The trip starts with high spirits, as should all new adventures. We wave goodbye to a ten-day home in Pipa Beach, invent road trip names for each other (Ace! Greaseball!) and sing made-up songs in the car. The membrane of goodwill around us is porous though and the humour has mainly evaporated by the time we reach the fiftieth kilometer of our 450km drive. We inch our way across the map with excruciating slowness. Brazil is so big! Outside is a featureless flat dustbowl landscape where the only flickers of interest are in identifying the roadkill and guessing what strange items people will try to sell us at the traffic lights.
Menna has planned a lunch stop in the macabre-sounding Macaiba but as we approach this turns out to be a sprawling industrial metropolis squatting grimly across the horizon. Refinery vats, tangled pipe-work, chimneys leaking smoke. The roads darken with oil stains as we approach. We will not lunch here.
We take the ring road instead and don’t stop until Macaiba has receded to a spiky line across the rear view mirror. Then hunger forces us into a run-down peripheral town where we find some scrubland by a lake and picnic amid wind-blown plastic bags.
The mood in the car is sombre. This is nothing like the romantic road adventure that the kids had envisaged. We kill some time with a Spanish quiz then a podcast about Murphy’s Law, which turns out to be strangely relevant to most of our adventures. Then the kids sink into a digital torpor, Menna dozes and onwards I drive along this endless rutted highway while a chain of lorries attempt crazy overtaking manoeuveres all round us. I have daydreams about extravagant accidents involving hundreds of vehicles: a Stonehenge of cars, metal twisted like tin foil; viscous liquids running over bonnets – engine oil, blood, washer fluid – crystals of windscreen glass shining like scattered jewels on the tarmac. My nerves are shot by the time darkness falls.
We rattle into Canoa Quebrada late in the evening, but Menna’s phone has died, we have mislaid our hotel address and there is no mobile internet to rescue us. We tour the streets for a while, asking directions from old men but unable to understand their muttered answers. It feels dangerous here. Menna and I argue badly.
The kids are twitching with unspent energy after a full day in the car. They go nuts in the hotel once we finally find it, shrieking and tearing around, jumping on things, falling off them, squabbling, fighting, shouting at each other, crying – all in a bewilderingly quick succession. We have to tell them off in an angry mutter while still maintaining our listening faces for the receptionist who is midway through a long monologue in Portuguese, gesturing listlessly at dark doorways behind her. It is a history of the hotel she is giving us perhaps or a long list of rules.
Menna develops a headache and goes to bed. Arthur, Matilda and I head into town to find dinner. I am dreaming of a juicy steak, chimichurri, a full-bodied red perhaps, but it is not that kind of town. Anyway everything is shut down. The curfew is at 5pm we learn and unlike Pipa, here it is rigorously applied. So much for lawless border towns! We find a takeout pizza place instead and loaded with boxes we head home to dine with mosquitos in the darkness by the pool.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.Kris Kristofferson
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free…