Falling in Love on the Way (part two)
We kept on walking alongside the red dusty road that would lead us to the next village, São Luiz Gonzaga. We had been told that we still had around 30 km left, which translated in about six hours walking.
We started hiking in a good mood, accompanied by the loud chirping of the benteveos. Local superstitions say that this bird, also known by the name of pitogüé or bichofeo (lit., “ugly animal”), presages bad luck or a pregnancy in the family. It was not our case, though. Nevertheless, the heat was asphyxiating and we shortly ran out of water.
Not far from us, there was a house. We moved closer to the fence, clapping our hands to draw the attention of its inhabitants. This curious habit I was totally unaware of is apparently very popular in the rural areas, where most houses or farms do not have a bell. People then just clap their hands and wait for the usual and sudden arrival of half a dozen dogs that will then alert their human friend(s).
A woman was coming towards us at a slow but confident pace. We told her that we were pilgrims, and Nara invited us to fill up our bottles.
She told us that she used to run one of the guest houses of the Caminho das Missões, but that in the past few years she had been too tired to keep up with the responsibility. Half of her face was paralyzed in a strict expression, but the other half was sweet and smiley, and her good eyes were shining with fondness.
Nara offered us some snacks that we ate together while drinking chimarrão and chatting.
I kindly refused those stuffed with meat, but then her look changed. Suddenly, I realized I had made a mistake. For the first (but not last) time, I clashed with a culture that not only doesn’t share, but also does not understand the ethical reasons behind a plant-based diet. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, livestock is the main activity and source of income. Its green fields belong to gaúchos proud of their Italian or German origins, and whose diet is almost entirely based on meat.
I had only been two months into my vega-vegetarianism, and even though the transition had been quite easy while working in a hostel in Paraguay where I could cook my own meals, it was being harder and harder now that I was back to nomadic life.
My main afflictions had to do with traveling and people. Until then, food had been an essential part of my trip. Trying any kind of food had been a way to assimilate the local culture. How would it be now, that I would be limited to the vegetarian (vegan? no way!) options of the local cuisine? Last but not least, I had to deal with the offense that I would unintentionally cause to those people who opened their doors to me. Nara’s reaction made me feel quite crap, and in that exact moment I decided that I had to be flexible, and make exceptions in case I was invited.
After a few chats, we were back on the road. Nara suggested we stopped at her friend Vânia’s who lived around 10 km farther, who would surely offer us a roof and some food.
We walked for a couple more hours before we finally found the house “after the school”. Vânia’s dogs heard us before we even rang the “rural bell”, and as usual, we saw the shape of a woman coming closer.
Vânia’s suspicious look quickly transformed into a smile as we told her that we were pilgrims and that Nara had sent us to her. We needed to say no more: that night, we were her guests. We chatted over the usual chimarrão, but first of all, she insisted we took a shower.
I was delighted at the idea of taking the first hot bath in days. In São Miguel das Missões we could take a shower in the Petrobras gas station, that to be honest deserved five stars. Nevertheless, the only alternative we had had since we had started the Caminho had been the hose in Bugre’s shack in São Lourenço.
An action as common as taking a shower had become a luxury when hitchhiking, and feeling the hot water running through my soapy body was now an intense pleasure – and so was wrapping my body in something else than Decathlon microfiber towel.
In the meantime Vânia’s husband, also called Joel, and their son had arrived in perfect gaúcho style: riding a horse, wearing leather boots and sweaty shirts from a day working in the fields: a real romantic image in the sul-rio-grandense sunset.
A couple of friends of Vânia’s joined for dinner too: the table was quickly covered in pots filled with meat, but also rice, manioc and salad.
That night I found a friend and confident that, despite the age gap and the fact that a few hours before she was a total stranger to me, seemed to understand my feelings of love and uncertainty on what would come next. Joel and I had different plans, and the idea of the upcoming separation was getting both closer and further.
Vânia gave us a room just for ourselves, and for the first time in days our exhausted bodies could lie down in a real bed.
Early the following morning, we said goodbye to our hosts. The Brazilian Joel went to work in the fields, while Vânia drove until the school where she works in São Lourenço. The Argentinian Joel and I started walking, enjoying the morning fresh air.
The red earth started to cover our boots again. After walking for a few hours under the sun surrounded by wheat fields, we finally reached São Luiz Gonzaga.
