The bus didn’t even slow down when it entered the massive bus station. I knew this wasn’t just a stop but our final destination, Porto Alegre. I could see the typical big-city skyline just metres from the rodoviária.
We got off the bus and were welcomed by an armed police officer who didn’t exactly make me safe if this was the intended goal.
“Deus é Amor” said the big Pentecostal church stuck between the seedy Estação Rodoviária and the brothels on avenida Farrapos. I wasn’t sure when were supposed to pray—before boarding a bus, after an hour with a prostitute?—and what for.
Yet, the first word I uttered as we started to walk was “Jesus!” The hotel was only about 500 metres from the station and the first two blocks of rua Garibaldi were the textbook picture of a no-go zone. No business open, metal shutters down, graffiti on walls, bars on windows, garbage on the sidewalk and dozens of homeless people sleeping on mattresses on the sidewalk or sorting through garbage bins.
And there we were, walking through with the stroller and our gear. “We probably aren’t supposed to be here,” I thought. “I can’t die now. My mom would kill me.”
I’m not particular scared of homeless people but crackheads and guns are a reality in Brazil.
Once we crossed avenida Farrapos, the street felt less dodgy, mostly thanks to the two gas stations open 24/7 at the corner. We slowed down, found the hotel and checked in.
This is Porto Alegre. It’s a rough city—deal with it. Or if you can’t, go uphill—this is not just a social class metaphor, the higher you climb, the better the neighborhood is. The bus station, the market and the centre are downhill and can feel dodgy. Uphill, like in Moinhos de Vento, we were underdressed for the posh shopping malls.
It was a feriado when we arrived, the country was celebrating Dia de Iemanjá and most streets were very quiet. Supermarkets were open and so were a few shops here and there but there was little traffic and few people in the streets.
We almost didn’t make it to Porto Alegre. Upon boarding the bus in Pelotas, when I showed our tickets, the drivers shook his head and simply said “não.” I was barely awake and at first, I thought this was another case of us not being seated together or yet another minor bus issue. It turned out that our tickets were for February 1, not February 2. We had definitely asked for tickets on the 2nd, Feng had even written it on a piece of paper to avoid miscommunications. Yet, “01/01/2017” was printed on the tickets. We should have double-checked at the station. We hadn’t. This was our fault, but entering the wrong date wasn’t our mistake.
I explained as much to the driver. He told us to wait. I pleaded our case. Eventually, I was lectured for five minutes but we were allowed to board and take the remaining seats in the bus. Then, for the next four hours, Mark watched a movie on a tablet while I slept—shouldn’t it have been the other way around?
Despite the warnings and Porto Alegre’s reputation of a dangerous city at global levels, we felt comfortable going to the city centre. In Southern Brazil is that it’s fairly easy for us to blend in—many racial types are well mixed and you are unlikely to be identified as a tourist-based solely on physical appearance. The city centre, especially the few streets around the Mercado Público, are packed. One of my safety rules is that areas where you see women and kids walking around are generally okay and this was the case.
After sunset, it’s another story. We mostly hung up “uphill,” between the shopping mall and quiet avenida Independência, although I did walk to the gas station/brothel area to get drinks.
And oh boy, we drank. Coffee, Coke Zero, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and repeat. When it’s 37º C and humid, you sweat whatever liquid you ingest almost instantaneously.
Like in many cities with a humid, subtropical climate, like Panama, Porto Alegre is falling apart. Colonial buildings and old-fashioned mansions are barely standing and need a paint job, much like cold weather leaves scars on Canadian roads and sidewalks. But it adds to its charm as a city of contrasts where modern and even futuristic structures stand tall behind historical buildings, where you go from a busy market street to a quiet residential avenue.
To me, Porto Alegre is a bit like Montevideo. Stay for a day, you’ll hate it. Stay a bit longer and you will learn to appreciate it.
I did. I even felt brave enough to have my hair cut (and Mark’s too) with explanations in Portuguese. And it turned out okay!