visiting Walmart made my insides jitter.
I accepted and we departed at 5am Brazilian time, so 5:45ish, from the Dentistry School campus. We had on us small packs with water, a book, shorts, our non-chip credit cards, and absolutely no expectation of where we were going, because frankly, we hadn’t so much as stopped to think about it. The bus looked comfortable enough and we each managed to snag a two seater to ourselves before getting busy at forcing our bodies back to sleep. I woke up abruptly after, I don’t know, forty five minutes or maybe an hour. The bus was shaking madly, the roof vibrating loudly, and the windows were frosted over from the evident moisture in this interior Paulista land. This ride resembled any number of trips I took with mom’s choirs as a kid. I looked over at Martina, my sassy Italian, and her eyes are fixed on mine, telling me ‘I think last night’s rice and beans are gonna come flying in your direction soon’. I love this girl. I couldn’t contain my laughter, and as I let out a loud yelp, the bus driver hit another pothole and I flew sideways hitting my forehead against the frosty window.
I think the driver was doing it on purpose. You see, all administrators and public workers at our university are on strike, and somehow this unlucky bloke got stuck driving over eight hours in a day instead of being allowed to protest for his rights like the other administrators and public workers: at home, eating three meals of rice and beans at his kitchen table and spending time with his sons and daughters who were probably on strike from elementary school too. But, just as when you play guitar hero and try to hit all the notes to form a tune, our driver was keeping himself entertained, protesting in his own manner the injustice that is work, by hitting every pothole on the highway. And so we proceeded to Assis.
We tried to look studious as soon as we arrived by following the crowd into an auditorium to listen to the day’s opening ceremony. It wasn’t an opening ceremony so much as a presentation by the conference’s director on her research. I tuned in to catch the gist of a situation she analyzed for her study. A Brazilian student went on an exchange to France, Nice I think, and her first assignment was to submit a paper for her linguistics course. She was excited because the prompt was very similar to an assignment she had already completed at her university in Brazil – an assignment where she had scored a whopping 10 out of 10. So she pulled a Brazilian jeitinho. She dug up her assignment on her hard drive, quickly translated it into French, submitted the sucker, and moved on to better things, like eating pâté or whatever it is you do in France when you’re a poor exchange student. To her surprise, but not to the surprise of the audience, she failed the assignment. The speaker continued to explain what her study entailed, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I was laughing hysterically again and had to remove myself from the auditorium. I could only think to myself, ‘How do they choose these kids who get to use the government’s, thus the taxpayer’s, money on international exchanges? They must have to pass a test to prove they are stereotypically Brazilian. I bet that girl can also dance samba, has a plump ass and likes to spend her summers in Paraty ‘. And so with that, we proceeded to Walmart.
We caught a public bus to another public bus that would lead us to America. As we rode on we got to see most of Assis, including its sad outskirts where skinny horses still pull carts and roofs are still made of sugar cane scraps. I asked if anyone knew if the government funded development here, or sponsored families to upgrade from latrines to toilets. No one knew.
Walking into Walmart I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I held it briefly while I tried to distinguish the scent of apple pie from that of New England clam chowder brewing in the back. I could sense neither – I could only distinguish the sharp fried stench of chicken coxinhas being prepared at Walmart’s own lanchonette. And right then, all of a sudden, our adventure seemed foolish. We endured four long hours of bone-rattling shakes, suffered cold in the morning and suffocating heat at noon, and became accomplices to desperate poverty, all for the false hope of finding fresh mozzarella, cheerios and almond butter.
The most exotic food we were able to uncover was ciabatta bread. We ate large quantities of it. And with that, we returned home.