Home to 35,000 people, the city is famous for being the capital of missionary music. It was also the biggest town we found on the way, which made it harder to find a place to camp. Someone suggested we tried the Sindicato Rural, and Durval, the keeper, indeed allowed us to camp inside an empty building.
We spent two days enjoying the quiet beauty of the Sindicato, strolling around the stables and playing with the dogs, reading and cooking. Durval, who seemed quite grumpy at the beginning, was actually supernice with us, and also offered us a bunch of good wood to make fire.
After two days in São Luiz Gonzaga we left the club and walked across the main road, crossing the town from side to side. After almost one hour, we arrived at the entrance, where the urbanization officially ends and the asphalt leaves space to the wildest nature… or almost.
The red road continued alongside the fields that smelt of recently cut wheat. When it started to get dark we had no better option than camping right there, next to the bushes, where the grass made the itchy wheat a bit softer. Only the rare cars still passing by and the far noise of a tractor still working the fields were breaking the silence of such a peaceful sunset. During the night, our only company were the creaking crickets from the bushes.
We woke up thirsty and started walking very early in the morning. The sun had woken up at its full strength, and the heat started to take all our energies away. We were running out of water.
We spotted some houses from the distance. A long and steep path was discouraging us, but we had to try our luck. We came closer to a humble house, where a family filled our bottles with very cold water.
The sun was strong, and we were still thirsty. Further on, we stopped to drink from a river, but we were still very thirsty and once more the water was quickly gone.
Luckily, we soon spotted more houses. Dona Antonia opened the door and immediately asked us if we wanted to stay over that night. She said she owned one of the guest houses where pilgrims stay when hiking the Caminho with the agency. We humbly confessed that we had no money to give to her, but she replied that we could stay for free, and that she could offer us some lunch. “It’s going to be something little, I was not expecting guests. Just some rice and beans, and maybe some eggs”.
After taking a refreshing shower and getting some rest, we joined her in the living room. Several pots were aligned on top of the table, filled with all kinds of delicious gaúcho food, from carreteiro to manioc soup, rice and lots of vegetables.
We spent the day drinking chimarrão, feeding the animals and spending time with our hosts.
Dona Antônia and her husband Nodil also offered us dinner and breakfast the next day.
We left their house filled with that gratitude we would so often feel on the Caminho, happy to have witnessed, once more, the kindness that the human being is capable to prove to the members of its own species.
Once more we had walked in a house like strangers, and left like friends. Once more we were reminded that we had chosen to travel the world not only to see places, but to meet people.
We woke up at sunrise and started walking early in order to make the most of the fresher morning hours. That day we planned to make it to São Nicolau, the following village. For once, the heat was not killing us, and we managed to walk at full energy. Two gaúchos were coming towards us riding their horses, followed by their faithful dogs. It was such a picturesque image that it gave us goosebumps.
We were in a great mood because of the fresh breeze, and we were really enjoying the walk… until it started to rain. We decided to look for a shelter. Hopefully, not far from there there was a rural bus stop. We prepared to wait.
Water was filtering from the roof of our improvised shelter. The wind was blowing stronger, and the air was getting colder and colder. We were freezing. We took our raincoats and sleeping bags out of our backpacks, and tried to warm up as we could.
Two men on horses passed in front of us, carrying a cow, or whatever was left of it. They stopped to talk, and told us that they lived in the house in the back. If we needed anything, we just had to go there. We reached the point when we couldn’t stand the cold any longer, and accepted Ivo’s invitation to wait under his porch.
From the porch, we quickly moved to the table: it was Sunday, day of churrasco. Joel was as happy as ever: the table was filled with meat of any kind, that Ivo and his brother-in-law were also making a homemade salami. The cow that we had seen earlier was now hanging from the ceiling, cut into pieces and processed into minced meat that Ivo and his brother-in-law would then mix with pork meat to stuff the salami.
Despite the horrible scene that was taking place before my eyes, I really enjoyed the lunch and the company of Ivo and Joana’s family. When it seemed that the rain had found its peace, we went back to our path.
The rain still forced us to stop a couple of times, and every time it seemed that even though the day had started well, we would not make it to destination. Once more, we found shelter underneath a rural bus stop, and we were already planning to spend the night camping inside a stinky shack, when the sun finally came out.
Dona Antonia had told us about her friend Irene, saying that she surely would offer us a bed. The landscape surrounding us was simply breathtaking. We arrived just in time for sunset, and as promised,, Dona Irene welcomed us with open arms.
She invited us to spend the night in the wooden house next to her farm, but after we shared chimarrão and a delicious dinner together with her son Rolando and his wife, she offered us to sleep in the guest room, inside her house. Our hearts were exploding with gratitude.
After a filling breakfast, the next day Irene walked us to the point where her property ended and the path continued to São Nicolau. We said goodbye to yet another wonderful human being, and got back on the road.
That was, to me, the hardest day on the Caminho. My energy was extremely low due to cramps, and the heat was unbearable. We walked slowly, stopping to explore old shacks and to rest on the wheat fields.
We finally reached São Nicolau, and both triumphant and starving we walked in the bar of the square. We camped right under the Jesuit ruins in the main square, a one thousand star hotel that featured smelly toilets, drinkable water and even WiFi!
On the morning of November 29th we started walking towards São José Velho. In order to reach the village, we had to cross the Piratini, an affluent of the Uruguay river, which separates Brazil from Argentina. For 5 Rs, the helmsman took us to the other side of the river, where we had to stop to rest. This time it was Joel who was suffering from a blister that was making it hell for him to walk.
After a month in the Camino de Santiago I considered myself as an expert in blisters, so I gave him the “pedicure” I had so often practiced on my own feet. Nevertheless, the pain was still severe, so that we carried on slowly, until Joel couldn’t walk anymore and we decided to stop.
We found a church with a spigot next to it which seemed the perfect place to camp. Next to the church, there was an abandoned club. We turn around it and found a way in. We got out packs inside and set up our tent inside it.
The club had everything we needed: toilets, tables, chairs, a barbecue and even a sinuca, a sort of Brazilian pool.
Joel’s blister looked pretty bad, and walking had become even harder for him. Somehow we managed to get the wrong path, and arrived in São José Velho in the afternoon, while according to our calculations we would have only made it the next day.
Some locals invited us to spend the night at the Asociaçâo dos Moradores, a small building where the representatives of the village punctually meet. We settled in as we could among the dusty gym equipment that seemed to belong to the past century, and we built a bed using some mats we found inside.
Even though we really wanted to make it to São Borja, we decided that São José would be the last stop of our hike. We were tired, the heat had no pity of us, and Joel’s foot didn’t show any will to get better in the nearest future. I was almost out of money, and felt the need to look for a job as soon as possible.
Sadly, we decided to go back to São Miguel das Missões, where we had left some of our belongings.
We said goodbye to our new friends and hitchhiked back to São Lourenço. We wanted to see Nice again: Joel couldn’t stop talking about her, so I suggested we surprised our friend.
When the Jeep made its entrance in the CTG and we got out of the car we had hitchhiked, our friend didn’t recognise us at first. But when she did, her eyes got wet with tears. She invited us to sleep at the CTG and excitedly introduced us to her husband Lalo she had so much talked about.
The next day was a Sunday, and as usual some friends joined the couple for the churrasco. Despite our expectations though, it was not a very good day. Nice spent the day in the kitchen, making sure her guests were never left without food or drinks, always pulling out liters of beer from the fridge. Lalo, clearly drunk, spent the afternoon laughing with his friends, while his wife attended to him. She ate alone, sitting in a corner. This Lalo she clearly loved so much did not deserve half of this woman’s huge heart.
Once more we said goodbye, feeling sad and helpless about the union of such different souls.
It was the first of December, and we had been on the way for two weeks already. As the days passed, our relationship was growing stronger, and we were both struggling with doubts. The original plan was to travel together for only a few days. After that, each of us would follow their original plan: I’d go back to Argentina, while Joel would keep traveling throughout Brazil. Nevertheless, the strength of our feelings came as a surprise, and filled us with anxiety on what to do next. I kept postponing my departure, and every day I was staying one more day.
I was terrified at the idea of starting traveling as a couple. But at the same time, I said to myself it was time to get my ovaries out and go for it. Joel was everything I had been dreaming of: a companion who shared my love for the road, people, and nature. Indeed, for the first time in a year of traveling I had managed to plan an itinerary… but what was an itinerary compared to the possibility I had met the love of my life?
We never know where the road can take us, or whose path we can cross. Always and never are words that only exist in the dictionaries. So I, who would never open my heart again, I, who would travel alone forever, I, who would never change my plans for anybody, I did. I changed my plans, I changed my journey, and for once, I chose love.
On December 3rd, 2017 Joel and I were hitchhiking from São Miguel das Missões to Florianópolis. It was just the beginning of a long journey together.